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This question is about a book 1/season 1 event, regarding enlightening from book 5. The event of the book 1 will not be in spoiler tags as it happens fairly early, but the reveals from book 5 will.

In book 1, following an order from King Robert, Varys sends a poisoner to sell some poisoned wine to Daenerys.

Jorah Mormont, who by then has fallen in love with Daenerys (come on, this is so obvious that it's not a spoiler..), saves her by spotting the seller's suspicious behavior.

In book 5, it is revealed that

Varys is working in secret with Illyrio Mopatis for years in favor of the Targaryens.

I put it in spoiler tag but it can be deduced as early as book 1, during the "Arya chasing the cat into the castle's underground" chapter.

What is really confirmed in book 5 is that

Mormont was a spy for the council. He betrayed it when he felt in love with Daenerys.

Since Varys could not have possibly known that Jorah Mormont would save the day, why did he actually send the poisoner instead of just saying to King Robert "I sent him, but he failed" ?

Am I missing something ? Let me kknow if the question is unclear.

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    +1 great question but hard to answer because I think even after reading ADOD Varys' true motivations and goals remain elusive. I'm reminded of what Peter Baelish says at one point to Sansa re. keeping everyone guessing about motives (I don't think you can spoiler tag in comments so I'll have to leave that über ambiguous) – batpigandme Jul 8 '13 at 11:32
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    You may have forgotten something rather important. On his deathbed, Robert ordered Ned to withdraw the order to kill Dany. Ned went straight to Varys, who said "it may be too late, but I will do my best"(paraphrasing). In the show, it is later shown with Dany walking the market, Jorah goes to see if he has letters. On his way, a boy gets his attention, with a "message from the Spider". I've always assumed this was the order to watch out for the poisoner, and prevent it. Yes, Jorah loved Dany by this time, but it was so new, he'd still have rather have had a pardon. – PiousVenom Jul 8 '13 at 14:07
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    @CL4PTR4P Your comment makes sense. But if Varys is actually working for (read the above spoiler) then he is not loyal to Robert Baratheon; actually the opposite is very likely! So the question remains: why would he attempt to kill Dany, regardless of what Robert says? – Andres F. Jul 8 '13 at 21:29
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    @AndresF. Who's to say Varys sent the merchant? It may have been Littlefinger. – PiousVenom Jul 9 '13 at 13:10
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    Actually our conclusion is that the merchant did what he did on his own accord, having heard of the reward (a lordship) granted to whoever would kill Daenerys – Kalissar Jul 9 '13 at 15:11
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The letter that Jorah received from Varys contained a warning about assassination attempts. Varys did not send the poisoner, the poisoner acted on his own accord. Littlefinger tells Ned that he "saved" Dany by making the council agree to bestow a lordship on whoever killed Dany, rather than hire a professional (such as a faceless man).

[Littlefinger to Ned:] "After you stormed out, it was left to me to convince them not to hire the Faceless Men," he continued blithely. "Instead Varys will quietly let it be known that we'll make a lord of whoever does in the Targaryen girl."

Ned was disgusted. "So now we grant titles to assassins."

Littlefinger shrugged. "Titles are cheap. The Faceless Men are expensive. If truth be told, I did the Targaryen girl more good than you with all your talk of honor. Let some sellsword drunk on visions of lordship try to kill her. Likely he'll make a botch of it, and afterward the Dothraki will be on their guard. If we'd sent a Faceless Man after her, she'd be as good as buried."

CL4PTR4P makes a good point in the comments that Robert does withdraw the assassination order on his death bed, and that might be where the warning to Jorah comes from. Varys was (probably) the one to send the messages about the assassination, but I do not believe he had much choice in the matter: He must be seen to try, or it would cost his life.

I agree though that Varys and Illyrio's behaviour towards Dany and Viserys have been somewhat strange. Especially... (Major spoiler ADWD):

..considering the way that they have nurtured, pampered and protected Aegon for years. In contrast, they have let Viserys die, sold Daenerys to the dothraki and more or less abandoned her to live or die.

Because it is clear that they intend for Aegon to rule, considering Varys' speech to Kevan Lannister, it is very strange that they allowed Dany and Viserys to believe that they were the royal heirs. It would be very awkward if they presented Aegon to Viserys... "So... ehm... here's the real king of Westeros. Would you kindly step aside?"

I am starting to wonder about Bloodraven's involvement, especially considering that he more or less had the same job as Varys in his days. Its been speculated that Varys is a hidden Targaryen, and he does have a shaved head, much like Egg (Aegon V) in the Dunk & Egg novels.

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    Are you sure the letter to Jorah contained a warning ? I'm not sure anymore how it happens in the book and we don't have a Jorah POV so we can't know for sure, but in the series the letter contains the royal pardon, and he deduces that the murder attempt will happen anytime soon... Also, the sale of Daenerys to Drogo was heavily justified: Viserys would later appear at the head of a 50 000 men army. His foolish acting wasn't planned though. Nothing they could have done about to save him. But I agree with you that they protected Aegon much more and that is suspicious. – Kalissar Jul 8 '13 at 13:24
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    I seem to recall Jorah himself saying that the letter was a warning, although I cannot remember where. Viserys believed he was the heir, so putting him at the head of a huge army sounds very foolish, actually. Even if they did not know he was half mad. Though I do believe that Connington mentions something about Viserys and his dothraki horde, so perhaps that was their plan. – TLP Jul 8 '13 at 13:35
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    It became much clearer with the quote: what you're saying is that, having heard of the lordship granted to the murderer of Daenerys, the merchant tried to poison her. And Varys' letter would indeed be a warning. Which leads to the conclusion that he actually never sent someone to kill her. Do I get it right ? – Kalissar Jul 8 '13 at 15:37
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    They did the same thing that Cersei did when she wanted Tyrion killed: Promised the killer a lordship. Varys certainly had nothing to do with the wine merchant, and he was just a random guy who had heard about the lordship reward. – TLP Jul 8 '13 at 15:41
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    @TLP Given what we know (or suspect) about Bloodraven in ASoIaF, why would he bother with plots to place Targaryen heirs on the Iron Throne? It's obvious that if Bloodraven is who we think he is, he has much bigger fish to fry. Instead of playing the "game of thrones", he is probably backing Azor Ahai, regardless of whether it's a Targaryen loyalist or a Blackfyre renegade. – Andres F. May 4 '14 at 20:20
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In the series when Arya is chasing cats in the dungeon, it's clearly Varys and Magister Illyrio. Later, in the throne room, Littlefinger mentions the "foreign dignitary" that Varys was spotted with.

I think they were conspiring the death of Dany for a reason, using Jorah as a spy and puppet. Varys influenced Robert to make the decision to send the death order. Maybe the lordship was for Jorah and he set up the wine merchant through anonymous means?

Maybe Varys and Illyrio wanted to unite the Dothraki to invade under Viserys by killing Dany.

  • The question is why would Varys (a seemingly Targaryen supporter) conspire to kill Daenerys, the Targaryen claimant to the throne? And why would they support Viserys, who is shown to be cruel, childish and incompetent, instead of his sister? It'd be like supporting a Targaryen Joffrey! – Andres F. Dec 28 '13 at 18:50
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    @Andres F.: Varys monologue in the ADWD indicates that to him, both Daenerys and Viserys were at best "Plan B", and at worst merely a red herring to keep the attention away from the person he actually wants to see on the throne. – Michael Borgwardt Dec 29 '13 at 23:50
  • @MichaelBorgwardt Interesting. Can you remind me (more or less) where in the book he says this? I don't want an exact quote, just something to jog my memory :) – Andres F. Dec 30 '13 at 2:06
  • @MichaelBorgwardt BTW, isn't your comment (with appropriate references) a good answer to the original question? – Andres F. Dec 30 '13 at 2:07
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    @Andres F.: it's in the epilogue, right at the end. And it's not an answer because Varys still wouldn't want to lose the Plan B / diversion. – Michael Borgwardt Dec 30 '13 at 11:10
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I wish this would let me comment on TLP's answer.

Both Littlefinger and Varys, for quite separate reasons, want the seven kingdoms in chaos, they're both undermining the Iron Throne and whoever sits on it.

For this reason, they both want Viserys/Dany alive and dangerous. The poison attempt, and the warning to Jorah are crucial to this because that attempt is what makes Drogo want to go to Westeros immediately.

So the attempt was intended but it was intended to fail and Jorah played his part in doing so, even though he also decided at the same time to devote himself to Dany truthfully.

Whether the poisoner was actually ordered by Varys or just recruited via the 'lord for assassination' deal is unknown.

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I believe Varys' true intent with bringing up the assassination of Dany was to split up Robert and Ned. In Varys' and Illyrio's discussion, Varys talks about how Ned in the position of the hand is stirring up tension too quickly (Bran's fall and looking into Jon Arryn's death) and Illyrio directs Varys to work his magic. So Varys brings this up to the small council knowing Robert would go berserk and banking on Ned to walk away. How this may or may not fit into things with Aegon I'm not sure, I'm currently rereading the whole series now.

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The assassination attempt actually furthers Varys' goal of a Targaryen invasion of Westeros, since it is the failed attempt that spurs Drogo to swear in public that he will cross the poison water and win the iron chair for his Moon queen. Had he not been moved to anger, he might not have taken this step or would have been much slower in doing so (Viserys' nagging could not prevail on him to act). Due to other unforeseen and unforeseeable circumstances, the promised invasion does not happen, but it comes very close and the assassination attempt was the decisive factor in motivating Drogo to act. Had he invaded he would have posed a formidable threat (Genghis Khan's armies destroyed the combined forces of Poland, Hungary, and the Grand Order of the Teutonic knights on a single day, in two battles, in AD 1241). Varys has every reason to get Drogo moving (he was frustrated by his inaction in the crypt chapter when Arya heard him talking to Illyrio) and the assassination attempt, set up to fail, was the perfect trigger to achieve this goal.

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When Dany confronts Jorah as an informant in book 3, he says that he got a letter from Varys in the same caravan where the guy with the poisoned wine was. Jorah says Varys was warning him there'd be attempts on Dany's life, and says "he wanted to watched, but not harmed". I think Varys was simultaneously ordering the attempts, to stay on Robert's good side, and protecting her by keeping Jorah around her. He couldn't have openly ignored Robert's orders to kill her, or his cover would be blown in Westeros, he's lose his position.

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