On the ship Balerion, Daenerys plans to reach the city of Astapor with her advisors, Ser Jorah and the squire Arstan Whitebeard. Her ultimate goal is to raise a loyal army to help her reconquer the Seven Kingdoms, from which her family was exiled many years earlier. Ser Jorah is suspicious of Whitebeard because he says he's a servant but speaks eloquently and has courtly manners, and he warns Daenerys of spies and assassins. In private, Ser Jorah also encourages Daenerys to buy an army of Unsullied, eunuch slave warriors who are renowned soldiers. Abruptly, Ser Jorah kisses Daenerys, which surprises and confuses her.
Young Bran is traveling in secret with his protectors, Meera, Jojen, and Hodor. As a son of the Stark family, Bran is in constant danger of abduction or murder. Bran is a warg, which means he can inhabit other bodies, notably that of his direwolf, Summer. He spends time inside Summer's mind, fighting a wolf pack and feasting on their kill, but then he is awoken from the trance and told to eat their meager rations. Bran was crippled in an accident, and entering the wolf’s mind is an opportunity to move freely. But Jojen warns Bran not to spend too much time in a wolf's skin, or else he will lose himself. They debate where to go next, and Bran mourns the deaths of so many friends and family. He asks to see a crow, because he wants “to fly.”
When he arrives in port, Davos meets with his friend Salladhor Saan, a pirate who also fought for King Stannis at the Battle of Blackwater. Davos openly blames the loss of the battle on the priestess Melisandre, who has great power over King Stannis and believes Stannis is the messiah Azor Ahai. At first Salladhor warns him getting revenge is too dangerous, and finally he rejects Davos and rescinds their friendship. Davos goes to the castle with the intention of killing Melisandre, but instead he is apprehended and thrown in a dungeon.
Brienne, Ser Cleos, and Jaime arrive at the Inn of the Kneeling Man, where they seek room and board. But the original owners are dead and a dubious family has taken over the establishment. They learn that the waterways will soon become clogged with war debris, and after a long negotiation with the new tavern keeper, Brienne offers to buy three horses for an exorbitant price. Jaime insults Brienne throughout as stupid and ugly, but she refuses to harm him, because of her promise to Catelyn deliver him safely. The innkeeper recommends a road, but Jaime and Brienne take the opposite road, expecting that the innkeeper is leading them into a trap.
Feeling alienated, Tyrion tries to eke information out of Varys, a eunuch and master of spies in the royal court. Tyrion asks Varys to arrange a rendezvous with his mistress, Shae, who is now a maid in the Lannister home. Varys makes the arrangement, despite the danger, and Tyrion meets secretly with Shae. He intends to encourage Shae to leave the house for a safer place, but instead they have sex and Shae shrugs off his warnings. Tyrion leaves the tryst feeling anxious. When the singer Symon Silver Tongue threatens to blackmail Tyrion about his relationship with Shae, Tyrion suggests that the sellsword Bronn should kill Symon and dispose of his body in a meat shop.
As Arya forages in an abandoned garden, three men appear and threaten her. They coerce Arya and her companions to go with them. They also arrive at the Inn of the Kneeling Man, but after Jaime and Brienne have departed. Arya’s temper grows, especially when a group of soldiers arrives. Panicking, Arya breaks the nose of one of the men. Before she can escape, the soldiers enter, but Arya recognizes Harwin, a guard who once served her family. Harwin recognizes her as well and reveals her identity. For a moment, Arya believes she has been saved.
Robb Stark returns from a series of successful battles and meets with his mother, Catelyn. Robb pardons her for releasing Jaime. He then confesses that he has broken his promise to marry a daughter of Walder Frey and instead will marry Jeyne Westerling. This choice alarms his mother because she knows it will anger the Freys. At first Catelyn’s brother, Edmure, is critical of Robb, but then Robb illustrates why Edmure’s strategies in the war were flawed. They worry about future military challenges and resolve to win back the support of the Freys.
Jon surveys the vast wildling army. When he meets with Mance Rayder, Jon is forced to reveal intelligence about the Wall and the Night’s Watch. Jon starts to doubt the efficacy of his plan, and he finds cultural habits among the Free Folk shocking. When his motivations are called into question, Ygritte insists that they share a sexual relationship. This claim satisfies the wildlings, but Jon has misgivings, because he vowed a life of chastity when he joined the Watch. Ygritte convinces him to sleep with her, which makes Jon further conflicted.
Sansa is fitted for a new gown for King Joffrey’s wedding. When she has a chance, she again warns Margaery that Joffrey is cruel and abusive. Margaery appreciates the warning but disregards it. Sansa thinks she will have to marry Ser Willas Tyrell, Margaery's disabled brother, and she convinces herself that this is a suitable and desirable union. She tells the knight Ser Dontos Hollard, who is shocked by the news and protests, insisting that the Tyrells only want Sansa for her inheritance. But Sansa is determined to make the marriage work.
For the first time in the novel we see Daenerys, the exiled Targaryen heir, and the scene that introduces her does a good job of quickly summing up her circumstances. Daenerys is a complicated character who has evolved greatly since Game of Thrones. At this point, she's become a strong leader, and she's looking for a way to raise an army so that she can return to Westeros and reclaim the Iron Throne. But Daenerys herself has no memory of Westeros. Her desire to conquer the Seven Kingdoms is based on family tradition and nothing else. Meanwhile, Daenerys lives a nomadic life, and she is no closer now to invading the Seven Kingdoms than she has been previously. When she first appears, she is floating on a ship without wind, an image that neatly embodies the state of her mission. She is static and essentially isolated, and despite having advisors, she's uncertain how trustworthy Whitebeard is and what Jorah's motives are. A continent away from the land she intends to control, Daenerys seems like a dreamer with unrealistic ambitions.
Some striking parallels between two unlikely characters, Bran and Daenerys, stand out in this section. Like Daenerys, Bran has been forced to flee his home and is basically a nomad. Both are still young but have been forced to grow up quickly because of the circumstances they find themselves in, and at this point, both are nobles only in name. Yet both have loyal supporters who travel with them and help them along, and who seem to think they have great destinies ahead. Those destinies appear to be intertwined with the supernatural powers they have and the animals they're connected to, dragons in Daenerys's case and the direwolf Summer in Bran's. Whether Bran's and Daenerys's stories will continue to parallel one another remains to be seen, but if nothing else it appears both will have to journey further from home before they get closer to their ultimate goals.
Almost all the characters focused on in these chapters experience similar feelings of estrangement and helplessness. Jaime, Tyrion, Davos, Catelyn, and Sansa are all in positions whether they're powerless to do exactly what they'd like, and their thoughts and feelings are often dismissed by those who have control over them. In fact, the conflict in these chapters is mostly psychological. While much of the novel is rife with battles, swordfights, torture and beatings, these chapters examine the major characters as they assess their options. Bran could move from his hiding place, but he risks getting caught. Jon could sleep with Ygritte and ensure his credibility, but he will break his vow. Daenerys could buy Unsullied soldiers, but she will have to participate in the slave trade, with uncertain ends. As the characters struggle with these choices, the reader sees what things they value most, whether oaths, family loyalties, or personal power.
Jon Snow faces his first major struggle to uphold his vows to the Night's Watch in this section, and that begins his first crisis of identity in the novel. Jon's life is at stake as he seeks to be accepted by the wildlings. If he can't convince them that he has truly renounced the Watch and that he isn't a spy, the wildlings will kill him without hesitation. Many of them are very suspicious of his motives, so he has little room for error. His best means of convincing them at this point is to begin a sexual relationship with Ygritte. The wildlings know that, as a brother of the Watch, he's vowed to forgo sex and any sort of romantic relationship with a woman. Also, if he begins a relationship with Ygritte, he would clearly have her trust, which would earn him the trust of other wildlings. To save his life, it's his best option. Jon feels immensely conflicted, however, as he remains reluctant to break his vows. In addition, he feels guilty as it is for killing his old commander, Qhorin Halfhand, albeit at Qhorin's command. Complicating matters further, Jon is genuinely attracted to Ygritte and wants to sleep with her, so doing so wouldn't be simply a tactical move, it would also be Jon giving into his lust. Therefore he can't justify the move to himself as just being a matter of survival. When Jon does finally give in and sleep with Ygritte, it represents to him a total betrayal of his vows to the Watch.
Much of this section also has to do with secret intelligence. Even in the chivalry-driven world of Westeros, secrecy and espionage are necessary to keep out of trouble and help characters win their personal wars. Sansa is not free to describe Joffrey’s abuses because the king is so dangerous, so she must wait for a private moment to warn Margaery. Jon behaves like any other spy, faking his motivations and assuming a false identity. Even though Jon uses his real name and background, he claims to resent the Starks and his treatment in their household, which is not precisely true. As Arya demonstrates, it is difficult, in such a dangerous time, to reveal a true identity. The men she encounters are not forthcoming about who they are, and Arya uses an alias. Information is unreliable and lies are easy to tell. Lies, the novel suggests, are necessary to survive in the world we see, where violence is rampant and few people can be trusted.
Each of these chapters but one ends with the focal character realizing what the next major challenge they must face will be. Davos has been imprisoned by Melisandre and doesn't know what his fate will be, Robb has angered the Freys and must find a way to regain their favor, Tyrion faces blackmail over Shae and must eliminate the man threatening him, and Sansa suspects she will have to marry a man she does not love or even know. The section sets up a series of conflicts to be resolved, thus moving each character's plot forward. Arya is the main exception. The novel does set up the next chapter of her storyline, but it seems at this stage that she will finally be saved as she recognizes Harwin, a former servant of the Stark family, among the soldiers who enter the inn.