Koshka tossed a hard roll across the fire to Leliana, grinning as the bard caught it deftly, then flipped her knife, caught it by the handle and stabbed a sausage out of the pan, inhaling deeply. "By the stone, the food on the surface is wonderful. Though for all I know, they eat this well in the Diamond Quarter all the time." The dark haired dwarf twirled her knife in her fingers, then sliced a piece of sausage, eating it from the tip of her knife, eyes closing.
Wynne chuckled as she used a fork to add a sausage rather more sedately to her plate of stewed vegetables. "I've had what I was told was dwarven food once or twice; I can't say it's an experience I look forward to repeating when we have to go to Orzammar." Koshka's grin vanished, and she picked up the mug of hot mint tea she preferred, staring down into it. Leliana and Wynne exchanged glances with Zevran, but Alistair avoided the question in their eyes. Finally, Wynne spoke softly. "You never speak of Orzammar, Koshka, I don't even know if you still have any family there."
The warden stared into her mug for a moment longer, then drained the tea before standing up to rinse it in the nearby stream. "It wouldn't matter if I did." She shook the water out of the mug, then filled it from the small cask of ale, toasting their surprise with a flourish as she sat back down. "Yes, I drink ale occasionally. I … have my reasons for not usually drinking, though." She sipped in silence for a few moments, eyes scanning the campfire, noticing Bodahn standing at the edge of the circle of firelight. Her hand crept to her right cheek as their eyes met, but he didn't look away.
The silence stretched until she looked down at her plate, pushed it away, then pulled out one of her lockpicks, twirling it through each of her fingers with the ease of long practice. Finally, "Do you know anything about the castes of Orzammar?" Her violet eyes met each of theirs in turn, avoiding Bodahn's.
Leliana shook her head, pushing her red hair back from her face. "Very little. I know they have a king, and an assembly, but not much beyond that." The others nodded silently.
Koshka grimaced, the lockpick flashing in the firelight as it spun through her fingers. "Well, I'm going to assume that it'll be no surprise to any of you that I wasn't born to a noble caste family?" She met Alistair's eyes with a lopsided grin. "I know you were told a little more, from Duncan."
"Not much more. Duncan only told me that you were remarkably skilled, though he let slip…" he hesitated for only a second, "that he thought you would have been wasted on Orzammar even if they'd recognized your potential. You did hint that you…might have a colorful past and that the Assembly might resist fulfilling the treaty if you were along." His light brown eyes were warm with affection and acceptance.
Her laughter had a bitter edge they hadn't heard before. "Hmm, yes, that's a tactful way of putting it. In theory, a dwarf who was recruited by the Grey Wardens should be a welcome and honored guest, but I suspect I'll be only slightly more welcome than a rampaging archdemon." She finally looked directly at Bodahn. "With all the gossip you hear, I'd be surprised if you don't already know, even if you didn't recognize…." Slender fingers unconsciously brushed the scar on her right cheek again.
He cleared his throat uncomfortably. "I've heard stories from contacts about a Grand Proving, but some of them are…hard to believe. Besides, I was merchant caste, casteless now, not noble or warrior."
Koshka nodded to him, then sipped the ale from her mug. "Well, the first thing you need to understand about Orzammar is caste. A woman's mother or a man's father determines what he is and what he can be forever; the Shapers who record the births of every member of all the castes say this is determined by the ancestors themselves. The highest caste are the nobles; houses founded by heroes called paragons. Next are the warriors, then down to the lowest caste, the servants." Her hand unconsciously touched the mark on her right cheek again as she stared into the fire, eyes focused on something distant. "This is enforced by the threat of having your caste stripped from you, whether for a crime or something as small as refusing to marry the person picked out by your parents or spending too long on the surface. Once you are casteless, the Shapers say the ancestors have rejected you, that the Stone will not take you when you die, and your name is stricken from your house's records. You have no rights, no protection under the laws, and legally you can only do work that even the servant caste won't do, like cleaning privies and chimneys." Koshka paused to sip more ale, uncomfortably aware of the silence around the fire, turning the mug in her hand as she thought, then spoke slowly.
"Castelessness is inherited just as caste is, so their descendants are condemned forever, with very few ways to have caste restored or granted. On the day a casteless child is born, the Shapers brand her face so everyone knows what she is as soon as they see her." Her hand crept up to her cheek again, then her eyes shot to Bodahn, who just nodded back.
"They… carry punishment that far?" Leliana's voice was subdued, but shocked, then fell silent as Koshka's violet eyes met hers, briefly revealing an abiding, soul-deep anger that had lain hidden, before her eyes dropped back to her mug.
"My family has been casteless so long we no longer know who or why the first of us was stripped of caste. The Shapers say that the casteless only compound their crimes by having children, and of course we aren't allowed to marry. By definition," she glanced at Alistair with a wry smile, "we're all bastards, though bastardy has no real meaning in Orzammar even in the noble and warrior castes. Castelessness does. By the time a casteless child learns to walk, she already knows that anyone without the brand will probably spit on her or curse her if not worse." She sighed, and picked her plate back up, spearing a small piece of vegetable and chewing slowly before looking back at Leliana, her face closer to her normal impish self. "And I bet you wondered why I was so quick to accept the chantry. Dwarves believe the ancestors and the Stone reject the casteless. At least your Maker doesn't deny my existence. I may have some objections to how elves and mages are treated by the chantry, but they at least have a place.
Koshka took a deep breath before continuing, "my parents had two children, my older sister, Rica, and myself. About the time I was born, our father decided he'd had enough and fled to the surface, but my mother refused to go with him. He may still be alive up here somewhere, but I'm not even certain what his name was; my mother was too angry to ever speak of him. Life was…" She paused, taking a bite of sausage without the dramatic flourishes she normally used, then continued softly, "well, we got by. Then a few years ago, my mother got into debt to the Carta." Bodahn shifted uneasily, and she laughed bitterly. "I see you knew who they are, even if merchant caste was mostly safe from them. The Carta controls the underworld of Dusttown, the only area where the casteless can live, and Beraht, their leader, claimed Rica and I to work off her debt."
"Being casteless is bad. Being casteless and owned by the Carta…." Koshka took a long drink from the mug, draining half of it at once, before pushing the mug away with a mild curse. "There are only two ways a girl is useful to the carta. If you're strong and fast and show an aptitude for weapons and…" she flourished the lockpick rather than finishing the thought, then added flatly. "The other is to whore for them. I'd been picking locks since I was 6 or 7." She shrugged. "I already knew some knife fighting, and showed a talent for parting people from the contents of their pockets. We weren't left with many other ways to survive, and I don't apologize. I was just lucky that I could prove useful that way."
Her wry grin faded. "Rica…wasn't lucky." Her head shot up abruptly, eyes challenging as she looked around the fire. "But she was pretty and had a lovely voice, and there is one way for a family to be raised out of castelessness. The noble and warrior castes are so desperate for fighters that if a casteless woman has a warrior or noble's son, she is raised to his caste and house, and her family with her, and she is recognized as a concubine. The one thing Beraht didn't have was caste, and however rich and powerful he became, he could never openly do business above as long as he was casteless. So, he picked four or five of the young women, including Rica, and had them … trained—I think they'd be called courtesans on the surface—and planned to claim to be the uncle of the first who produced a son. Her voice grew softer "It was at least a better life than taking a dozen men to her bed every night."
She ate silently for a moment or two, eyes fixed on her plate, dark braids falling forward. "Me, he teamed up with a man called Leske. We worked well together, and were friends of a sort, but never imagine you could trust him if you ever meet him. I hated what we did, though I wouldn't have dared admit it then." Koshka's violet eyes met Alistair's questioningly, but he just returned her look with affection rather than shock. "The obvious question is why I didn't run for the surface and start over; I met several surface dwarfs who encouraged me to do just that. But if I ran, what would Beraht do to Rica? By that point, I didn't much care what happened to my mother, as bad as that sounds, but Rica was scared to go to the surface with me, and if I ran without her, the best I could hope would happen to Rica was that she'd be forced to really whore. Until she had a noble protector, I had to stay."
"Then one day, Beraht placed a large bet on a Grand Proving match and decided he would make sure he won his bet." She heard Bodahn's sudden intake of breath, and raised one eyebrow at him. "Do you really think people don't cheat regularly at the Provings? You've more faith in the honor of the noble and warrior castes than I do, then."
"Proving?" Zevran spoke for the first time. "I think I have heard of these. They are…like a tournament?"
"Mmm, in a way, but Provings are much more than that. The Shapers say they're sacred, and the ancestors are supposed to show their favor and decide disputes through the outcomes of Provings, but they're only open to nobles or warriors, so apparently the ancestors aren't allowed to decide for themselves if they want to favor anyone else." Bodahn coughed, hand covering his mouth, but there was a sympathetic spark in his eyes.
"Well, Beraht ordered us to find the warrior he bet on, find out when his match was, and just before the match, we were to drug his opponent's water." She turned her gaze back on Alistair, fire reflecting on her pale skin. "This Grand Proving was being held in honor of visiting Grey Wardens, as it happens, and when we got inside the Proving grounds, Leske dared me to approach one, who turned out to be Duncan." She took another bite of the stewed vegetables, and grimaced at how cool they'd gotten, then looked around at each of them. "Do you have any idea what it is like for a casteless dwarf to approach someone and be greeted like a person? Even when he understood what the brand meant, he just laughed when I pointed out he could have me arrested for harassment, telling me that 'to a Grey Warden, nothing less than a slavering darkspawn waking you in your bedroll is harassment.' I can still hear his voice saying that, and in that moment, I wanted a chance to become a Grey Warden more than I ever wanted anything in my life.
"Duncan went back to watch the Provings, but when Leske and I found the warrior Beraht had bet on, the imbecile was passed out drunk. Obviously, this wasn't something we could have prevented, but this was going to lose Beraht's bet as much as if he lost." Koshka used a fork to push around the vegetables still on her plate, lost in memory. "If I hadn't just met Duncan, I'm not sure I'd have had the courage to do it, but I put on his armor, closed the helm so no one could recognize me, and went into the Proving in his place. And won." She laughed wryly, slicing a small piece of sausage and nibbling it. "If I had the sense of a drunken nug, I'd have lost the next fight on purpose and fled the Proving grounds while I had the chance, but I guess I snapped, wanted to prove something, maybe to Duncan or maybe to all Orzammar. I kept going and won every fight against the best the warrior and noble castes had to offer, then just as we were about to start the final fight, and I had suddenly realized I would have to lose that fight and escape to avoid removing my helm, that drunken nug lover I was impersonating stumbled out onto the Proving ground, and some of the other fighters recognized him."
Koshka blindly reached for the mug she'd pushed aside earlier. "I… don't remember exactly what I said when they demanded to know who I was, probably something about how their best couldn't beat me. Dunno why I wanted to add insult to the other crimes they were going to punish me for, but by the Stone, I was as good as dead already."
Wynne gaped in disbelief. "They were going to execute you for …entering a tournament?"
"A sacred tournament, decided by the ancestors." Koshka's voice was wryly mocking. She lifted her chin in a gesture toward Bodahn. "If I miss any of the laws I broke, remind me, those born casteless mostly know these by rumor since the Shapers don't instruct us directly. Let's see, for insulting the warrior caste, a whipping. For defiling a warrior's armor, my left hand. For profaning a smith's blade, my right hand. For impersonating a higher caste, flaying. And if I survived all of that, execution, probably in some creative way that would satisfy the ancestors, for polluting the Proving ground." Bodahn met her eyes and nodded silently, then she looked at each of her friends, eyes clear and calm before settling on Alistair. "Did you think I was exaggerating about how unenthusiastic they were going to be to see me?"
She smiled wryly at the appalled looks on their faces, then raised her mug in a salute. "Then as every spectator and fighter in the Proving ground was screaming for my blood, Duncan spoke up and asked what no dwarf would ever have dared, that wasn't this Proving supposed to show who was the best, who the ancestors favored? The Proving master shouted back all the ways I had profaned their ritual and that I had no place there. Duncan responded simply with 'except as your champion.'" She took another deep drink of ale before regarding Alistair with eyes that flickered with firelight and shaded with an emotion he didn't recognize. "Alistair, I didn't know Duncan very long, but at that moment, I was ready to walk through an army of darkspawn and spit in the face of the archdemon for him. I'd have followed him anywhere. I still would, if I could." He nodded understanding, suddenly recognizing both grief and bloodlust in her eyes. "He risked completely alienating the noble and warrior castes with his words, and he did understand that, all because he saw something in me, and because he saw an injustice."
Koshka took a deep breath, "Well, you'll understand that I would have preferred to die fighting rather than live long enough to be punished. I'm told I laid out at least 6 or 7 guards before they knocked me out, but when I woke up, I wasn't in the jail. Beraht had sent his chief lieutenant, Jarvia, to kidnap me and Leske, and we were in his personal dungeon. Since the Proving was declared invalid, he lost his bet anyway, and I'm fairly certain he wasn't going to settle for a stern scolding after losing 100 sovereigns." Her voice was wryly humorous. "However, it's unwise to leave two people who are skilled thieves in cells with only a rather stupid thug for a guard; I picked his pocket for the cell key, knocked him out, and released Leske. Fortunately, they hadn't had time to remove our gear elsewhere, and we got it and began fighting our way through the rest of the gang, trying to find Beraht. I'm not sure Leske really understood that's where I was going, but I had to remove his threat to Rica before I made a run for the surface." She swirled the dregs in her mug as she stared distantly into the fire again. "And I was right. When we reached him, he was just telling two of his lieutenants that Rica was all theirs. Which promise, I am glad to say, they will never have a chance to follow up." Her eyes narrowed fiercely. "Hopefully, the Carta was so busy fighting over the vacuum left by Beraht's death that Rica was safely under her noble's protection by the time anyone thought to try to sink hooks into her. My only regret is that he died quickly." She looked at Wynne challengingly, more than a touch of the wolf in her grin. "Does that hurt your opinion of me?"
Wynne shook her head a little sadly. "I think, no, I know I would have felt the same way."
Koshka chuckled, then rotated her shoulders as if to release tension. "But maybe the ancestors really did have their own ideas because we escaped Beraht's warren just to walk around a corner on the commons smack into the Proving master and a squad of guards. They surrounded us, and I was deciding whether trying to fight past them outweighed what they'd do to Leske if we failed when Duncan appeared. And by the Stone, I'll be damned if he didn't conscript me right out of their hands. I've never seen anyone so angry as the Proving master was, especially when Duncan gave me this mace right in front of them." She caressed the mace on the ground next to her. "It belonged to an Aeducan Grey warden, from the royal house itself. In the hands of a casteless profaner." Koshka's eyes locked with Alistair's before she glanced around.
"So, you'll understand that I'm not all that enthusiastic about visiting Orzammar, and they'll be even less happy to see me, Grey Warden or not? They won't actually spit on me, they value the appearance of honor too much, but the thought will be there. And they probably won't be a great deal friendlier to you. Don't expect Dusttown to be any better, depending on how much fallout there has been with the Carta shakeup." She shrugged her broad shoulders, then grinned at them. "But it'll only be for a short time, then I'll be back here, where I've found at least a few friends and people I can trust." She met Alistair's eyes again before pushing herself off the ground. "And now that I've told the whole sordid story, I think I'd better feed Sobaka before she helps herself."
A few minutes later as she slowly ran a brush over Sobaka, she heard footsteps behind her. "Grab a patch of dirt and join us, Alistair." Her voice had the same light, unconcerned tone it always had, but there was a certain tension in how she sat, looking at Sobaka and not him as he knelt close by. "I don't apologize for who I am, Alistair, or for my sister. We did the best we could with the lives we were given."
He chuckled softly. "My love, if anyone has something to apologize for, it sounds as if it is those who enforce the caste system on Orzammar, not you." Her head turned slowly to look at him, eyes unseeable with the fire haloing her head.
"I know caste has no meaning to humans, but… you don't care that I was a criminal, that I'm a whore's sister, that most of Orzammar, from the Diamond Quarter to Dusttown, would rather I was dead?" She spoke the words softly, almost hesitantly, and her head turned away from him briefly, then she raised her chin proudly.
"Of course not." He reached out to take her hands, holding them firmly. "Even if you had chosen those things, that isn't who you are now. Maybe those things gave you the strength to be the Grey Warden leader we need in this blight, I don't know." He laughed softly. "If you recall, I'm a bastard whose mother died, and you were with me when I met my sister. If Arl Eamon hadn't taken me in as a baby, if he had thrown me out later instead of sending me to the chantry, as much as I hated that, my life could have been very much like yours. The only difference is in Fereldan, that wasn't the only possibility for me."
Koshka pulled his hands toward her, resting her cheek against them briefly before releasing them. She hesitated, and Alistair wished the fire lit her face instead of shadowing it.
"I don't think I can begin to tell you how I felt about Duncan, Alistair, it was as if the world was turned on end, when he was kind to me, and then when he spoke up for me when I was caught at the Proving… Well, when we left Orzammar, he realized that I was too overwhelmed with the shock of being under the open sky and out with trees and, and wild animals, and I think how they were going to kill me had finally sunk in. He got my attention and started talking and just kept talking. About you." She looked away then back at Alistair.
Alistair closed his eyes briefly, swallowing against a lump. "Why?"
"I think to keep me focused on other things, and his stories about you got me to laugh." Koshka shrugged, running the brush in a circle on Sobaka's stomach as a back leg kicked in reflex. "I think I was ready to like you, even trust you, immediately because of what he said, and believe me, I don't trust easily, in case you haven't noticed. I think he wanted me to like you; you meant a lot to him, Alistair, though he'd never have told you that. I thought you should know anyway."
Alistair was unnaturally silent and still for several seconds, then he sighed. "Thank you, it does help to know. He thought very highly of you, I think, though he didn't get a chance to say much to me other than to warn me that you would probably be a bit suspicious of me at first."
"You may be surprised to know that that was downright friendly for me." Her voice was lighter and teasing now, echoed in his response with affection coloring his humor.
"I may have noticed that you were almost polite to me in comparison to others you've met since then, though I certainly wouldn't have thought so that first day or two." Alistair gently stroked her cheek just before the mabari sneezed in disgust and got to her feet, wandering away from the two.
"Yes, well, Leliana and Wynne are doing their best to teach me a few surfacer manners since if Eamon has his way, I'll be visiting you at court once the blight is over."
Alistair sighed. "That isn't what I want, you know."
"But if it's between you or Anora on the throne, do you really believe she'll do what's best for Ferelden? She hasn't been strong enough to stand up to her father, and we both know she couldn't give two nugs for common people in Ferelden. You would." Koshka covered the hand on her cheek with her own surprisingly slender fingers.
"What about us, though?"
Koshka chuckled, shifting to lean against his shoulder comfortably. "We'll work that through when the time comes, but Alistair, I'm a dwarf, and a casteless dwarf at that, and recall that my sister's position is considered respectable in Orzammar, or as respectable as a casteless dwarf can achieve. Now, less talk, more showing me how you feel."
Alistair laughed softly. "Your desire is my command, my lady, lead the way to your tent."