Of All This Past
Orzammar smells like no other city. The great streams of lava that flow beneath the levels of the enormous cavern complex give out belches of complex gases that permeate everything, the rock, the houses, the food, the water, the clothes, the ale, and make the air smell warm and dry and powdery. The lava also makes a sound: a slithery, slippery swooshing noise peppered with cracks that can be heard in every corner, no matter how far from those giant pits one gets, and for the first week or so it makes them all unable to sleep right. Zevran fares the worst: the Antivan assassin is accustomed to open skies and clean air and the houses, palaces and hovels of his human employers, so even in the magnificent quarters provided to them by Bhelen Aeducan he's irritable and unusually grim and prone to paranoia ad extremis. Leliana is obsessed with nugs, probably due to insomnia: the hairless and rather revolting little animals are apparently the basis of Dvarwen cuisine and folklore and she constantly talks about how much she'd love to have one. Sten is still mostly silent, but since he and Giovanna had a private and secretive talk with one of the merchants outside the city gates, some of the darkness that was on his face ever since they met him left him somehow.
Wynne's change in behavior, however, is what makes all of them aware of just how different this quest is from all the rest. The dwarves process an insane amount of lyrium that they normally sell for surfacers and the magical ore and its dust are present everywhere in the city, in an increased quantity now that surface trade has been halted. One morning they find the mage almost unconscious by her bed, mumbling incoherently about some dreams in the Fade: tunnels and veins of iridescent blue raw lyrium and tall iron doors and golems… "Oh Maker, the golems…" she sobs into Alistair's shoulder as he helps her to sit on the edge of her bed, her fingers grabbing his shirtsleeve with the strength of the vision-stricken, and he watches helplessly as Wynne cries with big, hiccupy sobs. "Those poor, poor souls…" that's all she says any further, and Morrigan purses her lips with disapproval as she tries to force a sleeping draught on the Senior Enchanter that doesn't contain any lyrium. The witch herself is seemingly unaffected, which doesn't help with Alistair's paranoia about her at all, but he watches as the raven-haired woman covers Wynne with blankets and smoothes the edges carefully under her arms, tucking her in, and decides to quietly withdraw.
None of them understands what Wynne meant until later, after they walk through that arch with the sealed door the last time, returning from the Dead Trenches and beyond. All of them are covered in dust and dried blood, heads hanging low, backpacks empty from all food and almost all water, faces pale and eyes large and hooded. Alistair would dearly love to go to their quarters in the palace first, to clean up and get some food in his belly because, by Andraste's flaming sword, they didn't have a bite for the last two days of forced march and that armor scrubbing she's insisted on at their last camp, but he takes a look at Giovanna and decides to not even say anything.
He's gotten really good at figuring out when to keep his mouth shut, lately. Maybe she's right and he has some makings of a royal, after all. Or maybe it's merely the memories of this last trip into the Deep Roads that makes him swallow his protests and follow their leader as she marches along the wide avenue lined with merchants, up the stairs to the bridge overarching the largest stream of lava, leading towards the Diamond Quarters. There are dwarves on the streets, but after one glance at their group they carefully steer clear. Giovanna clutches the bag she's holding in her hand like it was a talisman of some sorts, and, Alistair reflects, it is, in a sense—it certainly was paid in blood and sweat and tears and death, many, many times. Knowing what he knows about dwarven history now, it makes a sort of macabre sense. And thus, he follows her, along with the others, straight to the Assembly Hall building, and watches as she sweeps past the door guards and the majordomo with barely a glance. Oghren, now-barely-drunk Oghren is on her heels, and she pushes the heavy steel doors of the Hall open with such a force that the wings bang against the frames with the toll of a dozen bells and everyone inside jumps to their feet. They follow, and Alistair finds it strange that all of the rest of them looks at him as if waiting for instructions or orders…
The lights of a dozen or more candelabras lighting the chamber of the Assembly glint off the spikes of the crown Giovanna holds in her hand, and it glows with its own light, like it did when it was still fresh-hot from Caridin's forge. The last creation of the paragon of legend, the symbol of kingship and an end of an era, no doubt: Alistair gained enough knowledge about Bhelen during their stay in the city to know that once elected, he will, indeed, bring change.
Not sure these deshyr understand it just yet, though. They all stare at his fellow Warden with a mixture of fear and awe, as she stands there, her red-and-silver armor gleaming almost as strongly as the crown. Alistair knows she polished those armor pieces well into the night with the same thoroughness and precision she used to break through the Paragon Branka's magic-enhanced defenses. The armor is squeaky clean, but has some dents on it here and there, and some straps that need mending—it's curious how he notes these little things, just like he sees those streaks of soot and dirt on her face and the way her carefully braided hair is matted with dried blood still. They all look like that, scrubbed armor and dirty bodies, but the cheering that erupts in the chamber seems to ignore that, or even exalts it, as Bhelen slowly takes the crown from Giovanna's hand.
These dwarves are all too practical, Alistair muses as he looks on—they were locked in a deadly contest for kingship that paralyzed the entire city, and now they simply go ahead and have their coronation ceremony right here and then, without any further preparations or fuss. He and his companions look on from the visitors' gallery they are carefully ushered to by the seneschal of the Assembly, as Bhelen Aeducan's forehead is anointed and the gleaming crown finally comes to rest on his head as he stands before all the assembly's lords and ladies, pounding their staffs on the floor in unison. Giovanna is by his side at parade rest, eyes scanning the crowd, face expressionless, hand on Starfang, her sky-metal sword. Given how many times they were attacked in this city, it seems like a wise precaution, and Alistair catches himself doing the same. But just then the newly crowned King of Orzammar stands up and looks straight at him, inclining his head a bit, a knowing smile on his lips… and he shakes his head as he realizes that obviously Bhelen knows. Alistair has no idea how, or why, but the man—the dwarf, he corrects himself instantly—hasn't stayed alive in the dead middle of lethal Dwarven politics for nothing. Bhelen raises his hand, quieting the cheering deshyrs around him and starts to speak. The words don't quite reach them up where they are, but as four guards immediately start to move in the direction where Lord Harrowmont, the other contender for the throne sits unmoving, scowl of distaste etched on his face, it's rather plain what Bhelen's first royal order would be. Alistair stares in disbelief at the drawn swords of the guards; some of Harrowmont's followers starting to pull their weapons as well… Will there be bloodshed in the middle of their sodding Assembly Hall, of all places, he wonders and then he sees Giovanna shake her head angrily and lean down to whisper to Bhelen in short, angry bursts, her sapphire eyes almost on fire. Some of Bhelen's cronies move to restrain her, and Alistair seriously considers jumping from the gallery to the floor and take them down if they as much as lay a finger on her, but there's no need. The new king holds up a hand and everyone grows quiet.
"I am reminded by the Warden," he says in a voice that carries into all corners of the cavernous hall, "that in order to fight the darkspawn and regain what we lost, Orzammar must be united. Also, to signify that my rule will be, indeed a time of change for everyone, it must be known for clemency." he adds with a grimace, and Alistair sees the steely determination behind those words. The true nature of Bhelen Aeducan, ruthless political schemer and expert manipulator, is glimpsed in that moment: his all-consuming passion to do anything and everything in the interest of achieving his true goal—to better his homeland. And although Alistair knows that the ends don't always justify the means (and he has seen way too many examples of that since he met Giovanna) he cannot help but sympathize with the Aeducan for the enormous task he no doubt is facing in changing Dwarven society literally from the ground up. "Therefore," Bhelen continues, with another glance in Alistair's direction, and he knows, simply knows that there will be a meeting between them, and soon, and he's so not looking forward to it, "we shall be merciful. Lord Pyral Harrowmont, you are hereby arrested for attempting to assassinate the Grey Wardens visiting Orzammar on a quest of utmost importance."
Giovanna, yet again, moves to protest, but Bhelen raises a hand, and this time he does it with such finality that she has no choice but step back. Alistair cannot hear what he says in a lower voice to her, but it's clear that he wants no further argument, not here, not now, and he catches himself agreeing with the new king. And that shocks him almost more than anything he'd seen in the Deep Roads in the past weeks. He understands why he cited that exact reason for arresting the former general, and cannot help but incline his head in return towards him, in reluctant acknowledgment of his political genius, even though he feels somehow dirty for doing that.
Back in their quarters, in the royal palace, when they finally get a chance to scrub off the grime from their skin, Alistair almost scalds himself with the hot water, as if to erase the memory of slimy tentacles and bursting sacs of shapeless flesh showering them with fluids dark and sticky… The hot lava continuously flowing under the city has its advantages: dwarven engineers created an array of pipework under the palace that is heated by heat tunneled up from the lava stream and pumped into the palace's bathchambers by great engines in the basement. He stands under the steaming water ofr a long while: the soaps have an earthy scent to them here, different than anywhere else he traveled in Ferelden, and the water smells of brimstone just enough to give him a slight headache. His thoughts keep returning to the last time he used this bathchamber, before they set out to their latest quest to find the lost Paragon, Branka. He wasn't alone under the hot spray of water and wisps of scented steam then...and he has to force himself to stop walking down that path by grabbing the bucket full of cold water standing next to the stone basin he's standing in, and upend it over his head.
Giovanna still haven't returned: she parted them at the Assembly, explaining tersely that she had some business at the Sheparate and should return when she was done there; she took Shale with her. He feels her absence way too keenly, more so since they hardly parted during the Deep Roads journey, and that memory did nothing to ease the feeling of sudden emptiness either, so after he spends way too much time to dry himself with some indecently soft towels, he pulls on some clean clothes from where the invisible palace servants laid it out for him, and sets out towards the royal kitchens. It is not the first time he makes this journey: he discovered the way during their first stay here, and knows that the royal cooks are usually gone at this late hour but that the larder is not locked and that the cheese selection is pretty good. And man, he needs some good hard cheese right now. He hopes the rest of his companions are all asleep by now, or at least resting, and no one will see him padding through the inlaid floors of the guest quarters, down the servant staircase and the corridor where the more mundane parts of the royal palace are located.
He hears noises as he nears, though: someone is awake, after all, and his steps slow as he listens. He can make out three voices: a woman, young and fairly agitated, a man, mildly amused, and between them, some high-pitched noises of a young child.
"You should really be in bed now, Endrin." The woman says, exasperated. "You finished with your dinner an hour ago!"
"Toy!" The child sings with glee. "Toytoytoytoytoy."
"Oh, by the Stone, please, you are not helping, love." The woman sounds like she tries to decide if she should be crying or laughing. "No, Endrin, that's not a toy, you can't…"
"Of course he can." That voice is familiar, and Alistair hesitates for a second before his final step takes him across the kitchen threshold. "Today, he can do pretty much whatever he wants." A moment of silence, then, in a different voice: "I believe we have a guest; do enter, please."
"Erm…yes, good evening… Majesty." Alistair rakes his fingers through his hair nervously as he obeys. Of all the things he expected today this'd be the last—to find Orzammar's newly elected King in the kitchen of his palace, sitting at the corner of the large table in the middle, with a bowl of stew and a heel of bread in front of him, accompanied by a red-haired dwarven woman and a toddler in a highchair excitedly banging a spoon against the crown the Paragon Caridin crafted in the depths of the Dead Trenches.
"Please sit with us. " Bhelen Aeducan says, a glimmer of amusement in his deep-set eyes. "It is a tradition, you know: Rica and I started to eat here when she moved to the Palace, and now I am not supposed to miss it because Endrin gets agitated if his father isn't here for his supper." He sighs. "This is the first time, ever, that he had to wait for me, and I was reminded." He looks at the woman. "Oh, how I was reminded."
"You promised." The woman—Rica, Alistair remembers now, Rica Brosca is the name, he heard it from quite a number of gossipers during their shopping expeditions in town—looks a bit discomforted, glancing at Alistair from the corner of her eye. She stands her ground, though, gently trying to pry the toddler's fingers off the royal crown. "Promises are kept, even I know that."
Obviously, there's more to this than they say, Alistair concludes, but he cannot really ask about it aloud. He shifts his weight uneasily, and Bhelen notices.
"Don't mind us, Warden." he says, a wry smile on his lips. He pulls out the chair next to him. "If it's not too much of a bother, please sit with us—my neck gets a crick in it if I have to stare at you any longer, if you don't mind."
"Oh." Alistair feels himself blushing in embarrassment. "Sorry, Majesty, I didn't mean…" Great, he thinks, just great, now he's stuttering like when he was a boy and managed to drop one of the arlessa's hatboxes.
"Please don't stand on ceremony." The King of Orzammar is entertained by his discomfort, it's plain to see. "After all, in a manner of speaking, we're equals." He waves a hand towards Rica. "Love, this is Alistair of the Grey Wardens, and, strictly between ourselves, the son of the late King Maric of Ferelden; thus, currently, the only heir of the Theirin bloodline that held the Fereldan throne for centuries."
Alistair feels like the floor just buckled under his feet. He is sure his expression is especially entertaining, because Little Endrin giggles at him like he was a special new toy, and finally lets go of the crown to reach out and grab his arm.
"Erm… how do you know?" he manages to squeeze the question out as he carefully, oh so carefully folds himself to the offered chair. That hard cheese would really come handy now, but he cannot exactly ask anyone in this kitchen right now to bring it to him, can he?
"My dear Alistair." Bhelen's smile is sharp now, and Alistair reminds himself that with this dwarf in particular, he really has to watch himself: the domestic bliss scene he just witnessed notwithstanding. Or maybe especially because of that. "I played the politics of Orzammar since I learned to walk. Do you really think I am unable to find out who my guests really are? Especially since I happen to have a portrait of your royal father, and your half-brother, in our visitor's gallery. " He strokes his beard thoughtfully. "I also met King Maric, of course, when I was young. You do bear a rather strong resemblance to him, and to King Cailan as well. Except the hair, of course."
"What's wrong with the hair?" Alistair asks defensively, feeling his cheeks go heated again. He mentally curses his inability to control his facial features, and really wishes Giovanna was there. She's the one with the diplomatic abilities, and he feels terribly out of his element without her.
"You got helmet hair, my dear prince." Bhelen says, gently, and Alistair hears Rica snicker. "But even with that, there are already whispers around the palace about you by those who have eyes to see. Even Ri here told me the other day that you reminded her of someone, and you has never actually been formerly introduced before: of course, she was referring to the portrait gallery." He shrugs. "Your fellow Warden has already been labeled The Kingmaker by some of my people—who is to say that she won't do it again? I am merely being cautious and building relationships, as they were, ahead of time." He looks at Rica. "Love, could we get some more of your excellent stew before you retire? I am sure our guest here is famished, and I had a rather long day as well."
Apparently, the King's woman knows dismissal when she hears one. She makes a chuffing noise, but she smiles as she dishes out the stew, cuts two large slices of bread and—Maker be blessed— large chunks of crumbly yellow cheese, scoops up Little Endrin who's found a wooden spoon and is busy chewing on its end at the moment, and disappears towards the royal quarters.
"A good woman is hard to find." Bhelen says, looking after her. "She's from Dusttown, you know that." He picks up his spoon. "Please don't stand on ceremony; go ahead—Rica makes a mean nug stew…" His eyes get distant for a second as he continues. "A noble hunter, they call them; the pretty girls who want to attach themselves to denizens of the Diamond Quarter so their sons will be nobles."
"Ah." Alistair says over his spoon; the stew is hot and tasty, and he is very hungry. He also wonders why on earth Bhelen confides in him so, but at the same time he thinks he knows the answer.
The next thought, though, just kind of pops out of his mouth after the next bite of bread, unbidden and rather uncouth:
"And you still brought her here, knowing that…?"
"Of course." Bhelen looks at him as if he was an idiot. "She never made it a secret. In fact," he muses, "that was one of the reasons I found her…attractive. Her honesty about it. She had to make a living, she said, and this was better than going addled in a lyrium smelter or robbing merchants in the Commons taverns. You understand, of course, that she had an… employer." he adds, almost as an afterthought, as he breaks off a piece of cheese and crumbles it into his bowl. Seeing Alistair's shocked expression, he smiles again before continuing. "That is, someone who paid for her education, clothing, makeup, jewelry, all those things that might catch the eye of a wealthy …patron. Then, if she succeeds, this person is supposed to share her fortune with her, as a family member when she moves into the household of her new…suitor."
"I see." Alistair toys with his bread a bit, feeling very uncomfortable. "And may I ask what happened to this…employer?"
"Oh, I killed him." Bhelen's eyes are guileless, and he has a small smile on his lips. "It would have been singularly stupid of me not to do so; he represented a risk I wasn't willing to take, and it impressed Rica that I personally made the kill." He's enjoying this, Alistair realizes with a sinking feeling in his stomach. At the same time, he cannot help but realize that in an odd way Bhelen is trying to connect with him, like an equal…and if that's not confusing enough for him, it also dawns on him listening to the new King that in an odd, twisted way he is educating him; or rather he thinks he is. "She gave me a son, who will be noble, and… who knows?" The King shrugs. "You must have gathered by now that I don't intend to leave things the way they have been for so long."
"Indeed." Alistair nods: he suspects his usual frankness right now might be an advantage, and he decides to press on it. "Orzammar is full of rumors about how you favor the casteless and how… crass the nobles found you moving your Dusttown woman to the palace." He narrows his eyes as he finally finds a way to voice his thoughts. "Which makes me wonder why you're telling all of this to me, naturally? I mean, we're not exactly best friends since childhood confessing our life secrets to each other, are we? If we were, I'd have to tell you about how I acquired my cheese devotion, which is hardly something I would divulge to a casual acquaintance…"
"You love her." Bhelen says suddenly, and Alistair feels like he's back in the Deep Trenches again, staring at the endless swarm of darkspawn marching in the abyss under the watchful eyes of the Archdemon. "You love your Kingmaker, just like I love my noble hunter—and we're both willing to go to extremes in order to be with them." The King's eyes are uncharacteristically sad, and Alistair is, all of a sudden, afraid. "Aren't we?"
Later, when he's back in his room,—he's not exactly sure how he got back there, but hopes he wasn't too rude to his host-- he kills the lamps and candles, sheds his clothes and stretches out under the soft sheets on the mattress stuffed with soft bird feathers, an impossible luxury even in noble houses in Ferelden. His heart still beats like he just fought his way through an entire squadron of hurlocks and ran five miles afterward in dark tunnels covered in darkspawn slime. He doesn't want to think, doesn't want to dwell on anything that happened today, or yesterday, or any other time that they spent on the Deep Roads. He hopes for sleep, but no sleep comes for quite a while—and when it finally does, it is interrupted by the sound of his door opening. He immediately reaches for his sword that he always keeps by his bedside, here, or in camp... but stops short of pulling it out of the scabbard as he hears Giovanna's soft voice calling from the darkness.
"Alistair? Are you in here?"
"It's my room." he answers, not exactly sure why he's whispering. "In case you are lost, you know, yours is next door."
She doesn't answer that; instead, he hears her clicking the door shut and pad closer. She's barefoot; she slides up on the bed and under the blankets in the complete darkness, next to him and he feels how fast her heart beats under the thin shift she's wearing.
"You are...naked?" she inquires after a moment of shifting and manuevering, and Alistair almost grins hearing the politely suppressed disbelief in her voice. She is so... so damned noble, still, despite all the time they spent on the road, and despite all the times they spent together. Especially all those times.
"I spent just enough nights sleeping in full armor lately to learn to appreciate not wearing anything when I have the opportunity to sleep in a real bed again." He hopes that sounds sufficiently neutral, unlike his body's reaction to her this close to him. She smells of lavender-scented soap, and her hair is damp, falling around her shoulders and down her back in great waves.
"I can understand that." she says quietly, running her fingers up and down his arm, and Alistair shivers. Out on the Deep Roads they didn't even have the strength to properly set up camp, let alone think about privacy together. The few times they had, were on their way to Orzammar, and in the city itself—and those were woefully inadequate for anything. The fact that she came to him isn't lost on Alistair at all, oh no. So he doesn't ask about how her trip to the Shaperate went, or what else she had accomplished, and she doesn't ask him about his evening or what happened while they parted. Instead, he leans over, brushes his lips against hers, traces her cheekbones with his fingers... and this is all it takes, really.
He needs this just as much as she: no words, no questions or doubts, just the two of them in complete darkness, alone with the sounds, smells and movements of the ages-old dance of want and need. He can't imagine this with anyone else, and reality, once again, proves to be so much more than his confused dreams back in the abbey. They are both alive, and back from that dreadful place, and without words they proceed to tell each other just how much joy life can bring.
Her shift ends up on the floor, their kisses more and more heated; her hands are everywhere, and his teeth grazes her shoulder. She twists her hips and suddenly she is above him, waves of hair cascading down, hiding them both from the outside world. His hands are on her hips and hers on his shoulders, backs arching and bending as they kiss and part over and over again, bodies slick with sweat and throats raw from sounds without words, as they relearn each other and their own ritual of joining in a rush of blood and sweat and tears.
"Your hair." he whispers the question later as their bodies still tingle from joy and their limbs are tangled under the blanket pulled over them both. "It's so long...You've never cut it?"
"Promised never to." she answers after a moment of silence in which she shifts so she can burrow even closer against his side. He's about to ask who that promise was made to, but she continues, and Alistair hears the sadness in her voice. "When I started training, my mother was utterly terrified that I'd consider cutting it short like a boy's, but my father..." She swallows and her body tenses for a second. "My father told her she'd never done it herself, for all the years she'd been with the rebel army, so she'd better teach me how to braid it up good and tight so it doesn't end up a hindrance in fight." Another pause. "And so she did. And so I promised to keep it long, like a proper lady I never was in any other way."
There is so much that she doesn't tell; so much of her past he can only infer from these little memories she shares from time to time, elusive glimmers of a world gone on one night soaked in fire and blood and covered with layers of fear, hope and loss. She did have a family once, a real one: Alistair still remembers that first time he met her and looked into her eyes, seeing that empty gaze that he recognized from Grey Wardens who fought and lost so much over long years. He didn't understand it then, what made the red-haired new recruit look around with the eyes of a grizzled war-veteran of many battles... but now he knows it all, the story of Highever Castle, the night when she almost died, the mark of which she still carries by way of the long white scar across her throat and in her voice that is still hoarse and unladylike from that injury, and probably will remain so despite all healing efforts, magical or otherwise. She still wears the blue scarf, winding it around her neck every morning and taking it off every night, like a private ritual the significance of which is known only to her—he once tried to replace it with a new one and she almost punched him out for merely suggesting it. It was a while before she eventually told him it belonged to her mother, who hastily tied it around her wound that night as they dashed through the castle to save her father.
Compared to that, complaining about Eamon sending him to the Chantry and him shattering his mother's amulet on the wall seems to be rather... childish and petulant. So he had to sleep in the stables for a while and he wasn't allowed to eat at the Arl's table after Eamon got married and he had some years of good solid training and learning amongst the Templar novices, and a couple of times he was disciplined. And the cheese wasn't always fresh. Giovanna's entire family has been murdered and her entire world had been ripped from her in a few hours. She was forced to flee and go with a man she only knew for a day, to be a part of an organization she barely knew anything about and which could have killed her the very moment of her joining it; and ever since that day, she did nothing but trying to keep everyone else alive.
"I tell you what." Alistair says quietly into her shoulder. "Promise me you never have your hair cut, and I promise you I'll never grow a gut. Despite all the lovely cheese there might be in my future." he adds quickly and he hears Giovanna's sudden intake of breath. He hopes she understands what he just told her; but as she winds her fingers in his hair and kisses him fiercely he knows the answer before he hears her saying it.
"I take it." she whispers into his ear. What she says next he barely hears – and afterward, thinking back, he's not sure he really wanted to. "For thirty years, anyway."