“Secrets are worth more than silver or sapphires.” (ADWD, Tyrion II)
Artwork by Elia Fernandez
The cloak and dagger business in A Song of Ice and Fire is thriving. Within the timeline of the universe, the schemers plot and succeed against individuals, knights, lords, kings and queens. In this new essay series, we’ll examine two of A Song of Ice and Fire’s greatest spymasters: Varys and Littlefinger. That Varys and Littlefinger have agents and spies planted across King’s Landing cannot be questioned. But are they effective in executing the wills of their spymasters?
We’ll take a look at the methods and goals of these spymasters. We’ll also be taking a look at known or suspected agents of both Littlefinger and Varys. But today, I’d like to write about something a little more fun. I’d like to posit a theory that a certain noblewoman in King’s Landing is not all she appears, but more importantly, she’s not what fans of the series think she is either.
Today, I’ll hope to convince you that Taena Merryweather is not an agent of the Tyrells or Littlefinger; she’s an agent of Varys’.
Varys and the State of Affairs in King’s Landing at the Start of A Feast for Crows
Cersei’s opening chapter in A Feast for Crows seemingly kicks off about 30 minutes after the death of Tywin Lannister. In it, the Lannisters & Tyrells learn of Tywin’s murder, Tyrion’s escape and a certain missing gaoler named Rugen. Varys’ fingerprints are all over everything that’s just occurred in King’s Landing. A few individuals know parameters of Varys’ involvement, though the only one at King’s Landing at present is Jaime Lannister. Jaime knows that Varys spirited Tyrion out of his cell precisely because Varys did so at the behest of Jaime’s swordpoint. But only Varys & Tyrion know who murdered Tywin, at least initially.
Thus, with Tywin dead, The Handship is vacant. And with Varys and others now gone from King’s Landing, key positions in the Small Council are open and need to be filled. Fortunately, Cersei has friends to fill them.
For Varys, the political scene in King’s Landing was now rife to spread chaos and dissension. Aegon and the Golden Company would land soon (hopefully with Daenerys, her army and most importantly her dragons in tow), and Varys had played a key role in planning the invasion. Removing Tywin Lannister from the equation was a necessary step in upsetting the political order. But to give Aegon & company a better chance of success, Varys needed to break the Lannister/Tyrell alliance altogether. To do that from the shadows, he would need to clandestinely set the two against each other. He would need agents. Enter Taena Merryweather.
What Do we Know About Taena Merryweather?
“Do you have many friends across the water?”
“In Myr, many. In Lys as well, and Tyrosh. Men of power.” (AFFC, Cersei II)
Although not introduced by name, Taena Merryweather is first introduced in A Storm of Swords at Joffrey’s wedding feast. There, she’s described by Sansa Stark this way:
Lady Merryweather, the Myrish beauty with the black hair and the big dark eyes, spun so provocatively that every man in the hall was soon watching her. (ASOS, Sansa IV)
In Taena we are immediately introduced to her most prominent feature: her seductive physicality. It’s important that Martin introduces us to Taena that way as her seductive quality is her most prominent physical and emotional trait. Jaime Lannister picks up on this as well.
Jaime could not help but note the way the Myrish woman moved her hips as she walked. Every step is a seduction. (AFFC, Jaime II)
And given Taena’s coming interactions with Cersei & the Tyrells, both Sansa & Jaime are not wrong in describing her as a seductress. But what do we actually know of Taena’s past? Not much. She is married to Lord Orton Merryweather, a noble house from the Reach. Lord Merryweather was appointed Hand of the King under Aerys II, but his Handship was short-lived.
His sister laughed. “Not you. Have no fear on that count. Perhaps Taena’s husband. His grandfather was Hand under Aerys.”
The horn-of-plenty Hand. Jaime remembered Owen Merryweather well enough; an amiable man, but ineffectual. “As I recall, he did so well that Aerys exiled him and seized his lands.” (AFFC, Cersei IV)
Exiled to Essos, Orton Merryweather met and married Taena, a noblewoman from the free city of Myr. After the Targaryens were ousted from rule, Orton & Taena Merryweather were given pardons and returned to the Reach. But supporting the losing side had costs. House Merryweather lost much of their land as it is reported that Orton is not nearly as wealthy as his grandsire: Owen Merryweather.
Our earliest mentions in the main series of Taena Merryweather come from the aforementioned Purple Wedding where Taena Merryweather dances with several lords and is described as seductive. During Tyrion’s trial, Taena Merryweather testifies against Tyrion stating that she personally witnessed Tyrion dropping poison into Joffrey’s cup (More on this later). This wins the confidence of Cersei Lannister.
As AFFC opens, Taena continues to worm her way into Cersei’s confidence. First, she gives assurances to Cersei that she will use her contacts in Essos to hunt Tyrion down. At the same time, Cersei’s suspicions about the Tyrells start to flower. She suspects the Tyrells of having a hand in the death of Tywin & Tyrion’s escape. And thereafter, Taena begins feeding Cersei information about the Tyrells. Here’s a full list of information that Taena feeds Cersei:
- Lady Olenna Redwyne is riding back to the Reach with a chest full of coins with the imprimatur of the Gardener Kings on them.
- Senelle, one of Cersei’s Ladies-in-Waiting, is a Tyrell spy.
- Margaery Tyrell lost her virginity to Renly Baratheon.
- Margaery & Loras Tyrell are potentially involved in an incestuous love affair.
- That Margery does not believe that Loras will die after his wounding at the Siege of Dragonstone
- Planting the idea that the Blue Bard is involved sexually with Margaery Tyrell
But what was in it for Taena? Cersei thinks it involves power & wanting to see her son rise high in the world.
“Robert gave them back. Some, at least. Taena would be pleased if Orton could recover the rest.” (AFFC, Cersei IV)
“I know she is a mother, with a young son that she wants to rise high in this world. She will do whatever is required to see that he does. Mothers are all the same. Lady Merryweather may be a serpent, but she is far from stupid. She knows I can do more for her than Margaery, so she makes herself useful to me.” (AFFC, Cersei V)
When Cersei is imprisoned by the Faith in King’s Landing, Taena & Orton Merryweather fled from King’s Landing back to Longtable. Cersei breathes a sigh of relief as Taena is both her agent as well as her confidant.
However, fans think there’s good reason to doubt Cersei’s judgment on Taena. Fans think that Taena is not playing it straight with Cersei. In fact, many fans believe that Taena is an agent of the Tyrells involved in something fans have termed The Grand Tyrell Conspiracy. For a long time, I shared this judgment on Taena as an agent of the Tyrells, but my last re-read of the series cast significant doubt on this theory. And when I re-read Cersei chapters from AFFC/ADWD, I came to a completely different conclusion based on some circumstantial evidence, but there’s also a tantalizing clue that moves beyond circumstantial into concrete evidence.
Why Taena as an Agent of the Tyrells Doesn’t Make Sense but Taena as an Agent of Varys Does
The Grand Tyrell Conspiracy Theory has this to say about Taena’s identity as a Tyrell agent:
Taena’s mission is to infiltrate Cersei’s confidence, find some high crime that they can expose and if nothing else, entrap Cersei. She might even be specifically be looking for proof of the incest between Jamie & Cersei. If nothing else, she would be in a position to entrap Cersei by enticing her to commit some crime that would topple the queen.
It’s an interesting theory, but there’s something off about it. While Taena’s actions ensnare Cersei and give the Faith evidence for Cersei’s guilt in a number of activities, they also endanger Margaery Tyrell too. Consider that through Taena’s actions, Margaery is now facing a Trial by the Faith. Though the evidence is weak against the Margaery (so much so that the Faith remands her to the custody of Randyll Tarly), she is certainly in danger, made much more so by the fact that the current High Septon is nothing if not a misogynist.
There’s also the not-so-insignificant matter of the Merryweather flight from King’s Landing after Cersei’s arrest. Here’s how Qyburn describes it:
Merryweather has resigned his seat on the council and fled back to Longtable with his wife, who was the first to bring us news of the… accusations… against Your Grace.”
“They let Taena go.” That was the best thing she had heard since the High Sparrow had said no. Taena could have doomed her. (AFFC, Cersei X)
Why would the Merryweathers flee King’s Landing if they were Tyrell agents? At the end of ADWD, two large Tyrell armies sit outside of King’s Landing while Tyrells & Tyrell bannermen are in power. So, the Merryweather flight from King’s Landing is suspicious. Could the Merryweather flight be based off their fear on the Tyrells more than the Lannisters? Yes, and they probably had help getting out of the city in time.
Between A Storm of Swords and the epilogue of A Dance with Dragons, Varys has been conspicuously absent from the narrative. We know that he did not take ship with Tyrion for Pentos. So where was he? I think the most common belief is that Varys was within the walls of the Red Keep. We know his little birds are likely active within the walls of the Red Keep as Cersei hears noises within the walls of the Red Keep in AFFC. The assumption is that Varys himself is within the walls as well, listening, waiting and watching. But more than that, I think there’s reason to believe that Varys is also meetings clandestinely with his agents, including one Taena Merryweather.
Now, this gets into some speculative territory, but in A Storm of Swords, Varys is reported to be gathering witnesses for Tyrion’s trial. One of those witnesses happens to be Taena Merryweather. It’s at this point that I believe that Varys recruited Taena. I’d wager that he used a shared Essosi identity to gain her trust and then used other means to recruit her as an agent of chaos.
You have to figure that Varys’ role in AFFC is to sow chaos into the Lannister/Tyrell alliance and to give the coming invasion by Aegon a fighting chance. It’s likely that he identified a tension point in the alliance was the rivalry between the two queens.
“The two queens are squabbling over Tommen like bitches with a juicy bone.” (ADWD, The Watcher)
And making that tension point a breaking point would require a few pushes. And that’s just what occurred in King’s Landing. The Lannisters and Tyrells are tied up in their own intrigues that the invasion by Aegon & the Golden Company and the threat they pose to King’s Landing is a sideshow to the main event.
But to be honest, all of the above evidence is circumstantial at best and assumption/head-cannon at worst. So, what’s the concrete evidence for Taena as an agent of Varys?
A Case of Coins
King Garth XII Gardener Coin by Joel’s Coins
If we dial our timeline back to the start of AFFC, we find utter shock in the court at Tywin’s death & Tyrion’s escape. But at the micro level, something else is off: Rugen, the undergoaler is missing as well. Now, who is Rugen? Jaime has this to say about him?
Rugen was the man’s name. An undergaoler who had charge of the black cells. The chief undergaoler describes him as portly, unshaven, gruff of speech. He held his appointment of the old king, Aerys, and came and went as he pleased.
“As it matters, though, I have more pressing concerns than your lineage.”
Longwaters inclined his head. “The lost prisoner.”
“And the missing gaoler.”
“Rugen,” the old man supplied. “An undergaoler. He had charge of the third level, the black cells.”
“Tell me of him,” Jaime had to say. A bloody farce. He knew who Rugen was, even if Longwaters did not. (AFFC, Jaime II)
So, Jaime knows about the identity of Rugen, but do we conclusively know? Well, yes. It’s Varys. Jaime likely knows this due to the fact that Jaime used Varys to break Tyrion out of the Black Cells. As for us, Rugen’s get-up as described by Longwaters is identical to how Ned describes Rugen in AGOT.
The eunuch’s plump cheeks were covered with a dark stubble of beard. Ned felt the coarse hair with his fingers. Varys had transformed himself into a grizzled turnkey, reeking of sweat and sour wine. (AGOT, Eddard VII)
And finally if you’re not convinced, GRRM himself confirmed Rugen’s identity as Varys in the commentary track to HBO’s Game of Thrones S01E08’s “The Pointy End.”
Now that Rugen is conclusively proved to be Varys, we turn our attention to a certain coin discovered in Rugen’s chamber in the Black Cells. During the investigation into Tywin’s murder & Tyrion’s escape, Qyburn reports something interesting found in Rugen’s cell.
“Aye, Your Grace,” said Qyburn, “but did you know that under that stinking chamber pot was a loose stone, which opened on a small hollow? The sort of place where a man might hide valuables that he did not wish to be discovered?”
“Valuables?” This was new. “Coin, you mean?” She had suspected all along that Tyrion had somehow bought this gaoler.
“Beyond a doubt. To be sure, the hole was empty when I found it. No doubt Rugen took his ill-gotten treasure with him when he fled. But as I crouched over the hole with my torch, I saw something glitter, so I scratched in the dirt until I dug it out.” Qyburn opened his palm. “A gold coin.”
Gold, yes, but the moment Cersei took it she could tell that it was wrong. Too small, she thought, too thin. The coin was old and worn. On one side was a king’s face in profile, on the other side the imprint of a hand. “This is no dragon,” she said.
“No,” Qyburn agreed. “It dates from before the Conquest, Your Grace. The king is Garth the Twelfth, and the hand is the sigil of House Gardener.” (AFFC, Cersei II)
So, a Reacher coin dating to the reign of Garth XII Gardener is discovered in Rugen’s cell, leading Cersei to make her own special move on her very own jump to conclusions board.
What treachery is this? Mace Tyrell had been one of Tyrion’s judges, and had called loudly for his death. Was that some ploy? Could he have been plotting with the Imp all the while, conspiring at Father’s death? With Tywin Lannister in his grave, Lord Tyrell was an obvious choice to be King’s Hand, but even so… (AFFC, Cersei II)
When he was gone, Cersei poured herself a cup of strongwine and drank it by the window, watching the shadows lengthen across the yard and thinking about the coin. Gold from the Reach. Why would an undergaoler in King’s Landing have gold from the Reach, unless he were paid to help bring about Father’s death? (AFFC, Cersei II)
Varys planted the coin in his cell, and it was almost certainly done in order to sow discord between the Lannisters and Tyrells. Moreover, it fed Cersei’s paranoia of the Tyrells and their plot to place Cersei out of power, but then Cersei does something interesting. After Qyburn tells her of the coin, Cersei tells Qyburn:
“You will not speak of this with anyone,” she commanded.
“Your Grace may trust in my discretion. Any man who rides with a sellsword company learns to hold his tongue, else he does not keep it long.” (AFFC, Cersei II)
So, now we know that only 3 people know about the coin in Rugen’s cell: Varys, Cersei & Qyburn. But where does Taena come into all of this? Well, later, Taena shares some very interesting information with Cersei — information that ties directly into Rugen’s coin.
“And Taena tells me everything Maid Margaery is doing.”
“Does she? How much do you know about this woman?”
“I know she is a mother, with a young son that she wants to rise high in this world. She will do whatever is required to see that he does. Mothers are all the same. Lady Merryweather may be a serpent, but she is far from stupid. She knows I can do more for her than Margaery, so she makes herself useful to me. You would be surprised at all the interesting things she’s told me.”
“What sorts of things?”
Cersei sat beneath the window. “Did you know that the Queen of Thorns keeps a chest of coins in her wheelhouse? Old gold from before the Conquest. Should any tradesman be so unwise as to name a price in golden coins, she pays him with hands from Highgarden, each half the weight of one of our dragons. What merchant would dare complain of being cheated by Mace Tyrell’s lady mother?” (AFFC, Cersei IV)
This little bit of a reveal is quickly dropped in the conversation between Jaime and Cersei, but it’s very pregnant with possibility. If Varys, Cersei & Rugen are the only individuals who know about the Highgarden coin, it’s very convenient that Taena would drop this information bomb on Cersei — leading her to connect the dots.
“Perchance Your Grace has forgotten that our friends of Highgarden are inside the walls?”
“I forget nothing,” she told him, thinking of a certain gold coin, with a hand on one face and the head of a forgotten king on the other. How did some miserable wretch of a gaoler come to have such a coin hidden beneath his chamber pot? How does a man like Rugen come to have old gold from Highgarden? (AFFC, Cersei V)
I suppose this connection is also circumstantial. However, it fits very neatly with all of the other circumstantial evidence. Varys plants a Gardener coin, Qyburn discovers and brings to the attention of Cersei and then Taena plants evidence of the Queen of Thorns using Gardener coin (since the Gardeners would have had their imprint on gold coins from the Reach before the Conquest). It fits nicely that this piece of leaked information was at the behest of Varys in that it furthers the idea of a Tyrell Conspiracy against the Lannisters.
Taena’s role as an agent of Varys’ is not confirmed, but I believe that GRRM left very tantalizing clues as to her true identity. With her now fled to Longtable with Orton, I am not sure that we will ever see Taena again in the story, but it would be a shame if GRRM left a compelling character out of the remaining two books.
But in the end, Varys likely achieved his objective of setting the Tyrells & Lannisters against each other through seduction. And by luring them to animosity, Varys set the stage well for the coming of the Aegon and the Golden Company. This success will have definite ramifications for the future of the story. Aegon and the Golden Company are coming, and Varys’ setting the Tyrells & Lannisters in opposition to each other by using agents such as Taena will likely lead to their success.