As Varys entered his offices, he immediately felt the presence of someone who should not be there. Glancing around, his eyes fell upon an arm; the hand idly twirling the stem of a wine glass that sat on the small balcony table. The man’s body was shielded by the chair, but Varys had a feeling he knew who the arm belonged to. Without hesitation, he walked to the balcony and sat in the other chair, between which the table lay.
“My Lord Pierce. This is a surprise. I hadn’t expected you for another day or two.”
“You pay me a great compliment, Lord Varys; with all your little birds it is no small feat to surprise you. Speaking of little birds, I found something of yours in need of returning.” With Gareth’s gesture, Varys looked over to see a boy of ten seated on a stool, terrified but unharmed. “It can be dangerous for little birds to wander into falcon’s nests. There are many within my lands, but this one made several mistakes that could not be ignored.”
Varys picked up the bottle of wine and poured a glass. It was a Winterfel 76, very rare, very expensive and one of Varys’ favorites. “You have excellent taste in wine, my Lord.”
“Thank you. It’s a little on the sweet side for my tastes, but it’s one of Aaron’s favorites, and one of yours as well, I believe.”
“So I have to wonder, if this little bird made such mistakes, why he is here.”
“When a little bird falls from the tree, do you not return it to the nest? The boy has great potential, and took a calculated risk, but lacked the experience and expertise. I admire boldness, and I would not wish to end such promise when a little more living and training is all that is required. I know that flies in the face of my reputation.”
“A reputation you have gone to great lengths to cultivate.”
Gareth smiled. “So how has my son been doing?”
“The acorn does not fall far from the tree, my Lord, despite protests to the contrary.” replied Varys taking a sip of the sweet wine. “Of course, you must know that, now that you are here.”
“You are mistaken, my Lord, I am not here, nor will I be for two more days. I expect I will arrive just in advance of Lord Alfric.”
“That is unfortunate. So much can happen in a few short days.”
“I fully expect a great deal will happen.”
“So much has happened already. I heard, for example, that you recently lost your Steward. How unfortunate.”
“Thank you for your concern, my Lord, but I did not lose him. I know exactly where my Steward is.” Gareth took another sip of his wine. “Both pieces of him.”
“And to be honest, my Lord, your arrival has been long in coming, considering your son sent a note to himself stating you were on your way, a week ago.”
“Did he?” smiled Gareth. “Now that is very interesting. I am sure he wrestled with his honor for quite some time to come up with that.”
“I am sure you’re right. A mildly clever idea, even if it didn’t work as intended. Your son is somewhat of an open book. A little surprising considering he is a Pierce.”
“Aaron would never make a good whisperer, I agree, but it could be argued the note worked better than intended. It certainly got your attention, and in hindsight, has the benefit of being true.”
Varys looked thoughtful for a moment. “If that is the case, either your son is far cleverer than I gave him credit, or the Gods have taken a decided interest in him.”
“Perhaps a small amount of both?” Gareth took another small sip of wine. “So, care to tell me why I was summoned?”
“I understand the Hand summoned you to deal with the Dannett situation.”
“Except the ‘Dannett situation’ will largely be dealt with before I arrive. No, there must be another reason. I wonder who would want me in King’s Landing?”
Varys looked for a long moment at the mountain Lord. “Tell me, where do your loyalties lay, Lord Pierce.”
“To House Pierce.” Gareth replied without hesitation.
“Yes, but what of the King?”
Gareth shrugged slightly. “I am pledged to House Arryn and he is pledged to the King. I keep my agreements.”
“But much can happen in a short period of time.”
“Please leave me out of King’s Landing politics, Varys. I don’t have the time or the interest. Good people plot against bad Kings, bad people plot against good Kings, and everybody plots against competent Kings. The only Kings that survive any length of time are the incompetent ones.”
“And which would you say is his Grace?” smiled Varys.
“I suppose that depends entirely on how much longer he lives,” said Gareth returning the smile, “but you can be assured his Grace has nothing to fear from me.”
“And can the same be said for the Small Council?”
“Ah… the Small Council. Amazing more doesn’t get accomplished, given how such good friends you all are.” Gareth remarked dryly.
“We do have our differences at times.”
“Speaking of which, how is Lord Baelish?”
Varys’ face flickered for only a moment. “He is well, my Lord; as dedicated as ever to the King’s coin.”
“What a pity.” Gareth replied, taking another sip of his wine. “… that he never seems to have time for his own diversions. Still, it must be a difficult job keeping the treasury full, considering how quickly it empties. So why the questions about my loyalty, Lord Varys? Surely I’ve done nothing to warrant the interest of the Master of Whispers.”
“I admire your humility, Lord Pierce, and your modesty does you credit. It is true that your activities are confined largely to the Vale, but a man of your position and abilities casts a very long shadow. I think we could be friends.”
“I have no friends, Lord Varys. I have found that friends are really just enemies-in-waiting. I’ve had to eliminate several of my friends over the years for their betrayals and, contrary to belief, just because I live in a mountain doesn’t mean I’m made of stone.”
“Colleagues then. Given your reputation for neutrality in Kingdom politics and my connections, I think we would be of great help to each other.”
“Do you really, Lord Varys? Shall we put that to the test?” Gareth finished his wine and rose from his seat. “Thomas, come here.”
The boy took a deep breath and did as he was bid. Gareth dropped to one knee turned him to face the Spider. Placing his left arm across the Thomas’ chest, he revealed a stiletto and held it before the shaking boy’s eyes. It was a beautiful weapon of castle-forged steel; elegant in decoration and masterful in workmanship.
The Spider’s eyes narrowed “My Lord?”
“The young man has been in my service for more than a year, Lord Varys. Would you rob me of the opportunity to aid you in his instruction?” Gareth turned his attention to the boy. “Tell me Thomas. Are you afraid?”
“Yes, my Lord.”
“You shouldn’t be. As yet, you do not know my intentions. That will be my first lesson. Never fear the unknown. You will never know everything. Even your master doesn’t know everything. Fear of the vast unknown will crush you under its weight.” Taking the stiletto, he placed the narrow tip against the nape of the boy’s neck. “Now, are you afraid?”
“Yes, my Lord.” Thomas tried to keep his composure but whimpered slightly.
“As you should be. While you may still not know my intentions, I am obviously threatening your life. However do not let your fear cloud your reason. Fear is a friend, not an enemy. Nothing great was ever achieved without a commensurate amount of fear. The soaring castle you stand in was built on a foundation of fear. The events in the tournament grounds are for people to revel in their fear, and celebrate their success over it. That is my second lesson. Embrace fear. It is only when we are most afraid that we can discover the greatness inside us.
Now, you and I are going to play a little game. I am going to ask you three questions. If you give three incorrect answers before you give three correct ones, I will drive this stiletto into your skull. There will be a prize, of course, if you win. Do you understand?”
“Yes, my Lord.” Thomas’ eyes beseeched Lord Varys for help but the Spider’s face was expressionless.
“Excellent. Let us begin. The first question is: Why did I choose to bring you to King’s Landing rather than kill you when I learned you were a spy?”
“You wish to curry favor with Lord Varys.” said the trembling boy after a moment.
“That answer is incorrect. While I may not wish his Lordship as an enemy, I have yet to decide if I wish him as a colleague. In any case, that answer magnifies your own importance. You simply don’t matter enough to your master for that answer to be true, although that may change if you survive this test. Try again.”
Thomas’ fear was starting to spiral out of control when Gareth arm around his chest gave him a slight squeeze. While it pressed him against the stiletto, the gesture was oddly comforting. It seemed like the Lord wished him to win this challenge. “You like me.” the boy blurted.
“That answer is incorrect.” said Gareth as Thomas’ terror threatened to overwhelm him. “However, it is also true. My fondness of you did play some part, so I will not count that answer against you. Try again.”
Thomas started to take heavy breaths in an attempt to master his fear. He tried to use his terror to focus his mind. “You wish to use me in some future plan.” he finally replied.
“That answer is… correct. Given that answer, you can imagine that I will be very disappointed if I have to kill you. On to the next question: What do I want most for my House?”
“Power.” Thomas replied almost immediately.
Gareth tisked. “That answer was unworthy of you. Power and money are means to an end; very useful in obtaining goals, but meaningless in and of themselves. Those who pursue either for their own sake are fools. I am not a fool. Such people sow the seeds of their destruction with little help from others. Let that be another of my lessons. Try again, but take care. You already have two incorrect answers.”
Thomas thought hard about what he knew of this man. Finally he said, “To win.”
“You’re going to need to elaborate on that. Winning means many things to many people.”
Thomas knew he was close. Gareth would have said if his answer was wrong. What was winning to Lord Pierce? “Winning to you is being the last one standing. You want House Pierce to endure, long after other Houses are forgotten.”
“Excellent. I knew my faith in you was justified. Now for the third question: What do I want most?”
Silence fell over the balcony as Thomas tried to answer this final question. He thought over the last year at Falconcliff. He thought of what he knew of the man with a stiletto to his neck. He was still afraid, but his fear seemed to focus his thoughts. “You wish Lady Angelica back.”
Silence seemed to stretch for an eternity, although it was only a few moments. “You are close. I won’t call your answer incorrect, but I am not a man who wastes time on the impossible.”
Thomas took this new piece of information. “You wish to know if she was killed by someone and make them pay for it.”
“I know who killed her,” replied Gareth softly, “or more accurately, allowed her to die; but he is not responsible for her death. I don’t know if anyone was, but my gut tells me otherwise. Let that be another of my lessons. Sometimes you must proceed on gut instinct when reason would dictate otherwise. I will call your answer correct.”
The rush of relief flooded Thomas’ body. It was a feeling like nothing he’d ever felt. It threatened to overwhelm him as much as the fear.
“Since you have done so well, I will give you a bonus question.” continued Gareth.
The fear rushed back to replace the joy. It was more than the boy could take. Tears rolled from his eyes and Gareth’s arm had to support him. “Please, my Lord. I don’t want to die.”
Gareth’s response was soft and comforting. “No-one does Thomas, and truthfully I do not wish to kill you, but just because you think you’ve won doesn’t mean you have. Another lesson you needed to learn. I will make my last question an easy one: Why will I not betray you and kill you anyway?”
“Because Lord Pierce always honors his agreements.” replied Thomas through tears and sniffles.
“Correct.” replied Gareth, removing the stiletto from the boy’s neck.
Thomas took some moments to collect himself while Gareth held him gently. Varys looked on, his face inscrutable. Finally Gareth turned the boy to face him. He removed the stiletto’s elegant scabbard from his belt and slipped the weapon into it. Still on one knee, he looked into the boy’s eyes and presented the dagger to him. “I said there would be a prize.”
“For me?” asked Thomas, taking the valuable weapon with some unease.
“As you said, I keep my agreements. It will be a reminder of what you’ve learned. Just remember, sometimes you can accomplish more by not using it, than using it. Let that be my last lesson for today.”
Thomas did not know what to say, so he said nothing. Saying ‘thank you’ seemed oddly inappropriate under the circumstances. He gave a nod to Gareth in acknowledgement and backed away from the Lord.
“So, Lord Varys, have you learned all you wished to?”
“Your visit has been very educational, Lord Pierce.” With a gesture, he dismissed Thomas. “My thanks; I have learned more in fifteen minutes than my little birds have told me in the last year.”
“Glad to be of help.” smiled Gareth. “Now if you will excuse me, I should be going. Enjoy the wine, my Lord.”
Gareth strode into the study and to a large painting as Varys rose. “Allow me to walk you out.”
“As you wish.” replied Gareth absently. “Now where is that catch. Ahh!” With a press of a floret on the ornate frame, the painting swung open.
“Did Thomas show you that?” asked Varys.
“Oh no.” replied Gareth with a soft grin. “He is very loyal to you, as I’m sure all your little birds are. As a boy, I was a ward of the Targaryens for almost five years.”
“I did not know that, Lord Pierce, a dispute with your Father?”
Gareth shrugged. “No idea. Does it matter? Of course, I did learn many of the lessons I just taught Thomas from my stay here. Just over a longer period of time. Shall we go?”
The men stepped through the painting, with Varys latching it behind them. Casually, the pair walked side by side down the narrow corridor. “What did you think of the Targaryens?”
“Actually, in hindsight, I think I quite liked most of them. Would that be considered treason?” Gareth smiled. “Of course then there was Aerys.”
“Yes. The former King was both mad and cruel. Of that there is no dispute.”
“He was also weak and spineless. Imagine a King losing his mind like that, just because he was captured for a few months. He wasn’t even tortured, worthless man, although, mind you, much more was accomplished by the fear of him than has been accomplished since. So, do you plan on telling me why I was brought here?”
“I have already said, my Lord, but I do not regret the need. If you had not been summoned, we might never have met.”
“Who says we’ve met now?” replied Gareth with a smile. “Still, there is something I should pass on, now that we are face to face. You remember my Lady. I believe you met at court a year or two before she died.”
Varys face clouded. “Yes, I remember her. She was a woman of great beauty, but more importantly she had a beautiful soul; kind, generous, forgiving. Her death was a great loss to all who knew her. You have my deepest sympathies, my Lord.”
“Thank you.” Gareth replied, taking the sentiment as genuine. “You should know that she remarked about you on her return. She was angered and appalled that certain people would belittle you over your affliction. She thought these people were mean, petty and shallow. She felt no-one should be demeaned for that which they had no control. For what little it may be worth, I agree with her.”
Varys looked at Gareth silently for a long moment. “Thank you, my Lord. I appreciate that. I must admit you’re not what I expected.”
Gareth smiled. “Let’s be honest with each other, if only for a moment. I’m at the very least what you expected, I just happen to be more than most realize. Until we meet again for the first time, be well, Lord Varys.”
“And you, Lord Pierce. I hope you gain some enjoyment from your stay in King’s Landing. I look forward with interest to our eventual meeting.”
Varys pondered as Gareth gave him a slight bow and strode up the hall purposefully to disappear around a corner. The Lord of Falconcliff was obviously an incredibly dangerous man, made more so by being complex and difficult to predict. Should he wish someone removed, it would happen, and it wouldn’t matter if that person was peasant or King. The fiction of nobility would be no armor against him, and an arrow can put swift end to ambition.
Lord Pierce was also a focused man, despite his light speech and courteous manner, taking acceptable risks if the reward was great enough. Varys had no doubt that Thomas would be dead if he’d answered three questions sufficiently wrong, even if that meant hurting Gareth’s plans. It was clear he’d not wished to harm the boy, so why take the risk? What was the reward? To impress? Unlikely. He doubted Gareth cared what he thought of him. To give him a better retainer? Possibly, but if so, why? Was it just simple whim? Perhaps it was true that the Pierces were insane, but aside from being completely ruthless, Gareth seemed as sane as any man.
Many people played the game of thrones, and Lord Pierce certainly had a seat at the table, but he seemed to be playing by an entirely different set of rules; ones only he knew. If Varys could tame the falcon, he would be incredibly useful; but even if the falcon could be tamed, could it be controlled?