It was the Wall that had gone wrong with Renly. Stannis knew it. If Robert didn't know it, it was his own fool Baratheon pride that still gave him other ideas. Their boy brother sat red-rimmed on his pallet while Stannis and Robert quarreled, their voices bitten low--even Robert's--for fear of being heard. The fire was roaring, Robert having stoked it to hazard in his temper; Stannis crossed to tend it while Robert spoke through his teeth.
"We're all men here," Robert said. "We're all surrounded by men here. You were young. I don't see you taking up that kind of company."
"He was a child," said Stannis, "and you don't know what's become of him here."
Robert threw up his hands. "Half of us all are children! Do you see the rest of us--do you see the rest of us--" He couldn't seem to spit the profanities that described what he meant, which was unnerving in and of itself. It was a chill day when Stannis's brother couldn't find it in himself to be crude. "We should leave him out," he muttered. "We should take him and leave him out."
Renly looked away. Stannis said, "He's your brother."
"He's your brother," said Stannis, "twice over, and I'll take you to the block myself if you betray one of us. Never speak of that again."
Renly cleared his throat. He was fourteen, and half the size Robert had been at his age--meals came half as often as they had at Storm's End. "Stannis--" he said.
Without looking at him, Stannis struck him. The blow was half-aligned and knocked him back over the cot, where his shoulders collided with the wall. "This is your doing, Renly," Stannis said, low.
Renly held in his breath; Stannis could hear it going ragged, but he hadn't sobbed in front of Stannis for years. For that, Stannis felt a pinprick of pride for him--a pinprick, next to the shame. Just then they heard voices from the corridor and all three of them went silent, straightened up: a common cause unspoken between them. Robert looked to the door, and Stannis looked immediately at Renly, whose face could ruin them; but Renly's features had settled into placidity, like nothing was wrong, and it was near-impossible to tell that he had been weeping. He brushed his hand over the red mark on his cheek, as if he might rub it out.
It was the Wall that had gone wrong with Renly--but he was further and further out of Stannis's reach every year. Robert had never been there, in the first place; Robert had never liked him, so it glanced off when Robert snubbed him. But Renly, Renly was always running away: across the Wall, around the corners of Castle Black, always running away and squirreling himself away into corners with other boys, with men, laughing and flushed and never quite catchable ever again. This made no dent in his popularity, to Stannis's irritation and his great relief: and sometimes on sleepless nights Stannis wondered why, and was eaten up with anger once more. It was anger with himself; it was anger with Renly; it was anger at powerlessness, and the Night's Watch, and everything that had driven them to this place.
Robert paced, and took out his anger on new brothers; Robert pined. Stannis knew what he pined for: for Storm's End, for the South, for Eddard Stark off in Eastwatch who wrote dutiful letters that Robert read out in triumph. Ned was the model of a brother, as far as Robert was concerned--quiet, submissive, and undemanding, Stannis thought contemptuously, more the model of a wife than an heir. Still, he knew Robert would have traded Stannis and Renly's heads to have Ned Stark as a brother of his blood. Sometimes Stannis wondered what it would be like to feel that kind of kinship with another creature, man or beast.
He had none. He'd had, in his life, one crippled hawk and one well-meaning old maester--both dead now. And a young brother with a defect in his character, far out of reach.
But Stannis was a steward, and he had his work. He'd pushed Renly into angling for it too ("it sounds like work," Renly had teased at twelve and Stannis had said, "It is--and being a ranger would be your death. Which will it be?"--and Renly had made the first and only sensible decision of his gods-forsaken life) but in spite of their shared burden, he felt like he saw Renly as seldom as anything. Renly fancied the rangers--not in some crude way, or not only. On some level, Renly still fancied Robert's life, and Stannis could see him dream.
It angered him too. He gave Renly more work to do as a result: "The chamber pots again?" Renly queried, as buoyant as ever. "Very well. You know I'm no good with them."
"I wasn't aware," Stannis said, "that chamber pots were something one could be good or ill with." Afterward he scrubbed Renly's hands himself. ("That tickles, Stannis." Stannis hit him.)
Sometimes Robert was long on patrol. Sometimes Stannis stood at Wall's edge and wondered what he found there; he wondered, too, if he hoped for Robert to return. He supposed he did. There were some odds Robert would be Lord Commander someday, after Jon Arryn was dead and gone. Even Ned Stark deserved it better--mewling mouse that he was.
Renly came up to him: the rare occasion when he approached Stannis, and not the other way around. "It's snowing, brother," he pronounced, as if this didn't happen all the time. "I do think snowflakes are all different in shape. Look." He held his fingers up to Stannis--but even this frivolity was wearing away; the flakes were already melting.
The old Lord Steward died in his bed, and Stannis became Lord Steward just as it became evident that Renly was an untenable burden on his household. He considered what to do. There was always sending him to Eastwatch, but that was just fobbing him off on Ned Stark at this point, and Stannis wasn't interested in burdening someone else with his own troubles--as he had long begun to think of Renly.
Renly was no longer Robert's trouble; Robert seldom spoke to him, except to cuff him absently when he rode in from patrol and Renly came to meet him--he was still Robert, after all, and he still responded to positive attention, even from Renly. Stannis hated it. He hated them both. Sometimes he schemed to pawn them both off on Ned Stark. The specter of Ned Stark became the receptacle of all his most vindictive brother-related fantasies.
Still, Stannis ran a tight ship, and Renly was not part of it. Renly was growing to a man--no, he was a man, difficult as it was to remember--and his behavior hadn't changed. Not his work ethic, and not the way he related to his peers: out in the open or behind his closed door.
Stannis resolved to send him to Eastwatch. He summoned Renly to tell him: as usual, he was tardy. He found Stannis re-organizing the papers on his desk, feeding outdated or unnecessary documents to the fire. "Am I in trouble, brother?" said Renly brightly.
"I'm petitioning the Lord Commander to reassign you to Eastwatch," Stannis said.
The smile disappeared. Renly took a moment to compose his thoughts, which was unusual. "I don't want to go to Eastwatch," he said finally, in a smaller voice.
"That was my recommendation." Stannis looked at him. He believed in regarding a man straight-on when passing a judgment: anything worth saying at all was worth saying to someone without looking away. This was peculiarly difficult to reinforce where his brother Renly was concerned; possibly it was the way Renly's eyes darted away, and then back, as if leading his partner a dance. "It should be good for your character. It's not forever."
"Stannis," Renly protested, "anything could be forever as far as we're concerned."
"Are you a ranger now? Do you expect to die sometime soon? Please keep me apprised of your plans." Stannis pressed his teeth together. "Robert--one supposes--has reason to value the moment. You have reason to value obedience."
"Stannis," said Renly again, as if this would effect something.
Maybe it would have, in someone else--someone other than Stannis, or Robert. "I've informed you of my recommendation," he said.
"I'll talk to the Lord Commander," Renly said, unwisely.
Stannis thought of Jon Arryn, or tried to. In reality, his breath came out a hiss: "Am I the only man whose bed you haven't considered warming for a favor, Renly?"
Renly recoiled. He started to say something, and then stopped; finally he straightened up and said, "Very well. I'll go to Eastwatch."
The next day Stannis started on his errand to see the Lord Commander, and then pivoted halfway; he wound up going to the stables instead to check on the state of the horses. He told Renly, later, that Lord Commander Arryn had advised against it. It wasn't as though Renly had cause to speak to him to know differently. Ned Stark would be a poor minder for Renly anyway, Stannis considered--he was too weak-willed, the Starks were in spite of everything they said of themselves. Too changeable.
At nineteen, Renly was ill. Customarily he was as healthy as a draft horse--he hadn't been properly ill since the Siege of Storm's End. He took a fever, this time, and was abed. The new stewards were set to tend him; people asked to see him. Fever didn't even set ugly with him: he was rosy and cheerful, if dizzy, and the dizziness only seemed to endear him to his visitors. One of his ranger friends brought him a broken stag's antler from beyond the wall, as a sort of trophy. Stannis took it away, but not before Renly had tasked another friend to clumsily mount it over his bed.
There was no chair in Renly's sickroom. Stannis sat next to him on the mattress when he came to see him, which was three times: twice when Renly was asleep, and once, to his chagrin, when he was awake. When he was asleep he mumbled and raved--often he said "no, no," and sometimes he said, "Robert," and once even "Father." He had never known Father, Stannis thought. He could not even recollect Father's face. Yet he cried out.
When Renly was awake, he greeted Stannis: "My Lord Steward," he said, "my sickbed savior, my brother. Come to smother me with a pillow?"
"Be quiet," said Stannis, and laid his hand over Renly's forehead. It was uncomfortably hot, like something swollen. "Don't exert yourself."
"By talking?" Renly chuckled, and then hiccuped. "Believe me. Talking is something that comes easily. It takes up very little of my strength."
"I can only surmise." Stannis straightened, smoothed, and folded back the edge of the bedclothes, by habit. "Be still."
Renly was silent for awhile, and Stannis thought he was asleep; but then he said, in a dreamy voice, "Where's Robert? I wonder what Robert is doing."
Beyond the wall, Stannis didn't say. Unconcerned with you. If the fever carries you away he'll say nothing at your burial.
Instead he said, "Be well. I expect you back at your work on the inside of the week, regardless of how you're feeling."
"Martinet," said Renly, coughing. "You awful man."
Alone in his chambers, Stannis thought of replacing the antler; but he thought of Renly's friend and thought better of it, sourly. Renly was already far enough in acquiring exceptions for himself. He hardly needed Stannis's assistance. Likely he would be up and about within the week, after all; and Stannis would have to put him back to work.
Still he came to see him once more, when he was fast asleep. This time Renly said nothing; this time Stannis reached out to push his sweaty hair back from his rosy face, and wondered why the gods had given him something so terribly unkind.
Some of the boys now worshiped the old gods, reaped from the North. Renly's newest friend was not among them: a pretty boy-whore who called himself Satin, a name Stannis could not bring himself to utter. Robert's only comment on this was "well, perhaps Renly'll learn to earn something for his troubles"--and Stannis nearly struck him too. But what would be the point in that? Quarreling with Robert didn't lessen their shame; it didn't make fewer men laugh behind their hands at them.
Meanwhile, Renly and 'Satin' giggled together like wives in an Essos harem--and more than that, Stannis was sure. He found himself tired thinking of it, more than anything. Perhaps he was getting old. The Northern weather was wearing him down, he was sure of it, cutting at his face--he was aging faster than Robert or Renly, though Robert saw the cold the most of all three. Soon they would be calling Stannis the eldest in error: his wish once, and his curse.
Jon Arryn was growing ill. Stannis heard his own name put forward, and reddened considerably at the mockery; the last thing he needed was another defeat at Robert's hands. He didn't know who had originated it--something he wouldn't put past Robert in his cups--and he didn't care to find out. He would serve as Lord Steward: he had no further ambition.
But when he thought of it, he thought of Robert running the Wall: and he knew it was unconscionable. Ambition wasn't the lever that moved him--it was duty, duty to the damned Watch that had corrupted them all, down to his very bitter grievances.
He would stand for election. He did not care about the mockery of others. He never had before.
He walked out onto the Wall to look out over the wildling lands. And there he encountered Renly, once more--this time huddled with Satin, laughing, exchanging kisses. Satin was first to look up, with the rabbitlike senses of smallfolk; "Look," he exclaimed in a hushed voice, "your lord brother--"
"Oh, never mind my lord brother!" Nevertheless Renly looked up too, with laughing eyes--laughter that faded when he met Stannis's--and then gave Satin a friendly shove, then a less-friendly shove: run along. Renly was long past concealing what he got up to from Stannis, but Stannis supposed he was uninterested in dragging his friend into trouble with him. That wasn't how he kept friends.
Little did Renly know how uninterested in troubling him Stannis was just now. In truth, Stannis wished him gone, by some enchantment--something that would leave Stannis alone on the battlements with his thoughts. But Renly was here and he was here.
Renly cleared his throat. "I named you for Lord Commander," he said. "I'm going to cast my vote for you."
Just then Stannis came up to him, in three long strides; just there, he shoved him back against the parapet with his arm against Renly's throat. Renly coughed in surprise. "Don't mock me, Renly," he said. His voice was low and controlled. He knew his face wasn't.
Renly blinked twice, thrice. "I'm not mocking you," he said, breathless. "I'm going to vote for you."
"I'm not mocking you, Stannis," Renly burst out. "I think you should be Lord Commander."
And to Stannis's astonishment, there was a catch in his throat, close to a dry-heave. Stannis let him go and let him do what he hadn't done since he was six, with his face buried in his hands. Then he caught him again in his arms--Renly flinched, and Stannis said, "Don't be foolish--shh, Renly"--and held him until his breath steadied. Renly dragged his hands across his face; by the time he looked up, his eyes weren't glistening, and Stannis had managed not to see him cry.
"You will see me Lord Commander," Stannis promised, and lied. "I'll win the vote. I will."
"I know you will--" said Renly: and perhaps he lied too. But perhaps he didn't; and Stannis didn't want to think of that.