In Game of Thrones, around page 343, Arya is chasing cats around the Red Keep for Syrio Forel. She happens to stumble upon two men conspiring to wreak havoc across Westeros, and restore a Targaryen to the Iron Throne. Who are these mysterious men?
They are Varys and Illyrio Mopatis. But how do we know?
In numerous letters and interviews, George R.R. Martin has confirmed these men were Illyrio and Varys.
Of the two men, one has a ‘round scarred face and a stubble of dark beard’ with a steel cap and he seems ‘oddly familiar’ to Arya. When Varys visits Ned in his cell later in the book, he is disguised with a black beard and a steel cap. His face is described many places as being round.
The other man has a Free Cities accent and a forked yellow beard, and is ‘grossly fat,’ though he walks nimbly. He wears a ring on every finger. Compare this to Dany’s description of Illyrio on GoT pg. 33: “He moved with surprising delicacy for such a massive man...Gemstones glittered on every finger, and his man had oiled his forked yellow beard until it shown like real gold.”
The descriptions are easy enough to match up with the men.
To cover his secret passage, Arya sees the man use an interesting method: “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 made her cry out. Where the entry to the well had been was nothing but stone, solid and unbroken.”
Compare this to a conversation with Shae that Tyrion has in Varys’s bedchamber, on page 140 of Storm of Swords:
“They’re under the bed. The secret steps.”
He looked at her, incredulous. “The bed? The bed is solid stone. It weighs half a ton.”
“There’s a place where Varys pushes, and it floats right up. I asked him how, and he said it was magic.”
“Yes.” Tyrion had to grin. “A counterweight spell.”
The two instances are remarkably similar.
Though Arya’s take on the conversation is confused at best, the astute reader can read between the lines enough to understand what is being said. Evidently, the pair wants the Targaryens to land in Westeros with Drogo’s khalasar while the continent is already fighting each other. The Dothraki can then conquer the already war-ridden kingdom. Illyrio is waiting for Drogo’s khalasar to reach Vaes Dothrak so they can go to war. However, Varys is worried that several factions in Westeros might bring war sooner. He is especially worried about Eddard, knowing what he will do once he learns the truth about Cersei’s incest.
Most of this conspiracy is confirmed by various actions throughout the series (such as Varys warning Jorah about the assassination attempt on Dany.) Whether Illyrio and Varys wanted to restore Viserys to the throne or planned for Dany is not certain.
One tidbit of conversation near the end of the scene has prompted some discussion:
“What I can do, I will,” the one with the torch said softly. “I must have gold, and another fifty birds.”
... “So many?” The voices were fainter as the light dwindled ahead of her.”The ones you need are so 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...”
It has been hypothosized that the ‘birds’ Varys often refers to who do all his spying are actually children, and this can be backed up with several striking bits of evidence. For example, on page 257 of Game of Thrones, Littlefinger points out a young boy to Eddard, and claims that he is one of Varys’s spies. Then, on page 877 of Storm of Swords, Tyrion gets a chance to crawl through one of the secret passages that Varys always makes use of. The passage is situated well for eavesdropping, and it is so small that Tyrion reflects a full-grown man would have trouble fitting in it. This might explain why Varys uses children.
From the conversation Arya overhead, it certainly seems implied that these ‘birds’ have their tongues cut out so they can’t go blabbing to anyone. They report to Varys by writing. Though more information on the subject seems likely in future volumes, currently children seem the most likely fit as Varys’s birds.