Chapter Fifty: Triumphus
The morning after the cleansing of Amaranthine, I had another encounter from the other side of the Veil.
It started off innocently enough, for me at least. I was having a perfectly good dream about living on Earth again, having found a portal back to my world of birth. I had brought Julie and Tam to meet my extended family. My brother and his numerous, swarming kids. Though perhaps I should be less critical of that last detail given that I broke his record by nearly double. My parents, whom not even my idealistic dreaming could paint as approving of the whole arrangement. My sister and my niece Little Sam, who was not so little any more and was delighted to meet the newcomers. Though she turned out differently in reality, as some of you dear readers are undoubtedly aware.
No one seemed to remark on the fact that the women beside me were from another world, made so obvious by Tam's horns. It was a strange but happy dream. Shrinks would no doubt have had a field day analysing it.
But it was intruded on almost as soon as it had materialised. Inevitably, the first intruder was an eagle, but not one of the two that had been following us about on our journey since Sahrnia. No, this one was even bigger than they were, and its feathers were jet black. It perched itself on the head of my father's favourite leather chair, the one he had since at least my birth and one I remember him reading on. The eagle just sat, alternating between watching me and cleaning itself.
It made me realise I was in a dream, yet I couldn't control things as I usually could when I had such a realisation. The eagle did not go away or disappear at will. The room or those in it didn't react either to the eagle or to my attempts to get them moving somewhere else. It took some doing for me to come to the point of trying to shoo it away physically, because its claws were as large as the other eagles' own sets. It finally responded to this with a loud call, and my parents' house melted away, revealing the raw Fade beyond. Green stormy sky, floating rocks, the Black City hanging in the distance, my boots getting wet in ankle high murky water; the whole shebang.
And a familiar, masked figure.
"Françoise des Arbes," I groaned, "Baronetess of Ancienmaison."
The woman giggled, raising the hem of her long grey skirt in curtsy and lowering her head, sending her perfect brown curls spilling over the top of her red mask.
"I am honoured you remember me, Marquis," she said, standing straight again, "It has been a long time since we last spoke." More than a year, in fact. The previous occasion had been the same day I had received Ancienmaison as a fief from Pierre des Arbes
"And a lot's happened since," I nodded, "Your relatives got put to the sword, for one."
"Yes, I am aware," she said without emotion, "Their deaths were not easy. As you saw."
I raised an eyebrow at her lack of reaction to the news. Not even a platitude about the death of the Baron and Baroness? Something was off. The spirit I had met before seemed to be the sentimental type, she had given me a visit simply to show me how I had been taken from Earth and thrown through the Fade.
"You don't seem all that shaken up about it," I said slowly.
"I've been dead a long time," the spirit said, with a flourish of her hand, "And I'm sure they're in a better place now."
Both the words and the motion set off alarms in my mind. I didn't believe that she believed what she was saying. That the Des Arbes family were now in a better place or that she even cared. But it was the hand gesture that really did it. It wasn't one that an Orlesian lady would have used, except when being contemptuous of the person she was speaking to. This particular spirit hadn't shown any sort of contempt for me in the previous instance. She didn't seem to be showing any this time either, she was gesticulating without thinking. Which told me that whatever it was, the spirit wasn't Orlesian. If spirits can have a nationality.
I kept my jaw firmly shut, not wanting the spirit to know I had my suspicions. Whether or not it could read my thoughts in the setting I found myself in, I didn't want to show outwardly.
"I hope they are," I said, "The trust that the family placed in me... they deserved better than what they got."
"You feel guilt," said the spirit, "Yet they made the choice."
"The children didn't," I pointed out, "They were murdered anyway."
"The innocent often suffer," she replied, looking up into the sky, "It is the way of the world."
I crossed my arms, frowning. The way of the world could go screw itself. I didn't need vague philosophical ramblings from a god damned denizen of the underworld.
"But on to the business I have with you," the spirit continued, turning her eyes back to me.
The world changed again, the darkened green hellscape slowly ripped away in favour of the red sky of an early morning, hanging over rolling grass pastures. The view of the horizon was blocked by tall hedgerows, but some nearby but low mountains peaked over them from one side. I could see what I presumed to be the ocean in the opposite direction.
The temperature rose too, and the humidity of a summer rolled through me. I pulled at my collar a few times to cool off, but I was wearing exactly what I had been when I had landed on Thedas; full Kevlar armour, combat webbing and radio equipment. Even trying to air myself that way was pointless.
My discomfort made me ask the question. "What the hell are you showing me now?" I asked, "Is this another memory?"
The spirit didn't reply for some time. "No," she said, "This is the future."
I looked around at the fields, cows chewing grass nearby. Which was the only thing that was happening. My confusion only grew.
"How can you tell?" I joked, thumbing at the animals, "Are the cows actually killer robots?"
The spirit laughed, with an effect somewhat like bells tinkling. She had gotten the joke, which got me worrying again about whether or not she could read my mind. Robots weren't exactly a thing in Thedas.
"Patience, Marquis," she said, "You'll see what I mean soon enough."
I blew out a breath through my teeth, much preferring to have an explanation or warning about what was going on. Instead, I turned about, looking for anything out of place. The spirit didn't help things, staring at me rather than looking at anything else. No clues.
And then I heard it. Bagpipes, coming from the direction of the sea.
The tune they were playing seemed incomprehensible at first, but they were close enough. I needed to see the source. I cleared my throat of the humid air and spat, allowing me to break off at a sprint. Didn't bother checking if the spirit was behind me. I tore around the hedges surrounding the field that I had appeared in, and onto a country lane.
The lane connected to a wide road. A tarred road that looked almost brand new. I stopped dead in the middle of it, slapping it with my foot to make sure it was real, surprised to see such engineering. Only thing it was missing was road marks, or else it could have been any country road in rural America. To one side was another hedgerow that seemed to run the length of the route. To the other was an open fallow field, with wild grasses growing all over it, framed by yet another hedgerow.
The bagpipes had stopped briefly, but now resumed, blasting out the Halls of Montezuma with much greater clarity than before. I spun on the spot towards the music.
Coming up the road was a company of soldiers, in the familiar round helmets and Kevlar-imitation armour of the Free Army. Except their weapons were not the firelances that Julie had designed. Nor were they the SA80s or G36s that had come on board the helicopter with me to Thedas, but they were more akin to those weapons than to the flintlocks. They looked like things my grandfather might have used in Vietnam.
The troops were not in parade or close order, but held their weapons at the ready, their heads on a swivel looking for threats to either side of the road. The piper was walking up the middle of the road between the two lines of troops, urging them on.
They were a hundred yards off or so, just close enough for me to notice these details. Was this the Free Army? If so, it was hardly any great revelation that it would be fighting wars in the future. I could have guessed that without having my mind dragged into the Fade and then into the future. I also remembered Armen's warnings about the illusive power of the place. All of it could have been a fabrication, I simply didn't have enough information nor the magical skill to determine if it was or not.
"They are who you think they are," the spirit said, joining me and watching the troops advance, "You molded them in your own image, and they will never forget you."
I glanced at her without turning my head, trying to get a read on her. The mask made it difficult. I needed to test her, to see what my instincts said about all of this.
"What year is this?" I asked. As opposed to the simple green of the Free Army's uniforms, which only about a third of our troops actually wore.
"I do not know the exact date," the spirit replied, as the troops got ever closer, "But in this era, you are already dead. They might be made in your image, fight in your manner, claim you as their forebearer, but they are not your Army. Not any longer."
I hissed the foulest string of curses that came to mind. "What the hell does that mean?" I asked, "Why did you bring me here?"
"Watch," the spirit commanded, in a tone that brooked no disagreement or disobedience.
I curled my fist in anger, frustrated by her complete lack of cooperation. But I obeyed, keeping my eyes on the column. The piper stopped his tune in the middle, just as the soldiers on point came as close as ten yards from me. Something was happening.
The soldiers all turned their heads towards the field-side of the road, a few pointing off at the distant hedges. What they were saying seemed garbled, incomprehensible, like trying to listen to someone talking quietly in another room through a closed door. They were clearly exerting their voices, the volume of their shouting was still high, but I couldn't understand them no matter how hard I strained my ears.
The fighting started with a shriek of a missile, followed by an explosion in the middle of the column. Five or six men fell down, dead or rolling around screaming their lungs out, their bodies bleeding from various places. Those beside them scrambled to help, while the sergeants barked commands to return fire. I ducked down into the roadside ditch, the instinct to do so having been battered into me by years of training and experience.
"They cannot harm you," the spirit said, a tone of amusement entering her voice once more, "Stand up."
Tracers whizzed overhead, stopping me from even considering that order. The soldiers, having done exactly what I had in finding cover, calmly and professionally returned fire. Some with the weapons I had seen earlier. Others flipped bigger devices off their backs, what we now call bazookas. The same shriek that accompanied the beginning of the battle sounded off repeatedly, the smoke trails streaking across the air and into the position of those that had begun the fight.
I felt impotent, powerless, and if this was the future, I wanted to influence it. It disgusted me, made my stomach swirl. I swung my firelance off my shoulder, determined to do something. I took aim and sent bursts into the places I saw muzzle flashes, emptying my magazine three bullets at a time. If I hit anything, I couldn't see.
"You cannot harm them either," the spirit said, all amusement gone now, "You are nothing to them, and they are nothing to you."
"Then why bother giving me this!" I said back with anger, shaking my firelance at her by the grip.
"Everything you possess here is a result of your own self-image," she replied, "Your weapons and armour are a part of who are you, at this moment in your life."
That was different to last time. Last time, I had been stuck with what I had worn to bed. More evidence that this was a different phenomenon.
Still, I wasn't about to just sit around and do nothing. This was an opportunity, assuming it was in fact the future. I reached for my binoculars, which were on my hip, and examined the enemy. If they were fighting the Free Army, they must be the enemy, I figured. Maybe if I could identify them, I could do something about this future, crush the opponent before they even arose. I got my eyes on them thanks to another bazooka shot headed our way, which slammed through the foliage behind me and detonated beyond.
What I saw raised only more questions. The opposing force was armed and dressed almost identically to the one I was beside. Advanced firelances, round helmets, body armour, the works. The only difference was that there were fewer of them, and they were all ghillied up, their camouflage augmented with strips of cloth and pieces of bush.
It didn't help my feeling of being completely out of my depth. I frowned to myself, turning away from the fighting which was going progressively further in favour of the troops on the road. There were more of them, perhaps as much as three times more.
"They've got the same guns, armour, helmets..." I thought aloud, looking up at the sky, "Did we let our enemies copy our technology? Did Leha sell it? I don't get it."
The spirit entered my line of sight, standing directly over me, dark eyes looking down through the holes in her red mask.
"I did not think you so naïve," she said tentatively, "There is another possibility. I am sure you have considered it. You just do not wish to speak it into reality."
I bared my teeth, knowing that she was right. There was one other possibility that explained the similarities in the two sides fighting around me. I opened my mouth to express it, when I heard the moan of rocket artillery. I craned my neck and looked around, just in time to see the warheads drop into the area.
I only saw the blurs as they landed, but the explosions were far larger than the bazookas had been. They rippled from the bottom of the road up to where I was laying, some tearing asunder the grass in the field, some falling behind the hedge and sending branches spraying onto the troops. Most made their mark, more or less. The company was shredded. The troops turned inside out in some cases, thrown about like rag dolls in others.
The explosive forces washed over me, or perhaps through me, without effect. The ground beneath me gave way a little as the last rocket carved a sizeable crater in the road beside me, and I fell into it with a grunt, my eyes shut firmly. That last one was close enough to half blind me. I coughed reflexively from the dust that was floating in the air, even though it wasn't actually there and I wasn't actually breathed. The mixed smells of corpses also came, sending me gagging as I hadn't been prepared for it.
A delicate gloved hand extended in front of my face. I took the spirit's hand and help gladly, and together, I somehow managed to get upright. I blinked rapidly, trying to clear my vision of the afterimages. They cleared up after two or three seconds. As they weren't real eyes, after all.
"Civil war," I said, to the spirit, turning my back to the scene of carnage, "That's what is happening, isn't it?"
"Correct," the spirit said.
"But why?" I asked, "Why would you take me here to confirm that our project to found a country will succeed, only to show me how it might fall?"
"Because it is your fault," came the reply from the spectral woman, "Not entirely, but this conflict is rooted in actions you could take."
My face curled with anger. "How could this possibly be my fault?" I replied, "I'm already dead when this all happens, and I have exactly zero intention of starting a political career. Who are the sides? What's so important that all these people have to fight and die?"
"Your decisions are at the root of the conflict," she said, "Decisions you will begin making very soon." The spirit walked off towards the field, where the remaining ambushers were collecting their wounded and making to march off. She watched them for a moment, ignoring me entirely.
I had enough of the charade and the vague warnings.
"You are not the spirit that visited me before," I said with absolute certainty.
"No," she admitted, crossing her hands over the front of her skirt, "I am not."
"Then what are you?" I asked, "What did you bring me here for?"
"I am not one to squander my investments," the spirit replied, "And you are the first whom might actually succeed."
My jaw worked open and shut at the implication. "You brought me here," I said, "You took me from Earth."
The spirit shook her head. "Not exactly," she said, "The process is natural, an unforeseen consequence. No, my contribution is far less direct, but no less costly. The war is only one possibility, but it is the most likely one to occur. If it does, all that I have done will have been for nothing. So I brought you here to warn you, to show you the result of making mistakes."
Such a response was so vague as to be near useless, but it was better than absolutely nothing, which was what I was getting before.
"You still haven't told me what this future war is about," I said, "What mistakes?"
The remaining troops disappeared into the bush, and the spirit finally returned her attention to me.
"There have been many like you," she said, "But very few ever had children. You are already aware of one instance."
"Tiberius' ancestor," I nodded, "What has that got to do with anything?"
The spirit paused again, before continuing in a lighter, pleased tone of voice. "The Tiberian dynasty is the only one with a continual bloodline running all the way back to Marcus Tiberius Pansa, the first Outlander. Two others had children, but their blood always died within two generations afterwards. The rest perished before getting the chance to settle in Thedas, or did not want children and so found ways to avoid it. Your direct predecessor, Okuba Keijiro, was injured as he arrived, which prevented him from having children."
My mind shot back to the sight of Fraser's men torn apart by the dragon, and the skeletons that we found in the Deep Roads, the English soldiers that had died so far from home. Not hard to believe that many had died before they could... copulate.
"So you're saying it's likely that I'll have children," I said, "And that they will survive long enough to have children of their own."
"Yes," the spirit said.
"And that is the cause of this war?" I said, shaking my head, "I still don't understand how I could be responsible for this and why I should care if I'm going to be dead."
"Your children will wear crowns," she explained, "And you have more than one lover. If you have children with them, it will spell doom for your country. Your grandchildren shall divide and fight wars against one another, the people that you fought to protect will bleed and die, all the values you held so dear shall be violated in the pursuit of victory."
In other words, everything I had done and had planned to do would have been for nothing. Which would be disappointing, but who can truly control what happens after their death? How did I even know the world I was being shown was not some elaborate illusion.
"I don't exactly have a choice in the matter, but to hell with royalty," I said, "Tam wants children, who knows if Julie does, and Aurelia will be my wife so she can make heirs, damn it! And according to a certain magister, the kids will all be walking nukes. You're asking me to choose between my duty to the people I pledged to protect and people I care about."
"You must choose duty," said the spirit, "The others will love you regardless. But in this matter, you must choose Aurelia, if you wish to avoid this war."
That tripped a wire in my mind as to the possible motivations of the entity beside me. I grabbed my handcannon off my hip, and pointed it at her chest. "Alright, now I've had enough," I growled at her, "Titus Tiberius, that better not be you under that bonnet. I'm betting this can harm you, so if it is you, you better come clean now."
The spirit looked on impassively. Either my bet about the weapon being able to harm her wasn't paying out, or she was bluffing excellently. "How interesting," she said, "What makes you think I am Tiberius?"
"You showed me a future where my grandchildren are the cause of a great civil war," I said, "And now you say the only way to avoid it is to have children with Aurelia alone. I'm guessing that fits in with the Tevinter agenda for me very nicely."
"Perhaps it does," she replied, "But the fact remains that you will create disaster if you do not heed my warning."
"If all this was true, why warn me now?" I asked, "I've been with Julie and Tam for a year and a half! You could have been too late."
The spirit remained silent, as if I had been asking a stupid question. In truth, it was. Following through on my own line of thinking brought me to the right conclusion.
"But only now are you sure that I'll even meet Aurelia," I added, "And now, Mariette has shown up. Could even be more potential lovers around the corner. Her cousin's gave me looks too. You think I can't control myself!"
The spirit did not confirm or deny anything.
"Already, this world has changed you," she said, "Before, you never would have considered or tolerated how you behave now. One man, one woman, that was marriage in the faith of your father, was it not?"
Frustrated and hesitant, I lowered my weapon. What she was saying was exactly true. And I suddenly didn't like how far I had strayed from that doctrine. Which wasn't like me. I wasn't some virgin before being dragged to Thedas.
"It was..." I replied, "But too much has changed. Things are not the same."
"Do not deceive yourself," the spirit snapped, "You have fallen. Aurelia gives you the opportunity to redeem yourself, as well as save your country."
It was still a hard sell, no matter how many hard truths were used in the pitch.
"Only if anything coming out of your mouth about this future is real," I snapped back, "You come to me in the shape of someone else, you don't reveal your real face or name, how can I trust you You have something to do with Tiberius, but what exactly isn't something I can guess. That alone makes me want to tell you to go fuck yourself." If I had known who I was speaking to, perhaps I would have been a little more rude.
"As for the rest of it, my soul is my business. If I feel guilty for bedding both Julie and Tam, or for leading Mariette on in some way, that's between me and God."
I worried about that a lot. Whether or not it was fair, what sort of a cock I was for seemingly surrounding myself with beautiful women, what other people really thought about the whole thing. Mariette had been right about one thing, ordinary social conventions no longer applied, at least in the company of my army. Which was why it seemed so dangerous to me. There was almost nothing to stop me acting the sultan.
The spirit rumbled with laughter, the volume somehow increased by the Fade.
"You have heard my warning," she said, "And I think you believe it."
I pointed my weapon at her, not with intent to shoot but simply to place emphasis on what I was about to say. "I am on the fence," I said slowly, "Whether or not I follow your advice, I still won't like it."
The spirit looked away, to the dead and dying men on what was left of the road. "Even if you don't, I have done what I can," she continued, "You are not the sort to ignore that." She gestured to the carnage.
"If you can read my mind, you know I've seen worse, " I said, holstering the handcannon, "But if you want me to follow your counsel, tell me who and what you are. It would go a long way towards me trusting you."
"You are capable of finding out on your own," she said, "If you ask the right person."
"Tiberius then," I nodded.
"He can't tell you," the spirit said, "I am fond of him for... reasons you will discover, in time. But he thinks himself knowledgeable on the subject simply because he found your predecessor and because he has records on previous instances of men from your world being dragged to his own."
"Your kids will wear crowns," I paraphrased in a mocking tone, rolling my eyes, "Christ, reminds me of 11th grade English class. Macbeth. I won't be giving in to any temptations by accepting any crowns, count on that."
"You won't have to," the spirit said wearily, "I see any further discussion is pointless. I shall send you back."
"Good, because I've been ready to shoot y..."
The humidity and heat of summer drained away in an instant, sending me back to the cold Fereldan winter. I sat bolt upright in my bed, furs making way, panting like a dog and sweating like one too. My blurry, half-asleep vision swam in front of me, and my body felt like I had run twenty miles. A piercing headache slammed into my temples. I rubbed them, and got my breathing under control with some difficulty.
"Holy crap," I gasped.
Looking around, I saw that neither Julie nor Tam were in the room. That was a relief. Explaining what had just happened wasn't something I wanted to do. In fact, I was determined to keep it a secret. A quick check of my watch told me why they weren't present; it was eleven in the morning, and both were probably busy. I had slept in. Again.
I got up and washed, proceeding as if nothing had happened to the best of my ability.
I was ready in time for the daily war council at noon. A welcome distraction.
The council itself was fairly routine, with Julie and Alistair attending this time, and it only seemed to be good news.
The entire city was now in our control. The red light districts and the slums had been cleared of potential dangers. The Alienage was friendly to our cause as a result of the liberation of some of their relatives from the pimps. The merchants had done solid trade with our soldiers that morning, although the soldiers had to go to their shops as the market square had been empty out of fears. Despite quartering troops among the population, there had been no night time murders of Free Army soldiers nor any reported abuses of the residents.
Our supply situation was even better. The Orlesian ships we had captured were set to transport a large shipment of grain, which had been sitting in warehouses on the docks. We appropriated the entire shipment for later use. Fisher also reported that the regiments I had assigned him would be taken out onto the water to catch fish, appropriately enough, in order to begin their training as sailors. Combined with our access to the Fereldan breadbasket, we were eating properly again.
Our civilians' morale had also greatly improved as a result of that, and of the relative safety which we now enjoyed. Markham reported that the health of those with child had visibly picked up, although complaints about the quarters in the docklands had also picked up save for the Free Army soldiers that were on leave due to their condition. I grimaced throughout his entire report, not needing more talk about pregnancies. It had only been an hour or so since the nightmare I had woken up from.
Some of the production lines we had from Hearth were in the early stages of being restarted. Julie did not intend to get everything working again, but the tools for making firelances had been unpacked and would churn out their first test parts with Fereldan materials later that day. If everything checked out, we could count on another two thousand weapons.
Preparations for the triumphal march were also being made. Leha was seeing to the details, even making sure there was enough ale and meat for the city's temporary and permanent inhabitants to enjoy during the event. Bonfires to keep people warm were also planned, an idea out of McNulty's brain. A winter parade was no easy matter to watch, after all.
When all that had been mulled over, the council was adjourned. The King was allowed to leave first out of respect, probably to seek out Andras whom had not been present. I put my own plan into action: Two birds with one stone.
I beckoned for Julie and Tam to stay, drawing the grin of Armen and looks of confusion from Ciara and Leha as they left. I ignored them, and called Mariette de Villars over.
The harlequin, now dressed in Free Army green, saluted perfectly with a warm smile on her face, blue eyes looking up at me from under a fringe of blonde hair. I felt the look on my skin and felt warm suddenly, but not for the reasons you'd think.
"My lord Marquis," she drawled, "What would you have of me?"
I cleared my throat, the innuendo a little too on the nose in my mental state.
"I have an assignment for you," I said, keeping my tone professional, "Of the utmost importance."
"I'll do anything you want," she declared, a little too quickly.
I exchanged a glance with Julie, whom was listening with intent. I could feel the body heat of Tam standing behind me, though I doubted she found the whole thing anything other than hilarious. A sharp set of breaths indicated as much.
"General Velarana is planning something," I said, "I don't know what, but if it's political, that's against the general orders. Military officers are not allowed to be partisan. I need to know her intentions."
Mariette's smile died. "Marquis, my own cousin has political connections," she said, "In fact, she is the leader of the chevaliers. If you think they will stop involving themselves in..."
"That's different," I interrupted, "For one, she's a noble and part of the compromises made in Hearth were that nobles serving in the Free Army were still allowed to run for office and participate in politics."
"Although I will be abolishing that exception," Julie added cheerily, sitting down in her chair again, "Can't have one rule for some people and another for others, now that it's unnecessary." She was testing Mariette with that line.
The harlequin did not rise to the bait, either to object or to agree. "Any leads?" Mariette asked, "I have some idea where to start, but clearly you have some evidence or you would not have asked me to investigate."
"During the last council, Fisher looked to Velarana for permission to accept his new commission," I replied, "I think she offered him a position that would have conflicted with his duties. Fisher isn't good at hiding his intentions, nor are most of the Jaderites. You could start with them."
"Might also want to look into the merchants who aren't involved in army contracts," Julie said, crossing her arms, "I know many of them didn't appreciate being dragged across Thedas due to our defeat. They think the revolution has failed, and will prefer peace to war even at the cost of some of our new liberties." Of course, those who were involved in making guns, clothes, etc for the army were all for more war, and thus were happy to swing their support behind Julie.
"I wasn't aware things were that bad," I said to Julie, "It isn't the Lucrosians, is it?"
Julie scoffed. "The Libertarians and Lucrosians are both solidly behind me," she said, "All the mage factions including Velarana's Aequitarians are recruiting non-mages to their fraternities. They were having meets in camp every night, discussing what should happen to us and how best to settle down."
"That's proof enough that Velarana is involved," I pointed out, "I could strip her of her rank right now."
Our glorious leader shook her head. "The General stepped back from the leadership of the Aequitarians when we entered Ferelden," Julie said, "She can say that she isn't involved and be believed. Besides, she's a hero to the Army now for capturing the King. You would look like you were playing favourites by stripping her of her rank and honour, and I would lose votes because of it."
I grumbled something about that not mattering, the general orders were law. Julie ran her fingers through her long red-brown hair, displeased that I didn't see the danger.
Tam groaned, stepping beside me and resting a hand on my shoulder. "This back and forth is tiresome," she said, "Why would Velarana raise factions against us?"
"That is the one thing we do know," Julie smiled, "Her lieutenants, the political ones not the army ones, are going about talking about peace first and foremost. I don't think it's a ploy. She really wants peace."
"And she believes she can actually win it?" Tam asked, "How?"
"The activists haven't said," said Julie, "Just that peace is what we need."
I scratched my neck, wondering how all of this could have passed my notice. I knew I had deliberately stayed out of politics to the greatest extent I could, I considered the rules about participation as applying equally to me despite my unfairly proclaimed title of Marquis. But this seemed big enough for me to find out about. Apparently not.
"Velarana can't run for office," I repeated, "She's general of mages. Even draws a general's pay, or will from now on. She can't seriously be jeopardising both her position and the respect of her troops just to run for Chancellor."
Both Julie and Mariette looked at me like I was an ass, Julie in a way that showed she found it endearing, whereas Mariette seemed surprised I could be that naïve. It was the latter that answered me.
"She doesn't need to run," the harlequin explained, "She can just get her seconds to stand as candidates instead, and still win the election. The Chancellor is chosen by the Assembly, and the members of her faction will be more loyal to her than whoever she chooses to be her puppet."
Mariette turned to Julie. "I believe I have enough to start now," she said, "I will begin inquiries immediately."
"Don't come back until you have answers," I said, a little too harshly, "The triumph is tomorrow, I'd like to know what she is doing before we give her a champion's crown." I felt bad about going too far at once, but she took it in stride. Something was visibly wrong with me that day, I realised. Maybe I grunted once too often during the council session rather than answering with words.
"It will be done, my lord," Mariette curtsied, "I swear it." She spun on her heel and exited the room, stepping around the table and out the doors.
Thanking the Maker that she was gone, and likely would be for a few days at least, I sighed loudly and went to the large windows overlooking the harbour. Looking at the bobbing ships seemed relaxing, from a distance. Something I had discovered while waiting for the council to convene.
Julie and Tam joined me.
"Are you good?" Julie asked, worriedly, "You were like a bull today. Irritated." Not that I had noticed.
I blew out a breath, not sure how to explain. Telling them the whole truth would have caused any number of problems. I didn't have enough information to tell whether or not the dream or communication, whatever it was, had any truth to it. Until I did, both Julie and Tam had enough on their plates.
"No, I'm not good. I had a terrible dream," I said, "There are worse things, I'll get over it by tomorrow."
"I should not have let you sleep in," said Tam firmly, as if it had been her idea. No doubt Julie had told her to leave me be.
"Maybe," I teased back, feeling better at their worrying, "But I'm not sure you could have woken me even if you wanted to. It was that sort of dream."
They seemed to accept that, mostly. They pointedly did not move off to go to whatever their next engagement for the day was. They stuck around instead, staring out of the window. Waiting for me to do something. Probably waiting for me to tell them what the dream was about. I felt a mild surge of panic at the notion, but my mind quickly found a curious diversion.
"Can she win?" I asked suddenly, looking down at Julie, "Velarana. I mean."
Julie hmmed and hawed for a moment. Had she not considered the possibility seriously before? It certainly did seem to just come out of the dark, at least to us.
"No," she said at last, returning my gaze, "Supporting me, I have the Libertarians, the Lucrosians, the war manufacturers, Grand-Cleric Brandon, and Peacekeepers. Including the Peacekeeper. Velarana can probably swing the Aequitarian mages entirely behind her, but how well that translates to votes, I don't know. The Isolationists and the traders are probably for her, if peace is what she intends to offer. Aside from that, she isn't personally running and can't be seen to be involved, whereas I can be at the forefront."
Julie smiled widely. "I will be High Chancellor again," she said with certainty, "Although I might have to bend on some things, the revolution will continue. Always forwards."
"Even if the speed changes," Tam agreed, "Though I have to admit, the idea of peace is appealing to me."
"If only it was realistic," I said, "I really do wonder how Velarana plans to make it happen. The Qunari still want me, and the alliance with a Tevinter dynasty will only intensify that. There's a reckoning to come from the Chantry, or I'm not a betting man. And we'll probably piss off every noble in the Free Marches just by existing."
"Another reason she can't win," Julie said, stretching her arms up into the air, "Her proposals look unrealistic, even next to mine." A rare admission that she might be overambitious.
"Good," I said, "Only thing to worry about is whether or not the General is following the rules, in that case."
"I'm more worried about your sleep," Tam said, wrapping her arms around me from behind.
Julie joined the cuddle, slipping her hands around each of our hips. "Don't worry about that," she said, "We'll tire him out tonight. He'll sleep like a baby."
An unfortunate choice of words.
My favourite blacksmith and my favourite ex-tamassran kept their promise, and I did indeed sleep like a baby despite the concerns planted in my brain by the Fade creature that had invaded it. There was no repeat performance of that invasion, and if anything, the experience before I fell asleep soothed me to the point of thinking the warnings were entirely false.
How could I possibly say no to either Tam or Julie if they asked me for what would supposedly bring down the country? Mariette and whoever else was a different matter, but those two? I couldn't bring myself to deny them anything I could give them. Not least that expression of love and devotion, which is eventually expected of most people.
As such, I was an increasingly good mood on the day of the triumphal march. A stunning turnaround, even for me.
I started off refreshed in the early morning, and set about organising the troops for the event, leaving my lovers in bed. They deserved the rest. It was an overcast day, with very little wind and no rain. The last warm snap before the snows, Andras informed me when I met her to begin the final preparations.
Large braziers and bonfires had been placed along the route as planned, the local gendarmes and our troops within the city itself blocking off the main intersections. The taverns were prepared to do a large amount of business, and their profits for the day would be exempted from tax, making everything cheap. The brothels, now run by their workers, were also exempted, but on a permanent basis.
In short, everything was designed to promote an atmosphere of celebration and reconciliation, while still keeping our own military superiority in clear evidence.
Seeing it all come together, I knew it would go off without a hitch. Ironically, that fact was precisely what helped undo us later, for two reasons. One became clear that very day, during the triumph itself. The other only later, the high expectations we created with the spectacle coming back to bite us.
It was almost midday when the procession began gathering outside of the gate of Anora's Watch. Aequitarian mages, chevaliers, elven lancers, Grey Wardens, horseboys, drummer boys and fife players. All dressed in clean uniforms and furs. All preparing their equipment or horses, the banners being unfurled and held at rest. A cacophony of horse hooves on stone, murmurs and chatter, and occasional shouts for this and that. In the middle was the King's party, Alistair looking embarrassed if anything. After all, he was the trophy on display for the event. Bethany Hawke just looked bored, fiddling alternatively with her hair and her staff.
I watched this as I was preparing Bellona alongside Armen, Ciara and Leha, whom were preparing their own mounts. Julie and Tam had disappeared with Andras for the moment, though Revas and Fritz were standing beside us, waiting for their riders to return. It was a great opportunity to talk to Armen, whom had been MIA for the intervening time between the war council and the parade muster.
"Hey," I called to him, "You know about Velarana?"
The Libertarian cocked an eyebrow. "I know you have the prettier of the two de Villars nobles nosing about, looking for dirt on our General of Mages," he said, "She came to see me after the council, for names of Aequitarians she could..."
He paused, searching for the right phrase. Ciara provided.
"Pump for information?" the Dalish huntress chirped.
"That," said Armen, with a shrug.
Leha snorted. "That one isn't as seductive as she thinks," the dwarf said, "Doubt she's getting anything out of those named individuals."
"I think you're underestimating how stupid we males can be," Armen replied, eyeing at me, "When presented with a beautiful young woman, who is only asking some small thing in return for a promise of so... much."
Ciara looked daggers at me, catching on to his meaning. She knew Mariette's game only too well.
"Don't worry, I've got plenty of motivation to keep her away," I said, truthfully enough, "That's why I put her on this assignment. Should keep her busy for a while."
"Now you're underestimating her resourcefulness," Armen frowned, "And it's not like Velarana, the old bag, is some master of intrigue. She's competent at best. Against someone with bardic training, her secrets are open."
Curious, I looked across the street to where Velarana was standing, speaking closely with three other Aequitarian mages, the hilt of her spirit blade in her hand moving as she spoke. She looked like she was concentrating. I wondered if she was speaking about the investigation at that moment. My musings, and an idea to simply go ask her, were interrupted by the sight of Julie, Tam and Andras.
Julie and Andras appeared as I had expected them to. British Army uniform, kevlar, bullpup firelance, and beret for the former. Silver griffon necklace indicating the rank of Warden-Commander, Grey Warden robes and a staff for the latter. Furs over the shoulders of both.
No, it was Tam that surprised me. She was dressed in much the same way as Julie, at least as far as the kevlar and furs. She had the shotgun as her weapon of choice instead of a firelance, having grown fond of it during our previous mission, but that wasn't the substantial difference. No, it was the same silver griffon necklance as Andras' own around Tam's neck that was the big news.
It could mean only one thing.
"You accepted," I stated, as the three approached.
"I did," Tam nodded, "The others finally decided they wanted me. Discussed it all night."
"There wasn't much dissent," Andras confirmed, "The main question was whether or not she really wanted the job."
"I'm a Warden now whether I like it or not," Tam said, "It's a great honour to be asked to serve."
"Gives you more status too," Julie added happily, "Which you more than deserve."
Tam waved that off, never one to care about rank in that way.
"Well then, we owe you congratulations," Armen said, bowing at the waist to Tam, "Warden-Commander."
Tam gave a laugh at his insincerity, and ruffled his hair. "Thank you, Armen," she said. She offered me a piece of parchment. Not sure what was on it, I took it and gave it a scan.
"Endowment of the rank of Commander of the Grey," I read aloud, "Upon Tam Hunt, to take command of those Wardens Joined from the ranks of the Army of Free Orlais, and the realm it controls..."
Tam Hunt it said.
It had never occurred to me that Tam didn't have a surname. And now, she had chosen one. One I had absolutely no doubt was chosen due to the impeding arrival of a Tevinter magister. Tam looked at me with her big violet eyes, searching for approval. After all, she had taken my name.
I sighed, shaking me head, and gave a small nod. She breathed out, with relief if I'm any judge. She hadn't been sure if I would in fact approve. As I'm sure the readers of this text are aware by now, that was a silly thing to get twisted about. Although, my mind did briefly return to the warning of the night before last.
"I wonder what the First Warden will think of the whole thing, when the Order gets that document," Andras said, "Lucky us that communication with Weisshaupt is difficult."
"I'm quite sure I don't care," Julie declared, "We have enough Wardens for a separate legion of the Order, and we needed a Commander. Weisshaupt will want our weapons, they'll do nothing."
"One hopes," Andras said, "I better take my place. See you at the keep afterwards for drinks?"
"I hope so," Leha declared, "I still haven't talked to you about payment for the weapons we'll be providing you, and I think I'll get a better deal for us when you're drunk."
"You can certainly try," Andras said wryly, "I'll get Hawke to conjure an illusion of some pretty boy, just so everything is equal."
"Please do," Leha grinned evilly.
The Warden-Commander of Ferelden wandered off towards the King, giving us a wave as she turned her back to us and leaving the future Warden-Commander of Troy in our care. I looked on, very glad she was the person in charge of Amaranthine. I only wished we could have had more time with her, oddly enough. That we'd likely never see her again after departing Ferelden's shores struck me at that moment as a great pity.
Of course, what better moment of reflection for Mariette to interrupt, storming through the horses at a sprint, dodging and pirouetting through the groups of soldiers. At first, I didn't recognise her, as she was dressed in a tunic and hood in restrained colours, something you might see a merchant wearing. But the hunting boots gave her away. You didn't see merchants with hunting boots in ornate Orlesian style, not even in Amaranthine.
She skidded to a halt in front of us, exhaling heavily.
"Marquis," she said, saluting, "I have your information."
Damn, she was good, I thought. "Excellent, Major," I said, "Report."
"The General is not breaking the rules," Mariette said rapidly, "She plans to lay down her commission and rank, and stand against the Marquise in the election."
I was nearly dumbstruck. It seemed both out of Velarana's character and a gross dismissal of the great honours piled on her by me personally, not least the triumph we were about to celebrate.
"She's going to quit the Army?!" I half-shouted, "But she's never shown that sort of nerve before!"
"She captured the King, Sam," Armen growled, "And she's always been interested in leading. Until now, it was just the mages she wanted to lead. I guess she got more ambitious."
"And we're about to give her the best start possible," Julie said, incredulous, "This entire day is about praising her leadership and daring. I don't believe it..."
"The election is not for a month," Tam said calmly, "And you still hold all the support you had before."
"In theory," Julie nodded, "But now, it's an actual race. Not a matter of slapping her cats' paws down. I was hoping to run a quiet campaign."
"Impossible," Mariette interrupted, "She plans to challenge you in front of people, about your ideas for the new realm."
That sounded familiar. In fact, it was common practice back home. "Debates?" I asked, "She wants to do debates?"
"Like in the University?" Mariette asked, "Maybe? I don't know what was meant by that, and I couldn't ask without revealing my intentions."
Tam cleared her throat loudly, and tilted her head in a certain direction. We all looked, wondering what she was doing. Speak of the Devil and he shall appear; Velarana was making her way calmly towards us, alone. Her stare was locked onto me. She knew that we knew, and I had mixed feelings about that.
Closing my fists, I stepped around my companions and met Velarana in front of them.
"General," I said, with all due courtesy, "Is there something you want?"
Velarana looked over the others, her gaze remaining on Mariette longer and staying on Julie for far less time. Wise in the latter case, as I was sure that Julie was close to having a Hiroshima moment.
"I would like you to ride with me," the Aequitarian finally said, "I would like to discuss the topic I wished to bring up before, in the council session when we planned this parade."
Julie wasn't the only one who might have gone nuclear, and I had to put a lot of effort in to not explode at the mage.
"I'm sure you do," I said, careful to keep my tone ice cold, "Now that I know exactly what you're planning."
"You do not know," Velarana replied quickly, "And besides that, it's my right as a citizen to do what you have heard about."
Which was absolutely correct. It was her right.
"But you are the true power of this Army, Marquis," she continued, "At least until we are fully established in our own settlement. I would like to explain my intentions as far as I can. I need you to know that my plans are not ignoble."
I stayed silent, not sure what to do. I got the distinct buzzing feeling in the back of my head when some place in my mind thought I was being manipulated. But her words were appropriate and well chosen. Very much so. Maybe that was why I was so suspicious, what she was saying was perfectly reasonable on the surface. Luckily, there were people with greater political acumen than I had on hand to help.
I looked back at Julie, and raised my eyebrows in inquiry. As well as asking for permission.
"Go," Julie said, without a moment's hesitation.
I turned back to Velarana, and grabbed Bellona's reins. "Lead on, General."
She did as commanded. I joined the Aequitarian ranks for the parade.
Midday itself signalled the beginning of the march. We lined up in front of the gate to the docklands, the bands made their way to the head of the formation.
The drums and Dalish fifes struck up Dixie and we started through. Blondie's chevaliers first, the King's Party and my companions after them, and finally, Isewen's lancers as the rearguard. Our civilians and the troops on leave cheered our passing from the docks and the warehouses by the ships until they could cheer no more, the Jaderites doing so from the masts of our ships. The band strained to put out Garryowen loud enough to be heard over it all, maybe fifteen or twenty thousand people cheering along the entire route. As we reached the junction for our turn onto the main avenue, the other officers were waiting.
"Eyes... left!" the sergeants shouted.
The mages turned their heads left, and saluted. Admiral Fisher, Generals Soprano, McNulty, and Mike, and the majors of the line regiments saluted back. The others waved back in their own ways, Grand-Cleric Brandon, Knight-Commander Barris, Knight-Master Markham, Amund the Avvar Sky Watcher, the First Enchanters of the Isolationists and the Lucrosians Valle and Marable. The column made a smart right turn, down through the warehouse rows and through onto the main avenue of Amaranthine.
In this part of the march, the cheering didn't start until the Theirin mabari banner passed by the bonfires and barricades at each street branching off, and got a particularly raucous reception at the main crossroads. The windows overlooking the avenue were packed with onlookers, and the rooftops above were lined with watchful firelancers, cradling their weapons and observing all that happened.
Velarana had remained silent until that point, keeping to waving to the masses with a very convincing smile instead, but now deemed it right to speak.
"I'm going to resign tonight and challenge your lady for Chancellor," she said, out of blue, "Because I think she's going to get us all killed if she isn't stopped. I will be forever grateful to her for giving me shelter from the Templars, and I believe in much of what she has created with this army and in Free Orlais. But she always pushes too far. She wants to spread these ideals across Thedas, and everyone knows it. While she remains our leader, we will never have enough time to gather strength."
I wasn't so naïve to think I could put the Free Army up against the entire world and come out on top, but I didn't think Julie was either. Whereas Velarana was being naïve on one pretty huge issue.
"You want peace," I replied, "Our enemies don't. If we back down, they'll take advantage."
"I disagree," Velarana said, "The beginning of a true civil war in Orlais has left us as a lesser concern to the Empress, if we are a concern at all. We have peace with Gaspard, for what it is worth. The Mage Rebellion will turn to full scale warfare soon, I can feel it. That will give us still more breathing space. The opportunity to settle in the Marches without provoking hatred will exist but only for a brief moment, and if we do not take it, we may be scattered and destroyed."
"You forgot the Qunari," I said, as we cleared the main crossroads.
"I want peace," she replied, "I didn't say I wanted disarmament. Quite the contrary. I intend to improve the state of our armed forces. But I will not use them to attack people whom otherwise would leave us alone. I know the Marquise finds tyranny unacceptable. I find it acceptable as long as it is not applied to me, and those living under it can flee."
"Julie has learned from what has happened," I said, "Notice we aren't overthrowing the Fereldan monarchy, we're sending the King back to his Queen and his capital with his head still attached to his neck."
"She's Orlesian," Velarana smirked back, "She believes Ferelden hopeless in either case."
I frowned, because that was the truth too. Deciding I needed to change tack, I nudged Bellona closer to Velarana's horse. What I wanted to say was more delicate. "Do you believe the Chantry will accept a mage as the head of a realm?" I asked, "No one among our number would blink at it, of course, but..."
"I have a plan to deal with that," Velarana said with confidence, "Needless to say, I believe the Chantry will be satisfied with the safeguards I intend to put in place. Otherwise, I would not have made this decision."
That sounded just as ambitious as Julie plotting to overthrow the entire nobility of Thedas, which was admirable in its own way but didn't make Velarana sound like the steady hand she clearly saw herself as.
The band started on Preussen Gloria, which got a response from the crowd, particularly from the kids. I was surprised that parents had brought their children at all, but I had underestimated the goodwill I had generated from taking out the scum of the city in a single stroke. The thought brought me to the next question, as clearly Velarana wanted to cultivate my own goodwill towards her.
"What do you want from me?" I asked.
"Two things," the mage said, "The most important is that I need to know that you will respect the result of the election. I know you love the Marquise. You support her plans. I do not wish to end up dead or imprisoned because you don't like the way people voted."
I took genuine, fiery offence to that.
"I killed men for democracy before I ever came to this world, General," I spat, keeping my voice low enough that we might not be fully overheard, "Don't talk shit when you should know better. Order me to do something criminal or try to remove me as head of the Army because you want to give someone else orders like that, then I'll kill you. Without hesitation. But not for winning the election."
"I'm glad to hear the anger in your voice, Marquis," she said, actually sounding pleased, "I believe I can trust you to respect the will of the people now. I didn't before, not completely."
"What's the second thing?" I asked, wanting to get it over with more than before.
The mage pressed on. "I want more access to your library," said Velarana, "All of it. I believe my solution can be perfected with ideas from the realms of your world. Innovations that meld the interests of nobles, Chantry, mages and commoners surely exist in the books you don't let most of us see."
I did not think that was true. I believed such a compromise to be impossible, or at least one that satisfied absolutely everyone to be so. And I was right about that. But it was a small request made in earnest. If she had remained a General, she would have had access to the books from Earth as a matter of course, but she intended to resign, cutting herself off. There were some things I didn't want her seeing, though.
"You can have access to everything except the books describing military technology in any detail," I responded, after a minute, "You're not getting the formula for blackpowder."
"What I want to see is history, not technology," Velarana said, "For a more permanent solution to our problems. I have my own ideas, I want to see if they were tried before."
"Earth is not Thedas," I said.
"Of course, but humans are humans," said Velarana, "It will help." I was acutely aware that she was an elf, but she had never shown any sign of embracing this identity.
She said this as we finally exited the city, and passed through the outer slums. The column drew up into a wide formation once we were clear, and the King's party drew opposite it, the road to Denerim wide open to them. Alistair and Julie exchanged words that I couldn't hear at the time, but according to Julie's recollection, it amounted to both sides exchanging words like "Go in peace, but if we ever catch you, mercy is unlikely because our reputation is at stake." Alistair being more tactful about it than Julie was, without a doubt.
Of course, we would meet Alistair again, at Redcliffe Castle in 9:41. Anora too, in fact. The circumstances would preclude any notions about our relatively petty dispute, though.
The King of Ferelden and his guards rode off, and the triumphal regiments watched until they could no longer see their former captive. We had no idea if another army was being raised to try and take the city back from us. If us letting him go would curtail that, or encourage it. It was a huge gamble.
But all I could think about was the fact that Julie was going to be utterly furious, at Velarana for her audacity and perhaps at me for going along with it. Compared with that, another Fereldan attack seemed positively inviting, because at least I could use cannons against the Fereldans.
Maybe I wouldn't have to worry about destroying our country in the future after all, because I might not come out of this with everything intact.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Lots of things here.
Another major character revealed, one planned since the beginning, albeit nameless for now.
Some of the aforementioned plot relevancy of the 'harem' making itself evident here, for which I might be punished. Harem stories always struck me as very naïve in their assessment of the realities of sex and marriage, particularly in a world of dodgy contraception. The added dimension of politics only further complicates matters. Since this has more or less been classified in that genre by many at this stage, I thought a little reflection on all that fit the story nicely.
Velarana's plot, or part of it, coming into the light with her new role as leader of those opposing Julie. She was also always planned to take this role.
And of course, the shadow of Aurelia's arrival hanging over everything.
Overall, I'm quite satisfied with it and I hope you are too.
5 Coloured Walker: Dots are a laugh.
Thepkrmgc: Indeed he does. Velarana has lots planned. More than Sam knows as of this chapter, certainly.
Meatzman2: Indeed it was.
Makurayami: Bhelen's been able to overturn their exile, but hasn't really been able to entice surface dwarves back. The money to be made on the surface is a huge draw away from Orzammar, and the kingdom is still stuck in a Forever War with the darkspawn, in which the casteless are now part of the fight as auxiliaries. As for Leha's people, they'll be featuring heavily in the next volume.
Viper: I'll try to!
Katkiller-V: Most of the relatively sedate chapters are set-up for more dramatic ones :P
The Qun have not forgotten, I can assure you of that.
Alpha909: I have a great appreciation for binge-readers of my work, thanks!
Unfortunately, the Templars can't have been founded by an Outlander because of how the Outlander 'powers' actually function... but that's waaay in the future explanation wise, so you'll have to be patient.
Vendicor: Admittedly, I was sceptical that anyone would want to read this at first, but I'm assured it's interesting by a good enough number of people for me to believe it by now haha!
Luck is always appreciated.