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In season 1, there is a rather cryptic conversation between what appears to be Illyrio and Varys, that Arya overhears after she chases a cat downstairs.

In the conversation a plot is mentioned (A murder?).

I never understood the underlying dynamic here, other that creating a theme of distrust and intrigue.

So what's going on? Who is plotting for what?

10

The scene, I assume is this one:

The conversation goes like this:

Varys: He's found one bastard already. He has the book. The rest will come.
Illyrio Mopatis: And when he knows the truth, what will he do?
Varys: The gods alone know. The fools tried to kill his son. What's worse, they botched it. The wolf and the lion will be at each other's throats. We will be at war soon, my friend.
Illyrio Mopatis: What good is war now? We're not ready. If one Hand can die, why not a second?
Varys: This Hand is not the other.
Illyrio Mopatis: We need time. Khal Drogo will not make his move until his son is born. You know how these savages are.
Varys: "Delay," you say. "Move fast, " I reply. This is no longer a game for two players.
Illyrio Mopatis: It never was.

The two men are Varys and Illyrio Mopatis.

They are talking about Ned finding one of King Robert's bastards, Gendry, I assume. The book is the book that the murdered Jon Arryn reportedly was reading when he died, namely The Lineages and Histories of the Great Houses of the Seven Kingdoms. In that book, Ned can later see that in all previous marriages between Lannister and Baratheon, the children have had black hair, whereas all three of Cersei Lannister's and Robert's children are blond -- a sign that Robert is not the father.

They are talking about that someone tried to kill Bran, but they do not know who (we know it was Joffrey). They state that this will soon lead to Lannister and Stark clashing, which will lead to war. If Robert had been alive, this would have been very bad for house Lannister. Illyrio suggests killing Ned, but Varys declines, for some reason that we do not really know. Perhaps he likes Ned, or thinks he has some other redeeming value. If indeed (spoiler ADWD)

Aegon VI Targaryen

is the real deal, they might have some use of Ned, because he knew some of the people involved, which could support this person.

Of course, we know about Khal Drogo and Daenerys, and Viserys' plan to use Drogo's huge khalasar to invade Westeros. (My overly detailed analysis of their game plan is here. TL;DR: Viserys was being set up as a badguy.) It is interesting to note that they are not talking about Dany here, it is assumed later on that she was not originally part of their plan.

The rest of the conversation is vague. Perhaps the "two players" refer to Varys and Illyrio, or perhaps it refers to two factions, and this implies that a third faction (or more) has entered the game.

The game is, of course, The Game of Thrones, the struggle for control over the Iron Throne.

  • Illyrio is clearly talking about Dany making her return; he's seeing the inevitable Stark/Lannister/Baratheon clash brewing and wants to stop it until Dany is ready to come back with her army. He wants to kill Ned to stop him from revealing what he knows to Robert. Varys seems to recognize that the war will be far more chaotic than Illyrio realizes, and will leave Westeros ripe for Dany and/or Argon to step in and take it, even years later, and wants to start letting the major players kill each other off now. – KutuluMike Jul 24 '14 at 13:09
  • Correction - the "fools" who tried to kill Bran in this case are Cersei & Jaime, not Joffrey. – Omegacron Jul 24 '14 at 19:52
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    @MichaelEdenfield Dany's dragons had not been born at this time. The deal Illyrio made was with Viserys: He was the one that was supposed to get a crown in return for giving his sister to Khal Drogo in marriage. This is the original deal. As Illyrio tells Tyrion in ADWD, he did not even expect Dany to survive life in the khalasar. They later changed the deal when Viserys was killed, and Dany's dragons hatched, but that point is not now. – TLP Jul 24 '14 at 21:31
  • @Omegacron Yes and no. Jaime shoved Bran from a window, but the assassination Varys is talking about is the one that Lady Catelyn came to King's Landing to report to Ned, the one with the valyrian steel dagger. We later learn, first in a Tyrion POV and later in a Jaime POV that Joffrey was the one who sent the man with the King's own dagger to slit Bran's throat. – TLP Jul 24 '14 at 21:34
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    This is such a good answer! – Möoz Sep 26 '14 at 5:15
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We find out their endgame much later in A Dance With Dragons (and perhaps in season 5 of the TV series):

Varys supposedly saved Aegon Targaryen, the second child and only son of Prince Rhaegar Targaryen and Elia Martell. They arranged for him to be raised in Essos, have prepared him for rule, and are conspiring to put him back on the Iron Throne.

Varys sums it up nicely at the end of ADWD:

Aegon has been shaped for rule before he could walk. He has been trained in arms, as befits a knight to be, but that was not the end of his education. He reads and writes, he speaks several tongues, he has studied history and law and poetry. A septa has instructed him in the mysteries of the Faith since he was old enough to understand them. He has lived with fisherfolk, worked with his hands, swum in rivers and mended nets and learned to wash his own clothes at need. He can fish and cook and bind up a wound, he knows what it is like to be hungry, to be hunted, to be afraid. Tommen has been taught that kingship is his right. Aegon knows kingship is his duty, that a king must put his people first, and live and rule for them.

2

The following is how it happened in the books, with the links to the people/things mentioned there:

“...found one bastard,” one said. “The rest will come soon. A day, two days, a fortnight...”

“And when he learns the truth, what will he do?” a second voice asked in the liquid accents of the Free Cities.

“The gods alone know,” the first voice said. Arya could see a wisp of grey smoke drifting up off the torch, writhing like a snake as it rose. “The fools tried to kill his son, and what’s worse, they made a mummer’s farce of it. He’s not a man to put that aside. I warn you, the wolf and lion will soon be at each other’s throats, whether we will it or no.”

“Too soon, too soon,” the voice with the accent complained. “What good is war now? We are not ready. Delay.”

“As well bid me stop time. Do you take me for a wizard?”

The other chuckled. “No less.” Flames licked at the cold air. The tall shadows were almost on top of her. An instant later the man holding the torch climbed into her sight, his companion beside him. Arya crept back away from the well, dropped to her stomach, and flattened herself against the wall. She held her breath as the men reached the top of the steps.

“What would you have me do?” asked the torchbearer, a stout man in a leather half cape. Even in heavy boots, his feet seemed to glide soundlessly over the ground. A round scarred face and a stubble of dark beard showed under his steel cap, and he wore mail over boiled leather, and a dirk and shortsword at his belt. It seemed to Arya there was something oddly familiar about him.

“If one Hand can die, why not a second?” replied the man with the accent and the forked yellow beard. “You have danced the dance before, my friend.” He was no one Arya had ever seen before, she was certain of it. Grossly fat, yet he seemed to walk lightly, carrying his weight on the balls of his feet as a water dancer might. His rings glimmered in the torchlight, red-gold and pale silver, crusted with rubies, sapphires, slitted yellow tiger eyes. Every finger wore a ring; some had two.

“Before is not now, and this Hand is not the other,” the scarred man said as they stepped out into the hall. Still as stone, Arya told herself, quiet as a shadow. Blinded by the blaze of their own torch, they did not see her pressed flat against the stone, only a few feet away.

“Perhaps so,” the forked beard replied, pausing to catch his breath after the long climb. “Nonetheless, we must have time. The princess is with child. The khal will not bestir himself until his son is born. You know how they are, these savages.”

The man with the torch pushed at something. Arya heard a deep rumbling. A huge slab of rock, red in the torchlight, slid down out of the ceiling with a resounding crash that almost made her cry out. Where the entry to the well had been was nothing but stone, solid and unbroken.

“If he does not bestir himself soon, it may be too late,” the stout man in the steel cap said. “This is no longer a game for two players, if ever it was. Stannis Baratheon and Lysa Arryn have fled beyond my reach, and the whispers say they are gathering swords around them. The Knight of Flowers writes Highgarden, urging his lord father to send his sister to court. The girl is a maid of fourteen, sweet and beautiful and tractable, and Lord Renly and Ser Loras intend that Robert should bed her, wed her, and make a new queen. Littlefinger... the gods only know what game Littlefinger is playing. Yet Lord Stark’s the one who troubles my sleep. He has the bastard, he has the book, and soon enough he’ll have the truth. And now his wife has abducted Tyrion Lannister, thanks to Littlefinger’s meddling. Lord Tywin will take that for an outrage, and Jaime has a queer affection for the Imp. If the Lannisters move north, that will bring the Tullys in as well. Delay, you say. Make haste, I reply. Even the finest of jugglers cannot keep a hundred balls in the air forever.”

“You are more than a juggler, old friend. You are a true sorcerer. All I ask is that you work your magic awhile longer.” They started down the hall in the direction Arya had come, past the room with the monsters.

“What I can do, I will,” the one with the torch said softly. “I must have gold, and another fifty birds.”

She let them get a long way ahead, then went creeping after them. Quiet as a shadow.

“So many?” The voices were fainter as the light dwindled ahead of her. “The ones you need are hard to find... so young, to know their letters... perhaps older... not die so easy...”

“No. The younger are safer... treat them gently if they kept their tongues the risk...”
AGOT - Arya III

So the essence is, Illyrio and Varys were arguing about their plans to have the Targaryens strike west to push their claim with the help of the Dothraki.

Varys was concerned that Lord Stark had found one of King Robert's bastards, Gendry so no doubt he was headed on the same road as Lord Stannis and Lord Arryn had braved before. Sooner or later, he would find the other bastards as well and would see the same truth about parentage of King Robert's children with Cersei Lannister.

Illyrio was curious about Stark's possible reaction to the fact and Varys was convinced that due to the attempt on Bran's life, Starks and Lannisters would be at war soon. Illyrio then wanted him to delay the war until Targaryens were ready to invade, to which Varys replied in negative, saying that things were getting out of his hands.

Illyrio then suggested that if Jon Arryn could be murdered, why can't Lord Stark? That would delay the exposure of Robert's heirs' true parentage and delay the war between Great Houses of Westeros. Varys however did not believe that Eddard Stark could be murdered the same way.

Illyrio explained that because Daenerys was pregnant, Drogo would not invade until his child was born. That's why they needed to delay the civil war. Varys, impatient and frustrated, explains to him the recent developments. Stannis and Lysa Arryn were mustering soldiers, Loras Tyrell wanted Lord Mace Tyrell to send Margaery to the court, in hopes of getting Robert to set Cersei aside and wed her instead with aid of Lord Renly. Littlefinger was spinning his own web. And Lady Stark had kidnapped Tyrion Lannister, which was sure to incite a harsh and decisive reaction from the Rock.

So the murder plot in question, is a mere suggestion by Illyrio that they should remove Lord Stark from their path. To learn about the real deal with Varys and Illyrio, see my previous answer here (Spoilers alert).

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