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Winter Rose, Growing Strong

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When the glass candle cut out right after his wife dumped an avalanche of vital information on his stunned ears, Willas was tempted to throw the godsforsaken magic candle to the floor and smash it under his bootheels. Could it not have lasted another moment or two? he wondered, overcome with frustration. Fortunately, Willas was a civilized man, capable of leashing his temper even when he desperately wished to throw a childish tantrum, so he did not destroy the priceless magical artifact. Instead, he picked up the terra cotta disk-and-spool toy from his grandfather’s desk, looping the string around his finger and letting the disk drop and return to his hand. The undulating motion of the disk was soothing, almost meditative, and the toy reminded him of his boyhood. As he watched the disk rise and fall, spinning it out from his hand and catching it again as it cycled upwards, he reflected on his conversation with Sansa.

I am to be a father, he thought, hope and fear swelling in his chest. Though he had long wished to wed and raise children, everything was happening so quickly and none of it was unfolding as he had imagined whilst idly dreaming about having a family of his own one day. In his daydreams, he had envisioned learning that his wife carried his child shortly after the maester diagnosed the pregnancy. He had pictured himself by his lady wife’s side as she grew large, fetching her the foods she was craving and feeling the babe’s movements within her belly and rubbing her sore feet (for he was the eldest Tyrell child, and when his mother had carried his younger siblings, Willas’s mother had impressed upon him what the husband and other children of a pregnant woman ought to do to ease her burdens). In his mind’s eye, it was always summer and always peacetime, and his children laughed and played in sunlit gardens.

Never had he imagined that his wife would be worlds away when she discovered her pregnancy, or that he would learn of the news over a glass candle, or that his child might be born amidst a long, harsh winter that might even signal the return of the Long Night. The Northern myths that Willas now knew by heart spoke of children who were born, lived to see old age, and died without ever seeing the sun. Those myths took on a new meaning as Willas realized that it could be his children who might live their whole lives in darkness. We must find a way to stop this winter from consuming the world, he thought, a fierce desire to ensure that his child would see sunshine and spring rising in his heart.

He was angry with Sansa for waiting to tell him of their child growing in her womb, but more than angry, he was afraid. His wife had miraculously survived a harrowing journey so far, but could she make it home to Highgarden, with Greyjoy ships raiding all along the coast and dragons flying overhead and rebellious gangs marauding around the Riverlands? He did not know how his parents withstood the knowledge that their family was scattered throughout the Kingdom, each facing dire threats. He worried about Sansa in the North, and Margaery in King’s Landing, and Loras in the Stepstones, and Garlan on the coast. He worried about dragons and winter and dark magic. What kind of world were they bringing a child into? How could he have been so blithe about creating a new consciousness in this chaotic world? How could he ever hope to protect his wife and child amist a broken kingdom filled with dangers?

Sansa has made it this far, and she has good men to protect her, he reasoned with himself. If she cannot make it home safely, she has agreed to wait at Casterly Rock until the Ironborn have been dealt with. I must not let my worries consume me. 

Almost to distract himself from worrying about his wife and their unborn child, Willas turned his mind to the other information Sansa had left him with. Her youngest brothers are still alive, and one of them is on Skagos, he thought, wondering what this meant for their future plans. She does not wish to challenge their claims, though I suspect it is not yet certain that either of them can be retrieved. She has sent her half-brother Jon to fetch her youngest sibling from an island of cannibals… What, on Garth Greenhand’s green earth, was he to make of that information?

“Damnable glass candle,” Willas muttered, flinging the disk toy downwards again to prevent himself from smashing the offending magical object. He needed Sansa to help him interpret this information about her brothers. It was unclear to him, as a Southerner, whether Sansa truly had a choice regarding whether to challenge her brothers’ claims. It could be that the North would accept no other ruler than the rightful one. Mayhaps that is what drove Stannis to the North, Willas speculated. If lawful claims carry more weight up there, he might have thought to persuade them that he was Robert’s rightful heir. 

As a Southron lord, Willas also did not know whether Skagos was truly a dangerous land of cannibals and unicorns that no ship dared land upon, or whether those were simply ugly rumors. Thus, it was hard to speculate about the likelihood that Rickon could be retrieved. So, too, was he uncertain about the boundaries of the Night’s Watch’s neutrality. Could Lord Commander Jon Snow truly take his men to Skagos to rescue his brother, without violating his oath? Would not his men rebel? But surely Sansa had thought of that, if there was any possibility that her request might cause a mutiny?

Even before his conversation with Sansa, too many complicated matters had been weighing on Willas’s mind. He enjoyed a good political struggle as much as the next schemer, and in more peaceful times, he might have found a Targaryen restoration thrilling. Yet, with the dragons returning at such an inauspicious time, Willas did not truly know which side he ought to support. His father had bent the knee, and his grandfather Leyton insisted that dragons were needed to prevent or stop the Second Long Night, so Willas supposed he was to become a Targaryen loyalist. The only alternative was to try to fight dragons, which seemed a fool’s errand.

But what of Margaery? Willas had asked his grandfather that very question, and he still had not obtained an acceptable answer. He hoped his sister had received his letter and that she was able to find some way to extricate herself from King’s Landing – and perhaps even from their swiftly deteriorating alliance with the Lannisters. Desmera’s marriage to Tyrion was the only strong thread that remained of what had once been a thickly woven bond between the Roses and the Lions.

As if those problems were not enough for one man, Willas was also trying to help Garlan and their uncle Baelor Hightower find a solution to the Ironborn problem. On top of that, he spent most of his days trying to navigate the intricate internal politics of the Citadel and uncover further information about the magical threats in the North. Samwell Tarly had finally arrived from the Wall, and the young man had proved a font of information, though he was even more of a neophyte than Willas when it came to negotiating the complex factions among the maesters. Fortunately, the Tarly boy had brought old Maester Aemon along with him, and the elderly Targaryen’s wits had proved sharp despite his advanced age.

Replacing the disk toy on his grandfather’s desk, Willas sighed. The one good thing about the glass candle was that it would allow him to remain in Oldtown for longer than he had originally planned, as he could use it to communicate with his mother at Highgarden or other members of their family if the situation was dire enough. Mother would surely be surprised to see him appear like a ghost in the halls of their castle, but if he needed to get a message to her quickly, he would be able to do so.

His face tense with worry, Willas limped over to the lift. Time for yet another day of research and war-planning and Citadel politics, he thought unhappily.

 

***

 

When news of King’s Landing’s firey demise reached Oldtown, it was utter pandemonium at the Citadel. Early reports suggested that everyone in the Red Keep, including Grand Maester Pycelle, had perished in the blaze. There were conflicting stories about who was responsible for the fires, with some claiming it was dragonfire that had turned the city to ash and others suggesting that it was wildfire. Depending on which version one believed, either the young Targaryen dragonriders were as mad as old King Aerys, or Queen Cersei had decided that she would take the entire city with her if she must lose her crown. Since everyone who knew the truth was dead, save the young dragonriders who had every reason to mislead, Willas felt he could not be certain of the truth.

Most of all, he was worried about Margaery. Is my sister dead? he wondered, stricken with grief at the thought. I should have done more to help her, but I thought that Father had the situation in hand, and I did send her a letter of warning. Perhaps she escaped, somehow. The chances that his sister lived were slender, Willas knew, but he would not give up on her this easily. We should never have withdrawn so many of our forces from the capital without getting Margaery out, he reflected guiltily. Loras was supposed to be there to protect her, but we were so focused on Euron Greyjoy that we neglected the sword of Daemocles hanging above King’s Landing. Whoever is responsible – Targaryens or Lannisters – I should have seen it coming. 

Fortunately, Grandfather Leyton had the answers, as he always did, assuming one trusted the accuracy of the glass candle’s visions of the past. Even before word reached the Citadel, Lord Leyton told Willas that Cersei Lannister had distributed cannisters of wildfire throughout the city, and that these caches had been set off by dragonflame. Not that anyone was like to believe that unless they already had reason to support the Targaryens, but at least it made Willas feel a little better about his cautious support for the young dragonlords.

“You see, my boy,” Leyton crowed, showing him the city’s final moments in the excessively bright flame of the candle. “The side with the dragons is always the safest bet.”

“Did you see Margaery in your glass candle?” Willas demanded, looking over his grandfather’s shoulder to see the images reflected in the candle’s too-bright light. “Is my sister dead?”

Leyton mumbled something in the Old Tongue, and waved his hands in intricate patterns over the glass candle. Willas stared into the flame, which was disorienting, because the picture seemed to stop and start, speed up and slow down, moving forwards sometimes and in reverse at other moments. Finally, Lord Leyton settled on a time and place, and Willas peered closer.

“Aha! Margaery boarded a ship with her ladies and a Summer Islander,” announced Leyton, pointing. “She did not die in the flames. You thought that sending her a letter about a fake death in the family was too simple to work, didn’t you? But Margaery has Hightower blood, just like you. She’s a smart girl. With sufficient warning, she can make her own escape plans. You see! Right there!”

Willas breathed a sigh of relief as he saw Margaery, along with Alla and Megga and a man who could only be his cousin’s betrothed board a ship called The Valyrian. The captain seemed to be some sort of pirate, flying no flag on a ship purple sails and wearing loads of gaudy jewelry, as men who obtained luxuries without spending their own coin were wont to do. His senses keenly tuned in to this vision of the past, Willas could smell salt water in the air, but nothing of smoke. Thank the gods, he thought. Satisfied, Willas stepped away, still reluctant to rely over-much on the glass candle, but beginning to understand why his grandfather had become so enraptured with the device.

“Thank you, Grandfather,” said Willas, his voice conveying deep and genuine gratitude. “I am much relieved to know that Margaery escaped. I would worry about her passage through the Stepstones, but it seems she’s found her own pirates to protect her. With luck, she will reach Oldtown within a moon or three.”

“Wonderful!” proclaimed Leyton. “Now, with your worries settled, may we get down to business? The Grand Maester is dead! There’s to be a Conclave in a fortnight’s time! We must be prepared.”

“A Conclave? But I thought only Archmaesters could attend. Why should we need to be prepared for it?”

“You have much and more to learn, my boy,” replied Leyton, shaking his head. “Though it is officially the case that only Archmaesters may attend, the Archmaesters usually bring their apprentices to take notes, and even regular castle maesters may be invited as a courtesy. Indeed, such an invitation often signals that one is a candidate for Grand Maester. I suspect your Lomys will be among the honored guests this year, and your father’s uncle Gormon.”

“I suppose that makes sense,” said Willas thoughtfully.

“Besides, there is a passage from the lower levels of the Hightower that leads directly into the underbelly of the Citadel,” his grandfather continued. “In the auditorium where the Conclave is held, there is a secret chamber behind a screen, reserved for our family. The Lord of the Hightower always attends the Conclave! And this year, I shall bring you as my guest. Even though we officially play no part in the selection of Grand Maesters, we have a certain unofficial influence…since it was, after all Prince Peremore of the Hightower who founded the Citadel. So, my boy, get to thinking who ought to be the next Grand Maester! We have little time, I am afraid. Do be sure to scope out the names that are being floated, when you return to the Citadel tomorrow.”

Willas was fascinated by the prospect of watching a Conclave at the Citadel, so he did not protest. It seems I still have much to learn about the Hightower branch of my family, he mused. I wonder how many of their secrets my father knows? Or my grandmother Olenna? Surely Mother knows, at least, from her girlhood here and her visits in the years since. It was said by some in the Reach that the Hightowers had never truly ceased to be Kings, and the more time Willas spent with his grandfather, the more he felt that such murmurs had the ring of truth to them. He was lucky to have a Hightower for a mother; without that blood tie, there was no telling what sort of mischief his maternal relatives might cause him when he was Lord of the Reach one day. Even with that familial bond, the Hightowers were a force to be handled with care, he was realizing. 

As part of their preparations for the Conclave, Lord Leyton bid Willas to invite his ‘friends from the Citadel’ to dinner. Willas dutifully invited his cousin Leo Tyrell, a perpetual novice known more for his hedonism than his scholarship; Leo’s commoner friend Pate and his mysterious Dornish friend Alleras, both of whom were smarter than Willas’s lazy cousin; Leo’s current master, Archmaester Marwyn; Maester Gormon, the bastard brother of Willas’s other grandfather, Luthor Tyrell (who had died years ago in a strange hawking accident); as well as Samwell Tarly and his masters, Maester Aemon and Archmaester Walgrave. Willas thought of inviting Archmaester Ryam, whom he had studied under during his own time at the Citadel, but he assumed Ryam would not mix well with the rest of their company. Leyton also extended an invitation to Willas’s uncle, Baelor Hightower, the man who actually governed Oldtown while Leyton occupied himself with the pursuit of occult knowledge. The result was one of the strangest dinner parties Willas had ever attended.

Lord Baelor was the first to arrive, several hours early.

“What is your impression of my grandfather, these days?” Willas asked his uncle as they enjoyed a cup of tea while waiting for the others to arrive. “I confess, I cannot tell if he is merely eccentric or plunging into madness.”

Baelor regarded his nephew with an amused expression. “You know, it is rather hard to tell,” he replied finally. “My father has always been a brilliant and eccentric man. At what point does that tip over into madness or dementia? Frankly, I feel I lack the necessary learning to make such judgments. Though I forged a few links of a maester’s chain in my day, I studied only practical subjects – medicine, warfare, and trade. Only someone with a Valyrian steel link could truly judge my father’s wits, and most of them are half-mad, too. So, who is to say?”

“Does the possibility not concern you?” inquired Willas.

“If Father does not concern himself with the affairs of his men or interfere in the business of the city, then I see little harm in his occultism. Though with the apparent re-emergence of magic, perhaps that is no longer the case. You shall have to tell me if you notice anything amiss.”

“Everything seems amiss. Or nothing. I cannot tell,” answered Willas honestly.

“Indeed,” replied Baelor wryly. “That is the problem, is it not? Perhaps you could ask your Citadel friends their thoughts on the matter after dinner tonight. This is the first time father has shown his face to such a crowd in many years. Why, he’s even talking of leaving the tower!”

“To attend the Conclave, you mean?”

“Yes, exactly,” affirmed Baelor. “He invited me to attend with all of you, but I am far too busy bolstering our defenses against the Ironborn to concern myself with the Citadel. You and grandfather shall have to represent our family, but I trust you. You’ve always seemed to me to have a good head on your shoulders, Willas.”

“Thank you,” replied Willas, smiling.

Eventually, Lord Leyton came to join them, and the trio chatted about Baelor’s recent work on the city’s defenses and Willas’s research on the Long Night as they waited for the other guests. In due course, the others arrived, piling out of the carriages that had brought them from the Citadel to the Hightower.

“Welcome, welcome!” his grandfather said pleasantly as he ushered their guests into the tower. It was a strikingly more jovial welcome than Willas had received when he arrived at the Hightower’s doors.

With a Conclave in the offing, Lord Leyton had recovered a bit of the charm Willas recalled from his visits here as a youth. It seemed the old man could still behave socially when the situation required it. Leyton had even hired a new cook from a local tavern and one of the local urchin boys to serve as a cupbearer, since the Hightower was unusually understaffed, due to his grandfather’s paranoia and frequent dismissals of servants he mistrusted. To Willas’s surprise, the new serving boy appeared to be the one whose cat he had briefly ‘stolen’ on his first night in Oldtown. Why grandfather trusts urchins more than castle-trained servants is beyond me, he thought to himself, though the boy seemed to be on his best behavior tonight.

“Well met, cousin,” said Leo in his usual sardonic tone.

“Indeed, it has been too long,” Willas replied, just warmly enough to make it believable. In truth, he was not terribly fond of his cousin. There had been a time when Willas would have given anything to be allowed to forge a full maester’s chain, and Leo had the freedom to live that dream, but he squandered it. The Tyrell could not help but dislike his cousin, given his lackadaisical approach to his studies.

While Samwell helped Archmaester Walgrave to the table, Alleras guided blind old Maester Aemon to his seat. Gormon, though nearly as old as both of them, was able enough to find his seat on his own. Marwyn walked proudly to the table, clearly having little patience for the infirmities of his colleagues. Once everyone was seated, Lord Leyton called for wine and plates of cheese, nuts, and fruit.

“So!” announced Marwyn, gazing around the table with interest. “What do all of you make of the Obliteration of King’s Landing?”

“That is what you get when you use dragons in a siege,” remarked Gormon. “How quickly we all forget that the beasts are dangerous, even if their riders have sense, which young Aegon and Daenerys may or may not have.”

Maester Aemon looked pained at those words, but held his tongue, seeming to wait for others to speak before defending his family.

“We…we don’t know that it was their fault,” interjected Samwell, appearing nervous about speaking in such illustrious company but apparently unwilling to let his master’s family’s honor go un-defended. Willas found himself liking the Tarly boy, for despite his irritating cowardice, his mind was sharp. After weeks of researching side-by-side, Samwell had earned the Tyrell’s respect.

“It doesn’t matter,” replied Leo airily. “The smallfolk will blame them whether or not it was their fault.”

“Besides,” argued Gormon, “Ackham’s razor suggests that the simplest explanation is the truth. Dragons breathe fire, and the city burned. Hence, it was the dragons that did it.”

“The simplest explanation is true, except when it isn’t,” said Alleras.

No wonder they call him The Sphinx, thought Willas. I wonder what he truly thinks? It is hard to tell the difference between profundity and strategic vagueness when it comes to Alleras. 

“Dragons are dangerous,” put in Walgrave. “But young Rhaegar is a good boy. Just because fires need be put out doesn’t mean the family’s blood is bad. Are we scholars or pig boys, to hold a boy accountable for the sins of his forefathers?”

“I’m the only pig boy here,” commented Pate, and everyone laughed, grateful for a joke to break the tension that formed as it became increasingly apparent that Walgrave was fully senile.

“What do you think, Leyton?” asked Marwyn. His familiar manner with Willas’s grandfather suggested this wasn’t his first visit to the Hightower, and Willas made a mental note of it. Curious, that his grandfather had spoken critically of Marwyn when they were alone, but now they seemed the best of friends.

“You know as well as I what happened, Marwyn,” commented Leyton. “Did you not show your apprentices, in the glass candle’s flame?”

“I have not yet had the chance,” Marwyn replied, flushing.

“Then let me fill the others in,” Leyton replied, though first he paused to call for the salad course. “Cersei Lannister placed caches of wildfire throughout the city, and the dragonflame set them off. The flames that burned King’s Landing were green. I think that puts the question to bed, do you not agree?”

“I do, I do,” answered Marwyn. “But the boy Leo is right, it matters not. Many will blame the Targaryens regardless. Not I, of course. But many at the Citadel already think as much. That fool Ryam, for instance.”

“This is not the first time my family’s name has been maligned, and it shall not be the last,” said Aemon calmly. “But do tell me of this glass candle. I have read of them, and in my day I wept when I could not light it during my vigil, but I had not heard. Are the candles burning once again?”

“Indeed, they are,” replied Leyton, and Marwyn nodded vigorously. “The one here at the Hightower was never allowed to go out, but now that the dragons live again, they are lighting with the same ease they did during the reign of the first Aegon.”

“Marvellous,” replied Aemon. “At the Wall, I did not mind the loss of my sight, but it is times like these when I miss it sorely.”

Leyton looked ponderous at that. “It might be worth trying to see using the candle,” he speculated. “If you can see when you are dreaming, it might be that you could see the candle’s visions. We ought to try it, after we sup.”

“I would like that very much,” said Aemon, bowing his head in polite gratitude.

“So, if we are in agreement – at least approximately – about the truth of the matter in King’s Landing, then might we discuss the successor to the poor late Grand Maester? Who is in the running, do you think?” prompted Marwyn.

“Yes, I am quite curious to hear everyone’s thoughts,” agreed Lord Leyton.

“As you know, I have never wanted the position,” began Gormon. “But many are putting up my name, all the same.”

“I’ve heard Maester Caleotte’s name spoken,” added Alleras.

“Caleotte?” asked Willas. “He is one of Sunspear's maesters, is he not?”

Alleras looked slightly nervous at Willas’s question, and the Tyrell heir wondered why. It had been an innocent enough question. Looking closer at the boy, Willas began to wonder more about his background. The boy claimed his mother was a trader from the Summer Isles and his father a common Dornishman; his appearance and habits seemed to support it. With curly black hair and big black eyes, with skin the color of teak, he could very well be Dornish by way of the Summer Isles. His proficiency with the Goldenheart bow and his rather Dornish reluctance to condemn the private vices of others also supported his story.

All at once, it struck Willas. Alleras was the first man he had heard throw Caleotte’s name out as a candidate for Grand Maester. The boy claimed to be of common stock, yet he seemed to be quietly advocating Sunspear’s maester as the Conclave’s choice. Whether or not his father was truly a commoner, it seemed Alleras was allied with the Martells. Willas smiled, pleased that he had figured it out, then realized that the conversation had passed him by while he was puzzling over the Sphinx.

“Isn’t maester Aemon the obvious choice?” Samwell was saying. “If we are sending him to two Targaryens, wouldn’t they be more like to listen to their kinsman? And, that aside, he is the only one who truly understands the danger we are facing at the Wall.”

“Not the only one,” said Leyton heavily.

“Indeed,” agreed Marwyn. “Leyton and I have been working on this problem for some time, and your story has served only to confirm it.”

“Little Aemon is not to blame for the doings of his grandfather,” argued Walgrave, apropos of nothing. “We must protect the boy. Rhaegar believed him to be the Prince that was Promised.”

No one paid him any mind, save Aemon, who seemed to be hearing something in Walgrave’s ramblings that no one else perceived.

As the evening continued, it became clear that Maester Aemon was the favorite, at least at the Hightower’s table. Except for Gormon, who kept saying that he did not want to be Grand Maester while continuing to argue his suitability for the task, and Leo, who seemed to favor Marwyn, most of those gathered here found Aemon to be the logical choice. Even Gormon and Leo found Aemon acceptable.

Even so, Marwyn made it clear that the other Archmaesters mostly did not agree.

“Ryam and the other rationalists will never accept a Targaryen as Grand Maester,” Marwyn kept saying. “If they can get away with it, they will poison him and myself both.”

“Oh, Marwyn,” replied Gormon with a frown. “You know that isn’t true. The other archmaesters respect you. It’s just that you do not make it easy for them, with all your suspicions and your occult interests, but no one wants you dead, my good man.”

After dinner, Willas stayed at the table with the other young men, drinking and chatting of lighter matters, while their elders went upstairs to peer into the glass candle. For once, Willas was glad that he could be simply another young man, without the weight of a kingdom on his shoulders. He knew it would be a long time before such a moment arose again, especially now that he was to be a father.

 

***

 

The passage that ran beneath the Hightower to the Citadel was carved into a deep bedrock of oily black stone, and the texture of the walls sent shivers up Willas’s spine as he hobbled along the long stone corridor. He would have preferred to take a carriage to the Citadel, as he usually did, but Leyton insisted that this was the only way to access the secret room. The whole time, his grandfather was rambling on about secret Targaryen children and the Great Empire of the Dawn and other such nonsense. Willas tried to ignore him, concentrating on walking without slipping on the smooth, slick stone. Finally, just before his leg fully gave out, they arrived at their destination.

As Willas and Leyton took their seats behind the screen, the young Tyrell lordling could hear an Archmaester arguing with his apprentice.

“Archmaester,” the young man was pleading. “Truly, I have done double – nay, quadruple! – the work of your other apprentices. It is time you granted me the final link, so that I might compete for one of the castle maesterships that is sure to open up in the wake of all these wars.”

“In due time,” the archmaester assured him. “I still need your assistance with this final project. I’m afraid I can’t grant your final link until the results are published.”

“But I have already helped you complete several experiments, and I was the lead author on most of the write-ups for our last project! I have done much and more for you. It is time for me to graduate and become a maester in my own right.”

“Not quite yet,” replied his master irritably. “You still have more to learn. Besides, I cannot complete this project without you.”

“If I’m so useful to you, doesn’t that mean I’m ready to graduate?” the younger, almost-maester whined.

“Be quiet, boy. The Conclave is about to start! We are witnessing history in the making!”

At the head of the auditorium, Archmaester Ryam and the Steward, Theobald, were calling the Conclave to order. His pain forgotten for a moment in the excitement of witnessing this great historical moment, Willas leaned forward in his chair to hear their voices over the din.

Much of the meeting was less exciting than Willas expected. Several obscure maesters had bribed or persuaded or snuck their way in, to put forth their own names, despite their clear lack at any chance to win. Willas wondered if they were truly so arrogant as to believe they had a chance, or whether they simply meant to raise their profile, so that the next time they might have a more reasonable hope of being chosen. But towards mid-day, the quality of the nominations improved, and the debates began to grow heated.

“I nominate Maester Aemon,” coughed Archmaester Walgrave, the master of the ravenry. His apprentice, Samwell Tarly, stood beside the Archmaester and smiled proudly as Walgrave nominated his mentor from the Wall. Walgrave is known to have lost his wits some time ago, and we saw the truth of that at dinner the other night, Willas thought. Samwell must have put him up to this.

“Aemon hasn’t published a scholarly work in decades,” sniffed Archmaester Norren, the increasingly senile former Seneschal of the Citadel.

“Neither had Pycelle, when he was chosen,” replied Archmaester Agrivane calmly. “Grand Maester, like castle maesterships, is a generalist position. It is not as if Aemon is being considered as a candidate for Archmaester.”

“I nominate myself,” announced Archmaester Marwyn a little while later. “As anyone who is paying attention shall tell you, we are on the cusp of several magical apocalypses. There is no one better to advise our young dragonlords than an expert practitioner of the higher mysteries. My qualifications include multiple significant scholarly monographs on the history and mythology of magical practice, several years as a visiting scholar with the Shadowbinders of Asshai, substantial firsthand knowledge of the cultures and geography of Essos, fluency in an array of ancient and contemporary tongues, and unlike the other candidates, I am an Archmaester in my own right.”

“Precisely because you are an Archmaester, the Citadel cannot afford to lose your wisdom in such dire times,” remarked Ryam blandly. “For there is no one to replace you as Archmaester of the Higher Mysteries.”

“Maester Aemon would make a fine replacement, as Archmaester of Magic!” protested Marwyn.

“But as Archmaester Norren pointed out earlier, Aemon cannot hope to match your scholarly qualifications,” replied Archmaester Theomore. “I oppose Marwyn’s candidacy for Grand Maester, and I hope the rest of you shall follow suit.”

“I concur,” remarked Archmaester Ryam, who had been relatively quiet throughout the debate so far. “I nominate Maester Gormon.”

“I’m afraid I do not want the position,” protested Gormon with faux-humility. “But I shall accept if the Conclave insists.”

The deliberations went on for days, until the competition finally narrowed to just two names: Gormon and Aemon. It was then that Lord Leyton bid Willas return without him, slipping down another secret passageway to have a quiet drink with Archmaester Ryam. Willas did not know what his grandfather said to persuade the man, who had been staunchly opposed to Aemon’s candidacy from the beginning, but his attitude was transformed when they returned the following day for the final vote.

“Scholars and gentlemen,” Ryam said the next morning, just before the vote was taken. “I spent the night praying to the Seven and keeping vigil, and I have finally arrived at a decision, as concerns my own vote. Though I am fully in support of Maester Gormon’s qualifications in an ordinary time, men of reason must realize that extraordinary circumstances require extraordinary actions. I have examined the evidence suggesting that the return of the dragons has brought grave new threats to the North, and having considered the delicate peace of the realm under our new Kings, and particularly given his advanced age means that he is unlike to inaugurate a new era but rather to see this one to its proper conclusion…I have reluctantly decided to support Maester Aemon’s candidacy.”

“What did you say to him?” Willas hissed as an uproar went through the crowd.

“Oh, let me have a few secrets, my boy,” said Leyton smugly. “Though you can surely guess that it was the politics that convinced him. He’s no more a believer in magic today than he was the day before.”

In the end, his grandfather’s support swayed the vote, just as Leyton had predicted on the day they learned of the capital’s demise. Maester Aemon was chosen as the new Grand Maester to King Aegon VI.

 

***

 

After the Conclave was concluded, Willas turned his attention to the Ironborn situation. He wrote to Casterly Rock, seeking to entice Desmera and Tyrion to join him in stopping Euron Greyjoy once and for all. In reply, Tyrion agreed to contribute his ships to fight the Ironborn off the coast of Oldtown, but he asked a boon in reply: he wanted information about how Meraxes was slain, and if possible, plans for the device that had been used to do the job.

This new Lord Paramount of the Westerlands is an astute man, thought Willas, upon receiving that reply. Willas knew such plans existed, deep within the Citadel, because he had inquired after them himself, after he learned that dragonriders would soon arrive once again on Westerosi shores. Though he would not have shared this information without prompting, it was not a costly request to grant, and the Tyrell alliance with the dragons was an uneasy one at best.

So, too, was it reasonable for Tyrion to request a favor in return for his naval assistance. True, the Reach and the West shared a common interest in destroying the Ironborn, but Casterly Rock could easily wait to see if the Redwyne navy was sufficient to counter the threat. Win or lose, the impending battle of Oldtown would almost certainly trim Euron’s numbers of both men and ships, and the smaller Lannister navy could simply mop up any Ironborn raiders who survived. It would be a gamble to stand aside, for if Euron survived the consequences for the Westerlands – Fair Isle especially – could be dire. Thus, Tyrion had not asked a high price for his involvement, but the dwarf lord did stand to strengthen his negotiating position substantially against the Targaryens. After the disaster that was the sack of King’s Landing, the Lannisters must be desperate for weapons that could prove effective against dragons.

Willas responded positively to Tyrion’s request, sending a small, fast ship up the coast with copies of the pages of The Death of Dragons that concerned Meraxes, along with copies of the Citadel’s blueprints for Scorpions. Of course, he did not send more than was necessary to dutifully fulfill Tyrion’s asking price; Willas saw no benefit in providing information about any of the other ways that dragons could be slain or stolen, and Tyrion had asked only about Meraxes. In this way, Willas retained the upper hand and avoided compromising his father’s alliance with the Targaryens, yet strengthened the alliance between the Reach and the West, which might one day be needed to counter the power of the Targaryens if they proved ill-suited to rule.

The greatest surprise, in the days leading up to the battle, was the appearance of Garlan and an Ironborn woman at the base of the Hightower a few evenings before the battle was likely to take place. Careful not to compromise his grandfather’s security, Willas exited the tower. The damnable alley cat – who had taken up residence in the Hightower once more, now that its master was gainfully employed as a serving boy in the tower fortress – followed Willas outside. Ignoring the finicky animal, he hauled the door closed behind him.

“Well met, brother,” the elder Tyrell said calmly, clapping his brother on the back and eying the Ironborn woman warily. “What are you doing here in Oldtown? I thought you were to remain at the Shield Islands until the battle was won.”

“I plan to return to the Islands forthwith, but an opportunity has arisen that I did not feel comfortable deciding independently, and I thought you might wish to speak to the Lady yourself, in order to judge her character,” replied Garlan. He gestured to the woman beside him. “This is Asha Greyjoy, daughter of Balon. She offers to join us in fighting against her nuncle if we will support her claim to rule the Iron Islands. Lady Asha, this is my brother Willas, acting regent of the Reach until our father returns from Storm’s End.”

Asha bowed, smiling fiendishly. “I told you to call me Asha,” the woman scolded Garlan mildly, rolling her eyes at the title. “You greenlanders are too obsessed with such pleasantries, with your ‘milord this’ and ‘milady that.’ Among the Ironborn, every captain is a lord on his own ship, and no other title matters much. If you must do me a courtesy, I prefer Captain Asha, please and thank you.”

Willas gazed at her, trying take the measure of this woman, about whom he knew relatively little. It was said that Balon treated her like a son once all his boys were gone, and she had taken Deepwood Motte when the Ironborn raided the North.

“Well,” said Willas, sighing heavily. “I think this is a conversation that shall take some time. Would you care to join me in the gardens, brother? Lady…err, Captain Asha?”

His guests nodded, and Willas led them away from the street, towards the gated gardens that blanketed the ground on the sea-facing side of the tower. He pulled a key from his breast pocket, opened the grate, and led his companions into the gardens. Once they were seated on the wooden benches beside the fountain, the cat leapt up next to Asha and began purring. She stroked the animal absent-mindedly. Traitor, Willas thought, frowning at the cat.

“Welcome to the Hightower…Captain. Do you care to tell me the details of your proposal?” he said aloud.

“Well, it’s simple enough,” replied Asha with a shrug. “I want my nuncle dead, but I’m no kin slayer. You want him dead, too. I’ll join your battle in hopes he doesn’t survive, and in return for my assistance, you will hopefully stand a better chance of defeating him and you’ll support my right to rule the Iron Islands.”

“It seems we do share common interests as concerns Euron,” agreed Willas. “But what, precisely, do you mean when you ask that we support your claim?”

Asha frowned. “What do you mean?”

“Is it military assistance you seek? Diplomatic support? Recognition?” pressed Willas. It was readily apparent to him that this Asha Greyjoy had far more experience planning battles than negotiating alliances. It seemed the lady (captain?) had not thought far beyond ‘kill Euron and claim the Islands.’

“I don’t need Greenlanders to fight my battles for me,” Asha grumbled. “So I guess…I want you to get out of my way and treat with me as the rightful ruler, rather than my nuncle.”

“So, recognition, primarily? Would that be recognition as Lady of the Iron Islands, or Queen?”

“Does it matter?” muttered Asha, looking out over the sea with a distant expression, as if she were scripting the naval battle against her nuncle rather than paying attention to the discussion in the gardens.

“That depends…how do you feel about fighting dragons?” interjected Garlan, amused.

“Nay, I’ve no interest in fighting dragons,” Asha replied, her attention snapping back to the present. “I’m happy to keep the Islands under the Iron Throne if need be. Actually, I had hoped your lady wife would be here, because I wished to speak with her about acquiring a bit of land in the North or Riverlands.”

“My wife drives a hard bargain,” replied Willas proudly. “But once she returns from the North, if you survive the battle, I would be happy to arrange a meeting between the two of you.”

“Look,” said Asha, staring Willas in the eyes. “Raiding is not a sustainable economic endeavor, and if it goes beyond a few toppled merchant’s carts, it provokes violent pushback from you Greenlanders. The future I envision for the Ironborn is one where we leave the old ways behind in exchange for some of the mainland’s riches. I foresee us farming just enough to feed ourselves, and mayhaps mining and ship-building as well, for there are none better at making longships than us. In the longer term, mayhaps we might join the other coastal powers in getting into the shipping and trading business. Or perhaps we might act as a defensive force, protecting the other Kingdoms from pirates in exchange for coin and goods. Regardless, we must find a way of life that is more profitable than stealing what trinkets we can lay our hands on before the Greenlander King and Lords smash our ships and bleed our men in retaliation. I don’t know how to translate that into Greenlander diplomatic talk, but that’s what I want.”

Her frankness is rather charming, thought Willas, enjoying this negotiation. He, too, would prefer a future where the Ironborn no longer plagued his coast with raiding.

“I am intrigued by your vision, and I would love to see a day when the Reach no longer needs fear raiders along our coast,” he told Asha. “But much of that will have to be developed in negotiation with our new Targaryen King or included as part of the peace process that brings the War of the Five Kings to a conclusion.”

“I know,” said Asha irritably. “That’s why I didn’t ask you to make any of that happen for me. I just want to fight with you against Euron, and I want you to acknowledge me as ruler of the Iron Islands. Mayhaps I could use your support in those future negotiations, too, but I assume you cannot make any promises in that regard without a representative of the North and mayhaps the Westerlands.”

“Indeed,” agreed Willas. “In that case, I accept your offer to fight on our side against Euron, and you shall have the Reach’s acceptance of your claim to the Iron Islands, if we can reach agreement on one remaining matter. That is, where is your brother and how does he fit into your plans?”

“Theon?” asked Asha, startled. “He is a prisoner at the Dreadfort, and he does not even know his own name. What does he have to do with any of this?”

“Well, by the succession laws of every Kingdom save Dorne, your brother is Lord Balon’s heir,” explained Willas mildly.

Asha shook her head. “He’s not fit to be the lord of a children’s play yard, much less anything bigger. The Boltons have tortured him to the point of insanity. I tried to rescue him and he wouldn’t even leave with me.”

“Oh,” said Willas, his eyes widening in surprise.

“You didn’t know?” Asha laughed bitterly.

“I do not know what my wife plans to do with him,” Willas admitted. “Does that prove a barrier to our alliance in the battle ahead?”

“No,” Asha stated, her tone cold. “Killing him would be a mercy, though I shall take him back if the North does not want him. As long as his claim is no barrier to your support for my right to rule, then whatever justice the North wishes to visit upon him is no problem for me. Only I would like for him not to be tortured any further, if your wife is amenable to that.”

“Lady Sansa is a kind woman, as I’ve told you,” noted Garlan. “I am not even sure if she could put a man to death.”

“Regardless, I doubt she would order someone tortured,” agreed Willas. “And if the man is truly as wretched as you say, that is clearly disqualifying. A madman cannot rule a Kingdom. The Reach shall not stand in the way of your claim to the Iron Islands.”

“Great,” said Asha, standing up. “Now can we get back to my ship? We have a battle to plan.”

The cat let out a little ‘mew,’ leapt down from the bench, and wound itself around Asha Greyjoy’s ankles. Garlan stood up as well, looking to Willas, who struggled up with greater difficulty.

“By your leave, brother, the lady…uh, captain, I mean…is right,” said Garlan. “I must needs return to the Shield Islands.”

“You do not wish to stay a night in the tower?” Willas asked his brother, sorry to see him go so soon after he’d arrived. Garlan shook his head.

“Much as I would like to sleep in a decent bed tonight, Euron could arrive at any time,” Garlan answered.

“Very well, then,” said Willas, leading them back towards the gate. Once it was shut and locked behind him, he gave his brother a parting hug. “Be safe, Ser Garlan the Gallant.”

“You, too,” his brother replied. “I imagine you’ll be plenty safe up here in this tower, but even so…I hope to see you again soon.”

“May the Warrior lead you to victory and the Mother protect you,” Willas called after the pair of them as they walked back towards the docks. Pleased to know that their forces would be even stronger than he expected, but nonetheless worried about the upcoming battle, Willas let himself back into the tower. He waited until the treacherous feline had re-entered before closing the door, hoping to avoid another conflict with the wretched serving urchin.

 

***

 

As he stood atop the Hightower, watching Euron Greyjoy sail towards Oldtown, Willas was even less confident about their prospects than he had been a fortnight ago, when he negotiated that fragile alliance with Asha. Most of the tactical planning had been left to the war council off the coast, which included Garlan, Loras, Asha, Paxter Redwyne, and Kevan Lannister, who had arrived with the Western fleet. (According to Paxter, Mace Tyrell had remained behind at Storm’s End, hoping to continue his council position under the new regime.) The heir to the Reach had to hope that their cleverness and might would be enough to counter the conventional military threat.

Willas had remained in Oldtown to assist his grandfather in developing solutions to the more occult possibilities that might arise during the battle. A few days ago, he had discovered a scrap of knowledge in an old book at the Citadel, which suggested that the Hightower itself could become a weapon against the darkness. It had struck a cord with his grandfather, and though the old man could not explain precisely what he meant to do, he assured Willas that the Hightower would protect the Reachmen and their allies during the battle.

With little else to do as they waited for the battle to begin, Willas – who did not pray often, believing most of the Faith of the Seven to be mere superstition – had spent the previous day praying at the Starry Sept. Please, he prayed to the Crone, guide my grandfather. Let this mysterious plan of his be born of wisdom, not madness. To the Warrior, he prayed for victory. To the Mother, he prayed for the lives of his brothers. Now, looking out over the wild, choppy seas, Willas prayed again.

If I were not a cripple, I would be out there, helping my brothers and my uncle, Willas thought with sorrow and a guilty conscience. My little brothers are fighting my battle for me, when I should be protecting them. 

Gazing through a Myrish eye, Willas searched among the ships until he found Euron’s Silence. He shivered as he saw that Euron’s visible eye was wild and bloodshot, and the man’s expression was twisted as he shouted orders Willas could not hear. With horror, the young Tyrell lord saw that there were people tied to the prow of the ship, their blood spilling onto the dusky water. Aboard the deck, Euron was disembowling some poor man, tossing his entrails into the sea. The next victim was a woman, and what Euron did to her was so disturbing that Willas dropped his eyes to the rooftop balcony underneath his feet, bile rising in his throat.

Lord Leyton had offered Willas the glass candle to view the battle, but the Tyrell lordling still mistrusted the magical device, preferring to watch the battle with his own eyes, aided if necessary by a mechanical eye whose functioning he could explain, rather than a magical one whose inner logic remained opaque to him. Besides, if Willas was being honest with himself, he found the thought of experiencing the battle with all of his senses, as if he were in the midst of it, more terrifying than appealing. Now, watching Euron begin his blood magic rituals, Willas was grateful that he had rejected his grandfather’s offer. To see all these gruesome acts as if standing beside this demonic Ironborn man, to smell the fluids leaking out of the bodies of his wretched victims as he tortured and sacrificed them, to feel the spray of their blood against his arms and cheeks…even the notion of it made Willas tremble in horror.

Unwilling to look back at the grotesque violence happening aboard Silence, Willas instead turned the Myrish glass to the edges of Euron’s fleet, where the three allied fleets had begun to engage with Euron’s ships. The Tyrell heir was comforted somewhat, to note that their combined forces were three or four times greater in size than Euron’s fleet. Another crucial advantage was the size and type of their ships. The allied fleet was flexible, with Asha’s longships alongside Redwyne and Lannister warships. Asha’s men had already boarded an opposing longship, cutting down their opponents and throwing their bodies to the sea. As Willas watched a Redwyne drommond crash against one of Euron’s longships, breaking the smaller vessel against its prow and sending the enemy Ironborn to their watery graves, it dawned on Willas that the only way they could lose was if Euron’s magic worked.

All this time, I half-believed that my work with grandfather was mere foolishness, but it may yet prove to be the most important dimension of this battle, Willas marveled. I thought my brothers had the more important task, but now I see that our study of the occult may be crucial to my brothers’ survival. It was not a cheery thought. He hoped more fervently than ever that Lord Leyton knew what he was doing.

Willas’s pulse throbbed in his throat as he watched Garlan, dressed only in light leather armor, begin a duel with one of the Ironborn captains, who bravely fought in full, heavy plate and mail. At first, Garlan fought beautifully and honorably, as if fighting an opponent in a tourney melee, and Willas feared he would soon witness his brother’s death. The Ironborn captain took Garlan’s sword thrusts easily, the blows glancing off his armor. But then Willas noticed something. Garlan’s thrusts, it appeared, were not intended to pierce the man’s armor. His brother was driving his enemy towards the side of the galleas, creating the impression of an honorable fight as he maneuvered his opponent towards the precipice. Once the man was in position, standing right beside the lip of the ship and raising his sword to strike Garlan dead, the usually chivalrous knight kicked the Ironborn soundly in the chest, sending him tumbling into the sea, where he would surely drown under the weight of his armor.

Thank the gods that Garlan’s honor does not run so deep that he would rather die honorably than live, Willas thought.

His next thought was much more troubling. If blood magic truly works, we are playing right into Euron’s hands, Willas realized suddenly, as he watched Paxter slice an enemy soldier’s throat and kick his body overboard.

As if triggered by his fear, the seas began to swirl and churn, creating a maelstrom in the bloody waters. Before Willas could find Garlan’s ship again in the midst of the rising chaos, Lord Leyton burst through the door from his office onto the rooftop.

“Now! Now! Follow me!” Leyton shouted, climbing up the rungs of the short ladder from the rooftop up to the Hightower’s light. Shoving the Myrish glass in his breast pocket, Willas took a huge breath and began to haul himself up the ladder, his injured leg dangling uselessly as he poured all his strength into his arms and his good leg. Fortunately, his arms were strong, and he was able to half-pull half-push himself into the lighthouse.

“Use the Myrish glass. Shine the light’s beam on the beast while I perform the chant,” instructed Leyton. Willas did as he was told, hands trembling as he peered out at the monster rising from the deep. Beside him, his grandfather chanted nonsense words in a language Willas had never heard before. The Hightower’s light blazed with unearthly brightness as Willas struggled to keep it trained on the immense sea creature – was it a kraken? A sea-dragon? The Drowned God himself?

As Lord Leyton completed his chant, the terrible thing began to move towards Euron. Using every ounce of his willpower, Willas kept the Hightower’s beam trained on the beast, until both the thing and Euron were bathed in a halo of otherworldly light. He watched with terror and fascination as a massive, dark cloud rose from Euron’s skin. The beast hovered, waiting. As the dark smoke cleared, tiny rivets of light began to break through Euron’s skin. Firewyrms, Willas realized with grim fascination. The same way Aerea Targaryen died. If Willas had the right of it, this meant that Euron truly had sailed through Old Valyria.

“Keep the beam on them!” Leyton shouted. “It’s working!”

His grandfather began chanting again, this time in a different, still unfamiliar language.

Abruptly, the kraken – if that’s truly what it was, for Willas knew only that it was dread and horror personified – opened its gaping maw and swallowed its summoner whole, before returning to the deep.

All at once, it was over. The seas calmed. The skies lightened. The beast was gone, and with it, Euron. All across the naval battlefield, swords clattered to the deck. The Ironborn were surrendering.

“We won, my boy, we won!” crowed Lord Leyton, dancing about the lighthouse with an energy that belied his age. “You can loose your grip now, child! It’s over. We won!”

We won? Willas wondered, looking at his grandfather as if through a dim haze, still clutching the tower’s light with a white-knuckled grip. Truly? We won?