A Read of Ice and Fire

A Read of Ice and Fire: A Feast for Crows, Part 16

Welcome back to A Read of Ice and Fire! Please join me as I read and react, for the very first time, to George R.R. Martin’s epic fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire.

Today’s entry is Part 16 of A Feast for Crows, in which we cover Chapter 22 (“Arya”) and Chapter 23 (“Alayne”).

Previous entries are located in the Index. The only spoilers in the post itself will be for the actual chapters covered and for the chapters previous to them. As for the comments, please note that the Powers That Be have provided you a lovely spoiler thread here on Tor.com. Any spoileriffic discussion should go there, where I won’t see it. Non-spoiler comments go below, in the comments to the post itself.

And now, the post!

 

Chapter 22: Arya

What Happens
In the House of Black and White, the kindly man asks Arya over and over again who she is. Each time, she tells him “no one,” and each time he says she lies. He asks her to tell him the names she whispers to herself before sleep; she refuses, but tells him they are names of people she hates and wants dead. The kindly man tells her that the servants of the Many-Faced God do not get to say who lives and who dies, but only to do his will. He will not tell her his name, nor will the waif, or any of the others. She is not allowed in the third sublevel of the temple, where the sanctum and the priests are.

Arya helps in the kitchens, and sleeps warm every night with a full belly, and no one raises a hand to her. She helps the kindly man gather up the dead and prepare them to go to the sanctum; Arya doesn’t know what happens to the bodies after that. She asks the kindly man why the worshipers who come to drink from the back cup are so peaceful about dying, and he tells her that death is a gift, an end to pain and strife, and those that come there seeking it are soothed by the temple’s candles. He asks what she smells in the candles, and she thinks that they smell like home and family, but tells him she smells nothing. “You lie,” he tells her, and reminds her that she is free to go at any time.

Arya says she doesn’t want to leave, and the kindly man tells her she must choose to serve or depart. He points out her treasures, including Needle, and tells her she must dispose of all of them; they belong to Arya of House Stark, and they have no place for Arya Stark. He says to serve, she must give up everything she is and ever was to the Many-Faced God. He says very few have the strength to do this, especially women, and offers to help her find a place elsewhere. He doesn’t think she can do it. That night Arya gathers up her possessions and sneaks out of the Temple. She goes down to the water and throws in all her treasures, but hesitates over Needle. She thinks to herself that Needle is more than just a sword; it represents everything she’d ever loved. She thinks of how it had come back to her, and decides that the old northern gods meant her to have it. She finds a loose paving stone on the temple steps and buries Needle beneath it.

The next day the kindly man tells her the history of the Faceless Men, and their beginnings in the mines of Valyria. Arya is horrified to hear that the first Faceless Man brought “the gift” of death to a slave instead of to their tyrannical masters, but the kindly man tells her he brought the gift to them as well. He begins teaching her how to control her face so no one can tell when she lies, and learns the Braavosi tongue from the waif, whom she is shocked to learn is actually a grown woman. Eventually the kindly man tells her he is sending her away for a while, to live in town and master the language. She will sell shellfish for a fishmonger named Brusco, and they concoct a false identity for her to use: Cat, an orphan of King’s Landing. She leaves that night, dressed in rags, and gets lost quickly.

“Ser Gregor,” she chanted, as she crossed a stone bridge supported by four arches. From the center of its span she could see the masts of ships in the Ragman’s Harbor. “Dunsen, Raff the Sweetling, Ser Ilyn, Ser Meryn, Queen Cersei.” Rain began to fall. Arya turned her face up to let the raindrops wash her cheeks, so happy she could dance. “Valar morghulis,” she said, “valar morghulis, valar morghulis.”

Commentary
Wow, I never thought a character’s happiness would make me so sad, but there you are. When your basis for feeling good is hey I’m being indoctrinated into a crazy death cult but they totally feed me and don’t beat me up!, well. I kind of have to cry about that a little.

Still, I suppose on the very very comparative scale we’re apparently using these days, Arya’s life has taken a turn for the better. Which, okay, I guess, but damn if this entire thing doesn’t give me a severely acute case of the screaming meemies.

I get the basic philosophy behind this kind of death-worship, of course, and obviously I’ve never been in the kind of pain or privation that would make death seem like a balm and a relief, so maybe I just don’t know, and blah blah blah euthanasia-controversy-cakes, but speaking from my admittedly privileged position of relative youth and health and freedom from pain (the occasional back muscle spasm aside), this whole thing seems so relentlessly nihilistic and depressing that I just want to throw things at it and run away.

Me and death are not friends, let’s just say. And it’s bad enough having to come to terms with the inevitability of it in the first place, but then to voluntarily marinate in it 24/7? A galaxy of No. I mean, jeez—at least enjoy life first!

I have hope, though, in that Arya buried Needle instead of throwing her away. If I’m lucky, Arya will learn all the 007-type stuff the Faceless Priest People apparently are past masters at, and then be all like “Yeah, thanks for the leet skillz, I’m outie,” and go get her sword and wreak havoc upon the enemies of House Stark and YAY. Because that will totally happen, right? RIGHT. Let’s go with that.

I’m sort of unclear, actually, whether these people actually are assassins or not. I mean, clearly they are, but how does that fit in with this whole philosophy of gentle death for the suffering downtrodden and whatnot? But then, Kindly Dude didn’t tell the whole story of the cult’s beginnings, so maybe it’ll be explained at some later point. Maybe it was a whole slippery slope kind of thing.

Also, I’m not getting the “waif” character, and how poisons that routinely kill people have somehow also given her eternal youth or whatever. How does that work? Is this a botox analogy? And if so, why haven’t people descended en masse to pillage this apparent Fountain of Youth, no matter how creepy and counterintuitive?

What is even going on with these people, seriously.

Their cold flesh would be taken to the lower sanctum where only the priests could go; what happened in there Arya was not allowed to know. Once, as she was eating her supper, a terrible suspicion seized hold of her, and she put down her knife and stared suspiciously at a slice of pale white meat. The kindly man saw the horror on her face. “It is pork, child,” he told her, “only pork.”

It BETTER only be pork. (!!!) Also, how sad is it that Arya’s life has been sufficiently horrific that this even occurred to her? Just, wow.

Also, of course the crazy death cult has a mysterious inner sanctum where who knows what is going on. All things considered, I think it would be more surprising if it didn’t have a mysterious inner sanctum where Strange And Probably Extremely Creepy Things Are Afoot. One must maintain standards here, after all, jeez.

“Many have served Him of Many Faces through the centuries, but only a few of His servants have been women. Women bring life into the world. We bring the gift of death. No one can do both.”

Bullshit, dude.

First of all, last time I checked, contributions from both genders are required for any life to get broughten into the world, pal. It’s not like women do it all on their lonesome. And second, how on earth does having a viable womb negate a person’s ability to kill someone? Oh, wait, lemme answer that for ya—it doesn’t. As Arya herself is perhaps way too much walking proof of.

Yes, I get that you’re being all symbolic and shit here, but if we’re going to go there, need I remind you of the reality of spontaneous abortion? Or even just menstrual cycles, in which a potentially viable egg is flushed away every single time? From that point of view, women’s bodies take away life far more often than they bestow it. So forgive me if I find this entire chain of reasoning on why you have so few women in your ranks more than a little suspect.

They had killed her pack, Ser Ilyn and Ser Meryn and the queen, and when she tried to make a new one all of them ran off, Hot Pie and Gendry and Yoren and Lommy Greenhands, even Harwin, who had been her father’s man.

*sniffle*

Man, and now I don’t even want the new people she’s found to keep her. Maybe I am terrible? But—but—crazy death cult. I just dunno, y’all.

Which reminds me, is Arya ever going to reunite with Nymeria? Now they’re an entire ocean away from each other! I disapprove! Bah! Humbug!

 

Chapter 23: Alayne

What Happens
Alayne has lavish apartments in the Maiden’s Tower of the Eyrie now, and all of Lysa’s clothes. She looks down at the gates far below, where the six Lords Declarant (Benedar Belmore, Lord of Strongsong; Symond Templeton, the Knight of Ninestars; Horton Redfort, Lord of Redfort; Anya Waynwood, Lady of Ironoaks; Gilwood Hunter, called Young Lord Hunter, Lord of Longbow Hall; and Yohn Royce, called Bronze Yohn, Lord of Runestone) have gathered with a force of six thousand men, waiting to enforce their declaration of support for Lord Robert and the need for end to “misrule” of “false friends and evil counselors.” Alayne goes down to breakfast, which is spare, as the lords at the gates have blocked more food from coming up. Lord Robert insists he heard Marillion singing the night before, though Alayne assures him the singer had walked into the sky and was dead.

Petyr enters and tells her the Lords Declarant are coming up to the castle, along with Nestor Royce and Ser Lyn Corbray. Alayne thinks of Ser Lyn’s fearsome and bloody reputation. Petyr says Lord Lyonel Corbray is on his side, but his brother “goes his own way,” and had wanted Lysa’s hand for himself. Robert doesn’t want the lords to come, and throws a temper tantrum which turns into a fit. Petyr suggests to Maester Colemon that he begin adding a pinch of sweetsleep to Lord Robert’s milk to calm him.

Once alone, Petyr asks Alayne for a kiss; she gives him a quick peck on the cheek, and Petyr dryly compliments her on her “dutifulness.” Alayne is worried that Bronze Yohn will recognize Sansa Stark, having met her on several occasions, but Petyr assures her that her growth since then and the dye in her hair will fool him. She suggests that they could go back to Harrenhal if the Lords prevail, but Petyr wants nothing to do with it, and points out the bad ends that every one of its previous masters have come to. Alayne suggests giving it to Lord Frey. Petyr thinks of giving it to Cersei Lannister; he comments that he may yet need to remove her, though she may do it for him.

The lords arrive and Alayne serves them wine. It seems for a moment that Bronze Yohn will recognize her, but is distracted by the others’ crude speculation on her maidenhood. Lady Waynwood objects, and Ser Lyn Corbray threatens her in response. Alayne takes them to the solar where Petyr waits. The lords sit except for Corbray, and Petyr declares his wish to sign their declaration. This throws the lords for a moment, but they soon rally and inform Petyr of their demands: that he step down as Lord Protector and leave the Vale, and they will share fostership of Lord Robert till he is of age.

Petyr points out that Lysa named him Lord Protector, and Lord Hunter counters that Lysa Tully was never truly of the Vale and had no right to “dispose of them.” Petyr says Lord Robert is going nowhere, and asks if they are threatening him with war; tacitly they indicate that this is so. Then Ser Lyn declares Petyr will “talk them out of their smallclothes” if they let him, and that steel will settle him. He draws his sword, and the other Lords shout at him to leave off, horrified that he would break guestright. Corbray sneers at them and leaves. They ask Petyr’s forgiveness, but Petyr tells them coldly that he is within his rights to have them all arrested for such an insult. He counters with his terms: that they give him a year as Lord Protector to correct the “misrule” that he says was Lady Lysa’s doing, and in return he promises no reprisals for their rebellion, even for Ser Lyn. The lords are wary, but reluctantly agree to Petyr’s proposal. Bronze Yohn warns him, though, that “not all of us are fools.”

Alayne thinks that Petyr bewitched them. She finds Petyr later that night and asks what will happen in a year. Petyr assures her the lords will be dead or bought by that time, except for Bronze Yohn, but as long as he stands alone he will be no threat. She asks about Ser Lyn, and Petyr tells her he will remain Petyr’s “implacable enemy,” and join every last secret plot to bring him down.

That was when her suspicion turned to certainty. “And how shall you reward him for this service?”

Littlefinger laughed aloud. “With gold and boys and promises, of course. Ser Lyn is a man of simple tastes, my sweetling. All he likes is gold and boys and killing.”

Commentary
Clever clever clever Petyr. You could almost admire if him if it weren’t for the, you know, murder and pseudo-incest and drugging of children and general skeeviness.

Still, you can’t deny he played the Lords Declarant like the proverbial violin. I feel like I should have guessed that Ser Lyn was a plant the moment Petyr mentioned that his brother was an ally, but then it’s not like we haven’t seen siblings be very real enemies to each other in the course of this series, so on reflection I don’t know why that is, really.

Ser Lyn seems like a pretty volatile pawn, though, I must say. I mean, no one would have believed the con he and Petyr pulled unless he really was that prone to casual violence. Which is great for verisimilitude, sure, but not so great for Petyr if Ser Lyn ever gets his own ideas about who should be in charge.

(Also, “boys”? …I’m betting that’s not a euphemism for “enthusiastically consenting gay men over the age of majority,” is it. Ugh.)

Still, I suppose if anyone can handle Ser Lyn, it would be Petyr. His competence at manipulating people politically is possibly better than anyone else’s we’ve seen so far. Certainly he’s leaving Cersei in the dust.

“In the game of thrones, even the humblest pieces can have wills of their own. Sometimes they refuse to make the moves you’ve planned for them. Mark that well, Alayne. It’s a lesson that Cersei Lannister still has yet to learn.”

And that is nothing but the damn truth, for sure. I hope it’s a lesson Sansa herself learns real quick herself.

Speaking of which, what the hell with Sansa so completely subsuming herself in the “Alayne” persona that even the chapter title is changed! I found this genuinely disturbing, y’all.

In that, there are a lot of parallels here with Arya’s chapter, in that both of them are very much about identity. Even though obviously each sister’s individual situation is very different, at core they are both about forcing an adaptation of self to cope with the environment each of them has found themselves dealing with.

And, I found myself resisting that adaptation just as fiercely for each chapter. I don’t want Arya to be “no one,” and I don’t want Sansa to be Alayne; I want them to be Arya and Sansa Stark. I recognize the necessity of their respective transformations in order to survive, but perhaps foolishly, I am still hoping for some kind of resurrection of House Stark to happen at some point.

Because against all odds, more members of the Stark family are alive (or, er, alive-ish) at this point than are dead, and I keep waiting to see how they are eventually going to find each other, join forces and bring about their family’s rise from the (more or less literal) ashes that the first three books have reduced them to. That, I think, more than anything else, is the closure I am looking for from this story—and that, I worry, is exactly what I might not be going to get.

Because I just don’t know where this story is going, on a thematic scale. Obviously I know that Martin is very into the fantasy-trope-aversion/destroy your standard expectations when it comes to the traditional epic fantasy story, but how far is he intending to go with that? Is it going to be nihilism and tragedy all the way down the pike, or is there any kind of redemptive story arc at all in our future?

I’m not asking for a happy ending, per se, because I’m beginning to suspect that that’s just not Martin’s authorial bag, but I’m really hoping there’s at least some triumph and uplift in our characters’ futures. Because maybe I’m just being a hidebound boring traditionalist here, but I have to say that if there isn’t at least a silver lining on the horizon at some point, I’m really not sure what the point of the exercise is.

(Have I said this before? I probably have. In any case, it bears repeating.)


And that’s our show, kidlets! Have a passel o’ days, and I’ll see you next Thursday!

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