Alternative Origins Chapter Thirty

by artrald

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*

“Kallian?” Alistair sees my expression and frowns.

“Fuck shems.” I pretty much carry right on past him. This corridor is wide enough for two. “Fuck ’em.”

“Uh, if you insist. Any particular ones? Should I make a list?”

I stop dead, turn to face him. Damn them, they’ve got him in the Theirin colours, cream and gold. Is he not still my knight? (Even those noble clothes can’t hide the power in his shoulders, his chest.) “Alistair, this is one of those times where I ask you if you really have no idea what’s going on.”

“The ones where I can’t answer either yes, because you’d shout at me – or no, because you’d actually hit me – or I-don’t-know, because that doesn’t make any damned sense?” Disarming smile.

I try and cling to what I was thinking. “Let me give you a hint. D’you know what the word ‘alliance’ means where I grew up?”

“…That it’s time to stop fighting the wrong people and start fighting the right ones?”

“Right.” I show him some teeth. “So did you not maybe think that you might have given me just a little warning before just sort-of dumping on me that perhaps that wasn’t what Anora meant -”

“Dumping on you?” His eyebrows shoot up. “How much warning d’you think I got? They hammered it out while we were off talking to Riordan. I pretty much heard it at the same time you did.”

“No, Alistair.” His eyes are so blue. “No you didn’t. Y’see, she said ‘alliance’ and I saw a shake of hands and an agreement to let the blades lie till we weren’t all about to die of something else – but – but you saw -”

The smile is getting faker and faker. “Yeah. Save the kingdom. Take my allegedly rightful place in the big shiny chair. Get the girl.” He opens his mouth to say something else but not a thing comes out.

I nod. “Anora told me, in the end. May you have many fat children.” I didn’t mean for that to sound quite so bitter, but the words are gone now. I turn my back on him –

“Kallian, please.” He closes the distance between us and puts his left hand on my left shoulder and I freeze.

I do grab his wrist with my right hand, but I don’t take it off me despite my mouth going dry and my heart suddenly catching up with me and I’m sure he must’ve felt me shiver. I don’t turn to face him, just turn my head down and to the side. I open my mouth – make it as far as “Alistair.” Something stole all the weight out of my voice.

“You know how much I hate this.”

“Aye.” I have hold of his wrist. It might be – it could be that it’s there so I can tighten my fingers and twist and get rid of his hand on me. “You know that I hate it, too?” All right, fine. I’m holding on. I’m holding on to him in case he goes away.

“I -” He swallows. “You mean that. What am I saying, course you mean it, that is, you-”

“Shouldn’t.” I tighten my hand on his wrist. My pulse is loud enough he ought to be able to hear it. “I don’t have a right to talk. I mean, I’m part of all this, aren’t I. I’ve done you my fair bloody share.”

“It’s not like I’ve exactly been a model of rationality. When you yelled at me back in Orzammar, you were right and I was wrong and that’s how it was.”

“But if the world worked the way it ought to

His voice is a little rough. “Maybe you just said a few words that went a way toward changing that.”

“The way it really ought to?” I shake my head a little. “I’m the commander, Alistair. I’m not supposed to give two shits how you feel. And if I weren’t the commander, I’d still be a tavern jill and you’d still be-”

And he puts a hand on my waist. That single little tentative touch is a spark onto dry tinder – I’m honestly not sure how I’m still on my feet – I draw a sharp breath and he takes his hand away again. “I’m sorry,” he says.

“All right, look,” I say. The fire inside me doesn’t go away just because he took the spark away. “All else aside. You touch me again? I can’t be held responsible.”

There’s a pause. He takes a long breath in and out. “And if I could find it in myself to live with that?”

“You know what she said to me?” I close my eyes. “Anora. She took me off to one side to quietly give us permission to – to – betray her. And you know what I did?”

“Tell me.”

“I hit her?” Thinking of that instant, it seems to make me calm down. To give me a way out that doesn’t involve doing what I so desperately want to. “Because you’d never do that. Because you’re better than that.”

“Yeah?” His voice is still less than even. “Maybe. Maybe I am that much of a man.” He squeezes my shoulder very gently and I wouldn’t be surprised if there was actual smoke coming up around his hand. “If there were nothing else in the world, just you and me and no expectations or duties or anything? If the world worked as it should? If none of it mattered? I want you to know that I would-” don’t you say it, don’t you dare – “Uh. I would have taken most of forever getting around to admitting it and I would have done every single possible thing wrong but one, but, but that one thing would be to love you. First, and, and last, and dearest, from the moment you met my eyes and wouldn’t look away.”

Oh, hell.

I twist around with those words, end up with his hand between us held in both of mine, meet his eyes and let them steal my breath entirely away. “I think that you’d not have come away empty-handed, I, I think that if we play our cards wrong right here, we’ll end up doing something we’ll both regret.”

He moistens his dry lips and I want to have that tunic off him right here. “I think you’re right.”

“So this is, uh, this is sort of the point at which I drop your hand and then we both back away slowly?”

“Yes. Absolutely.” He nods jerkily. And I’m sure he’s opening his mouth to say something else, and he’s looking into my eyes and I’m just kind of stuck there –

“Ah! Kallian. Alistair.” Morrigan’s voice and I drop his hand like it was on fire and he takes a half step back out of my personal space, maybe she didn’t see – “Just the people I – was -” She stops herself dead a moment and looks us over and goes about the same colour I just went. “Oh.”

“We were just-” I recover first by a hairsbreadth, look round at her –

“That is to say, I was-” Alistair talks over me and it’s like our words get tangled and come to a crashing halt.

“I can come back later, much later.” She’s already taking a step backward. “It isn’t urgent.”

“No, it’s all right.” I force myself to turn my back on Alistair. “What did you need us for?”

“A – a tiny favour. Very small. Literally a moment.” She’s still looking at the two of us with something between embarrassment and fascination. Wipes that expression off her face. “Can I have some blood?”

Alistair and I look at one another. I can almost hear the words he’s not saying. His face is too straight. I avoid his eyes quickly or I’ll start giggling.

Morrigan frowns abruptly. “I’m sure there is no call for you to laugh at me. All I need is a drop of blood from one of you, for a divination. It could be important.”

I look back at her. “You’ll have that from me, then. Alistair’s is a bit blue. And he was just leaving.”

*

The rest of the day passes in little more than preparation. We’re all of us on guard in case Loghain decides to do something unwise, but nothing comes of it – returning his daughter to the protection of the Chantry the moment we politely could has headed off his most likely case for action, but a man like that isn’t the type to sit back and let us come to him. Nevertheless, nothing much happens.

Suppose that it could be that he’s trying to hold his people together. Affairs of state or whatever you’d call it. Talking to people and reassuring them that he is still in charge. Dealing with everything that’s still so-to-speak on fire after Howe’s death. We can’t be that lucky. As I said, nothing seems to come of it. We’ll see.

They’re making a prince out of Alistair and he hates every minute of it – I only hope that maybe it’s not so bad now he knows I – what am I saying – I bite the inside of my cheek and move on. But following the man’s trail around like a shadow, it’d be, what’s the word. Unhealthy. I spend some time talking strategy with Riordan – he’s still arguing that we split up, and I say that in that case I go with Alistair, who’s got to be with the army, and so that’s done.

With Leliana I go over the protocol for duels at court. I’ve stopped being surprised when she knows things. Words are one thing, but a physical blow may not go unanswered: if Alistair or I call him out in words he might well sneer and refuse. A challenge given with words, the terms of it are agreed in words; a challenge given with a blow is always to surrender or death, and you can arm and armour yourself however you want. In short, Alistair should be prepared to hit him, and I should be prepared for Loghain to slap me and I mustn’t respond instantly with a knife.

Morrigan and Wynne are cloistered in a room with a footman posted outside; he explains worriedly that the enchanter said nobody was to go in on pain of seeing something they shouldn’t. I can hear muffled voices inside discussing something, but knowing Wynne, those will be illusions. Bah. Doubtless we’ll hear soon enough if it’s something we need to know.

Oghren and Eamon spend much of the day putting the final touches on everything, but the dwarf takes me aside after dinner; he says gruffly that he’d heard elves were all about the same size but he remembered I was only an inch or two shorter than he is, and he had something for me, should’ve given it me yesterday but there was a bit of a last-minute problem, and he takes me to the armoury.

First sight it’s a coat of armour they’ve got me, and I nearly turn to him and tell him I’ve never worn mail in my life and is this really the time to learn, but then I see it a little closer. What it is is a padded jack in Warden grey, a little heavier than the gambeson I’ve been wearing, and a proper set of chains for it in blackened steel: shoulder and elbow plates and vambraces all connected with these strips of metal, like all the important bits of a set of armour, the kind of thing you’d see a guardsman wearing, but it’s all sized for me. He apologises that it’s not enchanted, to lighten it, and I shrug; the weight is unaccustomed, but it’s not uncomfortable. I can wear this to court and the only thing I’ll be is a little over warm. And the other thing –

You’re not telling me I’ll seriously have to – fine. Okay.

Wouldn’t have thought it, but I must say that I do look good in this cloak. Not that I’d ever want to fight in it, but in this and all the rest I’m going to look like something that walked straight out of a tavern tale. Say what you like, but this man knows his stuff. A symbol, they want? Then that is what I will-

Haircut?

*

They eventually call a halt to their discussion well after moonrise. They’d had their food sent up, rather than leave this; it sits there cold and uneaten. Gratifying, Morrigan thinks, that the issue that she thought she’d recognised wasn’t dismissed immediately by the enchanter; worrying, though, that between the two of them in six hours’ hard work they haven’t come up with an outcome that doesn’t make her feel sick inside.

Wynne recommends not raising any of this until after the Landsmeet. Tomorrow the Wardens are going to be playing at being great nobles, successfully selling to the realm’s assembled court the concept that killing one another while standing right in front of an existential threat might possibly be a bad plan; tomorrow they are walking into the lair of the one who had their master killed and effectively inviting him to throw down with them. They aren’t going to have time to hear their ideas or answer their questions, not until after.

You wonder why no mage ever did this sort of thing before. But, of course, that’s the thing: it’d have been a Warden mage. And the Wardens – because they know, every last one of them has seen, that to join their order is a death sentence, they don’t recruit the best and the brightest. They recruit the broken and the dispossessed, the ones with nowhere to go but up, the criminals, the desperate. And a mage in such a situation, who hasn’t already taken another, worse offerlet’s just say they are unlikely to be a talent of the first water. It’s entirely possible that Wynne is the first genuinely talented academic mage ever to have seen what they’ve seen. And of course, it’s really exceptionally likely that no other mage trained by Flemeth of the Long Years has ever been trusted by the Grey Wardens.

And so the young witch sits and stares at the triangle of needles hanging on their black cotton threads at right-angles to what people usually think of as ‘down’, pointing towards the centre of a careful many-angled diagram of ink on the surface of the mirror in her room, and she rubs her eyes and she tries to fit the whole thing into her head at once and come out with a price that someone will be prepared to pay.

*

Enemy territory. That’s what this is.

I just really cannot shake the way this feels so much like we’re going forth to battle. The stakes are similar. Only the body-count will be lower. What was it Eamon said, war is diplomacy by other means? This feels like war by other means. We’re even dressed and armed for war, or near enough.

We arrive separately from Eamon. I’m not his vassal and I don’t need to look like I am – the nobles have been talked into letting Alistair and me make a statement of our own by having him arrive at my side in the way you’d normally expect from a subordinate. My dignity is very firmly on. The cloak, the armour, they make it easier.

So, predictably enough, the problems start before we even enter the hall proper. We’re met by a very tall shem woman, nearly as tall as Alistair she is, in Gwalen colours and the full armour that marks her as a wealthy knight; she gives us a salute as is proper. “Cauthrien nic Mhael, bann of Haivren. We’ve not met.”

“Kallian Dener of the Wardens.” I return her salute; Alistair does likewise; Oghren, on the other side of me, bows. “In case you were the one person in this place who hasn’t heard of me yet. Something for you, sera?”

“Yes. There is.” She nods stiffly. “You have spoken concerning a man who you do not know. You have spoken untruths and unkindnesses; I’d have expected better from an elf, from a knight, from any Chant-singing woman. You accuse the saviour of the kingdom of treason; you accuse the flower of Fereldan chivalry of treachery and complicity in treachery; you accuse the bravest man I have ever seen of cowardice. I was at Ostagar. And you are mistaken.” Her expression is as hard as steel. “You’ll take your words back, and with them the challenge to him that you spoke in Bann Teagan’s court.”

I meet her gaze unflinchingly. “I’ll discuss my words before the Landsmeet, sera, and my challenge. I was also at Ostagar; I looked for you there, and for your warriors, to come to our aid as you’d agreed, and I did not see them.” I see her grit her teeth: that one struck home. “And as for my challenge to your liege and lord. Though he did not wield the blade, his were the words that killed many of my brothers and sisters of the Wardens, and half a thousand men whose only crime was to stand beside their king. He very nearly killed any chance that this kingdom has of-”

She goes very pale and puts her hand to her sword. “By Andraste, woman, you’ll shut your lying mouth or I’ll meet you here and now.” And she said that loud enough that all other talk here in the antechamber has stopped. People are backing away. I’m suddenly struck with the comparison to a drunkard loudly proclaiming in the middle of the taproom that another shem has spilled his drink.

“Sera.” My voice is as cold and as unyielding as clear ice. “I shall speak before the Landsmeet and allow the great and the good of the kingdom to decide such things for themselves. And as for what’s between you and me: I’m no liar. Don’t make a quarrel where there’s none. Before this is over, sera, we’ll need every knight.”

“You have challenged my lord. My teacher. My friend.” Her expression is the picture of Fereldan stubbornness. “While that stands, you and I, we need no further quarrel. While that stands, you shall not pass while I yet draw breath.”

Sigh. “Sera, the man who bore that challenge to the Regent’s ears. Did he mention the circumstances of our last meeting, on the road near Redcliffe?”

Narrows her eyes. “He spoke of how you mistreated him, yes.”

“He may have neglected to mention one or two things. Like the duel we fought and the quarter he refused when I trounced him; I was within my rights to have his head for the insult he did me, but all I did was break his wrist and splint it with the materials to hand. Like the question he never did answer for me, which is where a travelling knight-errant of Teyrn Loghain’s court got the money to hire the Antivan Crows to kill me and mine?”

She frowns. “Assassins. Foreign assassins.”

“Aye. I – bear the scars still. When I sent your teyrn my words, sera, I did so in the belief that he or one of his people had hired men to kill me.” Still looking her in the eyes. Hairs going up on the back of my neck, dammit. “The only reason that I think I could’ve been mistaken is that there have been no more of them.”

A muscle works in her jaw. “My lord may have been Maric’s keeper of secrets, but he does not stoop to hiring… foreigners. Sera, his concern with your order begins and ends with your undue influence upon the crown.” She inclines her head to Alistair. “It was Rendon Howe who saw Wardens in every shadow: if rumour is correct, he died vindicated.”

Thin smile. “If rumour is correct? That is because he built his own shadow and kept a Warden in it. And one day that shadow ate him. I assume that your loyalty does not extend to defending his memory.”

“Considering what was found in his house?” She shakes her head. “It had better not. Will you consider honour to be satisfied in that man’s death, and withdraw your challenge to my lord?”

I bite my lip. Everyone is listening. “Cauthrien, your loyalty is a credit to you and to the regent. I’ll not fight you. I’ll not walk into that room after Loghain’s blood. But I’ll not take back the words I’ve spoken to the Arl of Redcliffe, because they are true. And if any man or woman offers me insult within the chamber of the Landsmeet, I shall not choose dishonour for simple fear of you. These are my terms.”

There’s a moment when she just looks at me. Taking measure. Then she nods shortly. “May the Maker’s truth prevail.”

“Just so.” I bow my head to her. And in it is we go to take our seats.

*

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