Varys: The Realm of the Spider

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By Joe Buckley

Season 7 of Game of Thrones concluded, as so many of its past counterparts did, with a major death. Perhaps not quite so important as Tywin Lannister, or as spectacular as a blaze of wildfire, but there’s no doubt that Littlefinger’s demise was the death of the year.

Such a casualty goes far beyond representing just a human man. Petyr Baelish, if nothing else, was the very representation of deceit, backstabbing, throne-grabbing and game-playing the series is so famous for. After all, considering he was first presented to us as the master of coin, and died as the essential ruler of the Vale, Lord of Harrenhal and at least seemed to have his foot in the Winterfell door, we must bow down to the clear master.

Except there was a time, not so long ago, when Baelish did not stand alone atop a pedestal of secrets.

No, there was another.

Varys, master of whisperers, the Spider himself, still lives. But where does he fit in to a streamlined season 7, and an even shorter season 8?

Back in the earlier seasons, where a great many storylines still rose and died in King’s Landing, either Baelish or Varys (or, more often than not, both) had their hands in it. Debates have raged over which of the two competitors was the true victor in these little games, and surely any scene where the two would argue over their independent philosophies is a fan-favourite. In many ways, Littefinger and Varys were two sides of the same coin.

Varys and Littlefinger

They share a similarity: their lack of physical power. In a world dominated by bicep, sword and beard, we have two specimens who offer nothing whatsoever in that arena. Petyr is lithe, slim and by himself, only ever killed a distraught woman. Varys, a eunuch, has never taken a step towards physical force, and in the books his femininity is much more pronounced, mainly through his titters. Both were outside the norm from the beginning, yet both had dragged themselves into positions of power, when really they had no business doing so. Varys, from the streets of the Free Cities, Petyr from the barren Fingers. They even found each other on the same Small Council, and Season 1 did a fantastic job of displaying the different choice each represented as they pulled and played and promised to Ned Stark.

As the seasons (and books) progressed, more defined lines were steadily added to these characters. Some of the mystery was removed in season 4, when we found Petyr Baelish truly was the monster he hinted at, with his killing of Joffrey and then Lysa, all while essentially kidnapping Sansa Stark. In the reverse, Varys won many fans’ hearts with his assistance with Tyrion’s escape from the Black Cells and his devotion to a better cause. In a game of thrones, the characters are far too complex to simply be labelled as ‘good’ and ‘bad’, but in terms of this spymaster coin, it’s clear which of the pair was supposed to represent each camp.

Fast-forwarding to where we stand now, and that assumption still stands. Baelish, though still experiencing great personal success, only became more villainous as he ventured north. Eventually, just as the show attempted to persuade us all of his greatest victory in the splitting of the Starks, Arya and Sansa showed it was not to be so.

703 - Dragonstone - Varys, Melisandre 1

Where Petyr went north into the snows, Varys escaped east into the sun (and then back again). The second-half of Varys’ series-long story has been dedicated to helping Daenerys’ cause, securing her rule in Meereen or finding potential allies, which is all well and good. Unfortunately, as the series has progressed, the Varys we know and love has suffered.

In season 7, the narrative bled down to three main storylines: Winterfell, King’s Landing and Dany/Jon (plus some extras). It very closely mirrors the structure of Season 1, where we focused on Castle Black, King’s Landing and Dany (plus some extras). Varys, a lifelong ‘extra’, featured heavily in Season 1. The same cannot be said for Season 7.

In fact, Varys’ season 7 action boils down to just three conversations:

  • Daenerys’ accusation about Varys’ true intentions regarding her life and that of previous kings.
  • Melisandre’s daunting final words before her departure.
  • Varys’ conversation with Tyrion after he returns from the field of fire, concerning Varys’ relationship with Aerys Targaryen.

Even though these conversations are not numerous, they are telling, and each do something for the character that is Varys.

702 - Dragonstone - Dany, Varys 1

Firstly, Daenerys’ accusation. While the logistics and timing of this conversation are slightly suspect, given that Varys has already delivered Tyrion, helped with the Sons of the Harpy, the Tyrells and the Sand Snakes; it did stoke enough flame in the fandom to cast Varys under suspicion. Was he a double-agent? Was this where his super-spy skills had disappeared to? Was this why Daenerys was failing at every turn? As it turns out, no, to all three. Thankfully, the question was not the true value in this conversation, but the answer.

Varys defended himself admirably, and in a few short words, completely sold his life’s work. This is a man who risked life and limb, for multiple decades, all to help out what were essentially strangers. Why? Because he cares for the realm. Much adoration is heaped at Jon’s feet because of his disdain for personal recognition or titles, and due to his efforts to help the people. Indeed, Daenerys built her success on the freeing of slaves and the love of the smallfolk.

And yet, no-one…no-one in the show is more dedicated to the people and the realm than Varys. Again, remind yourself. This is a man who knew he was despised by all whatever he did, knew the upper class and the machismo of men would view him as a lesser being, allowed himself to serve people we have to assume he despised and all with the risk that at any second he could be caught and then subjected to the most horrible of deaths. Not only did he do all this, but he was good at it. No one detected, no one suspected, and Daenerys and Viserys did survive. Tyrion did escape King’s Landing. Dany did return to Westeros with the largest possible army. He did destabilize the realm in the hopes of helping the people.

The more important factor? Even in the face of accusation, with the threat of death from the very woman he’s spent his life caring for, Varys still tells her he does not serve her. He serves the realm. If that means going against her, so be it. Jon Snow gets the credit for telling Cersei to her face he’s Team Dany. Varys tells a different queen how it is.

His refusal to swear blind loyalty to Daenerys challenges the very idea of feudalism, the rock that Westerosi society is founded on. Such a concept is responsible for a great many of the crimes in the series, and yet a character like Jon receives the credit for his truth-keeping, or Daenerys and her wheel-breaking. Varys got there first though.

I say cheers to that, Varys!

Before going onto Melisandre, let’s think about the conversation between Spider and the Imp, two old friends who have been through more than their fair share. At the time, Tyrion was reflecting on Daenerys and the destructive power she wields with her dragons, having just seen it first-hand on the Field of Fire. What follows is one of the most revealing conversations about Varys that we’ve had in years.

We hear how difficult it was for a good man to take part in Aerys’ court, what it took for Varys to stand idly by while atrocities happened over and over. The lies he had to tell himself. The “I’m not the one doing it” speech is one of the finer pieces of dialogue in the entire season, in my humble opinion. For what it’s worth, it’s perhaps fitting that this conversation takes place on the steps next to the throne on Dragonstone. As Varys once told Tyrion, people like them will never rule. No doubt, these latest words will linger in the Hand’s ears too.

Which brings us to the final, and shortest conversation of them all.

7x03 - Varys, Melisandre Dragonstone

Firstly, can there be a more interesting person for Varys to talk to than Melisandre? It’s another point that was nearly lost to earlier seasons, but Varys has a deep-seated hatred and distrust of everything magical (apart from the fireproof dragon lady). Luckily, the casual viewer was reminded of this in season 6 when Varys came face to face with the red priestess Kinvara. If the look of disgust on his face was anything to go by then, then the ultimate red woman makes for an even more interesting meet up. Especially since it was Melisandre Varys was specifically referring to way back in season 2 when he spoke of how Stannis would be terrible for the realm, as he was the champion of magic.

It’s another little-talked about positive about Varys, his hatred of magic. After all, he’s right, isn’t he? Almost all the examples of magic throughout the show are negative. A shadowbaby assassin, a cult that collects the faces of the dead and then wears them, the freaking white walkers. I look forward to the day when the Night King shows himself to all, and Varys can slyly mutter I told you so.

Unsurprisingly, Varys’ motivation in this conversation is to persuade Melisandre to leave. He doesn’t want her getting claws into Dany, doesn’t want her magic in the realm he’s trying to protect. Luckily, he gets his wish. Annoyingly, not permanently. Melisandre promises she will be back, because she is destined to die in this strange country, and so is Varys.

There are several points to consider in this threat or promise. Firstly, we’ve seen enough now to know Mel isn’t always right. Secondly, she’s being just vague enough that we don’t really learn anything. Varys dying in Westeros could just represent him winning everything and living until the age of 100. Most likely though, the message is pretty clear: Varys is supposed to die soon.

Which leaves us with the problem of whether we believe her or not, or more specifically, how could this occur?

Varys2

What with the final season finally coming, the ending of countless different mini-games-of-thrones and the culmination of the ultimate battle for human life, it’s a safe bet to say that many of our favourite characters will be meeting their makers. Season 7 was almost too kind in its lack of kill-offs (Olenna, the Sand Snakes, the Tarlys, Thoros and Littlefinger, forgive me), but we’re all smart enough to know it is the calm before the storm. The term ‘bittersweet ending’ doesn’t conjure up images of everyone holding hands and celebrating in the final episode. Characters are going to drop like flies. Forget the human conflicts, a damn army of the dead just walked into the realm. Oh, and an ice dragon.

So the fact that Varys (and others) are likely to die isn’t a surprise, but what about the death itself? The fact Melisandre knows something about it would suggest Varys doesn’t die of hunger alone in a dark room, indeed it pushes us towards thinking Varys’ death will have some importance, or he will at least be present at a monumental event.

The possibilities become endless. Will Varys sacrifice his life to save Dany in some way? Will he meet his end via the magic he hates? Will he perhaps be forced to use this despised magic to save others? Will it be something to do with his longtime Lannister friend? One can only hope that we will at least be treated to one last display of ‘whisper mastering’ before he perishes, but perhaps holding our breath isn’t the best option. In a six-episode season, with a Long Night on the horizon, certain characters will not receive the farewell they deserve. Judging by his riding the pine in Season 7, Varys may well be one such character.

And that would be a shame. Varys represents the main theme of the series, its very namesake, the political maneuvering and side-stepping that is so intriguing. And yet, at the exact same time, he is born of the same contrasting honour, the ‘goodness’ that the show’s main family displays for us. Varys, though with morally questionable means, works within the game for the most honourable goal of all: the people. If nothing else, the books and show want to get across how war and nobility impacts the common man. We see it through Arya, Brienne and countless other characters. From the shadows, no one has done more for these people than the hated Spider.


Joe Buckley is a British writer who was a show-watcher first, and was even late to that game. Thankfully all caught-up now (and then some), Joe writes on Game of Thrones, the NBA and is trying his hand at sci-fi writing. Contrary to news reports, he is not a real knight (so far). You can find him on Twitter at @serbuckley.

34 responses

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    1. Varys defended himself admirably, and in a few short words, completely sold his life’s work.

      Other than the fact that he couldn’t offer the slightest explanation for why he would try to replace the lazy but otherwise harmless Robert with Viserys, a man he apparently knew nothing about, by orchestrating a Dothraki invasion of Westeros that would lead to untold thousands of deaths amongst the smallfolk he claims to love so much.

      As far as Varys’ ultimate fate, there are basically three possible outcomes, as I see it:

      (1) Cersei has him killed.
      (2) Dany has him killed.
      (3) He dies as a result of the White Walkers.

      (3), while a possible ending for any character at this point, strikes me as very unlikely because it doesn’t have anything to do with Varys’ story thus far, and because he’s not a combatant it’s hard to see how this would come across as him being anything other than fodder. So it’s down to (1) or (2).

      Personally, I would bet on (2). The show had Dany threaten him with execution if he betrayed her, and he afterward expressed more discontent with how she’s managing things.

      Moreover, this would be, in a sense, in line with his probable book ending, where he has been set up as an important villain for Dany to face whenever she arrives in Westeros. As the bloody architect of so much death and destruction, and who manipulated Dany for years and tried to put a “mummer’s dragon” in her place, he will not escape justice.

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    2. I just hope Kinvara comes back in S8 to interact with Varys. She spooked him. She spooked me. Loved Ania Bukstein as Kinvara! I’d be disappointed if her single scene in S6 was a one-and-done appearance.

      For that matter, I’d like to see Red Priestess Rila Fukushima come back too. (She’s the one who glared at Tyrion in Volantis.) Such great actresses!

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    3. The word you’re after is ‘effeminacy,’ not ‘femininity.’ Not at all the same thing. Reducing femaleness to clothes/hair/makeup, high-pitched voice, mincing walk etc. is trivializing and patronizing IMO. I’m sure you didn’t mean to be offensive, but choice of words is important.

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    4. Book!Varys is a much more morally ambiguous character. We have only his word that he’s in it for the good of the realm. Thus I would not be at all surprised if he comes to much different ends on the screen vs. on the page. He’s a most intriguing character (in both senses of the word) in both media, though! And Conleth Hill embodies him wonderfully.

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    5. r-hard,

      I tend to agree with the Varys Blackfyre theory. Alt Shift X has me convinced of that.

      I think that Sean C.,
      has the right of it, it will be Dany that kills Varys, because he will turn on her. The Golden Company is on its way, and it’s a company of Blackfyre sympathizers. They will happily oppose a Targaryen on the throne, that’s their raison d’etre.

      Varys will probably work both sides in the coming conflict, he will know that the Golden Company is coming, get them to thwart Cersei but also get them to stiff Dany as well. And Dany will burn him for it.

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    6. Sean C.,

      I also think that Varys is not a snow flake. He may think and even believe that all he does is for the sake of the realm and common folk but in reality he simply likes manipulating kings and high lords and playing game of thrones. We heard it from his own mouth: he is a lion who tasted manflesh and he can’t stop.
      And his decisions were rather inconsistent. He plotted against Robert, who might not been the best king himself, but who was smart enough to pick honorable men as his Hands. Let’s say that it was Joffrey and Cersei he plotted against, but Viseirys would hardly been an improvement and Khal Drogo would have been the worst of them all. Unless he planned to kill Khal Drogo after installing Dany onto the throne, but in any case here have never been any reasonable proof that Dany would make a better monarch than Robert. I mean, they are very similar characters: good-hearted conquerrers with little taste to counting coppers and other daily shilt-cleaning. And if we assume that Varys’es reasonable choice was Tyrion rather than Dany, we have to ask why he was backed her nonetheless? Maybe, it has something to do with what the voice told him from the flames? But such explanation would turn Varys into a blind believer, so IDN, but the question why he backed Dany has to be answered and I have a feeling that the answer will somehow lead to his demise.
      Another question I have to Varys is about Jon-Aegon? Did he know? He should being the Master of Whispers but then why didn’t he include the trueborn heir into his good-intended schemes? And if he did, how?
      I feel like answers to these questions will reveal that the Spider was not that faithful servant of the realm he plays and lead to his demise. But on the other hand, the showrunners like to keep things ambiguous, so they may go on with that story of serving the realm and have Dany burn Varys simply for not telling her about Jon’s true status or even for failing to find the truth out.

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    7. Ten Bears:
      Firannion,

      Out of curiosity: In the books, is Varys pals with Tyrion? They have a great rapport in the show.

      They find each other useful, but I wouldn’t say pals. There’s more mistrust. Also, in the books Varys doesn’t travel to Essos with Tyrion after springing him from the Black Cells.

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    8. Whether Varys will meet his end in S8, I have no idea. However, perhaps another possible scenario is a run in between him and Qyburn? Qyburn’s ‘Little Birds’ were once the spies for Varys and perhaps as Qyburn did using them to kill Grand Maester Pycell (knowing that he’s faithful to Cersei) may turn them on Varys for treason and kill him?

      I’d be very surprised if Dany turns on Varys and toasts him with her dragons. He accepted that fate and I would thought he knows better after their heart to heart chat in S702 than to intimidate or betray her.

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    9. Black Raven:
      I’d be very surprised if Dany turns on Varys and toasts him with her dragons. He accepted that fate and I would thought he knows better after their heart to heart chat in S702 than to intimidate or betray her.

      Varys has basically three scenes this season (as noted in this article), which are, in order:

      1) Varys being confronted about his loyalties, and refusing to pledge full allegiance to Daenerys. This conversation ends with Dany saying she will kill Varys if he ever betrays her.
      2) Varys being told that he will die (implicitly within the span of the series).
      3) Varys going into detail about his increasing concern about Dany’s methods and how he relates this to his experiences serving Aerys.

      The relation between the pieces is pretty obvious, I would think.

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    10. Sean C.,

      > Other than the fact that he couldn’t offer the slightest explanation for why he would try to replace the lazy but otherwise harmless Robert with Viserys, a man he apparently knew nothing about

      Not a real spoiler, but:

      In series 1 Ned Stark mentions that Jon Arryn’s time as Hand was a peaceful time. Maybe he was a bit myopic, but still, the realm was largely at peace. Varys being an agent for fAegon (or even the real Aegon) makes more sense than being an agent for Viserys (but if it were the real Aegon, I suspect they would have been more careful with Viserys and Daenerys. Varys having king’s blood and shaving his hair makes sense). In season 1, the Stark-Lannister conflict came “too soon”. Too soon for the Dothraki? No, too soon for the Golden Company. fAegon wasn’t old enough yet.

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    11. Very interesting topic, thanks.

      First of all, I suspect you are wrong that Varys is doing all of this for the good of the Realm exactly. To me that is more like his cover story, just as Littlefinger’s love of Cat and then Sansa was his cover story; so the tale he tells to anyone who asks, and maybe even somewhat tells himself, but which doesn’t actually make sense when it all comes together.

      I think Varys’s web of deceit is what led to Robert’s rebellion and the widespread misconceptions about Lyanna and Rhaegar’s relationship. I think he has always known they were married, but figured the secret had been effectively burried so no need to tell anyone. Him knowing this, and therefore Jon’s identity may even be part of why Tyrion seemed so anxious at the idea of Jon and Dany becoming lovers – ie. a conversation between the two already happened off screen where Varys told Tyrion, so now Tyrion knows he has an incest situation on his hands.

      I think Mel is entirely correct and that Varys will die. Dany is supposed to be the “slayer of lies” and what bigger lies are there than Varys’s when it comes to the history of the rebellion and how Westeros got to this point. So Varys will burn, as soon as that web is untangled and its consequences are understood.

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    12. Sean C.: Varys has basically three scenes this season (as noted in this article), which are, in order:

      1)Varys being confronted about his loyalties, and refusing to pledge full allegiance to Daenerys.This conversation ends with Dany saying she will kill Varys if he ever betrays her.
      2)Varys being told that he will die (implicitly within the span of the series).
      3)Varys going into detail about his increasing concern about Dany’s methods and how he relates this to his experiences serving Aerys.

      The relation between the pieces is pretty obvious, I would think.

      I agree. Dany is the slayer of lies and Varys built a web of lies that led to Robert’s rebellion and eventually the dire situation re the WW that Westeros now finds itself in.

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    13. If D&D could write S1 again I’m sure they would change some things about Varys. He wouln’t be the one to send killers after Dany on Robert’s orders. And some other things.

      But back in 2008 and 2009 when they wrote S1 they didn’t know that GRRM won’t finish the books and that he has that strange Aegon plot.

      I think they found reasonable solution for that problem in the show. But it would be better if they knew from S1.

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    14. Varys, is one of the most complicated characters in the show. I couldn’t decide whether I liked him or not from the start. One of the most ‘telling’ scenes about Varys’s internal make up was the one with Ned, while he was in prison. I realized then, that Varys had much more in him, than I thought. And then that scene with Oberyn, where he states his famous line about desires and what that does to men and the realm.

      I believe Vary’s ultimate fate, comes from his devotion to what he thinks is best for the people and his ‘soberness’ with which he sees things. He would use the magic he so despises if he was absolutely convinced that it’s the only way to protect the realm. He would change his alliances for the same reason. He would die if needed be so. And if he, for any reason comes to believe that Dany is doing something wrong to his view, speaks of it and Dany doesn’t listen to him, then he might change his position towards her. Also I’m curious to see what he does when he learns that Jon is the rightful heir to the throne. Will he consider him as a better choice? Or will he try to take him out to ensure Dany’s position?
      I’m sure that his reasoning will be at the least, very interesting.

      I think somewhere between those scenarios he will be killed. I’m also curious about the words he heard coming from the flames when he was mutilated by that magician when he was a child. Were they words of prophecy, I wonder.

      Whatever it is that kills him, I hope it will do justice to his arc!

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    15. It’s interesting that Varys says he does everything for “the good of the realm.” Westeros, the 7 kingdoms, that is. Varys is from Essos (Pentos, I think), so he’s an immigrant to Westeros. What is it about Westeros that earns his support? Aside from not allowing slavery and little to no magic.

      … Well, maybe that’s enough.

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    16. mau,

      The inconsistencies are indeed because of that. I really hope they will end his character well in season 8, because I really like how Conlett Hill plays him.
      Book spoilers

      In the books he supports someone he was responsible for and made sure he had a good education. And if he’s family, it’s even more logical that he supports his own blood. In the show It will be too complicated to make him a Blackfyre/Brightflame or another Targaryen, they would need too much background. That’s why it’s not really logical why he supports Dany, since there is no reason to think she’s better than King Robert.

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    17. mau,

      In fact, it was rather reasonoble to send killers after Dany, if Varys wanted to see her on the throne: the assassination attempt provoked Khal Drogo’, and he would have marched on Westeros, hadn’t Mirri-Maz-Duur infected his wound.

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    18. Inga,

      No, it wasn’t, because the assassination attempt only failed because of Jorah’s character development, and Varys couldn’t possibly have known about that.

      Even in-show, Varys’ explanation for sending the assassin was because he had to.

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    19. mau:
      If D&D could write S1 again I’m sure they would change some things about Varys. He wouln’t be the one to send killers after Dany on Robert’s orders. And some other things.

      But back in 2008 and 2009 when they wrote S1 they didn’t know that GRRM won’t finish the books and that he has that strange Aegon plot.

      I think they found reasonable solution for that problem in the show. But it would be better if they knew from S1.

      This.

      A Dance with Dragons only came out in mid-2011, after the TV show’s first season (so several years after D&D began writing the series). And that book gives a nice twist to what Varys is up to, but apparently GRRM didn’t tell D&D and we’re left with a strange inconsistency. Varys in the show is team Dany and his role is diminished. In the books – if they ever get published – his role seems likely to be far more complicated and ambiguous.

      I can’t blame D&D for keeping Varys and trying to fit him into the show story, as Conleth Hill is so brilliant and Varys has become somewhat of a fan favourite. It’s just that his book story is so different that his end would probably also work out differently. The end point will be the same, however, Varys dies. But the whys and wherefores will be different.

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    20. “We hear how difficult it was for a good man to take part in Aerys’ court, what it took for Varys to stand idly by while atrocities happened over and over.”

      If this is true, then why he warned Aerys about the Tourney at Harrenhal? Varys was clearly supporting Aerys there, and hence: himself.

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    21. Sean C.,

      Varys was a master of whispers and an experianced player of the game of thrones: it’s not a big streatch to assume that he have predicted Jorah’s character development etc. And it’s also implied that there were multiply failed assassination attempts, so this wasn’t the first time for Varys. So, all in all, it might not be a perfect explanation but it works more or less.

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    22. talvikorppi: This.

      A Dance with Dragons only came out in mid-2011, after the TV show’s first season (so several years after D&D began writing the series). And that book gives a nice twist to what Varys is up to, but apparently GRRM didn’t tell D&D and we’re left with a strange inconsistency. Varys in the show is team Dany and his role is diminished. In the books – if they ever get published – his role seems likely to be far more complicated and ambiguous.

      I can’t blame D&D for keeping Varys and trying to fit him into the show story, as Conleth Hill is so brilliant and Varys has become somewhat of a fan favourite. It’s just that his book story is so different that his end would probably also work out differently. The end point will be the same, however, Varys dies. But the whys and wherefores will be different.

      This sums up how I feel about Varys perfectly.

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    23. Inga,

      It is a stretch. He’s never met Jorah either, as far as we know. Jorah was hired to spy on the Targaryens so that he could go home; there’s be no way to reliably assume he would fall hopelessly in love with Dany and thwart the assassination attempt, since this is a guy who sold people into slavery and is thus quite capable of prioritizing his own interests.

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    24. I actually don’t think that Varys dies in the course of the show. I think that Mel pulled one on him. He’ll die in Westeros, yes… years from now, and as a happy old man.

      Also, I think that you left out the most important part about the Varys-Dany conversation: Dany accepted his answers. Indeed, it looks like she almost expected them. They have come to an arrangement after this discussion, it wasn’t just plain defiance on Varys’ part.

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    25. Yaga,

      Dany accepted his answers about past behaviour, and then told him not to do anything in the future. Varys subsequently begins expressing discontent with Dany’s rulership.

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    26. I really like Varys as a character and hope he gets a good death, my guess is that he will switch from Dany to team Jon and that will be the reason he dies. Could the voice in the fire he heard be Aegon Targarean, hence tying into his book arc too?

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