The Agents of Chaos: Spies, Spymasters and Their Tradecraft in Westeros Part 2: The Power of Suggestion

Spoiler Warning & Forward: This essay contains minor spoilers for The Winds of Winter. I invite you to follow us on wordpress,  facebook & twitter


In terms of mysteries in A Song of Ice and Fire, there are major ones that exist (e.g. Jon’s parentage, the true identity of Aegon VI, who wrote the Pink Letter etc), middling mysteries (e.g. Who is the Hooded Man in Winterfell?) and minor ones (What happened to Weasel?) However, there are a handful of mysteries that belie categorization. One of the more interesting ones is how Stannis Baratheon discovered the parentage of Cersei’s children. It seems like a question with a relatively straightforward answer. He figured it out on his own.

But did he actually figure this out on his own? Or did he come across this information in a different way? In part 1 of the Agents of Chaos series, we puzzled out the identity of Taena Merryweather as an agent of Varys’. In part 2, we shift our focus from Varys to Littlefinger, but our focus will be on his methods of spreading chaos, and I’ll make a plausible case that Littlefinger was responsible for Stannis discovering the parentage of Cersei’s children with a bonus section of who Littlefinger’s unwitting agents might possibly be.

The Motivations  of a Gambler

“Littlefinger . . . the gods only know what game Littlefinger is playing.” (AGOT, Arya III)

Artwork by The Mico

Littlefinger’s motivations for what he does has been of interest to me for a long time. I think that Littlefinger’s motivation in sowing discord in the realm is three-fold.

  • First, I think that Littlefinger is inspired by personal grudge against a nobility that looked down on his Braavosi origins and his father’s low station. A sub-motivation is that Littlefinger’s personal grudge was widened by his shameful interactions with House Tully & House Stark in his youth. As a young man, he lost the girl (Catelyn Tully) to Brandon Stark. After his wounding, his one-night stand with Lysa Tully & subsequent expulsion from Riverrun for this act by Hoster Tully, he developed a life-long hatred of House Stark & House Tully.
  • Littlefinger has an inferiority complex — that is, he makes aggressive moves as compensation for his small physical stature. Littlefinger’s inferiority complex is augmented by his narcissism which has a component of extreme risk-taking.
  • Littlefinger is also motivated to improve his own station in life both in terms of personal enrichment and in increasing his power, hence the probable massive amounts of embezzlement that he pulled off as Master of Coin.

The Methods of the Mockingbird

Artwork by Fantasy Flight Games

Littlefinger plays the game of thrones much like a maniac poker player plays his cards — that is Littlefinger plays extremely aggressively, no matter how strong or weak his cards are. But like a good loose-aggressive player, he’s able to dial back and play cautiously when needed. Before we delve into Littlefinger & Stannis, let’s first examine an area where Littlefinger’s playing style is better explained: the Tyrell/Littlefinger conspiracy & the Purple Wedding.

If you’ll recall from A Clash of Kings, Littlefinger is dispatched by the Iron Throne in an attempt to form an alliance between House Lannister & House Tyrell. At Bitterbridge, he meets up with the Tyrells & Reacher Lords and convinces them to join with House Lannister against Stannis Baratheon.

At least that’s the common story. In reality, while Littlefinger did indeed create the alliance, he was playing a different game under the surface.

She (Olenna) asked pointed questions about Joffrey’s nature. I praised him to the skies, to be sure… whilst my men spread disturbing tales amongst Lord Tyrell’s servants. That is how the game is played. (ASOS, Sansa VI)

So, outwardly, Littlefinger was singing the praises of Joffrey, but secretly, he had his men spread tales of Joffrey’s barbarity among the Tyrell servants. And if these servants of the Tyrells were any good, they would then tell their Tyrell masters of what they heard. But Littlefinger made other plays as well.

I also planted the notion of Ser Loras taking the white. Not that I suggested it, that would have been too crude. But men in my party supplied grisly tales about how the mob had killed Ser Preston Greenfield and raped the Lady Lollys, and slipped a few silvers to Lord Tyrell’s army of singers to sing of Ryam Redwyne, Serwyn of the Mirror Shield, and Prince Aemon the Dragonknight. (ASOS, Sansa VI)

So, what does all of this tell us about how Littlefinger operates?

  • First, while he does make extreme aggressive moves (telling Catelyn that the Valyrian dagger was Tyrion’s in the presence of Varys for instance), he can also act subtly too.
  • Secondly, he uses intermediaries and others to do the real work of conveying what we really wants communicated.
  • Thirdly, Littlefinger crafts his narrative through people & occupations that have a distinct appeal to those he wishes to actually adhere to his message. In this case, using singers to sing of Ryam Redwyne, Serwyn of the Mirror Shield & Prince Aemon the Dragonknight was an ingenious way to appeal to traditional Tyrell sensibilities both as a medium (music is something that the Tyrells are fond of) and as a message (the heroism and valor of two Reacher knights was a particularly brilliant stroke)
  • Fourthly (and most importantly for our purposes today), he pushes his true narrative through unwitting intermediaries. The Tyrell servants were not directly in Littlefinger’s employ, but  they were his agents all the same by telling their masters the truth about Joffrey.

This brings us to Littlefinger’s role in leaking information about the parentage of Cersei’s children to Stannis.

How Did Littlefinger Find Out?

We know that Littlefinger knew about the parentage of Cersei’s children based on his conversation with Eddard Stark late in A Game of Thrones.

Littlefinger leaned forward. “Yet I’ll wager you did not drag me here in the black of night to discuss the eunuch.”

“No,” Ned admitted. “I know the secret Jon Arryn was murdered to protect. Robert will leave no trueborn son behind him. Joffrey and Tommen are Jaime Lannister’s bastards, born of his incestuous union with the queen.”

Littlefinger lifted an eyebrow. “Shocking,” he said in a tone that suggested he was not shocked at all. (AGOT, Eddard XIII)

But how did he find out? Well, at least one of Robert Baratheon’s bastard children was born to a whore in King’s Landing at Chataya’s Brothel, and it’s probable that more bastards were fathered at various brothels around the city. And many of the brothels in King’s Landing are owned by Littlefinger (though not Chataya’s). While searching for more of Robert’s bastards, Eddard Stark was led to Chataya’s brothel by Littlefinger. So, Littlefinger knew at least one of the bastards specifically. Plus, he hints at knowing more than he’s letting on.

“Lord Baelish, what do you know of Robert’s bastards?”

“Well, he has more than you, for a start.”

“How many?”

Littlefinger shrugged. “Does it matter? If you bed enough women, some will give you presents, and His Grace has never been shy on that count.” (AGOT, Eddard IX)

So Littlefinger is aware of the appearance of Robert’s bastards. Moreover, he’s also aware of the appearance of Robert’s true born children. Given these two truths, one idea is that Littlefinger was able to put two-and-two together and determine the bastardy. Another possibility is that one of Littlefinger’s spies caught Jaime & Cersei clandestinely.

Regardless of how Littlefinger discovered the truth, it’s clear that he knew ahead of Eddard knowing. It’s my estimation that this knowledge came well in advance of Ned’s arrival in King’s Landing. Enter Stannis Baratheon.

The Stannis Connection

“Lord Stannis,” she asked, “if you knew the queen to be guilty of such monstrous crimes, why did you keep silent?”

“I did not keep silent,” Stannis declared. “I brought my suspicions to Jon Arryn.” (ACOK, Catelyn III)

Artwork by HBO

Stannis Baratheon’s early identity in A Song of Ice and Fire is shaped by his grudges against those who usurped his rightful kingship out from under him. He believed that Joffrey Baratheon was no true heir to the Iron Throne — that he was a bastard born of incest. But how did he come to this idea?

Steven Attewell makes the case that Stannis made the discovery on his own. As Varys himself says:

“It is one thing to deceive a king, and quite another to hide from the cricket in the rushes and the little bird in the chimney. Besides, the bastards were there for all to see…he fathered eight, to the best of my knowing…their mothers were copper and honey, chestnut and butter, yet the babes were all black as ravens…so when Joffrey, Myrcella, and Tommen slid out between your sister’s thighs, each as golden as the sun, the truth was not hard to glimpse.” (ACOK, Tyrion III)

But is that really the case that Stannis just discovered the secret? I don’t think so. Let’s consider a few facts that aren’t in question:

  • Stannis has been at the court of King’s Landing off-and-on for most of of Robert Baratheon’s reign.
  • Thus, he’s born witness to the births & colorings of Joffrey, Myrcella & Tommen.
  • Stannis knew the identity and appearance of Edric Storm due to him being conceived by Robert Baratheon & Delena Florent on his own marriage bed.
  • Thus, Stannis was well-aware of the difference in coloring between at least one of Robert’s bastards & his true born children for something like 11-13 years. (Edric is born in 287 AC, Joffrey is born in 286/287 AC)

The timeline begs the question as to why Stannis suddenly had suspicions about the parentage of Cersei’s children at the time he did. Re-enter Littlefinger.

Littlefinger & the Power of Suggestion

While  Varys & Illyrio might have wondered what game Littlefinger was playing, I think that we as readers can deduce a big part of Littlefinger’s motivation. Littlefinger’s primary motivation was to push the realm to chaos in order to punish those he held a grudge against all the while profiting handsomely off of the chaos. But the game that Littlefinger was playing was quite subtle. Consider what Varys tells Tyrion about the business of how Stannis found out about Cersei’s children.

“You missed a lively council. Stannis has crowned himself, it seems.”

“I know.”

“He accuses my brother and sister of incest. I wonder how he came by that suspicion.”

“Perhaps he read a book and looked at the color of a bastard’s hair, as Ned Stark did, and Jon Arryn before him. Or perhaps someone whispered it in his ear.” (ACOK, Tyrion III)

Was it Varys who whispered it? Unlikely. Recall that his desire was to delay chaos until they (Varys, Illyrio, Aegon VI) were ready. But Littlefinger had the motivation to kick chaos into motion. Now, the obvious, dumb play was to push the information about Cersei’s children to the king himself, Robert Baratheon. But that’s not a play that would net the chaos that Littlefinger needed. If Littlefinger were to sow the maximum amount of chaos in the realm, he couldn’t give the information to Robert, but to Stannis.

In Stannis, Littlefinger had a perfect candidate whose personality ensured that he would sow the maximum amount of chaos in the realm. Stannis’s personality is one where perceived and actual slights to his rights grate heavily against him. Stannis’s anger at being given Dragonstone instead of Storm’s End was legendary.

“Your brother has been the Lord of Storm’s End these past thirteen years. These lords are his sworn bannermen-”

“His,” Stannis broke in, “when by rights they should be mine. I never asked for Dragonstone. I never wanted it. I took it because Robert’s enemies were here and he commanded me to root them out. I built his fleet and did his work, dutiful as a younger brother should be to an elder, as Renly should be to me. And what was Robert’s thanks? He names me Lord of Dragonstone, and gives Storm’s End and its incomes to Renly. Storm’s End belonged to House Baratheon for three hundred years; by rights it should have passed to me when Robert took the Iron Throne.” It was an old grievance, deeply felt, and never more so than now. (ACOK, Prologue)

So, Littlefinger has the perfect foil for his plot in Stannis. He has a man who holds grudges due to perceived or real injustices done to him and someone who is a strong military commander, who could wreck havoc on the realm if given the chance. So, if Littlefinger figured out that Cersei’s children were bastards born of incest and was well-aware of Stannis’s personality, the value of Stannis’s throne being usurped by a bastard born of incest was astronomical.

But Stannis was a righteous man. Would a righteous man like Stannis listen to an immoral man and known liar like Littlefinger? Probably not. Stannis says this of Littlefinger:

‘‘Better a thief we know than one we don’t, the next man might be worse.’ Lord Petyr’s words in my brother’s mouth, I’ll warrant. Littlefinger had a nose for gold, and I’m certain he arranged matters so the crown profited as much from your corruption as you did yourself.” (ASOS, Samwell V)

Stannis’s use of the word corruption speaks to Stannis’ distaste of the man. I find it likely that Stannis had unconcealed contempt for Littlefinger at court and would likely never adhere to anything that Littlefinger might say openly to him. So, how did Littlefinger get around this inconvenient fact?

The Intermediaries

Let’s return again to the Tyrell story from A Storm of Swords. Littlefinger’s greatest coup was the Tyrell conspiracy. The fact that this was so well-executed likely speaks to the idea that this was a tactic that Littlefinger used before.  The use of knowing & unknowing intermediaries to communicate his true message to those in power is known.

So, let me just lay all my cards on the table right now. I believe that Littlefinger used knowing & unknowing intermediaries to pass the information of the parentage of Cersei’s children onto Stannis. The same tactic that he used with the Tyrells is one that he used previously with Stannis. Knowing that Stannis would never listen to his words if Littlefinger were the speaker, I think that he used men whose words would be palatable to Stannis, instead of speaking them himself.

Stannis Baratheon trusted few people and no politicians. However, his reputation as a military commander was firm. And though he rarely listened to politicians and never trusted them, Stannis does have a history of listening to military advisers and acting on their advice. One of the best examples of this comes in A Dance with Dragons when Stannis changes his mind about the assault on the Dreadfort & decides to move against Deepwood Motte at the advisement of Jon Snow.

So, Stannis does listen to other military men. Littlefinger is likely aware of this, and so I think that Littlefinger leaked the information to military men close to Stannis. And these men were unwitting agents of Littlefinger’s in conveying Littlefinger’s message to Stannis. Here are my two suspects:

Ser Richard Horpe

Artwork by Cindy Kinnard

Ser Richard Horpe is a knight in Stannis’s service in ADWD. In the march to Winterfell, Horpe acts as second in command to Stannis, but Horpe’s past is a bit more interesting. He’s said to have a love for battle and killing, and then there’s this curious passage.

“Horpe will take Val to wife if I command it, but it is battle he lusts for. As a squire he dreamed of a white cloak, but Cersei Lannister spoke against him and Robert passed him over.” (ADWD, Jon IV)

Ser Richard Horpe could have held a grudge against Cersei Lannister for speaking against his nomination to the Kingsguard. Would Littlefinger have used this knowledge to spread information about the bastardy of Cersei’s children? He could have. Using a past grudges as motivation is one that’s interesting given the Littlefinger grudge-as-motivation theory. But he’s not really my prime suspect.

Ser Justin Massey

Artwork by Cindy Kinnard

Ser Justin Massey is introduced to us in ADWD as knight from the Crownlands. A glib man, Stannis tells us something interesting about Justin Massey.

“Massey wants the wildling princess too. He once served my brother Robert as squire and acquired his appetite for female flesh.” (ADWD, Jon IV)

As discussed earlier, Robert was known to frequent brothels throughout King’s Landing. It stands to reason that Robert introduced his squire to prostitution and that Justin Massey’s “appetite for female flesh” came in part from patronage of brothels. Given his reputation for womanizing, I’ll make the small leap that this “appetite for female flesh” that Robert imbued into his squire extended to brothels.

Given that Massey was no longer Robert’s squire in A Game of Thrones, we have to assume that Massey was in Stannis’s service during events in A Game of Thrones. And given that Massey spent some time in King’s Landing — time that likely overlapped with the time that both Robert & Stannis were in King’s Landing in 297 — Massey could have been an unwitting agent of Littlefinger’s.

If he’s frequenting brothels, Littlefinger likely leaked the information about the bastardy of Cersei’s children through one of his whores to Massey. Throughout A Dance with Dragons, Massey gives off the air of being a gossip. He reports Stannis’s war councils back to Asha Greyjoy, his prisoner. Moreover, Stannis has this to say of Massey in sample Winds of Winter chapter:

“I have five hundred swords as good as you, or better, but you have a pleasing manner and a glib tongue.” (TWOW, Theon I)

Glib is not a word in common usage, but it is generally defined as “fluent and voluble but insincere and shallow.” More importantly, Stannis previously heeded Massey’s advice in a critical moment:

“Is that your counsel? That I should flee?” The king’s face darkened. “That was your counsel on the Blackwater as well, as I recall. When the battle turned against us, I let you and Horpe chivvy me back to Dragonstone like a whipped cur.”

“The day was lost, Your Grace.”

“Aye, that was what you said. ‘The day is lost, sire. Fall back now, that you may fight again.’ And now you would have me scamper off across the narrow sea… ” (TWOW, Theon I)

In my estimation, Justin Massey is the greater suspect as an unwitting agent of Littlefinger’s. Littlefinger leaked information to Massey through one of his whores and Massey reported the information on up to Stannis Baratheon.

In the End…

Regardless of whether any of the speculation about the unwitting agents of Littlefinger prove correct, it seems clear that there is strong circumstantial evidence that Littlefinger was behind Stannis’s discover of the truth about Cersei’s children, else why would Stannis and Jon Arryn be found searching brothels for Robert’s bastard children…

“Where did they (Stannis & Jon Arryn) go on these rides?” Ned asked.

“The boy says that they visited a brothel.”

“A brothel?” Ned said. “The Lord of the Eyrie and Hand of the King visited a brothel with Stannis Baratheon?” (AGOT, Eddard VI)

… unless they were directed there by someone — one who knew where to find Robert’s bastard children — maybe one who directed Eddard Stark to find Robert’s bastard Barra at Chataya’s brothel in King’s Landing.

Littlefinger was responsible, and his leak kicked the shitstorm of chaos into motion.

Thanks for reading! The heart of this essay was originally in a piece on /r/asoiaf, but I decided to re-write the entirety of the essay to make it more focused and add more evidence. Thanks to the Crows on /r/asoiaf for commenting previously & giving me some great ideas. Special thanks to /u/Naggins for the quotes from Sansa’s chapters in A Storm of Swords. I invite you to follow us on wordpress,  facebook & twitter.


Filed under ASOIAF Analysis, ASOIAF Espionage, ASOIAF Speculation

16 responses to “The Agents of Chaos: Spies, Spymasters and Their Tradecraft in Westeros Part 2: The Power of Suggestion

  1. Rick Rocktopus

    Very interesting read! The only thing that’s somewhat weak is the section proving Baelish’s knowledge of the Baratheon Prince’s ancestry. Neither is Eddard Stark exactly reliable when it comes to reading other people, nor can it be put past Littlefinger to fake previous knowledge of a newly learned fact.

  2. Great read, very organized and insightful. I like the idea of Horpe as the “messenger” because of his grudge, that’s a very believable connection. Such good poker analogies too. 🙂

  3. djinn

    Interesting theory, but why wouldn’t Massey, as a former squire of Robert’s go to the man himself? And wasn’t Horpe on Renly army as a bannerman of SE? And Davos would certainly hear gossip about Robert’s bastards in brothels, after all sailors like to talk about the high and mighty in their taverns.

    • Grant

      Unless you’re lead to at least some of the facts, there’s probably not much to ever make you think of it. Assuming that Jon is actually Rhaegar’s son, there aren’t many (or really any) people saying that it’s so obvious that Eddard Stark’s bastard son is really the disguised son of a dead prince.

      In any case, even assuming that Davos would hear it in a brothel, his interactions with Stannis at the start of the books don’t seem to have the same status that I’d assume the knight who brought Stannis the information would have.

      • djinn

        Sure, but neither Massey or Horpe are ever mentioned in Stannis council or favor before Renly’s demise while Davos is sent to contact the Stormlords. You could easily argue that Lomas/Andrew Estermont(cousins) or Gilbert Farring(castellean) did inform Stannis of Cersei’s kids. My point is that if someone informed Stannis, it would be someone close to him and not close to Robert to act this way. Massey, Farring, Davos, Estermonts, Chyttering are all as likely to be.

    • There’s no indication that Massey was a part of Renly’s army. Given his senior status in Stannis’s army during the Battle of the Blackwater (He was serving on Stannis’s senior military staff & advised Stannis to make for Dragonstone when Lannister/Tyrell reinforcements joined battle), I’d be surprised to discover that he was Renly’s man from the get-go.

      Davos might work as a suspect given his statements of “knowing other women other than this wife.” That said, you’d expect some sort of statement or thought on Davos’ part as he is a POV. So, I’d think that he was not one of Littlefinger’s unwitting agents.

      • djinn

        Ok but it still doesn’t explains why a former squire of Robert’s(Massey) wouldn’t address him directly about Cersei’s kids and would go to Stannis instead. Maybe this is why Farring or Chyttering (to say nothing of the Estermonts) are in Stannis good opinion.
        I just meant to point out that while the theory has merit, it’s details might need to be reaccessed.

      • Ethos

        I am also not a fan of the Davos theory. It has been shown in his POV’s that he knows of Stannis’ value of honesty and he has shown to be hesitant to give information unless he is sure of it himself. He speaks of what he knows and does not pretend to speak of more beyond that. Besides he has been married to his wife and has had his lands long before the events shown in TGoT. There would be no reason for him to seek out a brothel as he is plenty happy with what he has.

        I like the Massey theory and would love to see it true. But there isn’t enough evidence to link Baelish and Massey together…yet. But the speculation based off of what is already given is very insightful and I believe to be the best lead so far.

  4. Sven

    If you could predict a TWoW release date- what would you say?

  5. ajay

    “Lord Baelish, what do you know of Robert’s bastards?”
    “Well, he has more than you, for a start.”

    I have to wonder at this point: how much does LF know or suspect about Jon Snow? True, they’ve never met. But Snow’s existence is clearly known to LF – it’s not like it’s a secret, after all – and LF will (presumably) have some interest in the situation at Winterfell given that it’s where Catelyn Tully, the target of his decade-long obsession, lives.
    There are two interpretations of this line. The first and most obvious one is that LF is saying “Yes, Robert has a lot of bastards, and, in passing, Ned, let me just throw you a bit off balance by reminding you that you aren’t so pure yourself – I know you’ve got a bastard son. Naughty Ned, cheating on the divine Catelyn like that.”
    But the second is that LF is saying “Yes, Robert has a lot of bastards, and in passing, Ned, let me just throw you massively off balance by hinting – deniably – that I know very well that you don’t have _any_, and that kid you’ve been claiming as your bastard son is nothing of the kind.”

    • Grant

      If Jon is then it’s theoretically possible, but that would be just a guess on his part since there are only two people in the world (three if Brynden looked into it) who would have any ability to say for sure.

  6. mat

    Given your theory is true, Littlefinger can only hope to retain or improve his position at court if Stannis does not win the war (as Stannis would replace or even kill Varys an Littlefinger). Hence Littlefinger must know or at least strongly supsect that the Starks and the Tyrells do not align themselves with Stannis. Therefore I wonder if it was also mastermind LF who planted the idea of “King Renly” (and Queen Margery) in the head of Loras and/or Renly.

  7. Pingback: Heirs in the Shadows: The Young Lion | Wars and Politics of Ice and Fire

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