A/N: Before you actually start, you MIGHT want to read "Premeditated." It's my one and only one-shot and will give you an idea of what to expect. Check it out and see if you can stomach my writing style before engaging in this huge beast. It's part of the back story for this story too, so it will help you understand why some characters do what they do.
Dragon Age: The Crown of Thorns
Chapter 1: The Prince and the Pauper
"Thieves and assassins that put on the appearance of honor just to advance their own status. These are the so-called nobles, those entrusted with the fate of our people and those whose greed and pointless pride have always been a greater threat to our city than the Darkspawn that have hounded our steps for centuries. Theirs is the treachery that may destroy us even sooner than the mindless beasts that lurk in the shadows.
I am Aeducan, Shield of Orzammar, and though I may be cast out and reviled by my own, I shall protect my people even from their own folly."
Excerpt from "Biography of Raonar: Paragon, Peacemaker, King of Kings" by Shaper Gertek
Below the signature, words are scrawled in a different hand.
Could the author make the prose any more flowery? The guy would facepalm if he were here to read this. He never said anything as overdone as that! And who the sodding Pit came up with King of Kings anyway?
The grand day had finally come. His armor donned, his shield ready and his blade sharpened (Gorim insisted on doing it twice), the Prince was ready to go out and receive his responsibilities as Orzammar's new commander, much as Trian liked to grumble about it these day. Yet even dressed in his great grandfather's garb and aware of the favor that he had with the Assembly and, verily, his own father, there was still some unease hanging over him, like a particularly stubborn barnacle. Or hungry deep stalker. Those were never pleasant. If he'd been feeling more poetic, he would have compared it to the feeling that a good dream was just about to turn into a nightmare and that even the smallest mistake might set off a chain of events that would ultimately culminate in his undoing. The day of greatest glory is always the best opportunity for the ultimate downfall, his late mother warned him once. She'd only been saying what everyone in the Diamond Quarter already knew, even if they pretended not to, but it didn't make them any less true.
"Greetings My Lord! You are dressed and ready! Excellent!" a voice was heard from the door. The Prince turned around, and allowed himself a moment to see if the sight of his friend would chased away all the concern. It didn't, alas. Gorim was one of the only dwarves he knew whose heart was in the right place. And who still wanted anything to do with him. Well, more or less. He did not want to think about that disaster with Lothar's father and what it all meant.
"Gorim, you don't need to call me that in private, how many times do I have to say it?"
"Well, you know what they say about old habits dying hard. Or not wanting to acquire bad habits. Hopefully I'll die even harder," Gorim managed a pretty genuine chuckle at that. "Anyway, moving on to the business at hand. You father will want you to make an appearance at your feast, but the day is young. As part of the celebrations, trading permits were auctioned off to members of the Merchant Guild who wish to sell wares in the Diamond Quarter."
"Which I already know of course."
Gorim ignored his deadpan and just continued his spiel. "Also, the Grand Provings have opened in order to allow young fighters to test their mettle in your honor." Really, it was like Gorim never had enough of "playing it safe" in case Raonar somehow forgot things. Obvious things. Things he'd checked on in advance. By weeks. Oh well. "Perhaps we should go teach them what single combat is all about." Or maybe he was just excited about the proving and wanted an excuse to bring it up as soon as possible. Oh Gorim… "And by we, I mean you. I'll practice my cheering this time."
"I still can't understand why you're still concerned about those six hours it took my father's smiths to remove your helmet last year. You've gotten a lot better. And you were better than me until not long ago." Raonar shook his head and went to trace the points on his mother's sculpture of Orzammar. "No need to blush, especially since it's creepy how you fake it so well. You'll do as you wish of course. And in the meantime, I assume the Lords and Deshyrs will bore my father with petitions and petty grievances." He sighed. "I can see them now, this lord had my cousin killed, this lord seduced my wife, this lord did the exact same thing I planned to do to him but he did it first." Raonar sighed again and let the disappointment show for a moment, something he didn't allow in the company of anyone else. "Always the same, they all act as though they are the only honorable ones even though they are just a bunch of thieves and assassins dressed up in pretty garments. Bah! At this rate we'll bring our own deaths upon us from the inside even before the Darkspawn have a chance to gnaw on our bones." He tapped he crystal buildings a couple of times and shook himself out of his mood. "But enough, it's not like I expected anything more. Let's just see what these merchants are about and then we'll check out the Provings if we have time."
"As you will, My Lord!" Gorim replied. "The day is ours until the feast."
Raonar walked across the corridor somewhat lost in thought (outwardly, anyway), when the door to his little brother's room suddenly opened and a young, red-haired lass walked out and called out Bhelen's name. Needless to say she was immediately startled when she saw the Prince and ran back into the room.
"Now who could that be?" Raonar asked himself as he followed her. He'd been spending a lot of time away from the palace lately, on "business" he wished he didn't have to waste his willpower on but couldn't ignore.
The girl got all nervous as she saw lord Aeducan (well, one of them) approach but maintained her composure.
"I am sorry, My Lord. I thought that was Prince Bhelen coming down the hall and..." her words broke mid sentence. "I... forgive me."
"Who are you?" Raonar asked quite interested. She was very beautiful, even by noble standards, with vibrant red hair done up in a bun at the back but with two strands bordering her face. Her clothes were not of the finest make but they were nice enough and well taken care of. All signs pointed towards someone of respectable station, except for the brand on her face which immediately struck a cord: Noble Hunter, castless woman who seeks to bare a noble lord's son to increase her caste status. That explained his unfamiliarity with her (somewhat) and that her clothes weren't any finer: little brother hadn't gotten around to making some better ones for her yet. Or hadn't decided if he was interested enough to keep her long enough for that to become an issue.
Raonar didn't want to speculate too much. He never knew what Bhelen was thinking these days, even if he was aware of what he was doing. Or thought he was. There was always room for error, in everything.
"It seems..." Gorim begun "that she's one of your brother Bhelen's newest... umm.. companions..." He then replied to the girl." Prince Bhelen is attending the feast being held in Lord Aeducan's Honor."
"Of-of course. It was presumptuous of me to assume he'd return to... I am sorry. I will show myself out, with your leave My Lord."
"Not yet," Raonar suddenly said. "Just how long have you been seeing my brother? How many times have you met that you are already allowed to wait for him in his quarters? Now that I think about it I might remember seeing you around the halls..."
"I... well..." She was obviously nervous and struggled with her words. "My name is Rica. I have only met your brother a few times but... Forgive me if I caused you any inconvenience."
Raonar looked at her at length, it became quite obvious to him that there was more to the girl than she would say. She grew increasingly impatient and started fidgeting under his stare. Of course, his unusual eye coloring since that utter disaster of an expedition he ran off with three years or so prior had that effect on people as a matter of course. That his hair had gone white as snow (not that most dwarves even knew what that was) certainly helped him make an impression wherever he went, even though people had stared at him (and still gave him odd glances now and then) like he'd turn into a drooling lunatic for a while after it happened. Lyrium overexposure wasn't kind, if dwarves were careless enough to undergo it. But that was neither here nor there.
After a while, Rica could find no more words and could only keep her head bowed.
"I'm wondering..." he suddenly continued, almost startling Rica. "Do you know my brother at all? What do you think of him?"
Rica was obviously surprised by this question and, predictably, tripped on her own words as she tried to find an answer.
"I ... well, he's been very kind to me and, he knows how to treat… I mean he..."
The Prince who suddenly drew near, placed his right hand on her cheek and slowly drew her face closer to his. She froze underneath his eyes when they got so close that there was nothing but them in her field of vision. Surprisingly, her gaze got a tint of anger mixed with a great deal of fear as he caressed her right shoulder with his left hand. "Of course he would treat you well," he said in a shrewd whisper. "A beautiful lass like you, with such fire in your eyes and a demeanor that says you would do anything to please him. That's what all men like to see in a woman: submission, especially from someone like you." Raonar slowly let his left hand slide lower across her back, all the way down to her waist, while her eyes got all the more filled with hopeless rage and horror. No, not horror, more like a helpless resignation. All this time, Gorim stood back, silent.
Raonar stood made as if to kiss her and she shut her eyes tight, so he suddenly pulled away and backed off a couple of steps, looking at her until she opened her eyes once more and stood there, unsure of what to expect. What followed was definitely not her first guess, he was sure.
Raonar bowed deeply before her. "Please accept my humblest apologies," he said as he straightened up.
"I... But... well..." Rica stuttered. "I was sure you were going to... I mean I know you're his elder and probably would have gotten away with... I mean..."
"You are a very strong-willed woman," Raonar interrupted her.
Rica was stunned when she heard him say that. He could see it on her face clearly. She was neither old nor trained or experienced enough in handling noble whims, which was a change from most noble hunters he'd come across. She looked at him and saw no sign of sarcasm in his facial expression, because he showed none. He smiled as warmly as he could (which generally had mixed results, but only because people never trusted appearances for the most part). When she failed to see any of the scorn she may or may not have been used to getting from people, she did not seem to know what to feel.
"You hated me just now," he continued. "You were angry that I was going to take advantage of your position, and of mine, but in the end you closed your eyes not out of cowardice, but to restrain yourself from hitting my head with that rather sturdy cup you're gripping," he pointed to the ceramic vase on the table next to her. Bhelen had pretty nice taste, all things considered. At least in pottery.
She dropped it like scalded.
"You're more than just another noble hunter, aren't you?"
Raonar did not expect her to suddenly grow dizzy. But that was what happened. Apparently feeling lightheaded, she started to tip over so he lunged forward to take a hold of her and help her move to the bed.
"F-forgive me, M-my Lord... I don't know what caused me to..."
"It's alright. It's my fault after all," Raonar replied as he carefully let go of her and backed away.
"Your family is very lucky to have you, even though I can see from the way you carry yourself that they aren't the only party involved in your being here," he said as he looked sternly at her. "Someone's trying to exploit your situation, aren't they? I imagine that the castless don't easily get a hold of the garments and education that noble hunters clearly have." Not that he'd've made that connection if she'd shown even a smidgen more of the deliberate flattery noble hunters usually came with.
Unexpectedly, a flash of gratitude played over Rica's expression, so he built on that, asking about her until he knew the basics.
"So you have a brother." Not particularly shocking, but there were too many complicated things moving in and out of Rica's expression for him to just leave it at small talk. Even if he had only set out to have this discussion specifically so he could find out if there was anything new to be found out about his younger sibling. "Where is he now?" Maybe a mood whiplash would work again. "Why doesn't he do something instead of letting you do this to yourself?"
I worked a lot better than he expected. Which is to say, he did not expect to have her unload her entire backstory. Well, the backstory of the past week or so, but he supposed stranger things had happened, especially when desperate people were involved. And this was definitely such a case. He had to ask a fair bunch of probing questions to prevent her from locking up at a couple of points, especially once she started to grow fearful of his interest. The whole thing culminated in a stammering mess of attempted silences and wish to come clean.
"I... well.. I mean... Please, My Lord, don't ask me anything else. And don't think ill of my brother, he's sacrificed more than I have trying to keep me safe and now he's... I mean... no, please My Lord, if you're truly not heartless, don't torture me with these questions anymore." Rica turned away quickly, but not before Raonar noticed the tears welling up in her eyes. He made a short gesture to Gorim, who then left the chamber in a hurry, after which the Prince approached the girl who had started sobbing softly, trying to hold back her tears. Then she suddenly felt a soft touch on her shoulder as Raonar slowly turned her around. It was a good thing he'd had a lot of practice in seeming supportive. Mostly because he rarely actually faked it, but practice was practice.
"You've only met me, but it's alright. You can tell me everything," and he gave her a hug when she seemed about to fall back on the bed. Not quite what she'd expected either, but she looked like she needed one. "What happened? I'm guessing that the fact that you tripped on your own words meant that you were trying to keep up an act. What was it you really wanted from Bhelen that you were waiting for him so impatiently? That look in your eyes right now speaks of fear, fear for someone other than yourself."
"Oh my lord!" she said between sobs. One of these days Raonar would have to figure out why he so easily caused such extreme reactions in people. "I did want to ask something of your brother, even though it's far too early and presumptuous of me to think my problems are of any note to someone like him." Well, that was precisely the kind of prejudice he disdained. And which she was totally right to expect, unfortunately. He decided to say nothing, letting her take her time. "I'm scared my lord, my brother, he's..." She stopped suddenly, and Raonar realized that this was the point where she may reveal something critical that may end up worse for her in the long run. But he had heard enough and already had an idea of what she was getting to.
"You speak as though you rely on him greatly. He must be a very strong man to warrant your respect, especially if he's your younger sibling. But he lives in Dust Town, so I suppose he got by doing the only thing he could." Rica stopped sobbing, probably surprised at how quickly he guessed. Really, it wasn't that difficult when you knew even the basics of Orzammar social strata. "So, am I right to assume that he did something and is now in trouble of some kind?"
Rica seemed to calm down and drew away. "You truly are as the rumors say, your highness. But what you guessed is not completely on the mark. My brother, he's a very strong person. A strong fighter, quick-witted and agile, but he's also always had a knack for knowing what to do and when to do it. That caught the eye of the local crime lord."
"From what I've heard, the Carta is currently run by a man named Beraht," noted Gorim, who had meanwhile returned with a basin of water and a towel. "Shrewd fellow, made deals with surfacers and smuggles lyrium and other goods. He's made a lot of gold, bribed a lot of guards and preyed only on the dusters, which is why he got away with it long enough to buy off half the authorities in the commons."
"Yes, sounds a lot like a certain other very subtle person I know, someone deemed too irrelevant until it's too late," Raonar responded with a sigh. "But this is not the point." he turned to Rica and wiped away her tears with the towel that Gorim had brought. "What happened to your brother?"
"I... I don't know your highness. That's why I'm so scared! He's missing, he's been missing for days. All I heard was that he got into some trouble on the proving grounds, something about impersonating some fighter. Next thing I knew was that he somehow got captured and now. I don't know where he is!" Rica was obviously desperate, her hands clutching on the towel Raonar had given her.
At the Provings? This should be interesting. Hadn't he heard something about that? "Are castless even allowed on the grounds? Wait, I suppose this Beraht did something to let him in, wanted to rig some fights to win some bets no doubt. So you don't know where he is?" Rica shook her head, then the Prince turned to Gorim. "Well, you did want to see the Provings anyway, didn't you Gorim?"
"I suppose I did say that, My Lord," Gorim answered with a smile of his own. "But whatever you're thinking will be trouble."
Obviously. "You may stay here for now," Raonar told Rica. "Though I would suggest you not be too quick to reveal this story to too many people. Few will look past your castless brother's role as a criminal."
"So... then... I know it's too much to ask, especially for someone like me but... Is there anything you can do? I'll do anything you want, please, at least try to find my brother! You're the Prince, you can send someone, I don't know, just... I couldn't live with myself if anything happened to him because of me! He always said he would do something to make our life better, he hated working for that scum Beraht but he did it for me and mother anyway. I can only imagine the horrible things he had to do."
He raised a hand to stop her outburst. "I'll see what I can do."
"I know that you like to see the world shaken up, My Lord, but if it's really as she says..." Gorim begun, "If her brother is a criminal, is it truly wise to get involved in this business on your day of celebration?"
"And what's wisdom? Whatever the nobles in the assembly decide?" the Prince pondered aloud. "Disgusting as it sounds, the higher castes often have less honor than there is among the beggars and thieves. At least they look after their own. Can the Desyrs say the same?"
The Prince turned around and left the room, followed closely by Gorim, leaving a confused but hopeful Rica behind to wait and see what the ancestors had in store for her next.
Before long, the two had exited the palace and now looked down upon the proud city, once the seat of a major empire and, now, one of the only two known remaining dwarven cities. There Raonar stood and gazed upon his home. The Diamond Quarter, home to the Royal Palace, the Shaperate and the homes of the nobles, was situated at the very highest level of Orzammar and had a perfect view of the lower levels. Below stretched the Sword Quarter where Warrior Houses Lived, with the Artisan Quarter right below, Smiths one level lower, and the Commons at the bottom, where Mining, Servant and Merchant houses all lived. The one thing that ensured that there would be no total segregation between the Caste levels was the massive edifice in the very center of the magma chamber that orzammar had been built around and over: the Proving Grounds, where matters of honor were through strength of arm. At least when there weren't Glory Provings, exhibition matches or combat games going on. All around it fell and flowed the lava flows, carefully guided by the city's impregnable construction to flow in such a way as to deliver warmth and light to the entire city. Unfortunately, Raonar didn't exactly have too much time to enjoy the familiar view because his attention was drawn to an argument between a Noble and a Shaper Scholar.
"My lord, please. My work is accredited by the Shaper," the scholar pleaded to a very disgruntled man that frowned at him with a mixture of scorn and anger. No doubt yet another lesser noble that felt his 'honor' had been violated in some way. Lovely.
"These books are lies, written by the enemies of House Vollney!" the other protested as the Prince and Gorim drew near. Raonar immediately recognized the angry man as Bruntin Vollney.
"Your highness, I beg you to help settle this matter!" the scholar pleaded to the approaching Prince. "Your father loved my book 'History of Aeducan: Paragon, King, Peacemaker.'"
Right, because flattery aimed at a higher authority was such a fair way to settle a dispute. Still, he could already sense who was in the right here. Trying to force a Shaper-endorsed writer to change any account without the Assembly behind you was a big, fat NO. "Ah, I greatly enjoyed that book as well!" Let's see what they said to that. "What seems to be the problem?"
"This worm has written a book that slanders my House!" Bruntin immediately said.
Wow. Way to insult whichever prominent Shaper endorsed that book. In public. Because it wasn't like they had pretty much total authority on all the knowledge their people had. And records. And the ability to bring any grievance to the assembly when needed. This was as big a faux pas as they came. "Oh, is that so?" Raonar replied. "How exactly is it slander? What does it say?"
"It doesn't matter, it's all lies!" Bruntin lashed back. Ah, they were already at the 'gesticulating helplessly' part.
"I asked what it said, but if you're not going to tell me, the scholar will have to. What does it say scholar?"
The scholar Gertek proceeded to explain how the book he was writing dealt with the history of the Paragon Vollney and how the latter had not been unanimously supported by the Assembly. Apparently, one noble voted against the motion, a vote mired in intrigue and intimidation. Which direction the intrigue and intimidation were aimed in was left suspiciously unsaid, go figure. Needless to say, Bruntin wanted this fact to never reach the ears of anyone and demanded that the shaper cease and desist. Raonar then remembered that a similar scene almost occurred at the naming of Aeducan as Paragon, though the one who objected ended up savagely hacked to death instead. This actually enabled Aeducan, despite the odds, to get a unanimous vote.
History was Raonar's passion (well, one of them) but it sure came with some really nasty strings attached. Like accounts of Murder. And mass murder. And the occasional attempted (or even successful) genocide, and he wasn't only talking about the one the Darkspawn had been waging against the dwarves themselves for over a thousand years.
"Not liking history doesn't make it any less true!" the scholar told Bruntin, who was obviously enraged at hearing him say that.
"The scholar is right." Raonar flatly told Bruntin. That he was only specifically referring to history being true and none of the rest was left as suspiciously unsaid, just like a certain other part of that conversation. After all, the art of diplomacy was in allowing the other person to do what you want.
"You're taking his side?" And there he goes. Raonar wished it was as easy to get Bhelen to talk to him more. Or Trian to part with that everlasting glower he seemed to have married. Jaylia Helmi was bound to get jealous over her intended spending more time with his glower than her, and boy, that train of thought sure reached odd places fast. And Bruntin was still blustering. "Vollney was more than a man! Aren't we supposed to protect the reputations of the Paragons? What would you say if he wrote such a think about your Paragon Aeducan?" the noble asked in spite.
"I'd probably hum a few times." Raonar tilted his head. Bruntin's tone was starting to grate on his patience. "Aeducan was a great man, but he was still a man. He was melancholic and his fervor to protect his people bordered on obsession. And he died in self-loathing." Silence. "Why would we even want to consider our Paragons as more than men? If they were really such untouchable figures, how then could we even look up to them and strive to be as useful for Orzammar as they were?" But not be like them.
Bruntin was somewhat taken aback by this bold statement and was obviously stunned to see the Prince himself state such a seemingly outrageous thing about his own house.
"Fine! I shall respect your wishes... for now," the angry noble sneered as he walked away.
"Bah!" Gorim begun after the Vollney was out of sight. "That fool has no idea how weak his house is or how low he sits in it! To think he would have the nerve to threaten you! Shall I have him killed My Lord?"
Ouch, his second was much with the appearance of ruthless retribution today. Raonar almost thought he meant it.
May as well play it. "You're saying that it would be prudent to eliminate a smaller threat before it becomes larger are you?" Raonar replied to him with a remonstrating look. "I know you're a practical man, my friend, but don't be so quick to pass death sentences onto others. Those fools and their politics may think it wise and justified to have each other killed, but this is the exact same thinking that led to our downfall all those centuries ago. No doubt those Deshyrs even now keep blaming the Darkspawn for all their misfortune, but that's just their way of running away from their responsibility and the realization that the blame for our people's sad state, and their blood, is on their hands."
"I... yes My Lord, forgive me," Gorim apologized with a humble bow. It wasn't all faked, since Gorim had meant his suggestion as serious. Loyal and devoted as he was, it also meant he took any slights against Raonar very, very personally. Meanwhile the scholar had been observing the situation with an admirable casualness and, once the Prince finished speaking and turned to him, he thanked him for his help and went on his way.
"You have proven yourself a friend to truth and the glory of our people, My Lord," the scholar said as he left.
Well. That sure left a sour taste in his mouth. Vollney would annoy the wrong person soon enough, being the example of terminal intelligence decay that he was. They would have him killed and probably not even need to make it look like an accident. It was a shame, since he didn't seem innately insufferable. His parents raised him wrong no doubt and soon he was going to pay for that.
It was moments like this, when he was slapped in the face with how common it was for people to pay for the wrongs done by others, that Raonar wished he was away from that place. The Diamond Quarter. Cutthroat Quarter, more like.
The prince decided to dismiss the matter and went back to enjoying his day, or trying to. It was just his luck that the moment he made that internal resolution he saw two familiar faces just down the road. His two brothers, Trian, his elder and heir to the throne of Orzammar, and Bhelen, the youngest and seemingly less noteworthy. To everyone else, that is. Raonar did his best to give him the attention he was due (in all ways, not all of them good) but his best didn't amount to much nowadays, what with everything that Trian did (or was done and/or attempted for or against him) that Raonar had to deal with. And his own, personal issues and activities.
Rather unsurprisingly (and wasn't that a sad thought?), Trian immediately lashed out at Raonar for being irresponsible and showing disrespect to their father by wandering about on a day set aside for his own feast. As if this wasn't, oh, the day specifically set aside for his own enjoyment and glorification. Raonar had heard it all before, his older brother sneering and shouting at him, trying to 'help' his sibling 'get over his stubbornness'. In public. After that, of course, came the obligatory reprimanding of the lower castes, in this case Gorim, which irked Raonar more than anything else.
"Lord Harrowmont told us we wouldn't be needed at the feast for hours at least," Gorim tried to explain.
"Silence!" Trian lashed out. "If I want the opinion of my sibling's second, I will ask for it!"
Raonar cleared his throat. "This is where you speak to lower houses and castes 'how they should be spoken to', I take it?" It came out a bit more snappishly than he'd intended, which had become a growing concern in their relationship for a while. "And I suppose you're not going to jump in either, eh Bhelen?"
"You're on your own, I've been dealing with him all afternoon."
"What exactly is that supposed to mean, little brother?" the heir queried in annoyance.
"N-nothing Trian, I've been having a great time! That speech you gave to the legless boy about standing up and making something of himself was fantastic!" Bhelen answered in the most honest tone he could muster, though everyone present noticed the sarcastic tone of the remark. Except Trian himself, as usual. He and sarcasm seemed determined to stay unacquainted until one or the other died.
Stone forgive him, Raonar loved that man, but he wasn't willing to bet on who would die first.
"As heir to the throne, it is my duty to impart wisdom and judgement upon those who need it," Trian proudly affirmed, remarkably oblivious to the fact that he had just been ridiculed. Then he turned back to Raonar "Now you! Get to the feast!"
"Yes yes! I'll go when I'm ready. Honestly, the way you glare and growl, it's a wonder you haven't gotten a sore throat yet."
"Stubborn are you?" Trian sneered as he passed Raonar by and briefly stopped in his tracks. "When I'm King, I will help you get over that. Come Bhelen!"
Raonar was unimpressed with that warning. For a moment, instead of anger or disdain, he felt pity for his older sibling and how vulnerable he really was to all the intrigue and strife in the assembly. All his life, Trian had been protected by his title as heir from the worst of the nobles' sinister plots, at least until a few years ago. Raonar had to constantly keep an ear to the stone and thwart the various attempts on his own life or his honor that various upstarts had set up over the years. And they were always there, since his apparent prestige, that even Trian could not match, made him a ripe target at all times. This, of course, came in addition to all the plots against Trian himself that the second son had prevented without demanding any sort of reward or recognition or, indeed, ever making known.
Things had gone to the Pit after their mother died, and they never got better.
Oh well. They were all who they chose to be in the end. It was just so irritating and heartbreaking to see Trian wasting his potential trying to impose his authority in all the wrong ways.
"Well, that was exciting..." Gorim finally broke the silence. "Nothing like being talked down to by the next king."
"Ignore him. He will do what he wills, as will I," the Prince replied.
Raonar and his second proceeded to browsing the goods of the merchants that had gained permits to sell their wares in the diamond quarter. There were fine silks from the surface lands, fine armor and weapons that, though of high quality, couldn't exactly match the royal armor the second son himself was wearing, and many other items. Eventually, as the two made their way to the gates that separated the Diamond Quarter from the commons, passing by a pair of Noble Hunters on the way (noticeably smarmier than Rica even without exchanging a single word, somehow), they reached the stall of a weapon merchant who had the look of someone who wanted to say something but didn't know how. Raonar approached the stand and waited for the merchant to gather enough courage to speak.
"My Lord! You honor me by visiting my humble booth! I actually have a proposition, but I dared not approach."
"Yet you dare now?" Gorim cut him off.
"It's fine, I'll hear him out," Raonar calmly answered.
The merchant immediately grew hopeful but, either because of enthusiasm or nervousness, he could barely even manage to tie two words together. "Just so... Here's the thing... What I mean to say is... uuh..."
"It's alright." He made sure to speak warmly, which had the desired effect. It was nice to have his amiable manner taken for what it was. None of the nobles ever did it, not even his own family, these days. Pyral Harrowmont was the only exception.
The merchant finally calmed down and explained how he had ordered a dagger made for the second child of King Endrin, as Raonar was more commonly known among the merchants and lower castes. Apparently, he had sent the dagger to the palace through a messenger but, because of some offence or another, he was thrown out by Prince Trian. Eventually, the merchant brought the dagger out, at which point both Raonar and Gorim conceded that it was a remarkable piece. A sharp, sturdy and shining blade made of pure silverite which had obvious lyrium enchantments woven into it. Raonar could sense a tingle as he passed his fingers across the blade and identified the enchantment as elemental.
Ever since he was a child, he had been fascinated by the art of enchantment and read books on it, even got to watch enchanters ply their trade when he was younger. Being royalty could get him that, especially when he had a mother that was practiced an art herself, despite being a noble since birth. That had caused no end of mixed reactions among the populace, especially in the higher castes. Raonar had also researched the magic of the surface world as much as he could, particularly after that probably-not-an-accident that could have killed him when he was seven, and the less he thought about that the better. He mostly regretted that there wasn't much of his time to be found for it now between training and learning the business of politics (as if he didn't already know it), but he was lucky that at least his mother, now dead for several years, always supported him when he asked, back then.
"Hmmm... Not bad. No doubt it will send a jolt into the blood of anyone unlucky enough to taste it," the Prince remarked.
"You do me great honor Your Highness," the merchant continued. "I wish to give this to you as a gift for your first command, and hope that one day, when you rule, you will wear it."
"Trian is Heir,' intervened Gorim. "He will rule when King Endrin returns to the Stone."
"If the Assembly wills it," the merchant coyly responded. "Forgive me ser, but whispers say that the second son of Endrin will be chosen."
Raonar already knew of this, of course, and it made perfect sense as well, on the surface of it. Trian was not exactly popular, and Bhelen was not exactly seen as worthy of note by the nobles, though Raonar knew otherwise. It was logical that he himself would be preferred. The Prince was, after all, the most popular person in the entire city by now and his prestige was only boosted by being named the youngest Commander in Orzammar's History. Which itself only happened because of said popularity. Propaganda, always. Only one thing was amiss in that entire plan, and that was that Raonar himself did not want the throne in the slightest, for his own reasons. If it were up to him, he would much rather stay as commander of the armies and protect his city without having to deal with the assembly's squabbles. On the other hand, Trian may not have enough backing in the assembly to actually be chosen as king after their father's death. The worst case scenario would be a succession crisis, and that was the last thing anyone wanted. Especially with what was under the throne room. Which nobody knew about.
He really should do something about that one of these days.
"I'll take the dagger..." Raonar eventually decided, much to the merchant's bliss and gratitude.
As he finally walked away, Raonar noticed the one stall he had not visited and, at the same time, was most interested in. There, near the gates, was a dwarf selling magical wares from the Circle of Magi of the surface. The Prince did not try to restrain his delight in the least as he approached the man. Unfortunately, and against all odds, the merchant was even worse at controlling his emotions than Rica was, promptly passing out from excitement as soon as the Prince got close.
There was a moment of silence.
"Wow..." Gorim said in amazement. "He's fainted... You make quite the impression these days."
Raonar sighed. "This is silly. Now where are those things...?"
The Prince ignored the passed out vendor and started going through his wares without any sort of restraint, even as Gorim uncomfortably noticed the other nobles staring. Let them, Raonar was looking for something specific. Gorim eventually asked if he could help find whatever it was, but there was no need, as Raonar had just spotted what he wanted.
"Ah! Here they are!" he exclaimed as he took a pouch of strange dust, took a sniff and recoiled. He coughed. "Yes... (cough).. These are the ones."
Smelling salts found, the Prince leaned over the merchant, who had been lying unconscious on the stone street during the entire time, and placed the pouch right under his nose. Immediately, the merchant stirred and was amazed and startled to wake up to the man of the hour leaning over him. Eventually (after nearly fainting a second time), he managed to come to his senses and struggled back to his feet, apologizing for making a fool of himself in such a way. In the end, the merchant offered something special to His Highness as an apology for wasting his time.
"You are familiar with the so-called magical poultices that the surfacer mages create, are you not my lord? I have here something even more special. It is a substance that, when placed upon the wound, solidifies and completely stops any sort of bleeding or other type of complication, whether festering or infections, shortly becoming flesh itself! Please, take it as an apology for my display."
Raonar did not accept it until the merchant agreed to be paid for it (something that all the many onlookers interpreted as smart self-promoting propaganda, which was just sad), after which the he and Gorim left with their escort towards the proving grounds.
The escorts were a funny bunch. They were obviously honored to guard the Prince and were, thus, excessively careful to brusquely move everyone out of their way as they headed towards the Provings. Raonar noticed that the stone slabs that the street was made of were uncharacteristically lustrous compared to several days before, no doubt because they were polished the day prior to the celebration. The Prince couldn't help but feel it was silly of his father to cut off an entire section of the commons just to ensure that his son's boots didn't gather dust as he walked them, even though he did appreciate the thought behind it all. Eventually, the concern that the Prince would be harassed on the way to the Provings was proven to be unfounded as the group entered the arena's antechamber.
The second son had been in those halls many times. It was there that, at his Father's urging, he honed his skills by practicing with various fighters and participating in the odd tournament, at least after the expedition a few years before. Paradoxically, he had always found a certain thrill in battle and felt especially accomplished when he was able to defeat his opponents without even making them bleed, even though he didn't used to be all that good at it for most of his life. He'd been more of an archer for a while even, though he hadn't been exactly excellent at that either, but at least it made killing Darkspawn safer. A little bit. Now had come the point where he could enter his own Provings and gain even more honor, but he knew that this was not why he had come.
A fight of the first bout had just concluded when Raonar and Gorim reached the seat of the Proving Master.
"Ah My Lord!" the Proving Master enthusiastically greeted the honored guest. "Have you come to see these young warriors do battle in your honor?"
"Well, I was initially going to fight and become the champion of my own Provings, but I'm more interested in something that happened here a couple of days ago," the Prince said very matter-of-factly. "Something about a castless man impersonating a warrior and dishonoring our traditions perhaps? I understand you were incredibly outraged by it," he added with an obvious tint of irony.
The Proving Master's demeanor immediately became annoyed, despite trying to downplay it. "Ah, so you've heard about that, Your Highness. It was a disaster, a disgrace to everything these Provings represent! It disgusts me to even think about it and I would be most grateful if you let me put it out of my mind. Either way, you'll probably have better luck with Ser Gorrel, the proving trainer. He seems to have a better taste for gossip than most."
Raonar promptly waved at Gorim before the latter had a chance to rebuff the Proving Master for being so disrespectful. After that, they made their way to their seats, where a brown-haired dwarf, dressed in veridium-wrought heavy dwarven armor waited. There was the one that knew all about the castless bruiser incident and was, in fact, quite eager to gossip about it. Raonar found out that the culprit had impersonated a drunken Everd and won all the fights up until the final bout, when Everd stumbled, dead drunk, into the arena and busted him. After that, the brand refused to reveal himself, demanding the respect he was owed for defeating the warrior caste's strongest. Needless to say, he was eventually cornered by guards, at which point he proudly took off his helmet and stupefied everyone in the audience when his brand was in plain sight. After that, the Proving Master had him arrested, which, of course, didn't exactly go smoothly as the man knocked out several guards and gave the captain a black eye before he was finally overwhelmed and captured.
Raonar listened to the tale with great interest. The first thing that struck him was that, officially, castless aren't even allowed to carry weapons, yet this one had managed to wipe the floor with even the Warrior Caste's greatest, not to mention most of the entire guard patrol on duty at the time.
"Where is this man now?" the Prince eventually asked.
"There's the thing..." the trainer responded. "He's nowhere to be found. He never made it to the prison after he was apprehended and when he was finally cornered again, he was coming out of a shop in the commons, completely covered in blood. But the weirdest part is that there was only a confused merchant inside and no signs of battle. He was taken back to the prison, but somehow disappeared by next morning."
"Maybe he escaped," Gorim hypothesized. "If he was able to sneak onto the grounds and bluff his way all the way into the arena then he probably knows his way around locks and cages."
"That, or he was smuggled out of the prison and caged somewhere else, maybe as punishment for ruining the plans of this Beraht fellow," Raonar guessed. "Gorim, I think I know what we'll be doing for the rest of the day." The bronto shit in his life must have been getting to him more than he thought if he so easily decided that, but Gorim didn't say anything.
Gorim followed his lord and, along with the escort, left the Proving Grounds even though the fights had only just started. Their guards were already making their way back to the Diamond Quarter, but what they didn't know was that their two charges had other plans. Raonar looked in the direction of the lower levels of the city and how let out a smug chuckle when he noticed a more crowded area.
"My Lord," Gorim whispered, "You know I'm right behind you, but is this truly wise?"
Raonar did not even bother to answer. As soon as their guards shifted their attention towards the many who were bustling, trying to get a clear view of the new commander, the Prince grabbed Gorim by the arm, snatched a pair of grey cloaks that hanged off a stall next to them and promptly slipped out of sight, getting lost in the crowds even before anyone noticed that anything had been stolen. Within less than a minute, their faces and fine garb were concealed beneath the simple cloaks and they looked no different from all the other merchants and customers that were swarming around them. They didn't even have to stoop over much, since the cloaks were larger than strictly needed, possibly made by humans we didn't get dwarven measurements perfectly right. The two quickly put distance between themselves and their escorts, who had, by now, become incredibly alarmed at having lost sight of the ones they were sworn to guard with their lives. Raonar knew he had made life rather complicated for them, but his goal was set.
The Prince had heard much talk of Dust Town, but he had never really set foot in that place. Only once had he actually been within a stone' throw of the main path down. Thus, he was not completely prepared for the disrepair and desperation that the area emanated. All over, beggars with brands on their faces waited with hopeless eyes for someone to take pity and throw them a copper or two. Most of them didn't even have anything more than some rags on their backs and even the common grey cloaks that the Prince and Gorim were now clad in seemed like a rich man's attire. Gorim looked very uncomfortable and twitchy, but he kept silent. Raonar was glad the hood obscured most of his own features, or his grimace would have been more visible. Raonar had condemned the caste system and all the foolish traditions that led their people to this sorry state. Not that the caste system was totally inherently bad, but its application in Orzammar was deplorable. And the excuse that casteless didn't count to the measure of efficacy of the system was complete garbage, the prince thought as he walked the narrow, darkened streets. Sadly, his ruminations were soon interrupted as they suddenly found themselves unexpectedly surrounded by thugs whose faces could not be seen because of the shadows.
Or maybe not so sadly. Raonar had noticed the stalkers since soon after he had first entered Dust Town and had made a point of finding a place more out of sight, where he could deal with them without being discovered. This was also an opportunity to squeeze some information about the one he was looking for. Or at least the Carta leader. Gorim had already gripped the hilt of his sword, not visible under his cloak, but waited to see what their hidden assailants were going to do.
"Go easy on them Gorim, and no killing," the second son whispered.
Eventually, one of the thieves spotted a glint of Raonar's silver-plated ceremonial armor and had just about lunged at the noble. Raonar wondered how that decision made any sense, considering that armor meant, well, threat. Maybe the desperation was big enough that the thugs thought about the value of things before the dangers? Or maybe they just didn't put much stock in the higher-ups' fighting ability. The proving scandal suggested that about at least some of the brands down here.
Sadly for the impulsive thug, by the time he had a chance to move, Gorim had already taken out his steel shield and slammed it into his face. He then proceeded to knocking him out, along with another one who had tried to stab him from behind. By the time he was done with those two, Raonar had knocked unconscious, disarmed or immobilized the other four, who were hanger-ons more than anything else. One of them was begging to be spared already, which sat very well with the Prince as this could only mean he was all the more willing to talk.
"You should pick your targets more carefully," Raonar advised as he approached the frightened duster. He was wearing a suit of tattered but well-patched leather armor and was obviously not just another beggar. "Since you were so effective at spotting us and following us as soon as we entered this part of the city, I assume you had been tipped off by some sort of observer from the commons, am I right?"
The duster grew even more fearful, almost terrified at how easily the stranger had perceived the truth. Raonar them started questioning him about who he was, who he was working for and any other information that could come in useful. Surprisingly, though scared witless, the mugger refused to give up the secrets of the Carta, until Gorim noted, in a very 'friendly' manner, that the legal punishment for a castless trying to steal from the noble caste is getting one's arms cut off, followed by public execution. Raonar did not enjoy seeing his friend terrorize the would-be mugger so, but considering he and him had hung a man by his ankles over the lava not too long ago when investigating his mother's poisoning, he wasn't one to talk. Eventually, the duster was ready to be questioned. What followed was less than expected however.
"I need to know where I can find this Beraht fellow. And I'm also looking for a missing person," the second son declared.
"I uuh... a missing duster?" the castless man asked in confusion. "I wouldn't know anything about that, honest! Maybe this isn't common where you're from, but in these parts, people die and disappear every sodding day. But Beraht... don't you know? He's..." The bandit suddenly stopped, no doubt startled that he was just about to reveal something important.
"He's what?" Raonar asked impatiently, but then a realization struck him. "Ah... I see... He's dead isn't he? Which means that the blood that the castless bruiser from the Provings was covered in was his," he said as he turned to Gorim.
"Provings?" the confused bandit asked. "Ooooh, so that's what this is about! That duster that screwed up bad and cost Beraht a ton of sovereings! If he's who you're looking for, you can put it out of your head. Jarvia's got him locked up tight in the Carta's hideout, and if he's not dead by now, he soon will be!"
"Oh, is that so? Well then, it shouldn't be a problem if you told me where he was."
After a bit more 'prodding,' the mugger unwillingly surrendered the location of the Carta's current entrance, as well as the finger bone token needed to open the door. After that, he was quite surprised to find himself free to go on his way.
Gorim kept an eye out for more bandits but they seemed to have finished with the ignoble assailants for the time being. He then followed Raonar and both made their way through the filthy streets, littered with trash and marked by buildings fallen into disrepair. Raonar found it hard to believe that, at one point, this Dust Town looked the same as the Commons or, indeed, perhaps even the Diamond Quarter itself, before the upper levels were carved into the stone. As they walked on, Raonar slid some silvers to every beggar he passed by, even though most would have been satisfied with a couple of coppers. 'The Dwarves can do better than this' Raonar thought to himself and wondered just how the upper castes could even live with themselves knowing the wretched fate they had sentenced these poor souls to. He hoped the beggars he'd helped wouldn't get mugged of the greater than normal money he gave them, but any more musings would have to wait, as the duo soon found the place they were looking for.
The fake wall slid to the side quite readily when the finger bone slot was inserted. At that moment, Gorim grabbed his Lord's arm and looked very worried.
"My Lord, I ask that you reconsider. This... This is foolhardy! I will follow you even to the deepest reaches of the deep roads but I couldn't forgive myself if you perished ahead of time because I was too afraid to speak. You heard that scared fool, this man we're looking for is probably already dead, or soon will be. Are you really going to risk your life by going in there, even knowing that all you may find is a cold, disfigured corpse? You are the Prince and Commander of the armies! If you fall here, what will Orzammar do? Will they even know what happened to you? Will they even find a trace? Will they even think to look for you here?"
Raonar gazed at his loyal friend and knew that his words came only out of concern. Gorim was a stout man who would never flinch in front of danger. The Prince knew also that what he said was completely true. Should he die there, no traces will ever be found and his father would likely be broken to lose his child, though Trian and a certain other someone may feel glad to some extent. But he'd come to fulfill a task, and it was not just to please a pretty lady. This search was going to end in one of a number different ways, most of them less than pleasant, but he wanted to know, wanted to be sure that at least one person worthwhile enough for his sister to risk pretty much everything to find him help lived through the day. It was more consideration than his own brothers showed him these days. Besides, he was pretty sure he'd find him alive. If this Jarvia wanted the one he was looking for dead, she would have just killed him instead of smuggling him out of the prison cells.
"In truth..." the Prince finally replied to his companion, "I would rather go on alone. I would much rather have you return to the Diamond Quarter, get some guards and come back for me. Of course, I know you'll never agree to let me go in there by myself. I do not ask that you try to understand my reasons. Truthfully, even if you did understand them, you may just reach the conclusion that I am an idealistic fool that hasn't yet learned a lesson in humility by suffering failure. And, of course, this may very well be true. But I am going to do this either way."
Gorim said nothing. Only once before had the Prince said something like this to him and, though it made him a bit upset at the time, he eventually gained understanding. It was when the Prince participated in Trian's first expedition into the Deep Roads. Raonar was just a month away from turning 20 at the time and suddenly, or so it seemed, decided to go on ahead of the main troops. Gorim, needless to say, went with him, to act as his loyal second as shield, as was his due. Later, he found that, though the Prince had been acting all casual and easy-going, he had, in fact, gone ahead to prevent an ambush that had been planned by house Gavorn and was meant to get the 'undesirable heir' out of the picture. Raonar slipped a drug into their rations and was gone before they had a chance to notice. Trian and his own patrol passed by while the would-be ambushers were all passed out. The only reward that Raonar got from all that was being publicly reprimanded by his elder in front of the soldiers for "going on ahead and acting like a child." Not that it prevented his popularity from exceeding that of the future ruler, as troublesome as it was.
"As you will, My Lord. If you wish to proceed, than I wish for nothing more than to make sure you survive, even at the cost of my own life," Gorim declared, solemnly.
He obviously knew how ridiculous that really sounded but he did not mind in the slightest. Raonar would have to teach him some proper oration if they lived long enough.
Predictably, they were faced with resistance as soon as they entered the tunnels. Fortunately, however, there were only a couple of guards stationed there and, thanks to them being bored out of their wits, they weren't exactly quick to notice the intruders, which made their loss of consciousness all the more sudden. Raonar was determined not to kill unless it was completely necessary, knowing that most of the men there turned to crime because they had no other options. He would not shrink from what he had to do, however, and as the two moved on, they tried their best to stay out of sight. Regrettably, the rustle of their coats of plates didn't help them much in this regard and they were eventually (and fairly suddenly) set on by five thugs, one of which had a bow. The two intruders immediately took cover, and while Gorim managed to shove a sword through the chest of his nearest assailant, Raonar found that it was obviously not very easy to engage two people at once while also having to keep an eye out for the possibility of an arrow piercing his skull.
Well, at least they weren't darkspawn.
Gorim killed off another of the thugs and ran along the side of some crates in order to stay out of the sight of the female archer. He then rammed his shield into one of the men his lord was holding off. With one bandit on the ground and the other distracted, the Prince suddenly threw his round shield like a frisbee straight at the archer, smacking her right in the forehead and sending her to the land of the senseless. He'd practiced that a lot since he gave up the bow – too many flashbacks – just to have a ranged option, and he was still faintly awed every time it worked. The following instant, Raonar smashed his sword pommel shield into the face of the last opponent left standing.
Right, then, time to get some answers.
After a bit of intimidation, the one rogue still conscious surrendered all he knew about the imprisoned duster.
"It definitely wasn't a pleasant ride to get this far," Gorim begun, "But I still think that we encountered too little resistance. This can't be all of the Carta thugs in Orzammar, can they?"
"The most are probably out in the commons, cutting purses and roughing up merchants for 'protection',", the Prince immediately deduced. "Despicable, but this gives us an advantage. Let's go get this guy and get out of here."
The two went on their way, but not before knocking the rogue senseless. Soon enough, they stood before the door that led to the prison cells. Gorim leaned in to listen and slowly pried the door open without making a sound. Four men could be seen through the crack, as well as two prisoners, each in their own cell. One of them was heavily bruised and had both his wrists and feet shackled in irons, but his hazel eyes burned fiercely from behind the bars of the cell, like those of a cornered beast that is about to turn into something formidable, or so it seemed to the Prince.
It was kind of amazing he could see the eye color from where he was, actually. Dramatic. Clearly, even the circumstances approved of his course of action.
"Don't think you'll escape this time," sneered one of them at the captive apparently worse for wear. Ah, so they were about to walk in on a 'let's poke the chained dragon' episode. Circumstances seemed to approve of this excursion very much indeed. "I don't know how you managed to escape yesterday or even how some scum like you managed to kill Beraht, but Jarvia ain't happy about that. She told us we would have to keep a really close eye on you until she got back, but she ain't said that we have to leave all your limbs on. So you be a good little boy and behave yourself." The thug started laughing after that, a sound like snarling combined with belches and Darkspawn screams.
Well, maybe not that ugly, but it sure was interesting to imagine.
"That guy is drunk," Raonar thought and did nothing to restrain his smirk as he busted open the door. "Guess what!" he shouted. "Jarvia's going to be a while. I don't suppose you'll just agree to hand those two over to us peacefully, would you?"
The Carta men stared in stunned surprise as the two stepped in, still clad in their cloaks, now stained with blood.
"Sorry, the other guys are either taking a nap or being greeted by their ancestors right about now," Gorim added.
"Who the hell are you?" blurted the supposed jailor again. "How the hell did you get in here? No, nevermind that. We'll just kill you and find out when someone comes looking for your corpse! Attack!"
The ensuing fight did not last very long, being in close quarters, but Raonar did notice that, while the so-called criminals didn't look like they had any formal battle training, they could hold their own as well as any soldier. Most likely they had gained a high endurance from the frequent brawls they engaged in. Oh, the heights he could see them attaining with some proper instruction. What a waste.
He seemed to be thinking that a lot, recently.
Eventually, only one of the four guards was left standing, at which point a fifth jumped out from the shadows aiming straight for Raonar's throat. Fortunately, the Prince noticed him in time and escaped with a minor cut. Unfortunately for the duster, he got too close to the cell door of the aforementioned prisoner, who immediately somehow slipped his right hand out of the shackles and grabbed the assailant by the back of the neck. The next moment, Raonar saw said duster plummet to the floor. Some way or another, the prisoner had hit a sensitive point on his neck, causing him to lose consciousness.
Admirable. If it was him, he'd have probably smashed the guy's head against the bars a few times instead.
Over the next minute or so, Raonar and Gorim watched as the prisoner dragged the body of the one he had incapacitated closer. After that, he took the key from his body and unlocked the irons he was fastened with, as well as his and the other dwarf's cell.
"Man," the other prisoner uttered as he finally got out of the cell. "I thought we were never getting outta there!"
Finally, the dwarf that seemed to have suffered the most bodily harm stepped into the dim light made by the candles on the wall. He looked strong and had long, dark red hair, gathered in a braided tail at the back. His face was covered in bruises but his thick stubble and moustache made most of them look less out of place than they would otherwise have seemed. The black brand on his right cheek extended upwards, over his eye, but the look in those eyes was not one of submission or even hesitation. This man obviously knew no fear and Raonar immediately understood why the girl in the palace spoke of him with such fondness. They physically resembled each other a fair bit too, and he wasn't just talking about the hair.
"So, I noticed you didn't kill him," Raonar told the red-haired. "How come?"
The former prisoner smirked. "I'm just funny that way."
"Right, it's nice you still have that sense of humor, even after they clobbered you for hours," the other prisoner said. "Anyway, I think it's high time you told us who you were and why you came here. I can't imagine you came to get us out, I doubt anyone even known we're still alive."
"This is..." Gorim begun, but was cut off by Raonar who waved at him to stop.
"Let's just say we were in the neighborhood and figured we'd pay the beloved Carta a visit. You know, it's the only polite thing to do," the Prince said with a grin.
The red-haired captive stared back at him suspiciously. He could not see behind the simple, grey cloaks that the two were wearing, but judging from the metal noises made during the fight, he could likely guess that they were both wearing heavy armor underneath. He then inspected Raonar's face, but did not show any recognition even upon noticing the uncharacteristically white hair. He didn't comment on his elaborate beard either, thankfully.
"Well, if it's going to be that way..." the prisoner said "I'll just call you... stranger. You can call me Faren, by the way, proud former underling of the crime boss of these parts, though I suspect you already knew that. And this here," he points at his friend "Is my buddy Leske."
"Proud former underling, you say. Interesting choice of words," the 'stranger' replied.
"Heh!" Faren laughed. "So you did understand what I was saying. At least you're not as stupid as these louts. I can't tell you how glad I was to finally get rid of that bastard!"
"Here," Raonar suddenly said as he threw a red glass vial towards Faren, which the latter easily caught. "I noticed you broke your own right thumb in order to get your hand out of those chains. Drink that, it should mend the damage. Your bruises will probably fade away a little too."
"Ah, a healing potion? From the merchants in the upper quarters. I heard about these, but never really managed to afford to buy one. Not that people around here are usually left in a state where it would do them any good," Faren noted, just before drinking it down, not bothering to consider it may have been just a poison or some drug. The effects were immediate and the man was visibly more comfortable now that his bones were not aching and his cuts not festering. Raonar passed him another one, 'just in case' he said, and they all made their way out of the tunnels, fortunately without any further incidents.
As they walked along the streets of Dust Town, Raonar easily noticed how the man he had just helped free was growing increasingly impatient, especially after Leske took his leave, saying he had seen enough dungeons to last for a lifetime. His pace got increasingly quick and no doubt the only thing that prevented him from simply storming off to whatever he was searching for was his curiosity.
Suddenly, he stopped in his tracks and turned towards Raonar. "Look, you helped me get out of that dungheap of a cell and I'm grateful, but I've lived enough to know that nothing ever comes without a price. What was your interest in the Carta and why are you going the same way I am?"
"Come now," Raonar replied. "I know you already have your suspicions, but I'll do you the favor of coming clean, I suppose. The fact of the matter is that I wanted to see if someone who may or may not be worth more than the people in the upper levels. As for why I'm tagging along, well, I want to see where you live of course!"
"That's ridiculous!" Faren blurted. "You should know that most people here don't really have any 'place to live.' The most 'fortunate' make a living inside derelict buildings, which are already few enough. The rest sleep on the street and hope not to die overnight, though that's how most of us return to our ancestors." The castless man sighed deeply, not knowing what to say next. After that, he looked in the distance, as if wondering about something.
"Look," he eventually continued, "just tell me what you want."
Raonar looked at him at length and his hazel eyes seemed to glow as the light from the lava flow behind them reflected in his iris. With his bruises gone, the man's countenance had actually taken on a slightly intimidating appearance, even though he was shorter than Raonar was. Well, intimidating to anyone who hadn't been roared at by darkspawn point-blank. Or contended with demons. Still, all that Faren lacked was a proper set of clothes or armor and a helmet to hide the brand. Had he those, he would have looked just as well, if not more proper, than any respected warrior of the city. Raonar stroked his beard a bit as he studied Faren's features, during which time the latter crossed hands and waited uncharacteristically patiently for his so-called rescuer to finish his scrutiny.
Well. He'd done crazier things he supposed.
Raonar threw back his cloak, revealing the high-quality silverite armor with gold plating, underneath. Needless to say, this captured all of the attention of Faren, though what happened next was even more unexpected.
Raonar undid the fastenings on his coat of plates and let his armor fall to the ground, even as Gorim watched without saying a word. He had known the Prince long enough to be aware that he could never be persuaded not to do something. He also knew that Raonar always considered every possible outcome before taking such an action, even though it didn't necessarily mean he'd take the most prudent course afterwards. Eventually, the Prince was clad only in his boots and his silk garments (patched with leather and mail on the inside of course, and not just to prevent armor chafe).
"Gorim, give me your sword," the second son suddenly ordered. Gorim did not hesitate in doing so. The next moment, the sword flew straight towards Faren, whose quick hands easily grabbed it by the hilt in mid-air. A look of confusion passed over his face, but was quickly chased away when Raonar drew out a fancy-looking but obviously masterfully-crafted lyrium-folded dagger.
"Here..." Raonar smirked as he threw it towards Faren, as he had done with Gorim's blade. "You're no fool but you still decided to break the thumb on your right hand earlier. This probably means you're ambidextrous, which means that fighting with two weapons must be your style. Now then..." the Prince drew his own sword and readied his shield, "I'm not exactly a believer of the whole 'knowing the other person's heart by the clashing of arms or fist' thing that some old timers like to go on about. But you somehow managed to win a Glory Proving against our best, fighting with equipment that wouldn't have been your first choice." He brandished his sword expertly. "Hope you don't mind if I want to see that prowess for myself."
Faren didn't have time to say how completely ridiculous and senseless the situation was because Raonar immediately charged him. With his armor off, he moved noticeably faster than what he showed during the earlier fights. He immediately lunged the shield at Faren's face. The latter dodged without much difficulty, which was okay because it had all been a feint, which turned into a thrust of his ceremonial blade that only just missed his opponent's neck. There was no time to gloat, however, as Faren got serious and counterattacked. The way he fought was not what Raonar expected. Faren side-stepped and, with great speed, got close enough to try and slip the dagger behind the shield itself. Either to incapacitate Raonar's arm or cut off the belts that held the shield fastened to it, it didn't matter. The other dwarf managed to duck and spin his arm around in time to avoid the trick, though he was forced to evade and jump back in order to get away from the descending sword strike that immediately followed.
Now, this was some good skill. And his physical state was nothing to scoff at either. Despite himself, Raonar started to feel ecstatic, like he only wished the time spent with his brothers still did. The only time when he felt so challenged in recent memory was about a year back, when he was playing a game of chess against Bhelen, his younger sibling. Raonar won, but only because Bhelen actually let him win, though he tried to hide it. It soured the whole experience really, seeing his younger brother lie and pretend for no real reason. Or no good reason anyway. Unfortunately, he didn't really have time to analyze his memory of the event because Faren decided to change the pace.
Well, sort of? What happened next was more than a little surprising, namely that Faren started to slow down and stumble on his own blows, for some reason. Also, he started to snicker. And laugh. Laugh until he bent over in guffaws, leaving Raonar to stare, perplexed.
"Hahaha!" Faren had to take a while to calm down before he stood straight again and looked at the other man. Only to double over in laughter again.
"And what, pray tell, is so funny?" Gorim snapped.
Faren swallowed his laughter and snickered a few times, managing to talk to Gorim at least. "What's not funny? This situation makes absolutely no sense! It's totally random! What's not to laugh about."
Gorim had nothing to say to that.
Raonar didn't either, he realized with a self-deprecating grin of his own. It had been totally random. He didn't get nearly enough of it in his life.
"Phew..." Faren finally managed to utter after his lungs settled down. "You fight like a tempest, my friend. I dare say that taking off your armor gave you an advantage instead of a handicap."
"Against you, yes," Raonar replied, wondering why the (younger?) man would use a comparison to a weather phenomenon. Which only happened surface-side. Well, maybe a question for later. "I'm certain now that you definitely won the Provings without any tricks. On my search for you I considered the possibility that you, or someone else, drugged the other fighters in order to rig the fights. I'm really happy to see this isn't the case."
Faren shrugged. "Believe me we considered it, but I wanted to make a point." He muttered something that sounded like "to myself" but Raonar didn't push. Especially when the duster got back to his original questions.
"Now that you admitted you were searching for me, I want to know why. What could a 'respectable noble' like yourself want with a castless criminal like me?" Raonar could almst imagine the quotation marks on 'respectable noble' but didn't feel in any way offended. Not when most nobles were hardly respectable even by his standards. If anything, he gained a smidgen more respect for this man whom the Memories deemed unworthy of recording.
It was less pleasant to confirm that Orzammar was so completely screwed up that it didn't take him even two hours to find one of the pariahs who was worth more than the elite of their race. His life really seemed like a bad joke sometimes.
May as well answer him then. "You're saying you don't have anyone who would be worried about you?" he asked drily. "I just happened to... run into someone who does and then used my own methods to track you down." Which was the truth.
"Fine, evade the question!" Faren glared back, "but just tell me, who in the world are you anyway? And who told you of me? If I had to guess it would be my sister, since no one else not imprisoned at the time would have known I was gone. Don't tell me you're the patron she was talking about!"
Raonar tried to no avail to contain his laughter. "Hahaha, yes, I suppose it would be horrible for your sister if she was anywhere near me. My thanks for your honesty," he deadpanned.
"Ad, sod it!" Faren immediately got back up and started to straighten himself, to dust off his torn suit of duster leather as well as he could. "She's probably back at the house by now. And mother. Oh, I wonder what that old, useless woman has been doing! She probably doesn't even know I'm missing. No doubt she's laying under the table crawling after the latest bottle of moss-wine."
Raonar looked quietly as Faren talked to himself, until the latter remembered he was not alone. "I am not your sister's patron," the Prince said. "But if it's as you say, she's probably waiting for you, so we should get going."
"No," Faren said up front. "We're not going anywhere until you tell me who you really are. What kind of armor is that?" he asked as Raonar picked up his breastplate and, aided by Gorim, started to strap it back on. "It's fancier than any armor I've ever seen that isn't completely impractical and hard to move in. And you fight better than any of those grunts that supposedly earned glory in the Deep Roads."
The Prince did not immediately answer. If he were to tell him who he was, that he was the Prince of Orzammar, the supposedly most popular person in the entire city, it probably wouldn't make any difference to the so-called castless criminal. But if he did reveal his identity with everything that was going on in his life (and he didn't just mean the military commission), it would fit his track record to somehow draw this man into his world. As bad as his life was right now, it had fairly straightforward dangers, ones he'd grown used to enduring. Dwarven politics were something else, and if he was even slightly honorable he'd want to repay the debt of being freed somehow. His sister would probably be the same, pretend advances on his part or no. No, Dust Town was enough for them to contend with. If Bhelen decided to take his sister on and try for a son, and it worked, he'd revisit the issue. Faren would definitely be involved then.
"Now now, you already guessed I'm a noble, so let's leave it at that for now. You should already know that, at times, the less you know, the better," the Prince said with complete honesty. "Come! Gorim and I will accompany you to your home, then we will take our leave."
Faren grunted, unsatisfied, but said nothing more.
After Raonar put his armor firmly back on, he put on his now blood-splattered grey cloak and got ready to leave, when Faren approached and handed Gorim's sword and the enchanted dagger back.
"Don't forget these, my lord," Faren said, somewhat annoyed for not having had all his questions answered. "Just so you know, I can find out who you are on my own just as well," he then added smugly.
Raonar smiled and gave Gorim back his sword, but refused to take the masterwork dagger back. "If you're so determined, I've no doubt you'll readily learn all you wish." Really, he was still surprised his distinctive hair and eyes didn't give it away. Faren seemed to be selectiviely uninformed about some things, bizarrely enough. "That's why you should keep this dagger close at hand. If you really can't help yourself and get involved in the matters of the upper castes, this blade will at least help save your life when you see just how better it would have been to leave matters as they are now. Keep your wits about you."
Faren definitely did not expect to be told something like this, but after a while decided to let things lie and keep the dagger as told.
The trio departed and, since Faren was in kind of a hurry, they quickly walked down the streets of dust town until they arrived at the small slum house that sat on the fringe, just next to the cliff besides the large lava pool that boiled underneath the city. Raonar had intended to leave as soon as the house was in sight, but Faren threatened to stalk him all the way back to the diamond quarter if he didn't at least come inside. Raonar realized, of course, that what the duster hoped was for Rica to be there. If she was, Faren would immediately find out if there is a connection between the stranger and his sister depending on her reaction. Fortunately, only a few hours had gone by since the Prince and Gorim has slipped out of the sight of their escorts, which meant that Rica was probably still at the palace. They agreed to go in.
It was as Raonar had assumed, the girl was absent. Needless to say, this didn't calm down Faren much, but at least his mother was there, exactly as the duster had expected, passed out under the table.
"Sorry," Faren said somewhat uncomfortable. "I guess inviting you in to this spectacular view wasn't exactly the best idea in the world after all. I always keep telling her that the moss-wine will eventually rot her brains, but she never listens." The Prince could clearly see the sadness that Faren was trying to hide as he forced a humorous tone into those words.
"It's fine," Raonar answered, was recalling a distant memory of his own. "People don't usually drink themselves witless unless they are desperate or suffer from a severe lack of self-confidence. I'm sure she loves you, but you should know that you can't really do anything about it in her stead. People choose who they are by themselves, even if they would like to believe they have no such choices." He paused and then chuckled. "Though I suppose saying that to a duster that is considered less than an animal by his own people isn't exactly very appropriate or accurate, now is it?" The Prince sighed deeply. "Anyway, Gorim and I will be going now. Don't worry. I'm sure your sister will come home soon! If she's a red-haired with two strands of hair floating along her cheeks, then she's probably the one I caught a glimpse of earlier in the Diamond Quarter."
It was a half-truth, of course. The prince had caught more than just a glimpse, but those words played their part. Faren's fears that Rica may have been abused by Beraht's or Jarvia's thugs were dispelled. He could now be at ease, knowing that nothing too terrible or irreversible happened during his imprisonment.
Re-emerging from Dust Town and rejoining the ranks of polite society, Raonar Aeducan pondered the irony of his impromptu trip to Orzammar's seedy underbelly being the only event in recent years to leave him in any way hopeful.
Then he caught sight of a certain squad of soldiers who were all but turning the city upside down (while pretending they weren't) trying to find the Very Important Person they'd been tasked with guarding. Failure at which could lead to Very Bad Things for them. And their houses.
It was a good thing he'd had a lot of practice in going off on his own and ensuring others didn't take the fall for it by now.