The bottle was made of pink glass chased in silver filigree, a gift fit for a king. Varys got it off an old Lyseni pirate who lost a friendly game of dice in the waning days of a summer now long gone. The pirate informed Varys that it was a flask of the perfect size for carrying a man’s most powerful brew, be it beer or poison. Having mulled this over, the pirate then advised Varys that it was best to choose one or the other, in case of confusion. Varys assured him he would do just that.
Nowadays, Varys found it most useful as a water flask; tucked into the folds of his sleeve, it was nearly invisible. It was never a bad thing to carry one’s own water. Since Ned Stark and his train had arrived from the north, it seemed their late southron summer had heated to boiling in more ways than one.
Which was why Varys had found it needful of late to fill the flask with something a little stronger than water. Or if not needful, amusing, at any rate. He began by taking a nip, covered with a delicate cough, whenever council meetings irritated him. That was what gave him the idea. Varys tended to roll his eyes and twitch toward his flask whenever Robert mentioned hunting. It seemed to be all the man thought about. Perhaps, Varys mused, there might be an entertaining way to determine exactly how often Robert did talk about boar... and to take the measure of a few other things as well.
The week before the tourney, the realm was in perfect chaos, and Varys decided it was time for his experiment. The first morning, he measured out exactly one and a half cups of arbor gold from his private cask. He poured it into the bottle and put in the stopper. Then he gathered his papers, neatened his robes, and went out to begin his day.
His first appointment of the morning was with the king in his chambers, where Varys required Robert to sign a few letters as his squires dressed him. Robert was already in his cups, Varys was impressed to note, or perhaps still not out of them from the night before, and he roared at the blond boy trying to fit a too-small shift over the king’s shoulders. Robert cursed him and sent him for a new shirt with a half-earnest threat to stick him like a wild boar. That counted, Varys supposed, and when the king’s head was bent over the papers, Varys took a drink from his pink bottle.
The middle of the day was largely taken up with affairs outside the walls of the Red Keep, but when Varys had returned and changed back into his ordinary attire, he bumped into Littlefinger in the receiving hall.
“Sorry,” said Littlefinger crisply, “I must be going blind, not to see you coming.” He eyed Varys’ cloth-of-purple robe and saffron slippers.
Varys chuckled. “Quite all right, my friend. I wasn’t expecting you out of bed so soon.”
“Well, the deflowering of innocent virgins is a busy task. One must wake up early if one is to keep anything like a regular schedule.” Littlefinger paused, examining Varys. “Are you all right?”
“What? Oh, yes, quite, old friend, quite so,” Varys sputtered, wiping the wine from his lips and nose, privately deciding it was unwise to drink to something that also made him laugh—though no doubt drinking to Littlefinger’s habits would always prove dangerous one way or another. “Summer cough, you know. They do hang on so.”
“They do.” Littlefinger smiled his thinnest, most cursory smile, but his eyes twinkled. “Council meeting this afternoon?”
“I shall tremble with anticipation until then,” Varys replied, and walked off.
At the council meeting, Robert mentioned hunting not at all and whores only once. Varys had begun to think the entire project had been a mistake, but then Maester Pycelle finally made his creaky way to the table, and he tangled himself in his beard at least three times, the last time provoking a muttered comment about the relative pleasures of old age versus youth from Littlefinger, which Varys supposed counted. Three beard-tangles, one reference to whores, one to young girls: five drinks for one meeting was plenty, and Varys would have been satisfied. Then Ned muttered something darkly about the foolishness of spending all this money on the tourney when winter was coming, and Varys chuckled to himself, without sputtering, as he drained the bottle.
Robert proved predictable: Varys owed at least a half a cup of arbor a day for the next few days to his penchant for nostalgia, swearing, and threats of grievous bodily harm, all of which revolved around either hunting or whoring in the king’s idiom. Pycelle was less consistent. Some days, he seemed fairly unable to walk the length of a room without tripping over his beard; others, he looked as sharp and dangerous as ever, and Varys made a few sober notes to himself to ask questions of his little birds.
But as the week wore on, Ned and Littlefinger seemed fairly vying with one another to take the prize. During one private meeting with the Hand, Varys emptied the entire flask on dire prophecies of the kingdom’s fall, half-heard curses on foolish southron lords, and at least six foreboding iterations of the Stark words. He had barely had time to refill the bottle and note the amount in his log-book when he ran into Littlefinger outside his chambers and lost another cup’s worth of sour red to the Master of Coin’s description of a particularly lovely set of young girls he’d recently added to his nearest whorehouse.
It was not until he had stumbled back to his rooms, near dizzy with drink, that something occurred to him.
He rapped on Littlefinger’s door three times, or as near three as he could count, and waited politely. The door creaked open, revealing Littlefinger’s grinning face in the aperture.
“My dear friend,” he said, “troubled at so late an hour? Do come in. I hope you won’t mind the mess. I was just finishing a particularly eloquent treatise on the virtues of virgins’ newly developed breasts.”
Varys narrowed his eyes. Littlefinger seemed to be waiting for something. His smile broadened.
“Or perhaps you’d prefer something from Oldtown? I did just receive a shipment of stunning ink drawings—”
“You villain,” Varys said, and then he burst out laughing, the loudest, most earnest laugh he’d had in a season. Littlefinger just stood there, his smile stretching from ear to ear, as Varys wiped his eyes. “Ah, my friend. There is no little gambit of mine that escapes you, is there? How long have you known?” He plucked the bottle from his sleeve and placed it on the table.
“Since the first day,” Littlefinger said, picking up the flask to examine it. “You are a master of many things, Varys, but drinking in secret is not one of them. I saw you drink not only to my little indiscretions, but Ned’s, Robert’s, and Pycelle’s as well. No doubt the captain of the guard could teach you a thing or two about sneaking drinks from your hidden flask of spiced wine on a cold night.”
Varys chuckled. “A lesson I’ll be sure to take within the fortnight. Ah, well, I’m glad I afforded a few people some entertainment in getting me far deeper in my cups than they’d a right to. Though I’d never have expected you to enlist Ned Stark, of all people.” He shook his head.
Littlefinger looked up. “What do you mean?”
“Why, Ned, of course,” Varys said. “That you told him about my little game, and that he should...” It dawned on them both at the same time. “You didn’t tell him anything.”
“That moody arsehole,” Littlefinger said, and threw his head back, and this time the two men shared in the laughter, long and loud, until the Red Keep echoed with the sound of their voices.