He’d been certain he would find Lyanna in Dorne. Instead there was an abandoned tower with no one left inside. He went to Starfall, suspecting Ser Arthur might have stopped and left an indication of where he’d gone next. Ashara, lovely even heavy with child — Brandon’s child, said some; my child, say others, he thought — told him reluctantly Arthur had come and gone a fortnight before.
“Ned,” Ashara said. “There’d been a child, one Lyanna cared for deeply. Whatever happened, I think it’s more complex than Robert claims. Be careful, please. And don’t hurt my brother, not unless you must.”
Ned returned to King’s Landing, but he told Robert only that three Kingsguard had escaped to Essos with Lyanna. Robert went to his small council with the matter. He later informed Ned that Varys could do little for him. The Master of Whispers had informants at the major port cities and he would contact them to make them aware of the situation, but if the traitors had already cleared the ports, they would be difficult to find, increasingly so the further they went inland.
“I want you to track them,” said Robert.
Ned looked bleakly at his friend. “I wouldn’t know where to start.”
“I trust no one else. Take a man or two with you, but no more. The more people you get involved, the more likely you’ll be caught out.”
“A man or two? How am I supposed to fight such men with a man or two?” Frustration put ice in his voice.
Robert chewed that over, then sat straighter. “Take the Kingslayer. He’s supposed to be Whent’s equal at least. And he’d make a fine distraction.”
“You’re the one going on about how he ought to be punished. If he helps get Lyanna back to us, you’ll have to consider the debt paid and then you can quite yammering about it. If he fails, he’ll probably have been killed, and in a way even Tywin can’t protest. I don’t see the problem.”
Ned saw there was no arguing with him. He named Howland Reed the third of their party, and the next morning, they all three boarded a ship for Pentos.
It was the first time Ned had ridden a ship for any length of time. Sea travel agreed with him poorly, and he spent much of his time in his cabin wishing he had solid ground beneath his feet.
On one of few trips to deck in search of fresh air, he spotted Ser Jaime standing at the edge of the ship, facing the sea. He was surprised to notice Howland next to him, his frame unnervingly childlike next to the Kingslayer, who looked half a giant near the small man.
“-might help you sleep,” Howland was saying.
Ser Jaime grew so rigid Ned half worried he’d throw Howland from the boat. “I don’t need a frog eater concoction-”
A gust of wind stole the rest of his words, though Ned noticed Howland did not back down, instead continuing obviously to press his point. Ned did not linger to eavesdrop further. It was not an honorable thing to do. He should not have listened in the first place. He slid back below deck before either man noticed him.
But he could not help but bring it up with Howland later, curiosity getting the better of him. “Does Ser Jaime have nightmares?”
“I could not say,” Howland said. “But he wanders. His cabin’s near mine, and he spends little of his nights sleeping.”
“Maybe he is ill. I’ve not slept well myself.”
“A Lannister of Casterly Rock? He grew up along the sea, my lord. I can’t imagine he’s not sailed before.”
“What else could keep a man such as he from sleep?”
Howland tilted his head, green eyes strangely sharp. Ned wondered if he could not snatch thoughts from his head. When he did speak, he seemed to choose each word with care. “He served in King Aerys’s court for two years. The tales we received of what happened to your father and brother, you do not think he’d have reason to sleep poorly?”
The comment brought a frown to Ned’s lips.
It hadn’t occurred to him the Kingslayer would’ve cared. The way he’d smiled when Ned found him on the throne, it seemed impossible.
He shook his head. It wasn’t his problem. It didn’t matter.
“Whatever his trouble,” Howland said, “he accepted my help. Said he’d owe me.”
“A Lannister always pays his debts,” Ned grumbled. “That means nothing.”
The crannogman only shrugged before slipping off, his manner such Ned could not guess whether he disagreed, or simply thought the conversation finished.
Ned had no idea what he was doing. Howland and Jaime were equally clueless.
“His grace is a fool,” Jaime announced. For a quarter hour, they’d sat in a tavern in Pentos, talking around the fact they did not know what to do next. “Certainly there are men who make a living doing this sort of work.”
“Untrustworthy men who’d be unlikely to face three of the Kingsguard without fleeing,” Ned said. “Robert had few options. His only other would have been to let them go.”
The Kingslayer swirled his mead and took a deep drink. “Of course. Shame on me, for questioning the king.”
Ned gritted his teeth.
Howland Reed cleared his throat. “We can ask around for anyone fitting their description. It would be a start.”
It would be futile. But what else could they do?
“A fine idea,” Ned said.
Jaime finished his drink, then placed the empty tankard hard on the table. “Why the hells not?”
Though Jaime looked most the part of lord, Ned admitted he had the most luck conversing with the small folk. Mostly, charming serving wenches into telling him every small detail of what they’d seen over the past weeks, but also drinking with dock workers and travelers and merchants alike and coaxing similar information past their lips without being too blatant in his questioning.
“I’ve a good-brother, a purple eyed man with a wife, who passed through here not so long ago…”
“Eddy here’s sister eloped with a purple-eyed man. Don’t suppose you’ve seen them? No, no, that’s quite alright. I hadn’t figured you would’ve. I’ve an uncle who’s traveled in Essos, and he says you’ll lose yourself in the Free Cities if you’re not careful.”
“A group of men have stolen my wife. Sellswords probably. Have you seen anything like it? I suppose that’s what I get from gambling with Tyroshi noblemen. Three of them. All tall, though the leader’s beastly so. An old man, has half a head on me, at least.”
Their efforts turned up nothing. Each night after a day’s search, they retired to an inn for a meal and sleep. However much Ser Jaime rambled while searching, he fell silent when it was only he and Ned and Howland. If he contributed, it was not with the easy conversation he used to draw answers from strangers, but sarcastic quips, or complaints about the food or muttered insults Ned ignored for the sake of keeping the peace. A charming liar, Ned thought one evening, but a petulant child in truth.
Two days later, as they left yet another tavern, Howland made a noise of surprise, cut off by an abrupt thud. Thieves, thought Ned, reaching for his sword, but someone lunged at him before he could do so. Cool metal bit into his arm, catching on the outermost layer of flesh.
Then the hand holding the dagger fell to the ground separate from its wrist, and Ser Jaime shoved the staggering, screaming man away from them, sword still lifted. Another man already lie twitching in a puddle of blood, clutching his stomach as his innards poured out his front.
There were a group of others, three or four, but they ran in a hurry, clearly not having expected a fight.
Ser Jaime wiped the blood from his sword on the cloak of a felled man, then sheathed it before hauling Howland unsteadily to his feet.
“Don’t giant birds or swamp creatures eat you if you don’t pay attention back home?” the Kingslayer said.
Howland put a hand to the back of his head. “They don’t tend to jump us if we’re going about our own business. As a rule, men are less kind than animals.”
The knight grunted in what sounded like agreement, then turned to Ned. “You’re bleeding, Stark.”
It seems I am. His arm began to ache now that his attention had been drawn to it. He pulled his sleeve back to see that the cut had gone deeper than he’d thought. I’ll need stitches.
“Have you swamp magic for this?” Ser Jaime said to Howland.
“I’m afraid we frog eaters use a needle and thread like everyone else.”
Ser Jaime tore the bottom of his cloak and wrapped it around Ned’s arm. Ned’s mind was not working well, the pain in his arm and the blood seeping from the wound slowing his thoughts. He followed numbly as Ser Jaime led he and a still dazed-looking Howland into a nearby inn and asked the innkeeper for a bottle of wine and things for stitches.
“Reed,” said Ser Jaime.
“I see two of both of you,” said he. “You’d best do it, Ser Jaime.”
Ned drank down half the wine, and Ser Jaime cleaned his wound with what remained. Ser Jaime then guided him roughly to the nearest bench and rested Ned’s arm on the table before beginning his work. To distract himself from the unpleasant, burning tugging, Ned focused on Ser Jaime’s face, twisted with distaste for his task. He’d been feeling odd during the entirety of the encounter with the men and recognized only now the source of that strangeness. Robert has put me on the same side as the Kingslayer. We are allies.
“You’re staring, Stark,” said Jaime blandly. “Do you find me so becoming, or are you attempting to place what a craven without honor could’ve gained from keeping you alive?”
Ned had thought he’d been subtler in his dislike. Then, he’d never been good at playing such games, feigning like and trust when none existed. It should not have surprised, nor discomfited him that Jaime had picked up on it. But it did, even so.
He did not answer Ser Jaime’s question. But when the knight finished the stitches and wrapped clean cloth around the wound, Ned thanked him sincerely.
Now it was Ser Jaime who stared at him. Ned was drunk enough from the wine, he found himself smiling. “Do you find me so becoming?”
The jest startled the boy into a laugh.
“I’m only shocked to see something but a grimace on you. Come then. I’ll get us rooms for the night.”
Another three days of futile searching, and they came upon a mummer’s troupe while they walked along the harbor. As they’d finished their investigation for the night, Ned did not protest stopping when Howland expressed interest.
“My Uncle Gerion mentioned performers in Pentos, but I’d not believed there’d be so many,” said Jaime.
It was the first time he’d said something halfway normal, that wasn’t obviously feigned charm or outright insult. Ned stared.
Jaime scowled and added, as if to justify himself, “He traveled to all the Free Cities for his coming of age tour, and he liked speaking of it. The troupe reminded me, is all.”
A moment of silence stretched and threatened to become awkward.
“I wouldn’t have minded coming here,” Ned said quickly, though it meant they’d be having an actual conversation.
Howland said, “Why didn’t you?”
“Robert insisted I go with him.” Ned flushed. “He wanted to, ah, be with a woman, from each of the seven kingdoms. He dragged me along.”
Ser Jaime smirked. “You ever join him, Stark?”
Ned’s tongue twisted like it did sometimes, and the heat in his face grew worse. Jaime looked so delighted it made a clever reply all the more impossible.
Howland spared him having to answer. “I envy the trip, whatever Lord Stark did or didn’t get up to. I went only to the Isle of Faces upon my sixteenth name day, and though enlightening, I do not imagine quite as fun as traveling the kingdoms with Robert Baratheon.”
Ser Jaime’s brows shot up. “The Isle of Faces? Truly?” He looked more intrigued than scornful. “Ser Oswell told tales of the Green Men, though I don’t suppose he knew a thing of them in truth. Only ghost stories he and his siblings shared. He claimed if he looked from Harrenhal’s tallest tower on a clear night, he saw strange shapes in the trees.”
Howland said, “You’d be surprised the truth in some stories.”
“Were they actually-” He cut himself off.
“Green with horns?” Howland’s eyes sparkled. “I’m afraid I can’t say. Much of what I saw at the Isle is for me alone. Much like, I suppose, much of what King Robert saw on his tour.”
Jaime barked a laugh, so boyish and easy it put Ned far too much at ease. He forgot to think.
“Ser Jaime, where-” He remembered too late and stopped in the middle of the obvious question. His tour only would’ve been last year. He’d come of age only last year.
Ned didn’t realize Ser Jaime had found a smile until it melted from his lips.
“Don’t worry, Stark,” he said crisply. “I never had an interest in travel. I only cared about being a knight.” He smirked ironically, like it was a jest, something to be laughed at.
The sinking feeling which had swamped him upon his aborted sentence took further hold, for there was an odd honesty in Jaime’s eyes that chilled Ned to the bone.
Howland had a way of easing Ser Jaime’s edges which Ned did not understand, and it made him further suspect the crannogman had a touch of magic in him. The little man placed a hand on Jaime’s arm and gave an easy smile. “We’re in the Free Cities now, you on a mission as a knight to save a destined queen. A year late, but it should suit you well enough.”
A year late, thought Ned again, uneasy. Only a year. The boy was seventeen. He hadn’t been a man grown when he first served the Mad King.
Ned recalled his fears regarding Lyanna, that she’d eloped instead of been stolen, and thought upon the excuse he most commonly made for her in his mind.
She’s only a girl. It isn’t her fault.
Ser Jaime was closer in age to her than to Ned.
The thought turned his stomach.
Ser Jaime relaxed as soon as it became apparent Howland meant his words. “You’re absurd, Reed. I dare say coming of age tours feature far more sightseeing, and far less time in seedy taverns.”
Ned couldn’t help himself. “Robert’s didn’t.”
Jaime laughed, sharp and surprised. “You’ve actually got a sense of humor, haven’t you, Stark? It almost makes you tolerable.”
Ned feared the feeling was becoming mutual.
He worried often about Catelyn and Robb. About Lyanna. About poor Benjen still alone in the north. He hated Robert for giving him this mission, though he knew also it would’ve driven him half mad to know someone else was looking for Lyanna while Ned settled with his family in Winterfell, as if she were already lost.
It has to be me, he thought, even though his conscience troubled him further the longer their mission dragged on.
They stayed for a turn of the moon in Pentos, knowing it was the only location it was reasonably certain the Kingsguard and Lyanna and her child had gone. But eventually they had to admit the group must’ve moved on, and decided to take a ship north to Braavos. It was the easiest place for people to disappear, and the friendliest port to newcomers.
On the first day aboard ship, Howland became involved somehow in a game called cyvasse with a member of the crew who hailed from Lys. Ned kept his distance, but noted Jaime wander over to investigate. After a brief conversation, he declared it was the kind of game his brother would love, and he bought the board off the man, who took the frankly wasteful amount of gold with wide eyes.
Jaime then found a scrap of paper and began writing the rules across it as the sailor explained how to play. After the basics were outlined, the man said, “The point is to move the pieces, with the goal to kill the king.”
Howland shoved a fist over his mouth, but it did nothing to help him hold back his laughter.
He should not be laughing, thought Ned, for what Ser Jaime did was a serious thing.
Ser Jaime turned red-faced, taking it appropriately seriously, appearing wounded enough by Howland’s laughter it made even Ned feel slightly… bad, for him, foolish as that was.
Howland offered the knight a smile. “I’m sorry. It was only… unexpected. You should learn to find the humor in these things, as is. Take it from a frog eater.”
Jaime looked over, caught Ned watching, and his flush deepened, scowl settling more firmly. He murmured something to Howland, too softly for Ned to hear, then turned fully away. Certainly not finding it the least bit funny.
Upon moving past the far too appropriate goal of the game, Ser Jaime requested the rest of the rules from the bewildered sailor, then read them aloud again to ensure he had them all. Once this was finished, Howland and Jaime sat down to play.
Ned wandered over. He’d heard a little of how the game was played, and he was curious. It felt at times he knew so little about Howland, and Ser Jaime was outright contradictory. He hoped he might learn something of each if he watched them.
Howland set up his mountains all in a single area and kept his king behind them, then moved the rest of his board defensively, trying to lure Jaime into various traps.
Jaime set up few mountains only on the edges of the board, leaving space to attack, which was expected. But he led with the rabble and not his stronger pieces as Ned would have thought.
He could not help but comment.
Jaime stared at the board. “Ser Arthur says it’s only a fool who forgets the importance of the small folk in a war.” He looked immediately like he said something he ought not to have, and Ned remembered they were on a mission to apprehend and kill Ser Arthur.
The thought made him slightly ill.
It was a long game. Ser Jaime brought his strongest pieces forward and into Howland’s trap quickly, the move of a reckless boy which belied the mature opening strategy. But Howland waited too long to press his advantage, and after his dragon fell, Ser Jaime recognized where he was going wrong.
He laid siege, bringing down Howland’s dragon and spearmen with catapult and trebuchet before he pressed forth with his rabble and light horse, blocking all the passes, leaving Howland no moves except bad ones. Yet he didn't reach Howland's king until most his pieces were gone, and he’d taken out every one of Howland’s in turn. When Jaime finally tipped Howland’s king, it was with the only piece he had save his own king.
“If you'd have attacked first with your weaker pieces and spared the strong ones, you could have taken out the worst of his defenses and bypassed the rest in half the time,” said Ned. “You moved too rashly.”
The correction, though Ned didn’t give it harshly, clearly hurt his pride.
“We’ll see how you play, Lord Stark,” said Jaime, and waved for him to sit.
He quieted after Ned took advantage of the problem he pointed out and defeated him in not a quarter of the time it’d taken him to beat Howland. Something sparked in Jaime’s eyes, competitiveness in part, but Ned saw something further, deeper, that he didn’t quite understand, a frustration that went far beyond a game of cyvasse.
“Ser Jaime?” said he.
“We will play again.”
The boy was not quite a strategist, but he learned well from his mistakes. As soon as Ned proved the truth in his advice, Ser Jaime changed his strategy in accordance. In the three matches they played, he became more careful, slowed his decisions. Ned won each game, but the last was close, if not the drawn out affair his bloodbath against Howland had been.
“We have tomorrow, and the next day and the next day,” said Ned when Ser Jaime tried to goad him into a fourth game.
“But-” Ser Jaime stopped himself, shook his head. He had a look on his face like he’d lost at more than a game. He tugged his hair, then let out a heavy breath. “Fine, fine. But we will play again tomorrow.”
Ned and Howland broke their fast together the following morning, before Ser Jaime woke.
“I don’t know why he’s so resolved to beat me,” Ned said, aware it felt like gossip, but settling guilty honor by telling himself he was genuinely curious. He truly wanted to know.
Howland nearly choked on his mouthful of bread. He coughed, then washed it down with a bit of water. “It’s not obvious?”
“He’s hates how little you think of him. He’d hoped to impress you, and I’m certain he grew frustrated because he imagined he was falling even further in your estimation.”
Ned looked uncomprehendingly at him. “What would that matter? He’s made it clear he dislikes me. You can’t tell me that’s a ruse.”
“Of course not. You irritate him immensely. But you’ve heard him speak of Ser Arthur? He admires good men. You are known for your honor, for being a good man, and you haven’t hidden you think he’s anything but.”
“He broke his oaths,” said Ned. “He-”
“Has been pardoned. Whether you agree with his grace’s choice, Ser Jaime will remain in the Kingsguard. Do you think he will be a better knight if you shun him, as if he could never redeem himself, or extend a hand to pull him nearer? It would be one thing if he were cruel, heartless, if he showed little humanity. But I’ve not gotten that impression in the least.”
Ned could not help himself, though he knew he sounded mad. “Howland.” He cleared his throat. “It’s said, there are stories, your people have heritage in the Children of the Forest, and you’ve known the Green Men of the Isle of Faces, and sometimes-”
Howland’s brows lifted further. “I do not need greensight to see others clearly.
Which told Ned nothing at all. I cannot imagine a stranger man exists, yet I’ve never been given cause to doubt his judgment. If anything, Howland had better seen the heart of Lyanna in one interaction than Robert ever had. Knowing that made him think twice about dismissing his claims about Jaime Lannister.
But what does it mean if Ser Jaime is not a bad man? His sin is no less, the ease with which he escaped punishment not excused. The king and the princess and her children no less dead.
It seemed all a muddle. Honor demanding one thing, but even before Howland’s chiding, emotion tugging him a different way. Was it truly as easy as Howland claimed? To accept Robert’s sentence, and rather than resent the leniency, give the boy a second chance?
The swaying of the ship began to make him nauseated. He pushed his breakfast aside and reluctantly met Howland’s stare. “What have you seen of Ser Jaime that makes you so confident?”
“Yesterday, I saw a boy commit a massacre on a cyvasse board. Had you held your tongue, he would have done so in every game he played after. But you showed him a better way, and he leapt on your advice. Think on that, if you would.”
Ser Jaime cornered him into cyvasse upon waking. As they played, Ned noted Howland was correct. His strategy had evolved to preserve his pieces. He still went often on the offensive, but he watched Ned’s strategies more closely and began countering them instead of plowing forward with his own maneuvers.
He’d also discovered the benefit of laying siege before too much was lost, which by the fourth match became frustrating enough, Ned cursed — loudly — upon losing his dragon early the third match in a row.
When Jaime stared at him, he took a deep breath, fighting for calm.
“It’s the bloody trebuchet,” Ned mumbled. “I’ve got half a mind to throw the thing into the sea.”
Jaime smirked. “If you lose any of the pieces, I’ll take you to Casterly rock and make you explain it to Tyrion, and he’s got the most heart-wrenching hurt face you’ve ever seen.”
“I know the look you mean,” said Ned. “Benjen has the same one. Would give it to me whenever I left for the Eyrie.”
“Ah, yes. Tyrion pulled it out when I went off to Crakehall to squire.” Absently he moved his dragon, then added in a heavier tone, “I’ve not seen him for three years. I only just got to write him again, when Robert sent us off. Received half a book before we set out. I think he’d been saving letters and put them all together.”
“Why could you not write before?”
His lips twisted, and he gave a mirthless laugh. “Aerys worried about my father. He did not want ravens exchanged between the Red Keep and Casterly Rock.”
Ned was not sure what to say to that.
Jaime cleared his throat. “I suppose I do not have a right to complain. Not with this talk of brothers.”
That sucked the last of the lightness from between them. Reminded him that Brandon was dead and Ned would never see him again. And Ser Jaime watched him die. It’d been a cause of anger before, but Ser Jaime looked so troubled now the thought did not have its old venom.
What in truth could he have done, save for kill the king then instead of later? What right did Ned have to resent that he hadn’t? I dislike him for doing his duty and also for failing in it.
They finished that game in silence.
The fifth game, Ser Jaime won with most his pieces still alive, with most of Ned’s pieces still alive. He'd kept his powerful pieces back and sent siege engines forth quickly, and his mountains were arranged in such a way that kept Ned from escaping his traps.
The pride in his eyes lent truth to Howland’s claim Jaime wished to prove something to Ned, and after his victory, Jaime watched, waited expectantly. If not for speaking with Howland Ned might not have known what to give, and he still was uncertain. I might as well try.
“That was well played,” said he.
“Your strategy was stagnant,” Jaime accused, though he was smiling now, smiling at Ned as he had not before. He truly is only scarce more than a boy. “You changed a little, but didn’t do anything that was surprising once I’d learned.”
“It’s not the first time I’ve been accused of lacking creativity. It’s a good thing the Targaryen forces were not so eager to learn.”
Ser Jaime gathered the pieces. To put away, Ned noted with relief. His back was sore, and though he enjoyed the game, it required too much focus to make entire mornings of play easy on the mind.
After a moment, Jaime looked upon Ned’s king, the one he’d felled. “When we were speaking of siblings-”
“Ser,” Ned began.
“I am not proud of it,” Jaime said. “Of watching. I wish-” He shook his head. “I am sorry. I cannot imagine it matters, but I am sorry it happened, I’m sorry I watched. I’m sorry I watched any of it. It was not knightly, no matter what they said. It was not honorable.”
“They?” Ned asked, his voice so hoarse it was nearly a croak.
“The others. My brothers. They would tell me… they would tell me not to judge the king, that we were to protect him instead.” He looked at Ned. His gaze no longer expectant, but demanding. “Was that truly honorable? Was that right?”
The answer should have been easy. They had sworn oaths, Ser Jaime had sworn an oath. But he thought of what he’d heard of the deaths of Brandon and his father, of how a throne room full of people had done nothing but watch. How half the Kingsguard had done nothing but watch.
“No,” said Ned finally.
Ser Jaime curled his lip like an angry beast. “I had not thought so. I know you think I tainted my cloak. But it’s the opposite. The cloak tainted me. I had wanted to be a proper knight. Whatever the hells that means.”
There were all sorts of things that could be said to that, and part of Ned wished to resent that he was seeking some sort of absolution for what had happened to his father and Brandon, that he was clearly hoping Ned would tell him something that would ease what seemed to be genuine guilt.
But whatever Ned had assumed initially, the boy if nothing else had regrets, even if killing his king was conspicuously not mentioned among them. Howland had told him, and he’d told him true, that Jaime had already been sentenced. Robert gave him a second chance for better or worse. I can leave him for lost, or I can help him.
Ned let out a heavy breath. “A taint implies permanent spoil. You’re a part of the Kingsguard still, so I should hope that is not the case. The response to a fall is to stand once more. Not to crawl in the dirt.”
Jaime worked his jaw, face twisting. “You don’t believe that. I saw how you looked at me when you came into the throne room.”
It hadn’t looked at all like he’d cared then. He’d barely seemed to notice Ned, so satisfied with himself-
An act, Ned realized. The precise thing Robert or Brandon would’ve done, all of them the same brand of proud, impulsive fool.
“I do not think you should have been pardoned so easily,” Ned admitted. “But you have been. It’d be a waste should you not see it as a second chance — one with which you have been gifted, for there are few kings who’d not have taken your head.”
Jaime fixed his gaze on him. “Would you want me dead, Stark?”
“I do not know what I’d have done in Robert’s place, but desire and duty do not always go hand in hand. I want you here. We and Howland make a fair team.”
Ned was not sure he’d done the honorable thing. Everything he’d told Jaime had been questionable.
He could not doubt, however, it’d been the right thing, the way the boy’s expression cleared.
He did not know what to make of the contradiction.
In Bravos, they spent the better part of a turn of the moon asking around at taverns, speaking with dock workers. Their gold was running low, and Ned assumed they would have to write Robert by time they’d finished in Lorath, to have someone meet them to give them more.
And he figured they’d need to check Lorath and Norvos at least, for he was certain, how the fates had been, they would not find them until Myr at least.
But they were lucky. While returning to their inn after searching late, they wandered past a poorer street, and a whore approached them and smiled. “You three look lonely.”
“I am married,” said Ned plainly, and Howland said the same. It made no difference to a whore, but making a point of it showed lack of interest in a less direct way, or so Ned felt.
The woman then turned to Jaime, took him in and lifted her brows. “And you, darling?”
“I’ve taken oaths,” he said.
The woman looked skyward. “Oaths,” said she. “Men like you should not waste yourselves. There was another who passed not so long ago, his hair not as pretty, but his eyes… and he said the same.”
The three of them froze.
“What of his eyes?” Jaime said.
“Purple,” the woman said, a smile upon her face. “Something about him almost made me offer a free ride. He seemed like something special. A beautiful man."
Ser Jaime kissed her, and then produced a dragon from his pocket and placed it gleefully in her hand. “This man,” said he, “we’re part of the same organization. You don’t happen to know where he might be?”
She didn’t have a clue, but it didn’t matter. Arthur Dayne was near. Ned could have kissed the woman also.
They redoubled their efforts, and took twice the care to be subtle.
It was not a full week later that Howland ran into their rented room and interrupted Jaime and Ned at a game of cyvasse.
“I saw Lyanna at the market,” he said. “I followed her to where they’re staying. I know where she is.”
There was no waiting. Ned was too worried they would lose them if they waited. Ser Jaime looked near sick as they followed Howland through the streets, his hands shaking, face pale. He admires them, thought Ned, but when Jaime caught his gaze, he steeled his expression in such a way Ned found reassuring.
He will do what he needs to.
Ned had to believe it. Ser Jaime had become almost pleasant in the past weeks, but more than that, he’d begun to apply himself to their quest as if he genuinely cared whether they were successful.
Now that it was inevitable they would find out, Ned had to say it.
“There is one thing.”
Howland and Ser Jaime stilled.
“When I visited Starfall, Lady Ashara said Lyanna had carried a babe with her. A son.”
Both parties stared at him. Howland did not look as surprised, but Jaime’s eyes had gone round.
“A babe. You mean the prince.” He grabbed Ned’s arm. “You mean the rightful heir.”
Ned removed his hand. “I mean a boy Robert will kill if he learns it exists. Ser Jaime, do you think the realm could stand it if we fought another war now? Over a child too young to rule?”
He set his jaw. “I swore to Rhaegar-”
“Do you think forcing this boy onto the throne will keep him safe?”
The boy shook his head, though only after a pause.
“Are you sure we should not leave them be?” he said.
Ned looked him in the eye. “I do not know if Lyanna wishes to be there. If she does not, I will try to help her. She is my sister.”
The boy’s face melted, and he nodded resolutely. Sympathy did not come naturally to him, but Ned had learned it could be tugged forth with a little prompting.
“Howland?” Ned said.
“I’ll do what Lyanna wishes. You know that.”
“If she does want to stay?” Jaime ventured, tentative. “You did not answer that bit. We swore to Robert-”
Ned took a deep breath, at once fiercely understanding the Kingslayer far more than he liked. The worst part was, there was no choice to be made. The answer came easily, without thought.
“She is my sister,” Ned said. “It does not matter what we swore.”
A hypocrite, on top of the dishonor.
Neither Jaime nor Howland questioned him, but Ned wondered how long it’d be before he stopped questioning himself, the immediacy of his response.
But it wasn’t the time to dwell on it. He had more immediate things to worry about.
It may not have been wise. But when they came to the narrow house, Ned strode to it and knocked on the door. Lyanna is in there, he thought, thought it again and again. My sister.
No one answered. Ned tried to kick it open.
When that failed, Howland said to Ser Jaime, “Break open that window.”
It was boarded shut, just above their heads. Ser Jaime brought his sword overhead and drove it into and down through the cheap wood, softened by the sea air. In only a few strikes, he had much of it torn away, and Howland leapt like a lemur onto the ledge and slipped through the tiny hole, which even should Ned or Jaime have been able to reach, would have been much too narrow for their shoulders.
A second later, the front door swung open.
Ned burst through, Jaime at his back.
Ser Arthur stood in front of the back hall, Dawn drawn.
Ned said, “Lyanna.”
There was a bang in a back room, and then quick as a snake, a dark-haired figure slid under Arthur’s arm before he knew she was there, and launched herself at Ned, arms around his neck, burying her face in his shoulder.
He forgot the potential of a battle, dropping his sword and instead clutching his sister to him. He’d fought the war for Father, for Brandon — but for Lya too. His sister in his arms, he could convince himself it’d been worth it. For the first time, the whole thing didn’t feel a foolish waste.
“I wanted to leave the tower.” She was crying. “I didn’t know what would happen. When I heard, I asked, I begged, I tried to force him-” She cut herself off with a sob. “I’m sorry, Ned. I’m so sorry.”
It took but a moment for him to understand.
He had suspected. He’d known his sister. Ned was certain Robert was the only one who hadn’t suspected, Robert and maybe Brandon.
Maybe Ned would be angry later. But anger wouldn’t come now. She’d been a child, he thought tiredly. After seeing how Robert had smiled at the bodies of Elia’s children, at the ferocity of his argument in defense of his pleasure, he did not know Lyanna had been wrong to run from marriage to him. If only she’d done it with someone, anyone else.
He sighed into her hair. “It’ll be okay. You’ll be okay.”
“Ned,” she said urgently. “Ned, there’s a boy. Rhaegar’s-”
“Shh. I know. It’s okay.”
“Is there not going to be a fight then?” said a voice, and Ned remembered where they were.
It was Ser Oswell who’d spoken, standing behind Arthur, looking oddly unremarkable without his Kingsguard armor. He’d captivated Ned at Harrenhal. They all had, then. Now he and Ser Arthur appeared nothing more than mortal men, and when Ser Gerold drifted into the room as well, he was no different.
“We didn’t come for a fight,” Howland said.
Lyanna pulled away from Ned and looked at the three Kingsguard. “A fight? What for?”
“If he’s to take your son to Robert-”
“No,” Ned said firmly. “No. I will not do that. There will not be a-”
Ser Gerold had seen Jaime, and now the others looked as well.
Jaime smirked at the men across from him. It was the precise expression he’d worn when Ned had found him on the throne, but Ned saw now it was nothing but pride. Fear, and empty pride.
Ned stepped between them, in front of Ser Jaime. “He has been pardoned by King Robert Baratheon, while you are wanted men. Ser Arthur, Ser Gerold, sheathe your swords. There is no honor in attacking him now.”
“You use honor to justify the defense of a Kingslayer?” said Ser Gerold.
“I use honor to explain why you should not attack a man who’s been forgiven his crime.”
For a time there was only staring, the three of the Kingsguard not willing to relax.
Then a baby cried, not a wail, but a quiet, plaintive sound. Lyanna and each of the men turned to a back room.
Lyanna said, “Will you not kill each other if I go?”
“Go on,” Ser Arthur said, now softly, making a point of sheathing Dawn. “There’ll be no fighting for the moment.”
The boy looked like Lyanna. He was a beautiful babe, with dark hair already thick with curls, and Stark gray eyes which peered at the world solemnly from a long face. There was nothing of Rhaegar Targaryen in him.
“What now?” said Ned. He felt somewhat alone in the negotiations. He knew little of Lyanna’s true feelings on the matter, and Ser Jaime clung to the walls of the room. He hadn’t said a word since they’d arrived, even in his own defense. Howland remained tucked away at Jaime’s side, but Ned thought it was only partially a show of solidarity. Howland had been nervous before the feast at Harrenhal as well, and Ned had the impression the three knights awed him to near timidity.
I cannot blame either one. Ned wished he could retreat to the periphery with them. He could not believe he was to speak as an equal to Oswell Whent, the White Bull, and the Sword of the Morning.
Arthur said plainly, “He is the rightful king.”
“There is no feasible way you can establish him as such. The kingdoms are not ready for more war, not over a bastard babe who will be too young to rule for years. You’ll all be killed if you try anything in the near future.”
“In the later future?” Ser Gerold said.
“You’d start another war, just as the kingdoms recover from this one. The conflict would be no less bloody. Are you willing to tear apart Westeros for this?”
“He is the king,” Ser Oswell said. “It’s what honor demands.”
“It was my understanding when a regime is toppled, the old heirs killed or exiled, and a new ruler crowned, the old line ends and a new begins with the conqueror. Elsewise the Targaryens were never the true rulers of Westeros at all, but the lines of the separate kings who bowed to them still hold power.”
That silenced them for a time.
Ned went on, “You’ve got orders to protect the child. I understand. But it would not be protecting him to put him on a throne where he is not wanted, to which his family has lost its right.”
“What alternative is there?” said Arthur.
“Lyanna can return to Winterfell. She can raise him there-”
“Everyone would suspect,” Lyanna said. “I won’t risk it. I won’t risk him.” She held the babe closer to her chest, rocking him in her arms.
Ned looked between all of them.
Carefully, he said, “Do you want to stay?”
She studied the three men, thoughtfully rather than with unease. “Yes. It’s the safest place for Jon, and… I do not want to return to Westeros. I would rather live here.”
“Then we found only Ser Arthur,” said Ned, scarce believing the words even as he spoke them. “You and the rest caught a fever and never made it to Essos, and Arthur was sick when we found him. We remained to see him die, and that’s the end of it.” In the shock that followed his statement, he repeated, “You must swear, swear on your honor as knights that you will not become kingmakers. The realm needs no more war.”
They did that much at least, and the matter was settled.
They remained the evening. Ned knew it might be best to separate right away, but he could not bear to part from Lyanna immediately. He and Howland gathered at her side, playing with Jon, asking questions.
Ned noted the others approach Ser Jaime, looking disconcertingly like a pack of wolves surrounding their prey. But Arthur’s profile was visible, and his expression did not look angry.
Ned heard wildfire come up, but they kept their voices low. When Lyanna asked later what they talked of, Ser Oswell said, “Secrets of the king.”
Whatever these secrets were, the feeling of violence near to breaking eased. Ser Jaime and Ser Arthur left alone for a walk, and only came back a long while later, both with pink eyes but slight smiles.
Leaving at nightfall was harder than Ned expected. He looked down at Lyanna, who held her son sleeping in her arms.
“You will be okay?”
“I will write you if not,” said Lyanna. “I suspect now they know you’re not going to hurt Jon, they will not be so adamantly against it.” She hugged him. “Ned, will you tell Benjen at least? Tell him I’m alive, that I’m sorry. Will you tell him?”
She hugged him with one arm, shifting the babe in the other so as not to crush him. Ned kissed her forehead, then did the same to his nephew.
As they walked away, he wished to ask aloud if he’d made the right choice. But he did not think Howland nor Jaime could give him an answer. He’d come to understand a right choice sometimes did not exist, and all that was left was to make the one he could live with.
Robert despaired more at the news of Lyanna’s death than Ned had expected. More than Ned thought the man had a right to, in truth. With his sister hiding yet in Essos because of Robert’s thirst for Targaryen blood, he did not have it in him to be indulgent.
Robert urged him to remain in King’s Landing, but he’d been from home long enough.
Before leaving, he went to Ser Barristan, who’d recovered from his injuries in the time Ned was away. They met in the White Sword Tower.
“I thought you should know,” said Ned, “when we found Arthur Dayne, he and Ser Jaime spoke of some secret matter, and it made Ser Arthur less cold to him. It might do you well to talk to him as well.”
Ser Barristan looked mildly baffled. “I will think on it, Lord Stark, but-”
Ned cleared his throat. “He did well on the mission. A second chance might… be beneficial to him, as you’ll have to serve at his side either way.”
This time, he seemed to hear the words, and take them seriously. “Very well. I will think on it. You’ve my word, Lord Stark.”
Ned then found Ser Jaime, who had found Howland, and was playing him in a final game of cyvasse. Ned watched as they played, Howland having worked beyond his initial strategy just as Jaime had.
“Do you know,” Jaime was saying, “a man on our last ship told me in Volantis, there are actually cyvasse parlors. I ought to go and play under the name Kingslayer. It would be a rather clever thing, I think.”
“You’d not be able to stand against proper cyvasse players,” said Ned.
“I’d practice first. Robert is letting me return to Casterly Rock for a short visit, and I plan to sharpen my skills against my brother.”
“Who is ten.”
“Eleven, and smarter than most maesters.” He put a hand on his dragon, then thought better of it, and sent one of his elephants forward. “You ought to draw up a draft of the game, Stark. Your wife might like something to pass the frigid northern days, and I’m sure even at Winterfell, you’ve someone who could make a rough board and some pieces.”
“I traded for a board when we stopped in Pentos on the return trip,” Ned admitted. “While you were haggling over that dagger.”
“I might need to have a look at your board,” Howland said. “It’s the sort of thing Jyana would enjoy.”
“You’ll both have to return to King’s Landing at some point to challenge me,” Jaime said. “I think I’ve more wins than all you.”
“I outdo you by seven,” Ned said.
“Do you really? Well, I’ve beaten Howland enough times it evens your advantage over me. And here is another.” He took out Howland’s king with a spearman. “A final victory by which to remember me.”
“Ser Jaime,” said Ned. “Now that you are finished, might we have a walk?”
The man looked surprised, but after clearing the pieces, followed Ned out to the grounds.
“What’s the matter?”
“I think it would do you good to teach Ser Barristan cyvasse."
Jaime balked. “I do not think-”
“He might. Try it.”
“You’re making sure I attach myself to a good influence,” he accused.
“There are too many bad ones around King’s Landing. It would not hurt to have someone to balance the scales. Certainly it’d be better than fighting with him.” They walked a while in silence, and he said, “I hope you will write.”
“Truly, Stark?” he said, his surprise blatant.
Ned cleared his throat. “If you wish.”
It was not as hard a farewell as Lyanna had been, but Ned was surprised to find it was not easy either. When he finally said his good-byes, he had the jarring realization he hoped they’d see each other again.