Alternative Origins Chapter Fourteen

by artrald

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*

So there’s a bottom to Orzammar as well as a top, like. A lot of houses have a bottom door as well as a top one. In actual fact, about half of ’em only have a bottom door. Apparently they were built after, says Wynne. Around the edges of the older, nicer ones. When the dwarves first turned this place from their fortified back door to the surface into a city of hundreds of thousands, they were in a bit of a rush – the first slums of Orzammar were here, but they’re slums no more.

Bhelen’s list has a bunch of businesses, a couple of streets, a few taverns, a couple of names that are clearly people, and a couple that if I didn’t know better I’d think were street gangs. We start with a business. A man who sells armour.

Good armour, too. Doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with the shop; he sounds happy, and knows his trade, and his son and daughter work the forge and they’re well-treated and rosy-cheeked and their work is – well, to me it’s just armour, but Alistair’s impressed even by the work of the apprentices.

And just as we’re concluding that no, nobody’s secretly in peril here and no wrongs want righting here, out of the blue he asks if any of us would mind our measurements being taken ‘uh, for an artistic project of my son’s, funny thing, but you do try and encourage’?

So it turns out that he damn well pays – and handsomely, and insists on our taking the money – for measurements from the three humans, saying conversationally as he does that the texts of the Shaperate only discussed human males when they describe their shape and size, and clearly they were wrong. He’s all set to measure Zevran as well when the assassin laughs and says that elves don’t typically wear dwarven, uh, art – no offence to the craftsmanship, but the Dalish make a nigh-religious point of making their own and few others would, uh, appreciate it.

(Zevran? A believer in the Dalish? Really? I’ll ask him. Later.) And once he’ll accept that we know what he’s actually after, the man’s set straight by Wynne drawing anatomical diagrams from memory and speaking with authority on what size a human is. And his children keep looking at us, as if to remember forever the people who came from where their money comes from.

And it really does. He pays us in Fereldan silver, and there’s an instant’s broad smile.

And this shop ain’t the only one, either. Bhelen’s first few places accurately directed us to people who trade with the surface – but these people, their local trade isn’t far off nonexistent. It’s not the quality – lot of cases, it’s better – but as one of them will let slip, as we browse her ‘artistic projects’ that are clearly functionally designed for humans, it’s the nobles. A noble won’t buy from a supplier who’s in this trade. The cost of association with someone like this is simply prohibitive. Someone like what?

We clearly aren’t from around here, she says, and that’s all the answer there is. So why are these people in a trade that’s one step short of illegal? I do get an answer. I end up looking to Leliana for the translation of that after we leave the shop. “Stubbornness,” she says with an expressive shrug, and well, I guess I can understand that one.

*

So I’m confused, a little. Bhelen definitely sounded like he was talking about having us ‘just run into’ people or situations where we could do some good, and all we’ve seen is places, problems that we’re completely not equipped to do a thing for. Beginning to think that the list of things he wanted us to see was just a list of problems with this place, what with the sheer size of the industries based on things that are elaborate legal fictions and the way the nobles are spending more on paint and statues for these slum houses than on keeping ’em in good order. Either that or what he really wants us to think is ‘even the worst parts of our city are cleaner than yours’…

Anyway, apparently what the man wanted us to see next is – huh.

We’re being followed. Not a bad job they’re doing of it, either. Three of ’em, dressed local, man and a woman and a kid. Never looking in our direction, of course, never paying over much attention, but they’ve turned when we have a few too many times. Won’t be Bhelen, because he could just put people on our route, indeed he likely has –

The child they’ve got with ’em just changed. Same hair and clothes. The kids are runners, is my guess, they’re talking to their boss. I relay the information to the others and Zevran asks if we want rid of ’em, and, well, quite the reverse. I want to talk to them.

Easier said than done. I go to catch them out a couple of times and they ain’t there. We start moving again, there they are. Morrigan starts muttering about using perfectly ordinary magic to solve the problem, and Wynne says that magicking a dwarf is like magicking a templar, and Morrigan says yes, and?

And Leliana has vanished. Out from pretty much between us; Zevran gives an impressed little smile. And a minute or so later he melts into an alley we pass, and then we were four. And for sure our tail’s noticed that, but there’s a limit to what they can do if they want to keep an eye on me, depends whether they will take the risk and follow or call it off –

They take the risk. The three dwarves turn a corner and Zevran’s leaning against the wall in front of ’em; the kid turns around in a flash and Leliana greets him all bright and polite, and they stick where they are as the rest of us pretty much turn about and walk up.

“Do you want to draw this out?” Zevran looks at them straight. “I have no idea of your employer’s forgiving nature, or otherwise.”

No attempt to run, no attempt at violence or anything. Arrogance or contempt, or do they have friends watching, or are they just strange? The man speaks for the three of them. “Touch us and you’ll regret it.”

“Oh, undoubtedly.” He nods. “But I’ve a proven track record in regrettable actions. Why, hello: I am Zevran Arainai, and you’ve been set to follow us; just simply, by whom?”

The dwarf mostly looks affronted, although he’s making no attempt to deny. “You expect me to say, just like that?”

“Your options are poor, yes?” Zevran hasn’t gone anywhere near his weapons, but it’s not a bad threat. “And opening your mouth-”

“Kills more than just me. Touching me, same for you.” The dwarf says that without really thinking who he’s talking to.

“An impressive feat, to be sure.” Zevran’s expression doesn’t flicker. “Say those words to some of my friends and you’ll hurt for it, and that’s not a threat.” He turns to me and gives a sweeping gesture to the spies as we approach – “Commander, your adoring followers.”

“Mm. I was listening.” I smile for them, poisonously. “Tell me your orders.”

The dwarf frowns. Clearly things feels he can say and things he can’t. “To keep tabs on your movement.”

“And report to…”

“The Stone,” says the child with an impudent grin.

“Translation? The walls and floor themselves.” Leliana gives the kid a stare. “Rude children don’t get fed.”

“Clever ones don’t take.. Food… From…” He shuts his little mouth at a sidelong look from the woman playing his ma.

“And none of you will tell me your boss’s name except that he’s trying to make the scion of Aeducan look bad,” I say. “And he’s willing to kill innocents to protect his identity.”

The man nods fractionally.

“And that’s the way business is done in this city.”

Nod.

“Andraste’s arse, where I’m from they’d only give you a beating for being caught.” I look at Leliana. “You thinking what I am?”

“I am thinking that playing this game is getting us no place at all, but we are talking to people with little to lose. For any sane person, following someone you suspect is dangerous, exposure is worse than failure. But their controller, she or he does not take failure lightly, no?”

The dwarves might as well be statues. Nobody can stand still like they can.

I glance involuntarily at Alistair. “So we change their game. Break the rules.”

Leliana nods. “I think we ‘ave the same idea for a new and different game. I will see you later.” And she waves impishly to our dwarves, turns on her heel and walks off.

The dwarf woman looks after her slightly helplessly – I start talking. Businesslike tone. Tell people how it’s going to be and see if they’ll just agree. “So. She’s Lord Bhelen’s advocate among us. Alistair doesn’t like him. I’m the leader, I don’t like anyone. Got it?”

The tone does it. The dwarves nod, warily.

“I know you can’t put your employer’s case to me, but here’s fair knowledge, we’re not bought – Aeducan hasn’t yet shown me it pays its debts.” I take out Bhelen’s list. “We were asked to go to this list of places and look for trouble. You following?”

Nods.

“‘Kay.” I produce a copy of the list. “So what happens is, right, you picked my pocket in a crowd and got this off me all unknowing.” I make three silver pieces appear in my hand and fold one of the notes around ’em. “Still following?”

“Not your pocket, marm. Nobody ever saw you’d believe that line.” The kid looks up at me sweetly. “What about the big one?”

I smile at him and hand Alistair the note and the coins. The boy’s eyes follow the coins, but the other two pairs don’t – I got the bribe too small? Bloody town. Anyway, Alistair nods seriously and holds them out. “Help,” he says levelly. “Help. I’ve been robbed. Will nobody stop this foul thievery.”

The man takes the note and carefully tips the coins on the floor like they were something dirty. They tinkle for a moment, and go still. “Pride,” he says, quiet-like. “Some of us still have some, surfacer. You want to help me? Turn up where you’re s’posed to.” And he jerks his head, and the three of them just walk off, and the sad thing is the kid giving that money a last look.

*

We run into Leliana again in the first tavern we try. That was quick.

Not a bad place, this, neither too empty or too full, and she’s sat down at a table opposite a tubby dwarf with close-braided coal-black hair and beard, and from the sound of it she’s patiently teaching him a song in Orlesian. Barely looks up as we enter; motions us to sit down.

So we get a chorus of a drinking song that – bear in mind, most all I know of Orlesian is the swearing and how they order ale – that even I can tell is one of the ones they don’t sing in mixed company. The dwarf’s voice is a strong, confident baritone, and Leliana’s a little over loud – her cheeks flushed – she’s not sober, or she’s acting.

And she laughs as they finish, and introduces us smiling, and finishes with the dwarf’s name, Oghren Branka, and she says it like I should be impressed, but it’s Alistair who raises his eyebrows.

“Uh-huh,” drawls the dwarf. “Well may you eyeball me, ser, everyone else does. I assume y’all’re friends with mademoiselle here?”

“You speak Orlesian?”

“More’n I used to.” He grins at Leliana. “Thing of beauty. Language ain’t bad, either. Anyhow, I hear where you ain’t been havin’ much luck huntin’ injustices in our fair city, sent the lovely lady ahead to spot the lie of the land, an’ she figured I might help y’ out for some reason.”

Alistair keeps talking. I keep my eyes off his face. He needs a shave. “Well, ser, I’m not exactly sure what you know, but, uh, something like that. Yes.”

“He always that shy?” He looks to Leliana, who giggles in a way you’d never hear in a chantry. “Yeah. I know you. Whole bloody caste knows you, Aeducan’s pets.” He sees Alistair straighten and snorts. “Good! Some lies! Can’t have a day in Orzammar without a stupid truth told, a convenient lie uncovered and a bit of random violence on the side.” He raises his voice over the tavern hubbub – “Wine! SOME WINE FOR MY FRIENDS!” Leans over his tankard conspiratorially. “Any friend of the lady’s is a friend of mine. Don’t try the ale here, they have to, uh, ‘buy it in’.”

“I’m sorry, I have no idea what you just implied.” Alistair’s smiling despite himself.

“Neither have I.” Oghren smirks, and there is a shrewd glint in his eye. “Still don’t drink the ale. So. On to a stupid truth. Your hunting is poor because somebody has wind of you. And by somebody, I mean forty-nine per cent of the Assembly, and by wind, I mean a squad of the usual suspects came round here about a quarter-hour ago and made like they were buying a drink, and they made a couple of noises about wanting it a little quieter in here, and most of the trouble just meekly up and left.”

Alistair narrows his eyes. “They’re making sure we don’t see anything we could do anything about?”

“Uh-huh. Split up and make reg’lar patrols and you could probably make a serious dent in the reported crime rate. You dumb enough that I need to tell you whose goons?”

I open my mouth. “Lord-”

“Hey!” He gives me a sharp look. “A lot of people here are allergic to some names you could use. Lot more allergic to axes. Anyway, yes. That one. Give me a list of where yer going.”

The wine arrives. I take a little care – it’s good, quite sweet, doesn’t taste strong, but it’s not watered. Absolutely lethal. Serve this sort of stuff in Denerim, you’d have an unlooked-for party in your honour that’d end with a brawl, around and over the sleeping bodies of those who passed out before getting rowdy. If you were lucky.

Oghren runs a beady eye over the list, passes it back. “Yup. Okay, you got two sorts of place here. First three or four, they’re all they appear and nothin’ more. Places he owns or deals with, places where somethin’ bloody stupid is going on and nobody’s got a decent solution. But after that, you’re looking at other people’s territory. Your patron sends his own bullies most any of those places, he starts a turf war nobody can afford. F’rexample, if he sent people in here, there’d be a fight in minutes. But you turn up, start actin’ all independent, nobody on the noble side wants to be seen actually standin’ up for the wrongs bein’ done, just the idiotic mine-versus-yours crap we all play, so you can do some good, he thinks. Just like King Endrin used to do. Only the other guys got wind and now you think the whole damn thaig smells of polish and paint.”

Alistair nods. “Makes sense. I mean, not in that I’d think that, it’s ridiculous, but as in I believe you. Can you help us?”

“Depends.” Glint in his eye. “What’re you after? Really?”

Where did Leliana find this guy? Alistair looks at me for approval and I nod. “We want a decent ruler on the throne so your people will obey their own sworn treaty.”

Oghren chuckles. “You and ninety-eight per cent of Orzammar. Yeah, I can help you. But bein’ up-front about it? We’re doin’ that by having you solve my life’s biggest problem, drag back the biggest thorn in Orzammar and give it to the deshyrs of the Assembly hard in the ear for the next thirty years at least. Your patron tell you about Orzammar politics?”

“He said that if we acted on his behalf, well -”

“He’d give you a bridge over the river in the Dust Quarter?”

“Pretty much.”

“Yeah. Well, there ain’t much better than that he can sell you, not with the truth. See, the man in red and gold owns forty-nine per cent of the deshyrs, that is, the voting members, of the Assembly by means of blood ties, party lines, arm-twisting, blackmail or plain ol’ mammon – and everyone who ain’t of his party knows it. Now, under normal times, that would mean that anything he could get any leverage on anyone for would pass. But right now? When there ain’t a king, the Assembly has precisely one power. To ratify a declaration of a king. And everyone Bhelen doesn’t own would literally rather anything – short of death or arrest – than see him on the throne.”

“That seems very specific for ‘literally anything’.”  Alistair frowns.

Oghren snorts. “The number of deshyrs ain’t fixed. A deshyr is a trueborn family member of a Paragon, aged over twenty-two. One dies or comes of age, the voting strength changes. So one duel in the wrong place, one misadventure, and hello, King Bhelen. You were being sent past the front doors of objectionable pieces of shit in the hope they’d insult you and you’d kill them. You were being sent to places they go and think they’re slumming in the hope you’d get ’em to commit a crime they could be locked up for. Normally I’d say blackmailed, but right now, as I said. The fate of Orzammar could hinge on one man’s honour, and that puts a lot of steel into people.”

“And the fifty-one per cent can’t agree on a king to put in to replace Bhelen?”

A hollow laugh. “If it were that easy we’d have the regent or the imprisoned Aeducan brother on the throne. The problem is that two per cent of the Assembly are missing, absent. And you’re lookin’ at one of ’em right here.” He raises his tankard. “S’pose your patron didn’t even tell you where my name comes from.”

“Paragon Branka,” Wynne answers, and Oghren stops with the drink halfway to his mouth as she goes on. “Transformed the upper level of Orzammar from a dark and smoky area for secret meetings back into the glorious metropolis we see today, with her introduction of techniques to clean the air and her remarkably successful campaign to improve maintenance of lighting apparatus. The only living dwarf to be considered among the ranks of the Paragons.”

“Doesn’t mention that it turned the lower reaches of the city from somewhere that’d turn a silver mirror black in two hours into somewhere you might actually want to live.” Oghren takes a long gulp of wine. “Or that the Paragon Branka is an abrasive lady with a chip on her shoulder, a voice that could cut hardened steel, and the Stone’s own saviour complex. Only she could make the darkness into light. Absolute firebrand. Give ’em the other half of the tale, human.”

She nods. “She and her – well, I was told her entire household – left Orzammar three days after the first stirrings of a a Blight were announced. Not a word to a soul that they didn’t take with them.”

“But a Paragon cannot be declared dead without sight of the body or the consent of the next of kin.” Oghren scowls. “And I’m next of kin. Husband. Ex-husband, she’d say, but the king wouldn’t grant her a separation: not like she’s got a man to replace me, she’s, uh, not really the kind. If she’s declared dead, Bhelen’s votes are enough to get him elected. But if I go to do that, the Regent grants me full separation from House Branka, seeing as I’m trying to get her declared dead and all, and it’s suddenly illegal for me to do things like live in my own home or spend money I earned.”

“Couldn’t you just vote for Bhelen yourself?”

“Not enough to swing it.” He leans on the table. “But you miss my point, I think. I know where Branka went. And what you’re going to do for me, for Bhelen, for House Branka and for yourselves? Is to come out with me and drag her back.”

*

We finish our drinks companionably and tell Oghren we’re going to go fact-checking, and he doesn’t seem offended – he seems the most put out by the prospective loss of Leliana’s company, which is promptly solved by her discovery that she’s not actually currently too hot at the whole standing-up thing. He looks down at her a little sadly and says he’ll see us tomorrow.

In a contest between being carried by Alistair or propped up by me, apparently she prefers the former – and this is absolutely fine. Look at that. No problem with the big man carrying a beautiful human woman in his arms like that, curled against him almost childishly –

About thirty yards down the street, of course, we hear her slightly amused and perfectly steady voice: “Nice as this is, Alistair, you can put me down now if you would like.”

So Morrigan titters and Alistair blushes and puts her down carefully and I’m fine with this behaviour.

“Apologies for deceiving you,” she’s saying, a little flushed still but quite steady. “I thought it would be better to ‘ave ‘im off guard.”

I purse my lips. “We were right, then.”

“We were. The other tavern, the places you ‘ave not visited; the things that were missing were the nobles and the criminals.”

“How would they have got rid of Oghren, I wonder?”

She shrugs. “A man who is already drinking alone in a tavern at midday is a man who gets thrown out of a lot of taverns, I should suppose. They would not dare injure ‘im badly, of course.”

I look around our little group. “Can we trust him?”

No dissenting voices. Leliana nods. “Oghren is a self-interested little toad. The calculation for ‘im about our patron is not if the man is the right leader, or a good person, but if the man will win. ‘E is talking not about rescuing a woman ‘e cares about but about finding the key to continuing to enjoy life as a noble and returning that key to the place of safety where she was supposed to be staying.” She frowns. “Also ‘e is willing to take advantage of the drunkenness of an innocent stranger. This man would not be my first choice of friends, but the competition is not strong.”

“All right. Wynne, the Shapers you were talking to yesterday should be able to check some basic facts of his. The rest of us get ready to set out as if he’s telling the truth, and give the man in charge a chance to make this look like his idea. Assuming we were actually talking to a down-on-his-luck noble and not a drunken fool, we’re heading for the Deep Roads tomorrow.”

*

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