What will paradise look like for him? He may have abused his body when he was alive, but he misses it dearly now. Is that it? Will he hunt, drink and whore his way to happiness on the other side? It never really worked for him when he was alive. There was no true happiness without Lyanna. A golden crown and an iron throne were poor compensation. If all that awaits him is an eternity of hollow pleasure, he is not impatient to find out. Not when he can hold court here, with his oldest and dearest friend, and watch the wars that befall his former kingdom. Maybe someday there will be something else to hope for.
Robert was in one of his moods again. It felt like an age since he was able to see the events of the world below, and the darkness stretched before him with little hope for satisfaction. He paced back and forth, sullen and glowering. The other ghosts leave him alone at times like this. They have been avoiding him more frequently lately.
He is impatient here, but he can’t go forward, and he can’t go back. Robert has never done well in one place; his feet itch, his hands long for the feel of a woman’s skin, a cup of ale, his hammer. This was torture then; the boredom, the isolation. It isn’t fair.
Ramsay deserves this treatment, not him. Robert laughed the first time Cat’s terrifying flame-haired friends announced their new strategy for tormenting the Bolton boy, but it has proved quite effective. No-one speaks to Ramsay now; no-one looks him in the eye; no-one pays him any heed. It took a while, but surely enough, Ramsay broke. All they had to do was take away his playthings, and there was nothing left.
Robert doesn’t want to admit that it works on him as well. With a piteous sigh, he stopped pacing. If he could just get back again. If he could do things differently this time… With a sudden resolution, he marched away from the other huddled shapes, into the shadows, as far from the veil as he could go. Maybe there’s an edge. Maybe he could descend. Maybe he could go back again…
“Where are you going?”
Robert jumped. He had been convinced he was alone, but there was a pale figure in the shadows. His skin and hair were almost shining, and there was a red mark on his face.
“I know you…”
“And I know you, Robert Baratheon, First of your Name…”
Robert interrupted, “Yes, yes. Andals, blah blah, First Men. Do you think that means anything here?”
“Does it mean anything to you?”
“It means I had a miserable life without the woman I loved. It means I married a woman I despised, who raised bastards born of incest instead of my own kin. It means a life of boredom, and for what? To hold court over the departed?”
“You do not feel your life had purpose?”
Robert laughed bitterly. “Purpose? My reign was a disaster.”
“All of it?”
Robert looks him straight in the eye. “I wish I had married Lyanna before she met Prince Bloody Rhaegar, and that we had lived as Lord and Lady Baratheon. Crowns are for fools, miserable bloody fools.”
The pale man studied him for a moment. “I always used to say that the past remains the past. We can learn from it, but we cannot change it.”
Robert scoffed, “That’s very helpful indeed. Thanks.” He turned to walk away.
“But, Robert — there may be a way.”
He stopped. He turned. For the first time in what must be years but he cannot tell for certain, he felt something rising in his chest. He used to call it hope.
The pale man smiled. “Are you sure about your wish?”
“Absolutely. The Iron Throne was never meant for me. Let someone else do it. Just let me have this.”
The pale man smiled again. “As you wish, Robert Baratheon.”
At that, the darkness melted away.
Robert opened his eyes, and as his vision cleared, he felt that something tremendous had happened. He felt heavy and was confused for a second before he realised it was the weight of his flesh, something he had not felt since he left his body behind. He leapt up, and groaned at the change; the old twinge in the knees, the almost forgotten stab of pain in his side… He stopped to catch his breath and even the sensation of air passing through him thrilled him. He was alive again.
The room was his own from long ago, and in the fog of resurrection, the memories of it came gently back. He was home. He was Lord Baratheon.
Where was she? The spirit had granted his wish; Lyanna must be here somewhere. He was a little disappointed that she did not seem to share his bedchamber, but a grin started to take shape at his mouth, and it reached his eyes with a look of pure joy that he had not felt since That Bloody Prince stole her away.
He turned to the door, ready to run to her, but checked his reflection in the glass and decided to make himself more presentable first. It wouldn’t do for Lord Baratheon to sprint around his castle in his nightclothes, and he wanted the reunion to be perfect. Dressing in his finery, he was again disappointed, this time in his physique. It seemed that even in his dream life with Lyanna, he over-indulged. There was a tightness in his chest, and his clothes struggled to encompass his belly. Never mind. Starting now, things are going to change change. My body will be a temple.
Fully bedecked, he nodded at his reflection for approval, grinned once more, and bounded from the chamber, where he immediately collided with his brother.
“Stannis!” Robert roared at his brother, who recoiled from the incoming bear-hug, looking astonished to see Robert up before midday, dressed, moving quickly and smiling all at the same time.
“We need to talk, brother. I’ve had a raven from King’s Landing, and—”
“Later, later. I need to see my wife. Where is she?”
Stannis looked confused. “Why do you…” He paused. “Lady Baratheon is in the Great Hall.” His tone was cold, and it made Robert frown, but Stannis has never been renowned for his warmth, and so he ignored him and sprinted down the stairs towards her.
Pausing on the threshold to catch his breath, Robert could barely contain his excitement. Will I recognise her after all these years? Does she love me? He threw open the doors and his face dropped.
He did recognise Lady Baratheon. And she definitely did not love him.
She looked at him with contempt and disgust, like she always did, her golden hair braided like a crown even though this time around she didn’t get to wear one.
He could hear a roaring in his ears, and the room was getting darker. As he fell to the floor, he could hear the panicking voices of his servants. Not hers though. The last thing he saw was her rolling her eyes.
There was a sound of wings, and then the spirit was with him again.
“You bastard,” Robert muttered. “You promised.”
“Did I? You wished to marry Lyanna, and you did. You didn’t wish to save her from dying in childbed.”
“You bastard. You tricked me.”
“I asked if you were certain.” The spirit shrugged. “Don’t you want to know about the child?”
“I wanted her, not a child.”
“Of course. But a child was what you got. He is strong and good. Is this no comfort?”
Robert ignored the question, but the spirit saw him flinch. “Why would I marry her?”
“You were a great lord; you had royal blood, and an infant to care for. You needed a wife, and powerful allies. She was a rich young woman from a powerful, ambitious family. An alliance between east and west, with all the riches of the Lannister house, was an obvious choice.”
“Tywin wanted her to be queen.”
“Indeed. But whose queen could she be? She could never be a Targaryen queen. Far better to play the long game with you. Or so he thought, anyway. He is very disappointed in your lack of ambition.”
“Why couldn’t she marry Rhaegar?”
The spirit looked thoughtfully at him. “You have much to learn about this world, my lord…”
There were distant voices again, and Robert could feel cold stone at his back; he was waking up.
This time, as he opened his eyes, the weight of his flesh no longer felt like a tether. It was a cage.
He was helped to his feet by his servants, and ushered into chair.
“It is early in the day to be drunk.” Cersei’s quiet, seething voice was like a blade on his skin.
“Get out, all of you. NOW!”
He was pleased to see that she flinched, but she gathered herself quickly and swept grandly from the Hall, pausing only to smirk at him. He wished he hadn’t fainted. She would not let him live that down.
Robert rested his head in his hands.
He looked up and saw Shireen, her kind face staring at him with concern. She has brought me wine. She always was a good girl. As he took the cup, he realised with a shock that her face was unscarred. Was it my fault she caught greyscale? At least my wish did something right.
“Are you quite well, uncle?”
He sighed painfully. “No, sweet girl. I am…not myself. Can you do something for me?”
“Of course. Would you like me to read to you?”
“No — tell me a story. Tell me the story of the rulers of the seven kingdoms, over the last 30 years. Tell me everything. Don’t ask me why. Imagine you are talking to a child, or a stranger. Leave nothing out.”
She looked perturbed, but she told him everything. It took a long time, her tale interrupted all too frequently by Robert’s roars of horror, and his bewildered questions. His last question was the most surprising for Shireen, and although she answered honestly, she couldn’t account for his disappointment. He stormed out of the Hall, her answer echoing in his head. There’s no such thing as dragons.
Stannis found him hours later, brooding over a map of the seven kingdoms, a terrified squire at his side clutching a jug of wine. Robert glared at him. “I need to see Ned. Send a raven and tell him we’re coming North. Call our banners. I’m taking as many men as we can muster up to Winterfell, and he needs to get his men ready too.”
“Ned isn’t at Winterfell, brother. He’s in Dorne. And he doesn’t have an army. Lord Brandon Stark commands the North.”
“Dorne? What the—” Ah, Ned, you old rogue. Brandon wasn’t murdered, so he married Cat as he was supposed to, and you plucked up the courage to woo Ashara. Good for you.
“And who are we going north to fight, might I ask? Are we finally going to use our claim to end the Targaryens once and for all?”
“We’re going to the Wall.”
Stannis froze, and Robert thought he was being uncharacteristically melodramatic until the moment lasted too long for Stannis’s immobile face to not be worrying. He waved his hand in front of his brother’s face, but there was no response.
“What in seven bloody hells—”
A cough from behind him.
“What are you doing, Robert? You said you didn’t want to be a king…”
“I don’t. I thought Rhaegar would be king. As much as I hated that silver-haired poser, he could have been a good king. What on earth possessed Aerys to have him killed?”
“He had grown to hate his son. You don’t remember that? Your rebellion put them on the same side. Without a cause in common, the resentment festered.”
“But no-one could possibly think Viserys was fit to rule…”
“When Aerys died, Viserys declared that Rhaegar’s children were not true Targaryens, as they were half Dornish. Viserys was a grown man, and was seen as preferable to a child on the throne. Most of the great lords did not have the stomach for another Targaryen civil war. And the houses that rose up against Viserys were dispatched ruthlessly.”
“By the gods, he’s worse than Joffrey ever was.”
“Yes. Joffrey’s claws were blunted by his uncle and his grandfather. Some of the time, anyway. Who could tame a dragon?”
“Queen Daenerys has been abused and controlled by her brother her whole life. The woman you know escaped him. The Queen did not.”
“I did some good for her, then.”
The spirit laughed. “Only you, Robert Baratheon. Only you could claim credit for a woman’s strength. By taking the throne, you made her fight to take it back. By sending assassins, you made her wary and resilient. But that does not count as you doing some good for her.”
Robert studied the floor.
“You were not a good king.”
“You left chaos in your wake.”
“Help me to make it better.”
The spirit smiles. “Are you the one to make it better?”
“Who else is there?”
“Indeed. Think about that, Robert.”
Robert thought for a moment, and made up his mind. “The Night’s Watch. Show me the Wall.”
The spirit sighed. “As you wish.”
Robert has looked on the Wall many times from the beyond; down here the icy wind stung his face and the glare from the ice was blinding. He found himself absent-mindedly missing his spirit form. He was knee-deep in snow, but the spirit beside him was gliding over it.
Even from here, he could see that something was terribly wrong. There were no sentries; no visible black cloaks anywhere. The castle gates hung open. It was deserted.
“Who commands here?”
“The most recent Lord Commander was Ser Alliser Thorne. He took over when Jeor Mormont was killed by a wight.”
“But Jon saved Mormont!”
“There is no Jon.”
“What happened to the castle?”
“It fell to the wildlings in a surprise attack.”
“But they knew they were coming!”
“How? Ser Alliser sent rangers beyond the wall, but they never returned. Those who stayed saw Mance’s army coming, but were surprised by a band of wildlings who had climbed the Wall.”
“But Jon warned them!”
“There is no Jon.” More sternly this time.
“Where are the wildlings now?”
“They have gone south. They are dealing with the Northern lords now.”
“Why are they fighting each other? The Night’s King is coming, they are on the same side!”
“Who could make them work together?”
This time, Robert didn’t say it, but the words “there is no Jon” hung in the air between them. Suddenly, an idea.
“If there are no dragons, then the Wall will hold — the army of the dead won’t be able to cross!”
The spirit smiled. “There is more than one way to bring down a Wall.”
Robert was despondent. “We are all doomed then? Where are the armies? Where are the weapons? The Seven Kingdoms are doomed unless somebody does something about it.”
“Yes. The world needs heroes. What are you going to do about it?”
Robert took a deep breath and seemed to grow a few inches taller. His shoulders were back, his chin was raised, his fists were clenched. “I am going to save them.”
As the vision faded, he could hear the spirit chuckling.
“Why on earth are we going to the Wall?” Stannis continued, as if nothing had happened, as if Robert hadn’t been anywhere at all.
“But you just said—”
“I changed my mind. We’re not marching north right away. Send ravens to the King and to all the great houses, and tell them this: The Night’s King is coming south with an army of the dead. The Wall will fall. We will all die unless we work together to defeat them. That should do it.”
He looked at Stannis for confirmation, but Stannis had yet to write a word. He was staring at him, aghast.
“Have you gone mad?”
“No. It is time to be a hero again.”
After Stannis left the room, Robert admired himself in the mirror. He puffed out his chest, and mimed swinging his warhammer. He wasn’t good at ruling, but he had been good at fighting. This would be the biggest fight the kingdoms had ever seen. And he wasn’t going to be watching; he would be leading the charge. This is how it was meant to be.
He heard the flutter of raven wings and knew the spirit was back. He sighed.
“What is it now?”
“I think you misunderstood me. When I said the world needs heroes, why did you think I meant you?”
Offended, Robert crossed his arms.
“Look in the glass, Robert. There is a hero in there. But all is not what is seems.”
Robert looked at his reflection in the glass, his brows furrowed. Why does the spirit insist on talking in bloody riddles? Then he saw ripples on the surface of the glass, and reached out to touch the smooth surface. It wasn’t solid.
“Go in,” said the spirit.
As the surface ebbed and flowed, Robert could see another room beyond. Intrigued, he stepped through.
And that is how he arrived in the bedchamber of Daenerys Targaryen.
He had been in this room many times, and it had never been a happy place, but even when the space was Cersei’s it was never so bleak. Viserys’s beautiful sister-wife was treasured for her pure dragon blood, but her comfort was not paramount, it would seem. The walls were bare, and the fire was low. The Queen sat shivering, and barely had the energy to look alarmed at the arrival of a strange man.
“Who are you? How did you get in here?”
Robert hadn’t expected to be visible, and struggled to think of an answer that would make sense. He edged towards the chamber door and tried to open it, but it was locked from the outside.
“Again, I ask — how did you get in?”
She had pulled herself up into a standing position, and for a moment, he recognised a fraction of the other Daenerys’s imperiousness. But it was gone almost immediately, as she doubled over in pain. When she raised her head again, her eyes glistened in the candlelight.
“Are you alright, Your Grace?” Even as he said the words, he felt how silly they were. Of course she isn’t. And what right have I to ask? “My name is…Gendry. I am not really here. At least, I don’t think I am. It’s a little complicated.”
“Are you here to kill me?” She said this so sadly that Robert flinched. Not this time.
“I am here to talk to you. I think.”
“Why would you talk to me?”
He remembered all the things he had seen from the beyond; all the time he had spent watching her. How he had decided to gloss over the fact he had sent men to kill her, though he still wasn’t entirely sure it was the wrong thing to do. How he had admired her spirit, lusted for her flesh, cheered her on as she roasted her enemies. Oh gods, is there a more beautiful word than dracarys? And then, here she was, in front of him for the first time and what could he say? Except that the woman he had watched for so long wasn’t really her?
He coughed nervously. She took the lack of an answer as a sign that she was not worth talking to, and hung her head.
“You should rule the Seven Kingdoms, not your brother.” There. He had blurted it out. But now she looked terrified.
“I would never betray Viserys.”
“No no no, I’m not a spy!”
“You will wake the dragon!”
“I’m trying to!”
At that, her fear increased.
“He is punishing me already.”
“The smallfolk cheered for me. He is a jealous king.” She turned and Robert saw, to his horror, the scars on her back.
“He did that to you?”
“He won’t let anyone else touch me. I belong to him.”
Robert sighed. “You are ten times more powerful than he is. You are braver, kinder, more noble and more bloody terrifying than he could ever be.”
She looked up at him, but he didn’t think his words were working.
“You should be riding north on a dragon, with a handsome warrior prince by your side. You should be leading armies, not sitting in here, locked in a chamber.”
“You should go, Gendry. If you are found in here, my brother will burn you.”
Robert stood, reluctantly. “Everyone in the Seven Kingdoms will die if you don’t help me.”
Daenerys looked him straight in the eye. “Some may welcome that.”
“You don’t mean it. You don’t know what that means.”
“It means leaving this room and this body behind. It means an escape and an end.”
“Death is not really the end. It’s just something different.”
“Then is it really so bad, Gendry?”
“It means watching, powerless, as terrible things happen.”
“Then it shall be all too familiar.”
Robert’s heart could not sink any further. “I thought you were the breaker of chains and the mother of dragons. You are such a disappointment.”
The room started spinning. He could hear wings again.
In a whisper, he heard; “That’s just what my brother says.”
This time, as he arrived back in his chamber, Robert was furious with the spirit.
“Why would you show me this? Now, I have not only doomed the entire Seven Kingdoms by preventing the birth of Jon Snow, but I have broken the Dragon Queen?”
“You have not learned, Robert. You are no more responsible for her current plight than you were for her strength.”
“But this is because of my wish—”
“Yes, it is.
“So it is my fault.”
“No. Life is like a long game of cyvasse, only we don’t set up our own pieces. We play the game that is put in front of us. You were a terrible king, but you moved the pieces nonetheless. Some of these moves are choices that you made. Some of them were counter-moves, far removed from anything you did directly. Are you to blame for others’ losses? Can you take credit for their wins? No. I said before that you left chaos in your wake, but you also set up the board for heroes.”
“So in this version, I have to be the hero myself!”
The spirit sighed. “You’re still not paying attention…”
But Robert barely heard him as he strode from the room.
Stannis was watching two young men practising their sword-play in the yard when Robert found him, and to his surprise he recognised them immediately as his own sons. The first was almost exactly like Robert had been at that age — tall, broad-shouldered, and handsome. The second, a few years younger, gave Robert a shock when he saw his face — he was uncannily like Joffrey, apart from the hair and the genuinely happy expression. These are my sons then. That’s something. He could count the ways in which this world was better on one hand, but the idea that there was a version of Joffrey that wasn’t hideous was a strange comfort. Could he give that up?
Watching from above felt horribly familiar, and part of him wanted to charge down there and join in, perhaps hit this Joffrey a few times to pay him back for all the horrible things the other Joffrey did. Tempting, very tempting. Then, looking at his first-born, the son that Lyanna had died giving him, he felt a gripping at his heart. You wish for one thing, and you get another. How do you choose a path when you don’t know where it will take you? A whisper in his ear: “You never know where the path will lead.” He shrugged it away.
Distracted, he asked Stannis if he had had any replies to his letters. Stannis shook his head. “Nothing worth reporting back, in any case. They think you are mocking them, or that you are suggesting a rebellion in code. No response from Winterfell. No-one has heard a word from Lord Stark, for weeks now. Tywin thinks you have gone mad. He’s not the only one.”
Robert sighed. It had been worth trying.
He watched his sons a little longer, grinning at his first-born. Can he replace Jon? Is he a hero for the ages? Does it matter? He is my son. Can I wish Lyanna’s child away? Another whisper at his ear: “You already did. Is that what someone who loves her would do?”
He knew what he needed to do, but that didn’t make his decision any easier. He took one more look at his sons fighting in the yard, left Stannis and went back inside.
Walking through the rooms, he let his hand gently touch the walls. He would not see this place again, he knew. He walked through to the kitchens and ordered one last feast; he wasn’t keeping this body, so he may as well indulge, after all. He swung his niece up into a hug, squeezing her so hard she gasped. He found a portrait of Lyanna, and gazed upon it for hours. Forgive me.
When he had eaten, drunk, hugged and gazed his fill, he whispered, “I understand now.”
The spirit appeared at his side once more. “What do you understand?”
“I can make it better. Well I can’t, but I did. And I will. I think.”
The spirit frowned. “Now I’m not sure I understand. Do you still wish you had never been king?”
“Some things are better; more things are worse.
“Are these things your doing?”
“Yes and no. Before, I played my part, and I set up the board. I left a mess, but out of my mess came heroes to make the world better.”
“Does that sound like a life without a purpose?”
“No. It doesn’t sound so bad.”
“In this world, the things that are bad are my doing. Because I wished them into existence. I just… I wished for love and didn’t get it; I wished the world into darkness because I wanted a little more light. I know Lyanna loved Rhaegar more than she loved me. But I wish…” He looked sharply at the spirit. “Maybe I should stop wishing for things I can’t have.”
“You want love, Robert? Is that it?”
“I want everything to go back to how it was.”
“Are you wishing to be dead again?”
With a heavy sigh. “Yes.”
Robert felt himself getting lighter as the world grew darker. In seconds, he was back to where he started: in the shadows, incorporeal, alone.
But only for a moment.
The air was thick with a crowd of ghosts, cheering his name. His family, his friends, those who had been his mortal enemies… all had gathered to applaud his return to the afterlife. Viserys was pouting at the lost opportunity for a realm where he was the king, but even he could see that the world below was a better place without him. Cat was teasing Ned about Ashara Dayne, and Tywin was objecting to the idea that he would let Cersei anywhere near an uncrowned Robert, but they were all laughing together.
“You passed the test, Your Grace.” The spirit was back at his shoulder, smiling again. “You have learned to make peace with what was and what is. You have learned to let go of what you thought you wanted. Maybe now you will find what you need.”
“How did you know I needed your help?”
“I have a thousand eyes and one, Robert Baratheon. I don’t miss much.”
With that, the spirit’s form changed; shrinking in on itself and growing darker until he became a great raven, which solemnly flew away from the ghosts into the shadows.
“Show off!” Robert called. Then, turning and grinning, his voice boomed across the crowd.
“Right then you lot, we don’t know how long we’re going to have to wait for more news, so let’s make the next round of wagers as detailed and outlandish as possible! Who wants to bet on Arya pretending to be Jamie to kill Cersei? I’ll give you good odds!”