Alternative Origins Chapter Seventeen

by artrald

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(Bug acknowledged. Fix unlikely.)

*

The great golem who’s answering to the name of one of the ancient heroes of the dwarves looks down at me with a tilt to his head that’s almost certainly amusement. “You know,” he says in a voice that’s like the rumble of a far-off storm, “I was beginning to think that you’d never catch on. They teach the young folks nothing these days?”

I shrug. “Afraid magic statues weren’t on the list of things you had to know, where I grew up. But, uh. You deliberately started the fight?”

“After telling you how to win it, yes.” He looks down his carven nose at Zevran. “You’re awful slow for a Warden, young man. I’ve seen one wearing those colours draw and loose in the time it took for a man’s blade to clear his scabbard.” A pause that’s probably in place of a sigh. “But I suppose you’re symptomatic of everything else in this world.”

“We did well enough, yeah?” I cut in to Zevran’s defence. “You couldn’t just have kept silence, if you thought we were there to kill her?”

The golem shakes his massive head. “Don’t think you get me, topsider. I could have done a lot of things. Just as you could have walked away and left me and mine in servitude to a sandpaper-hearted nughumper who claimed a title whose boots she ain’t fit to lick. Unless, say, somebody started a fight. But let’s say that she wasn’t – careful enough with her orders.” He turns his head to look at me. “I reckon she wasn’t expecting visitors.”

“I was the only one who knew where she was.” Oghren looks down at the shattered corpse of his ex-wife, his expression unreadable. “And they’re only here because without a king in Assembly, they don’t get the dwarven army to help them in their war. Her death…” He takes a deep breath, then turns abruptly away from the corpse. “It suits us fine.”

“Uh-huh.” Caridin’s eyes glint a little dangerously as he swings his massive head around to look at me again. “War. It’s always war, with you people.”

“Love to be done with that, myself.” I return the gaze flatly. “There’s a Blight on, Caridin, and we need the best. But apparently your people can’t keep their word without someone to tell ’em to do it, and that puts us right here.”

“And now here comes the question.” He extends a massive finger, nearly thick around as my wrist, and points at the onyx rod I’m dangling on its broken chain. “With that in your pretty little hands, Warden, you’ve got yourself the best. A personal death squad of thirteen pissed-off, hardened, literally stone-cold killers. And there’s only one drawback, and do I need to tell you what it is in words?”

I hold up the rod using the chain, not letting my skin touch it. I can practically feel the golems staring. “And it’s really built into you to obey any order given with one of these?”

The golem’s voice is dangerously quiet. “To the letter, Warden.”

“Right, then.” I take the rod in both hands and the echo of my voice goes flat and I see every golem in the room, all thirteen of them, flinch. And I put all the strength in my arms to the task of snapping this thumb-thick rod of stone and for a moment it creaks and then it splinters like a dry stick. I make a satisfied little noise, as well I might for breaking something so tough, and the sound of my voice is flat no longer, and so I offer the broken halves of the thing to Caridin. “Not fond of chains, myself.”

He takes just the one. Looks at it for a moment in his hand, then back at me, and he says, “You know, you probably shouldn’t have done that. You realise that you’re the only living people who know where our door is. Is your ’cause’ not more important to you than mine?”

I shake my head. “Think that way and we end up triumphantly saving a blasted heap of rubble on fire. There’s only one sort of evil.”

He makes a dismissive sound. “I suppose it does look like that, when you’re young. So – what now? You just return to Orzammar with Branka’s body, forget what you saw here? Perhaps you’ll demand a payoff, or something? Or maybe you’ll try and parlay our gratitude into doing what you’d have ordered us to do anyhow, but now with a fine, polished, ethical sheen to show your commander? Let me make one thing straight for the record.” He leans forward to stare at me and the sudden instinct to look down, to back away, returns like a shock of cold water down the spine. “I. Am. Not. Going. Back.”

Deep breath to steady me. He’ll have seen me clench my fist to stop it shaking. “No payoff. And for your record? I am the commander.” I look over at Oghren. “We’re neutral, the Wardens, and that means something to me if to nobody else. What you and the dwarven people owe or don’t owe one another is no business of ours, so long as the dwarves come through on their bargain – and frankly, if they don’t, we’re fucked regardless of how many golems I coerced to follow me.  You want our silence, Caridin, you have it.”

“I do, at that.” The words are a threat. I look at him as if to say, really? And I look up at him and he looks down at me for a good long tense moment. Then he shakes his head. “I do. Happens I’ve met your type before. Elves, I mean. Was a time, they had a way of telling someone when they were serious about a thing they said. Or do they not do that any more?”

I nod. “We do. Ma nuvennen; ma’dith da. I give my word; let those who walk with me be bound by it. Neither shall we speak nor write of this place, nor shall we bring any person here, nor ourselves return.” (I don’t need to turn to see Morrigan grit her teeth at that one.)

“And what of Hespith? Branka’s little ‘assistant’?” Caridin nods to the woman, collapsed against the far wall – Wynne’s spell might be sustaining her life, but nobody ever said anything about standing up to this sort of stress.

“Oghren?”

He fixes her with a beady eye. “D’you want to keep up your pretense of not interfering in dwarf politics?”

“Why d’you ask?”

“Because she’s a dead woman unless I’ve got a damn good reason why not. The one person who can give my story the lie? The one person who can reveal Caridin’s secret? The one person in our party going home who you can’t trust as far as you can throw her?” He snorts. “She talks, I’m ruined, Orzammar doesn’t get its king, Caridin gets this place invaded by the whole damn army, and that’s assuming they can’t reconstruct the command rod from Branka’s workshop back home.”

Caridin nods. I’m opening my mouth to respond when the big golem stoops quickly and picks up the hammer from where Branka dropped it. It looks like a toy in his hand. He draws back a hand to throw it, and I just about have time to cry “No!” –

And the hammer goes across the room and the sound of it striking Hespith’s forehead leaves no doubt as to the outcome of that. “Just so we are straight with one another.” He turns to face me again. “That is the value I place on mortal life compared to my secrets. And the only reason, the only reason I am not doing the same to you right now is that I think your ability to keep your sworn word is greater than my ability to kill you before your mages bring the ceiling down, and digging myself out of the wreckage of a destroyed thaig would take me centuries I do not wish to spend so. Now leave, mortals. Leave before we change our minds.”

*

“You’re actually going to do it, aren’t you.” Oghren manages at least to keep his peace until we’re out of the thaig itself, carrying Branka’s body over his shoulder without apparent effort. “You’re gonna walk right back to Orzammar and sit on the greatest sodding discovery of our time? Screw Branka – if I walk back in there with the location of that door, they’ll make me a Paragon.”

I keep my expression level. “I seem to recall you saying that the golems were all volunteers. That of course they were, because they were free-willed and unstoppable.”

“Uh-huh, and they’ve got damn good hearing. D’you know what would happen if the Legions’ golems found out that plans for the control rod had been found? What it would do to our defences?”

“Oghren.” Still my voice is level.

“Kallian.”

“You lied.”

“Every word was true, far as-” He sees my expression and that I’m not alone in my opinion of evasiveness right now – “Yeah, I did. Good cause, but I did.”

“Right. But as any of us will tell you, this is how we do things. I hate lies. I hate deception, I hate confidence tricks and all that horseshit. We use ’em if we must, but between ourselves we are honest, and when we’re out of earshot we settle up. And in that spirit – if you hear me talking elvish, you hear me speaking truth. It’s what it’s for.”

He’s getting that stubborn expression on his face. “But you saw what they were making back there, yeah? They were making a new golem. The secret of their creation has been lost for how long, and you expect me to just lock that away-”

“Name three nobles you’d trust with the knowledge, Oghren. With the power to make their cronies – hell, their enemies – into that. Name one single person you’d trust with that control rod.”

Silence.

“Made yer point.” He sighs. “Fine sodding pass we’ve come to, ain’t it. Find something that could make us great again, somethin’ that could set us all personally for life, create more nigh-invulnerable heroes, make the world genuinely a better place, and as you say, there’s nobody you’d trust with the keys. Because we’re all a bunch of bastards.” He’s silent a moment. “Can’t exactly blame Caridin for leaving.”

“Did you know? That he was likely to be there?”

He shakes his head. “Nobody even knows he underwent his own procedure. No official grave, of course, but it’s the rare Paragon where you can point to one. We say nothing, nothing is said.” He shifts the burden on his shoulder a little. “Branka went out into the dark and found only death.”

“And you’re all right with that?” I say the words carefully. Compassion aside – with Branka dead, we need this man. The dwarven crown really will hang on his word.

“With her death?” He shrugs with the shoulder that isn’t carrying her body. “Why wouldn’t I be? Marriage is a business arrangement in the first place. No prospect of true-born heirs, no legitimate house, no matter what shape of person you prefer to find in your bed. And then, well, she’s dead of her own evil and stupidity and suddenly House Branka is me. Suppose I’ll have six months to find me a new wife.”

Damn, these people are cold. It’s not just Bhelen and Branka. It’s the whole bloody lot of them. “And so it’s your vote that turns it.”

“Mm-hmm.” Crooked smile. “Provided I vote for Bhelen or for Harrowmont; I can’t make myself king or anything useful like that. So where do I put it?”

Blink. “You don’t care?”

“The regent was put there because he doesn’t believe in doing things; meanwhile, like you say, Bhelen’s a man who believes that he should be doing the things, so strongly that he had his father and his brother killed. Harrowmont is likely to pretend that you don’t exist at all if he becomes king – I could put your case to him, I reckon, and he’d probably even listen. But Lord Bhelen is expecting to owe you big, or did you think that he’s being open-handed because he liked your pretty green eyes?” He purses his lips. “I think Bhelen is going to ‘do you a favour’ by downright ordering a veteran legion to fight for you, and let his enemies take the fall for saying that those heroes should be disowned for doing their damn jobs.”

“We’ve got a problem with Bhelen, though.”

“Right. He’s got a cause. A cause he’d sell out anythin’ for. A cause his father must’ve got in the way of, so he had to die. Man like that, how are you ever gonna trust him?”

I nod. Glance at Alistair. “But as you said, King Bhelen can’t exactly start his reign by going back on his given word, while King Harrowmont is as unsure a thing as they come. Have you any idea what it is? What we’d be unleashing on the dwarven people, beyond a heartless bastard of a king?”

“Ask him.” His tone is matter-of-fact. “What’s he gonna do, get all offended? I think you need one another. Your options without giving him what he wants look nearly as bad as his options without giving you what you want.”

“And you genuinely don’t care who wins?”

“My opinion ain’t so far from Caridin’s, ya know? They’re all as bad as one another. If I don’t lump the body of my poor crazy dead wife back to show them, then the Regent abuses the law to kick me out on the street. If I do? I’m suddenly the most eligible catch in Orzammar, for all I’m a jumped-up disagreeable old gold-digger. If I vote for Bhelen, I’ve gotta keep playing the game, hope that a king’s generosity buys a strong enough backplate for the daggers of just under half the Assembly. If I vote for Harrowmont, then I’ve gotta hope that Bhelen’s party implodes before he can take me down with him. The more I have to do with it, the more I’m just sick of the whole damn lot.”

*

The trick, said Oghren, is to move fast, and so we did. The way we came back, the way we sent ahead to ask for an audience at once, the way we were carrying a body wrapped in a cloak, it’s no wonder we got one. Him, his bodyguards, Oghren and us, the omnipresent servants and a closed soundproofed door.

The prince’s shock of surprise and sorrow is just as good a mask as any other strong emotion I’ve yet seen from the man. The tale on our end is short and to the point; Oghren’s part of it is a bare-facedly straightforward demand for a kickback, for ratification of him as head of House Branka, and the speed with which Bhelen agrees has me wondering if he shouldn’t have held out for more – and, well, turns out that was an opening exchange. The second thing Oghren wants is the answer to a question, something he wants us to hear, something he wouldn’t mind knowing himself.

And Bhelen pauses a moment, and raises his eyebrows, and he looks straight at me and Alistair, and the prince’s smile is absolutely unreadable. “Your demand is simply to know a thing of me? You’d truly withhold your support for me over a simple matter of a question?”

“You know?” I don’t look away. “We would. I’ve heard things about you, things we don’t like to hear, and don’t tell us you don’t know what. I don’t want to waste breath talking about ’em. But there’s a thing I do want to know – and yes. If I am to support you, if I could’ve stopped you and didn’t, then for honour’s sake if nothing else I want to know this. I want you to explain yourself. A lot of people I’ve met want power for itself, but you – you want to use it. And my question is – for what? What is your cause, Lord Bhelen?”

There’s a moment, and then he nods, expressionless. “You’re Duncan’s, all right.” A sigh. “You won’t understand. But I will try. Whatever you may have heard, I do keep my given word.” He glances at the servants, standing attentive at the walls. “It starts with shame. Orzammar’s main trade with the surface, a child knows it, is lyrium, the bones of the earth. The pure stuff is worth three times its weight in gold, here, or eight times in Orlais; it is the most valuable ore there is, prized even over most gems; it is the source of fully a fifth of the wealth of our city, my friends, a fifth. And yet those who mine it are called waste extractors; it is kept out of sight and not mentioned; to admit that the lyrium trade is the single most valuable thing we do is to invite ridicule at best.”

“So far, so fine, lyrium makes people irrational, it’s known, one case doesn’t make a rule and all, expediency and so on, what else is there – do you know our city’s second profession, the second largest item on my list? Why, it’s ‘art’. Very particular art, at that – ‘speculative art’, the art of making – well. I believe that a few particularly fine pieces of that artwork are being modelled by the lovely human here: how’d you find them, ma’am? Feel artistic, do you?”

“Always.” Leliana doesn’t smile at her own joke.

“But of course. D’you know how much the art trade makes us – the art trade and its counterpart, so laughably and creatively called ‘raiding’, which fills our plates with the fruits of lands that in the next breath we dismiss as barren? A tithe, I say, a tenth part or more: between the one thing and the other nearly one full third of the wealth of this city comes from trade, and yet we vilify our traders, we look down upon them, we deceive ourselves that the surface is a desolate wasteland populated by mere outcasts and wanderers and scavengers!”

Bhelen’s anger is a bright thing and sharp, it is a thing far removed from the false emotion he shows the world. “I am shamed almost beyond bearing, that the source, the very foundation of the wealth of the noble houses and the heart of our prosperity is ignored, it is denigrated, and if we are caught at it, why, what are we but criminals! To use the proper words – by which I mean, the words in our books of account? Orzammar is a nation of trash collectors, waste recyclers and dilettantes, of exiles and brigands, highwaymen and airheaded do-nothing dreamers! Our blades, our shields are wrought of garbage! Our greatest works, entirely without function! Our principal export is mining spoil! And so far, I suppose, it is merely a matter of shame. But it is not just shame.”

“We punish those who do not know their place, you know. To step outside it is to become dispossessed. Casteless, without support, your only permitted profession to search through the genuine trash of the city for the scraps we did not leave there on purpose for our traders to find. Every servant of mine, every bodyguard, every client of mine – every one of them is someone who was dispossessed, physically put out of their home and their trade by this idiocy. Yes, I have connections among the Casteless, I freely admit it.” He takes a deep breath. “Because in this city, the only honest people are those we brand criminals. You wished to know me?” Spreads his hands. “You do, now. The throne is just a place to stand. The Blight is just a lever. And with the two, I will lever this nest of lies apart and I will make us honest, I will stop this vainglorious waste of people and of potential if it takes my last breath.”

And there’s this moment of quiet, and Alistair looks at the prince and then I catch the glance at me, not that I care, and I can see it on his face. It’s not enough. Of course it’s not enough, nothing would be. Would we accept that sort of a justification for Loghain’s actions, his expression says, and – gah. Alistair is right, but it’s not the sort of right we can do anything about. I bow my head to Bhelen, not taking my eyes from him at all.

“And I thank you for your trust, Lord Aeducan.” The fair words don’t taste so sweet on my lips. “Oghren, are we satisfied?”

The old sot clears his throat. “Hell, why not?”

“Then we get on with this.” Wry glance at the rest of my people. “I don’t know about any of you, but it’s over long since I saw the sun.”

*

And it’s all awfully fast, when it does happen. The meeting of the Assembly that evening takes less than a turn of the glass; the vote is unanimous, because every deshyr present is capable of adding up just as well as Bhelen is; the coronation is the next morning, and I swear there’s more ceremony at the investiture of a minor human noble than there is at the swearing-in of a king of the dwarves.

At which point, the man basically can’t get rid of us fast enough. He’s not ungrateful – but whether or not I agree with his evident assessment that we’re in danger every moment we stay in the city, I’d have to be blind not to notice that he has no conception of us spending a moment there that we don’t have to.

We leave that very same day, in company of a group of well-armoured dwarves who Leliana quietly notes to me as friends of Bhelen’s from that party of his we attended; the army will follow when they know where to send it, because you don’t march thousands of soldiers to a place without knowing for damned sure where they’re going and what they’re doing when they get there, but as we leave the gates of Orzammar and feel the very welcome light of the sun on our faces, it’s quickly clear that this isn’t just a scouting party.

It’s a supply mission. Not the hurried, heavily defended wagons of the lyrium shipments, not the furtive scurrying of the traditional traders, but an open shipment, wheeled wagons pulled by uncomplaining dwarves: arms and armour, Bhelen’s vaults opened to make a gesture that’s very much more than symbolic, dwarven blades to drink darkspawn blood. Leliana gives the corner of a smile and says that she’s got a good idea of the originally intended destination of those: they might as well go to fight the darkspawn as to adorn the chevaliers of Orlais.

And Oghren, as it turns out, he’s coming with us. News to all of us, that, although Wynne nods wisely and Zevran’s just as clearly unsurprised; Bhelen named him ambassador, apparently, and the dwarf’s quite clear that fighting the darkspawn holds no terrors for him compared to the danger of spending another night in that city after being the man who broke the deadlock of the Assembly.

*

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