The king lies dead. Murdered, it appears, at the feast for his wedding. No time to grieve, however, for those whose power depended on him nor for those who would be immediately accused of his murder. Such is the way for those who live in King’s Landing. The king chokes and dies at a feast and the immediate reaction isn’t to consider it an accident or bad luck, but to go immediately to murder. Such is the way for those who play the game of thrones. In order to play it, you have to know how to survive drastic changes like the murder of a king.
Lord Petyr Baelish knows this better than anyone and moved to spirit away one of the likeliest accused, Lady Sansa Stark, out of King’s Landing before anyone knew what was happening. To that end, he approached the disgraced Ser Dontos and used his need for gold and the debt he owed Sansa to gain her trust and rescue her. No one in Westeros is as talented a survivor as Petyr Baelish. He knows how to play everyone to not just survive, but thrive. Everyone knows he’s far away – on his way to The Eyrie – so he cannot be accused of the murder of the King. Even better for him, no one knows he’s stolen the key to the North from under the Lannisters’ noses. So what if, in his wake, he leaves death and destruction behind? No one will miss the drunken, foolish and disgraced last scion of House Hollard.
They might miss Tyrion Lannister. Or rather, someone might. Accused of the murder of the king by his own kin, Tyrion is finding that he has almost no friends left in the world. Every noble’s and commoner’s survival instinct has kicked in and realized that The Imp will die. No need to go down with him as an accomplice. So all desert him. All save young Podrick Payne, his squire. The young man who stood by Tyrion’s side in the Blackwater and who defended him from a murderous knight of the Kingsguard. He’s rejected advances of gold from those who would see Tyrion die. But his nobility isn’t wise and even Tyrion knows it. So he dismisses the boy from his service in a bid to keep him alive. “Ser Podrick Payne” may one day be the only one who remembers Tyrion Lannister and not Tyrion the killer.
As for Tyrion’s own family, their ruler displays deft touch in maneuvering through the crisis. Joffrey lies dead in state. His son stands accused of the murder. There will be a trial. So Lord Tywin moves to secure his position by offering Prince Oberyn Martell a position as one of the three judges as well as a seat in the Small Council. Even as Prince Oberyn accuses him to this face of ordering the murder of his sister, Lord Tywin moves to bring him to his side. Because that’s what a survivor does: he builds alliances.
A similar thought seems to have occurred to Ser Davos Seaworth, Hand of King Stannis. While his king angrily complains about how his Hand sent away his brother’s bastard, Gendry, Davos is desperately looking for friends who might come under Stannis’ banners. His king might be more and more inclined to rely on the blood magic of his red priestess, but for a practical man like Davos, it’s soldiers and ships that win wars. And while he continues to learn his letters, he seems to have dawned upon a new potential ally: The Iron Bank of Braavos.
At the same time, Lord Tywin quickly maneuvers to ensure it will be he and not his daughter, Queen Cersei, who speaks into the ear of the next king. Tommen Baratheon is young and pliable. He has not displayed the sadistic streak of his big brother. He may one day be a good king, but right now he’s just a boy. Lord Tywin is not going to let the next Lannister king fall into the same failings that the last one displayed. So, though his last king is barely cold in state, he metaphorically steps over his corpse to bring the new king under his wing. And until Tommen is ready to rule, it will be Lord Tywin Lannister who will command the Kingdoms.
What kind of Kingdoms will Tommen inherit though is a good question. The North is under attack from the wildlings of Mance Rayder and there’s no one who can do a thing about it. With the Starks and their bannermen dead or scattered and the Boltons interested more in securing their position, no one can stand in the way of the brutally cold murderers from Beyond the Wall. The farmers and villagers who dot the land lack the survival skills to deal with the wildling onslaught. Being a farmer or a crofter is no training for facing off against men and women who’ve had to raid, pillage and kill for every morsel of food. They survive on killing and terror.
To be fair, it’s the same sort of men who’ve made the ranks of the Night’s Watch for a long time. Murderers, rapists and thieves who wear black and are told to guard the realm from the threats that lie in the Land of Perpetual Winter. It takes a lot to hold those men to their oaths and, when they break, they break really bad – as we saw when they rebelled against Lord Commander Mormont. This is why Sam Tarly moved Gilly down to Mole’s Town to serve in the brothel as a cook and cleaning girl. He knows what his Sworn Brothers are like. And with Mance Rayder moving towards The Wall, those men that broke their oaths are a threat to the Night’s Watch defense. Jon Snow’s lie that a thousand men man the parapets and towers of the massive Wall will not hold if they’re found and tortured. But what can he or any of them do? The Night’s Watch has survived for so long because there’s been little need for them to hold to their oaths. Now those oaths are to be tested by someone who knows how easy they can be broken and what kind of survival instincts the men of the Night’s Watch possess.
Meanwhile, in the South, men are having to hoard and hide what little of value they have to survive. They guard their lands from strangers and ask questions such as “what House did you serve?” Not that any of that will help from the hunger of men like Ser Sandor Clegane. Arya saw the good man and his daughter as good people who helped them. The Hound saw them as frightened sheep. And frightened sheep get eaten in this world. If noble lords like Arya’s father and brother can be killed by ruthless men who’ve learned how to survive in this dark world, what chance do men like the farmer and his daughter? Sandor Clegane is a survivor foremost and he will find a way to survive. No matter the cost.
If anyone knows the price that survival takes on people though, it’s Danaerys Stormborn. And though she is a Khaleesi of the Dothraki and leads an army, she’s not about to sacrifice it all to take down the insulting champion of Meereen. She cannot sacrifice Grey Worm, who leads her armies. She cannot sacrifice Ser Barristan Selmy or Ser Jorah Mormont, her Queensguard and trusted advisors. But Daario Naharis is a sellsword. Though he leads the Second Sons, if he were to die, another sellsword would rise to lead them. So she chooses him to fight the Meereenese champion. And after his triumph, uses the broken chains and collars to reveal a truth to the Slave Masters of Meereen: their survival hinges on the vast population of slaves around them never rising up against them. She might be a Queen, but she will break the chains of the oppressed and challenge the oppressors.
As for the two other queens, Margaery Tyrell is forced to reassess her position. She was so close to being recognized as the true Queen of Westeros. And for the second time, she has lost her position due to her kingly husband dying prematurely. Her grandmother, Lady Olenna, may be right that she would have rued her marriage to the sadistic Joffrey, but her desires must once again be subdued. Lady Olenna, who can teach a class to anyone on how to survive and thrive, counsels patience. The Lannister-Tyrell alliance still benefits both great Houses. Though it be put on hold, Margaery Tyrell will still be Queen one day.
Queen Cersei, on the other hand, is left broken by the death of her son and a vicious need to lash out at the world for his death. She blames Sansa for loathing him. She blames Tyrion for having threatened her. She’d likely blame the air for refusing to go into Joffrey’s lungs if she could. And with her father moving her aside to be her other son’s new teacher, she finds herself alone but for her brother and lover, Ser Jaime. Like a woman overboard clinging to a life preserver, Cersei clings to her brother to bring about the vengeance her heart demands. Jaime, in return, demands the lust she has denied him since his return. For a man with nothing in the world, Jaime survives by clinging onto his own desires and they must be sated. His lover’s words be damned. Dead son be damned. Kingdoms be damned. And in so doing, rapes his sister.
This is a dark world. One full of survivors who take what they need or want in order to keep surviving. Populated with the kind of killers and thieves and charlatans who don’t lift a finger unless they somehow benefit. And their ways will only get worse as kings die at feasts and lords and knights abandon their posts. Even so, this act by the Kingslayer will have repercussions for him and the only relationship he’s ever cared enough to fight for. Cersei Lannister is a survivor. She’s lived through her ruined marriage to King Robert. She’s endured the machinations of her father and the limitations of her gender in a male-ruled world. She’s momentarily broken by the loss of her son. But she’ll survive this assault and bring about her own brand of vengeance. Because that’s who she is.