Chapter 16

"Laugh, laugh a little Ned! You have no humor, good man."

"They say it grows so cold up here in winter that a man's laughter freezes in his throat and chokes him to death," Ned said evenly. "Perhaps that is why the Starks have so little humor."

Robert laughed loudly at that, spilling wine all over his shirt. His big hands pounded over the table in excitement, merry as he could be.

"I believe that," Robert said. "I do believe it. Ah, yes…but what was it? What was it I was saying a minute before?"

"You were japing about my brother-in-law, saying he is the one man who can outdrink you, my lord."

"That was it, yes! You'd not believe it by his size, but he is most capable at that feat. Most capable."

Ned smiled indulgently. He had certainly heard Tyrion had a reputation for enjoying women and wine. But he was still young, unwed, fairly green. Cersei said he had a sharp mind and Ned did not doubt it, nor that it would be put to better use when the time came.

"He was saying, our Little Lannister Lord, he was saying….oh I cannot remember what he was saying. It does not matter. He is a funny man, very much unlike his father. Or his sister! Your wife still seems able to cut a man down with one look."

"She does, sometimes," Ned admitted.

"Yet she does not cut you. You've tamed your lion and dulled its claws, Ned."

The king was deep in his cups, an activity he seemed to enjoy. Red-faced under his beard, sweating through his silks, fat and indolent, he looked far from the warrior Ned had once known. As Robert reclined in his chair Ned could not help but feel pity towards his former partner at arms.

"I can't say I've achieved such a feat," Ned replied evenly. "My wife is no cat and I am no lion tamer."

Robert guffawed.

Through dinner Robert had been busy paying attention to a serving wench, sitting her on his lap and feeding her morsels of food. The Queen's gaze had skipped her husband and she'd left the feast early, her daughter in tow. Ned could not blame Catelyn; Robert shamed her much with his behavior. And yet, he could not completely condemn his friend: there was much pain in Robert, masked beneath the veneer of wild joy.

"And Cersei is still beautiful," Robert said. "I'd wager your wife achieves the impressive feat of growing more beautiful with every year and driving even freshly flowered maids into fits of jealousy."

"I find her most beautiful, my lord, because of her intelligence and wit, which I've come to know well," Ned replied.

"And I'm sure her bosom does not sway your opinion of her," Robert said, giving him a hearty laugh, as though he'd just said a most witty thing. "Aye, she's a thing of beauty and fertile, too. Three sons, Ned! She's given you three sons. My wife, well…a single daughter. What use does the Iron Throne have for girls?"

Robert's mood, which had been bright as they conversed in the privacy of Ned's chambers, had suddenly grown dark. Ned watched him, worried.

"The princess is very gracious," Ned replied.

"Gracious! That she is. Nevertheless, graciousness does not keep a crown on one's head. I need a son, Ned. Something Catelyn seems unwilling to provide."

"The Queen is yet young."

"Stannis has a son," Robert muttered. "A sad runt, half of his left cheek and most of his neck covered in gray and black dead skin, but a son nevertheless. Something he takes care to point out to me at every turn, something everyone seems eager to point out. I know they whisper behind my back. There are vile rumors that I have been cursed and that in slaying that Targaryen dog I have soiled my bloodline and will not be able to give the throne a true heir."

He looked at Robert and thought of Lyanna. What might she have thought of Robert, had she been able to look at him now? What if she'd lived and been his queen? Would it have all turned out the same way? Perhaps Robert might had been a better man.

It does not matter. Lyanna is dead. Robert is king. He is my friend, now and always.

The wine Ned had been sipping now seemed to taste as bitter as vinegar.

"Let me tell you a secret, Ned. More than once, I have dreamed of giving up the crown. Take ship for the Free Cities with my horse and my hammer, spend my time warring and whoring, that's what I was made for. The sellsword king, how the singers would love me. You know what stops me? I have no heir, no legacy to speak of. I'm sure Stannis's mouth waters at the idea of placing his boy on the throne. A woman cannot rule. If she ought to attempt it would prove a disaster, but the thought of Stannis…makes my blood boil."

"Perhaps she could rule in her own right," Ned said awkwardly. He knew it was unlikely, this was not Dorne, but he could hear the pain in Robert's voice and sought to reassure him.

"Do you think men would support a woman's claim? Do not make me laugh, Ned. Lately I have thought much of Viserys Targaryen, that worm across the Narrow Sea. If we had a Queen on the throne I have no doubt many of our 'allies' would flock to him, if only because he is a man and has a prick. A son! I need a son, though I do not think that pious wife of mine will give it to me. Sometimes I think she prays that she not birth me a heir, just to spite me."

"Robert, that is unfair," Ned said.

"You do not know her. Catelyn does her duty, aye, but there is contempt behind her eyes. I can see it, dancing there, hidden, poisoning me."

Robert sighed and shook his head.

"Renly says I ought to take a new wife. He tells me Margaery Tyrell is young and pretty, and if the little portrait he showed me of her does her justice, he speaks the truth. I might remarry and a new wife might birth me some sons. Perhaps not the Tyrell girl, perhaps some other woman."

Robert looked at Ned and scowled at his silence. "You might speak up and agree now, you know."

"Your Grace …" Ned began, carefully. "Putting aside the Queen would be…it would be ignoble."

"Ignoble, yes," Robert muttered. "She might enjoy it. She might become a septa. She certainly has the heart for it."

"She might also give you a son, your Grace," Ned said. "She is still young. As are you. The people greatly love the Queen and I know you care for her. She is a kind, noble lady. There is still time for a son…for several sons. And the princess…you love her, I know it, and would not want to shame her so. An annulment would be…it would be disgraceful, my lord."

Ned knew that despite all his faults, Robert loved his daughter. She was sweet, pretty, charming. Robert was very proud of her dancing and said she could sing beautifully. There was love in his eyes when we looked at the girl and Ned knew he did not wish to cause her any grief. In fact, he wanted to spare her any sorrow and ensure her a peaceful reign.

"Cassandra."

"Aye, my lord."

"I had not thought of that. How stupid of me! "

"There is time for more children."

That seemed to dispel Robert's anger. He nodded and slapped Ned on the back. "Yes. I'm still young, you are right. I must not be so reckless. Ah, Ned, this is why I need you by my side, to provide me with proper counsel."