The look on Ned Stark's face as he listened to Stannis' command was like a slap on the face to Stannis. Ned was not a man well-versed in hiding his true feelings. Doubt. Doubt and suspicion were painted clearly in his features.
He has good reasons to doubt you, does he not? Stannis ignored the aggravating voice in his head.
"For … for Renly's safety?" Ned asked, sounding very, very doubtful.
"Why? Do you doubt me?" Stannis asked sharply. "Renly is heir-presumptive to the throne, until Selyse finally gives me a son. It is a sensible measure, to protect the heir to the throne."
"I thought you and Renly had agreed that he should be here as well, fighting by your side," Ned replied carefully.
"What does my brother know about fighting?" Stannis scoffed. "He has never even killed a man, let alone commanded them in battle. Oh, he injured the son of some lord or other during a tourney once, and had nightmares about it for days after."
Yet this was the man Mace Tyrell could not wait to put on the throne. Then again, Mace Tyrell would put a fool like Patchface on the throne if that meant his daughter could be queen, Stannis thought.
"Your Grace, you must speak with your brother," Ned said.
"Like you spoke with Cersei Lannister, warning her in advance so they could get away?" Stannis retorted.
Ned's face flushed. To his credit, he did not look away or try to avert Stannis' gaze. With his own eyes fixed on Stannis, looking at him steadily, Ned replied in an even tone, "If you are sending Renly and Lady Margaery to Dragonstone to protect them, why are you worried that they would get away if you let them know of the fact beforehand?"
Stannis' face was red with fury. "Enough!" He shouted. "You are my Hand, it is your duty to carry out my command." He turned around and walked to the window, unwilling to see the doubting face of his Hand for much longer.
Ned crossed the room to follow Stannis, and stood silently by his side. After a while, Ned spoke. "Your Grace, when you honored me with the appointment as your Hand, you told me that you needed someone who would be willing to tell you the truth, always. Even when the truth is bitter and unpleasant."
"I do not need to be reminded of my own words, Lord Stark," Stannis snapped with irritation. "And that was not what I said. Especially. I said - especially when the truth is bitter and unpleasant."
For some unfathomable reason that defied Stannis' understanding, Ned was smiling. "So you did. You said especially, not even. Forgive me, Your Grace, my recollection is not as accurate as yours." He paused, the smile vanishing from his face. "If you seize Renly and Lady Margaery by force and send them to Dragonstone, you will be giving Mace Tyrell the pretext he has been looking for," Ned said insistently. He searched Stannis' face. "You know that I am right."
Stannis looked away, not about to admit anything.
"The gods punish us by granting us our heart's desire," Stannis muttered under his breath. And then cruelly snatching it away, he added silently.
"But I never asked for any of it. Never wanted it, never yearned for it."
If you say a thing to yourself often enough, how soon will you start believing it? Will you ever start believing it?
"Of course not. You never had any design on the throne at all," Ned replied with firm conviction. "You were only doing your duty, as I was."
But Stannis was not thinking of the throne at all. It was his brothers' features haunting his thoughts. Both of them. The dead brother, and the one still living.
"I never wanted anything from either of them. Not respect, not recognition," Stannis said, not to Ned, but to no one in particular. "And certainly not love," he scoffed. "But for a moment, just a moment, I thought …"
Ned waited. He asked no question. He did not look perplexed at the sudden turn in the conversation, as if he knew exactly who Stannis was referring to when he said "either of them."
"I was a fool to ever think that," Stannis said contemptuously. Contempt reserved most of all for himself.
"Maybe not," Ned replied. "Why else would Renly hesitate in making his move?"
Ned was wrong, Stannis was coonvinced. Ned Stark was a good man who could not always see the bad in others.
"Perhaps Renly was thinking the same thing you had been thinking," Ned continued.
Stannis shut his ears and mind to Ned's words. He did not have the luxury of believing that, not even for one moment.
"Talk to him," Ned implored.
But Stannis was as hard and immovable as a boulder. He shook his head. "I have decided."
"Then speak to Maester Cressen first, at least," Ned said despairingly.
Stannis glanced at Ned with suspicion. "Cressen? Why? You don't think Renly would have confided his plan to Cressen, do you?"
"No, but Maester Cressen was desperate to speak to you, Your Grace. He was waiting outside with me while you were with Ser Barristan. I asked the guard to escort him back to his room because he was looking ill. I promise the maester that I would let you know, that he wished to speak to you."
"I'll speak with him tomorrow. You can leave now," Stannis said, dismissing his Hand.
"Tonight, Your Grace. Maester Cressen was most insistent." Ned was adamant.
The maester was most certainly staying awake waiting for Stannis. You foolish old man, Stannis thought. I should have forced you aboard that ship sailing to Dragonstone myself.
Balon Swann was back on guard duty outside Stannis' door. He looked down when Stannis came out, looking guilty. "Did Ser Barristan order you to summon him, or was that completely your own doing?" Stannis barked out the question.
"I … Your Grace … in certain circumstances … "
"Speak quickly, ser!"
"Ser Barristan's standing order is that we should always summon him, if we do not know how to deal with a … a situation," Balon Swann replied.
"What was there to deal with? I wanted to go somewhere, it is your duty to follow me, to stand guard," Stannis said. "I would hardly call that a situation," Stannis scoffed.
"Perhaps I misjudged the situation, Your Grace," Ser Balon said evenly. "I apologize for that." But his eyes were saying something else. I did the right thing, and you know that as well.
"You were only trying to do your duty. I will not fault a man for that," Stannis said, meeting his gaze unflinchingly. "I am going to Maester Cressen's room," Stannis announced.
Ser Balon followed Stannis silently to the maester's room. He was about to open the door when Stannis stopped him. "Knock first. He could be sleeping."
Maester Cressen was not sleeping. "Yes? Who is it?" He asked from behind the closed door, before Balon Swann could knock. Cressen must have heard their footsteps approaching his room. Waiting for the footsteps, perhaps.
"Wait here," Stannis told Ser Balon, while he opened the door and entered the dark room. The candles had been put out, the only light in the room was coming through the window. It was almost dawn, to Stannis' surprise.
He saw the trembling hands and the deeply-lined face, and changed his mind. He's too old. He deserves a rest. And peace of mind.
"I will not disturb your sleep," Stannis said brusquely, about to turn and leave the room.
"I was not sleeping. Sleep does not come easily to me these days," Cressen replied, his voice trembling. "What is troubling you, Your Grace?"
"Nothing is troubling me," Stannis replied, offended. "You were the one who wanted to speak to me, maester. What is so important that it could not wait until morning?"
The maester looked confused, staring at Stannis as if he did not understand the question.
"Isn't that what you told Ned Stark? That you had to speak to me, tonight?" Stannis asked, impatient.
Cressen nodded vigorously. "Yes, yes, of course. Yes, I did say that. Forgive me, Your Grace, my memory is not what it used to be. An old man's poor memory."
"Well, what it is? The urgent matter that could not wait until tomorrow? Don't tell me you have forgotten that as well?"
Maester Cressen squinted his eyes and furrowed his brows in concentration. "It will come to me," he said apologetically. "Forgive me, Your Grace, I -"
Damn you Ned! And Cressen too. The old man was playing his part beautifully. "I have made my decision, like I told Ned," Stannis said, furious.
"Your lord father used to come to my room late at night, ostensibly to talk about how you and Robert were getting on with your lessons," Cressen replied, as if he had not heard Stannis' angry pronouncement.
Stannis was about explode with anger, when a word caught his attention. "Ostensibly? What did he actually want to talk about, my father?" He asked Cressen, curious, despite himself.
"About your future, you and your brothers. He worried so," Cressen replied.
"Why? Why was he worried at all? Father could not have foreseen the rebellion. As far as he knew, Robert would grow up to be lord of Storm's End, and Renly and I perhaps defending holdfasts for Robert."
Steffon Baratheon could not have foreseen the mess his sons would land themselves in.
The chaos we made of our lives.
"He was worried about many things. Whether Robert was too trusting and gullible. Whether you were too untrusting and suspicious of others. Whether Renly would feel isolated from his much older brothers."
The maester was about to lit a candle, but Stannis stopped him. He preferred the darkness.
"And what did you tell him?" Stannis asked.
"I told him that nothing is set in stone. Especially when it comes to the young. Change is not impossible, with wise words and sound advice and firm guidance."
Stannis did not think Cressen could see the extremely skeptical expression on his face, but apparently Cessen could. "You don't agree, Your Grace?"
"You have too much confidence in the power of wise words and sound advice, Maester. You always have. I sat on Robert's council for fifteen years trying to give him sound advice. Much good that did me, or the realm," Stannis replied harshly.
"He took your advice in the end, when it really mattered," Cressen said, his hand inches away from Stannis' own. But he would not touch it. That was not their way, Stannis and Cressen.
"I was always loyal to Robert. I forsook my duty to my king, for my brother, my blood. Yet it seemed beyond Renly to do the same for his only remaining brother."
Cressen sighed. "Lord Renly is still a boy, in many ways. He needs guidance. But not," Cressen was looking at Stannis meaningfully, "harsh guidance. It is not in him to yield to harshness and severity."
"Renly is the way he is today exactly because no one was willing to be harsh and severe with him," Stannis protested, his voice rising.
To Stannis' surprise, Cressen nodded in agreement. "Yes, Lord Renly was perhaps indulged far too much, growing up. Especially after he was made lord of Storm's End. A boy of only eight at the time. And the one person who had been willing to be severe with him before, for his own good, suddenly abandoning him completely, refusing to even set foot at Storm's End again."
"Are you blaming me, Maester?" Stannis asked, incredulous.
"He was only a boy. He did not understand why you were so furious with him, why you would not visit him at Storm's End at all. What does a boy of eight understand of inheritance and laws? What does he know about what should be whose by right? He only knows that he misses his brother."
"He had Robert. Robert who loved him so much he gave Renly what should have been mine."
Robert who had never really been around. Robert who had another home and another family, to replace the one torn asunder when Steffon Baratheon and his lady wife lost their lives.
It was only Stannis and Renly, at Storm's End. Until it wasn't.
"Even if I was somehow partly to blame, then what? Should I let Renly steal the throne, to make up for my supposed sins?" Stannis asked, his voice full of derision.
"Your Grace –"
"He would have it anyway, in the end!" Stannis shouted. "Why couldn't he wait? Spend the time learning, maturing, preparing."
"Why couldn't he wait?" Stannis asked the question again, despairingly rather than with anger this time. Cressen had no answer to give.
Stannis asked Renly that same question, the next morning.
I am talking to him, Ned. That was your counsel, wasn't it?
"I don't know what you're talking about," Renly replied, his eyes shifting around the room, looking at everything except Stannis.
"No, I don't," Renly insisted. "You're becoming more paranoid by the day, Stannis."
With good reasons.
"We had an understanding, I thought," Stannis said.
Renly raised his eyebrows. "About?"
Everything. Nothing. The little things. The big things. What it meant to be brothers. What it meant to learn to despise each other a little less, each day. What it meant to learn to –
No, he would not use that word. Never.
It was not anything he could explain to Renly, not without feeling like he was making a complete and utter fool of himself. So Stannis seized on the candles instead, the candles ornately carved with crowned stags and turtles that Renly had given him as a gift. "As a token of my gratitude, for agreeing to my marriage to Margaery," Renly had told him at the time.
"I thought that meant something."
Renly scoffed. "Obviously that meant a lot to you, my gift. I have never seen it burning in your bedchamber, or even your study. Where are they? Have you thrown them away, like unwanted thrash?"
The candles were too grand, too ostentatious. Renly's taste, but not Stannis. He had never used it, true, but he had kept them. Kept them because they were from his brother. Renly had the same candles burning in his own bedchamber; Stannis had seen them.
Shireen had seen the unused candles in Stannis' room, and asked for them. She had loved the carvings of the little turtles surrounding the crowned stag. "The turtle is for House Estermont, isn't it Father? For your lady mother."
"I gave them to Shireen," Stannis replied to Renly. "She liked the turtle carvings.
"Well, I'm glad somebody knows how to appreciate a gift," Renly snickered.
Why were they arguing about candles, when they should be discussing what really mattered? "The little things matter too," his mother had told Stannis once. "Little things accumulate into something bigger over time. And sometimes, the little things serve as an indication, a symbol of what is truly wrong, what is at the heart of the matter."
Distrust. Suspicion. There will always be that, between Stannis and Renly.
"Your Grace –"
"Not now, Bryen," Stannis snapped. "I told you we are not to be disturbed."
Bryen Farring did not shrink or cower in fear, like he usually would. "It can't wait, Your Grace. Maester Cressen said I am to let you know right away."
"Well, what is it?"
"Maester Cressen has had a letter from Dragonstone. From Maester Pylos."
"Princess Shireen has fallen ill, Your Grace. She was feeling unwell during the journey, but her condition worsened after they arrived at Dragonstone."
Cressen had promised. Once. Only once. Greyscale could only strike a person once in their lifetime. If they survived, they would never suffer another bout of the same disease.
"Maester Pylos could not determine the cause of her illness, Your Grace. He … he does not know how to treat the princess," Bryen continued. "Maester Cressen is consulting with the Grand Maester and –"
You promised! She would live, you said. Stannis had believed the maester then, had believed Cressen despite himself. Despite his doubts. Despite his certainties. Despite his absolute conviction that the world would always work against him, that nothing would ever turn out in his favor.
He ran, ran to find Cressen. Renly followed close behind.