"This way to the King," Ser Lothor Brune was an old knight. Robb only knew him as the man who destroyed Renly's career. The last time he looked at Renly, he was busy polishing off a wineskin. Ser Loras looked no better when Robb saw him.
Ser Lother held his hand toward the door to Petyr's solar. There were two guards that Robb recognized once before as men once swearing fealty to the Small Council that his mother organized. But instead of the triple sigil with the wolf and two stags, they wore the crowned mockingbird of Baelish. Robb briefly considered how much time it took for Petyr Baelish to have his sigil sewn over the Kingsmoot's.
Littlefinger opened the door and gave Ser Lothor his thanks. He motioned and said, "Young Wolf. Do come in."
Robb Stark wanted nothing more than to refuse and return to Winterfell. But how does one refuse a King? He walked into the solar which was arguably bigger than any solar had the right to be. He looked around and saw the skins of aurochs and boars and moose, and wolves. He saw empty suits of armor keeping guard over the doors to the several balconies that overlooking the city, the Crownlands, and Blackwater Bay. Robb had to confess that he didn't recognize any of the suits. There were ornate suits of copper and steel. Ancient pieces from the days of Valyria. Things from Beyond-the-Wall and across the Narrow Sea. There were six tables, each with magnificent and fantastic things.
One desk had bronze and iron mysteries along with a map of Beyond-the-Wall. Another had a map of the Free Cities and a collection of books and gold coins all bearing the profiles of some long dead Volantene triarch or Braavosi Sealord. There were other tables that Robb Stark ignored in favor of the one that caught his eye: a long table with something covered by a black sheet. Robb couldn't stop looking at the sheet. It was as if something primal drew him to it. He had to stop himself from walking right over to the table and pulling the sheet off just to satisfy his curiosity.
"I have to thank you first, my Lord of Winterfell," Littlefinger went and leaned up against the table just to the right of the mysterious object covered by a black sheet.
"For what? I fought you every step of the way."
"Yes. As did many of the Lords of Westeros. The Red Viper even lost his life to defend that faction. An unfortunate decision…"
The word sunk in. Robb reflected on all of the decisions that brought him to this point, "You made Roose Bolton the Warden of the North?"
"The Starks have held that position since Aegon the Conqueror. And we've been guarding the North since Brandon the Builder erected the Wall. You truly mean to change the fabric of the Seven Kingdoms, don't you?"
To his credit, Petyr Baelish didn't hide his intentions, "Absolutely. Why bother vying for the Iron Throne if my goal is to continue the status quo?"
"Then why did you call me here? I fought against you, and would still if I had not sworn to follow the next King on the Iron Throne. You've taken away my inherent position, and you know I want nothing to do with you. So why?"
Littlefinger never ceased smiling and it bothered Robb to not end. He turned around and poured two glasses of Dornish red. He sipped from one and handed the other to Robb. The Young Wolf simply stared down Littlefinger. Finally he nodded and put the cup down on the table, "I've only taken away your position as Warden of the North. Roose Bolton is older, and more experienced in matters that I think will defeat the wildlings in the coming days. Just because the wildlings were thrown back at Castle Black does not mean the realm Beyond-the-Wall is pacified." So… Littlefinger has his spies even in the frigid wastes, "It is only a temporary adjustment, Robb Stark. You still retain the position as Lord Paramount of the North. I have no intention of taking that away from Winterfell. Rest easy."
Robb did not, "Then why?"
Littlefinger tapped his fingers on the table as he appeared to be choosing his words carefully. Robb wanted nothing more than to draw his sword against whatever arrow the King was about to fire at him. Instead, Littlefinger began with, "I have received word that my wife has been less than faithful."
It threw Robb off-guard, "I apologize." Robb knew his aunt was less than trustworthy. He had once thought their bond of blood might lead Lady Lysa to join their war effort against the Lannisters.
"It happens," Littlefinger said, sounding almost sad, "The truth of the matter is that this opens opportunities. A royal marriage is an important event, wouldn't you agree? It is a time to forge new alliances. I hear a royal marriage opened your reign as King?"
"I betrothed Roslin Frey prior to my father's execution. Crossing the Trident did not allow me the speed to rescue Lord Eddard," Robb closed his eyes and clenched his fists at the thought, "or my sisters."
"I apologize. Have faith they're still out there. Many people go missing in times like these," he sipped from his glass, "Robert Baratheon cemented his reign by marrying Cersei Lannister, giving him access to Casterly Rock's gold. Renly tried to cement his reign by marrying Margaery Tyrell, giving him access to both Tyrell money and men." The King chuckled at the thought of Renly having Tyrell's men, "To be honest, I jumped at Lysa's proposal because I knew not only would it give me access to the beauty of her form but also the prestige needed for the Lords of the Vale to enthrone me. But now that I am King, I cannot have my Queen sullying my reputation in the beds of other Lords. When I have the evidence, you will excuse me if I must expose my lady wife."
Robb nodded ever so slightly. He would expect it of any one else. Why would a King be any different? He thought of Arianne Martell. Would Roslin tell Walder Frey of what went on between them if she knew the truth? "And you intend to take another wife? For political purposes?"
"Of course," Littlefinger stood erect and walked around the table to the map of Essos. He looked over it with hunger and his eyes fell upon Slaver's Bay, "You see, when I was first declared the winner, I had to think about who I needed to make allies with. Certainly there must be friends across the Narrow Sea who would jump at the opportunity to help the Seven Kingdoms… for a price. I hadn't even considered a wife since I did not know of Lysa's treachery until recently. Otherwise I might make a match with one of the great Houses here in the Seven Kingdoms. Until I began hearing reports from all over. Vaes Dothrak. Qarth. Astapor. Yunkai. And finally, Meereen."
Robb wondered what all these cities at the other end of the world had to do with him, "What about them?"
"Well, there has been a queen who came to Astapor with three ships. She made to buy an entire army of Unsullied. Have you heard of these warriors? Trained from birth to be obedient. They do nothing but follow orders. It's said that if you tell one to stop breathing, he would die blue of face before he disobeyed the order. Anyway, this self-proclaimed queen bought her army and then sacked the very city with it. She marched the army to Yunkai where she lost barely a man when she took that city as well. Finally, she marched the city to Meereen and took it in a violent and protracted siege. All along the way, she freed thousand – millions – of slaves. They call her Mother over there. They cheer her name in the streets and shower her with blessings." Littlefinger finished his glass, "Her name is Daenerys Targaryen."
Robb was taken aback, "Targaryen… how?"
"She was sold to a Dothraki horse lord by her brother Viserys. Viserys violated some ridiculous law the savages have. See, the price for his silver-haired khaleesi was a crown. So Khal Drogo melted down his golden belt and poured it onto Viserys' head. The only bright side being how well it fit. After Robert Baratheon gave the order for her assassination, Khal Drogo marched his savages south to take ships at either Slaver's Bay or Qarth and then sail here, where they would destroy the Seven Kingdoms. Instead an arrow wound opened the way for rot and he died leaving his little Targaryen widow with only Ser Jorah Mormont and the slaves she freed for protection. Somewhere between Drogo's death and Daenerys' arrival in Qarth, the three dragon's eggs given to her by a Pentoshi magister hatched."
Dragons… it took a moment for Robb to process the information, "You want to wed her dragons. Not Daenerys."
"You catch on quickly. I have sent my men around the city to organize a small mission across the Narrow Sea. I want you to command that mission."
Robb took a moment and suddenly wished he had accepted that glass of wine, "You want me to command men to go east and propose your marriage to Daenerys Targaryen in Meereen and convince her to bring her dragons here?"
"Yes," was all Littlefinger said before smiling that wicked thing and pouring himself another glass of wine.
"Because you are the Young Wolf: you've never lost a battle, men will follow you to the seventh hell and back. And if you accept, it'll bring the expedition to seven and a thousand. A much more auspicious number than six and a thousand."
"So small a mission? This isn't a march down the Kingsroad. You're talking about bringing men thousands of miles across hostile terrain…"
"Yes. I've discussed this matter. It's the sort of mission that demands the smallest group to go east as they'll escape notice. Or it demands the largest group to go so no matter how much attention they attract, only the united force of that attention could stop them from getting to their target. I've already organized the ships necessary. They'll take you to Pentos, where you'll march to the River Rhoyne, and raft down the river to Volantis where you take the Demon Road…"
"No." Robb barked.
Littlefinger only kept smiling.
"I'm serious. I will not do it. And I struggle to answer why you thought I would."
"What is it you want, Robb Stark?"
Robb hesitated before answering. He only wanted to turn around and leave, "To go home. To rebuild Winterfell. And to restore the honor of my House."
"It would seem that you marched all the way to the gates of King's Landing to avenge your father. Avenge him you have. You were even crowned a king for a brief period of time. It would seem House Stark has nothing but honor."
"Indeed. Now, if you'll please." Robb was about to turn and leave when Littlefinger walked over to the table with the mysterious black sheet on it. He drew the sheet off with great fanfare. It exploded into the air and flowed down onto the floor like rain. Underneath it was a great curving war horn, eight feet long with gold rings inscribed with runes. It made Robb think of one of Old Nan's stories…
"The Dragon Horn," Littlefinger said, "forged of Old Valyria, it came to me via an old pirate. It controls dragons and forged the first Dragonlords. When you go east, take this with you. Be its master. Even in Daenerys refuses you, the dragons must obey the master of the horn. And that's you."
Robb stepped forward, drawn by some inherent quality of the war horn. Though what, he couldn't say. He didn't even know where to begin. It was long, it was curved, and it called to him without making a sound.
"But never sound it. That's the magic of this horn. No man can call the horn to sound and live. So the legend says. I've never been a big believer in curses and magic, but there are dragons afoot in the world, so I say we ere on the side of caution. Get someone else to sound it if you must."
Robb reached out and touched it. The horn was smooth and dark. Robb wasn't sure what to think or do. But he knew that this didn't change anything. The Dragon Horn was a legend and so were dragons. If they existed at the other end of the world, what better excuse to be convinced of their mythic qualities than that?
"I won't be sounding it. Because I won't be going east regardless. I belong North. I belong in Winterfell." Robb turned and marched toward the door.
"At least answer me this question: you do what honor demands, but what would you do if you wanted to do it?"
That stopped Robb from opening the door, "What would I do if I wanted? I already told you: I want to go home. To restore the honor of my House that you stole."
"Are you referring to the Warden of the North? You can have that back when Roose Bolton is done with it. I promise you, you'll outlive him. And if you don't, I'll have it decreed when you have a son that your descendants are to carry that position. But for now, I need not just a young hero, but an experienced one."
Robb took that with anger, "Experience? I captured Jaime Lannister at the Whispering Wood. I slew Tywin Lannister on the field South-of-God's-Eye. I laid siege to King's Landing and killed Joffrey Baratheon. I retook Winterfell and threw Mance Rayder back Beyond-the-Wall. And you still doubt my war experience?"
"There's more to ruling than war, Robb Stark. And so far those are the only things I count under your belt: war and honor. I suppose the songs are made of just as much, but I need a hero of legends. What would the songs say of the man who brought back dragons? What would the people give to see not just the returned Queen herself, but of the hero who braved all the dangers of the east to retrieve her? What would you demand of your King, who sent you on this most dangerous of missions? Give me everything I ask, and I will give you anything you ask. Simply name it."
Robb wanted his family. He wanted Winterfell as he remembered it. He wanted to speak with his father, and play with Jon in the godswood. He wanted to hold Sansa and Arya and teach Bran to work a bow. He wanted Theon to be there and smile and joke again. But that was all in the past. Not even a King could turn back time. But he could change the future. He could give him Arianne Martell…
And finally, before he could stop himself and his lupine blood from boiling over he said "I will go," that made him smile from ear to ear, "But only if you can answer me this: why?"
"I need dragons to solidify my rule. And I need you to be my new sigil," the Baelish sigil was the titan of Braavos with fiery eyes. But Littlefinger discarded that sigil in favor of a flock of mockingbirds. He donned a new coat of arms, but it didn't change anything. Littlefinger was still a titan, but he masqueraded as a mockingbird. The ruse worked: no one seemed to notice, "Men follow sigils only as long as they have deeds attached to them. You think the people of Westeros will remember I balanced the budget for long?" he laughed, "The Citadel will look at their books and praise me for my financial wizardry. The banks will rest easier with their gold restored. But the Lannisters and the Tullys and the Martells will all hear the news and say, 'Well, that's good,' and go on with their day. The smallfolk won't notice at all. No, a mockingbird wielding gold is not a sigil to follow. A Young Wolf wielding steel is a different story. Especially when behind that steel, are dragons."
"I understand that… I was asking why you sit the Iron Throne," that question seemed to interest Littlefinger a little more.
"What man doesn't want to be King?" he answered.
"You," Robb declared defiantly, "from everyone I've spoken to, to every Lord and Lady of Westeros, the Iron Throne does not suit your style. They say you wanted to be Hand, not King. They said your strategy was to build as much support as you can and then swing it to the first King who would give you the Handship. They said that's your style: working in the shadows, whispering in the King's ear, hiding behind books while you plan. Why sit yourself on the Iron Throne where everyone can see you?"
Littlefinger didn't laugh. He simply looked Robb Stark in the eye as he set his cup down next to the Dragon Horn, "You have a lot to learn, Young Wolf, before you start playing the game yourself. I sit the Throne precisely because it doesn't make sense. Always keep your foes confused. If they are ever certain who you are or what you want, they cannot know what you are like to do next. Sometimes the best way to baffle them is to make moves that serve no purpose, or even seem to work against you."
Robb would remember that. He made sure. And only after that would Petyr Baelish give him leave. He walked down the stairs of Maegor's Holdfast to the Throne Room. Before he could cross the hall and enter a hand reached out and grabbed his. Arianne Martell pulled him into the shadows and locked her lips with his. Robb pushed himself away and said, "We can't."
"We can't," Robb said, "yet."
She smiled. It was shadowed, but Robb knew it, "Return to Sunspear. Lay your uncle to rest. And I'll return to you soon. You don't want to see Winterfell until it's restored."
Arianne wiped tears from her eyes, "I know…" she reached into her dress and pulled out a folded sheet of parchment. She tucked it away under Robb's belt, "Don't forget: you promised."
They kissed on last time, in the shadows of the Red Keep and then they separated to watch the High Septon place a crown on Petyr Baelish's head.
When Robb returned to the gathering of Northlords, he simply told his mother and Roslin that the King has honored him with a royal mission. He was to go across the Narrow Sea on a mission of secrecy and return in a year or two. Roslin expressed concern that she wouldn't be able to rebuild Winterfell by herself, but Robb insisted the Freys had the blood to build castles. And if not, there was the Greatjon Umber to help with that.
There was a call for silence. Petyr Baelish came out wearing brown and green and a cloak with a great crowned mockingbird. He sat on the Iron Throne as the High Septon declared him, in the sights of gods and men, "Petyr, the First of his Name, of House Baelish, King of the Andals, the Rhoynar, and the First Men, Lord of the Seven Kingdoms, and Protector of the Realm."
And the King sat there with a smug, satisfied smile. He appeared at first as if he was going to take the crown of gold and silver and put it on his own head. For that was the truth of it: neither gods nor men enthroned Petyr Baelish. It was only him.
To be continued…