A Clash of Kings-Prologue
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Maester Cressen broods on the omens all around him on Dragonstone. When news arrives that the storm lords will not support Stannis Baratheon’s quest for the Iron Throne, Cressen comes into conflict with Queen Selyse and the red priestess Melisandre over what course to take. In a desperate attempt to kill Melisandre, Cressen shares poison wine with her, but dies while she remains unaffected.
Maester Cressen watches from his balcony as the red comet spreads across the dawn over Dragonstone like a wound in the sky. The feeble 80-year-old chides himself for considering it an omen, yet he has never seen a comet so bright nor of that color. It is even visible during the day now. At the same time, hot steam has begun to issue from vents beneath the Dragonmont volcano, and a white raven has arrived from the Citadel, declaring the end of the longest summer in living memory (10 years, two turns and 16 days); too many omens to deny. It is enough to make any man believe in omens, but the old maester cannot decide what they might mean.
Cressen’s eventual successor Maester Pylos interrupts his thoughts with word that Princess Shireen wishes to see the white raven. The title “princess” is a new appellation for the young girl, now that her father, Stannis Baratheon, is a king. Cressen bids Pylos to show her in. The shy princess enters, followed by her shuffling fool Patchface, who wears a mock helm made from a bucket with antlers and cowbells. Perhaps once Patchface was a good fool, but now he has lost his wits and is incoherent as often as not. Only Shireen laughs at his antics or cares about him at all. Shireen’s face is unattractive even discounting the disfigurement from a bout of greyscale that nearly claimed her life as an infant. Shireen asks to see the white raven, and the maester will not deny her since she has been denied too much during her life of almost ten years. She is the saddest child the maester has ever known and he considers her another mark of his failures.
While Pylos goes to fetch the white raven, Cressen thinks how the solemn 25-year-old Pylos is not a good match for Dragonstone because grim places need lightening. However, a maester does not choose his post, and Cressen recalls coming to Dragonstone himself 12 years ago with his lord, though he never liked it here and never considered it home. Of late, when he wakes from restless nightmares of the red woman, Cressen often does not know where he is.
Cressen asks Shireen why she is up so early. The girl explains that she had nightmares of dragons coming to eat her. The maester remembers that she has always had nightmares. Thinking of the many dragon-inspired statues and buildings of Dragonstone, Cressen attempts to comfort her by explaining that Dragonstone was once the westernmost outpost of the ancient Freehold of Valyria. The dragon towers were created to make the fortress seem more formidable. He explains that the Valryians had long-forgotten ways of shaping stone and used them to make the thousands of stone dragons on the island. Shireen is unconvinced, telling him that the red woman says the thing in the sky is dragon’s breath. Cressen explains that it is only a comet and will be gone soon.
Shireen states that her mother says the white raven means it is not summer any more, and the maester confirms that it is true. He then goes on to tell her about the white ravens, and how the Citadel has determined that summer is over. Cressen says that it is hoped that there will be a warm autumn with bountiful harvests. He knows that a long summer is said to bring a long winter, but does not want to frighten the child. When she asks if it will snow, the maester says it will, but he prays it will not be for years yet. Then, Pylos returns with the white raven, and the maester introduces the raven to Shireen. Shireen is delighted to learn that it can speak.
Patchface begins to sing, “The shadows came to dance, my lord, dance my lord, dance my lord,” hopping from one foot to the other, “The shadows came to stay, my lord, stay my lord, stay my lord.” He jerks his head with each word, and his bells make a clangor. Shireen declares that Patchface has been singing that song often lately and it scares her. She asks the maester to make him stop. Cressen thinks back to how the old Lord Steffon Baratheon found the fool in Volantis while seeking a wife for Rhaegar Targaryen. Upon their return journey, within sight of home, their ship sank, killing everyone aboard. Patchface was washed up on the shore three days later, naked, cold, and clammy. They took him for dead, but then he coughed up water and survived, albeit broken in mind and body, hardly capable of speech let alone wit. Many suggested that it would be kindest for Cressen to let the mad boy die, but he refused, and now he wonders at that decision. Cressen assures Shireen that Patchface is just rambling and does not comprehend any of what he says.
Pylos, who went to fetch Cressen’s breakfast, returns to inform him that Ser Davos Seaworth returned during the night and has been with Stannis most of the night. Cressen complains that he should have been notified, as it is his duty to advise the king. Asking pardons of Shireen, the old man has Pylos help him hobble with his bad hips to the Stone Drum, the main keep of Dragonstone. He passes windows from which he can see 3,000 men in the camp outside the wall, and the anchorage filled with ships since no ship that has come within sight of Dragonstone has been allowed to leave.
Once inside the Stone Drum, Cressen leaves Pylos, stating he wants to see Stannis alone. As he ascends the stairs he regrets leaving Pylos. He meets Ser Davos coming down the stairs. Davos reveals that his mission as envoy to the Stormlands has been a failure. It is as Cressen warned: the lords sworn to Storm's End have no love for Stannis and will not support his claim. Instead, they have joined with the lords of the Reach in supporting Stannis’ younger brother, Renly.
News of Renly claiming the crown leads Cressen to worry for the youngest Baratheon. When Ser Davos mentions that Renly has instituted a new Kingsguard, Cressen recalls that Renly was always fond of games and rich bright fabrics as a child. “Look at me, I’m a dragon,” and “Look at me, I’m a wizard,” the boy was always shouting. Cressen sees Renly’s bid to be king as no more than another game: “Look at me, I’m a king!”
Cressen asks Davos if he could bring Stannis any hope, but Davos insists that the only hope he could bring would have been the false sort. This leads Cressen to recall that Ser Davos was once a notorious smuggler who sailed a black ship past a Redwyne blockade in the dead of night to deliver onions and salt fish to Stannis’ starving garrison during the Siege of Storm's End. It allowed them to survive until Lord Eddard Stark could lift the siege. Stannis knighted Davos for his deed. However, as punishment for his past misdeeds, Stannis himself cut short all the fingers on Davos’ left hand save the thumb; Davos had insisted that Stannis do the cutting. Cressen realizes that a man like that would give no false hope to Stannis. Ser Davos declares that if Stannis marches on King's Landing now, as is his intent, with so small an army it will only be to die. Cressen responds that Davos has done all he can and that it is now his turn.
Cressen finds Stannis in the top room of the keep, looking down at the Painted Table, which is shaped as a detailed map of the continent of Westeros. Stannis greets him with the statement that he knew Cressen would come even without a summons. He says that Cressen is now old and needs his sleep, and that he would have learned what Davos knew on his own anyway. Talk between the maester and the king quickly turns into a rant by Stannis about how the Baratheon birthright of Storm’s End, the Stormlands, and its income should have passed to him rather than Renly when their brother Robert assumed the Iron Throne. Stannis did not want Dragonstone, but when his brother commanded it, he occupied it and built his brother’s fleets. It is an old grievance made new by the fact that Dragonstone, ancient and strong though it is, commands the allegiance of only a handful of lesser lords whose stony island holdings are too thinly occupied to supply the men that Stannis needs to seize his rightful throne.
Cressen explains that Robert did him an injustice, but gave him lordship of Dragonstone because a man’s strength was needed to hold it and Renly was just a boy. Stannis declares that Renly is still a boy, a thieving child who has never done anything to deserve the throne. Stannis wonders aloud why the gods inflicted him with brothers. Then he asks about the advice Renly gets from his maester, but Cressen doubts that Renly would seek council; Renly is bold and heedless, much like Robert.
When Stannis asks what he is to tell the few anxious bannermen he does command, Maester Cressen reminds him that House Lannister is his true enemy and suggests that he join with Renly to defeat them. Stannis flatly refuses. Cressen yields immediately and suggests a partnership with the new King in the North, Robb Stark, who commands all the power of Winterfell and Riverrun. Stannis again refuses, claiming that Robb is a green boy and another false king that seeks to steal half of his kingdom. Cressen suggests that half a realm is better than none and that Robb may even submit in exchange for help in avenging his father, but Stannis remains adamant and launches into another rant about the slights he received at the hands of his brother Robert:
|“||“Why should I avenge Eddard Stark? The man was nothing to me. Oh, Robert loved him, to be sure. Loved him as a brother, how often did I hear that? I was his brother, not Ned Stark, but you would never have known by the way he treated me. I held Storm's End for him, watching good men starve while Mace Tyrell and Paxter Redwyne feasted within sight of my walls. Did Robert thank me? No. He thanked Stark, for lifting the siege when we were down to rats and radishes. I built a fleet at Robert’s command, took Dragonstone in his name. Did he ever take my hand and say, Well done, brother, whatever should I do without you? No, he blamed me for letting Willem Darry steal away Viserys and the babe, as if I could have stopped it. I sat on his council for fifteen years, helping Jon Arryn rule his realm while Robert drank and whored, but when Jon died, did my brother name me his Hand? No, he went galloping off to his dear friend Ned Stark, and offered him the honor. And small good it did either of them.”||”|
Cressen then proposes a marriage pact between Shireen and young Robert Arryn. Stannis dismisses the possibility of bringing the weak and sickly Robert to Dragonstone, as planned before Lord Arryn’s death, because Lysa Arryn is paranoid and hides him in the Eyrie. Cressen urges him to send Shireen and her fool to the Eyrie instead—Dragonstone is a grim home for a child. Stannis now agrees that it is worth a try.
Then Stannis’ wife, Queen Selyse, arrives to argue that Stannis should not have to beg or bargain for help; they all owe their allegiance to him as the true king. Queen Selyse has been entirely converted to the worship of the foreign god R'hllor by the red priestess Melisandre of Asshai. Stannis tells her he needs swords, and asks whether she has an army. She replies that House Florent can provide an army, but Stannis retorts that they can only provide 2,000 men, and are too close to Highgarden. The queen proclaims that the comet is an omen from the Lord of Light that He will aid Stannis in his conquest. Stannis, who does not share his wife’s newfound faith, questions how many men the Red God will deliver him. Selyse insists that R’hllor will provide all the power of Highgarden and Storm's End. Stannis reminds her that those men now support Renly. Selyse agrees, but suggests that if Renly should die, his army would join Stannis. She then notes that Melisandre has looked into the flames and seen Renly dead. Cressen is horrified by the notion and pleads that fratricide is evil. Stannis declares that he has heard Cressen’s advice and will now hear hers, and sends the aged maester away.
By the time Cressen joins Pylos at the bottom of the steps, he can hardly stand erect, and needs to be helped back to his rooms. There, Cressen contemplates his options. He raised Robert, Stannis, and Renly after their father died, and cannot watch one kill the other. He knows that everything Queen Selyse said has been preached to her by Melisandre, the red priestess. It is she who must be silenced before she can convert King Stannis to her evil schemes and spread her mad religion beyond Dragonstone.
Therefore, Cressen goes to a small workroom under the rookery stair and retrieves a small vial of purple crystals, a poison known in Westeros only as the Strangler. Dissolved in wine, one of the small crystals is enough to cause the victim's throat muscles to constrict more tightly than any fist, making it impossible for the victim to breathe. Cressen plans to put one in Lady Melisandre’s drink at the feast Stannis is holding for his bannermen tonight. He knows it is a dreadful thing he is planning, but surely the gods will forgive him. As he lays down for a nap, Cressen wonders if the comet is his, foreboding murder.
Hours later, Cressen wakes to discover he has overslept and is late for the feast. He calls for Pylos, who should have awoken him, but Pylos does not come, so he has to shout for the servants. As he crosses the long gallery, the comet outside the windows looks malevolent to him, but he thinks he should not fear. When he enters the great hall, he finds Stannis and his bannermen have begun without him. As Cressen crosses the room, Patchface the fool lurches into him while singing the same song from the morning and they both fall to the floor. Face-to-face with Cressen, the fool says “Under the sea you fall up, I know, I know.”
Cressen is too feeble to rise on his own, but fortunately strong hands lift him to his feet. When he turns to thank the knight he believes helped him, he comes face-to-face with Lady Melisandre herself, clothed in red silk with red eyes. The red priestess mockingly advises him to mind his steps, intoning her religion's prayer, “For the night is dark and full of terrors.” Cressen insists that only children fear the dark. Melisandre gives him a riddle, “A clever fool and a foolish wise man”, and places Patchface’s ridiculous antlered helm upon Cressen’s head, telling him “A crown to match your chain, Lord Maester.” All around him, Cressen hears laughter. He removes the crown, fighting his rage. He tells her he needs no crown but truth, to which Melisandre replies that some truths are not taught in Old Town.
When he reaches the high table, Cressen sees that Stannis has given his accustomed seat to Pylos. When questioned why he did not wake him, Pylos blushes and states he was told to let Cressen rest and that Cressen was not needed here. Cressen looks at the gaudy knights and captains: aged and sour Lord Ardrian Celtigar, handsome Lord Monford Velaryon, plump 14-year-old Lord Duram Bar Emmon, homely Ser Axell Florent, pious Lord Guncer Sunglass, and the Lysene captain Salladhor Saan. Only Ser Davos Seaworth is simply dressed. Melisandre sits to Stannis’ right, in the place of high honor. Of all the lords, only Davos will meet his gaze, with pity in his eyes.
Stannis declares that Pylos will now assume all of Cressen's duties, insisting that Cressen is too ill and confused to be of use to him any longer. Cressen cannot believe it is Stannis’s voice that states this. Cressen is heartbroken by the rejection, remembering how he was the one that loved Stannis as a boy, perhaps because Stannis was the one who was unloved. Cressen accepts and meekly pleads for some place at the table, though he still feels he belongs at Stannis’ side. Of all the assembled lords, only Ser Davos offers him a seat.
As Patchface continues to caper about, Ser Davos comments that they should wear motley, since they are about fool’s business: Melisandre has seen victory in her flames and so Stannis plans to press his claim, no matter the numbers. Cressen urges Stannis a final time to ally himself with Robb Stark or Lysa Arryn, but Queen Selyse insists that R’hllor is the only ally Stannis needs. Cressen replies that gods make uncertain allies, and here R'hllor has no power. Melisandre tells him that if he believes that he should put Patchface’s crown back on, and Queen Selyse commands thus. Stannis grudgingly orders the fool to give the crown to Cressen. After the fool places the crown on Cressen’s head, Selyse suggests that Cressen sing. Stannis refuses and declares that Cressen has served him well.
Suddenly, Cressen sees the opportunity to poison Melisandre. He is close to Davos’ cup, which he takes and slips a crystal into. He is sure only Davos notices. Cressen proposes to Melisandre that they share a cup of wine to toast to her god’s power. She agrees. Davos tries to stop him, but Cressen insists he is doing what he must for the sake of the realm and his lord’s soul. Before they drink, Melisandre gives him the opportunity to back out, but Cressen refuses. Melisandre drinks most of the cup, leaving only a small amount for Cressen. Cressen pushes away his fear and drinks as well. The ruby at Melisandre’s throat glows as she insists that her god R’hllor does have power. Cressen tries to reply, but his throat has already begun to constrict. Unaffected by the poison, Melisandre looks on with pity as Cressen collapses and dies.
References and Notes
- Humorous review of the chapter
- Review of the 2nd part of the chapter in the course of a 10th reread
- Review and summary by Leigh Butler.