Geralt heard him long ere he saw him, and he'd detected the little birds lurking in the shadows before that. How they waited inside small crevices, silently skulking around corners and swiftly moving to pass information over to the next one. During his journey to the godswood, Geralt hadn't noticed a marked increase in their spying activity. Now, in the return journey to the Tower, they were being overworked, to pass off his chose route for their master in waiting. It was a system as impressive in its almost clockwork efficiency as it was disgusting in its moral repugnancy.
Even the Spider, a man of considerable weight, strategically moved past some hidden pathway in the serpentine steps with nary a noise, arriving at their center before Geralt. He would concoct some lie about an evening stroll, or perhaps a chance meeting between them after some business. The Witcher slowed his step, his fingers reflexively curling and his shoulders tensing in anticipation of danger. Varys could have approached him for a more private conversation at any point during Geralt's stay and didn't. His reason for doing so now was patently obvious like the full-moon hovering overhead, he'd seen the Axii. The vacant, dead inside stare during the execution was nothing but a convincing bit of acting.
Still, what was his play? The Spider, despite his apparent loyalty to the crown, didn't strike Geralt as so sycophantic to inform the king. Aerys would go off like a bomb, forcing the Witcher to perform any number of insane rituals, expecting a dragon to blossom from them. It would be Summerhall all over again, perhaps worse. Was he hoping to force Geralt into some kind of servitude? To hold him, hostage, through the information? Or he knew nothing precisely, and this was but a scheme of baiting the truth out.
Whichever it was, it meant trouble, and the sooner Geralt got it over with, the sooner he could plan out his next move. So, with an imperceptible sigh, the Witcher relaxed, feigning ignorance and taking comfort in the presence of his swords. This, and the lack of guards or would-be assassins in the serpentine steps. Varys, hearing the approach, began to walk, acting as though he were just ahead of Geralt.
Deciding to get this over with as quickly as possible, the Witcher called out to him first. "Lord Varys, out for an evening stroll?"
"Master Geralt," The Spider replied with utmost pleasantness, slowing his step and smiling until they were side by side. "I could ask the same of you, I trust you're enjoying a reprieve from the monotony of royal dinners?"
"I won't deny it, there's only so much venison a man can stomach before he tires from it. Visting the godswood didn't hurt either. It's been a while since I could enjoy a bit of undisturbed nature. Prince Rhaegar chose a good place for our meeting."
They halted, Geralt very pointedly looking at Varys. The Spider returned the gesture, all good humor vanishing from his face. His overweight body stiffened, and for one without enhanced senses, they might think him concealing a weapon in those thick, purple sleeves covering his hands. The lack of it didn't weaken the threat of the man, quite the opposite. When he smiled again, it was anything but pleasant.
"Cutting to the heart of the matter," His voice cooled by several degrees. "A privilege I rarely enjoy in my line of work. Very well then, Master Witcher, let us speak plainly then: what did you converse to the prince about? And why, if anything, have you done to him?"
"If you're wondering whether or not I cast a spell to brainwash him, I'll have to disappoint you," Geralt replied with an edge to his tongue. "Rhaegar asked me of prophecy, destiny, and one's involvement in it. Perhaps I give myself too much credit, or I'm a worse judge of character than I thought, but I may have taken his head out of his ass."
"A most impressive accomplishment, if true. Rhaegar has long obsessed over prophecy and destiny, even moreso since the birth of his daughter who's existence he rarely acknowledges. And you accomplished this without any of the sorcery you wielded to influence Wenda the White Fawn?"
"Calling my Signs sorcery would be a good joke if you ever find yourself in a circle of mages and sorceress'," Geralt answered, taking note of the venom in his voice at the mention of magic. "They're rudimentary, lacking in great power or complexity. Parlor tricks to proper masters of the arcane arts, but for a beast hunter, they get the job done."
"And yet, our lands our lacking in such regards. Even a parlor trick, as you call it, maybe a dangerous weapon. Perhaps too dangerous to allow."
"Don't give me a reason to use it, and I won't. Which I rarely have since arriving here. In-fact, the Axii I cast today was the first Sign I've used in weeks."
"Truly?" Varys snorted, even as his eyes narrowed. "You've not used this... Axii at anyone else at court? You've the power to influence the minds of others and have only used it to spare a murderous brigand from the flames?"
"You overestimate the power of my Sign. It can only affect weak-willed individuals, men such as yourself, Tywin, the Kingsguard, and numerous others would be impervious to it. Those who aren't would only fall under my sway for a moment, and the means of casting it is far from subtle, what with my eyes glowing white. You, or any number of others, would have noticed it immediately. And I don't want Aerys to know, because both know what his obsessions would lead to with this information."
"Yet this self-imposed rule did not stop you from casting a Sign on Wenda the White Fawn."
"Yes," Geralt answered immediately, boring his eyes into Varys'. "Even a murderer and brigand like Wenda doesn't deserve to burn for the amusement of a cackling lunatic. That... Execution was nothing but a deranged child picking wings off a fly. There was no order or justice to any of it."
"It was the king's will, does that not make it justice already?"
"If one unflinchingly believes in a king's authority above all else, then yes, I would assume so. I don't, there are some lines no one should cross, be they beggar, priest, or monarch."
"A most appropriate choice of words: belief. The instigator of countless miracles and tragedies, birthing kingdoms, and ruining dynasties. You are not wrong in this regard, Witcher, what is Aerys' will to a man who does not recognize it?"
"The same thing religion is to one who doesn't believe in the gods or wealth is to man indifferent to it: nothing. Now, if we're done philosophizing, I'd like to know what you intend to do with this information."
The Spider said nothing, examining Geralt with a calculating gaze of one accustomed to finding treachery and lies everywhere while creating many himself. It was the same look Dijkstra had during the numerous, unpleasant times, Geralt had to stomach in his company. But if deceased Redanian intelligence officer taught him anything, it was Geralt's own poor capability to lie. And how easy it was for a trained eye to see through his deceptions. So, he answered everything truthfully and hoped it would be enough.
"I despise magic, Witcher," Varys eventually said, the disdain obvious to see and hear. "I loathe it and all those who practice it. Now and forever. But I am no fool, you've changed things, Geralt, forever. The days when men could ignore the arcane are numbered, and to combat it, we need one such as you. Oh, you may pass on your knowledge to us, your insights. Yet they are a poor substitute for raw experience which you've plenty of. And I know of the things that interest you, Harrenhal, the Wall, the strangeness of our seasons to yours, there is much work for you here."
Geralt felt no need to answer, for the Spider's words were a statement, not a question.
"Yes, I thought so. An unfortunate set of circumstances, however, we all must adapt to the times in which we live and all they challenge us with."
"That's it? You're simply letting me go?"
"For now,..." The Spiders slithery voice replied, his face half-shrouded in darkness. "Your experience as a monster slayer aside, I believe I've taken a proper measure of the man that you are. For all your intellect, all your deadly skill, you are, Geralt of Rivia, a good man. A man with scruples and utterly lacking in ambition. An admirable quality, yet in the court of King's Landing, that all but renders your other, dangerous qualities null and void."
"It's always pleasing to know basic human decency is so frowned upon."
Varys laughed with genuine amusement, even as his eyes remained humorless. "My point exactly. Good night to you, Master Witcher, and rest assured, I'll not stand in your path when you present the Harrenhal issue to the king."
"A world with less magic is a far better one," This time, it was Varys who remained silent, the satisfaction on his face saying more than words ever could. He began to walk away, his purple robes flowing in the wake of his quiet retreat. Before he left, however, Geralt could not help but satisfy his curiosity.
"Hm?" He turned around, face exposed thanks to the moonlight shining down from above them.
"How old were you when you were changed because of magic?"
The Spider's gaze, as deadly as it was imperceptible in nature, implied he would take offense and say nothing. Then, it did not soften so much as grow distant, as though the spymaster was looking past Geralt to someplace far, far away. It was a look he'd seen on his fellow Witchers many times when the darker parts of their history at Kaer Morhen were brought up.
"... Ten years old."
Geralt nodded, looking at Varys with some pity. "So was I."
Days later, after performing some final preparations with his allies and making a few requests, Geralt found himself in the Council Chamber. Situated in a building adjacent to the throne room, the meeting place between some of the most powerful men in the realm was expectedly opulent. Richly furnished carpets were placed along the length of the room, a carved screen on the western side gave a detailed map of all of Westeros. The western one was adorned with tapestries from Essos. On each side of the entrance, stood a pair of malevolent looking, black marble sphinxes from Valyria itself.
Tywin once told Geralt that after a time, Aerys refused to meet with him privately without all of the Kingsguard present, a show of profound paranoia now extended to the Witcher. As still as the sphinxes, the seven bodyguards stood tall, still and imposing in their white armors, covering each side of the room in pairs. Arthur Dayne stood by Aerys' right at the head of the tall table at the heart of the room. Ser Gerold kept a tight hold on Geralt's swords. The entire small council was assembled as well. Tywin, Pycelle, Varys, Lucerys Valeryon Qarlton Chesteald, and the, until recently absent master of laws, Symond Staunton. Missing for the past few weeks due to an ill period of health. Curiously and thankfully, Rossart was absent.
"Your majesty, honored members of the small council," Geralt said in a loud, respectful voice, bowing to his waist to the gathered group. "I would first like to thank you for taking the time from your busy schedules to give me this audience."
"How could we not, Master Witcher?" Aerys smiled pleasantly enough, a gesture that made Geralt's skin crawl. "From what you oh so mysteriously told us during yesterday's dinner feast, the matter is of grave importance. Why you appeared even more dour than usual!"
The lickspittles, so most of the small council, laughed along with the king. As though it was the cleverest jape in the world. Varys and Pycelle only smiled out of forced politeness, Tywin and the Kingsguard could have been carved from marble themselves.
"People always do compliment my sunny disposition," Geralt feigned a smile as well. Letting them laugh even harder at the self-deprecation. This, however, did bring some genuine amusement to Varys, Pycelle, and even some of the Kingsguard. "But you're right, your majesty. The matter is of grave importance unless I am thoroughly mistaken, I believe there is some Witchers work to be done here in Westeros."
"You mean a beast to slay?" Ser Gerold asked from Aerys' left. "Another vampire, mayhaps?"
"Something more dangerous, I believe. But also more... Abstract," Confusion, fear, and curiosity permeated through the assembled men. "If you'll allow me to tell another tale, I believe I can illustrate my point clearly."
"Thank you, Your Grace," Geralt bowed his head. "During my time here, I've told you of many dangers faced by Witchers, creatures who feed on corpses, beasts comprised of the dead, underground dwelling swarmers, insectoids the size of a horse. However, there is one threat we also deal with, the root cause of many problems in my lands. The Grand Maester already knows of what I speak."
"And I urge all those present to listen well, for it is no small matter."
Geralt nodded at the support. "The threat I wish to draw to your attention is one I believe already lingers in Westeros, in quite plain sight: a curse."
"Your list of adversaries grows more and more colorful, Master Witcher," Tywin said with all the discreet disdain of a flailing warhammer, playing his role expertly.
"Life is quite colorful in the ways it tries to kill people where I come from," Geralt riposted, adding some bite to his tone. Aerys smiled approvingly at this. "But yes, curses are quite real where I'm from, I've encountered and broken dozens over the years. One which always comes to mind is the case of Princess Adda of Temeria. A girl cursed before she was even born and turned into a hideous monstrosity.
"You see, Foltest, the last king of Temeria, had an incestuous relationship with his own sister. Unlike the renowned Targaryen dynasty, such a practice was not looked upon favorably there. Even less so when it became known that Foltest impregnated her and planned a marriage. It during this time, the curse was cast upon mother and daughter both. The first effect of it was claiming their lives during childbirth. The caster being either a jealous courtier who wished Foltest' sister as his own, or Foltest mother, furious with the incest."
A thick silence fell upon the chamber, even the hardiest of these men showing signs of discomfort. In the case of Tywin and even Aerys, there was a far rawer emotion neither man could successfully conceal.
"For seven years after their deaths, nothing was amiss... Until one night, the child emerged from her tomb. In all that time, the curse transformed a simple, dead baby girl into a monstrosity of unquenchable hunger for human flesh, and a profound hatred of all living things. Adda had become a Striga. I want you to imagine a beast larger in size than a bear, with a wild red mane, endless rows of teeth capable of rending steel and hateful, black eyes. Now, imagine such a thing coming at you in the middle of the night, and you've no chance of escaping or killing it."
Some of the small council, such as the masters of law and ships paled at the thought. The assembled Kingsguard tensed and quite openly stared at Geralt. Aerys, as he'd done before, seemed to shrink into his seat. Whether it was from the tale or Geralt's flat, hoarse voice, it didn't matter. They were getting the point.
"For the next seven years, she terrorized the citizens of Temeria's capital, ruthlessly, gruesomely. Foltest couldn't bring himself to kill her, he wished a cure for the curse. Many tried it, even other Witchers, none of them succeeded at lifting it until me."
"... A-And..." Symond Staunton spoke, trying not to tremble. "H-How did you do so...?"
"Someone must prevent the Striga from returning to her coffin by the third crowing of the rooster. This would temporarily break the curse and revert the beast into an ordinary, if mentally addled, girl," Geralt craned his neck, giving them a good look at the scar that very nearly killed him and left him incapable of turning his head for months. "Easier said than done, even for a Witcher. And yes, I said temporarily, some curses can be broken, others sent into a kind of dormant state, Adda can and has relapsed. I was forced to restore her humanity again years down the line."
"And what brings about these... Curses?" Varys asked.
"The officially recognized cause of them is magic. Many a tome categorizes a curse as a malevolent spell cast on a person or place that brings a wide variety of side effects. Sometimes, men and women become inhuman beasts. Other times it may be outright death. Or, it can be as simple as ever-present misfortune following an individual. Causing them failure in their profession, love-life, or any number of other things. From my experience, mundane disasters can also cause a curse to hang over a place, acts of supreme violence, and death that naturally gather negative energies around themselves. Such as Harrenhal."
"You believe the curse of Harrenhal to be true?" Lucerys Valeryon asked, shaking his head in disbelief. "Are we to really entertain such-"
"Silence!" Aerys slammed the desk, a wild fire in his eyes. "Let the man speak."
"Thank you, your majesty. Yes, I wish to bring Harrenhal to your attention, for it is clear to me that a curse hangs over it. In your lands, noble houses tend to last centuries, if not millennia. Yet, Harrenhal has cost well over half a dozen families their very existence. Houses Hoare, Qoherys, Harroway, Towers, Strong, and Lothston, all made lords of Harrenhal and all lasted barely a few decades at best. Tragedy, death, even madness, growing with increasing frequency."
Ser Oswell stiffened at those words, struggling to stare or look away from Geralt.
"And yet," Tywin answered, sounding appropriately unconvinced. "You've spoken of how diminished sorcery is in Westeros, how is that an entire castle, the largest in the land, could be cursed? Or will you produce another exception to suit your needs?"
"I said silence, damn you all! The next who speaks who interrupts without my permission will suffer the same fate as Ilyn Payne!"
"As I said," Geralt broke the silence, letting Aerys simmer down. "Acts of extreme cruelty can bring forth a curse to hang over a place as well. Not just magic, though, Harrenhal has more than enough of both. Harren the Black scoured the riverlands of resources, no doubt condemning countless to death from famine and exposure alone. Then, he used forced labor to construct his impregnable fortress, leaving their dead bodies buried amidst quarries. Now, imagine such repugnant human suffering go on for forty years. I've seen places become cursed for far, far less, and in shorter time to boot. Then there's Aegon the Conqueror."
Aerys leaned forward, his eyes sparkling with rabid curiosity.
"This was a time when magic was not so diminished in your lands. When the sight of a dragon, while incredible, wasn't deemed impossible. And the greatest of them, Balerion the Blackdread, a living embodiment of the power itself, unleashed it all upon Harrenhal. The scorching flame of dragon fire would've been a molten bath of magical energies, destroying all within, yes, but also leaving a trace. No one and nothing can unleash such a display of power without some consequence. And as we already established, Harrenhal would've been ripe for a curse before the Conqueror ever set his sights on it. Lord Symond?"
"Might I borrow your cup of wine, I'm a bit parched."
"O-Of course, Master Witcher..."
Taking his sweet time to enjoy the Arbor red, Geralt allowed his words to etch themselves into the assembled group. For a moment, Varys inclined his head, and offered a smile, impressed the Witcher assumed. Most importantly, Aerys was thoroughly invested. Like an anxious child, he squirmed in his seat, with terror and anticipation.
"Witcher," He said when Geralt downed the cup. "This curse... Would it... Would it hold greater power over... Targaryens?"
"Without a doubt," He brazenly answered, getting stunned stares from the lickspittles. "House Targaryen brought an end to Harren the Black and his entire lineage. If there is anyone who would suffer from its effects profoundly, it would be Aegon's heirs. Though, I doubt the curse will discriminate against anyone. Which is why I believe it must be removed from the castle, by any means necessary. Particularly since the entire realm plans to go there soon for a tournament."
"And you can stop it?"
"I can," Geralt said, feeling pleased with how the conversation was going thus far. "It will require me to travel to Harrenhal personally and perform an investigation of its ground, to find the highest concentration of power and break the source of the curse."
Aerys' enthusiasm cooled, he misliked the idea of Geralt slipping away. An expected reaction, and with a prepared response.
"Your Grace," The Grand Maester spoke, not unkindly. "If Master Geralt is given leave to go, I would personally accompany him on such an endeavor."
The rest of the assembled men turned to the Grand Maester, more or less all of them stunned at his proclamation with varying degrees of authenticity.
"Not only to act as a witness, so that we may add credence to Master Geralt's works and all else he wishes to accomplish, but also to aid him in the investigation. From what he has told me, it is a task made far easier with a group and not simply one man."
"It could be dangerous, Grand Maester," Geralt warned him again with genuine concern. The old man, though gulping, managed to gather his strength.
"Perhaps, yet... I feel duty-bound to go, regardless, with your permission, of course, Your Grace."
"I would also ask to accompany the Witcher," Ser Oswell stepped forward, kneeling in Aerys' direction. "My family rules Harrenhal, and I grew up within its ruined halls. My knowledge and my sword will be of use on this endeavor."
"I too for your leave, sire," Ser Arthur volunteered next. "As Geralt demonstrated, Dawn is a blade of magic, and if we are to face a threat of power, then I believe having another of those at our disposal will be a boon."
"I've already prepared diagrams for weapons and even armors," Geralt said. "We'll need quite a bit of silver for both, and perhaps some training for the Kingsguard to acclimate themselves to them. However, we should be ready to leave within a week, perhaps even less."
Aerys leaned back in his seat, a genuinely thoughtful look on his face, ruined by the taloned finger running across his chin. He glanced at those willing and ready to leave time and again.
"A Witcher, two of my Kingsguard and my Grand Maester, a most interesting group indeed," Then, he smiled again. When he glanced at Tywin, a lump of ice formed around his stomach. "Such a group will need an aide, or perhaps a squire to help them in this venture."
Tywin's eyes hardened, his gaze boring into Aerys'. Rather than be intimidated by this, the Mad King was not cowed. If anything, his amusement grew.
"Your son Jaime, he's earned quite a reputation here as a capable lad from my understanding. Perhaps if he lives up to it, he could earn his knighthood during this arduous task, eh, Tywin?"
"... It would bring great honor upon House Lannister, Your Grace."
"Splendid!" Aerys clapped his hands together, relishing in Tywin's acceptance. Geralt, meanwhile, kept a neutral expression, even as the desire to reach across the table and throttle the prick was very tempting. There was nothing for it, the king's mind was already made up. Now, it was up to him to make sure this new group he was taking into danger lasted better than the one before them...