Disaster. Aerys and Rhaegar Targaryen were dead, Viserys and Daenerys were fled, a new powerful Baratheon regime was in power in King’s Landing and – most importantly for our purposes – Varys and Illyrio’s first conspiracy against the Targaryens had catastrophically failed. This failure could be partially attributed to Varys overplaying his hand by pushing Aerys too far towards paranoia and rash action, but the greater part of this failure was Varys’ inability to take the human element into account.
As we’ll see in Part 3, however, this was a failure that was not unique to Varys. Varys and Illyrio would engineer new schemes in Essos to elevate Aegon, the Bright-Black Dragon, onto the Iron Throne during the main timeline of A Song of Ice and Fire. Fearsome sellswords, known as the Golden Company, would be the cornerstone of Illyrio’s efforts. Prince Viserys Targaryen would also feature prominently early on, but as Illyrio’s conspiracies evolved, his attention would shift to Daenerys and her three adolescent dragons. But above them all was the boy and the conspiracy to put this dragon onto the Iron Throne.
But as Varys discovered in Westeros, Illyrio would find the human element interfering with his well-laid plans time after time.
The Military Arm of House Blackfyre
Ghosts and liars, Griff thought, as he surveyed their faces. Revenants from forgotten wars, lost causes, failed rebellions, a brotherhood of the failed and the fallen, the disgraced and the disinherited. This is my army. This is our best hope. (ADWD, The Lost Lord)
Artwork by Urukki Saki
Though the plan shifted and varied, the one seeming constant in Varys and Illyrio’s scheme was the Golden Company. Founded by Aegor “Bittersteel” Rivers, the Golden Company had been the military arm of House Blackfyre for nearly a hundred years.
In Essos, Bittersteel gathered exiled lords and knights, and their descendants, to him. He formed the Golden Company in 212 AC, and soon established it as the foremost free company of the Disputed Lands. “Beneath the gold, the bitter steel” became their battle cry, renowned across Essos. After Bittersteel, the company was led by descendants of Daemon Blackfyre until the last of them, Maelys the Monstrous, was slain in the Stepstones. (TWOIAF, Daeron II)
The Golden Company was unique among sellsword companies in Essos for being primarily comprised of Westerosi exiles (especially in command positions), but it gained further distinction by its political aims.
Those followers of the Black Dragon who survived the [Redgrass Field] yet refused to bend the knee fled across the narrow sea, among them Daemon’s younger sons, Bittersteel, and hundreds of landless lords and knights who soon found themselves forced to sell their swords to eat. Some joined the Ragged Standard, some the Second Sons or Maiden’s Men. Bittersteel saw the strength of House Blackfyre scattering to the four winds, so he formed the Golden Company to bind the exiles together. From that day to this, the men of the Golden Company had lived and died in the Disputed Lands, fighting for Myr or Lys or Tyrosh in their pointless little wars, and dreaming of the land their fathers had lost. They were exiles and sons of exiles, dispossessed and unforgiven … yet formidable fighters still. (ADWD, Tyrion II)
Traditionally, sellsword companies fought for coin, and while the Golden Company was not averse to mercenary work, it was vested in the higher goal of restoring the “rightful” Targaryens to the Iron Throne. This political ambition of the Golden Company to restore the Blackfyres from the Targaryen usurpers bore itself out in rebellion after rebellion (or, more accurately, invasion after invasion). The Golden Company invaded Westeros twice in the years following the First Blackfyre Rebellion, each time losing and then melting back into Essos when it failed to gain victory or majority popular support among the smallfolk and nobility of Westeros.
The final Blackfyre rebellion/invasion took place close to the main timeline of A Song of Ice and Fire. Maelys “the Monstrous” Blackfyre invaded the Stepstones along with the group of adventurers known as the Band of Nine in 263 AC, hoping to launch an invasion of Westeros. The War of the Ninepenny Kings that followed saw the last of the male line of the Blackfyres extinguished when Maelys Blackfyre, commander of the Golden Company, was killed by Barristan Selmy.
The death of the last male Blackfyre should have been the end of the political motivations of the Golden Company, but instead, the Golden Company refused to bend the knee to Jaehaerys II, Aerys II or even Robert Baratheon. It continued on as a sellsword company in Essos with dreams of retaking the land stolen from its exiled sons:
The Golden Company symbolized this ultimate goal of taking Westeros back by dipping the skulls of its dead commanders into gold:
On his deathbed, Ser Aegor Rivers had famously commanded his men to boil the flesh from his skull, dip it in gold, and carry it before them when they crossed the sea to retake Westeros. His successors had followed his example. (ADWD, The Lost Lord)
Aegor and his successors’ command to carry the gold skulls to Westeros infused the ethos of the Golden Company. They were not to return to Westeros to bend the knee to usurpers, they were to retake Westeros, and they were not to ally with the red dragon — a command that carried beyond the death of Maelys the Monstrous. A few years after Robert’s Rebellion, Viserys Targaryen attempted to entice the Golden Company to his side. The results of the meeting demonstrated the Golden Company’s contempt for Viserys, and likely for the red dragon as well.
Her brother Viserys had once feasted the captains of the Golden Company, in hopes they might take up his cause. They ate his food and heard his pleas and laughed at him. Dany had only been a little girl, but she remembered. (ADWD, Daenerys III)
The Golden Company and the Conspirators
Knowing the history of the Golden Company is fundamental to understanding why the company was the cornerstone of Varys and Illyrio’s plots. At some point after the War of the Ninepenny Kings, the Golden Company selected Myles Toyne (known as “Blackheart” to his men) as its new Captain-General. Myles Toyne was an interesting choice as a commander, given his family history. The Toynes had also been exiled, but not by Daeron, Maekar, Bloodraven or their red dragon ilk. Instead, the Toynes were exiled as a result of Ser Terrence Toyne’s affair with Aegon IV’s mistress, Bethany Bracken:
“Ser Terrence Toyne was found abed with his king’s mistress,” he said instead. “‘Twas love, he swore, but it cost his life and hers, and brought about the downfall of his House and the death of the noblest knight who ever lived.” (AFFC, The Soiled Knight)
But that only tells part of the story. In The World of Ice and Fire, we learn that Ser Terrence’s execution was a bit more grisly than mere decapitation. Moreover, we learn the reason why House Toyne was likely disinherited:
Ser Terrence was tortured to death and both Lady Bethany and her father were executed. When Ser Terrence’s brothers sought to avenge his death, Prince Aemon the Dragonknight was slain while defending his brother, King Aegon. (TWOIAF, Aegon IV)
This history is important in understanding the historical grievance that House Toyne held for the Targaryens and its loyalty to the new Blackfyres. While the Blackfyres were in a fundamental sense Targaryens, their identity was shaped by exile. That a descendant of House Toyne would command the Golden Company some one hundred years after the death of Terrence Toyne only spoke to the bond shared by exiles.
It was this bond between Blackheart Toyne and the Blackfyres that likely drove Varys and Illyrio to make common cause with him. Early in A Dance with Dragons, we hear that the Golden Company broke contract with Myr. Stunned, Tyrion asked Illyrio how this came to be.
“The Golden Company marches toward Volantis as we speak, there to await the coming of our queen out of the east.”
Beneath the gold, the bitter steel. “I had heard the Golden Company was under contract with one of the Free Cities.”
“Myr.” Illyrio smirked. “Contracts can be broken.”
The magister waggled his fat fingers. “Some contracts are writ in ink, and some in blood. I say no more.” (ADWD, Tyrion II)
This contract writ in blood was left ambiguous by Illyrio, but what he was likely hinting at was the original mission of the Golden Company, to take back Westeros and restore the Blackfyres. But sometime after Robert’s Rebellion, there seems to have been a renewal of the pact. Jon Connington later thought on the secret plans that Varys, Illyrio and Blackheart made:
Does he know? Griff wondered. How much did Myles tell him? Varys had been adamant about the need for secrecy. The plans that he and Illyrio had made with Blackheart had been known to them alone. The rest of the company had been left ignorant. What they did not know they could not let slip. (ADWD, The Lost Lord)
That only three men knew the full plan was a deliberate choice on GRRM’s part to obscure what the plan truly was. However, at the strategic level, Varys, Illyrio and Toyne’s secret plan was to seat the bright-black dragon of Aegon, the son of Illyrio Mopatis and Serra Blackfyre/Brightflame onto the Iron Throne, posing as Aegon VI Targaryen, the son of Rhaegar Targaryen and Elia Martell.
Interestingly, there exists one other person who likely knows of Aegon’s true identity and the contract writ in blood. Harry Strickland succeeded Myles Toyne as Captain-General of the Golden Company, and seemingly the plan was passed down to him.
“One broken contract is stain enough upon the honor of the company.” Homeless Harry Strickland paused with his blistered foot in hand. “Let me remind you, it was Myles Toyne who put his seal to this secret pact, not me.” (ADWD, The Lost Lord)
How much Harry Strickland knows of Aegon’s background is ambiguous, but given his knowledge of the “secret plan”, I suspect that Strickland was aware of Aegon’s Blackfyre/Brightflame identity at the very least. He also likely knew that Illyrio, Varys and Toyne’s secret plan was to use this boy to restore a secret Brightflame-Blackfyre regime, dressed in Targaryen colors and heraldry, to the Iron Throne of Westeros.
But if that was the strategic plan, the tactics to achieve it and the roles and responsibilities of the players was divided. The Golden Company would have a major part to play later on, but the early phases of the tactical plan were seemingly left to Varys and Illyrio. The Golden Company had never been successful in taking Westeros by force of arms, nor had the Blackfyres ever had much success (outside of the First Blackfyre Rebellion) in rousing majorities of the nobles or smallfolk to their banner.
For success to be achieved, Varys and Illyrio had to clandestinely set the political and military stage for the Golden Company’s invasion. Fortunately, Varys and Illyrio still had pieces from their original conspiracy — Daenerys and Viserys Targaryen. And while the Golden Company’s history dictated that it would never work with the red dragon, circumstances would force it to.
Conspiracy #1: The Dothraki Gambit
Dany had no agents, no way of knowing what anyone was doing or thinking across the narrow sea, but she mistrusted Illyrio’s sweet words as she mistrusted everything about Illyrio. (AGOT, Daenerys I)
Artwork by Amok
Daenerys and Viserys Targaryen were taken in by Illyrio some six months prior to the start of events from A Game of Thrones. In short succession, Illyrio arranged a marriage alliance between the Dothraki and House Targaryen with promises that the Dothraki would invade Westeros with Viserys at the helm. Before we even get to that alliance, however, we have to address how and why Viserys and Daenerys came into Illyrio’s protection.
The how is the easier question to answer. It seems as though Illyrio and Varys had kept tabs on Viserys and Daenerys since Robert’s Rebellion. Barristan reported later:
“You are watched, as your brother was. Lord Varys reported every move Viserys made, for years. Whilst I sat on the small council, I heard a hundred such reports.” (ASOS, Daenerys V)
If Varys knew of Viserys and Daenerys’ moves and was reporting them to the Small Council, it’s a near-certainty that Illyrio knew as much and likely more about Viserys and Daenerys than even the Small Council did.
But why did these two men care about these two exiled Targaryens? Before Robert’s Rebellion, Varys may have hoped to use Viserys to further the idea that the Targaryen dynasty was unfit to rule and needed to be removed, but that plan died the moment Aerys opened the gates of King’s Landing to Tywin Lannister’s army. In A Dance with Dragons, Illyrio claimed that he supported Viserys Targaryen because when Viserys came into his throne, Illyrio would become the Master of Coin and a lord in Westeros:
“The Beggar King swore that I should be his master of coin, and a lordly lord as well. Once he wore his golden crown, I should have my choice of castles … even Casterly Rock, if I desired.” (ADWD, Tyrion II)
On the other hand, Illyrio also claimed to have only desired Daenerys sexually and thought that she would buy it out on the Dothraki Sea:
“Daenerys was half a child when she came to me, yet fairer even than my second wife, so lovely I was tempted to claim her for myself. Such a fearful, furtive thing, however, I knew I should get no joy from coupling with her… If truth be told, I did not think Daenerys would survive for long amongst the horselords.” (ADWD, Tyrion II)
So, given all we know (and suspect) about Illyrio’s role in supporting Aegon, we have ask a simple set of questions: what exactly was Illyrio doing with Viserys and Daenerys at the start of A Song of Ice and Fire? Was Aegon the fallback plan if Viserys failed? Did Illyrio actually support Viserys from the start?
The reality was that Illyrio was playing Viserys from the start, and had no interest in propping up a reborn Targaryen regime. But he was interested in optics. As my co-blogger SomethingLikeaLawyer marvelously stated, Illyrio and Varys had a specific role in mind for Viserys Targaryen:
At the head of a Dothraki horde, Viserys would cause chaos in Westeros, painting a picture of Westeros at its absolute worst, suffering under invading barbarians and mad pretenders, bloated and decadent from Baratheon rule, suffering the thousand wounds that it had been inflicting on itself for generations.
Daenerys’ utility came through her ability to get Viserys that barbarian army — a barbarian army that would need to be knocked over.
Thus, the first of Illyrio’s conspiracies during the timeline of events from A Song of Ice and Fire was to run a similar play that Varys ran against the Targaryen regime of Aerys II.
If you’ll recall from Part 2, I theorized that Varys was looking to institute a slow-burning, destabilizing chaos in Westeros by feeding Aerys II’s paranoia. Moreover, Varys attempted to push Tywin and Aerys apart while encouraging Rhaegar’s disinheritance and the elevation of the would-be Viserys III — a younger son of Aerys II who exhibited elements of his father’s madness at an early age. At some point, Aegon, the son of Rhaegar would disappear. When Aerys II died, Viserys would come onto the throne and continue the reign of folly, alienating more and more of Westeros from the Red Dragon. But then from the horizon would come the miraculously-survived son of the beloved former heir with an army of good Westerosi men to unseat Mad Viserys.
Viserys’ elevation to Crown Prince never occurred, but he was still alive and had the potential to serve a similar purpose as Varys and Illyrio originally envisioned — albeit with some tweaks.
The most obvious tweak that Illyrio instituted was to bait Viserys into attacking Westeros. Since Viserys was an exile and the memory of Aerys II was still fresh (and still poor) among the strongest noble families in Westeros, Illyrio needed to feed Viserys’ delusion that the Targaryens were still well-loved in Westeros and that they would welcome Viserys with open arms.
“The realm will rise for its rightful king. Tyrell, Redwyne, Darry, Greyjoy, they have no more love for the Usurper than I do. The Dornishmen burn to avenge Elia and her children. And the smallfolk will be with us. They cry out for their king.” He looked at Illyrio anxiously. “They do, don’t they?”
“They are your people, and they love you well,” Magister Illyrio said amiably. “In holdfasts all across the realm, men lift secret toasts to your health while women sew dragon banners and hide them against the day of your return from across the water.” He gave a massive shrug. “Or so my agents tell me.” (AGOT, Daenerys I)
In one of the funnier exchanges from A Game of Thrones, Illyrio almost gave the game away through his body language when Viserys went on one of his deluded rants.
“I shall kill the Usurper myself,” he [Viserys] promised, who had never killed anyone, “as he killed my brother Rhaegar. And Lannister too, the Kingslayer, for what he did to my father.”
“That would be most fitting,” Magister Illyrio said. Dany saw the smallest hint of a smile playing around his full lips, but her brother did not notice. (AGOT, Daenerys I)
That Illyrio smiled at Viserys likely indicated that Illyrio was taking some satisfaction that his manipulations were working. But even if Illyrio was succeeding in baiting Viserys, he couldn’t just send the two Targaryens to Westeros to lay claim to the throne. They needed to threaten the realm. They needed an army.
The Barbarian Horde
The Daenerys-Khal Drogo marriage was the means by which Illyrio hoped to provide Viserys with his threatening army. Despite Illyrio’s deceptions, Viserys had no organic base of support in Westeros; thus, Illyrio had to manufacture one on Viserys’ behalf — the Dothraki. The Dothraki were seen as a savage and warlike race in Essos. The World of Ice and Fire, the Qartheen and Viserys himself refer to the Dothraki as savages. To Viserys, the Dothraki were a necessary savage instrument to retake his throne. For Illyrio, the Dothraki would give Westeros a barbarian army, headed by the scion of a disgraced royal house, to hate, and setting the stage for Aegon’s invasion and triumphant victory.
Thus, the first step was Illyrio’s arrangement of a marriage between Daenerys and Drogo, a khal with some 40,000 riders in his khalasar. Viserys revealed very early on that this marriage to Khal Drogo was intended to be a marriage for army quid pro quo:
“We go home with an army, sweet sister. With Khal Drogo’s army, that is how we go home. And if you must wed him and bed him for that, you will.” He smiled at her. “I’d let his whole khalasar fuck you if need be, sweet sister, all forty thousand men, and their horses too if that was what it took to get my army.” (AGOT, Daenerys I)
Even so, Viserys delusionally estimated that he’d only need some 10,000 Dothraki riders, given his belief that Westeros would rise in revolt on his behalf:
“We won’t need his whole khalasar,” Viserys said. His fingers toyed with the hilt of his borrowed blade, though Dany knew he had never used a sword in earnest. “Ten thousand, that would be enough, I could sweep the Seven Kingdoms with ten thousand Dothraki screamers.” (AGOT, Daenerys I)
At first glance, 10,000 Dothraki screamers seems like it could be a genuine threat to Westeros — especially a Westeros embroiled in the War of the Five Kings; 40,000 Dothraki screamers would seem to ensure that Viserys would succeed in taking the throne. But that perception of Dothraki strength is belied by several contravening variables. The Dothraki were enough to cause chaos and violence, but even if Khal Drogo’s entire khalasar somehow found a way to land in Westeros, they were at significant size disparity against Westeros’ total military strength. Steven Attewell of Race for the Iron Throne and Elio Garcia of Westeros.org estimate that Westeros’ total military strength is somewhere around 400,000. That’s ten soldiers for every Dothraki rider — impossible odds for victory even for battle-hardened Dothraki. In that light, the entire venture looks foolhardy and barely worth the effort on Illyrio’s part.
However, while Illyrio arranged for Viserys to gain an army in Essos, Varys worked to undermine Westeros and drive it towards civil war. A Westeros embroiled in a civil war, ensured that Westeros’ 400,000 potential soldiers would be divided between the major contenders for the throne. Viserys’ Dothraki would then have the potential to cause some real harm to Westeros, and Westeros would need some sort of salvation from Viserys’ Dothraki.
Moreover, Illyrio’s gifting of the dragon eggs to Daenerys presented another avenue by which Viserys could acquire more swords to cause chaos in Westeros. An unanswered question in A Song of Ice and Fire is why Illyrio gave Daenerys the dragon eggs as wedding gifts? Jorah Mormont tells Daenerys later on how valuable the Dragon eggs are.
“My queen, Drogo will have no use for dragon’s eggs in the night lands. Better to sell them in Asshai. Sell one and we can buy a ship to take us back to the Free Cities. Sell all three and you will be a wealthy woman all your days.” (AGOT, Daenerys X)
While the gifting of the eggs had the purpose of displaying Illyrio’s immense wealth (as well as giving GRRM the literary means by which the dragons are born at the end of A Game of Thrones) there exists another possibility — namely that Illyrio gave the eggs to Daenerys as an easily transferable form of hard currency to purchase sellswords for the invasion of Westeros. These sellswords would then augment the 40,000 Dothraki riders in battle. Given that transporting chests of gold to Vaes Dothrak would be difficult and carried risks, the dragon eggs could act like an Essosi version of the way that diamonds are sometimes used by organized crime as a high-value, easy-to-transport hard currency that could be liquidated quickly for gold or silver. More simply, the eggs could be exchanged straight-up for the services of sellsword companies.
With an army of sellswords and Dothraki, Viserys would invade Westeros and cause chaos in a land already soaked in civil war. There would be battles, casualties and violence as a divided Westeros attempted to repel the invaders. Only after both sides had bloodied themselves sufficiently would Aegon, the miraculously survived son of Rhaegar Targaryen, arrive with the Golden Company to throw the barbarians out of Westeros once and for all. Or in Illyrio’s parlance:
“Another. Stronger than Tommen, gentler than Stannis, with a better claim than the girl Myrcella. A savior come from across the sea to bind up the wounds of bleeding Westeros.” (ADWD, Tyrion I)
More battles would be fought, but eventually Aegon would prove triumphant. Out of intense gratitude, the shattered remnants of Westeros would kneel to their savior. Roll credits.
A common complaint against this theory is that it flies in the face of what the Golden Company thought the plan was. In a council meeting (which will be discussed in-depth in a bit), Tristan Rivers recounted the plan as he understood it:
“Which plan? … The fat man’s plan? The one that changes every time the moon turns? First Viserys Targaryen was to join us with fifty thousand Dothraki screamers at his back.” (ADWD, The Lost Lord)
In Tristan Rivers’ mind as well as probably that of the senior leadership of the Golden Company, the Dothraki would join up with the Golden Company, and they would launch a joint invasion of Westeros together. However, there are some major issues with Tristan’s version of the plan. For starters, why would Illyrio keep this part of the plan from Viserys? At a meta-level, GRRM may not have thought up the Golden Company when he was writing A Game of Thrones (The first mention I could find of them is from a 2000 So Spake Martin), but you’d imagine that GRRM would mention sellswords or some other military means by which the Dothraki and Viserys would be assisted in Dany’s Pentoshi chapters in A Game of Thrones.
For that matter, Illyrio never mentions the Golden Company joining with the Dothraki in his various conversations with Tyrion in A Dance with Dragons. Indeed, one of the conversations centered on the Golden Company’s history as an instrument of the Blackfyres and Illyrio explaining why the Golden company was willing to side with Daenerys now. Illyrio never mentioned joining the Dothraki and the Golden Company together.
The greater issue with this plan is Illyrio’s honesty with the Golden Company. Given Illyrio’s lies and manipulations with Viserys and Daenerys (and later Tyrion), it doesn’t seem unlikely that Illyrio played a similar game against the Golden Company — using half truths and deceptions to pull them into the scheme. Harry Strickland was a cautious commander — unwilling to fight without the odds in his favor (as we’ll find out later). Could Illyrio have lied to the Golden Company and promised that the Dothraki would indeed join them when he had no intention of joining both armies? I think so, and I think that once the Dothraki were dispatched to Westeros, Illyrio would have forced the issue with the Golden Company by calling on the contract writ in blood/secret plans that Strickland is honor-bound to pursue. Moreover as (again, we’ll see later on), the Golden Company was very easily convinced to sail for Westeros. How much more easily convinced would the Golden Company be if they could arrive in force as heroes to save the day after being regarded as supporters of usurpers and invaders for much of its history?
Regardless of what plan was at work, Daenerys married to Drogo and the promise of a Viserys-led Dothraki invasion loomed in the near future. All Illyrio had to do was wait with Viserys in Pentos while Khal Drogo fathered an heir out in Vaes Dothrak and then for the Dothraki to return to pick up Viserys for the invasion. All was going to plan, and then disaster struck.
Conspiracy #1 Fails
Much like the conspiracy of his counterpart in Westeros, the wheels of Illyrio’s plan started to come off as soon as the human element began interfering. After Dany’s wedding to Drogo, Viserys made plans to strike out with the Dothraki to ensure that he wouldn’t be cheated out of “his” army. lllyrio immediately saw the danger that Viserys’ accompaniment to Vaes Dothrak entailed to his conspiracy:
Magister Illyrio had urged [Viserys] to wait in Pentos, had offered him the hospitality of his manse, but Viserys would have none of it. He would stay with Drogo until the debt had been paid, until he had the crown he had been promised. (ADWD, Daenerys III)
Still, Illyrio didn’t detain Viserys from leaving Pentos and accompanying Daenerys out into the Dothraki Sea.
“And if he tries to cheat me, he will learn to his sorrow what it means to wake the dragon,” Viserys had vowed, laying a hand on his borrowed sword. Illyrio had blinked at that and wished him good fortune. (AGOT, Daenerys III)
There was probably nothing more that Illyrio could do in the situation save for physically restraining Viserys, but it’s here that the human element of Viserys’ own Aerys-like paranoia interfered and caused complications for Illyrio’s plan. Viserys’ less-than-strong grasp on his own sanity and his repugnant personality made for poor traveling fellows on the road to Vaes Dothrak. Without giving a blow-by-blow account of the journey, Viserys ensured that every last man, woman and child in Drogo’s khalasar saw him for a weakling, coward, and an object for mockery by the time the khalasar reached Vaes Dothrak.
And the predictable eventually occurred. Having pissed off every last ally (even Daenerys), Viserys III Targaryen’s life ended ignominiously when Khal Drogo poured molten gold onto his head, ending both his life and the first iteration of Illyrio’s schemes in Essos.
Viserys’ death was little mourned by the Dothraki or Daenerys, but it may have been mourned by Illyrio. In fact, Strong Belwas later claimed that Illyrio was devastated by Viserys’ death:
“Strong Belwas says that he wept when he heard my brother was dead.” (ASOS, Daenerys I)
Given how essential, Viserys was to the plan, I’m not convinced that Illyrio didn’t weep when he found out that his “mad” Targaryen was dead.The plan required a “bad” Targaryen leading a barbarian army; Viserys’ death before he could lead that army was a major blow. Illyrio also had another problem to deal with; Westeros was going to war, and he desperately needed to speed up the Dothraki invasion of Westeros.
Conspiracy #1.5: The Assassination Plot
Moving the narrative briefly from Essos, Varys’ efforts in Westeros were not going well either. The Starks and Lannisters were on a war-footing well before the Dothraki were ready to invade Westeros. This development undermined the principle of slow-burn chaos in Westeros. Mid-way through A Game of Thrones, Arya Stark overheard Varys and Illyrio candidly voicing their concerns about rising tensions in Westeros:
“I warn you, the wolf and lion will soon be at each other’s throats, whether we will it or no.”
“Too soon, too soon,” the voice [Illyrio’s] with the accent complained. “What good is war now? We are not ready. Delay.” (AGOT, Arya III)
Illyrio also knew that the Dothraki wouldn’t make their way to Westeros until after Daenerys gave birth.
“Nonetheless, we must have time. The princess is with child. The khal will not bestir himself until his son is born. You know how they are, these savages.” (AGOT, Arya III)
This delay presented a major obstacle for Varys and Illyrio. War was coming to Westeros, but the Dothraki were not ready to move. Varys needed to delay the civil war in Westeros while Illyrio needed to speed up the Dothraki. But how?
The solution was to play both ends to the middle. Varys would try to delay the impending civil war in Westeros while Illyrio had a much more savage role to play. A few hours after the conversation under the Red Keep, Varys informed the Small Council that Daenerys Targaryen was pregnant, and like clockwork, Robert Baratheon ordered Daenerys and Viserys assassinated. Varys’ leaking of the information to the Small Council was done to help Illyrio’s attempts to provoke a faster invasion by the Dothraki. It’s likely that given Illyrio being in King’s Landing already, Varys simply informed Illyrio of what Robert intended and sent Illyrio back to Pentos.
An unsuccessful attempt was made on Daenerys’ life some twenty-one chapters after Robert gave the assassination order. The attempt was made by an assassin posing as a wineseller who had shown up in Vaes Dothrak along with a caravan where he attempted to entice Daenerys into sampling a poisoned wine. Fortunately, Jorah Mormont, Dany’s trusted friend and advisor, prevented her from drinking the wine and thus saved her life. Illyrio had sent a letter to Jorah to warn Daenerys and Viserys of the assassination plot.
“Tell me,” she commanded as she lowered herself onto her cushions. “Was it the Usurper?”
“Yes.” The knight drew out a folded parchment. “A letter to Viserys, from Magister Illyrio. Robert Baratheon offers lands and lordships for your death, or your brother’s.” (AGOT, Daenerys VI)
The reaction of Khal Drogo’s was as predictable as Robert Baratheon’s. He swore an oath of bloody vengeance against Westeros and vowed to to put his unborn son onto the Iron Throne.
In a vacuum, this event seems pretty uncomplicated. Varys revealed Dany’s pregnancy to the Small Council, Robert ordered the assassination, and then an assassination attempt against Daenerys was made. But I think there’s more going on here than meets the eye.
Backing up to the attempt itself, I don’t think it’s coincidence that an attempt was made on Dany’s life on the day that Jorah Mormont picked up a letter from Illyrio implicating Robert and revealing the assassination plot. Given Illyrio’s and Varys’ conversation under the Red Keep, Illyrio likely knew that he had to speed up the process of getting the Dothraki to Westeros or risk having the great civil war of Westeros end before he could deploy them. The letter from Illyrio to Viserys seemed to be an attempt by Illyrio to speed up the invasion from his end. Having known the Dothraki through trade and political interactions, Illyrio was likely fully aware of the culture of personal honor among the Dothraki. If an attempt was made on the life of someone that the khal protected, the khal was bound by oath to take his vengeance or he was no khal at all.
Whether Illyrio planned for Daenerys to live or die is up for discussion. Given the letter, it’s possible that Illyrio was hoping for Daenerys to survive the attempt on her life, but it likely didn’t matter either way. The hoped-for result would be that the Dothraki would begin making their necessary preparations for the invasion of Westeros. And for a little while, Illyrio’s conspiracy worked.
A ray of hope might have emerged for Illyrio when Khal Drogo’s khalasar began sacking Lhazarene towns and taking slaves from among the lamb men, but like every previous iteration of the Varys-Illyrio conspiracy, this plan would meet human complications. Drogo would be wounded in battle, and this wound would result in his death and the fracturing of his massive khalasar.
With Drogo’s death and the dissolution of his khalasar, Illyrio’s dream of a barbarian invasion of Westeros and Aegon riding in to save the day was now dead. Illyrio would have to figure out another way to insert his dragon onto the Iron Throne. Even though Westeros erupted into civil war, the Golden Company and Aegon stood as massive underdogs against any one of the other contenders for the Iron Throne. All seemed lost for Illyrio, and then there was talk of dragons in the east.
Conspiracy #2: Allying the Dragons
“These are Illyrio’s ships, Illyrio’s captains, Illyrio’s sailors… and Strong Belwas and Arstan are his men as well, not yours.” (ASOS, Daenerys I)
The birth of three dragons on the Dothraki Sea both upended the carefully plotted conspiracies that Varys and Illyrio were weaving as well as breathed new life into their scheme. Where previously, Daenerys Targaryen had been an utterly expendable piece in the game; now she became the most important piece (save for Aegon himself). Yet Varys and Illyrio were completely in the dark for a long time – too long a time – on what exactly was going on out on the Dothraki Sea. Daenerys had brought three dragons into the world, but she was moving farther away from Pentos with each passing day.
Daenerys’ arc in A Clash of Kings centered around the city of Qarth — a city in central Essos several thousand miles from Pentos. While Illyrio might have heard about Viserys’ death and perhaps the khalasar’s march from Vaes Dothrak from his spy Jorah or from other traveling caravans, in the intervening time between Vaes Dothrak and Dany showing up in Qarth, Illyrio was in the dark. It’s likely from Jorah’s (alleged) single message he sent from Qarth that Illyrio learned of the fate of Daenerys and the dragons.
“You spied on me and sold me to my enemies!”
“For a time.” He [Jorah] said it grudgingly. “I stopped.”
“When? When did you stop?”
“I made one report from Qarth…” (ASOS, Daenerys VI)
Given the vast distance between Qarth and Pentos, the time it may have taken Jorah’s letter to reach Pentos ensured that Illyrio’s response to the news would take months. That time would force Illyrio to re-think his entire strategy.
The major problem for us as readers is that unlike their previous conspiracies, where Varys and Illyrio spoke about their plans to others around them or were overheard, we don’t actually don’t hear Illyrio’s reaction directly. We can, however, piece together an idea on what Illyrio’s new plan was from some circumstantial evidence:
- Entice Daenerys to take ship from Qarth for Pentos.
- In Pentos, Daenerys and Aegon form an alliance
- Daenerys and Aegon wait for the dragons to mature and then they both invade Westeros
Daenerys was still a pawn in Illyrio’s game, albeit an elevated pawn; Illyrio needed her dragons (and someone to control them), as there were too few Golden Company sellswords to invade Westeros successfully. The dragons served as massive force multipliers that could even the military playing field in Westeros. At the same time, however, the dragons were still young and small; they would need time to grow into fearsome beasts. What better place for them to grow than Illyrio’s manse in Pentos?
To accomplish this goal, Illyrio weaved a new conspiracy aimed at manipulating Daenerys to sail to Pentos with her dragons. Illyrio had ships and a good captain to take the company to Pentos, but he also had a new asset available in the person of Barristan Selmy. Ser Barristan had been the Lord Commander of the Kingsguard until he was forced from the Kingsguard by Joffrey Baratheon. However, we learn that while it was Joffrey who gave the order, it was someone else who counseled it.
“Was it Joffrey’s wish to dismiss Ser Barristan Selmy from his Kingsguard too?”
Cersei sighed. “Joff wanted someone to blame for Robert’s death. Varys suggested Ser Barristan.” (ACOK, Tyrion I)
Varys’ blameshift of Barristan Selmy was likely intended to yank a competent force from the Small Council, but I suspect it had the dual purpose of putting one of the most universally respected men of Westeros into Aegon’s political orbit. After Barristan’s violent departure from Westeros, he went looking for the “true king”. But instead of swearing his sword to Robb Stark, Renly Baratheon, or Stannis Baratheon, he took ship for Pentos in search of Viserys Targaryen:
“I [Barristan] knew that to redeem myself I must find the true king, and serve him loyally with all the strength that still remained me.”
“My brother Viserys.”
“Such was my intent.” (ADWD, Daenerys II)
Barristan was likely guided by his knowledge that Pentos would be a good place to start looking for Viserys Targaryen, but when he arrived at Pentos, he fell into Illyrio’s conspiracy. But why did Illyrio send Barristan to Daenerys instead of Aegon? This probably speaks to a new facet of the plan. Illyrio needed some sort of connecting glue between Aegon and Daenerys. Barristan could serve as that connection, given his stature as well as his knowledge of what happened during Robert’s Rebellion. If Daenerys had any ambitions that she was the rightful heir to the throne, Barristan could be there to tell Daenerys that Aegon actually had the rightful and better claim. Moreover, if Illyrio envisioned a marriage alliance between Daenerys and Aegon at this point in the game, Barristan could aid in this — reminding Daenerys of the Targaryen custom of marrying close relatives.
Returning to the plot itself, ostensibly, Barristan was deployed to Qarth to fetch Dany and her dragons back to Pentos for “protection.” Given that we later have a point of view perspective on Barristan’s thoughts, it doesn’t seem as though Barristan thought of Illyrio as a conspirator — more a friend to Daenerys who was looking out for her best interests. Moreover, Barristan idealized Daenerys as the potential savior of Westeros.
“We were told to find you and bring you back to Pentos. The Seven Kingdoms have need of you. Robert the Usurper is dead, and the realm bleeds. When we set sail from Pentos there were four kings in the land, and no justice to be had.” (ACOK, Daenerys V)
But while Barristan might have believed that the realm needed Daenerys, Strong Belwas, Barristan’s companion, told Daenerys why Illyrio actually wanted her back:
Dany gave him a smile, to take a bit of the sting from the rebuke. “Now tell me, what would Magister Illyrio have of me, that he would send you all the way from Pentos?”
“He would have dragons,” said Belwas gruffly, “and the girl who makes them. He would have you.” (ACOK, Daenerys V)
Thus, Daenerys, Barristan, Belwas and the three dragons sailed from Qarth, but the journey from Qarth to Pentos was long — long enough for the conscience of a guilty traitor to kick in.
Conspiracy #2 Fails
“Sit, good ser, and tell me what is troubling you.”
”Three things.” Ser Jorah sat. “Strong Belwas. This Arstan Whitebeard. And Illyrio Mopatis, who sent them.” (ASOS, Daenerys I)
In a familiar refrain, the second conspiracy that Illyrio put together failed for the same reason that all of Illyrio and Varys’ previous conspiracies failed — the interference of the human element. Behind the scenes, Jorah Mormont fell in love with Daenerys Targaryen, and this led to his guilt over his previous espionage on behalf of Varys and Illyrio.
Somewhere in the voyage from Qarth, Jorah Mormont confronted Daenerys with his doubts over Illyrio.
“These are Illyrio’s ships, Illyrio’s captains, Illyrio’s sailors… and Strong Belwas and Arstan are his men as well, not yours.” (ASOS, Daenerys I)
Jorah Mormont saw the eventual outcome of what would happen in Pentos: he would be separated from Daenerys and cast out of his special place at Dany’s side in favor of Illyrio and Aegon. So, Jorah began to weave a tale casting aspersion on Illyrio and his wealth, darkly implying that Illyrio had the potential to be one Dany’s prophesied treasons — the treason for gold
“Magister Illyrio is a friend to House Targaryen, and wealthy…”
“He was not born wealthy. In the world as I have seen it, no man grows rich by kindness. The warlocks said the second treason would be for gold. What does Illyrio Mopatis love more than gold?” (ASOS, Daenerys I)
“In Pentos, you shall be in Illyrio’s power. It is not the same. I know the magister as well as you. He is a devious man, and clever.” (ASOS, Daenerys I)
While Illyrio was not necessarily out for Dany’s best interests, he wasn’t necessarily a betrayer for gold at the point in the story (Though plausibly, he could be a betrayal for love — something we’ll discuss in a later installment). For Dany’s part, she rejected (for the moment) the idea that Illyrio was one of her traitors. However, Jorah’s new plan opened up a brand new approach to Daenerys:
“Illyrio Mopatis wants you back in Pentos, under his roof. Very well, go to him… but in your own time, and not alone. Let us see how loyal and obedient these new subjects of yours truly are. Command Groleo to change course for Slaver’s Bay.” (ASOS, Daenerys I)
Jorah didn’t propose this plan out of any real concern for Daenerys. He wanted Daenerys to be held in his sway and under no one else’s power. However, while Jorah’s action was a deeply personal one, the consequence of the action completely upended Illyrio’s plan as well changed the course of history in Slaver’s Bay. In Astapor, Daenerys double-crossed the Astapori Good Masters and seized an army of Unsullied for herself, initiating a bloody campaign of liberation across Slaver’s Bay finally ending in Meereen.
Illyrio’s plan for Daenerys to arrive in Pentos as a supplicant who could be strong-armed into joining up with Aegon was now dead. Instead, Daenerys now had three dragons and a large army at her back. Illyrio could no longer spin an alliance between Daenerys and Aegon as between respectively weaker and stronger parties. Now they were equals, and Illyrio had to whip up a new conspiracy.
Conspiracy #3: Wedding the Dragons in Volantis
Illyrio’s new plan was essentially an edited version of his second conspiracy. He would join the dragons together in Volantis, as he expected Daenerys Targaryen to march north from Slaver’s Bay and then west along the Demon Road for Mantarys and Volantis. The Golden Company would march up from the Disputed Lands to intercept Daenerys and broach an alliance — a marriage alliance.
Marriage between Daenerys and Aegon may have sent Bittersteel and Daemon Blackfyre spinning in their graves, but it was a pragmatic play on Illyrio’s part. The Golden Company simply did not have the manpower to take Westeros without dragons. Daenerys was no longer a young girl who knew little of war. She now led an army, and she had dragons. These factors equalized Aegon and Daenerys’ relationship. Moreover, this alliance was the only way that Illyrio could see the Golden Company succeed in taking Westeros:
“I admire your powers of persuasion,” Tyrion told Illyrio. “How did you convince the Golden Company to take up the cause of our sweet queen when they have spent so much of their history fighting against the Targaryens?”
Illyrio brushed away the objection as if it were a fly. “Black or red, a dragon is still a dragon. When Maelys the Monstrous died upon the Stepstones, it was the end of the male line of House Blackfyre.” The cheesemonger smiled through his forked beard. “And Daenerys will give the exiles what Bittersteel and the Blackfyres never could. She will take them home.” (ADWD, Tyrion II)
Save for maybe few of the more senior members of the Golden Company, most of the troops had no tangible connection to the Blackfyres the way that a sellsword living in the era of Maelys the Monstrous and the War of the Ninepenny Kings did. However, this did not mean that the the Golden Company was simply abandoning the principle of seating a descendant of House Blackfyre on the throne; they were simply becoming pragmatic about it.
So, the company marched up from the Disputed Lands to Volantis to await Daenerys and her army. Illyrio figured that Daenerys’s campaign in Slaver’s Bay was not an end unto itself — that this newfound identity as liberator would extend to the rest of Essos. If she wanted to free the slaves in Essos, she would have to take her army west towards Mantarys and Volantis, by land or by sea.
“In a short span of days she conquered Astapor, made Yunkai bend the knee, and sacked Meereen. Mantarys will be next, if she marches west along the old Valyrian roads. If she comes by sea, well … her fleet must take on food and water at Volantis.” (ADWD, Tyrion II)
So, Illyrio sent word to the Golden Company to head to Volantis in hopes that Daenerys would also make her way to Volantis. Meanwhile, Illyrio journeyed out to the Rhoyne River with Tyrion Lannister and chests of gold to link up with Aegon, Jon Connington, and a party of Aegon loyalists. This party would have the sole goal of transporting Aegon safely from northern Essos down to Volantis.
The Golden Company, however, was growing restless with Illyrio’s scheming. The Dothraki had not invaded Westeros while Illyrio’s ships had turned to Slaver’s Bay. When we finally meet up with the Golden Company in A Dance with Dragons, tensions were at near boiling point. Illyrio’s new plan required the Golden Company to abandon easy money in the Disputed Lands, and still Daenerys played at being a queen in Meereen.
Conspiracy #3 Fails
“We came to raise up a king and queen who would lead us home to Westeros, but this Targaryen girl seems more intent on planting olive trees than in reclaiming her father’s throne.” (ADWD, The Lost Lord)
Artwork by A. L. Ashbaugh
Illyrio had made a number of assumptions about Daenerys’ course of conduct. She had to sail to Pentos. She had to march or sail west after taking Meereen. She had to accept Aegon. She had to invade Westeros with Aegon. These assumptions embedded into Illyrio’s planning were the downfall of all his plans; the marriage in Volantis scheme would be no exception.
The first signs of trouble came when no army or dragons appeared from the east. As readers, we know the reason why Daenerys wasn’t marching or sailing west from Meereen. She planned to stay in Meereen for the long haul:
“But how can I rule seven kingdoms if I cannot rule a single city?” He had no answer to that. Dany turned away from them, to gaze out over the city once again. “My children need time to heal and learn. My dragons need time to grow and test their wings. And I need the same. I will not let this city go the way of Astapor. I will not let the harpy of Yunkai chain up those I’ve freed all over again.” She turned back to look at their faces. “I will not march.”
“What will you do then, Khaleesi?” asked Rakharo.
“Stay,” she said. “Rule. And be a queen.” (ASOS, Daenerys VI)
The Golden Company, however, had no idea why Daenerys didn’t move. They were stuck outside of Volantis waiting for their two Targaryens to arrive, and their extended stay near Volantis was causing consternation among the locals.
The second order effect of Daenerys’ extended stay in Meereen was that the Volantenes saw the Golden Company as a potential threat and mobilized their army in response.
The Golden Company was encamped three miles south of town, well north of where he had expected them, and Triarch Malaquo had come north with five thousand foot and a thousand horse to cut them off from the delta road. Daenerys Targaryen remained a world away. (ADWD, The Lost Lord)
The atmosphere was ripe for Aegon to entice the Golden Company towards a reckless plan hatched on the Rhoyne.
The journey from Pentos and the Rhoyne River had been unpleasant for Aegon and his company. They were attacked by Stone Men at the Bridge of Dream, and Jon Connington was infected by greyscale. Yet even more disastrous than these events – at least, for Illyrio and Varys’ long-term plans – was a conversation that Tyrion and Aegon had over a game of cyvasse.
There is no event that better demonstrated how Illyrio’s plans consistently failed when the human element came into play than the fateful conversation between Tyrion and Aegon. For it is this conversation that sowed the seeds for Aegon’s probable destruction. Moreover, it’s here that an embittered, nihilistic dwarf, eager to satisfy his own need to wreak vengeance on his own family, changed the course of history and doomed tens of thousands to a fiery death.
Aboard the Shy Maid, Tyrion challenged Aegon to a game of cyvasse. From the start, Tyrion Lannister manipulated Aegon:
“Prince Aegon,” said Tyrion, “since we’re both stuck aboard this boat, perhaps you will honor me with a game of cyvasse to while away the hours?”
The prince gave him a wary look. “I am sick of cyvasse. “
“Sick of losing to a dwarf, you mean?”
That pricked the lad’s pride, just as Tyrion had known it would. (ADWD, Tyrion VI)
Tyrion later thought of his words as “baiting” Prince Aegon; so whatever Tyrion was doing, he was being intentional about it. But what exactly was Tyrion baiting Aegon to do? In brief, Tyrion counseled Aegon to abandon Illyrio’s carefully laid plan of marrying his “aunt” and to invade Westeros without Daenerys and her dragons.
“If I were you? I would go west instead of east. Land in Dorne and raise my banners. The Seven Kingdoms will never be more ripe for conquest than they are right now.” (ADWD, Tyrion VI)
Tyrion’s rationale that the realm was fractured and divided had kernels of truth embedded into it, but the advice was stunningly and intentionally bad. The Golden Company had a mere 10,000 men serving under its banners. Fortunately for Aegon, the Golden Company need not be victorious, according to Tyrion.
“But,” Prince Aegon said, “without Daenerys and her dragons, how could we hope to win?”
“You do not need to win,” Tyrion told him. “All you need to do is raise your banners, rally your supporters, and hold, until Daenerys arrives to join her strength to yours.” (ADWD, Tyrion VI)
The assumption that Tyrion planted in Aegon’s mind – that the Golden Company could hold out against the entirety of Westeros until Daenerys arrived – was a very poor one. A worse assumption was that Daenerys would join her strength to Aegon. There was absolutely no guarantee that this would happen. In Slaver’s Bay, Daenerys embraced her newfound status as a leader and a queen.While we, as readers, have an advantage in knowing Dany’s evolving mentality, Aegon and his advisors could and should have assumed that a ruler already in power might not be willing to take on a subordinate role, especially if they had armies and dragons to back the claim. Moreover, the optics of Aegon invading without and before Daenerys almost ensured that his actions would be viewed as usurpation.
Tyrion would disappear from Aegon’s camp shortly after this conversation, but the points that Tyrion made to the boy stuck. When Aegon and his party finally linked-up with the Golden Company outside of Volantis, Aegon would introduce the seductive allure of invading Westeros without Daenerys and without dragons.
The Anti-Conspiracy: Aegon and the Golden Company Go Paddling
“Which plan?” said Tristan Rivers. “The fat man’s plan? The one that changes every time the moon turns? First Viserys Targaryen was to join us with fifty thousand Dothraki screamers at his back. Then the Beggar King was dead, and it was to be the sister, a pliable young child queen who was on her way to Pentos with three new-hatched dragons. Instead the girl turns up on Slaver’s Bay and leaves a string of burning cities in her wake, and the fat man decides we should meet her by Volantis. Now that plan is in ruins as well. (ADWD, The Lost Lord)
Artwork by Steamey
The Golden Company couldn’t stay outside of Volantis forever. The arrival of Aegon from the north was a positive step, but Daenerys’ non-appearance outside of Volantis and Volantis’ military mobilization and deployment against the Golden Company was causing stress among the senior leadership. So they began brainstorming courses of action.
Initially, there appeared only one objective: the Golden Company had to go to Daenerys in Meereen. To accomplish this, there were really only two seemingly impossible courses of action that the Golden Company could pursue to achieve this objective:
- Course of Action #1: Sail from Volantis to Meereen. While Volantis had ships aplenty in its harbor, however, Meereen was blockaded and Volantis was about to launch its own fleet against Daenerys. When Gory Edoryen, the Golden Company’s paymaster, suggested a treacherous solution to the problem (taking contract with Yunkai and then betraying them when they got the Meereen), he was shot down by Harry Strickland.
- Course of Action #2: March east from Volantis along the Demon Road. This was a very high risk course of action, as the senior leadership expected half the company to desert and the other half to die on the road.
Neither of these courses of action was acceptable. Harry Strickland considered deception and betrayal to be anathema to the Golden Company’s institutional culture and reputation, but marching down the Demon Road ensured that most everyone would die or desert before they could make it to Daenerys. This was a no-win situation, but then a young Aegon Targaryen spoke up and upended the game forever.
“Daenerys is Prince Rhaegar’s sister, but I am Rhaegar’s son. I am the only dragon that you need.”
Griff put a black-gloved hand upon Prince Aegon’s shoulder. “Spoken boldly,” he said, “but think what you are saying.”
“I have,” the lad insisted. “Why should I go running to my aunt as if I were a beggar? My claim is better than her own. Let her come to me … in Westeros.” (ADWD, The Lost Lord)
Aegon had swallowed Tyrion’s manipulations and lies intact and regurgitated a simplified form of them to a Golden Company ripe for any plan that didn’t involve death or dishonor. The plan was met with near-overwhelming acclaim by almost all of the members of the Golden Company save for the Captain-General himself.
Harry Strickland was regarded as a coward by Jon Connington, Aegon, and seemingly many current members of the Golden Company, but this opinion is unfair to the character. Harry Strickland wasn’t so much a coward as he was reluctant to commit his small army to a fight where they had little chance of success without dragons.
“We need the girl. We need the marriage. If Daenerys accepts our princeling and takes him for her consort, the Seven Kingdoms will do the same. Without her, the lords will only mock his claim and brand him a fraud and a pretender.” (ADWD, The Lost Lord)
Undeterred, the senior officers of Golden Company crowed about how Volantis would provide them with the ships to sail for Westeros, and that Cersei Lannister’s focus would be on Meereen instead of them. Besides, the realm would rise up for Aegon. The problem as Strickland saw it, was that while some houses might rise up for Aegon, there wouldn’t be enough houses to embrace the dragon:
“Some,” allowed Homeless Harry, “not many. Rhaegar’s sister has dragons. Rhaegar’s son does not. We do not have the strength to take the realm without Daenerys and her army. Her Unsullied.” (ADWD, The Lost Lord)
Strickland was shouted down by Lysono Maar, who stated that Aegon the Conqueror took Westeros without eunuchs (amusingly omitting that Aegon had dragons when he invaded Westeros).
Aegon’s emotional appeal resonated among the Golden Company. They welcomed this “bold” plan, and they saw Aegon as a reckless and daring Targaryen, willing to take the fight to the enemy.
“If my aunt wants Meereen, she’s welcome to it. I will claim the Iron Throne by myself, with your swords and your allegiance. Move fast and strike hard, and we can win some easy victories before the Lannisters even know that we have landed. That will bring others to our cause.” (ADWD, The Lost Lord)
In the end, Strickland could do nothing other than give assent to this damned fool plan. Preparations were made, provisions acquired, and the Golden Company set sail from Volantis bound for the dangerous shores of Westeros.
The Golden Company’s conservative institutional culture combined with its yearning for home were the deciding factors in the Golden Company taking ship bound for Westeros. Harry Strickland’s refusal to consider the option of betraying Yunkai ensured that the only path left open to the Golden Company was the one they chose. From his own perspective, Strickland’s refusal to betray Yunkai was based in part on the Golden Company’s shining reputation as the one sellsword company who would not break contract. Strickland felt that this reputation had been sullied by their recent contract breaking with Myr to satisfy the contract writ in blood. However, this was short-sighted insofar as it prioritized the Golden Company’s short-term reputation in Essos over its nearly one-hundred year old political goal of restoring the rightful Targaryens to the Iron Throne in Westeros.
However, Strickland was also correct that 10,000 men up against the whole of Westeros was terrible odds. Even if Westeros was engulfed in a civil war, the Golden Company faced the same sorts of odds that Illyrio hoped the Dothraki would face. Aegon and Viserys’ similar plan is a funny parallel that GRRM seemed to have wanted us to notice. Viserys thought he could take Westeros with 10,000 Dothraki just as Aegon thought he could take Westeros with the 10,000 men of the Golden Company. Viserys deluded himself into believing that the realm would rise for him once he landed. Aegon and his backers thought that the lords would rise after he planted his dragon banner in Westeros. When the Golden Company abandoned Dany’s dragons, it abandoned a force multiplier that could equalize the massive size disparity it faced. GRRM is telegraphing how reckless and foolish Aegon’s plan was by drawing that parallel to Viserys. No one had taken Westeros without dragons since ancient times. No doubt Aegon’s attack without dragons was a bold move, but it was an extremely dangerous course of action too. Time would tell if this gamble would pay out.
It was not the prudent course, but he was tired of prudence, sick of secrets, weary of waiting. (ADWD, The Lost Lord)
Humans are not consistent rational actors. We make mistakes. We have feelings. And we sometimes operate against our own interests. George RR Martin has written A Song of Ice and Fire with that very much in mind. The devious, ingenious plans of a character like Illyrio Mopatis fall apart for very human reasons, and the only thing that Illyrio gets for his trouble is allies who distrust him.
“I have had enough of Illyrio’s plans. Robert Baratheon won the Iron Throne without the benefit of dragons. We can do the same. And if I am wrong and the realm does not rise for us, we can always retreat back across the narrow sea, as Bittersteel once did, and others after him.” (ADWD, The Lost Lord)
The lesson that George RR Martin seemingly wants to impart here is that great plans are often undone by the greatest variable known to man — man himself. Years worth of planning could be ended by golden crowns, bitter, vengeful dwarves, or men desperate to come home. It’s human and it’s poignant writing on Martin’s part.
But back in Westeros, the Golden Company was facing a very real human struggle — a war in which they faced insurmountable odds and certain defeat. They were 10,000 and they were up against the whole of Westeros.
Next up: The Exile
- Black and Reds, Part IV by Steven Attewell
- Symbols and Stories in Westeros: The Spider and the Dragon by SomethingLikeaLawyer
- Why Tyrion advised Aegon to West by Nfriel
- Varys and Illyrio’s Conspiracies Podcast Part 1 and Part 2 by History of Westeros
- Paying His Debts: Sorrows, Whores and a Game of Cyvasse by the Meereenese Blot