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Ask the Maester: What Is Cersei’s Plan Now?

Plus: Can only Targaryens ride dragons?

Tycho Nestoris and Cersei HBO/Ringer illustration

There are still three episodes left in Season 7, but after witnessing what one of Dany’s dragons can do, I feel relatively confident saying this war is a wrap. Or at least it should be. The Lannister-Tarly army is a pile of smoldering ash. The road to King’s Landing is open. The Unsullied are, theoretically, no longer hemmed in at Casterly Rock. Euron’s fleet is a force to be reckoned with, sure. But Dany is already safely on dry land with her Dothraki, she still has dragons, and boats are made of wood and stuff.

On to your questions!

Adam asks, “OK, so you briefly touched on the Golden Company on Talk the Thrones. But there has to be more to it than just being the no. 1 brand name of mercenaries from Essos, right?”

The level of detail that George R.R. Martin gave his world never ceases to amaze me. That’s why, even if he doesn’t (he won’t) finish (please try, George!) the books, the world-building achievement stands well and truly on its own. The history of the Golden Company is a wonderful example of this.

Early in “The Spoils of War,” Queen Cersei is discussing her plans with the Iron Bank’s Tycho Nestoris. “I need to expand my armies, my navies,” she says. “My Hand, Qyburn, has made overtures to the Golden Company in Essos.” So who are these dudes?

In 196 AC, King Daeron II Targaryen, the ruler of the Seven Kingdoms, and his loyalists, including Brynden “Bloodraven” Rivers, the future Three-Eyed Raven, put down the civil war known as the First Blackfyre Rebellion. The usurper, Daemon Blackfyre, great-bastard of King Aegon IV, was killed, alongside his twin sons, by a torrent of arrows at the decisive Battle of the Redgrass Field. Daemon’s supporters who survived the battle fled to Essos.

Among them was Aegor Rivers, better known as “Bittersteel,” the bastard King Aegon IV had with his fifth mistress, the famously zaftig Barba of House Bracken. (Aside: We don’t talk enough about how George R.R. Martin is an excellent creator of names for people, places, and things. The show could really use that talent now considering that, as Mallory Rubin pointed out to me after Talk the Thrones, the official name of last episode’s battle is the “The Loot Train Attack.” LOL. GUYS, THAT SUCKS. WHAT ARE YOU DOING?) Aegor was Daemon’s most ardent supporter and Bloodraven’s most hated rival. As the Targaryen army pressed its victory at Redgrass Field, Bittersteel scooped up Daemon’s sword, Blackfyre, the weapon of Targaryen kings since Aegon the Conqueror, and sailed for Essos with the usurper’s widow. He joined the Second Sons — the group show-Daario is now a part of — and served with them for a year. Going sellsword was, and still is, a popular pastime for Westerosi exiles. Jorah Mormont and Oberyn Martell are notable characters who, at one time, ran with Essosian sellswords. But because there are numerous mercenary companies in Essos — the Stormbreakers, the Company of the Rose, the Windblown (those names, again!), among others — Aegor worried that the Blackfyre cause would stall as Daemon’s followers joined this group and that group. He hit upon an idea: What if there was one sellsword outfit just for the former members of the Blackfyre rebellion?

After his year of service was up, Aegor quit and founded the Golden Company. They are, as mentioned, the most respectable of the disrespectable mercenary bands of Essos. Where outfits like the Stormcrows are apt to switch sides as soon as the fighting gets tough (or to decapitate their captains over a disagreement in policy), the Golden Company prides itself on reliability and professional soldiering. They operate according to a culture of strict, Westerosi style military discipline. They’re expensive, of course, but, in a world rife with thieves and cutthroats willing to stick a dagger in your guys for a roast chicken, the Golden Company stands behind its craft. It is said, most often by them, that they have never broken a contract. Their motto is: “Our word is good as gold.”

Now of course, because the company was founded by former Blackfyres, it has been a near-constant source of rebellion and instability for the Seven Kingdoms for generations. With the Golden Company behind him, Bittersteel launched the Third and Fourth Blackfyre rebellions. Later, after Aegor’s death, the Golden Company, under the command of Blackfyre descendant Maelys the Monstrous, took part in the failed-experiment in outlaw self-government known as the War of the Ninepenny Kings.

In the books, the Golden Company was involved in Illyrio Mopatis’s conspiracy to return the Targaryens to the Iron Throne. But frustrated by Dany’s lack of westward momentum, it threw its support behind a young man claiming to be Aegon Targaryen, the son of Rhaegar and Elia Martell who is thought to have died at the hands of the Mountain, because he was like, “I’m going to Westeros now!” There was just not enough time for that plot to make it into the show. Still, Cersei contracting a sellsword army that launched, over its history, numerous attempts to overthrow the Seven Kingdoms would be a classic Cers short-term-gain, long-term-disaster, decision-tree fuck-up.

Arthur asks, “Is there any historical precedent for dragons recognizing Targaryen bloodlines (i.e., Jon)?”

Not really. It was widely thought that the blood of the dragon was needed to forge a bond with a dragon. But in practice, that’s not at all clear. During the Dance of the Dragons civil war, the supporters of Queen Rhaenyra were so hard up for dragon riders that they set up an open audition for candidates on Dragonstone. The idea being that since Targaryens had been having carnal relations with the smallfolk of Dragonstone for centuries, many of the residents must have the blood of the dragon running through their veins. Most of these attempts ended in death and blackened bodies, of course. But some managed to gain their mounts; including a common girl known only as Nettles who tamed the wild dragon Sheepstealer by feeding it a sheep every morning. Does Nettles’s success have more to do with her (possible) Targaryen bloodline or with the fact that every living thing likes being fed? Impossible to say. Certainly many of those roasted in their attempts to ride a dragon must have had Targaryen blood, too.

If (and i really want this to happen) one of Dany’s dragons “sniffs out” Jon’s Targaryen lineage, it would be another of the show’s dragon-centric retcons, along with Dany being invulnerable to fire, being able to call Drogon with her mind, and a full-grown dragon’s scales being susceptible to Qyburn’s Big Crossbow. Speaking of which ...

Eric asks, “I'm trying not to be annoyed at the show for retconning mature dragon scales to not be invulnerable. Or is it because it was his underside?”

I am also annoyed! When the dragon Meraxes was downed during the First Dornish War, it was because the scorpion bolt the defenders of Hellholt fired at him took the beast in the eye. Big Crossbow is dumb, guys! In a world built on thousands of years of meticulously crafted shared history, it makes very little sense that Qyburn (Qyburn?!) would be the first dude ever to be like, “What if a crossbow, but bigger?”

Martha asks, “Were dragons used during the Long Night? Because if dragons were not used, aren’t we just assuming that dragonfire will kill the White Walkers at this point?”

There are no indications that dragons were involved in the White Walker defeat which ended the Long Night. So technically, yeah, we’re assuming that dragonfire can kill White Walkers. Still, we’re talking about dragons! Magical creatures! That breathe fire! It’s a solid assumption. And certainly regular old fire kills regular old wights; dragonfire must kill them even better.

Jordan asks, “Do we have an idea of how exactly the Dothraki would have gotten to the Reach?”

Through the power of script-writing. Just kidding. I mean, not totally. I’ve found it difficult to get a feel for the show because of the accelerated timeline. Journeys of months happen over the course of a single episode, armies muster in the blink of an eye, and the legendary castle of Highgarden was taken and looted in two minutes of screen time. So, it’s tough. But let’s figure this out.

Map of ‘Game of Thrones’ universe showing King’s Landing and Blackwater Bay

After the sack of Highgarden, Jaime and the LOOT TRAIN presumably moved up the Kingsroad toward King’s Landing. The convoy took a rest along the banks of the Blackwater Rush, which winds west to east across the continent, skirting the southern walls of King’s Landing before emptying into Blackwater Bay. This suggests that, rather than following the Roseroad through the kingswood, skirting the Stormlands, Jaime took them off road, due north, toward the river. This is smart! The Kingswood is a notorious haunt for outlaws and the perfect place to ambush a lumbering convoy of wheat. By contrast, the plains south of the river offer clean lines of sight and plenty of options for movement. Still, Jaime, Bronn, Randyll, and DICKON got bushwhacked anyway! So how did the Dothraki get there?

That’s the tougher question. Dany would have had to load several thousand Dothraki onto ships, safely land the ships somewhere, offload, then ride out to meet Jaime’s Loot Train™. When Aegon the Conqueror invaded Westeros from Dragonstone, he landed at the wide, flat mouth of the Blackwater in the shadow of the hills upon which King’s Landing would one day stand. Aegon came with fewer than 1,600 men and, in those days, the area around the Blackwater was disputed by several parties and basically unguarded.

Dany’s logistical concerns are more complicated. Landing near King’s Landing is obviously a nonstarter and everyone in Westeros expects her to invade at some point.

So, best guess: Dany, like Jon Connington and the Golden Company in A Dance of Dragons, came ashore on Cape Wrath. We have no idea what’s going on with the Stormlands at this point in the show. House Baratheon is gone. The lords of the Stormlands would be aware of a large army marching through their lands. But lacking a banner to rally behind, what would they do about it? As King Robert said in Season 1, the best strategy against the Dothraki is to hunker down in a castle and wait them out. This is how it would be possible for Dany to march, unmolested, from the shore to the Blackwater Rush. It’s unlikely but not impossible.

Melissa asks, “We were pretty surprised that name-gag Dickon Tarly survived the field of fire last night. Should we/are we supposed to read anything into the fact that Jaime keeps confusing him with Rickon Stark especially in light of the fact that none of the Starks seem to think Rickon’s grisly demise is worth mentioning like, at all?

Great observation, Melissa! That said, I don’t think the Stark references mean much to the larger story. The showrunners probably kept him around just because saying Dickon is really fun. I love doing it. I love writing Dickon. I just did it again. I answered this question so I could write Dickon. It’s a great name. DICKON. Second-most absurd name behind Aenys, the second Targaryen king of Westeros.

Allegra asks, “What was Littlefinger trying to accomplish in giving Bran the dagger? In general, what is he trying to do in Winterfell?”

Hard to know what, if any, specific goal Littlefinger has here. Broadly speaking, though, after losing all influence over Sansa, Baelish seems truly shaken. It’s so bad that he resorted to that “just discovered quality weed and the poetry of Rumi” freshman dorm soliloquy from last episode. His game is influence and manipulation, and there are no likely targets for such shenanigans presently at Winterfell. King Jon already choke-slammed him once. Sansa is dunking on him at will. Arya is not going to trust him — not after witnessing his meeting with Tywin at Harrenhal back in Season 2. Brienne is just waiting for the OK to hack him into bloody chunks and Pod will gladly follow her lead. In Baelish’s mind, Bran, a teenager and the rightful Lord of Winterfell, offers a ripe target of opportunity. Perhaps he was simply using the blade as a pretext to start a conversation.

Somewhat related: I loved the scene with Sansa and Arya talking to Bran in the godswood about the dagger. Those two have the making of a formidable duo. Sansa knows the angles and what questions to ask. Arya, to paraphrase Marshawn Lynch, is all about the action. Very excited to see what the Stark sisters get up to.

William asks, “When Bran asks Littlefinger, ‘Do you know who this dagger belongs to?’ do you think he meant the original owner?”

Yes, I do! Valyrian steel is, of course, rare and incredibly expensive. The hilt is made of Dragonbone, which while not as rare, certainly suggests that this piece was commissioned by someone important who wanted to play up a connection with dragons. And what family has a clear connection with dragons? Then there’s the fact that an illustration of the dagger appears in one of the books Sam is studying in Episode 1. This dagger is historically significant. I think this blade belonged to a notable Targaryen and that the original owner will turn out to be either Rhaegar or Aegon the Conqueror.

Joreen asks, “If Jon marries Dany, would the Stark bannermen actually kneel to Dany?”

At this point, probably not. The North has been through too much.

Alison Herman, whose recaps about Thrones appear every Sunday night on The Ringer dot com and who writes wonderfully and sharply on all things television, asks, “WHY HAS NO ONE BROUGHT UP THE POSSIBILITY OF JON AND DANY GETTING MARRIED?!

As my partner in Binge, Mallory, likes to say, Jon does his best work in caves. I think, after the way Jon was touching Dany’s wrist in the dragonglass cave and the way Dany was letting Jon touch her wrist when she’s, like, perfectly capable of using a torch and moving it to and fro on her own, that we will see that subject get broached soon! Much like Jon in the cave, I can feel it coming.

Thanks and see you next week!

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.