Alternative Origins Chapter Twelve

by artrald

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I am aware that Kallian is too fond of the word ‘And’. Fixing this is impractical.

*

We get moving as soon as we can. The Blight’s going to wait for nobody to sit and enjoy noble hospitality. The arl offers Wynne escort back to the Circle with the party taking ‘his’ son there, but she says that for professional and political reasons she’d rather accompany the Wardens just now. (Poor kid. What a time to start your apprenticeship.)

So we head west, taking up on the road with a merchant called Bodahn Ferric and his idiot son Sandal. Originally it was just that we met on the road and were both headed for Orzammar, but the man’s a dwarf, and seeing as the one of us most learned about their customs is Alistair, we reckoned that going in there alongside a local wouldn’t harm.

So, yes. Turns out that this might be harder than we thought.

(And yes. I’m completely ignoring the bit where I haven’t let myself alone with the big human or spoken him three words together. It’s not relevant.)

Ferric nods and listens politely when we say we need to speak to the dwarven leaders, and gives us the name of the king, Endrin Aeducan, as everyone knows. And we ask if perhaps he could give us some directions once inside, before we part company, like, and his mouth drops open like I asked him to perform unnatural acts with raw chicken. So when he’s done spluttering and choking, he says that no, we misunderstand, and if he set foot inside that door he’d be had up for offenses against the natural order and hung upside-down over a pit of boiling brimstone for a week, most like.

Seems that our merchant is some sort of outcast, and it’s complicatedly illegal for him to own property, make money, have children or say things in public. About the only trade he’s allowed by law is to search through spoil heaps for salvage he can use – although any gold or silver he finds must be returned to a civic official.

So, right, it’s like this. That civic official, the Receiver of Trove, has an arrangement with a consortium who arrange to ‘lose’ rune-locked boxes of goods in a certain part of a certain spoil heap. Ferric ‘finds’ them, opens them with a codeword he knows, sells the goods in Ferelden, takes his cut and hands in the rest of his takings to the Receiver, who conveniently ‘loses’ next month’s codeword. It’s amazing what people lose in spoil heaps, he says with a straight face.

But as for giving us directions? He’s not been underground for longer than I’ve been alive. About all he can say is we want the Diamond quarter, if we can get in.

Well, no, of course there’s a problem with us getting in. Be a bloody funny world if one sort of surfacer could get in and another couldn’t. He looks at us kindly and says that he probably knows a courier who could get a letter to a client of House Aeducan via the Receiver of Trove – although for that service we’d need to provide our own gold and silver to ‘find’ – and he’s heard of surfacers who’ve hired factors to run affairs in Orzammar for them, although an Aeducan client is likely not to take that sort of business, because they’d be noble caste, and –

I look at Alistair, and he says that to hear Duncan talk, he pretty much walked in the door when he visited Orzammar – and the dwarf says that if that’s true then he wasn’t talking about the same door. Sure, there is a door. But it’s there for only those of the working caste whose domain is the spoil heaps, and those of the merchant caste who oversee them, and those of the warrior caste who keep them safe and in line..

And the nobility? Are they above this law, like nobles anywhere else?

He smiles, and says that the rule of law extends from the basest to the very highest in Orzammar – but, well, the lyrium that the nobles sell to the Chantry and the Circles is somehow classed as quarrying waste under the law. But there’s little way in by that road. The lyrium trade is taken exceptionally seriously, both for the danger of corruption and banditry and for its strategic importance – their shipments are irregular, highly guarded and under orders to stop for nothing at all. So by his lights the best plan is to get a letter to a client of the king’s third son, a man known for his openness to new ideas, and have him raise the issue at his next bi-weekly conference –

We call that the backup plan. Because the first plan is to walk up and ask. And Ferric just shakes his head and toys idly with the plait of his forked beard and says that well, either we’ll learn or he will.

*

The dwarven city of Orzammar – the word is ‘thaig’, which meant originally a strongpoint in time of war – is built mostly inside of a hollowed mountain. The road up to the great door is wide, curving, and steep – and you can’t quite help but notice that each loop of the road has a commanding view of the one below, and no army you’d like to name would welcome a march up this and into the teeth of the gatehouse itself.

It’s not like it’s overt, like a shem castle. It’s just that this is where they put the door, and the rest just followed, and those windows are there for some light, and the fact that it’d all mean that twenty people with crossbows could hold this door against a bloody army is just the way things turned out, or that’s what the builders want you to think.

And before you get to the door proper there’s what in time of peace they’d call a plaza and in time of war a killing-ground, and this is like a marketplace, and it’s only the forewarned eye that’ll see the legal fictions. I’d bet solid money that the dwarvish writing over a neatly stacked and carefully guarded warehouse over there says ‘spoil heap’, for example, and the dwarf examining a sample of grain with a careful eye is almost certainly an official scout or raiding party or something. And none of the dwarves the human merchants trade with are seen to carry on up the final straight rise towards the giant, ornamented and above all solid gates – in fact, nobody’s going in or out at all, although the gates do stand slightly open.

So we leave Ferric picking over the ‘spoil’, and draw a few eyes as we walk in ignoring the market and up to the gates.

Better take a moment to describe the dwarves, actually. Your usual dwarf, the one you’ll see around Denerim, usually buying, selling or hitting something with a hammer, is very much like a human the Maker squashed. About a foot shorter, and the same wider – so I can look one flat in the eye, but their clothes would fit about three of me in them side by side. The shems like ’em better than they do the People, because they’ve got a lot of their better traits in common – a taste for loud song and strong drink and good cheer, a work ethic that’ll keep ’em up chasing money till after the dawn, and a willingness to compromise on principles to strike a friendship or a deal. And, of course, nobody ever tried to enslave a dwarf (because of the sheer amount they eat), and it’s far easier to like someone who it’d be a vast amount of trouble and very little worth to subjugate. And they dress much like humans and talk much like humans and pinch you on the arse much like humans, so what’s not to like?

But no human ever wore the sheer weight of metal that these dwarves on the gate are wearing, and no human stood that still or had that deep a voice. Buzzes in your bones when he talks, this one, and the irises of his eyes are actual glinting copper. And you always hear about dwarves and their beards, but this one’s got a thin frame of a goatee that could have been tattooed on his face, and his two mates are cleanly shaven.

“No,” is all he says, and as a greeting it’s got something to be desired.

“No?” I say it because I see Alistair opening his mouth.

The dwarf repeats himself, looking at me with his metallic eyes. “No.”

Okay. Duncan’s tales had these people as the Wardens’ finest allies. Let’s try what worked with the templar at the Circle. So rather than play words with him I give my chin an arrogant lift that feels absolutely wrong, like I’m sneaking into milady’s chamber and trying on her dresses – “On whose authority?”

That makes the dwarf raise an eyebrow under his thick helmet. “The King in Assembly, the Paragons, the natural order and the Stone Itself.”

“Spoke to you personally and told you to deny the entrance to the Commander of the Grey Wardens.”

He snorts.

I fix his eyes with mine. “You doubt me?”

“Mm.” His eyes flick down at me, back up. “Prove it.”

“To you?” I raise an eyebrow. “I’ll prove it to your superior.”

A flicker of a smile. This is a man who’s been being do-you-know-who-I-am’d by better than I for his whole life. “Bite me, surfacer.”

I have a restraining hand on Alistair’s elbow even before he’d move – the dwarf’s two mates have tensed and raised their shields a little. This could go quite wrong quite quick –

I don’t blink. “Your superior is the law of Orzammar, and it’s a higher power than even the king. Yes?”

“Mm.”

“Alistair. I believe this man’s duty won’t permit him to let us in without stating our business. The satchel, please.”

Alistair subsides, pulls out the satchel with the Accords of Ostagar in and hands it over to me slightly reproachfully. “These are the gate guards.”

“Aye.” I look at the guard, not at Alistair. “And on a gate, the most exalted rank that there is is a guard.” I select a scroll pretty much at random and hold it out for the dwarf to see. “We come to hold your people to the word of Ragnan Aeducan.”

The name produces a blink. The scroll, another. Out of the side of his mouth, the dwarf says softly, “Pike. Fetch Gerd. Now.”

Gerd turns out to be a woman, dressed in soft fur-trimmed blue wool; she steps light-footed between two of the guards and peers at the document with a hushed intake of breath and quite without looking at us.

A jeweler’s loupe rapidly comes out as if by sleight-of-hand, and with a professional frown she examines not the signature but the paper itself. “Decent,” she says in a firm alto voice. “Absolutely.” She nods, making the little lens go away. “Fabulous.” She turns to the guard. “Where’s the beef?”

He indicates me with his head. “Genuine?”

“Oh, absolutely. One hundred and ten per cent genuine enchantment. We’d have to check in the Shaperate to verify the provenance-” She checks herself and blinks. “You mean the people.” At his nod, she looks me up and down, mostly because I’m closest. “You. Surfacer. What’s your story?”

“My name is Kallian Dener, and I-”

She butts in. “No, no. What are you, and why d’you want in?”

“I’m Warden-Commander of Ferelden. I’m-”

“Really?” She takes a little step closer and squints. “Slip like you? Looks like a strong wind would blow you right over.”

“Like to see it try.” I show some teeth. “I’m here to hold your king to the word of King Ragnan Aeducan. D’you want to be the ones who stood in our way?”

Her silvery eyes harden. “Ma’am, I don’t stand in nobody’s way and there’s only one of me. And if you’re the Warden of Ferelden you’ll know to leave that attitude of yours behind on that spoil heap out there. Because there’s one thing this door keeps out above all others, and it’s trouble. Besides, your demand is logically impossible.”

Raising my voice would get me nowhere. “How’s that, ma’am?” I use her strange honorific back at her.

She raises her voice defensively. “Impossible, I said, and -” she apparently realises what I said and snaps her mouth shut, starts again – “Oh. Uh, I’m – not – sure I’m required to explain that.”

I frown. “Ma’am, I’ve come a long way. If I’ve got to tell the alliance against the Blight that Aeducan’s people turned me away at the door, the least you can give them is a reason.”

She opens her mouth to say something. Shuts it again. Tilts her head a little and narrows her eyes. “Voice sounds right, especially that last. Bearing is good. She says the right sorts of things. Dress is similar to some encountered before. Body heat’s elevated from typical, the elf and the tall human. They’re likely who they say they are.”

The guard nods shortly. Apparently her word and the reputation of what we claim to be is good enough for him. “All right. In you come, then, if you want. Tell a factotum what you want, you’ll get some help. You want the small door out of here.” He smirks. “Big door’s a mineshaft.”

He moves smartly back and we take our first steps inside the great thaig of Orzammar. And sure, it’s pretty, but this room makes no bones about being built for defence. An attacker would be caught from three walls and the roof by the defenders – the gates leading inwards are every bit as heavy as the ones facing the outside world – in short, this is a gatehouse without such a weakness as, y’know, walls. The light has the dreamlike, sourceless quality of lightstones, and it seems to come most clearly from the carven walls themselves.

Nobody in this echoing antechamber but a small guard-post. I don’t know whether they just froze when I looked at them, like I was playing Grandma’s Footsteps, but they look still and silent as stone as they sit around their little table. Wonder what they’re doing to pass the time, what their jobs are. Gerd’s the only one of ’em not in armour that’s got to be too thick to be real.

There’s a little door in the gate inward and it opens silently as we approach – the guard on it might as well have been a statue. And inward there’s brighter light, and sound – the smell of burning lamps, the sound of footsteps, of half a dozen hushed conversations, the feeling of a vast empty stone space.

Which – well – empty isn’t what I’d call this place for true. Two great even rows of pillars and two great even rows of statues, each one clad with beaten plates of gold, of silver and of lacquered bronze to make the image of a dwarf, each dressed and arrayed in a different style and all stood in a different heroic pose. There’s half a dozen groups of dwarves standing in little knots or sitting on the benches along the walls, talking quietly and seriously; most of them in soft clothing of sober peasant colours, a couple in richly decorated armour of different make and design from the guards, if no less weight.

And at our end of the room, backs against the decorated wall smartly like servants, are six dwarves each wearing a different design, and if that’s not livery then it’s heraldry, and they don’t look in charge. Let’s take a wild guess and say ‘factotum’ for their title.

“Damn,” I say quietly. “Anyone know the colours of House -”

I stop talking because all the other conversation in here is going quiet at our entrance.

Then I distinctly hear a quiet “Well!” from the back somewhere, and at least one group turns on their heel in slight disarray and leaves the hall.

And after a moment of being stared at, Zevran says quietly from his position in my shadow, “So what now?”

“We pick one.” Leliana’s eyes flick over the liveried servants. “And we pick well. This reminds me of Val Royeaux more than anything that we ‘ave met in Ferelden.”

I nod. “Better to play their games, or get my dignity on and act foreign?”

“A little of both, I’d say,” mutters Wynne. “We need to be foreign, or we don’t get allowances for not knowing things. We need to engage, or we don’t get what we want.”

“See the red one.” Zevran nods in the dwarf’s direction. “Alone among the six of them, she carries no money – but her shoes are high-quality and well-maintained, and there are eight gemstones about her person all told. A house that keeps what is practically a noblewoman for a servant is the house that we are looking for.”

And we approach the woman, and she’s smilingly polite, and whether by luck or good judgement she does indeed know the names and places we want, and I have no idea whether I insulted her by not tipping her (after all, she has no purse), but in hardly any time at all we’re making our entrance to Orzammar proper alongside a professional guide in the crimson and brass of the royal house.

*

If I keep on about the pretty on the walls and floors of this place I’ll start to sound like a bloody architect, but let’s just say that when our guide paused politely to let us pick our jaws up off the floor she wasn’t wrong to do it. A dwarf might be no taller than me, but they do like their high ceilings – they must’ve hollowed out half the mountain to fit this cavern. The whole thing’s on terraces, steps on the side of the great shallow bowl of the place, and to give you an idea of the size? You could fit most of Denerim in here. We build higher than the dwarves do, and closer, but I’m guessing that the thaig goes down below the levels I can see. And in the middle, where Denerim Castle would be, we’re looking at a strange sort of building half-sunk into the ground, a great round thing like the city in miniature. I’ll ask someone what that is, later.

And it doesn’t smell like a city. You hear people say of someone ‘like their shit don’t stink’ – this lot, either it’s really true or they’re trying so very hard to make it so. It’s a statue of a city.

The people seem to come in a bunch of different types, or at least the differences in dress and style are bigger here than they are in shem lands. Either there’s a lot of town guard about or there’s a fashion for one group to wear full armour like shem nobles; then there’s people like the one who quizzed us on the gate, bustling in robes like mages; maybe half the people on the streets are wearing short tunics and breeches, but they’re dyed in jewel-colours that would mean serious money back home. Then there’s people in more familiar longer tunics and dull colours, and to my eye they’re acting too rich – but down here of course, different fabrics are rare and costly, different colours are expensive. Our guide’s wearing linen, and the ones dressed like mages are wearing mostly wool, and the people running the stalls in the open-air market are dressed in what looks a lot like silk.

And from Wynne’s quiet impressed noises, the other thing that’s cheaper here is enchantment. The place is lit not by magical torches or lightstones or by anything that actually burns, but by strange angular symbols put into the very walls – there are statues with haloes – and maybe one in twenty of these people has something about them with a little magic to it.

We’re led out, up and around into what’s unquestionedly the nicest bit of town. The alley-cat in me looks at the wide streets and the short buildings and wonders, for space in an underground city to be so cheap – the rest of me replies that no, these are the noble estates, the wonder is that you can see one from the other. We’re conveyed to a compound that looks – older – than the rest, smaller, a little less bright, but the colours of the decorations are crimson and brass and it’s surely no coincidence that it’s opposite a particular statue.

And if a human sculptor had rendered a nobleman as that ugly, the noble would have had his head. The face mostly reminiscent of an irritated and not well-favoured mastiff, the practical lack of a neck, the disfiguring scar across him, the paunch – but the expression on his face is one of a man who’s hit that wall with his forehead four times now, and he can see a dent, and he ain’t stopping till there’s a hole.

The Paragon Aeducan, explains our guide almost reverently, and the first king the thaig ever elected. Further information available from the Shapers of Memory, whoever they are, and are we ready to go inside now?

*

Of course we don’t get let in to see the king directly, Leliana explains quietly, that’s why we wanted a guide from the royal house. Later, if this need be written in the histories, we will have swept straight off the road and into his court and did everything right by pure guess. But a… more accurate sort of truth would be that we got an ally here by hook or crook, an ally that’s as strong as we dare, and they got to present our arrival as their plan, our success as their party’s success. And this is why we must choose right.

This isn’t dwarf-lore, but it is experience – if she’s right that Orzammar and Val Royeaux are the same sort of place, then this is a nest of vipers and the only way we’ll get out with anything that looks like what we want is to get good, solid, and above all local support. And did we catch the words ‘elected king’ when the guide spoke? That means the royal house is royal either because it is weak, a pawn on a board we must at all costs discover the players of, or it is strong, and exactly the backing we want.

And if she’s wrong? If the stories of the bluff and no-nonsense honesty of the dwarves are true?

Leliana’s laugh is a thing of silver and she asks if anyone will give her tenpence on that and not even Morrigan will. And I catch myself thinking that I’m thanking the Maker to have my friends with me in this strange place.

Friends? I suppose they are. Look at you, Kallian Dener, friend to humans, relying on them even, taking their advice. Even A- even the big shem, whose eyes catch mine for a moment and there’s only so long you can tell yourself that a shiver in your stomach can only be fear, and I make myself look away because Maker’s sake, Kallian, no.

*

In the event, the third and youngest son of Endrin Aeducan keeps us waiting in his luxurious brass-and-crimson receiving room for less than a turn of the glass.

He’s older than I’d expected. You think – okay, I think – of princes as being young little creatures, or valiant young men like Alistair; you don’t expect them middle-aged and comfortable in their skin, with a fatherly smile under the well-kept russet-brown beard and a kindly twinkle to the eye.

An eye that had flicked over us all as he entered flanked by heavy-armoured bodyguards – both women – an eye that had seen us all, how we were standing, what we appeared to be, and likely what we were. An eye that had first, earliest and most accurately been looking for threat, and isn’t satisfied it hasn’t seen it, and yet he takes his chair anyway with a gesture that has us resume our own seats.

“My apologies.” His voice is firm, seasoned, experienced. “Njalda said that Duncan was here to see me; I must say I was expecting him, and I came as soon as I could.”

I bow my head to him and he returns the gesture a little less deep. “If he still lived, your grace, he’d be here. I am his successor; my name’s Kallian Dener.”

His eyebrows go up. “Your loss is that of all of Thedas. Duncan and I were good friends, as doubtless you’re aware. And just now-” he frowns, a flash of real emotion – “just now, when I could really have done with -” He looks down, then up at me, troubled. “Tell me how it happened.”

“Treachery, your grace.”

His face hardens. “Who.”

“Loghain mac Tir, teyrn of Gwaren.”

A blink. “Hmm – that explains more than it conceals. About three weeks ago?”

“A little less, ser.”

“Of course it would be, of course. And the Wardens, you’re depleted as a fighting force?

“Somewhat, yes.”

He nods slowly. “I was a fool to think my opponents would confine themselves to the allies of mine who were actually present – and you, you are owed an explanation. But, yes – pleasantries and politeness first, they are the axis of the world. I am Bhelen Aeducan, and this is my house; you are Kallian Dener, Commander of the Grey in Ferelden. May I prevail upon you for introductions?”

His eyes are appraising as we go through the dance of politeness, and he gives us formal welcome as guests of the royal House Aeducan, and I accept it while trying to sound just as formal – I’m sure that I’m not doing this correct, but if he’s happy them I’m happy. He pauses, clearly waiting for us to speak the urgent business that got us past the city guards – all politeness I ask to see his father and he shuts his mouth and looks down.

Impossible, that is. For why?

For the simple reason that Endrin Aeducan, King of Orzammar, and his eldest son are dead; his popular middle son convicted of cowardice and imprisoned; the sturdy middle-aged fellow sat before us on what’s very much like a throne is all that is left of the direct line of House Aeducan, him and his sons and daughters. Bhelen’s voice is flat and level as he says this, an attempt at being tightly controlled. Clear that he loved his father. Clear that he’s been betrayed by his brother. And he makes it more than clear – in words, in explicit words – that his house’s enemies have chosen this month to strike, and that he considers that his problem and ours are different fruit off the same tree.

But, well – beyond the fact that this puts our enemies here where we’d looked only to find friends, beyond the fact that will I never get away from bloody politics  – there’s only so much that we can be expected to care, he says, and Alistair nods matter-of-factly and he’s going to get it for that from Leliana later. We are here because we wanted something from Orzammar, as a nation. And there’s the pantomime where we get out the Treaty of Ostagar and he pretends he didn’t know we had it, and he pretends that if he hadn’t known we had it he’d have taken our word for what it was, and so on.

Maker, I hate this. All these pointless secrets and lies, like it’s a bloody parlour game, like nobody’s dying to buy us this time, like nobody’s actually interested in ending the Blight, they’re interested in scoring points and coming out on top or at least making sure that someone else comes out below them. Then again, if it gets us what we need – sigh – and so I explain in small words that we’re here to hold the dwarves to the word of his distant ancestor, and he nods and says we’ve common cause, then.

Because he regrets to say that the dwarves do not have private armies. To show his earnest, if he was a human noble, he’d let us have his personal forces today, he says. But the army of Orzammar is a professional one, a standing one, and the nobles don’t even appoint its leaders. More like a knightly order than the armies I’ve heard of, if an order was thirty thousand strong. And they march at the orders of the King in Assembly, and, well. No king.

Well, that’s a naked bargain. What is he after, then, I ask.

He chuckles, like a favourite uncle made wider and finer and more bearded. Apparently Commander Duncan had a reputation down here. A reputation for butting in, for not keeping silence, for doing the right thing. It made him allies among people who Bhelen has been unable to move. And he refused to stand by and watch injustice, not when he’d been given the rights of a nobleman of the city from King Endrin. So, says Bhelen, if we’re anything like Duncan he’s got a list of places where we’re likely to witness injustice and wrongdoing and he’d like us to make right whatever we see however we choose.

And just to be clear, I look to him and ask him in words how he gains from this, how this gets him what we wants.

He says with an affable smile that it is a list of footprints of our enemies, and he gains simply from having their footing made a little more shaky. He says that he’s not so far off being able to do something, not so very far at all, not really. Not with a few key pieces suddenly confounded, like.

So I make as if I’m asking Alistair, but it’s Leliana’s tiny nod that decides it. The Grey Wardens are people out of legend, and in Orzammar that seems to mean going around righting what we see as wrongs – you know what? Fine. As long as Bhelen is very clear that we aren’t his legbreakers and have no ambition to be, that all he’s getting out of this is what he says he’s getting. And he smiles and he nods, and why do I feel I’ve walked straight into something horrid?

*

The prince has a flunkey settle us into staterooms that have Morrigan saying that there’s no way I can weasel us out of this little bit of luxury, and the number of different servants involved suggests to me that either he knows how much servants talk or his usual guests are used to being treated… like… You know what? Never mind. We are introduced to his wife, a quiet serious dark-robed little stormcloud of a woman, and she’s perfectly if coldly polite and asks us only that whatever trouble we cause on her husband’s behalf out in the city, we wipe it from our shoes when we cross her threshold.

And a blue-robed woman wearing peculiar glass lenses before her eyes gives us the proper tour of the great thaig. The city has four quarters for the six Castes: Steel for the smiths and the warriors, Stone for the miners, Gold for the workers, and Diamond for the artists and the nobility, and it’s carefully explained that no caste is more or less important than the others, and none is above the law, although some are outside it.

And we get an answer to the question of dress: it isn’t that your dress is legally constrained by your station in life, not like among the shems, though it may be constrained by your pocket or useful for your trade; the fact of the matter is that in dwarven society to stand out is to stick out, and the nail that sticks out is the nail that gets hammered down, and she says that last like it’s a proverb.

So what do we look like, to her eye? Our guide blinks at the question, for all that Leliana meant it a joke, and takes the time to answer in proper detail. Alistair looks like a warrior, of course, Morrigan a servant to a smith or miner, Leliana a servant to a nobleman, Wynne a Shaper like herself. Zevran and I, our dress says ‘smith’, for nobody else wears leather, but no smith goes armed; we mostly look like criminal thugs, she said, and by the quality of our gear, not well-off ones.

It’s Zevran who asks where she was when the tact was being handed out, and she looks at him in what seems incomprehension for a moment before replying that she must have been at school, nobody ‘handed her’ anything, she’s a Shaper.

Apparently the Shapers of Memory are like the priesthood the dwarves don’t think they have. Where a real priest’s job is to sing the Chant and ensure that the people do as it commands, theirs is to understand the world and see it properly remembered. The Paragon Harrowmont once said that the memory of a society is its future – that the greatest of all power lies in the writing of history, for the custodians of the past are they who shape the future.

And, of course, the dwarves don’t actually sing the Chant, they’re sort of famous for it. Apparently a missionary showed up at their door once and they asked ‘her and whose army’, and she said Orlais, and once they’d looked that up on a map, they told her hotly that the day when they united the entire of the surface was the day Orzammar would sing the Chant, and they were somewhat bemused when she said all right then and left, and that’s one of our guide’s parables about how surfacers aren’t always insane, just hard to understand.

So the woman that our host has assigned to guide us around Orzammar is officially neutral, above reproach by virtue of her position, dedicated by her vows to the pursuit of understanding, will tell anybody anything, and just as clearly a pet of Prince Bhelen? I ask her if a Shaper has desires and feelings of their own, and she says rather haughtily that some probably must, and shall we be on?

What else do we see? Statues, plazas, architecture, cleanliness, places the guide clearly thinks we should have heard of, everywhere with a story, and above all, industry. I’m used to Denerim, with its docks and its markets and its noisy dirty hubbub; but it seems that every dwarf in this town lives behind or under a shop or a workshop. Yes, under – this is the top floor of the city, and near everything is built down instead of up. And everyone knows that muck rolls downhill, so no wonder the front face, the clean face, of the city is the top of it.

And the other thing that’s at the bottom of the city is the other gates. The front door, as the Shaper puts it – the entrance to the Deep Roads under the earth, the barbican that puts any fortress of Man to shame for age and strength, the unconquered gates of Orzammar, she goes on at poetic length. I’m guessing all that ornate decoration she describes is on the inside. And when she says that the dwarves have a standing army, of soldiers who do nothing else, that’s nigh-on a fifth part of their people? That is where they are, and their foe is the darkspawn, and as all the stories say, that war has been going on halfway to forever.

Where does all the food come from, Morrigan asks, and the Shaper looks at her for a moment with something approaching respect. Well, it’s like this. Shit flows downhill, and crops love it. The great gardens of the city are right at the bottom, straight down from Gold district, vast caverns lit not by simple lightstones like the upper reaches, but by great fires bound by runes to keep them burning. Farmer is an old, honest and honourable profession – but it’s also a dirty one, and once again I’m learning that absolutely nothing we’ve met in this city means exactly what it says. A farmer in Orzammar is a night-soil man. I’m going to need a dictionary to go with my map.

*

But, apparently, the dictionary can wait until after dinner. We’re invited to dine with Bhelen, his friends and his clients; we’re informed that he’s seen to it that after we have had a chance to clean up we may borrow suitable attire, where that’s required. And that means that someone’s seamstress has had half a day of complete chaos fitting clothes out for me and Zevran, because while the humans can be easily enough fit from the things that are officially-unofficially traded with the surface, nobody makes anything suitable that’ll fit an elf.

And there are benefits to not thinking to be sufficiently paranoid – Zevran’s pack has not been opened, because it was clearly protected against tampering in subtle and unsubtle manners, while mine is completely and exactly the way I left it but the tunic and breeches that they’ve made for me fit perfectly, while the clothes for him… would likely fit me perfectly. At least I’m tall for a girl, so he’ll not look ridiculous, and the dwarven tailors are at least a little aware that a man and a woman aren’t the same shape.

Look at me in silks! And again a little pointed gesture – the clothes are silver and grey, but he could have lent us clothes in his house colours and we’d likely have worn ’em. But there’s jewels laid out with them I could wear if I chose, nothing complicated, red carnelian ear-studs in gold. Tells a good amount, that someone noticed I’ve pierced ears. And there’s a little part of me that wants to wear ’em, because, you know, jewels, and I’m allowed. Rest of me goes and gets Leliana, and she says do it, refusing the gift will cost me more than I’ll gain by being independent, and while I’m at it will I get my feet out of those boots and into some proper soft shoes, and have I seen my hair, and I’m not quite dragged back into my room before some disaster should occur, such as a man seeing me. (The nun, of course, is wearing a simple linen habit. Turned out she did have a good one with her, the colours of a flame, rather than just the flat pinkish beige one that suits no one. And because she can’t pretty herself, apparently, I’m to be done up like an Orlesian doll. What do I mean, I wasn’t going to wear face-paint – come here -)

So I’m not the last out. Alistair – uh. The look in his eyes – I look away, he clearly doesn’t, and I can damn well stop it. Wynne’s wearing a formal robe of her own, a restrained thing of ivories and whites that makes her look a little bit like a chess-piece, and the touch of makeup is fooling nobody that she’s used magic to take twenty years off herself (and look a dignified fifty). Morrigan takes a while – I didn’t know she had clothes like that, and judging by the noise Alistair makes, neither did he. You know, I didn’t know she had a figure like that, either. She looks like something out of one of the more excitable tracts on temptresses, all black silk and black leather and fingerless gloves. My guess, she’s been working on that spell ever since she realised that Wynne was using magic to soften the impact of age – and my second guess is that that’s not makeup either, which makes the black lips more than a little disturbing, and I wouldn’t put it past her to actually be venomous right now. Leliana I’ve already described. And Zevran –

You know, he doesn’t clean up badly either. First time I’ve properly looked at him out of armour, this. The shirt is tight over his powerful shoulders and loose where he’s gathered it about his slim waist with a black belt, and grey suits him nearly as well as it does me; whoever called him a crow did him a disservice, for there isn’t a bird on the wing that moves with that sure lithe grace. He gives me a shameless compliment and goes for my hand to kiss it; I let his lips just about brush my hand before I take it back, and head off the second compliment by saying that if he does that again he’s not getting his fingers back. And he chuckles and says he’ll hold me to that, and that’s quite enough out of him: we’ve dinner to attend.

The scale of what he discussed like it was a quiet little dinner with friends is absolutely designed to remind everyone coming that Bhelen and his house are still quite set up to be royal, that they were royal before the old king died and still have all the things. He places me in what’s clearly the seat of honour on his right hand, and are we that important to him? Or are we being shown off?

Any road, I’m sat next to Bhelen on the one side and Zevran on the other, and across from us is a quiet soft-spoken old dwarf in green and gold, introduced as ‘my father’s right hand, Lord Pyral Harrowmont.’ And it’s the oddest thing, he doesn’t look in my direction at all when he speaks – when he greets me, you’ve got to listen to his words alone, because it looks like he’s greeting Prince Bhelen. Like he’s pretending I’m not there – or, I guess, like he won’t take his eyes off the prince for an instant.

And of course all of us find ourselves the topic of conversation wherever we’re seated. Leliana has her disguise of the cloistered sister firmly on, as she tells some tales of a supposed wild life before she took her vows to a pair of wide-eyed dwarves and swaps stories of Orlais for stories of Orzammar… Andraste bless her, she’s writing me my dictionary. Wynne has been seated next to a couple of Shapers and has surprised them by being able to talk philosophy on their level; Morrigan, completely mis-identified, is listening with patiently feigned interest to a nobleman and his wife talk about the Paragons who founded and shaped dwarven society, and about how far they consider themselves to have fallen that all the Paragons’ descendants live in the one place now. And Alistair has a serious look, talking to a man who turns out to be a friend of Duncan’s who thinks Bhelen an arrogant blowhard and is either ignorant or powerful enough to hint at that in the man’s own house.

The food is – odd, over sweet to my taste, and those things I think I recognise don’t taste as they ought. If I say dwarven banquet, d’you think of four removes of dazzling presentation, flavours strange and common played like a tune on an orchestra? I must say I’d half been expecting deep flagons of ale and great slices of rich meat. And Zevran picks something up on one of the odd three-tined forks we’re using and as he’s looking speculative I remark conversationally that if he tries to feed that to me then I can’t be held responsible, and again he laughs and says that my terms are harsh but acceptable, and I make a little blurring movement of my hand as if to throw a glass of water over him and that grin of his as he ducks is infectious.

But when he’s not got my attention right then, he’s not so much talking as quiet and listening – his table manners are extremely careful, like he’s never seen anyone eat like this before and is trying terribly hard not to show me up – damn it. I should have thought that he’d be overwhelmed by this, like I’d be, although apparently his way of dealing with that is to stick to something he does understand, namely, flirting like a rat. (Or an Antivan, which I do suppose he is.) Anyhow, a girl can’t help but feel flattered, although the woman on the other side of him is the prince’s middle daughter, who apparently inherited the good looks and even temperament of the paragon her ancestor, and opposite him is Harrowmont’s good lady wife, who’s a bit like a statue but without the animated good humour.

But, well, that’s a point. I should be shivering scared here. It can’t just be that the people don’t smell human (they don’t). The girl I was four week ago, you wouldn’t have got her into the hall even, you wouldn’t have got her into these clothes, because they sure ain’t hers. I mean, yes, I have a good idea of the exits, I’ve got Zevran at my side and I’m a little careful of who gets behind me – but my heart isn’t pounding, I’m quite happy talking, not a trace of a stutter, and while it’s still not my habit to look people in the eye for long, it doesn’t hurt to.

…Bah. Move on. Bhelen is clearly trying to compliment me by talking big matters, affairs of state, and this Harrowmont fellow is mostly just being polite, like, why are they talking about this in front of the outsider.

But we get around to why I’m here, and I mention the whole thing with the treaties and the word of Ragnan Aeducan, and Harrowmont freezes like he’s seen some kind of ghost, just for a second, before just like Bhelen did he starts on the whole routine about it being such terribly bad luck that I showed up just now. And of course we will be able to rely upon the dwarves, he says – they have never sworn a treaty they’ve gone back on, no true dwarf would – but without a king the Assembly is powerless to assist, and the Assembly is deadlocked over who would make a proper king.

Is it not bad for Orzammar, I ask, to be missing a king? And here as well they agree: of course. The king doesn’t just enact all change: he’s a symbol of morale, he’s the highest court of appeal, he’s ceremonially speaking the chief of the Shapers and the generals both. And is there not a regent? The humans would have a regent in a case like this, appointed the day of the king’s death most like.

And Harrowmont says for sure there is, and Bhelen says quietly that we are talking to him, and a piece falls into place – this is a move in a game, and here are two of the players, and not on the same side, either. I don’t need to feign my surprise, really – if you think he’d meant to tell me earlier, I’ve got a bridge to sell you – and I ask if the regent couldn’t approve what the king clearly would if there was one.

So this is apparently one of Harrowmont’s hobby-horse topics, because he goes on to talk about the fact that – as far as I can work out what he’s saying – no regent in the history of the Assembly has actually used any of the perquisites of the king, and he has as an article of faith that the future doesn’t contain anything the past never met. And it’s quite clear that Bhelen agrees with me that power that everyone knows you’ll never use is just words, which is just as clearly why Harrowmont is regent and not the king’s son.

This is also about the point I realise that Harrowmont, while he clearly has a dwarf’s appetite, has served himself only from dishes that I myself have sampled. I suppose that he’s thinking that you can develop all of the immunity to poison that you like, but you can’t guarantee it in your friends, and I suppose that Lord Bhelen knows that he’s thinking this, too, and that’s another reason I’m sat here, to reassure him or some-such –

But I’m getting away from the topic. Affairs of state. This isn’t a grumpy middle-aged man complaining that the kingdom is going to the dogs, this is these people’s likely future king talking over genuine dangers to the realm. A Blight on the surface means a surge of darkspawn out of the nearer parts of the Deep Roads as they move to support their horde in the overworld, and this means that many of the old thaigs and ruins that are usually infested are much less dangerous than usual – just safe enough to think about going and putting together an expedition.

And it’s not just the youth and the nobility of the city, like it would be in anywhere I’m familiar with – quiet grown-up serious dwarves with families and responsibilities have sat down and read the histories of the Blights and their aftermath and soberly planned to take their part in the generation-long frenzy of treasure-hunting which has followed each of the Blights of the past, all four that are known of. And King Endrin, if he was ever to have had any respect from his people again, couldn’t just let it pass – if this was acceptable behaviour, why, he had to be at it too. And the plan probably didn’t involve him and his eldest son dying when an expedition to an ancestral family holding was ambushed by darkspawn, and it probably didn’t include his very popular middle son being had up for cowardice in the face of the enemy and detained awaiting the pleasure of a king who the city suddenly didn’t have.

No pause, nothing to imply that they aren’t a grieving son and his father’s dear friend – but something gives me the very strong feeling that more passed between these two on that day than they’re saying.  Words that can’t be unsaid, that sort. And the timing of the whole thing – both of them call it tragic, unfortunate, accursed. Both of them are absolutely thinking ‘convenient’. A storm is coming to Orzammar; the next king will matter in a way the last one, for all that they both speak so highly of him, frankly didn’t. Thus are Paragons made, thus does the world turn – thus do times change – and as Harrowmont puts it, the Assembly now has the opportunity to choose what manner of person shall lead them into this time of change. So no wonder they’ve stuck their heads in the sand and done nothing, Bhelen doesn’t say, but he doesn’t need to.

Is it me? Is everyone else in the world like this? Am I unusual for wanting the odd bit of genuine truth, for doing things merely because they’re worthwhile and not worrying about the signal they send? Andraste’s sake.

*

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