Game of Groans

It wasn’t a well-lit room, but what did it matter? What did anything matter anymore, now that they were here. Are here, Robb Stark reminded himself, wistfully running the digits of his right hand through Grey Wind’s fur, now that we are here. There was light enough to see the contours of the three-dimensional map splayed across the large table in front of them, and light enough to see the others’ faces, but not enough for details, which was probably all for the best. Not a single one of them looked great in the afterlife, not even him. No, Robb Stark had to admit, being dead is not a great color on me.

“But by the Freys,” he said, mostly to himself, though Grey Wind’s ears perked at the sound of his voice as they always had, “taken out by the Freys? What a waste.”

“Technically it was by a Bolton,” said his father, Ned, attempting to console him, “Whom, for the record, I was never particularly fond of.” Ned patted the left shoulder of his son in a reassuring way before resuming his murmuring conversation with the former King of the Seven Realms, Robert Baratheon. Pieces on the map danced and moved – allies became enemies, and Robb counted Stark banners again. Only three, he sighed. Why only three?

He redirected his attention across the long table toward his mother, Catelyn, who had positioned herself between Jon Arryn and her father, Hoster Tully, immediately when they had arrived at the assembly. She’s still upset with me, Robb tried to catch her eye, an eternity of “I told you so” silence. She, too, was watching the table. Why only three? Grey Wind whined and collapsed to the floor, bored. He didn’t need a map to know where his family was. It was somewhere he was not. That was enough.

There were eight of them in total, the eight greatest losers of the Game of Thrones seated around a wooden table carved and painted to look just like the seven kingdoms of Westeros; it was complete with a map of the land beyond the wall, better than any mapmaker in the living world had ever been able to make, and with the far reaching lands beyond the narrow sea. Tiny banners and figurines were littered across the surface – a springing fish here, several dozen lions with shocks of red and yellow all over the south and west and north. North, he sighed, an ache in his heart still for what he had lost, our north; the grey land now bled crimson red

.

“Isn’t there something we can do?” Renly Baratheon said from the edge of the table closest to The Wall. “Send a plague? A bolt of lightning? Dress up as the Stranger and punch the life out of all of them? I hate this. I hate watching this every day.”

Jon Arryn rubbed his temples. “We cannot interfere with the living, Renly. We’ve been over this.”

“But just…LOOK AT THEM. What about Cersei? Can’t I just poison her a little?”

Robert let out a loud laugh, and clapped his brother on the shoulder. “Where was this enthusiasm when we were alive? I could have used this Renly.”

“Did you think it would be him?” Renly paused, tipping his head vaguely at The Wall. “Out of the three of us – did you really think he would be the last one?”

“Seven hells, of course I didn’t,” Robert boomed. “I thought I’d have killed you all way before I checked out.”

Only Jon, who had been sitting at the table longest, found humor in this. “I don’t think any of us thought we’d be here. And yet…”

“…Here we are,” said Catelyn with a quiet nod. “I must say, I agree that it is quite difficult to watch our families fare so poorly down there without providing any assistance. I mean, I can’t even find Rickon on the map anymore.”

She was looking, Robb thought. The Starks sat quietly, scanning in vain to find the littlest of their line, who had all but fallen off the eternal storyline. Where have you gotten to, littlest Wolf? Robb stared into the land beyond The Wall.

“At least your children are your children,” Robert said.

“And they’re not sickly and weird,” added Jon.

“Or dead,” said the last voice from the furthest, dimmest part of the table. Robb had forgotten he was even in the room, as he did most days. Khal Drogo sat in sullen silence, arms crossed, tight-lipped and alert near where the map drizzled out into the territory known only as The Flatlands.

“Er, yes,” Robert said, uncomfortable under the Dothraki’s gaze, “or dead. That…that is assuredly worse.”

The table fell quiet again, the eight members shifting around in their chairs, waiting for someone to change the subject.

“Well, now that I can’t win,” Renly said, spinning the Greyjoy banner that wobbled something fierce on the unsteady Iron Islands, “I think that Targaryen girl should have a shot at that stupid throne. At least she has dragons. Westeros needs something exciting like dragons.”

“Westeros has had something exciting like dragons,” Jon Arryn reminded him. “It wasn’t actually that great.”

“Besides, it can’t be her,” began Robert, for what felt like the millionth time, “you can’t just unseat a Targaryen, and then say ‘oh – so sorry, we were just kidding – here’s your crown again.’ It would defeat the whole purpose of the rebellion!”

“You and your rebellion, Robert, I mean, come on,” groaned Renly. “No one cares about that anymore.”

“Well there’s certainly no one qualified in the Seven Kingdoms now,” Catelyn interrupted. “I mean look at what a mess King’s Landing is.”

Ned Stark had opened his mouth to speak, but shut it quickly when he saw what a mess King’s Landing had suddenly become. The door in the far corner of the room swung open, and a disheveled-looking blonde-headed boy stumbled in, face flush with general indignation.

Robb Stark couldn’t help himself; laughter broke free from somewhere deep inside his stomach, reverberating through his chest and pouring out in a raucous, bellowing chorus. The door collided with Joffrey Baratheon as it tried to swing shut behind him.

“Oh hells,” mumbled Robert into his hands. “They finally got him.”

“Took long enough,” Renly said with a raised eyebrow.

No one said anything directly to Joffrey. Wooden chairs scraped loudly against the stone flooring as members of the afterlife council pushed in all the vacant chairs around the table, attempting to discourage the fallen boy king from choosing the empty seat next to him or her. He began to move toward the chair next to Robb, but Grey Wind, suddenly impassioned with a task at hand, snarled and snapped without reprimand until Joffrey, utterly defeated, took a seat not at the table, but against the wall along the far side of the room. Across the table, Catelyn Stark hid a smile. Jon Arryn and Hoster Tully remained unmoved by the disturbance, and Ned, Robert, and Renly went back to discussing Targaryens. Khal Drogo hadn’t seemed to notice anything.

“Well, what about your boy,” said Robert, pointing to Castle Black. “What about Jon Snow? We all know what he-“

“-we all know what he is,” interrupted Catelyn, “And it is only by the grace of the Gods that he is still alive. And we should leave it at that.”

“Are you talking about the bastard Stark?” piped a shrill voice from the corner.

“Quiet, boy,” said Robert, and tossed one of the Lannister banners from King’s Landing in his direction. “No one cares what you think.”

They were distracted, so when the door swung open again, they all regarded Lysa Arryn with the utmost curiosity and confusion. She stalked in, scraping a seat back from the table next to her father and slumped down with a huff. Robb had only met his aunt a few times. As she sat fuming at the table now, he thought she looked, well, crazier than he remembered.

“OUT THE MOON DOOR!” She cried after a few moments, appealing to a crowd of astonished faces. We should really pay more attention to what’s happening on this board, Robb thought, and hastily tried to catch up. It seemed the players of Westeros were falling out of the game left and right. “Only I should throw people out the moon door!”

“Wait a minute,” said Ned, eyes still trained on the Eyrie, “did you try to throw Sansa out first?”

Catelyn perked up. “You did WHAT?”

Lysa Arryn could only sigh and roll her eyes. “I wasn’t really going to,” she said. “I was only trying to scare her.”

Catelyn’s chair made a horrid noise as she stood up, stopped only by a warning hand from her father, who rubbed the back of his neck with a wearisome expression. “Cat, stop. Lysa, apologize for almost throwing Sansa out the moon door.”

Lysa crossed her arms and said, quite begrudgingly, “I’m sorry.”

Catelyn sat back down and turned her back on her sister. “She’s a lunatic. Your wife is a lunatic,” she said to Jon Arryn.

He could only nod, and said with a laugh, “Hey, who are you telling? She actually did murder me.

“So if Joffrey is here – who’s on the throne?” asked Renly, staring intently towards King’s Landing. “Is that – why is Oberyn Martell in…why is he fighting the Mountain?”

There was a collective gasp from several members of the table, and even Joffrey clamored to his feet to see what the fuss was about – but didn’t dare take a step forward. Grey Wind had fixed his eyes on the blonde king, and this visibly unsettled him.

Moments later, Oberyn Martell sauntered into the room with his sun-woven clothes as shiny and new as they had been when he first donned them. He was grinning.

“Well well,” he said, taking the seat across from Robb, and kicking his feet up on the edge of Dorne. “that did not go as I had planned it.”

His head tilted back to see Joffrey in the corner, and when he returned his gaze to the table, he said, “Is there an age requirement for this table, or is he unable to sit in a chair which lacks spikes?”

“You’re welcome to invite him to sit next to you,” said Renly, “We politely declined.”

“No, I do not think that I will,” said Oberyn, spinning the Martell banner at Sunspear around on the table in front of him. “I did not like him much before, and after all, he is the reason I am here. Could be something most of us have in common. In the corner is best.”

The back of the room made a groaning sound, but no one acknowledged it.

“You know who I would like to see go next?” said Robert with a dry laugh. “Tywin Lannister – he was a problem for me.”

A silence fell over the table as they watched. The threads by which the Imp clung to his life were growing thinner and weaker, and Robb wondered, absentmindedly, where Tyrion Lannister would sit at such a table as this. Near Robb’s mother who had once tried to have him killed? Near Robert whom he had only liked because of a mutual distrust of his sister? Did it matter who had tried to kill whom anymore? The table was growing too crowded for friendliness.

A smile spread across Robert Baratheon’s face as he exclaimed, “Ah ha! Yes!” The door opened one more time, and in strode Tywin Lannister, as regal as a man who had just been shot on the toilet could possibly be. He chose to take a seat next to Khal Drogo, who regarded him with minimal interest before returning his eyes to Meereen.

“Welcome,” said Robert, his face ruddy with delight. “Please, join us. We were just talking about you.”

Tywin said nothing, but simply adjusted the front of his coat and settled back against his chair.

“Maybe Stannis will make it,” said Renly, playing with the Baratheon banner at The Wall, “Now that King’s Landing is being run by children.”

“King’s Landing was always being run by children,” said Hoster Tully, his eyebrows raised to silence the objection from Robert. “And only the terrible kind think ruling sounds like a good idea.”

“I was a great king,” shouted Joffrey from the corner, unable to contain his frustrations any longer.

“Oh, shut up,” said Robert and Renly and Ned and Robb and Catelyn and Jon and Hoster and Lysa and Oberyn and Tywin, together.

“Talk too much,” said Khal Drogo, and a figure of a horse from the grasslands flew across the room, hitting Joffrey in the temple, rendering him unconscious. He slumped back against the wall, crooked and asleep.

The lamps on the wall flickered, and banners began to appear and disappear from castles, hordes of figurines were on the move again. Ned Stark sat back in his chair, resting his hands behind his head as he sighed. “Shall we pick up again tomorrow then? Or do you think anyone else will be joining us today?”

“You take breaks?” said Oberyn, studying the Free Cities, searching for someone. “You leave the board?”

“You can stay if you want,” said Ned as he stood, “but most of it is a lot of walking and listing of houses and switching of alliances and things like that. Can get tedious from time to time. We meet for the abridged version. But if you would like to stay, I recommend watching The Wall – all sorts of exciting things seem to be happening up there these days. You can tell the kid all about it when he stirs.”

Oberyn eyed the lump of Lannister in the corner, shrugged, and kicked his feet off the table. “I think I will pass on that option,” he said, and then clapped Tywin Lannister on the shoulder as they left the room. “Hey – didn’t a whore die with you? I’d like to meet her.”

The room fell silent as Robb and Grey Wind were the last to leave. Tiny Stark banners moved beyond the Wall, through the narrow sea, and from the Eyrie. He searched again for the last one, but still could not find it. He glanced down at Grey Wind, who looked up at him, head tilted curiously.

“No, you cannot eat him,” Robb said, ruffling the hair on the top of the wolf’s head, “but we can take his shoes.”

He closed the door behind them, and at his side strode his wolf with a pair of leather boots in his mouth. The rocks and stones of the afterlife shores crunched and cracked beneath their feet, and the smallest sense of satisfaction stirred inside his stomach.

Even when winning is no longer an option, Joffrey Baratheon still deserves to lose the most.

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