A Paragon of her Kind, Part II

Aryn Cousland awakes to a familiar, much-missed sensation; the weight of Leliana's body draped licentiously across her. The bard is still sleeping, wrung out from their reunion and lacking the Grey Warden's powers of recuperation. The warrior lies still for a few moments, enjoying the peace and the warmth of Leliana's embrace, the closeness her instincts still process as natural even after a few months apart, but eventually, the reason for her waking becomes pressing. Reluctantly, she shifts from beneath her lover, throws on her smallclothes, shirt, and breeches, and ducks out into the pre-dawn gloom to relieve herself, pausing only to favour Rufus with a scratch on the way by.

The sharp chill of the mountain air has her shivering, and she seriously considers going back to the cosy cocoon of everknit wool and naked Orlesian temptress she has abandoned, but as the first rays of dawn stain the sky with rose and ochre, the scenery catches her breath, and she settles on the log closest to the fire pit to watch the sunrise. She throws some fresh wood on the fire, stirring the carefully banked embers and coaxing new flames to life, then huddles close to their sudden, welcome warmth.

No one else in the camp is awake; the only movement is the patrol of the sentries at the gate. Orzammar's guards are ever watchful, ever mindful of their duty. Aryn sets a kettle to boil as she watches the sun shoulder its way over the surrounding peaks, slowly flooding the valley with golden light, and when the water is hot enough, she fetches her pack and digs out some tea, preparing three leather mugs with the strong, bitter brew. So prepared, she wanders over to the gate bearing her gifts. "Atrast vala," she greets the senior of the pair as he approaches her. "It's a cold morning. Can I offer a little warmth?"

The sentry smiles as he recognises her; he's the same man who first permitted them entry to Orzammar during the Blight. "Atrast vala, Warden," he replies with a salute. "That's mighty kind of you. I hate the sodding winter out here." He takes two of the mugs and beckons his partner, passing one to her as she closes. "Gift from the warden to ward off the chill."

The dwarf woman nods appreciatively. "Ancestors' blessings, Warden, thank you."

"My pleasure." Aryn looks around as the woman moves away again. "Seems pretty quiet."

"Aye," the sentry replies. "Not many have the appetite to brave the Frostbacks at this time of year. The merchant's pickings will be lean in the next few months." He cocks an inquisitive eyebrow. "Your two human colleagues arrived last week." His expression becomes curious. "What brings so many Wardens this way?"

"Coincidence. Recruitment, a little scouting, and a farewell," Aryn answers grimly, sipping at her mug. "If you saw the others last week, you know what awaits my brother."

"Aye." The dwarf nods. "He had the look. Poor bastard. The girl with him, though, she didn't have the look."

"She's a mage," Aryn supplies. "She volunteered to travel with him." Stephan had initially refused any company, but when it became apparent he was sinking fast and would need help, he'd relented. Bethany had stepped forward before Aryn could even ask.

"I know how he feels, better than any of you," she'd said quietly. "I'm best placed to help him, and heal him as I can."

"A grim business," the dwarf rumbles, drawing Aryn back to the moment. "But better to die clean, in the end. And recruitment, you say?"

"Aye. I'm sure Bhelen has some troublemakers he'd like to be rid of."

The guard huffed a laugh. "That's the stone's own truth. The watch's cells are full to bursting, and there's a few heads in the Diamond Quarter that are getting perilous close to coming off."

"Not much support for his reforms from the Deshyrs, then?" Aryn asks casually, alert for any political gossip that might provide an advantage.

"Ah, you know how those contrary old bastards can be," the dwarf gruffed, "happy to take the surfacers' money, as long as it's never made public while they bleat about tradition and paragons and stone-sense. It's all so much nug-shit to you and me, Warden." He gestured to the scenery with his mug. "I wander out too far, and the sky makes me sick, but at least I can see that you surfacers have a beautiful world, and I admire those cloudgazers who go out and make something of it. Takes as much guts as a surfacer like you walking down into the Deep Roads, if you ask me. To leave behind everything you know like that."

"I never really thought of it like that," Aryn admits, "but I see your point." She took a pull from her mug. "Though there are some really, really big spiders in the Roads."

The dwarf chuckles. "Didn't think an archdemon-slaying hero like you was afraid of anything."

"There's a thin line between brave and stupid, friend," Aryn confides, "and most of the time I'm way over the divide into stupid."

The sentry nods equably. "That's how it usually works, Warden." He tips a nod to the camp. "Looks like your friends are starting to stir. You come on up when you're ready and I'll open up the gate for you."

"Thanks," Aryn says gratefully. "See you in a while, then." Nodding a farewell, she crosses the camp to their tents, where she finds Seeker Pentaghast feeding the fire. "Good morning, Seeker."

"Warden Commander," Cassandra replies, her cheeks colouring faintly.

"Did you sleep well?"

"Well enough," the Nevarran woman allows, her blush intensifying. Aryn sets the kettle back over the rejuvenated flames to reheat the water, and gestures to the cold pot of leftover stew.

"Hungry?"

Cassandra nods. "We have some flatbread and cheese we could share as well," she offers.

"Save it," Aryn advises. "There's plenty of stew, and it'll only go to waste otherwise. And you never know when you might need dry rations."

"True." Cassandra tilts her head to one side, considering, as she lifts the pot and sets it over the flames. "You've spent a lot of time in the field?"

"Too much," Aryn agrees wryly. "I seem to sleep in tents or under the stars as often as I do in a bed. I'm sure I have some permanent dents from some of the tree roots. Darkspawn are seldom found in civilised places." She huffs a chuckle. "Thankfully."

"I have never seen a darkspawn," Cassandra admits. "I do not know that I should care to."

"An unusually wise perspective. Too many fools think otherwise, that fighting darkspawn is no more dangerous than fighting men."

Cassandra smiles a sceptical smile. "I have met many Wardens in Orlais who say the same."

"And yet you doubt it?"

The Seeker shrugs. "I have heard equally many chevaliers say that the Wardens must say such things, must protect their myth at all costs, and that a darkspawn is no harder to kill than a warrior of any other species." She arches one raven-wing eyebrow. "How then am I to discern the truth? In all honesty, I imagine there is merit in both statements."

"Then might I offer you some insight?" Aryn enquires.

"I should be interested to hear your thoughts on the matter."

"You're right. There's truth in both of those statements. An individual hurlock or genlock is no harder to kill than a human warrior. Less so, in many respects, since they attack mindlessly with little regard for tactics or survival. The danger lies in the taint of their blood, their bodies, their very essence. If you take a wound and their blood infects it, you are condemned. If you are careless with a stroke and open an artery, if one scratches or bites you or spits in your face. If you handle a dead one carelessly. And once you are infected, there is no help save the mercy stroke." Aryn sighs pensively as she pokes at the stew. "A minor wound can be as fatal as a beheading. And that's just fighting the regular breeds. A shriek can move from shadow to shadow, gut a company of men single-handed before it's noticed. Ogres in a rampage can kill dozens. It's not a straightforward comparison."

"So how is it that a Warden may survive?"

"Our Joining ritual grants immunity to the taint." The stock response trips smoothly from Aryn's tongue these days, a well-developed reflex. "A reprieve from the inevitable corruption. It's not permanent—eventually, the debt must be paid in full—but while we are immune, we cannot be turned or sickened by the taint or a Blight."

"The debt must be paid?" Cassandra queries.

"All men die, Seeker," Aryn answers quietly. "The only unknowns are when, and of what." Her thoughts flit to Stephan: thirty-four years since the Joining, and the Calling has taken him hard and fast, as though making up for the longer span of life he has somehow wrangled from the Maker.

"True enough," Cassandra agrees. "I won't pry further. Warden, Templar, Seeker—each order has its own secrets and its own sacrifices." The Nevarran lifts the kettle from the fire and busies herself with the tea preparation for a moment, then glances up at the warden. "Leliana has never really spoken of you, you know."

"Though I sometimes think Leliana keeps secrets for fun, she does prefer people to form their opinion of her without the colour of her association with me," Aryn replies, choosing one of the questions implicit in the comment. She's been expecting this since she first saw the poleaxed look on the Seeker's face yesterday. "You knew she fought with me in the Blight, though?"

"Yes, of course, I have known that for years, but…" Cassandra cuts off, blushing again, "I did not realise your relationship was deeper than comradeship."

Aryn regards the other woman intently for a moment. Her intuition for these situations is not well honed, and likely it will be easier on everyone to simply air things out. "It is. I am her lover, and proud to be so. What's on your mind, Cassandra?"

Cassandra's flush deepens. "I don't wish to offend you."

"You're not going to offend me. Ask what you will." Aryn hunkers down to stir the stew, and accepts the refill of tea the Seeker hands her.

"All my life I have adhered to a code," Cassandra begins, almost hesitantly. "That honesty, no matter how painful, is always the best policy. I do not break my word, I do not lie, I do not flatter or deceive. I judge the character of those around me by the standards I set myself." She huffs a sigh. "I am not naïve, I understand that the world does not work in such a straightforward way, but it has served me well over the years."

"You want to know if you can trust Leliana?" Aryn cuts to the chase, sparing the Nevarran woman the admission. Cassandra nods.

"You have the heart of it. She is a bard, a spinner of deceits and treachery. How is it that you can place such faith in her intentions?"

Aryn chuckles. "I'm in love with her, and blinded to her myriad flaws by her sinful beauty and her honeyed tongue." She holds up a hand as the Seeker scowls and blushes at the same time. "Forgive me. It's not my intent to mock your concerns." Aryn looks down into the stew pot reflectively as she stirs the thick liquid. "Leliana is kind, compassionate, and good-hearted. She is a believer in causes, in right action, and a hopeless romantic, traits that are part and parcel of her deep and unyielding faith. She gives of herself, of her love, without hesitation, even though that generosity has cost her dear on more than one occasion." She looks back up, meets Cassandra's gaze. "Yes, she is a bard. Her weapons are words and shadow, and they can wreak untold harm. But she does not turn her weapons upon her allies, any more than a warrior would, save to impart a lesson or an example. You may rely upon her, as I do. You will not find her lacking. You have my word as a Cousland." Aryn rises to stand upright, sees the doubt lingering in the other woman's gaze, and deploys her final, irrefutable point. "Tell me, have you walked the Gauntlet, Seeker, in the Temple of Sacred Ashes? Have you been found worthy in the Maker's sight of approaching the mortal remains of his beloved Andraste?"

Cassandra nods, her expression lighting with an almost beatific reverence that transforms her severity to beauty. "I have. It was… beyond description."

"So has Leliana. If my word will not serve, will your Maker's?"

Cassandra's blush deepens. "You are right. I had forgotten that you and she made that discovery together, and I will insult neither you nor her any further. I am sorry, Commander."

"No need to apologise, Cassandra," Aryn waves the contrition away. "You don't know her very well, and you've clearly had bad experiences with bards and spies before."

"Her predecessor, Mother Evangeline, was a cold, ruthless woman. She used people, broke them, cast them into perdition for defying her. And she manipulated Beatrix a great deal, especially toward the end. It was… an unholy thing to witness."

Aryn nods slowly. Evangeline was likely manipulating the Divine on Dorothea's orders. It's a suspicion she will not disclose to Leliana—her love's one political blind spot is her loyalty to the new Divine—but Dorothea's campaign to win the Sunburst Throne was as subtle a playing of the Great Game as any Lord or Lady of the Empire could muster. More so than most, if Aryn's opinion counts for anything, and her discussions with Eamon and Isolde on the matter lead her to believe she's not too far from the mark. And tellingly, in the Warden Commander's world view, unlike her Hands, the new Divine has never attempted to pass the Gauntlet. She made the pilgrimage to the temple, publicly proclaimed the wonder, and had the Urn moved from its original resting place by someone of purer heart, set where any pilgrim might look upon it without fear of rejection. Maker forfend the Chantry leave the judging of souls to any authority other than their own narrow-minded dogma, even that authority before which they profess to bow.

Before she can reply to Cassandra's remark, Oghren stumps out of his tent, greeting the morning with an oath for the bright sunshine and a copious belch.

"You smell like a brewery," Aryn chides him mildly as Cassandra wrinkles her nose in disgust.

"Good," Oghren grunts. "I'm not setting foot in that pit of deepcrawlers sober."

"Fine," Aryn surrenders, "but that being the case you're also not going in there armed. Sigrun can keep your axe until we get to the proving grounds. I don't want you casually butchering half the younger sons of the Diamond Quarter because they looked at you funny."

"Spoilsport. Hey, do you think Shale might be around? She could help us knock some heads."

"Maybe." Aryn shrugs. "I haven't heard from her in a while." It's not unusual for the golem to go for a year or so without getting in touch—there's not a lot of writing material in the Roads. She hands Oghren the ladle. "Make yourself useful. Start dishing up breakfast while I go wake the songbird."

Aryn ducks back into her tent, crawling over to the bedroll, noticing the tell-tale curl of Leliana's coral lips. The bard is awake, and clearly has been for a while. "Enjoying the show, mon amour?" she enquires, shoving one cold hand beneath the covers and finding a warm, naked flank to tickle.

Leliana squeals with laughter as she flinches away, and Aryn takes the easy option of dropping on top of her, pinning her to bestow a slow, sloppy morning kiss. "Mmm," Leliana sighs, coiling her arms around Aryn's neck. "I love you."

"I love you too. Any particular reason it merits comment?"

"Your gallant defence of my virtues." Sparkles of glee dance in the ocean blue of Leliana's eyes. "And I rather enjoyed the notion of my sinful beauty."

"Not half as much as I do," Aryn chuckles, pressing a kiss to Leliana's forehead. "Come on, up you get. Breakfast is ready."

"But, cherie, my bedroll is so warm, and soft, and…"

"And will be full of slobbering mabari if that pretty backside of yours isn't out of it in ten seconds."

"You wouldn't!" Leliana pouts adorably.

"Nine… eight…seven…" Aryn whistles, unmoved, and Rufus gives a joyful yip as he answers the call. She catches him by the collar as he tries to barge past. "Six… ready Rufus? Five…"

Leliana jumps up, her melodramatic pout unabated. "You brute!" she accuses.

"Ferelden oaf, remember?" Aryn chuckles. "Look at it this way. The sooner we get into Orzammar to deal with this little mission of yours, the sooner we'll have a bed, stone walls, and a hot bath." Aryn dismisses her warhound with a snap of her fingers as Leliana begins to dress, slipping into her clothes with a good deal more rolling of her hips and presentation of her curves than is really necessary.

"I expect you to make this up to me," Leliana asserts in a sultry tone.

"Gladly, dear heart," Aryn agrees readily, "but I do have a question for you."

"Oh yes?"

"Yes. Why is it that the Seeker blushes every time she looks at me?"

"Does she?"

"She does," Aryn replies with deliberate patience.

"Well, I may have implied that you're a magnificent lover," Leliana replies clinically.

"Really?" Aryn feels her own cheeks heating. "And why would you disclose that?"

"Because you are, mon amour." Leliana bats her eyelashes coquettishly. "A state of affairs for which, I might add, I'd like to take full credit."

Aryn cocks an amused eyebrow. "Oh, it's all your training, is it? Nothing to be said for natural talent?"

"Your natural talent is slaughtering the minions of evil," Leliana chuckles.

"Does that make yours the corruption of innocent young virgins?" Aryn counters with a grin.

Leliana throws her a coy smirk. "Oh, well played," she applauds as she buckles her belt. "Come along, then, since you are in such a rush to break fast. The intrigues of Orzammar await."

oOoOo

"Magnificent!" Cassandra breathes as she sets foot in the Hall of Paragons.

Aryn has to agree. The fathers of Orzammar certainly knew what they were about when they built the chamber that serves as a bridge between their kingdom and the surface, with its high, vaulted ceiling, its carefully channelled falls of lava, and its titanic statues of the paragons keeping their benevolent watch.

Or mostly benevolent. Branka's statue glares accusingly at Aryn as she passes it. Beside her, Oghren mutters a curse, reaching for the brandy flask that Sigrun has confiscated in addition to his axe. "Ancestor's shitty arseholes, I need a drink," he growls, picking up his pace and storming away.

"What's wrong with him?" Cassandra asks curiously.

"See that mean-looking paragon there?" Sigrun jerks her thumb at Branka's statue. "She was his wife."

"Oh." Cassandra looks pained suddenly. "She is dead then, I take it?"

"She is," Aryn confirms, suppressing a shudder at the memory of Branka's mad, malevolent screams as she died. Leliana throws her a knowing look and she blows out a deep breath. "But that's a tale for another time. Come on, let's get into the city proper. Cassandra, if you thought this was stunning, you're in for a rare treat."

Orzammar's Commons hasn't changed much. Aryn finds that fact oddly comforting. Her own life feels as though it is in constant upheaval, and to see that other people are able to live lives of stable peace and quiet at least holds out the hope that one day, Maker willing, there will be time to enjoy such an idyllic existence. Although she wonders if perhaps she wouldn't find it boring, if she hasn't become so inured to peril and politics that a quiet life would drive her mad.

Probably, she admits with a wry chuckle.

She leads the gawping Seeker and the rest of her band of misfits across the market to Tapsters, acknowledging nods of greeting from several of the locals she's acquainted with. The inn is already rowdy and chock full of patrons, most of whom are likely still carousing from the night before. Corra calls a cheery welcome and gestures to an alcove at the far end of the commons, where Bethany Hawke is sitting with a mug of tea and a hunk of dark bread, glowering at anyone who tries to encroach. She waves as they approach, a relieved grin lighting her pretty features. "Commander!"

"Well met, Bethany." Aryn takes a seat beside her and gives her a quick hug. "How's Stephan?"

Bethany's grin slips. "Fading fast. I've healed him as many times as I could, but each time it does less and less good. He doesn't have long. We can delay two days perhaps, but no later. I should go and make sure he's comfortable."

"Stay, Bethany," Sigrun bids her as the young mage moves to rise, "I'll watch him for a while. Take a moment for yourself, you look exhausted. C'mon, Rufus, you come with me – don't want the rabble trying to eat you."

Rufus huffs, and cocks his head at Aryn. She nods permission, and he trots off at Sigrun's side.

Bethany settles back gratefully as Cassandra takes the seat next to Leliana. "So, we're inside the city," the Seeker states, nose wrinkled in disgust at Tapster's unique perfume. "What now?"

"First things first. I'll head up to the Assembly and request the Proving," Aryn decides.

"What is a Proving, exactly?"

"It's a tournament. Warriors compete in single or small group combat to first blood to prove themselves worthy of a house, or a cause. Dwarves use them to recruit warriors as house retainers, to settle arguments, to honour warriors and kings—it's an excuse for a party, a busy public event, with lots of people milling around, and lots of opportunities to cross paths with influential people." Aryn grins. "I'll get my recruits, and you'll get your opportunity to meet Bhelen."

Leliana nods. "It's a good cover – people won't think anything of Bhelen speaking to Grey Wardens."

"Yes, yes, we know, you're as brilliant as you are beautiful," Aryn teases. "Why don't you and Cassandra review your approach while I'm at the Assembly? You should be safe from prying ears in here," she flicks a glance at Oghren, who has procured an ale jack half as tall as he is, "especially if you can keep Og close at hand. Beth, you eat your breakfast and relax, OK? I doubt we'll need you to actually throw fire in the Proving, but we might need you to patch us up afterward."

Bethany nods, and Aryn gets to her feet. "I'll be back… eventually. Maker knows how long this will take. Try not to get into bother in the meantime. And don't drink the dwarven ale."

"No, don't," Leliana agrees, winking at Bethany. "I drank a thimbleful once. Woke up in Jader a week later wearing nothing but shoes and a towel."

"Maker's mercy," Cassandra shudders.

oOoOo

Aryn tightens the straps of her shield, flexes her hand to check she hasn't overtightened it, and then nods to the Proving Master. "Ready when you are, Master."

The old man grins. "Excellent. It's good to have a combatant of your calibre back in the ring, Warden. I'm looking forward to this."

Leliana steps forward and tucks her handkerchief into Aryn's breastplate. "A token of my favour, brave serah," she declaims with a smirk. "Fight with honour, my champion."

Aryn winks at her. "As my lady commands," she returns, bowing awkwardly before stepping into the sand of the arena.

"This is a glory proving!" The Proving Master's lungs haven't diminished with advancing years. "Fought under the eyes of the Paragons of Orzammar to honour our friends, the Grey Wardens, and in respect for their sacrifice."

Applause ripples around the arena. "Your first bout will be between the Warden Commander, Aryn Cousland, Champion of King Endrin's Memorial Proving, and our own Captain of the Deep Roads Rangers and six time Proving champion, Roshen!"

Roshen steps into the arena with a smile and a wave for the crowd, wielding a diamond maul taller than he is. He bows courteously to Aryn, and she returns the gesture before pulling Starfang in one swift flourish. The audience gasp as the starmetal blade blazes suddenly with silver fire, the runes inscribed along its length igniting. Aryn offers her salute to Bhelen and her opponent, then hands the blade off to Sigrun, accepting one of Mikhail Dryden's lesser creations in its place. Starfang has no place in a mock bout; its purpose is killing, not showmanship.

"First warrior to fall is vanquished!" The Proving Master bellows. "Fight!"

Aryn hefts her shield to high guard and tucks herself in behind it, moving carefully in a wide arc while she assesses her opponent. The dwarf is quick, lighter on his feet than most, and Aryn is glad of her greater reach and longer legs as she cross-steps carefully to keep her shield presented. Patience, she reminds herself as she steps back out of range of a vicious haymaking sweep. Against a two-hander, patience is the key. The size of the weapon leaves the wielder vulnerable, and she's sparred often enough with Oghren and Sten over the years to have learned her lessons well. Within a mere five strikes, she has her opponent's measure. He's cocky and overconfident, and far too reliant on the weight of his maul dealing an irrecoverable hit, too eager to look for the knockout blow. Even as she thinks it, he steps into a huge, blatantly telegraphed swing, and Aryn angles her shield not to block but deflect, guiding the blow away from her body. She taps the flat of her blade against his shoulder guard—fair warning, in her view.

Sadly, her opponent is a slow learner, repeatedly giving her openings that in real combat would have left him bleeding out in seconds. She holds him patiently until enough time has passed that he won't look like a total fool, and then, as he rolls his shoulders to prepare another swing, Aryn lunges in, throwing her shoulder and weight behind her shield and catching him square in the chest and head. Already unbalanced by his weapon, he topples backwards with a clatter, and the warden flicks her blade to his throat. As cheers erupt from the balconies, she withdraws her blade and offers her hand to help the fallen warrior up. "Well fought," she offers, even as she crosses his name from her candidate list.

The dwarf grins wryly. "Ancestor's bones, Warden, no need to dress it up. You were kind to keep me in the bout as long as you did. My thanks, and my best wishes for your triumph."

Aryn returns to her companions, racked with guilt. Even though she tried to cushion it, the ease of the win will mean shame for the dwarf, and she does not enjoy shaming others. Especially not for political advantage. Her companions are oblivious: Oghren's laughing uproariously, Sigrun gives her a wink, and Stephan, from his seat by the weapon rack, gives her a weak thumbs up.

"An epic battle," Leliana jibes with a grin as she removes her helm. "One for the Warden annals, without doubt."

"Oh, give over," Aryn retorts sharply. "I didn't want to embarrass him. Dwarves are touchy about their combat prowess, and I'm not going to start any blood feuds for the sake of Dorothea's divine machinations."

Leliana cocks a surprised eyebrow, her grin slipping. "Of course," she agrees. "I'm sorry. I spoke without thinking. It just looked so easy."

"It was," Aryn agrees, now irked more by her own clumsy reaction. "I'm sorry, Leli, I didn't mean to snap at you."

"He was a competent warrior. He knew what he was doing," Cassandra judges. "You treated him honourably, and with respect, but you outmatched him considerably." Her gaze is appraising as she studies Aryn.

Aryn accepts the judgement with a nod, and settles to watch Sigrun take on the next candidate. Leliana drapes an arm around her shoulders. "Are you all right, cherie?"

"Fine," Aryn assures her. "I'm sorry. I just… I don't like using people, and it hit me when I hit him that that was what I was doing."

Leliana nods. "I'm sorry too. You're doing this for me, and I shouldn't have mocked him, but you made it look so easy."

"I don't understand it. I could have dropped him in fifteen seconds. He's a proving champion, it should have been harder. It was last time."

"You're twice the warrior you were last time," Leliana points out. "You're stronger, faster, better trained than you were when you were eighteen. And he'll be the weakest of the bunch." She presses a kiss into Aryn's sweaty hair. "Don't sell yourself short. In more ways than one, you are magnificent."

The crowd roars its approval as Sigrun dumps her opponent on his back, her dagger resting at his throat. Aryn tips her head to rest it against Leliana's, mollified. "Thank you, mon coeur."

Eight bouts later, all comers have fallen to the Wardens, and Aryn has marked three of the fighters as potential candidates. As the last single match contender enters the ring, one of House Aeducan's pre-eminent, arrogant high-born champions, the Warden looks up at the royal box. Bhelen nods to her, seemingly a greeting, but she takes it for the signal it likely is.

"Cassandra?"

The Seeker, who has been studying the dwarf in the ring, looks over. "Yes?"

"This fellow looks pretty handy. I'd like to watch him rather than fight him."

Cassandra looks perplexed. "Then can Oghren or Sigrun not take the bout?"

Sigrun hoots with laughter. "Are you serious, Seeker? He'd as soon shag a nug."

"He's nobility," Aryn explains, "of the royal bloodline. He won't lower himself to cross blades with a surface dwarf or a casteless. Would you mind giving him a thrashing?"

Cassandra cocks an eyebrow. "You want me to fight him?"

"Yes." Aryn lowers her voice as she crosses to the Nevarran warrior's side. "People have seen me, Oghren and Sigrun take part, but not you. It'll seem suspicious if you refrain altogether."

"What of Bethany?"

"She could fry him in his armour in three seconds. That's not what the crowd wants." Aryn throws out a hand to encompass the arena. "Entertain them."

"Very well." Cassandra straps her shield more tightly.

"Oh, and Cassandra?"

"Yes?"

"I don't have a problem with this fellow being taken down a peg or two."

Cassandra stares at her for a moment, then barks a laugh. "Understood." Drawing her blade, she marches out into the arena.

"What are you doing?" Leliana enquires.

"Keeping our cover," Aryn shrugs. "C'mon. I can watch this bout with Bhelen, and you, my pretty little songbird, should accompany me."

Leliana smiles. "I think I taught you too much about subterfuge, my love."

Aryn chuckles as she takes Leliana's arm.

They're admitted to Bhelen's box without question, and the dwarven king smirks as he recognises Leliana. "Warden. I'm thinking you're even cannier than you were the last time you were here."

"I'm flattered, your Majesty."

Bhelen waves off the servants, emptying the box. The buzz of the crowd will drown out their speech, and the box is secluded enough to make lip-reading impossible, especially with Aryn leaning on the balcony to watch the bout. Behind her, Leliana offers Bhelen a formal curtsey.

"On behalf of her Holiness, Divine Justinia V, I bring you greetings, your Majesty…"


A/N: Possibly this should have been a little standalone, as it's going to be three big parts, but hey, never mind. Glad to be back in Thedas for a bit!