Varys, The Spider
|World of Westeros - People|
|Thursday, 20 May 2010 01:53|
The man who stepped through the door was plump, perfumed, powdered, and as hairless as an egg. He wore a vest of woven gold thread over a loose gown of purple silk, and on his feet were pointed slippers of soft velvet ... The title was but a courtesy due to him as a council member; Varys was lord of nothing but the spiderweb, the master of none but his whisperers.
— A Game of Thrones
If few trust Littlefinger, then no man has a good word to say of Varys the eunuch, master of whisperers and called by some “the King’s Spider.” It seems somewhat unjust at first. Varys is no more self-seeking than any average courtier and a lot less ready to shed blood than most. He appears to have done nothing to deserve his sinister reputation. It is hard to fear a man so soft and flaccid. Varys plays up to the stereotype of a eunuch, primped and powdered, complete with girlish giggle and fluttering, nervous fingers. Nonetheless, Varys is greatly feared at court for one very good reason — he knows far too much.
If knowledge is power, then Varys may well be the most formidable man in all the Seven Kingdoms and beyond. It is bad enough that he knows so much, but worse still that no one can work out how he learns it. Catelyn Stark swears he employs some dark art, but he just smiles and says he listens to “little birds.” No one can identify his whisperers or even guess at the extent of his information network The spider’s web is wider and more intricate than any dare to imagine.
Of all the unlikely people, it is Arya Stark who blunders into a tiny corner of that web and escapes. She accidentally overhears two men talking. One of them has a curious accent and a forked yellow beard, the other is oddly familiar, though Arya can’t pinpoint why. His face is scarred and stubbled, his armour is plain mail over leather. Arya doesn’t have any idea who this might be, and there are few clues given except one. The man seems to walk without making a sound, his feet gliding noiselessly over the stones. Whether in boots or in slippers, Varys treads too quietly. Ironically, the very silence of his footfall becomes a sure way of identifying him.
What Arya sees is a prime example of how Varys weaves his web. Taken apart, it shows how the master spy maintains his position despite his personal unpopularity and the shifting allegiances of the small council. Varys and Magister Illyrio of Pentos are plotting. Illyrio intends to fund the Dothraki/Targaryen invasion of the Sunset Isles. The invasion is more likely to be successful if the land is torn apart by civil war. His problem is that Daenerys Targaryen is now pregnant and Khal Drogo will not move towards Westeros until his child is born. He wants the outbreak of hostilities between Stark and Lannister delayed until the Khal is ready to move. Illyrio will pay Varys for information and Varys’s efforts in keeping the political situation from detonating before time.
Though this satisfies Illyrio, the story does not end there. Varys then goes to the king and gives him the valuable information he has just learned: that Daenerys Targaryen is pregnant. At the King’s behest, he arranges to have her assassinated. King Robert and Magister Illyrio are both Varys’s customers. He serves each of them efficiently, gives both of them accurate, useful information, tells neither of them everything, betrays both of them to some minor degree, gets paid by both, and in the end will have proved himself indispensable to whichever of them wins the game of thrones. This is how a web can span kingdoms and seas.
Multiplied many times over, this method is Varys’s entire technique for survival. Knowledge may be his greatest strength, but it is also his only strength. The work he does makes him despised by those who consider it demeaning and detested by those with too much to hide. He has no friends, no noble House, no power base except in the service he provides, so it follows that the service must be reliable, invaluable, and above all, available for all payers. A customer with only one patron is vulnerable.
Varys’s craft lies in espionage, but his skill is in knowing how to leak enough crucial information to individuals to make them all want more from him. Once given, the power of information can never be taken back so he is careful never to give quite enough. For a man no one trusts, Varys is remarkably competent at making others depend upon him. From King Robert to Magister Illyrio, from Ned Stark to Petyr Baelish, they all believe he is reliable — or at least under control. To some extent, Varys plays everybody off against everybody else, but really, he is just covering all bases. He understands too well the insecurity of his position. “They sing no songs for spiders,” he says.
Varys is a useful though dangerous contact. Working with him is easier if one understands what he really wants from any transaction. He does not betray out of a need for revenge or the pure pleasure of out-thinking others. He is a highly skilled professional, working where Littlefinger plays and learning where Littlefinger speculates. He may say that his price is gold or gain, but inevitably the real fee he exacts is information to trade elsewhere. Those who are careless around him will pay him dearly in his preferred coin, whether they realise it or not.