Part 1: Beginning (In which Robert broke the news to Stannis that Ned Stark will be the new Hand of the King).
The finality of death should have been old news to him, and yet it was a surprise each time. Something to be learned over and over again. That the dead carried their anger, regret and forgiveness with them should not have been a mystery. And secrets. They carried their secrets to their tombs too.
When is a secret truly a secret? I know it too, Stannis thought.
When is knowing truly knowing? We still had doubts, Lord Arryn and I, he countered himself.
It was treachery, Jon Arryn's death. Stannis knew it the way he knew the gods were to blame for his parents' death. The fever took Lord Arryn so suddenly, some kind of poison must be the only explanation. But treachery by whose hand?
Cersei Lannister. Jaime Lannister. Trying to protect their secret.
But suspecting is not knowing, he reminded himself. And King's Landing was full of vipers, all with their own little birds scattered around the city.
Am I in danger too? For what I know? Nay, for what I suspect.
Stannis had not lost another father with Jon Arryn's death. He was not Robert. Or Ned Stark. But it was a loss deeply felt nonetheless. The loss of a ... colleague? In all honesty, he did not know how to classify the relationship. They were two people who had worked closely together. Not only in the matter of The Secret, but for years before that, trying to keep the realm running while Robert drank and whored his way.
They were seven in the Small Council, and now they were six. It had not been easy for Jon Arryn, keeping the peace. Between the king and his two brothers on the council. Between the members of the council. And the worst of it was, the meetings were mostly prattles and worthless debates anyway, Stannis thought. We did most of the actual work, Lord Arryn and myself.
"My lord," his preoccupation was interrupted by his squire.
"His Grace the King requested your presence at his bedchamber, my lord."
"The king does not request, Bryen. He commands."
"Yes, my lord. I beg pardon, my lord."
Stannis wished the boy was not so terrified of him. A nervous, error-prone squire was a sore trial to his patience.
Robert's bedchamber was a bustle of activities. Squires running in and out, carrying this and that. And packing. Where was Robert going? Stannis wondered. Surely this was not a good time for him to be leaving King's Landing, so soon after his Hand's death. And when he had not named a new Hand yet.
"There you are. Leave us. Go, go, quick." Robert motioned to his squires to leave. "You too, Lancel."
Cersei's cousin hesitated at the door. Spying for the Queen, no doubt, Stannis thought. A glare from Robert sent Lancel Lannister scurrying out of the room, closing the door too loudly with a thud. Robert cursed at the noise.
"A Lannister as your Kingsguard, another Lannister as your squire. Will you appoint a Lannister as your Hand too, now that Lord Arryn is gone?"
Robert rolled his eyes. "Let's not do this again. Not now. I don't have time to repeat the same arguments over and over again."
"Are you leaving for somewhere? Is this really a good time? There is already so much uncertainty in the city, because of Jon Arryn's death."
Robert had the decency to look sheepish. "I know, I know. Can't be helped, I'm afraid."
Stannis waited for his brother to continue. What could be so important? Robert's sense of priority was not very reliable, to say the least, in Stannis' opinion.
"I need you to chair the Small Council meetings while I'm gone. It should be Renly, by right, as Master of Laws and second-in-command to the Hand. But with him in charge, the meetings would probably last all day without anything being decided."
Why did you make him Master of Laws, then? The old resentment was rearing its head again.
"And have you told our brother this?"
"Couldn't you just tell him that this is my command?"
"And have him say he never heard you gave the command? He doesn't listen to me, you know that."
"Fine, fine, I will tell him before we leave. Oh why do the gods curse me with bickering brothers like the two of you?"
I often wonder myself, Stannis thought.
"Why is the trip so important? What's the purpose?" So much words being spoken, and Robert still had not told him the reason.
"We're riding to Winterfell." Robert's answer was curt.
"Winterfell?" Stannis was astonished. All the way to the North. A months journey. Two months to get there and back. And who knew how long Robert intended to stay at Winterfell.
"I know you have not seen Lord Stark in years, and with Jon Arryn's death, you might wish to ... commiserate together. But you could command him to come to King's Landing. Why must you go there yourself?"
Robert scoffed. "Lord Stark. Listen to yourself. Ned. He's Ned."
He's Ned to you. Not to me. Stannis wondered what Robert would say if he had said this aloud.
Robert continued. "I mean to make him my Hand. It will take some persuading, he can be as stubborn as a mule."
It did not escape Stannis' notice that Robert was smiling when he talked about Ned Stark's stubbornness. As if he was remembering a fond and cherished memory.
My stubbornness only ever brought frowns to his brows and plenty of yelling and shouting.
He struggled to remember what it was Robert had just said. Hand. Ned Stark as Hand of the King. But surely -
Robert had asked him to chair the Small Council meetings while he was gone. Stannis had taken that as a vote of confidence. As indication that ... that ...
He couldn't finish the thought. It was too devastating to contemplate. His own foolishness. Thinking that this once, his brother would see, would know, would understand.
He set the crushed hope and the disappointment aside. I still have a duty to my brother, and to the realm. Ned Stark is the wrong choice, even if I am not in the picture.
"Ned Stark has not set foot in King's Landing in years. What does he know about being Hand of the King? About ruling?"
"So you have someone better in mind? Littlefinger or Varys, both of whom you despise and mistrust, and are always whining to me about. Or should I appoint my father-in-law? He was Hand of the King once, he had the experience, he knows the job. But I thought you're against increasing the Lannister's influence. Or what about our baby brother Renly? Who barely knows what he's supposed to be doing as Master of Laws. Should I make him my Hand?"
"It didn't stop you from making him Lord of Storm's End," Stannis muttered.
"Will you stop complaining about that? It's been years. It's done." Robert's voice thundered.
"There are other people, besides the ones you mentioned," Stannis brought the conversation back on topic.
"Then who, brother? Who should I make my Hand, if none of these people is good enough?"
You know who, Stannis thought. Surely you do, Robert. I've worked alongside Jon Arryn for years. Even you could not be this blind.
But Robert looked clueless. Or pretending to be clueless.
"I have worked alongside Jon Arryn all these years. I know what the job is."
Robert laughed. "You? The Master of Ships being Hand of the King? I'm sure you know all about building and maintaining my fleet, and fighting a naval battle. But running the realm as my Hand? I don't think so."
"And what does the Lord of Winterfell know about running the Seven Kingdoms?
"Well, the North is almost a kingdom by itself. We don't bother much about it, you know that. Ned runs it almost like his own fiefdom. He knows how to run a kingdom."
"Is it wise then, taking him away from there? His eldest son and heir is only what, fourteen? And Ned's lone surviving brother is in the Night's Watch. If, as you say, Ned governs the North on his own, and that's a complicated enough job to make him suited to be your Hand, wouldn't it be too complicated a job for a boy?"
Robert snorted. "Always with the logic. Always with the rules, and the laws. So sure of yourself. As if you're being completely selfless. When really you're just trying to make me choose you instead."
"I know the job."
"And you think you deserve it. Isn't that more the point? The way you thought you deserved Storm's End."
"I do. I have spent 15 years here helping Jon Arryn rule while -"
"While I drank and whored my way around. Yes, I've heard that lecture often. From you, and from Jon Arryn, when he got sick of you complaining to him about me."
Of course, Stannis thought, he'd blame me for Jon Arryn scolding him too.
"You're too hard on Stannis. You should appreciate what he does for you and the kingdom. Those were his last words to me. And we argued. I didn't know he would die the next day. He was like a father to me, and his last words to me were about you."
"Is that why you will not name me your Hand?"
"No, Stannis, despite what you may think, I am not that petty. It's because a Hand needs to stroke a few ego. Other members of the Small Council, other lords. I don't have the time or the inclination to do that. Jon did that for me. You won't be able to. You don't know how to charm and convince people if your daughter's life depended on it."
"And Ned Stark does?" Stannis was skeptical, thinking of the Ned he knew from their few encounters.
"He can do it better than you. Or he can learn. And the lords do not know him, they won't have any preconceived notion about how he is, like they do with you. And he's much better company anyway." Robert laughed.
"I have missed him sorely." He continued. He was not looking at Stannis as he was saying this. "We had some good times together, at the Eyrie. Ned, Jon and me." Robert was nostalgic for old times, his eyes glazing over, not seeing his brother standing in front of him.
"And is that really a good reason to appoint him your Hand? So you can be with him like old times? Jon Arryn would have reminded you of your duty to the realm."
"Don't you dare use his name! He loved Ned like a son, he loved me like a son. He raised us like we're his own, like we're brothers. He would have approved of this, me and Ned, together again, just like old times. At the Eyrie, during the war. Ned, always by my side, having my back."
I held Storm End's for you for a year, Stannis thought.
"And if not for Ned, you and Renly and everyone at Storm's End would have been dead. You owe him your life," Robert continued.
We would have been dead long before Ned arrived if it wasn't for a certain smuggler. Stannis did not say this to Robert. There was no point, he'd said it before, and Robert did not care.
"Do you still need me here?"
Do you still want me here, now that you have your precious Ned?
Robert snapped. "I'm not making Ned Master of Ships. What does that have to do with anything?"
That had ended the conversation. He was dismissed without ceremony, as Robert shouted for Lancel.
Later, he contemplated going back to Dragonstone. What prompted him to stay in the end was this bitter realization - there were only two people in the world who could convince Robert of anything. One of them was dead, another was coming to King's Landing. And Stannis had to be there to meet him when he arrived.
Of course I have to stay. The truth is the truth. The law is the law. Robert must know. But not from my mouth, because he would never believe it.