Overnight Joffrey feels those changes. He is the prince no longer. He is the king. The reigning monarch. King of the Andals and the Rhoynar, and the First Men, Lord of the Seven Kingdoms, and Protector of the Realm. First of his name. A lion of the throne forged by dragons.
He knew that day will come. He was bred and schooled for it, like every prince before him. And yet the day when his father left his last breath was not the day of glory as he expected it to be.
Small Council meeting was filled with nervousness and ire. It was not his first council meeting, far from it, and yet… He sat in the king's chair for the first time in his life. It felt different. It had a new sense in it, too.
Overnight things changed. Master of Ship was absent, as was his habit. Master of Laws was absent too. And that was unforgivable.
His mother, his beautiful and cunning mother, looked at him inquiringly. She did not flinch, faced with his anger - and that was a problem all in itself.
"Would you kindly explain where is lord Renly?"
Her eyes did not show a single hint of understanding. It was maddening.
"He left the city two days ago, along with his knights and household, your grace."
He knew it. He could not do anything about it then. He could now.
"Why is he still alive?"
His mother winced.
"You had all money of Lannisters and the most corrupt head of the Gold Cloaks since the city was built." Joffrey could barely keep a hold on his anger. "And you had allowed Renly Baratheon to leave the city. Along with his knights and household."
He did not shout, yet. But it took all of his self-control not to. Cersei jerked, feeling his anger.
"We were busy handling lord Stark, your grace."
And it was her saving grace. He loved her - he truly did. But he could not afford to tolerate incompetence, not now of all times.
"Lord Stark, who's the oldest son is now calling his Banners." He looked at the Varys. The old eunuch was silent, inspecting him with his gaze. "What would Lord of the Twins want for his support?"
"Lord of the Twins? That ancient freak?" Cersei wondered. "What do you want from him?"
He indulged her.
"Stark does not have a navy. He will need to cross the Green Fork if he wants to get his army to the South."
"I afraid lord Frey is not known for his bravery, your grace. He waited until the end during your father's rebellion."
He did not want to refuse his idea so easily.
"And did not get anything out of it, while Tully prospered."
"It is true, your grace." Varys eyes were wary. "If you insist, I would say lord Frey would give a lot to bring his house upbringing."
"Wouldn't we all?" Joffrey chuckled. "Send your best spy, Lord Varys. I need the lord of the Crossing on my side. Offer him whole Riverland, if you need to. And keep it at secret."
Old eunuch bowed.
"It will be done, your grace." Varys smiled. His smile was thin and fake, like everything about the man. "But I am no lord."
Joffrey smiled in return.
"And hereby I, Joffrey Baratheon, king of the Iron Throne, first of his name, grant to the Master of Whisperers Varys the lordship over the Claw Isle and city of Sweetport Sound."
Those were lands of his uncle bannermen. Stannis Baratheon was too bitter and too principled to accept him on the throne. He would have to be dealt with. Joffrey would have thrown the whole Dragonstone at the eunuch, gods know, he needed the man on his side. But Dragonstone was too significant to give up, even for one generation.
"Thank you, your grace."
"Also, send a message to the lord Tywin. It is his war and I need his counsel."
If this plot turned out to be a success, they would be able to either stop Stark from joining his forces with the Riverlands, fighting them one by one, or to cut the wolf from supply lines. His grandfather will know better.
It left only Tyrells left.
"What did Renly offer to the Tyrells?"
"I can not be sure, your grace, but…"
"You are not sure? You are the spymaster of the Iron Throne. I expect to hear facts, not guesses."
"Noted, your grace." Eunuch bowed again. "As you might remember, not so long ago lord Renly brought with him to the court Margaery Tyrell. He wished too…"
Eunuch's eyes glanced toward the window queen.
"Offer her to my father, I know."
"There are whispers of the upcoming marriage, your grace. Between lord Renly and lady Margaery. He also took her brother as a member of his personal guard."
"Tell Tyrells that there is no need in bloodshed if they want to see their daughter on the throne." Joffrey sighed. "Offer them marriage and a place in the proper Kingsguard for their boy."
"With due respect, your grace, I doubt they will accept your generous offer. With your grandfather as your hand, they will exchange the first place in the court for the second."
"Which is why you will also offer them the positions of the Master of Ships and the Master of Laws. The debts, that Crown owes to the house Tyrell, will be also repaid in full during this year."
"War is an expensive venture, your grace."
"More expensive than peace, however fragile it might be."
Varys bowed once more.
"And your betrothed, lady Sansa?"
"Give her to Tommen, at least until the war is over. He is a child and we don't have to consummate it anytime soon."
"It would be done, your grace."
"Now, for the possible siege and war preparations…"
It would be a long and hard day and even harder conversation in the evening.
But he was the king now. And it was worth it.
Varys was right, of course. War truly is an expensive affair. War on three fronts is almost unforgivably so. And Iron Throne treasury was lying in ruins, deeply indebted to almost every significant power in the realm.
Truly, a mantle of the beggar king would have suited his father more than the title of Conqueror. Aegon was the Conqueror. He came to the continent divided and forged it into a realm that stood for three hundreds of years. That stood even after the dragons were lost to history.
And now he was the king. Cladded in debts, sitting on the throne forged from the swords of his ancestors. With four of the seven kingdoms in an open rebellion and only one ally. He could almost hear the laugh of the Mad King. Son of his nemesis turned out to be in the same position as he was. Worse, actually. Mad King had Martells and Tyrells on his side.
He was a cat on the throne of dead dragons.
Robert hated the dragons. It made the only natural for Joffrey to look into their history. Out of spite, if anything. In a court filled with liars, flatterers, and mediocrities long-dead Targaryen kings were his only company.
Aegon forged the realm with the Balerion's flame. Maegor put the faith on a leash. Jaehaerys bonded it with roads and trade. Rhaenyra burned it to ash. Aerys finally lost what was left.
He doubted the realm would survive his rule. North was all but lost. Riverlands would be turned to ash, in one way or another. Dorn was quiet for now, too weak to fight without help from the dunes and the sun, but only for now. The price that he would have to pay to the Tyrells for peace would make his hold on them nonexistent.
King for a day, that is all he was. King in nothing but name.
"I do not trust Varys."
Cersei's voice was quiet and nonchalant. She knew how to hide her true feelings well.
"Neither do I."
She looked at him, with a question in her eyes.
"You sounded very… trusting on the small council meeting."
There were sorrow and disapproval in her voice.
"No man that served to more than one king can be trusted. Arryn had him by the balls. I do not." Joffrey sighed. "All orders I gave to him I also sent to the lord Tywin and lord Kevan."
If Varys would decide to sabotage him, he would know.
"I see," Cersei whispered, with a gentle smile. "I am proud of you."
He doubted it. And did not see any reason to delay the unpleasant part of the conversation any longer.
"I need you to leave the King's Landing."
He told in a hard, uncompromising voice. Or at least he hoped he did.
"What? I will not leave you here!" Cersei screamed.
He was not impressed.
"Take Tommen and Myrcella and go the Casterly Rock." He looked her in the eyes. Cersei was angry, but so was he. "City will be under the siege soon. If I win, you will be able to return safely. If I won't, Casterly is the safest place for you to be in."
"I will send Tommen and Myrcella there, but I will not leave, my lion. You need my advice in this pit of snakes!"
He did not. What he needed in upcoming weeks was masters of warfare - and what did she know about it.
"Leave the matters of war to me. They are not a concern of yours."
He was the king, now. A man grown. It was his right and obligation to fight, to lead his man and to die in battle, face to face with the enemy. There was no place for his mother there.
"You can't just order me to leave, Joffrey!"
There was confidence in her voice. A habit. To rule over him, to have the final saying. To undermine his authority. His power.
And he had way too little of both as it is.
"I can and I will." He did not shout, going against his instincts. Man, that is heard only when he shouts is not a ruler. He is a merchant, offering his stock. "I am the king if you had forgotten. I will get you out of the city even if I will have to make the Kingsguard to escort you back to the Casterly Rock."
The room fell into silence. He sat on the floor, half-lying on a bear hide. It was warm and soft, pleasantly rubbing against his fingers. He heard the bed squeak and raised his eyes.
Cersei bent closer to him. She was half-lying on his bed, with a glass of vine in her hands. She was clad in red, with the gold necklace around her neck. Her dress was light, almost enough to be called a chemise. Her hair was unpinned from its nets to spool in gleaming gold curls across her shoulders and the fine skin at her collarbone.
Light played on her long legs.
She was beautiful. There were no other words about it.
She noticed his glance. A thin, barely visible, satisfied smirk appeared on her lips.
"You are right, my king." Cersei barely whispered. Her voice was low, so low he had to lean closer to hear her clearly. "I beg you for forgiveness."
Her look changed. Smuggish self-confidence left. There was something different in her eyes now. Something he could not interpret.
"How would you wish me to make up for my transgression?"
She leaned even closer to him, now. She was sweet-smelling and lovely, lying in his bed almost naked. Her dress somehow became even less covering than it was before. From here he could see her neck and top of her breasts through the neckline. Her rather short skirt exposed her legs to his eyes.
"My wish?" Joffrey felt his words stumble in his throat. "What can I wish?"
He dumbly asked. His brain suddenly stopped working. Cersei laughed, smiling.
"Anything, your grace." She leaned down, on the level of his eyes. Her lips almost touched his. He could smell the wine on her breath. "You are the king, are you not? King can wish for anything."
She wasn't taking her eyes off his. She looked satisfied and strangely confident.
It was a sight born out of some of his fevered dream. The most forbidden lady of the King's Landing, almost naked, in his bed. The queen of Iron Throne. Woman of the king. His woman, now. Since he was the king starting from today. He had almost forgotten that little fact.
He was the prince for most of his life. Few things are forbidden for a royal family, even less of those are forbidden for the crown prince. Even fewer people. But she? She was damn forbidden. From the taboos of the faith to her position in the court, second only to the king himself, there was no way in seven hells he would have ever had her. Robert would have probably broken his head with a hammer after a single hint on his attempt to get her.
Until now. But not any longer. Because Robert was dead. Because he was the king now. And she was a dowager queen. Meaning she was under his authority. Meaning she was his.
His to have. His to take. His to keep. His to... How often had he spilled into his own hands with such imaginings?
Cersei wasn't taking her eyes off him. She looked satisfied and strangely entertained.
Joffrey shook his head violently.
"You… Are you…"
He couldn't move back. He should have. He could have. But green, almost emerald eyes kept him in place. She was looking at him, evaluating him.
He felt warm, wet lips on his, but before he managed to pull into the kiss it was over. Cersei stood from the bed, smiling. Her eyes were beaming with playful arrogance.
"I will arrange my leave to the Casterly Rock, your grace."
And with that, she left. He heard the door clothing, leaving him alone, aroused and out of breath.
*** "Lord Stark."
He entered the room, nodding to ser Jaime. He was guarding the prisoner with a company of lesser guards. Joffrey was not taking any chances.
Eddard Stark, lord of Winterfell, Warden of the North and former Protector of the Realm met him with an empty look. The man sat in a chair, reading. The room was closer to a solar than to a prison cell.
He expected Eddard to be grateful. It was not the case.
"It is 'your grace' or 'your majesty', now."
"Do you expect me to bend the knee?"
"It would be helpful, yes."
Eddard had sharp grey eyes and dark brown hair. Joffrey expected his smirk to be wolfish, taunting. There was none of it to be found.
"It will not happen, I afraid."
Joffrey nodded. He expected to hear that.
"Your son had called the banners."
Eddard slowly nodded. If anything, he looked sad.
"Than war it is."
"It mustn't be. You still may return to the north, safe and with your daughters intact."
"And what would be the price?"
Grey eyes gazed at him, ever doubtful.
"Neutrality?" Eddard looked surprised. "Just neutrality?"
"Just neutrality. You will recall the banners. North will not involve itself in the troubles of the South." He looked him in the eyes. "I need the Riverlands and the North out of the picture, lord Stark. Nothing more. Name your price."
There was silence. Then the lord of the north shook his head.
"There is nothing you can give."
He expected that. To be clearer, Barristan expected that and warned him. And yet…
"Why?" He asked. "You have your and your daughters lives on one side of the deal, and execution and death for your people on the other. There is nothing to be earned through the war, no new king will give you anything of value compared with the losses. Why do you choose the latter?"
Eddard did not answer. He looked back at the book, ignoring his presence completely. Joffrey felt his anger rising. But it was not his rage that annoyed him. It was the incomprehension of Eddards motives.
He understood Stannis, jealous, suppressed and hungry for power. He understood Renly who got a chance of his life. He understood the Robb Stark motives, even if he wouldn't have started a war to free his father himself. But Eddard Stark? He did not understand the man. Not for a bit.
"You only need to give me an oath. You will be released right after."
"And why would you believe my oath?"
"What do you mean?"
"Why would you trust my oath, Joffrey?" Stark smiled. "I will not allow you to keep my daughters as hostages."
Because there would be no reason for him to wage a war after that. And…
"Because you are Eddard Stark."
A man that does not break his oaths. Barristan and Jaime believed it. He could not understand it but could trust their judgment. A word, given by the Eddard Stark, would be held.
"And this is why I will not give you such an oath."
Joffrey sighed. It was useless.
"Than what do you expect me to do, lord Stark? Do you have a death wish?"
"You may execute me. Robb will come with the northern army soon after. You may sentence me to a Night Watch, but my son will come with the army regardless." Eddard sighed. "You may let me go, and I will keep the banners and lead an army against you."
"And in whose name would you send your men to die?"
"In the name of the rightful king, as I had sworn."
"That is what you care about, Stark? Righteousness?" Joffrey exhaled. It was truly hopeless. "Is it righteous for your men to bleed and to die for the legitimacy of the Southern king? Is it righteous for the common folk to suffer from hunger, pillage, and rape during the war of your making?"
"And was it righteous of you to assist in the murder of the man you called father, Joffrey?"
That made him pause.
"Righteous? No. Necessary? Yes. Robert wanted to denounce me and my kin as bastards and murder us to take a new wife. Would you expect me to accept such a fate?"
Stark looked him in the eyes.
"You still can renounce your claim for the throne and leave for the Casterly Rock." There was a hint of pity in the wolf eyes. "You are the oldest of Tywin's grandchildren and only heir. Isn't Westerlands enough for your ambitions?
"There are many Lannisters out there. Besides, Tywin will strangle me in my sleep and press for Tommen's claim."
"Than it is not the suffering of the common folk you are concerned with, Joffrey." Quietly answered Eddard. "Do not try to blame me for the war and suffering of your and your grandfather making."
Joffrey breathed sharply. It did not work. It was time for truly desperate measures.
"Balon Greyjoy is recalling his captains to the Pyke. Ironborn are going to war."
That got his attention. Greyjoy was an old enemy Eddard once fought. He was a danger the man could feel and evaluate.
"My condolences to Tyrells."
"Not this time, lord Stark. Tyrells have enough strength to hold the Shield Islands even during the war, and Westerlands are mostly mountains. Ironborn do not do well there."
"I have full faith in my son's abilities and those of my bannermen."
Joffrey smiled. He got him.
"They can not defend the North if they are locked beyond the Moat Cailin. And they will be, soon." He chuckled. "Balon will strike in the very moment your men will leave their homes and put the North to a sword."
Eddard was silent.
"Or it may not happen. Balon is ambitious but became reasonable after his rebellion was crushed. He may listen and attack the Reach."
Eddard stared at him.
"And you would win regardless of the target."
Joffrey simply nodded.
He had so many enemies that it did not matter who will hungry Ironborn strike at. Tyrells, Starks, Tully, even Dorn - all of them were his enemies. He was a king fighting against his realm.
"Protect your home, lord Stark. Keep your men alive. Let me, Renly and Stanis to solve this inheritance dispute among ourselves. There is no need for a new grand rebellion that will destroy the realm. I am not the Mad King, and you are not as young as you were back then." Joffrey plead. "Long summer is almost over. Winter is coming, lord Stark. We can not afford such conflict. Please, help me to prevent it."
There was silence. And then Stark nodded.
"I will think about it."
When Joffrey left Stark's temporary solar he felt his hands shaking. He owed to Varys and his spies on Pyke a damn big lordship now. Jaime looked at him, with a question in the eyes. Joffrey smiled.
"Allow lady Sansa to visit him."
He felt his first taste of victory.
It wasn't his mother's help that saved him. It wasn't the court support. There was no shortage of idiots willing to indulge crown prince with anything. As strange as it sounds, but it was Robert.
He was barely five winters old and was torturing puppies - not from any real malice. He simply enjoyed watching others in pain. He did it quite often back then. Dogs, cats, birds - anything that could bleed was welcome.
He did not remember when the talks about the new mad king started, or from whom he heard them. It was some servant, too insignificant to stay in his memory. But Robert noticed the gossips. They angered him, as everything that reminded him of the dragons did.
That was the time Joffrey heard about their predecessors. That was the time for Joffrey to find his saving grace.
Targaryens, kings of old, were born dragon-like. Their temper and ferocity were legendary. It was similar to his curse. Not the same, his curse was different - he had no wish to conquer the whole world and felt no special affiliation to fire. His curse was catlike.
He loved the blood and pain. He enjoyed hunting, cutting, slashing and feeling someone's blood on his hands. He savored his victim's despair.
He needed to hunt. To kill. He needed to make someone suffer.
Targaryens wouldn't have held the Iron Throne for three centuries if they hadn't figure out the solution. The library of the Red Castle was the greatest treasure Joffrey had ever owned in his life. Robert cared not for the dusty old books and did not bother to cleanse the collection from the texts of Targaryen's time. Some of the works he found there he valued more than gold or gems.
Exercises for better self-control. Guides, rules, and meticulous explanations. How to act. When to act. How to keep the rage in the hold. How not to act in any situation.
It was not perfect - he was no dragon. His rage was different. But it was enough to spare him from the fate of the less fortunate dragons. After all, Aerion's Brightflame example was right in front of his eyes.
It was hard to concentrate on the books, first. It still was hard sometimes, long after it became a habit. But in those books he saw more than idle stories of old - he saw examples. Grim prophecies of his fate.
Gods know, it would have been easy, all too easy to submit to it. No one cared about a servant or two, and there was no shortage in lackeys in the court that would be happy to cover his little hobby. His mother was the first of them, always ready to help.
Joffrey did not allow it. He put his rage on a short leash. Locked it in the iron cage of self-control, learned to distinguish socially acceptable from not. He spent nights and days counseling with priests and books of traditions and laws.
He still could not understand why people thought and felt the way they did. But he managed to simulate it. It was hard. Damn it was hard.
But old books showed all too well what happened with kings, princes, and lords that had allowed their rage to consume them.
"I ordered you to call the banners. What is the answer?"
"Houses Hayford, Rykker and Edgerton answered, your grace. Also…"
Joffrey shook his head. The man spoke too hastily, nervously. He was trying to make the good news more visible.
"Who did not answer the call, Ronald?"
"Your grace, please…"
"I asked you who failed to answer my call."
Man trembled. He was too scared of his anger and was wasting his time. It only made Joffrey angrier. Finally, the clumsy man whispered:
"Houses Chyttering and Farring, you grace."
Meaning Chyttering Brook and Farring Cross. Castles on the border with Stormlands, that were guarding the kingsroad and roseroad. It was not a good sign. Not good at all.
Eunuch sent him his best smile. Tiny and barely visible, it reminded him of a snake.
"Lords Gilbert Chyttering and Jeremy Farring had sent their representatives to the Bitterbridge." Spymaster made a pause, making a show of his deep thoughts. If anything Joffrey knew about the man was true, he had all information about the lords in question lying on his table from the early morning. "They left with the lord Renly."
Of course, they did. And of course, Varys did not make an attempt to subdue them. The eunuch was competent, frighteningly so, and far from loyal. In any other situation, it would have got him executed. Unfortunately, Joffrey needed the man and his intel like drowning man needs air.
Other than Varys his war council was all but useless. It was made of the eunuch, grand maester, brothel owner and two knights that never led an army. It was a good setup for a joke.
Robert's court was filled with schemers and flatterers of all sorts, but there was not a single competent military commander to find in the whole Red Keep. Robert trusted himself and Arryn in the matters of war and both were dead now.
Renly had Randyll Tarly. Stannis himself was a veteran of the rebellion. Robb Stark had no shortage of skilled and experienced commanders. Joffrey had Barristan, an old knight that had never led a battle in his life, and Jaime Lannister, a man that got stuck on the bodyguard duty for far too long.
He needed Tywin, he needed Kevan, he needed any and all experienced commanders. And they were busy in the Riverlands, preparing for a needless war, wasting their time and his resources.
It was his first war and he did not have competent men to plan for him. Arys Oakheart and Balon Swann were good knights but never led more than twenty men. Mandon Moor was efficient at following the orders but was almost organically unable to lead.
It meant that he will inevitably make mistakes. He would be lucky if none of them would end up being crucial.
"How many men do they have?"
"Chyttering and Farring are small houses, your grace. I would have expected three hundred men from each. More if you decide to include the commoners in the number. "
Not too much. Gold Cloaks by themselves would've been enough to end their threat… if only they had not been the border castles on the major roads. There was a reason why Renly counseled with their holders personally.
"How long it will take for the houses Hayford and Rykker to bring their men?"
Those were the closest major houses of the Crownlands. Rykker were still indebted for the Duskendale to Tywin, and Hayford lands were too far from the Renly's forces to hope for his support.
"About a week, your grace."
"Good. Order them to." Joffrey thought for a moment. "Do we have enough supplies to sustain an army for a month?"
He was not going to stop on the Hayford and Rykker forces. There were minor houses on the way to the rebels: Langward, Pyle, Blount, Gaunt, and Bywater. He would also call for their support, but only with the army behind him.
He suspected it would be much harder to refuse the call from the liege when the said liege stands with his army right in front of your gates.
"We do, your grace. But it would not be enough to feed the gold cloaks at the same time."
And it would weaken the city's stocks before the inevitable siege.
"Minor lords and common folk will pay for it, then." Joffrey sighed. "Their food will be taken by Renly's army regardless. Better we do it first."
"If you say so, you grace."
It was the tone of Varys's voice that made him reconsider.
"Ser Jaime, evaluate the city stocks and take enough to not make the burden on minor lords households unbearable."
Joffrey hoped that years spent as an heir to the Casterly Rock left him with at least some degree of competence.
"Ser Barristan, take your time and pick the better half of the Gold Cloaks. I will take them as my personal guard."
His trusted guards nodded. Not bowed. He let is slip this time. It was the privilege of the Kingsguard, after all.
"I must remind you, my lords, that time is of the essence. Stannis does not have enough men to march on the King's Landing. He would need to kill Renly first, and he is gathering his troops in the Bitterbridge. It will keep him busy for some time." Joffrey hoped it was true. "We have very little time to put the rebels down before they will join my uncle's forces."
Chyttering and Farring were only the first swallows. They were not the lord paramount's of other kingdoms - they were his very own bannermen. Minor lords of the Crownlands, the backbone of his, not Tywin's, forces.
If he will allow them to betray him without the consequences many will follow their example.
"Give the lords Chyttering and Farring one last chance to surrender and bend the knee." Joffrey clenched his fists. "And when they refuse, send them a bard that knows the Rains of Castamere."
They wanted to be an example of Renly's supporters? He will turn them into such an example. Their castles will be burned to the ground, their households will be slaughtered, their loved ones will be raped and their lands will be given to his supporters. He will not tolerate treason.
Joffrey only hoped he would have enough time to put down the rebellion in his lands before it would become too late.
"The council is over. Please, my lords, put your time to good use." Joffrey smiled. "And lord Baelish? Stay for a little longer."
"You were unusually quiet during the last council meetings, lord Baelish."
The man was short, well clothed, groomed and charming. Joffrey knew him well enough to not trust the appearance.
"I was enjoying your speeches, your grace. You are showing extreme skill in statesmanship."
Years spent in the royal court had taught Joffrey to hate flattery.
"Do I employ you to entertain you, lord Baelish?"
"Of course not, your grace."
"Good. I was expecting to see your report two days ago. Imagine my surprise when I did not find it on my table."
In truth, he did not expect it. For a couple of days, he forgot about Balish's existence entirely.
"Forgive me, your grace. I did not want to bother you in such a hard time. And you proved yourself to be busy most of it."
"I am grateful for your concerns, but they were futile. Please, feel free to bother me next time instead."
Baelish sent Joffrey a cheerful smile.
"I will surely do." The Master of Coin looked at him. "What do you want to know, your grace?"
"What any man wants to know about, lord Baelish? Tell me of my debts."
"Very well, your grace. The Crown currently owes over six million gold dragons to the houses Lannister, Tyrell, the Iron Bank of Braavos and the faith. I would expect your lord grandfather to show leniency, and the crown is currently in war with lord Mace Tyrell. It brings the debt down to a bit over one and a half million."
Joffrey sighed. He expected it. He knew the numbers, being present at every meeting of the small council since the time he turned ten. The inability to influence anything was maddening.
"Your expectations are wrong, lord Baelish. Debts are called such because they are repaid."
It made the man pause. He looked at him, like he sad something incredibly, almost offensively dumb. And then he understood. Petyr smiled, coyly.
"It would be rather complicated to find one and a half million gold dragons during the war."
One and a half million gold dragons. His debt to Tyrells. Enough to build many castles and pay for their households and upkeep for years.
"What is the land's worth, lord Baelish?"
Baelish looked at him, thinking.
"Are you meaning…" The man smiled again. "Ah. Of course, your grace. Castles Chyttering Brook and Farring Cross are rather small, but make a good profit from the trade tolls. Their locations are rather accommodating."
"That was not my question, lord Baelish."
The man made a pause, thinking. Joffrey knew it was a rather complicated question to ask. Land and lordships weren't exactly free for sale or even transfer, and prices were far from fixed. One might even consider the very idea of land sale a sacrilege and dishonor.
Baelish was a noble that made himself a name by building brothels. Joffrey doubted it would be a problem with him.
"It depends on the state of the lands, your grace. War is a quiet price breaker." He chuckled. "But I would say, a hundred thousand for both if they won't end up too damaged."
Joffrey nodded. The idea of cutting his domain was far from pleasing, especially considering the strategic location of the castles in question.
"What would be the value of the Bronzegate?"
It was the seat of house Buckler. The castle stood close to the kingsroad, between the Wendwater and Storm's End. A powerful lordship was one of the first to swear felty to Renly.
It was a mistake. A grave mistake.
"It is a major lordship, your grace. I doubt there is a suitable money evaluation."
"Give your best guess."
"A quarter of a million, your grace. By a very conservative estimate."
"And Storm's End? Does it worth one and a half million?"
Now that was a pause. Baelish finally understood his plan. Or at least made a show of understanding. It was not as complicated to figure out as the man made it seem.
"That's… quiet a bargaining chip, your grace."
"Renly will never accept me as a king. Stannis, too, is not known for being accommodating." Joffrey sighed. "It leaves me and Tommen as the only male Baratheons alive, and he is the heir to the Casterly Rock. As a king, I will be expected to give up the Lord Paramountship."
"And you want to sell the Stormlands to Tyrells?"
"Not to sell, lord Baelish. To grant." He is not selling lands. He is offering to Tyrells and Lannisters an opportunity to butcher all traitors and take their lands for themselves. There is no auction, and there is no money involved. "They will have the privilege of choosing the next Lord Paramount, and he must not be Tyrell. I am sure they can find someone lenient to them, that will fit those restrictions."
Such an offer was not something any lord could ever refuse. He would lose control over the Stormlands, but it is not like he ever had any.
"I see, your grace."
Baelish was silent, deep in his thoughts. Joffrey sighed.
"You may voice your concerns."
"Are you sure that lord Tywin will be… understanding with such turn of events?"
"Before Tyrells will have a chance to name the next lord paramount, the Crown will have to redistribute the lands of the traitors. Lord Hand will be directly involved, of course."
Joffrey could not just give second Lord Paramountship to Tywin, he had far too much control over him as it was, but all lower titles were a fair game. Tywin may grab as much as he can chew, for every Lannister in existence and then some, and Tyrells will have to fight for control over their new domain when at least half of its lands will be already filled with Lannister supporters. He will take some bordering lands, of course, but overall it will be their feast. And their fight.
Whoever will bring him Renly's head can feel free to butcher each other over the stag's body.
"I can see it working out, your grace."
"Do you remember, what my lord grandfather did with his rebels?"
"Who doesn't knows of the fate of the red lions from Castamere, your grace."
"Stormlands are just too big to be left in ruins." Joffrey smiled. "But the results must be the same. I want no rebellious house, however small, to be left untouched. I want the House Baratheon of Storm's End to perish. There is only House Baratheon of King's Landing now."
Redistribution of the property will take all Tyrells and Lannisters time, and let him rule in peace. It will also leave them in constant need of his support. Joffrey always preferred the role of an arbitrator, not of a side of the conflict.
The room fell into silence. His plan was rather eccentric, but not unheard of. When Harwyn Hardhand led the ironborn on a conquest of the lands that will later be called the Riverlands, they had put many local houses to an end. Not all of them, but many. Aegon and Maegor did the same. And many Lords Paramounts had put down their rebellious vassals over the centuries. Tarbecks, Reynes, Greystarks, to name a few.
Joffrey was only raising an old custom to a new level. He was creating a profitable and acceptable target for his vassals.
Oppress a small group, and the majority will do almost anything to not join their ranks. Oppress everyone without a clear pattern and they will join their forces to kill you first.
Punish, as harshly as you want, your subject that breaks the rules. But only for an obvious, clear and generally acceptable reason. Encourage your vassals to play by the rules you set, not to break them.
That was the difference between a tyrant and a strict, but a fair king. That was what distinguished Maegor and Aerys from the Aegon. No king would have accepted the Conqueror's rule even after a thousand fields of fire had he burned his new vassals without a proper cause.
And if the war was imminent Joffrey would rather have the said war going against his enemy and by his bidding.
If he wanted for it to work he needed Renly to be left alone. Seven Kingdoms were too small to slaughter and digest the Reach and the Stormlands at the same. Even Stormlands by themselves would not be an easy target, even with three armies at his disposal.
He needed Tyrells on his side.
"You will need lord Mace on your side, your grace."
"I know, lord Baelish. I know." Joffrey sighed. "And it would be quite complicated to get him on my side."
At least until Stark will agree for peace. He will be able to bring Tywin's army on the Reach border then.
"Tell me, had Renly already married young Margaery?"
"He did, your grace. If he did not, he would this week."
Damn. That was not what Joffrey wanted to hear. Suddenly, Baelish smiled.
"Lord Renly would not be able to sire an heir, your grace. I am sure the High Septon will consider it and call the marriage invalid. It would never be consummated, after all."
"You had just earned yourself another lordship, lord Baelish," Joffrey smiled in return. "Make it as public as you can. I want every commoner and nobleman in the realm to gossip about it before the dusk."
"I am eager to please, your grace."
"After you finish with it, give me a list of all people that lord Mace and lady Olenna hold in high regard."
He will also assign Varys, Barristan, and Jaime the same task. They took part in the rebellion, and friendships are forged fast in the flame of war. He will need to choose the members of his envoy very carefully.
He will send them when Tywin will be knocking in the Tyrells gates, and the army of the Crownlands will be ready. Now he must pray for Stark's common sense and Renly's vanity. Knowing him, he would stay for a tourney in every castle on the way to King's Landing.
«My lady mother is acting... strangely, lately." Joffrey paused, trying to put his thoughts into words. "She does not want to leave the city despite the danger, and her manner of showing affection became... different."
"I had noticed, your grace."
It was a bad sign. If Barristan noticed, probably someone else had noticed it too. His money was on Varys. He hoped that gossips did not start yet.
"Good. Then answer me - why?"
Barristan was one of the very few people who knew about his curse. He also happened to be the only member of the Kingsguard Joffrey fully trusted. And he was old. So old he happened to serve in the household of more than one Targaryen king.
The man was a priceless source of information and support. Both as an advisor on human empathy and as a reputation holder.
Joffrey did not understand people. He did his best, but sometimes he couldn't get their reasoning and some of the complicated emotions right. It did not matter how much he tried, he could not predict their reactions perfectly all of the time. Barristan could.
It was his advice that helped him to leave the fame of the new Mad King in early childhood.
Barrristan looked at him almost pitifully. He waited for a moment. Knight's voice was quiet.
"Are you sure you want to know my opinion, your grace? It might not be to your liking."
"Your mother will be the only figure of authority left in the city after you'll leave."
Ah. It made sense.
"It is about power, then?"
"I afraid so, your grace."
"I expected as much. Still..." He sighed. "I was hoping for a different reason. Never mind."
There was very obvious pity in old knight eyes. Joffrey sighed again.
"Would you keep the city in one piece for me?"
There was silence. The old knight was thinking.
"Why not your uncle?"
"He will fail to control the dowager queen." Joffrey elaborated. "He and ser Oakheart can protect me well enough, but I need a man I can trust in the city."
"The queen can be sent to the safety of the Casterly Rock if that is what bothers you."
Joffrey sighed. His uncle was many things, but trusted, respected or competent he was not. He was feared for his skill with the sword and Lannister's name, but that was about it.
"You are respected, Barristan. My uncle is not."
The room fell into silence.
"I am no schemer, your grace."
"Seven knows, there is no shortage of them in the Red Keep." Joffrey snorted. "If I needed a clever schemer I would have offered the position to Varys."
Barristan grunted into his beard.
"What do you expect of me, then?"
"Don't worry, I don't need you to manage the realm for me. Prepare the city for war. Man the walls, audit supplies, keep the commoners organized and knights ready. When I will return with the army I will have Renly's forces following me."
"If Mace Tyrell would accept your offer there will be no need for you to return in such a haste."
"If, Barristan. If." Joffrey smiled. "If it will happen my first raven will be sent to you."
The old knight sighed heavily. His displeasure was obvious.
"Then I accept your offer, your grace."
"Thank you, Barristan. I am grateful for your support. I truly am."
Freshly appointed сastellan of the Red Keep and King's Landing sighed and shook his head.
"I have a request, your grace."
The old knight looked almost embarrassed. Joffrey simply nodded.
"When I was examining the state of gold cloaks, I faced a covert resistance. Turned out that Janos Slynt believes my actions to be diminishing his authority." Barristan looked Joffrey in the eyes, his voice stern. "Such a man has no place leading the city guard."
Janos Slynt, hah. The man's nepotism and corruption became almost legendary. He was useful, for a time, both to him and to Robert. It looked like Barristan wasn't appreciating corruption as much as they did.
"You are my hand in the city when I am at war, Barristan. If Janos Slynt is interfering with your duties, remove him. The means are up to your choosing."
Barristan the Bold, the man, that joined his first tourney at a tender age on ten, sighed with very obvious discomfort.
"I will resign at the very moment of your return, your grace."
"I do not dare to ask of anything more."
He would need to remember to do something good for the old knight.
«You wanted to help? Really?" Joffrey chuckled. "Forgive me for asking, but what had you been doing when I was torturing puppies, beating servants and making my best mad king impression on the court?"
"Covering." Joffrey savored the words on the end of his tongue. "Not helping. Barristan brought me a septon that worked with young Aerys. You failed as much as to speak with me."
"Joffrey, I wanted to help…"
"By guarding the queen's chambers at night." Joffrey smiled sarcastically. "Your help was truly invaluable."
The room fell into silence. Joffrey was going through the stack of documents prepared by Varys and Baelish. The city was slowly, but surely getting ready for war, and he wanted to make the most of the last days here. It would have been much harder to make them work for him without cooking the reports in more peaceful days, but they were in the same boat now. If the city falls, their chances of survival are minimal.
Jaime, in his gold armor, stood by his side, guarding the entrance.
"I believe that you wanted to help. But it would have made your life complicated. And you don't do complicated."
Jaime was always going with the easier option. He was fine with almost anything as long as it did not interfere with his little bubble of a life. Wasted potential, that is all he was. A man that could have been ruling the Westerlands for years yet wasted his life on swinging an iron stick and making the best impression of the guard dog.
"What is your plan for the war?"
Joffrey looked at him. Jaime was angry and tried to change the topic. He indulged him.
"Lord Hayford and his men will arrive at the King's Landing in two days if Varys to be believed. Lord Rykker will be here in three. Combined with half of Gold Cloaks, it will raise my army to three thousand strong." Joffrey hummed, checking the numbers in the report. "It will take about a week to get to Chyttering Brook. Minor houses on the way will add about two and a half thousand."
Meaning some five and a half thousand strong. He would have preferred more, but there was no time to wait for farther houses. Their men will arrive at the King's Landing and stay there under Barristan's command. Altogether Crownlands power was about twenty thousand men, but some lords had already betrayed and some will wait until the last moment. He would be lucky to collect twelve to fifteen thousand before Renly's invasion will start.
"It will take some time to retake the Chyttering Brook." Jaime looked at him. "It is old and its garrison is small, but the walls are still walls."
Joffrey sighed. He knew it would be troublesome.
"There are hundreds of scorpions, ballistae and battering rams in the city and more than enough horses to carry them. As you had said, the castles of rebels are old. Two or three ballistae should be enough."
It was a balance between the time and firepower. Siege equipment was expensive and hard to transport. Take too much, and his advance will become too slow. Take too little, and it will become almost impossible to breach the walls in time.
He needed Tywin. Or at least one competent siege engineer.
"I will order to select the best engineers."
"Do so. We don't need to take all of the best, someone has to oversee the preparation of the King's Landing." Joffrey thought for a moment. "And look into the supplies. I trust you to prepare the army."
Jaime smiled brightly. It was the smile of a man with a clear goal in mind. Joffrey nodded. He would have to send someone to check his work later.
"Go and get it done. I have an audience with the High Septon in an hour. Ser Mandon Moor and ser Arys Oakheart can guard me well enough in the meantime."
It would be rather complicated to convince the Faith to straight away excommunicate Renly just for being homosexual, High Septon still had some self-preservation instinct left, but even non-recognition of his marriage with Margaery Tyrell would be a boon.
It was nice to have the capital under control.
Joffrey entered the solar after hearing the girl's permission.
The girl happily looked at him and noticed the knight behind him. Her wolf growled quietly. His guard put a hand on the sword.
"Lady is harmless, ser knight!" Sansa told quickly. "She is only scared of new people!"
"It is not safe to allow a wild beast to stay in living chambers." Arys did not remove his hand from the sword's hilt. "Its place is in the forest or, at worst, in the kennel."
It was the case during Robert's time. Sansa hated to lock her wolf in the kennels.
"I personally allowed it, ser Arys." Joffrey smiled at the girl. "It wouldn't be fair to take away the maiden's most loyal protector."
Wolf growled again, glaring at him. Sansa looked at the wolf angrily, blushing from the embarrassment.
"I am sorry, your grace. She is usually so calm and gentle, I don't know what happened."
"It is alright." Joffrey chuckled. "While beautiful, she is not the lady whose favor I seek."
Sansa blushed. And then paled a bit. Her voice changed.
"I heard about what happened with your father, your grace. Please, accept my deepest condolences."
"He was a good man and took his murderer with him. The boar that killed him was served at his funeral. There turned out to be no enemy that managed to defeat him." Joffrey smiled. "My father died fighting. It was a good death, my lady."
Sansa nodded. She clearly was not comfortable talking about the king's death. He decided to change the topic.
"How is the court treating you, my lady?"
"Quite well, your grace." Sansa smiled. "Reception was a bit… cold, lately. But I can not blame them, with the funeral and war going on."
"I had brought a gift." Joffrey smiled and held out a little box. "Please, open it."
The girl hastily did what she was told. She tried to hold herself back out of pure politeness, but Joffrey knew she was eager to look at the present.
"It is beautiful, your grace."
Sansa cheerfully smiled. Inside was a brooch in a shape of pale blue flower the color of frost. A winter rose. She immediately pinned it on her dress. Joffrey couldn't help but smile.
Wolf in the corner of the room howled sadly.
"She is beautiful, isn't she?" Joffrey smiled. "But still not as beautiful as you."
Sansa blushed, hiding her eyes.
"She is. Thank you, your grace."
"Had you visited your father lately?"
"I did, your grace." Sansa's smile became a bit forced. "Ser Jaime refused to let me, first, but allowed me to see him yesterday."
"How does he feel?"
"His leg is still in pain, but it became better."
Joffrey nodded. Pycelle usually did a good job when it came to injuries.
"Had he explained to you what he did?"
Sansa shook her head.
"He didn't, your grace."
Joffrey wasn't so sure. Still…
"Before my father's body got cold he started a coup. He wanted to use the bribed gold cloaks and his own men to murder me and seize the power." Joffrey chuckled. "Fortunately, there still were loyal men in the city guard."
Sansa stared at him in pure disbelief.
"He couldn't have, your grace! My father is an honorable man!"
Instead of arguing, Joffrey handed two papers to her. Sansa took her time reading through them. Her face turned pale.
"In his final testament, my father had named Eddard Stark Lord Regent and Protector of the Realm until I will come of age. Not an hour later he had sent a letter to my uncle, offering him a vacant throne." Joffrey needed not to fake the anger saying that. "It is through the pure luck and god's will I am sitting in front of you, and not rotting in a cell, waiting for the poison or execution."
"Your grace…" Sansa did not have words. "I am sorry, your grace."
"And now your brother is calling the banners, vowing to put my head on a spike."
Sansa looked at him, pale and lost.
"It is a mistake, your grace." Sansa looked at him, pleading. Almost begging. "Starks were always loyal. My father was fooled by traitors. I am sure of it."
"I thought of it too, my lady. After all, Eddard Stark is well known for his honor. When I came to speak with him I offered him to bend a knee. For our love, I was willing to forgive his treason." Joffrey shook his head. "He called me a bastard and swore to deliver the throne to my uncle over my dead body."
Sansa fell silent, unable to say a word. Joffrey put a finger under her chin, raising her head.
"In light of what happened, I have to cancel our wedding." He whispered. "Regardless of how much I wish otherwise."
"But… but I did nothing wrong, your grace. Why do you reject me?"
First tears appeared on the girl's eyes. She wept.
"King can not marry by the wish of his heart, my dear Sansa. Your father betrayed me, and your brother is in an open rebellion."
Now Sansa was crying, clutching her fingers so tightly they became almost white.
"I will make him change his mind, your grace! He loves me, he will listen!" Sansa grabbed his hand. "Please, let me try to convince him. He will bend the knee, and we will marry!"
Joffrey calmly embraced the girl. Wolf on the floor locked its eyes off him, showing the fangs, but otherwise stayed silent. Joffrey bared his own teeth, silently laughing at the beast's rage. It knew its owner was in danger, but couldn't do anything about it.
Joffrey ran a hand over Sansa's back, making the girl shiver. She trustingly pulled closer to him. It was just too easy. He waited for the girl to calm down.
"Lord Chyttering from the Chyttering Brook had betrayed me and joined the usurper. I had called the banners and I am going to war." Joffrey looked Sansa in the eyes. "I will return in two weeks. Your father will either bend the knee or I will have no other option left but to execute him. I can not give him any more leniency than I gave already."
"Thank you, your grace. Thank you. I promise you, he will hear the voice of reason. We will marry and I will give you beautiful children." Sansa whispered in his ear. "I will pray to the Maiden and Warrior for you, and light a candle and put it on my window every night. It will help you to find the way back."
"I hope you are right, my lady." He smiled and kissed the girl on the cheek. "Please, wear my gift."
Joffrey lowered his hands, freeing Sansa to her wolf's great pleasure. The girl only leaned closer to him. Her cheeks were deeply red from the blush.
He waited for a moment, allowing the girl to feel him, and then stepped away. Joffrey doubted a bastard will make lord Stark change his mind on the matter. It would only create another claimant on the throne to deal with later. Still, it was an option to consider.
"Speak to your father. If he will agree, we will marry immediately."
It did not take too much time to get back to his solar. Arys was silent for most of the way, deep in his thoughts.
"You could have taken her right there, your grace. The girl was throwing herself at you."
"True." Joffrey nodded to the young knight. The age difference between them was big but almost nonexistent in comparison with other members of the Kingsguard. It allowed some freedom. "But no girl is worth the war lost."
Arys Oakheart half-heartedly nodded. Joffrey doubted he would have left the girl's room before the morning, had their roles changed.
"May I ask, your grace?"
Arys was strangely captured by the scene. The young knight looked almost startled.
His guard chose his words carefully.
"Are you really going to marry her?"
Joffrey shrugged. He could not understand the emotions on Arys' face and in his voice. He will need to consult with Barristan later.
"Ned Stark will rather cut off his balls with the Ice than allow his daughter to marry Tywin Lannister's grandson."
Arys nodded. Still, he looked strange and it was quickly becoming annoying. Joffrey hated such moments.
"And if he would agree?"
"I need a Lord Paramount on my side, Arys. Starks would work just as well as Tyrells."'
They had fewer men, money and food, but asked for much less in return. They were about equal in comparison, but courting the Tyrells would also strip Renly of his only major ally. Joffrey would really prefer Margaery over Sansa. Still, a less desirable Lord Paramount on his side was better than none. But one neutral and one allied Lord Paramount were even better.
Arys stayed silent for some time.
"She loves you, your grace."
Knight's voice was sad and envious.
"I am the king, ser Oakheart. The throne is the only thing I can afford to love." He chuckled. "Don't look so grim, my dear knight. You are not the only one who will never marry for love. That is something we will have to bear together."
Ser Arys chuckled in return.
"I can not have a woman at all, your grace."
"You can not own lands, take wife or father children. There is nothing about having a woman in your oath."
"I have no need in a sword that will salivate over every girl on his way. After we will finish for today, go and find yourself a woman of your liking."
"Are you sure, your grace?" Arys looked like he was too scared to ask. "Will you be fine with it?"
Joffrey sighed. He knew well enough what it was like to hold back the urges. It was tiring. Extremely so. And the tired sword is the sword that breaks at the most unfortunate moment.
"Keep it quiet. As long as it does not interfere with your duty and reputation, I am fine with that." Joffrey thought for a moment. "When you'll make your choice, make me or Barristan aware. Trust me, you do not want to have Varys' spy, Baelish's whore or other nobleman's wife in your bed."
Arys smiled like it was his name day.
"Thank you, your grace."
Joffrey smiled in return. He had never before bought loyalty so cheaply.
A thousand and a half of the gold cloaks, half veterans and half fresh recruits. Two hundred heavy knights. Five hundred of Hayford and eight hundred of Rykker men. About a thousand from minor houses that had already arrived. Three ballistae.
His army was already bigger than everything that Stannis had in his disposal, and it will only become stronger with every minor house joining. Joffrey did not understand what the man hoped for. It was unnerving. His uncle was many things, but idiot he was not.
He either expected to wait until Renly's death to take his army or simply hoped that they will kill each other. Both options were fine for now. Joffrey did not want to do Renly's job for him. If someone had to waste his men on Stannis murder, let it be him. Seven knows, Renly had plenty of them.
"It is good weather today, your grace." Lord Hayford laughed. "Right for the battle!"
He was a huge redheaded man, with a jaw broken by morning star in his youth. His maester did a decent job, but the face still looked deformed.
"Indeed, lord Hayford." Joffrey smiled to his vassal. "How do your men feel? Eager for a good fight?"
"They are, your grace."
"Had our scouts found anything?" Joffrey thought for a moment. "Any delay in their answer?"
"None, your grace. Kingswood is as peaceful as the Red Keep's garden."
Joffrey leaned closer to the map, removing the white circle from the Kingswood outskirts. It was a treacherous place, but he had sent enough men to check everything in one day worth of travel.
Castle Chyttering Brook proudly stood on the kingsroad, guarding the bridge over Wendwater. The first thing he did was destroying the bridge. Traitors did not have enough forces to protect it in an open battle outside of the castle walls and did not even attempt to stop him.
"And Buckler's? Should we expect a visit from them?"
He doubted it. With the bridge destroyed it would be a battle for the crossing, with his army on defense. Buckler's had two thousand men at most, and most of them were moving to the Bitterbridge to join Renly.
Still, cautiousness had never harmed anybody.
"I doubt it, your grace."
Joffrey thought for a moment.
"Put scouts all over the Wendwater. I want to know about every boat and every peasant that crosses it. And put an archer party on the riverside, just in case."
It left only the Blackwater Bay, but the water there was treacherous. It would be hard to bring ships close enough to the land to allow the army to descend. Besides, it would put the invading army between the King's Landing and him.
At least from that side, he was safe.
"For how long will they hold the walls if we don't push?"
He was fast on arrival, and house Chyttering was far from wealthiest. He doubted their food supplies were significant.
"For a month. For two at the most." Lord Rykker chuckled. "What do those fools even hope for? It is three hundred men against three thousand!"
He was much shorter and slimmer than Hayford, offsetting the loss in the luxury of his attire. His breastplate was decorated with two black hammers on the silvered saltire. Two black onyxes were encrusted into the hammers' heads.
Duskendale's port was much smaller than King's Landing, but for a house that for centuries ruled over some poor villages, it was the pinnacle of luxury and power.
"Stannis held the Storm's End for almost a year with naught but two hundred men."
"It is not the Storm's End, your grace. Those rotten walls will give up to the ballistae wrath before the sunset."
In the best case. Joffrey did not believe in the best cases.
"Had they send any messengers?"
"No, your grace."
Pity. He would have ordered to execute them regardless, but it would have proved that they are desperate.
"A pity. Well, they chose their fate for themselves." Joffrey smiled. "Prepare your men for the assault, my lords. We will storm the castle and put the traitors to the sword."
With the war council sorted, Joffrey left the tent. The march to the Chyttering Brook lasted for about a week, making him impatient. No minor lord rebelled, tiring him with the endless assurances in eternal loyalty and support instead. Joffrey suspected that eternity will last only until the moment he'll lose his army.
"Your opinion, ser Jaime?"
His uncle was clad in his usual golden armor. Joffrey never shared his obsession with gold, preferring black and red for himself. Besides, white looked better on him.
"I don't like it." He looked at Joffrey. "Why do they wait? They knew that we will come a week ago, if not more. Their lord had more than enough time to get away."
Joffrey didn't like it too.
"I expected them to ask for single combat."
"With me on your side?" Jaime chuckled. A roguish smile really suited him. "They could have just taken black."
Joffrey nodded. Jaime was one of, if not the, best swordsman in the Westeros. He doubted poor lord Chyttering had a champion of the same prowess.
A small man with pockmarks from sickness on his face hastily bowed. They were standing on the ballistae position.
"How is it going, Bron?" With an effort of will, Joffrey remembered the name of the man. "When will ballistae be ready?"
"Very soon, your grace." The old man was obviously scared. He didn't need to be, he was too important at the moment. "We will assemble them in a day."
It was not a poor result. Bron was good in what he was doing, chosen from the fifteen other siege equipment masters. Still…
"You will get a hundred gold dragons for every ballista that will start shooting before the sunset."
That made little man to smile.
"Thank you, your grace! Trust me, we will get them shooting!"
Joffrey smiled. Small folk was so easy. They only wanted money.
The assault started with the thunder of crumbling walls. Bron kept his word, assembling the siege equipment in less than one day. It took about four hours for ballistae to destroy the segment of the wall.
The first lines of his army were made of the infantry brought by the minor lords. As soon as the walls were breached, they charged straight into the gap. They were mostly peasants, that never before held a sword and shield in their hands. Joffrey held no expectations for their morale or skill. Their job was to charge and to die under the archer's fire, using their numbers as their main weapon. Some of them took the battering ram, to give the defenders more of a headache.
Joffrey stood on a hill, far enough from the walls to be safe from the archers, but close enough to see the battle. Some of his knights were startled when the screams started. Lord Chyttering's household met the attackers with everything they had, from stones and arrows to the boiling water and oil.
Joffrey smelled blood. It had a salty, metallic taste. He raised his hand, and command was sent to the troops.
The second group, made of the professional soldiers that were part of their knight's regiments, pushed further, going over the bodies of their less fortunate brothers in arms. They formed a wall of steel, that made the retreat impossible for the first line, almost clogging the breach with their bodies. Archers were shooting over their heads, most of their arrows hitting the wall.
It did not matter how brave the defenders were. They were just three hundred men. Even if every Chyttering's man will murder two of his, Joffrey will be happy with the exchange.
He did not know how much time had passed before the castle was set aflame. He lost the sense of it, looking at the slaughter. Joffrey could not make sense of what was going inside, and he valued his life too much to come anywhere closer.
Slowly, but relentlessly his men were getting ground. The little foothold inside of the castle turned into a taken wall, that was immediately occupied by his archers.
He heard the cheers. The last group, made of heavy knights from his and his lord's households stayed as the reserve. They were too valuable to be thrown into a meat grinder on equal with the peasants.
They will attack when the gates would be opened to them.
"Your grace!" Shouted someone on the right. "Your grace!"
He turned to the man, and suddenly all of his thoughts were gone. Huge shadows floated on the line of sight, almost invisible on the water. The ships.
"How did he managed to bring the ships so close to the shore?!"
It was notoriously hard. The slightest mistake could have doomed the whole fleet. Ships could run aground in a lot of places there. One needed to know every nook and cranny of the Blackwater Bay to manage it.
Joffrey cursed. It was worse. It wasn't only ships.
A sea of the mounted knights was coming from the bay, with armor shimmering in the moonlight. Silver seahorse on the field of green, gold stars on white, a red crab, a swordfish.
Covered in shadows until the last moment, they waited for their chance. And they got it.
"Dragonstone!" He heard the screams. "Velaryon!"
Hundred, two, Joffrey could not count their numbers. A lot. More than he had. They were led by the knight with a Baratheon-like sigil, black deer on a crimson field, caught aflame.
Knights were coming closer. Their lances were flickering with murderous light, the fire from the burning castle was lighting up their armor. Joffrey heard Jaime shouting, his own guard closed around him. Behind the screaming, he could not understand the words.
Joffrey could see the color of the attacker's eyes.
The fire and cries of the dying. The taste of blood in his mouth. Rage. Pure, unadulterated rage. An instinct, a thirst for blood that was held back for far too long.
His men finally clinging around him, taking a lance formation. The men, that he kept in the camp as the reserve, hastily mounted their horses. His army was caught with its pants down, half inside of the castle, and half outside. Locked in a burning castle, engaged in a fight, it was too late for them to reach him.
There was nowhere to run. With the river and camp behind, he was cut off from more than half of his troops. His uncle had chosen the best possible moment for the attack. There was only one way for him, now.
"Charge!" He shouted, raising his sword. Joffrey did not have a lance, it was too heavy for him to raise, and his sword was only half of what an adult man had. His horse twitched, feeling the spurs. He pushed it, making it too gallop. "CHARGE!"
Following their king, the best knights of the Crownlands and King's Landing charged straight into the best men of the Dragonstone.
Joffrey saw only Stannis.
When Joffrey woke up, he screamed. His vision was shattered. His body was in pain. There was something on his face, itching, and burning. His hand…
There was a bandage on his hand. On what was left from his hand. Someone's sword had cut through his armor like a hot knife going through the warm butter, separating his wrist from the hand. Joffrey screamed and bit the pillow. He breathed through the clenched teeth. His left hand was burning with pain. It was agonizing. It was more pain than he had ever known in his life.
Something pressed on his jaw and nose, making him unclench the teeth. Joffrey felt something sweet on his lips.
After some time he felt better. A numbness took the place of pain. He managed to open his eyes. A black stag met him. Beast had a crown on its neck and was dancing on a golden field. It was his stag.
Joffrey exhaled sharply, feeling better. At least he was not taken as a prisoner. They would have stripped the sigil from the wall otherwise.
"Thank gods you awoke, your grace!"
He heard the voice coming from somewhere. Joffrey tried to stand, but couldn't. Strong hands were pressing on his shoulders, making it impossible to move.
"Please, don't move. I need to change the bandage."
Joffrey complied. Pain, that had left for some time, was slowly returning. He felt pressure on his left hand. After some time, it was over. Whoever was bandaging him finished his job.
Now he was holding a vial with a sweet-smelling substance inside.
"Please, drink, your grace." Old maester looked at him pleadingly. After all, his life depended on the result of the treatment. "It is the milk of the poppy."
Joffrey made a pause. The pain was returning, but…
"No. I need to think straight." Joffrey whispered. His throat was sore. "Bring me some water and ask ser Jaime to come."
Maester bowed, having no confidence to argue. His eyes were locked on the floor.
"It will be done, your grace."
Joffrey did not know how much time had passed before he heard the heavy steps. A knight in a battered white armor came inside of the tent. His helmet was removed, and Joffrey could see concerned blue eyes.
Blue, not green.
"Your grace!" Arys smiled. "You are awake!"
"I am, ser Oakheart." He whispered. It took too much strength to speak louder. "What are there results? Had we won?"
It was a dumb question. He would have been dead or worse otherwise. Joffrey could not bring himself to care. The fear, obscured by the fury on the battlefield, was returning to him. He felt drowning and weak.
He was happy to see his knight, perhaps, he was happy for the first time in his short life.
"We did, your grace."
Arys' voice was tired, and his eyes were sad. It told him everything. Joffrey whispered:
"A lot, your grace."
"And Jaime?" There was no answer, and it was the answer by itself. Joffrey hit the wall and screamed from the pain. He bit the pillow, again. Waited until the spasm would stop. "Show me the bodies."
Arys nodded and helped him to get out of the bed. Joffrey blinked. The bandage was almost completely covering his left eye. He tried to take a step and almost fell. His leg was also bandaged.
"A lance wound, your grace." Maester conveniently clarified. Joffrey forgot that the man was even in the room. "It is not dangerous, but it will be quite painful."
Joffrey nodded. He had a vague memory of the lance slashing over his leg. It targeted his horse, not him.
"What is your forecast, maester?"
The old man made a pause, carefully looking at him.
"Your left eye is not in danger, but the scar will stay. The leg wound is not dangerous, but your hand…"
Joffrey bitterly smiled.
"No need in clarifications there."
"Of course, your grace."
"You are free, maester. Go and use your skills to help others."
Seven knows, he lost enough men as it is to afford to waste maester's time.
The mortuary was set inside of one of the free tents. About ten bodies lied inside. Four of them were covered in white cloaks.
The body clad in gold was barely held together by the armor. Its hands were shattered, breastplate broken into pieces. Joffrey could recognize the marks left by the battle axe and lance. Even the face was not left intact.
Without the armor, Joffrey wouldn't have even recognized Jaime.
"He fought like an angry god, your grace," Arys whispered. "When we started to lose, ser Jaime charged straight into the usurper. He went right through their lines. Cut down at least five knights on his way and beheaded him."
As proof of Arys' words, Stannis' corpse lied next to the Kingsguard. Its head was separated from the body.
"Ser Meryn Trant, ser Boros Blount, and ser Preston Greenfield had died in your service, your grace. Ser Mandon Moore is wounded, but will recover."
With Barristan in the city, it left four dead and two alive. In one battle he had lost the majority of his kingsguard.
"How many men were in Stannis' retinue?"
"Two hundred and twenty, your grace."
Not as many as he thought in the heat of the moment. It was even less than what he had, his reserve was numbering two hundred and fifty men.
Joffrey clenched his teeth. Rage was raising its ugly head inside of him. The whole battle was a mistake. His mistake.
He did not check the Bay. He did not send scouts to the sea, blinded by the danger coming from the Stormlands. He had trusted nature and underestimated his uncle's captains. The only reason he was still alive, and not lying in the pile of corpses, were the mistakes made by Stannis.
The man had only two hundred and twenty knights. It meant that he attacked too early. Before he managed to collect all of his vassals. Besides, he did not bring any infantry or archers with him. Space on the ships was limited and horses took a lot of it.
It was a risky bet that had almost worked. Almost - because Joffrey had the best kingsguard in centuries on his side. Had, in capital letters. Not anymore. He did not have Jaime Lannister, the first sword of the kingdom, now.
One more such victory and he can behead himself, sparing Renly an effort.
Joffrey looked at the bodies in white cloaks. It will take a week to get back to the King's Landing.
"Separate the bones from the flesh. I will send them to their families." Joffrey looked at Stannis' corpse. "His too, but put the head on a spike first."
"It will be done, your grace."
"Order the lords and captives to gather." Joffrey sighed, getting ready for the pain, and stepped away from Arys. The scream froze in his mouth. His leg was burning.
Arys immediately stepped closer.
"Your grace…" His guard looked at him with concern. "Maybe you should at least lean on me?"
Joffrey shook his head angrily. He knew that his face was pale from pain and blood loss. It did not matter.
"The king can not afford to look weak." He made one more step. It was easier this time, if only for a fraction. "Collect the lords, my knight. Time spend without clear orders is the time that brings doubts."
The camp lied in ruins. Stannis' cavalry managed to reach it, bringing havoc and destruction with them. Some of the tents were ripped apart, and he still could taste the blood in the air.
Four lords stood in front of him. Still in their armor, but without helmets and with their hands bound behind their backs, they looked like a captured fish in a fisherman's bucket. Joffrey's teeth painfully clenched. He wanted them dead. With every cell of his wounded body, he wanted them to burn.
They had taken his left wrist. They had murdered his kigsguard. They had taken away his ace.
He needed their men on his side.
What was left of their retinues stood behind them. In total there were about eighty knights capable to stand straight. Forty more were under maester's care. Another hundred was dead. Their armor and swords were removed, leaving them defenseless and almost naked.
Lord Monford Velaryon, a thin man with distinct valyrian looks, stared at him angrily. He was young, at most ten years older than him. Joffrey felt sudden envy. He always wanted to look that way.
"You had supported the usurper. The usurper is dead." Every word came with an effort. Joffrey felt chills and fever. He wanted to collapse. "You will bend the knee, or you will die."
Silence followed his words. And then Monford Velaryon laughed.
"What, you won't offer us to take the black?" Young Velaryon smirked. "Scared we will meet you there?"
Joffrey did not answer.
"Ser Arys?" Without saying a word, his knight stepped to the Monford, with his sword bare. Joffrey shook his head. "Subdue him."
Arys pushed the traitor to Joffrey, making him fall on his knees. Joffrey held out his hand. Kingsguard put his sword in it. It was heavy. Almost too heavy for his only remaining hand.
Standing on his knees, Monford hatefully stared at him. There was anger in his eyes, but Joffrey knew that the man was scared. Everyone is scared when faced with execution. Some beg when they are scared. Others try to fight back.
"Come on, bastard. Kill me. Renly will cut your dick off and make you eat it!"
Additional weight proved itself a boon. Heavy steel fell on the Velaryon's neck, decapitating him almost instantly. Joffrey looked at the other lords, repeating himself.
"You will bend the knee, or you will die."
Ardrian Celtigar, the man with the huge red crab on his breastplate, was the first to break. Old and greedy, he valued his life more than anything else. Duram Bar Emmon, lord of Sharp Point, was second. A feeble, fat boy of fifteen was so scared that his face turned paler than his armor. Joffrey did not know why Stannis even brought him. Probably to secure his knights' loyalty.
Guncer Sunglass was the last. With the gold stars on his coat of arms and moonstones at his throat, wrists, and fingers the man looked more like a septon, that for some reason put on an armor.
Now, with all three lords standing on their knees, Joffrey allowed himself to smile.
"You made the right choice, my lords. Now, prove your men loyalty."
It made them pause, looking at him without a hint of understanding. They were too scared to think fast.
"The usurper is dead. His men are not."
Now they understood. Knights behind them screamed, trying to break free. They understood, too. There were only twenty men left from Stannis' household. Others were too loyal to surrender.
"Give them their swords."
In a mere moment traitors forces were divided - those, whose lord bend the knee, now were armed. They stood, uncertain, locked in the circle of steel. They were looking at the men, with whom they bled and died hours ago.
"You make me wait, my lords."
Joffrey raised the sword. Drops of the Monford's blood splattered over the hesitant lords. Like the last time, old Celtigar was the first to break.
"Kill them!" He screamed. "Kill the traitors!"
Celtigar's knights obeyed. Others followed them. In less than a minute everything that was left from Stannis' retinue was destroyed. They were murdered by his very own vassals. By their brothers in arms. By those, who had betrayed their lord.
There was no way back for them, now. Renly will gut them in a very moment he'll capture them. And they knew it.
Joffrey had bound them with the blood and treason.
"You did well."
Pale lords bowed even lower. Understanding of what had just happened was slowly coming to them.
Joffrey looked at what was left from his army. From four thousand only two and a half were left. Many died inside of the castle from the fire, even more - from archers. The core of his forces, heavy knights, retained the same number. What he had lost was replenished in Stannis' men.
He also lost his kingsguard, and it burned more than he was willing to admit.
"We had won!" Joffrey shouted. Soldiers mass burst in cheers. Losses were heavy, but no one wanted to think about them. Not now, at least. "Traitors are dead. Their castle is taken."
Joffrey waited for cheers to end.
"You brought me the victory, my men. The riches are yours!" He smiled. "Sack the castle. Take whatever is of your liking. Burn the rest. Do not allow any traitor to escape. Make them remember, what is the price of the treason!"
Blooded, tired, and exhausted his men cheered, like children. It did not matter that they had almost died a couple of hours ago. They were alive, they had won, and there was a castle full of gold and women to take. They were happy.
Joffrey smiled and left to his tent. As soon as he was out of his troop's vision, he collapsed on Arys, allowing the knight to carry him. His legs were trembling from the exhaustion and burning from the pain, his face itched. He did his best not to look at his left hand.
Joffrey fell on the bed, finally allowing himself to scream. Despite the distance and thin material of the tent, he could hear the cries of the slaughtered and crackling of the flame. What had survived the battle was burning now.
It was the end of the Chyttering Brook.
When Joffrey came to Stark's solar, the man ignored him. Like the last time, Joffrey sat on a chair in front of him. He could feel man's eyes peer onto his scar and stump of his left hand.
He expected Stark to say something about it. He didn't.
"You gave my daughter a winter rose."
"A beautiful thing, isn't it?"
Stark shook his head. He looked calm, but Joffrey could feel the rage boiling inside of him. He could relate.
"Don't play games with me, Joffrey. We both know that it was not a random gift."
"It wasn't." Joffrey calmly agreed.
If glare could kill, he would've been dead already.
"I got your meaning, boy."
"Good." He smiled. "Had you thought about my offer?"
"I will not bend the knee."
"And let the North burn?"
Eddard did not answer. Joffrey smiled again. He put a little box on a table.
There was a pause. They both knew what was inside. And yet, Stark did what he was told. The box clicked. There was another winter rose inside, this time in a form of the hair clip.
"What do you think, lord Stark? Will Arya appreciate the gift?"
For a moment, Joffrey fully expected that Stark will jump on him. He did not. Perhaps it was self-control, or he understood that Arys will be able to intercept him in time.
"You will not dare."
Stark leaned him closer to him, staring right into his eyes. There was something wolfish in him, now.
"I will if you will make me. And I will make you watch." Joffrey whispered. "I am not a boy you can scare into submission, Stark. I had fought, bled, and killed. I had turned Chyttering Brook into ruins and killed Stannis for the throne. I will step over two girls."
"You killed Stannis?"
"Jaime did. He paid with his life for it." Joffrey did not take his eyes off Eddard's. "The games are over. War is here. Winter is here. Bend the knee, Stark. Get out of the south. Take your daughters and sword with you, and leave."
"You will not stop, won't you?" Eddard said softly. "Nothing I can say will convince you."
"I am the king of the Iron Throne, Stark. By the pure chance, but I am the king. I had already killed, bled, and slaughtered for it. I will keep killing, bleeding, and slaughtering until either my body or the realm will give up." Joffrey raised his left hand, showing the stump. "You can get on my way, or you can step aside. The choice is yours."
There was silence. Then Eddard spoke.
"You will not marry my daughter."
"You will never come to the North."
"You will never call for my help. If you and Renly have to fight over the damn chair, do it without my men."
"You will return the Ice."
"You will send the bones of my men to the Winterfell."
"My daughters and I will have a safe path to the North. You will not try to stop or re-capture us."
"I will hand you over to your son and wife in a silver parchment."
Stark looked at him, surprised.
"I had arranged the hostage exchange in the Harrenhal. Your son will bring your lords. Hoster Tully and Tywin Lannister will bring theirs. I will bring mine."
After a short pause, Eddard understood.
"You want me to swear fealty in front of the half of the realm."
"You will swear felty twice."
Joffrey was not going to give the man any way back. If he will try to attack him, he will become the oathbreaker in the eyes of the whole realm and his vassals. It was far from the best assurance, but it was the best he could hope for.
Besides, it gave him a good cause to request a right of the passage from the Tully on behalf of Tywin. The man had almost finished gathering his army, and Tully, that kept neutrality, refused to allow him to go through their lands. It will end up in a war if he couldn't figure something out.
"Good," Stark answered. His eyes were sharp, and there was no hint on a smile left on his lips. "At least you are not dumb."
It was so sudden that Joffrey was startled for a moment. He forgot that he was talking with the man that had won the Rebellion.
"I have a second demand."
Stark looked at him, thinking.
"You are going to offer Myrcella for Edmure Tully. Or for Robyn Arryn."
"I will not advise them for or against it."
Joffrey stood up. His leg still burned from pain, but he learned to deal with the pain well in the latest days.
"I will hold the court in three hours. Servants will bring you your best clothes. Prepare yourself, shut Sansa up, and look pretty."
The Iron Throne. A huge, asymmetric monstrosity of spikes and twisted metal. It is cold and hard, with many jagged edges. It is impossible to lean back because of the fanged steel behind. It was made of the swords, surrendered by his defeated or murdered ancestors, and forged in flame of the greatest dragon ever seen in Westeros.
Every time Joffrey set upon the Iron Throne he was short of breath. Three hundred years of history stood around him. Aegon held his first court from the throne. Maegor had died on the very place Joffrey sat, his neck impaled on the blade that was hanging over Joffrey's head now. Despite the centuries passed it was still sharp.
He was the king on the Iron Throne, now. He had the right to sit on a mountain of molten swords of his forefathers and cold dragon fire.
It felt like a joke. He felt like a cat that was allowed to sit on the owners' chair while they were away. Had the dragons stayed alive, it would have been the case.
Aegon had never valued the Iron Throne. He could make a hundred of those. It was normal for him. And they were fighting and dying for it like it was a sacred relic. It made Joffrey feel his own insignificance only sharper.
"We had won!" Joffrey declared to the court. "The traitor is dead, killed by my uncle, ser Jaime Lannister. Ser Jaime Lannister, Ser Meryn Trant, ser Boros Blount, and ser Preston Greenfield had fallen on the battlefield. They had fulfilled their duty of kingsguard's until the bitter end, and will be remembered as the embodiment of honor and duty until the end of the days."
Joffrey made a pause, letting the court to digest the news.
"Lords of the Sharp Point, Claw Isle, and Sweetport Sound had bent their knee." Joffrey looked at the lords sworn to Dragonstone. They looked uncomfortable, standing in the front line, right before the throne. He was showing off his trophies, and they knew it. "Their fleets will join the Crown fleet and retake the Driftmark and Dragonstone."
Joffrey did not need the fleet yet, but he did not want it to stand idle. With almost all of the Stannis' vassals sworn to him, and the bulk of his army crushed, he expected Dragonstone to surrender in a month or two. There was no point for them to fight against the blockade.
"Lord Guncer Sunglass will lead the blockade."
Joffrey needed to show that it is beneficial to change the side, and the job was easy enough that even the lord that prayed for three hours every day would have trouble failing it. Besides, he heard some whispers about the red priestess from Ashai whose support Stannis had requested. It would be nice to turn it into a war against the heretics.
"Lord Eddard Stark of Winterfell, Warden of the North, Protector of the Realm."
Joffrey looked at the man. He stood in front of the throne, at the most privileged position. Both of his daughters stood with him as a reminder of the possible consequences. The youngest, Arya, looked at Joffrey with the mix of fear and enmity. Her father had warned her about him, and she had listened. Sansa stood close to them, her eyes red from tears. Little fool even wore the winter rose on her dress.
"You made an attempt on my life. You had bribed the loyal members of the city guard to murder me and my lady mother, intending to give the throne to Stannis Baratheon." Joffrey looked at the man, sternly. Eddard's face was cold and solid as stone. "Do you confess in those crimes?"
Silence. The court fell in a total, dead, murderous silence.
Someone in the crowd gasped. He heard the whispers.
"Why did you commit your crimes?"
"Lord Stannis made me believe in the gossips about the kings' parentage."
Stark's voice was cold and emotionless.
"Do you believe in those gossips, now?"
There was a pause. Eddard's face was pale as snow. His teeth clenched.
"I do not."
"Do you repent your mistake?"
Joffrey smiled. He was looking at the court now. At the heads of the Crownlands houses, at the knights, at the ladies and even at some children. They all had heard him.
"Seventeen years ago king Aerys Targaryen murdered lord Rickard Stark and his son Brandon Stark. Prince Rhaegar kidnapped, raped, and murdered Lyanna Stark, daughter of Rickard Stark and betrothed of my father, Robert Baratheon." He made a pause. "Houses Stark and Baratheon stood as one. They went against the tyrant and put an end to his reign. Lord Eddard Stark had personally led his men in every battle. Without him, the realm would still suffer under the heel of the mad king, or of the rapist prince."
He could feel Stark's stare on him. He was not sure, what emotion it was. He doubted it was hatred. It was something much more complicated.
"Stannis Baratheon was not known for his charisma, but no one would have called him a fool. He was a cunning and callous man. There is no shame in falling into his trap. One such trap had cost me a wrist." Joffrey allowed anger to slip into his voice. "Another had almost cost to lord Stark his life."
Whispers started again, and he gave the court time. Not everyone in the court knew how to hold their emotions back, and very few people knew what truly happened after Robert's death.
"Now the usurper is dead, and his lies died with him," Joffrey uttered. "Do you wish to leave it in the past, lord Stark? Do you wish to stand by my side as you stood by the side of my father?"
And that was it. All of the Stark's reputation was now working for Joffrey. Eddard Stark had acknowledged him as Robert's son. And the head of the man that started the rumors was impaled on the Iron Throne.
Joffrey stood from the throne. His face became pale from the pain. There were only twenty steps from his seat to Eddard, and yet they were the hardest steps in his life.
Eddard Stark kneeled.
"Do you, Eddard from the house Stark, before the face of the gods old and new, swear to be faithful to me, my children, and children of my children?"
"Do you swear to answer my call, when I'll send it, and never raise a sword against me?
"Do you swear to protect my rights and claims, and those of my children?"
"Do you swear to rule the North from my name justly and fairly? Do you swear to ward and protect it from any danger, like you would have protected the Winterfell?"
"And I, in return, swear before the gods old and new, to protect your rights and those of your children. To never raise a sword against you, and answer your call when you will send one." Joffrey smiled at the man and handed him the Ice. "Take your sword, Eddard Stark, lord of Winterfell, Lord Paramount and Warden of the North, and never raise it against me again. The king can not forgive twice."
Eddard stood up. His face still was pale, and his teeth were clenched, but it no longer mattered. He got all the support from the man that he possibly could. Joffrey returned on the throne.
"I have a request, your grace."
He heard Eddard's voice. He could swear he heard how the man's teeth clenched on the word "grace."
"I am listening, lord Stark."
"My oldest daughter, your betrothed, is sick. I wish to bring her back home."
At these words, Sansa had burst into tears. Well, at least this way she can not say anything.
"Your request is granted, lord Stark." Joffrey smiled. "It pains me to part with your daughter, but I will not put my wishes before her health."
"Thank you, your grace."
Joffrey nodded. His part of the exchange was done. It was not the break up of the betrothal yet, but it was very close to it. Joffrey had just lost a hostage but earned something much more important. Legitimization.
The North had accepted his rule.
"Lords of the Crownlands. You all swore fealty to me, and now I recall your oath. Renly Baratheon, a sword-swallower, traitor, and usurper, had called his banners. Lord Mace Tyrell had believed his lies and declared fealty to him." Joffrey allowed some rage into his voice. "All loyal men of the realm are coming to the ruins of the Harrenhal. Gather your men, my lords. We are joining them."
With that, the performance was over. Lords and ladies left the throne room, eagerly discussing everything that he had said. Stark, ever cautious, was the last to leave. He was holding his daughters by their shoulders like he was scared that they would be stolen.
The doors of the throne room closed, leaving only him, Barristan, and Arys behind.
"Do all loyal men really gather in the Harrenhal, your grace?"
"Not yet. But they will be." Joffrey smiled. "Stark had lost all of his guards, and it is dangerous to travel alone. I will never agree to come to the North and Robb Stark will never agree for the King's Landing. It leaves only Riverlands, which are neutral, but Catelyn Stark is the daughter of the Hoster Tully. It makes the Riverrun too dangerous for me to attend."
"I see, your grace. It makes Harrenhal the obvious choice. As it is right in between the Winterfell and the King's Landing, you both may bring sufficient troops to be safe from a sudden attack. Besides, Hoster Tully, as the lord of the lands, can guarantee the safety of the negotiations."
Joffrey nodded. He wouldn't have trusted any guarantees, but it still was a boon.
"You are right, ser knight." Joffrey smiled. "And I did ask him to supervise the gathering. But there is more than that. Hoster Tully had declared of his house neutrality. Now he may change that stance. He is a trusted ally of the Eddard Stark from the times of the Rebellion. I did not consider him as an ally before. Now lord Stark had accepted me as his liege, and the situation changed."
It changed by a huge margin. Now he did not need to care about the attack from the north.
"I had asked lord Tywin to join me in the Harrenhal. Lord Hoster had refused him the pass, before, as it would break his neutrality. Lord Tywin had already threatened him with the war." Joffrey sighed. "Now he has a good reason to allow him to pass without enraging Renly."
Which meant that there would be nobility from the Westerlands, North, Riverlands, and Crownlands there. From the Vale too, perhaps. Robb Stark will bring his vassals to see his father and sisters returned safely, and Hoster Tully will have to bring some of his major bannermen. Even if he wouldn't, Joffrey had already sent them invitations. The hostage exchange will end up being the biggest gathering of the southern and northern nobility since the Tourney of Harrenhal.
He will make Eddard bend the knee there again, in front of the half of the realm. Just to make sure.
And Harrenhal is right above the Reach. Tyrells won't be able to ignore such a hint. If he will get lucky, they would consider it a meeting of his supporters. With Eddard Stark swearing fealty and his son preparing the troops it will really look like it.
Renly will not fall for it, but he will have a hard time explaining to Tyrells why everyone to the north to them had suddenly declared for Joffrey.
He tried to get off the throne, but his hand failed him. Barristan helped him to get up.
"I should have been there."
There was sadness in the old knight voice.
"No." Joffrey shook his head. "You had been where I asked you to be. Had the situation played out differently, Stannis would have attacked the city. I needed you here."
Barristan did not answer, but Joffrey knew that the old man was not convinced.
Joffrey asked. He always felt strangely timid when he had to ask the old knight of anything.
"Yes, your grace?"
"I may need to make use of your reputation."
Barristan was the knight well known in the realm. Known, and deeply respected.
"You don't need to beat around the bush, your grace."
"I want you to write to lord Doran Martell." He sighed. "I am sure they consider me just another Lannister, but they will at least read your letter."
That picked the old man's interest.
"You want to offer him to marry Arianna Martell, don't you?"
"Offer him Clegane's and Lorch's heads. It should be needless, but still, make it obvious that the request for Tywin's head will be a dealbreaker." Joffrey thought for a moment. "But another way of compensation can be considered."
"They will never accept gold, your grace."
"If Doran would wish to become my hand instead of Tywin, I will allow it."
It would be a blow to the man's pride if anything, but Joffrey will find a way to compensate it to Tywin. The man was balls deep in the war already. When it will be over and Renly will be dead, all bets will be off. Dorn will become just one of the seven kingdoms.
He only needed to win the war.
"May I say something, your grace?" Arys asked. There was laughter in his eyes.
"Go for it." Joffrey smiled.
"A meeting in Harrenhall and marriage with a Dornish princess… Your grace, your love for history is slowly getting out of control!"
Joffrey laughed. Barristan smiled, too. He said:
"Your grace, if I hadn't understood why you do what you do, I would have thought you are doing everything you can to enrage Robert."
Joffrey chuckled. It really seemed like it, didn't it?
"Who told you that I don't?"
And this is the end of the arc 1, King's Landing. No, for real, leave your comments. They are one of the major reasons why I write the fic.
As this is the end of the arc, I expect to receive some coherent reviews both on the last chapter and on the arc as a whole. The more of them I will get, the better fic will be in the future, and the more motivation I will have to write it.