Alternative Origins Chapter Thirteen
We gather after dinner in my room – you know? That wine, it goes to one’s head – and before any of us can say much, Wynne draws us a circle on the ground and taps her staff on it lightly and the air goes quiet and still.
Leliana starts. “So. When I said we were dealing with a nest of vipers, I think I may ‘ave done them a disservice.”
Morrigan nods. “Vipers only use the one sort of poison. I suppose we genuinely do need them? We can’t just turn our noses up at their whole mess and leave?”
“Absolutely.” Alistair speaks up. “Orzammar is just a city, but it’s got an army fit for a good-sized nation, and pockets to match. The most any sane king would send to aid us would be a legion – you know, a self-contained veteran mobile army three-quarters the size of Arl Eamon’s.”
“Who, as it stands, would be outcast and disinherited the moment they marched to aid us.” Leliana smiles humourlessly. “It is not that exiles go to the surface because there is nowhere else for them – it is that those who go to the surface are exiles by strict definition. We are seeing tonight what we are meant to see – the potential of these people as our allies, their wealth and power, and a hint of what is ‘olding them back.”
“More than a hint, I think,” says Zevran from the chair he’s lounging on. “Do you trust this spell to keep my secrets?”
Wynne makes a face. “Unless a dwarf actually opens the door to this room. And yes, the ward has a top and a bottom to it; I’m not an apprentice.”
“Good.” He sits up straighter. “This whole thing is of Bhelen’s making. He had his father and his brother killed. His middle brother got as far as an officer of the law, in truth an officer of Bhelen’s will.”
“He told you that?” Morrigan’s eyes go wide. “There is evidence?
“Hardly. The only evidence will be in that brother’s mouth – note the charge, cowardice not treason, a terrible thing to call a man in a society that idolises its warriors.” Zevran smiles lazily. “But our ‘patron’ stinks of lies, no? Trust me. His hands, if they are clean, it is because he washes them with wire wool.”
“Lovely.” Alistair practically spits the word. “You know, for five minutes all together back there I was prepared to give that disgusting little toad the benefit of the doubt?”
“We may ‘ave to. The man does not strike me as one who’d take well to being told any of this.” Leliana makes a face. “Kallian? You were talking to ‘im as well?”
I bite my lip. “The timing of the whole thing is far too pat, and he wants us to believe that whoever did it is in with Loghain; I’m not honestly sure whose hand had the knife. Do we even care?”
“Beyond, y’know, decrying treachery and murder when it happens to our friends and endorsing it wholeheartedly when it suits our purposes?” Alistair’s got the opaque smile back on. “Sorry, sorry. I know. Tomorrow morning, what say I make it up by going and engaging in random violence at the behest of this-”
“Oh, stop it,” I snap. “All he’s said is go round a few places and let our conscience dictate.”
“Uh-huh. And what if my conscience dictates that we don’t like traitors and murderers even when they like us?”
I can’t stop my voice from rising – “And my conscience dictates that perhaps we may not like being eaten by darkspawn -”
So of course he rises to that – “Some prices are too high-”
“Enough!” Zevran is on his feet to face Alistair, his fists clenched down by his side, and the sheer volume of that shout is enough to give us some pause. “We are all of us playing their game! Now I wish I had kept my mouth shut – just – look at what you are fighting over! We’re here for one reason, one reason, and that alone, and it has nothing to do with which corpulent behind is warming an empty chair we hardly even knew existed.” He holds up his hand to forestall Alistair’s hot-tempered response – “Yes; I know. Bhelen tipped his hand when he thought me distracted by a beautiful woman and he turns out to be a murdering piece of shit, takes one to know one, you say, as if you expect me to disagree. Still makes him one better than Harrowmont, yes, who throughout our entire conversation refused to acknowledge our existence, and you want to rely on him for our aid?”
Alistair stands up so fast that Zevran brings his hands up to defend himself, and the sheer sense of power in him makes the elf take a step back, and out of the corner of my eye I see Wynne take a grip on her staff like she’s getting ready to stop a fight if one happens. And he looks down silent at Zevran for a moment, and his eyes flick to me and back. “And what the fuck do you care, anyway? You -” He sees me tense, snaps his mouth shut, takes a deep breath, and lets it out explosively. “No, that’s it,” he says. “That’s it. I’m out of this. I’ll see you lot in the morning for some random fucking violence.”
And he’s moving to leave, and I stand up and put myself in the way and put my hand immovably on his arm and he looks down at me and says, “Kallian – don’t.”
“Funny.” I offer peace. “You stole my line.”
Doesn’t work. Just made it worse. “Well, that puts me in my place right enough-”
Try and concentrate on my flash of anger. It doesn’t twist my gut to yell at him if it’s his idiot fault. I look him in the eye. “Don’t you make like your opinion don’t matter, Warden.”
“Why? It doesn’t.” His expression as obstinate as a brick wall. “As he said, there’s no alternative. I can hate it all I want – believe me, I’ll take that one right up – but at the end of the day, this is us dismounting from the moral high ground to pick up an army.” A quick angry breath. “And I’m not exactly so bloody thrilled about that, and I seem to be the only one who cares-”
“Well, you’re not,” I hear myself say, and do I really mean that –
“Funny way of bloody showing it.”
Idiot man – “Alistair, if you’ve got an alternative-”
“You know damned well I don’t.”
“If you find one, then. Believe me when I say I’ll listen. All right?”
“First time for everything,” I hear him mutter under his breath as I take my hand off his arm and he steps back, and that stings me.
And as I take a sharp breath to reply, Wynne says, just a bit over loud – “Does any one of us truly believe that if we had our choice of allies, if we could simply wish them into being, we would create for ourselves an ally like Bhelen?”
A moment’s silence. For sure I wouldn’t, although if I’m perfectly honest with myself it’s because of my friends’ reaction, not my own, and damn, but this wine’s gone to my head –
Leliana speaks. “I do not think I ‘ave the information that would tell me if I could say that.”
Wynne raises her eyebrows. Again, she’s getting there before Alistair would. “You think that he’s a good man in a bad position?”
“I am not a Warden. I am not in charge, and I do not expect to sway anybody with this argument.” Leliana shrugs expressively. “But for my part? I think that there is one thing about Bhelen that I do not understand.” She looks at us each in turn. “I do not know what ‘is cause is. But to this man the throne is not the end of ‘is ambition. ‘E believes that the end it justifies the means, so the question is: for what end would a man murder ‘is father and brother?”
“Power.” Morrigan purses her lips. “It’s not like it is an uncommon story. He is the youngest of three heirs. Either he succeeds on a quest where the others have failed, or he slays his entire family and takes their blood-soaked throne.”
Leliana shakes her head. “Not power alone. For that ‘e would kill one brother and frame the other, yes, but to kill ‘is father as well – and this was not an accident.”
“Power now,” I say. “The Blight practically overturns this place. They aren’t exactly in a series of hundred-year-long sieges and sallies, but it’s not that far from the truth – they’re trusting us to end the Blight and cast the darkspawn back, and that hurts the spawn down here as well and it’s like a licence to go treasure hunting if you’re a dwarf, like a festival of fools that lasts for decades. This is Bhelen’s chance to change his people.”
“Or, less charitably, to nick off with all of the loot, execute everyone he doesn’t like and declare himself and his line supreme life overlords of the whole city for all eternity. Or, I don’t know, open the doors to all the demons of the Fade and run laughing down the street in his smallclothes.” Alistair scowls. “Believing in something bigger than yourself isn’t only or even mostly a trait of good guys.”
Leliana nods seriously. “And he has been showing us the things about this city that are great and the things that ‘e clearly does not like as well, but not the way ‘e wants the world to be, certainly not in a fashion that would inspire belief: that is why I do not know whether I would pick this man as an ally.”
“I’ll concede that that makes sense.” Alistair’s voice is no concession at all. “But I, me, personally? Would not piss on a man who betrayed and murdered his family, if he was on fire. It’s just this little aversion I have.”
Wynne nods. “I have dealt with a number of extremely unsavoury sorts in my time, and in my opinion there is a point where one should draw a line – and it is very important to draw the same line each time – or one begins to doubt oneself. Given that? And assuming the accusations are as true as you believe?” Her eyes take on a flinty look. “I condemn this man, I condemn his actions, and were I in Alistair’s position I would be speaking as he is. But it is not my place to determine our course.”
“Seeing as we all seem to be giving our opinion, here’s mine,” Morrigan says from the floor. “A plague on the lot of ’em. Any right-thinking person abhors a kinslayer, but have we truly found a better, in this benighted city? Their history is loaded with this, and as the root grows so shall the branch. Bhelen can expect from me only the aid he incidentally receives as I keep the rest of you out of trouble.”
I look at Zevran and he shrugs. “I said my piece already. Takes one to know one; Bhelen is scum, but the Regent wouldn’t pay up if we turned coats. And make no mistake, Alistair, you and Kallian and I turned up to that dinner literally wearing Bhelen’s coat, and if we betray him now we are traitors ourselves in their eyes. I don’t like this; I don’t not like this. It just is. Perhaps to your mind it’s different, but by my lights, one might as well complain about the weather as about the proclivities of the particular scum that happen to be in positions of power today. All we can hope for is to come out ahead in our own game – a game for which we need the dwarves, yes?”
“Fine.” Alistair growls. “Just don’t expect me to like it. Kallian, you are in charge, and I will take your orders on this-”
“I’ll not give them,” I say, and he turns his eyes on me and my stomach did not just tie itself into a knot over him – “You own this decision just like the rest of us.”
“That an order?” He won’t blink, so I won’t.
“No. I did say, didn’t I, you’re not exactly the only one unhappy here? Keep your ears open and your eyes out – I’m not giving up on the idea of throwing Bhelen over if we find a good alternative, and I surely don’t want to be surprised if he turns on us.”
“And meanwhile?” Alistair fidgets. “We go a-roving and break some heads for the little man’s plan?”
I nod. “Perhaps you’re wrong. Bhelen needs to see what we are.”
“And what is that, exactly? Bickering? Disorganised? A little greener than your eyes?”
I ignore that. “Maybe we’ll see what we are, and all.”
Wynne dismisses the spell and they leave my room; Alistair’s first, like he can’t stand my presence right now – and I bite down the urge to apologise to him, I’ve done nothing wrong – and Zevran’s last.
He turns on the threshold and gives me a human’s deep bow, his eyes never leaving me. “I have to apologise to you,” he says, “or you might take offence, and then where would I be?”
I return the bow with one that’s every bit its match. Did I mention, earlier, how Zevran’s nearly the equal of the big human in looks? (Did I really just think that?!) “I’m not clear what you’re apologising for.”
He smiles. “I may have given the impression that I was, uh, feigning. This evening.”
“Feigning?” The drink makes my smile a little too wide. “The question is what, not whether.”
He shakes his head very seriously. “No. Not what I said just now, not what I said… earlier. I’ve spoken nothing but the truth all evening.”
“That’s a lot of things to say and mean all together,” I say, and looking into his eyes don’t make my skin go cold.
“I had… inspiration.” His voice is soft. Seems I’d like there to be more of it.
“A girl might feel herself shamelessly and inaccurately complimented.” I’m speaking just loud enough for him to hear.
“Do let me know, if she does.” I suspect he sees the colour rise in my cheeks. Did I mention that this man was well-favoured and – to take a random example – not a damn human?
“Uh.” I should kiss him. (What? No! Even if I, uh, meant to. Which I, which I absolutely may – Not now. Not drunk.) I change the subject. “How do you know? About Bhelen?”
He arches his eyebrows. “He’s very good at putting on emotions when you’re watching, but not so good when you’re threatening to throw a drink in my face because the ladies of Denerim do not care to be reminded of the passion they inspire in the hearts of men. His native reaction to the death of his father and brother was his native reaction to the second remove being served. It takes one to know one, Kallian, he’s-”
I will not let him use the word, and he catches my left hand just before I can put the index finger to his lips. “You’re not,” I say.
“I think that that is my first compliment from your lips, my lady.” And of course he kisses my hand, and I don’t take it away.
“Not your anything,” I say, and there’s a smile to it.
“No. But I am flattered nonetheless -” he steps closer, almost a dance-step, holding one hand of mine, and he’s really not far from me now and my hand is on his shoulder and I’m not sure whether it’s to push him away like I intended or to make sure he doesn’t go too far away when I do. He looks into my eyes for a moment, from close enough to lean forward and kiss him. “But you and I do not know one another well enough to say things like that for truth.”
“Maybe we should,” says however many glasses of wine that was.
And he touches my face, just over my right eyebrow, and runs his finger out and to the point of my ear and down to the lobe and I close my eyes for him,
and he doesn’t kiss me,
and he drops my wrist and takes a step back and I realise I’d been holding my breath and take in a gasp of air as I open my eyes.
Keeping his gaze on mine he bows his head to me – look at me, I’m just about together enough to respond. “Good night,” he says, and I just about reply and close the door and go and dream about potential alternative things that could have happened there.
“Worried. This is a worrying situation.” Alistair looks down at Wynne. “I’m worried. Is anyone else worried around here?”
“There is a word for what you are, but it isn’t that word.” The old mage gives him a look that is full of their relative age. “And for reference, the word for what our glorious leader is, is drunk. Another one, unfortunately, is ‘right’.”
“I -” Alistair makes a frustrated noise. “I don’t trust the crow.”
“You’re happy enough to when he’s saying things that fit your prejudices. If you don’t trust him to play nice with your-”
“Kallian is nobody’s anything.”
“Clearly,” she says, and Alistair has the decency not to meet those eyes. “My point is that consistency works both ways. Admittedly, it’s not like they teach little Templars critical thinking, but in taking his word you’ve trusted him far further than, to take a random example, I have.”
“So you are worried.”
She snorts. “Son, I haven’t lived threescore years as an enchanter by jumping to conclusions. I’m not prepared to trust his words without evidence, let’s leave it at that.”
“And when he says something we can’t ignore and she takes his side over ours?”
“He just did.” She pokes him in the chest with the crystal on the end of her staff. “And you took his word as truth, and yet you didn’t trust her to do the right thing, and you’re lucky she didn’t break your jaw. For a man who clearly likes a girl, you’re awfully ready to dismiss her as an idiot.”
He stands there a moment. Opens his mouth. Closes it again.
“And now you’re impersonating a landed fish. Just take my advice and don’t try and apologise, you’ll dig yourself in further. Go on. Get yourself to bed. We’re going heroing tomorrow, remember? Needs a degree of optimism it’s not easy to get on little sleep.”
Sleep? I don’t get much, and get your mind out the gutter. I’m woken by a noise, can’t have been a turn of the glass after I went to bed.
I wake tangled in the sheets and I can hear talking in my room – I’m armed before I’m really aware. The embers of the fire give me enough light to see there’s nobody visible. My head’s spinning and my mouth is dry as old bones.
Move my head. Try and work out where… Nope. Like the voice is coming from a long way away. Just doesn’t sound it.
Another voice, right close, and I flinch and would’ve put a knifepoint in it if it was actually there. Another. They’re talking one to another.
Slowly I lower the knives, experimentally put my hands over my ears. Yup, just as I thought. No help.
More voices. Not talking to me. Talking to each other, or themselves. Talking a language I’ve never heard. I try and memorise phrases so I can ask someone knowledgeable in the morning.
It’s the darkspawn. Alistair said they’d be along, in my head. I heard them in my dream, didn’t I? And they’re here. At least they aren’t talking to me. At least they aren’t thinking of me.
Eventually I put the knife from my calf sheath away. Keep the other one out. Maybe it is something invisible.
Can I just say that it is horrible to go to sleep drunk and wake up drunk. I hate it. The Maker’s got a bloody funny sense of humour sometimes, you know that?
You know what’s worse? Feeling a hangover turn up, inch by inch, awake all the way. Sitting in a corner in my room so that if I’m wrong and there is something here I can’t see and it comes for me it’ll be doing so from the front.
And you know what doesn’t help? Bloody voices now sound like they’re just the other side of the bloody wall. And it’s a little too cold here, and I really don’t like this.
Only another six hours. Or so. Careful listening to them don’t help, deliberate ignoring don’t help, thinking of something else (someone) (someone else, dammit) (what if someone’s watching the inside of my head, what if that’s what they’re talking about?) don’t help either. I recall Duncan said meditation. That’s, like, regular breathing and closed eyes and concentration, right?
Hard to concentrate when somebody’s talking like that. Will you bastards just
And just around about what must be dawn in the world above, just as I’m maybe finally working out how to ignore the fuckers – a noise, a surge of feeling, a reveille that beggars any I’ve ever heard. Wake up, it says, get moving, get going, get –
It strikes my hangover and I swear to Andraste there are actual sparks inside my actual head.
Move along. Go on. Ain’t anything here to see.