Disclaimer: A Song of Ice and Fire is certainly not mine, nor is the show Game of Thrones – they belong to GRRM and HBO respectively. I'm just playing in the sandbox. Some dialogue lifted directly or changed only slightly from the book, and one quote recycled from the show in a different setting.
Even much later, Renly never could say why he decided to speak with Catelyn Stark in her tent as opposed to his own. At the time, it had simply seemed a bit more private – once he was in there, no one would guess to look for him in that spot, and he really did wish to speak to Lady Catelyn privately. Brienne was there of course, but she would never speak of anything they said.
As he listened, for the first time he truly found himself believing Stannis' claim about Joffrey, Myrcella, and Tommen. “The Lannisters tried to kill my son Bran,” she said. “You remember the first time, you were with your brother when he came to Winterfell to ask Ned...” She trailed off, but then seemed to gather herself. “My son could climb anything, in wind and rain and snow, and not fall. I believe he was thrown from that tower, and later, an assassin was sent with a knife that a man I trust told me belonged to Tyrion Lannister. That day Bran fell, most of you rode out, but Jaime Lannister stayed – with the Queen.”
The implication was obvious. “You believe your boy caught them at their incest.”
“Yes. I beg you, my lord, grant me leave to go to your brother Stannis and tell him what I suspect.”
“To what end?”
“Robb will set aside his crown if you and your brother will do the same.” Did she really think her son would do that? Renly could say from experience; once a man, even a near-boy like Robb Stark, tasted the power of a crown, he would not want to give it up. There were things about being king that Renly disliked – but most of that stemmed from something he doubted Robb Stark had to think about. A queen who, fond as he was of her, was not the one he loved, the one he loved was her brother... Unlikely, especially as the “Young Wolf” had no queen.
Lady Catelyn continued, “Let the three of you call for a Great Council, such as the realm has not seen for a hundred years. We will send to Winterfell, so Bran may tell his tale and all men may know the Lannisters for the true usurpers. Let the assembled lords of the Seven Kingdoms choose who shall rule them.”
Renly thought that, had this suggestion come up right after Robert's death – if Lord Eddard had listened to him, taken Cersei's children by force and declared their true parentage openly after, instead of sending Stannis a secret note – this idea might have worked. Might. And yet... For all that Robert's hate of the Targaryens had been obsessive, nearly mad, there were those who still supported them. What if the lords had chosen the Targaryen girl? Unacceptable then, even more so now – she was Aerys' get, and potentially just as mad. Rumors from the Free Cities had certainly pegged her late brother as unstable.
So he laughed at Lady Catelyn's suggestion. “Tell me, my lady, do direwolves vote on who should lead the pack? The time for talk is done. Now we see who is stronger.”
Catelyn stared at him, and he could see that she was searching for something to say, when shouts outside distracted them all. Brienne tensed. “Your Grace, my lady, please remain here.” Brienne did not exactly leave – she was too loyal to do so when another member of the Rainbow Guard was not present – but she stood in the entrance to the tent, demanding answers from those who passed by. No one seemed to know, but finally a young man – boy, really; it was Rhys, one of the squires – stopped to explain. “It's Ser Emrys Storm, Lady Brienne. He's been attacked, he's dying.”
Ser Emrys... Renly could see the man clearly in his mind; sixteen years old, one of Robert's bastards. He looked as much like a young Robert as Renly himself did; in fact, Mace Tyrell had commented that should Renly ever need a decoy for some reason, Emrys would be ideal. And he'd been attacked? He'd sent Emrys to his tent, to fetch something... Gods.
“Brienne, let me pass,” he said firmly. She stepped aside, following right behind him – he imagined Lady Catelyn had as well, though he didn't stop to look. By the time he reached his own tent, and the group gathered nearby, surrounding something – Emrys, as it turned out when he reached the front – the young knight was already dead. Emmon Cuy of Renly's Rainbow Guard knelt beside him. He looked up at Renly, eyes wide with shock.
“I heard him scream, I was walking by and, having heard you send Emrys to your tent I knew it was him. He was clutching at his throat, a wound was there, but... I saw no one, no attacker, save for a shadow. A shadow that did not belong to Emrys, and in fact...”
“In fact?” Renly snapped, in no mood for delays.
“The shadow looked like Lord Stannis.”
Stannis. Of course. Renly bit the tip of his tongue, forcing back the bitter laugh that wanted to escape him. It was, perhaps, the one tactic he had not considered, assassinating his brother. He had hoped that Stannis would see he could not win and yield. Renly would have let him keep Dragonstone, would have given him Storm's End. No one wanted Stannis for king; he was a good military man, but so unbending that he'd make a terrible king. Better than Robert in some ways, but Renly knew he could do far better than either of his elder brothers were capable of.
Still, this didn't make sense. A shadow? That was when he remembered Stannis' red priestess, his new standard and his strange crown. The Lord of Light, was it? Melisandre, he'd heard, was from Asshai – the people of that city were rumored to have great skill in sorcery. Renly had never put much stock in tales of magic before, but... How else to explain this?
He barely remembered calling the lords back to council, but he must have, because soon they were all gathered again. Renly himself was flanked by Brienne and Loras, with the rest of the Rainbow Guard behind them – and if he had not noticed Loras arriving he really was not focusing all that well. Oddly, it was Lady Catelyn who first brought his mind back. “Please, by your leave, I must return north as soon as possible. If Lord Stannis' priestess is using sorcery to attack his rivals, my son might be next. I need to warn him.”
“No,” Renly said firmly, his mind clearing. He knew what he had to do next. “You will remain with us, Lady Catelyn. You may send a raven to your son, warning him of Stannis and his red witch, and also informing him of Cersei Lannister's incest. But you will tell him something else too. We will meet face-to-face and discuss terms, I think.”
“Your Grace,” Randyll Tarly cut in, as though he could not help himself, “will you allow the Stark boy to keep his title of King in the North? Take part of your kingdom from you?”
“Better a part than all of it, Lord Tarly, and the details will be worked out at the meeting between Robb Stark and myself.” Truthfully, Renly did not want to secede the North fully to Robb Stark, but in all honesty, the boy could keep his title and most of the running of the North if he wanted. The Starks had done that much for generations, and as he'd said before to Lady Catelyn, the precise titles did not matter. And if it came down to it... With Stannis willing to use magic, if giving the boy the North was what it took, it might be worth it. The details could be taken care of at the meeting. He'd seen Robb Stark when he'd gone with Robert to Winterfell, but he'd barely noticed the boy then. He would need to take this young king's measure before making any final decisions.
~ ~ ~
After the events of the night so far, no one questioned the wisdom of their king avoiding his tent, nor did they wonder at the Rainbow Guard's Lord Commander offering up his tent. Brienne and Emmon stood guard outside, so there was no question of doing anything but curling up together to sleep, almost innocent. But just now, Loras was of the opinion that was enough. “Gods, Renly,” he murmured, “that could have been... And none of us could have stopped it.”
That was what was so frightening about this, so far as Loras was concerned. Not just that it could have so easily been Renly who died, but that he couldn't have saved him if it had. Loras had promised to fight, die even, for Renly, the day they'd first talked of Renly being king. He'd sworn an oath as Lord Commander of the Rainbow Guard. And yet, had it been Renly tonight, even if Loras had been there he wouldn't have been able to do anything. What good was a sword against a shadow, against magic that before tonight, he would have called an old wives' tale?
“But it wasn't me,” Renly said, and though his voice was calm, Loras could hear that his lover was shaken too. This was the first night they'd truly spent together since this war had begun, but though he'd hoped to get their nights back... Not like this. Never for something like this. He felt Renly's fingers carding through his hair, a habit of his, and Loras leaned into the touch, thinking that he'd find some way to fight these shadows. Because he couldn't lose this.
“We'll find a way around this,” Renly continued, as though echoing Loras' thoughts. “We'll outthink them – as this is Stannis, that shouldn't be hard, he's never been creative.”
Gods damn him, there was humor in his voice. Loras sat up, glaring down at Renly, who looked more bemused than anything. “This isn't funny!” he snapped. “You came very close to dying tonight, because you claim the crown your brother thinks is his. A crown you decided to claim on my advice.” And that, that was the worst of it. Loras had been the one to encourage Renly to claim the throne. Oh, he'd known Renly had ambitions, but he also knew that the other man needed a push to admit that was what he truly wanted. And Loras, watching Baratheons and Lannisters alike, had decided to give that push. He'd truly believed Renly was the right man, but... But if it got him killed...
“Don't, Loras. I could have dismissed your idea; I nearly did, if you recall,” Renly said firmly, sitting up as well and gripping Loras' chin, making him meet his eyes. “In the end, the choice to take the Iron Throne was my decision. The consequences of that are my responsibility. Not yours.”
“No. Don't you dare blame yourself, Loras Tyrell. There's no need, and I'm fine, anyway.”
“Emrys isn't.” Loras had liked Emrys; he'd known him at Storm's End, and they were about the same age. He might have been relieved that Renly had lived, but he could still regret the other man's death.
“Yes,” Renly said, and there was sadness in his voice as well. “I wonder if Stannis would feel any guilt, if he knew that his witch killed our nephew, who he had no quarrel with, instead of me. Probably not.” He laughed bitterly as he laid back down, and Loras realized what he should have before. That flash of humor had only been to hide the turmoil he now saw in those familiar blue eyes.
To the seven hells with Brienne and Emmon, he decided, leaning down and kissing his king, long, slow and intense. He kissed him until some of that bleak look had gone out of his eyes, and then settled back down beside him. Offering comfort, Loras had found himself comforted as well. “You're right. We can outsmart Stannis. But, Renly, this meeting with Robb Stark... I'm curious. Do you really mean to leave him as sovereign of the North?”
“Not if I can avoid it,” Renly said bluntly. “I'll let the boy keep most of his power gladly if he swears fealty to me, but honestly? After what Stannis did tonight, I can't forgive him. I'll take deserters from his side, yes, but... I might have the greatest force, but an ally would be useful. The Lannister bitch controls King's Landing and her father's got as much money as ever. Should she manage to get Stannis' forces somehow... Even if she doesn't, it's a hell of a lot easier to focus in on an enemy and not have to worry about someone at our backs who might become one.”
“So Robb Stark first, and then... Stannis or King's Landing.”
“I think... King's Landing. The Stark boy wants the Lannisters to pay, and I don't blame him. Besides, if I take the capitol, Stannis will have to see he won't have a chance, red witch or not. And I've not forgotten the Targaryen girl, Daenerys. She'd be a fool, if she knows anything of what goes on here, not to try and take advantage. Better to treat with Stark and crush Lannister, and then deal with Stannis.”
Loras turned his head, watching Renly's face. “Are you certain? It seems to me that Stannis is the most dangerous – he's decided to rid himself of you first, after all. Ignoring him might not be wise.”
“I don't want to kill him, Loras. Even if I'd be justified, now. Besides, I can't do anything but evade that woman's shadows, regardless of who I focus on.”
“If we're lucky, she can't send them over too great a distance – it hasn't escaped me that she waited until Stannis' forces were close,” Loras observed, calm enough now to think more clearly.
“That's a good point, and it only convinces me more that Robb Stark is where we begin, as I'll be further away in that case,” Renly said. “Now, we should probably try and sleep.” He closed his eyes, and, surprisingly, was asleep almost immediately. Normally, Renly was the wakeful one and Loras the one who slept quickly, but tonight, after dousing the lights in the tent, Loras was the one who stayed awake for hours, listening to his king's steady breathing in the dark. He'd almost lost him tonight, but that sort of near-miss would never happen again. Somehow, Loras would make sure of that.
~ ~ ~
Robb hadn't felt like a boy since the bronze and iron crown was placed on his head. He could not be a boy, for all that they called him the Young Wolf. But he felt like a boy now, sitting across from Renly Baratheon at the meeting table. Though, really, he supposed it made sense – so far, being King in the North had been an extreme version of being the Lord of Winterfell, leading his bannermen. Diplomacy was a newer thing for him. Still, it was only a fleeting thought, and then he lifted his chin. The other man had a crown of gold with jade stag antlers, but his was newly-formed, newly-designed. Robb's was made in the fashion of the old Kings of Winter, his forebears. He might be unused to this, but he was certainly not a lesser man, or a lesser King.
“Our terms are simple,” he said, his voice calm. “The North is to be a free and independent kingdom, from this time until the end of time. An alliance with the Iron Throne is welcome, provided it is not a Lannister on that throne.”
“And why should I not just take King's Landing, and return to bring you to heel?” Renly asked, casual as though he really didn't care. Robb stayed calm, but Grey Wind, sitting by his chair, growled lowly. He had the satisfaction of seeing the older king's eyes flick to his wolf, a flash of wariness in the look. But Robb managed not to smile.
“You and I are both likely to be targets of your brother, Lord Stannis. He seems to have fixed on you, but if he manages to kill you, I am almost certainly next,” Robb said. “As well as that, we have a common goal in getting the bastard Joffrey off the Iron Throne. King's Landing barely ruled in the North before your brother King Robert's death; my father acted in his name, but in almost all respects, he ruled the North from Winterfell. I will be your ally, in this war and, provided our agreement is honored, in future ones. Starks and Baratheons have been friends until now, there is no reason that cannot continue. But I will not be your vassal, nor anyone else's.”
“Why not? Your ancestor bent the knee to a superior force – my army is greater than yours.”
“Because there is nothing for the North in the South, nor for the South in the North. We are better off allied, against outside invasion, but our needs, our way of life, none of these things are the same. And because, now that we in the North have tasted true independence again, we will not give it up so easily.”
Renly leaned forward. “I don't need you,” he said softly. “I could crush them all without you, and then tame you, Young Wolf.”
Robb leaned forward as well, and he knew his smile was as wolfish as his nickname. “If that's the case, then why are you here? And do you really want to spend your army's strength on the lions and your brother with his sorceress, but then have to turn and face me? It would be a waste of time, would it not?”
There was a long, tense silence, and then – He laughed. Of all things, the King in Highgarden threw back his head and laughed. “You know something, Stark? I rather think I might come to like you,” he said, still looking amused. “Keep your crown – heavy-looking thing, really – and keep your winter snows. We will have to discuss the Riverlands in more depth once the war is won, but for now, I'm content to leave them in your hands.”
“You meant to concede to me this entire time,” Robb said, unable to keep a faint note of accusation from his voice.
“Not quite; I had hoped you'd bend the knee,” Renly said carelessly. “I'd have titled you Prince of the North as a sop, some such thing. But, yes, I was prepared to take you as an ally and not a vassal, if I didn't think you'd be moved. You're a stubborn thing for being only... How old are you?”
“I will be sixteen this year.”
“So, fifteen. You're young for a crown, and young to be so damned muleheaded. But, well, you're a Stark, I should have expected it.”
“You're not much older. And neither was your brother.” And my blood may well be older, and with more right to wear my crown, Robb added silently. He said nothing of his Stark blood making him stubborn – that was actually more true than not, so he couldn't really argue. “And all of us rebels, by someone's reckoning.”
“Only if we lose.”
“Well,” Robb said, “then we just won't lose.” A simple thing, but in the end, the only truth there in this war of kings. Later that night, Robb studied his map, wondering what the Lannisters would say now. This wasn't going to be easy, but he would get justice for his father, help another Baratheon win the Iron Throne, and then come back to the North. With any luck, they'd be able to free Sansa and find Arya. It seemed like a good plan to him.