In dim, flickering candlelight, Chantry Seeker Cassandra Pentaghast glared down at the petite elf in front of her.
It was a good glare; an intimidating glare. For all that her eyes were the warm colour of wild-flower honey, it was a glare that dredged at the mind for long-forgotten terrors. It had reduced grown men to quivering boys desperate for the protection of their mother's arms. It was a glare that had people spilling all sorts of secrets, in the desperate, yet often vain hope that her curiosity would be sated, that she would then leave them be.
It helped that the Seeker's height enabled to tower over the mage. Her armour, oiled, glossy black with the silver, unclosing eye, added a level of intimidation that few others could hope to muster. All in all, she was a coldly beautiful woman whose expression and demeanour threatened a short, painful future if her questions were not answered. Of all the Seekers, she stood supreme.
"That's a good stare you've got there," the elf said with a smirk, her flippancy masked by a voice that was rough, damaged. "I suspect it's useful in your line of work."
Cassandra continued glaring. "What would you know of my work, Warden?" she retorted.
Moving with instinctive grace, the slender mage sat down on the edge of the hard cot and looked around the cell, from bed to walls to ceiling, all the while unperturbed by the verbal venom. Cassandra watched as she even casually brushed a crumb of flaked masonry off the coarse woollen blanket. "A bit." She paused, apparently considering her answer. "Well, perhaps it's more accurate to say I know a bit about what you Seekers want others to believe, and inferred a bit from what you don't. Secret societies with lots of power but little oversight tend to get a bit pissed when real secrets about them gets out. They start stomping on necks." She smirked at Cassandra, the expression calculated to cause maximum offence. "Preferably the specific necks that embarrassed them, but any particular large number of necks will do in a pinch."
The Seeker allowed herself to follow the elf's gaze around the small prison cell, rather than snap a response. It was decidedly pleasant, as far as cells went - almost comfortable. It was slightly larger than her own monastic cell in the Cathedral at Nevarra City, where she was based. And while it was almost as well equipped, the single significant difference was that the door to this cell was only lockable from the outside. Prison cells were like that.
Next to the head of the cot was a small table, where a small, lit candelabrum stood next to a statuette of Andraste. Against one wall stood a plain, if serviceable desk, upon which rested several blank sheets of vellum, a quill and a small, covered ink pot. A pair of sturdy chairs sat on either side of the desk. A rudimentary garderobe and a thin window, barely the width of a man's hand wide rounded out the remaining features.
Cassandra mentally shook herself. It wouldn't do to get distracted, not now when she finally had the chance to speak to Kathryn Surana, the Hero of Ferelden. Even if the chance had come far, far too late.
"We do not punish the innocent."
The elf barked a humourless laugh. "For a given value of 'innocent', yes? When the Chantry controls how a sin is defined, guilt is trivial to assign."
Cassandra's eyes narrowed. "We seek the truth. I seek the truth. That is all you need to know."
The elf snorted, not at all accepting of the declaration. "You seek a scapegoat. Nothing more."
Cassandra's hands clenched into fists. Few had ever dared to challenge her so openly, but then, she had never interrogated someone who personally possessed such power that they could insult the might of the Chantry with impunity. This petite elf was one such person. She had power enough to tear the Chantry down. Or, preferably to Cassandra, to prop it back up. Diplomacy was required here, not intimidation. "No. Scapegoats and excuses are for nobles and grand clerics. People insecure in their own power. I have no such insecurities. I seek the truth, Warden."
The Grey Warden shook her head, all humour gone in an instant. "You'll forgive me if my personal experience with Chantry stooges trumps mere words and opinion, no matter how much conviction with which you speak them."
The Seeker swallowed, and fought not to drop her head in shame. What this mage was said to have suffered at the hands of elements within the templar order had given her nightmares. Of course, her response to those indignities was even more terrifying, for all the veneer of civility the mage cultivated. "It was not the Chantry who violated you. It was a group of rogue templars."
Emerald eyes hardened instantly, and Cassandra felt an unfamiliar flash of fear as the sticky, tingling sensation of magical potential thrummed in the air. It was a tangible reminder of just how powerful this small woman was. "What stunning hypocrisy. I mean it, that's some top quality stuff. It was one rogue mage who destroyed the Kirkwall Cathedral, but that hasn't stopped your Chantry declaring every mage life in Thedas forfeit."
"Those declarations that were made by Knight-Commanders of individual Mage Circles, not by the Divine Justine! Those impetuous fools have brought Thedas to the edge of annihilation," she replied diplomatically, aware that challenging the charge of hypocrisy would alienate this woman further. "Blessed Divine seeks to end this conflict before it consumes us all. To that end, I was sent to enlist the aid of the Champion of Kirkwall." Cassandra paused. "Your friend and companion, Leliana, was sent to find you. She is convinced that you have the power to end this conflict."
The Warden barked a bitter laugh. "The Kathryn Surana that Leliana knew probably would have helped unasked. She definitely would have at least tried to keep the deaths to a minimum."
"But you are not that person any more."
"No," the elf said, her tone so cold that the Seeker felt gooseflesh rise on her arms and neck. "As ambivalent as I am about this war, my side was selected for me. By the very Chantry you seek to protect; the very Chantry that is now desperate for my help to survive."
Cassandra nodded gravely. "The irony does not escape me." She paused momentarily. "Would you tell me the story?"
Kathryn gave a derisory laugh. "No."
The Seeker sighed. She was far too used to her demands being obeyed instantly. Learning gentler persuasion methods had not been necessary. "Help me, Warden. Help me to empathise with your position. Help me to understand your motivations."
"To what possible purpose?"
"Saving countless lives across all of Thedas is not purpose enough?"
Kathryn shrugged. "The Chantry hierarchy is power-mad and corrupt. Most of the higher ranking Mothers spent more time dabbling in politics than caring for their flock. During the Orlesian occupation of Ferelden, the Chantry actively supported the invaders, leading to countless deaths among the oppressed Fereldan peasants they were sworn to protect. Perhaps, over time, more lives will be spared if the Chantry is eradicated. Have you considered that?"
"And perhaps more will die."
Mage and Seeker considered each other, both staying quiet for a long time. The Warden broke the silence first, with an amused chuckle. "Well, your argument-free rebuttal of my contention has convinced me. I will tell you. But you will need to hear it all. Everything that happened since I ended the Blight." She leaned forward, her emerald eyes staring straight into Cassandra's. "But I give you a fair warning - you are not going to like it. When you hear of the things I've done, of the events I have set in motion and their inevitable consequences, you might understand. I'm not particularly confident, but you may understand."
"I know the facts behind recent events. As I said, I wish to understand your motivations."
Kathryn shook her head. "No, I don't mean my motivations. I mean that you may understand that Thedas is doomed."
Cassandra frowned. "Thedas is engulfed in a war between factions that threaten to destroy civilisation as we know it."
Another condescending snort. It seemed to be a common dismissal of whatever the Warden perceived as stupidity. "I'm not talking about this inconsequential skirmish. It's been going on for three years now. It is just the overture." A smile spread over her features that had no trace of humour whatever. "No, Cassandra. I'm talking about what is coming after."
Such was the certainty in her words that the Seeker paled. "After?"
"Yes. After. Templars or mages, whoever wins this pitiful little scrap is going to inherit a world too weak to survive the storm that is coming. Shall I begin?"
Fort Drakon was a right bugger to work on.
Not in - I would have loved to have worked in one of the available rooms, though the blood-stained walls would make it a touch uncomfortable. No, working on top of the tower, exposed to the chill winds as winter gave way to spring was a bit beyond uncomfortable. I was going through several potent ice salves a day and my fingers were still freezing.
Still, after two months work I'd almost finished with the carcass of the corrupted Old God. I refused point blank to let the archdemon cadaver be burned after the battle. It was an opportunity for knowledge that came along only once a Blight.
Journals, vellum scrolls and workbooks covered my makeshift desk, protected from the winds by a barrier spell I'd managed to wheedle out of Wynne. They contained the combined results of my labours; documenting the physical attributes, strengths and weaknesses of the ancient dragon's form. From hide thickness to scale strength. From bone density to the acidity of its digestive tract.
After each piece of the corpse was studied, measured, dissected and documented, it was shipped off to Wade to play with. The man was a genius in the true sense of the word, and I was looking forward to seeing some of his finished products. Apparently, my archdemon-scale armour was his crowning glory. Until, of course, he made another crowning glory. He was that sort of genius.
Despite the salve on my hands, my fingers were blue from the cold as I carefully measured and noted the dimensions of the few remaining bones. My sketching skills had improved out of sight as I had progressed through my task. By the time I was finished, I would almost be good enough to do a decent job.
Behind me, someone cleared their throat, diplomatically trying to attract my attention.
I looked up from my work and over my shoulder to see the King, standing there with his hands on his hips. He pointed at me, with a theatric expression of doubt on his face. "Kathryn Surana, right?" he said, in the tone of voice he used when he thought he was being his most amusing. "I think I remember you from somewhere. Didn't we save the world or something?"
"Prat," I said with a smile. "It's only been a few days since I visited you."
"Fifteen days, Kat. Fifteen."
I frowned. "Rubbish, I saw you..." I paused, trying to remember.
He shook his head. "I came up here five days ago, yes. But you haven't been to the palace in over a fortnight. I'm beginning to think you intend to live up here. You can move in if you want, but I'll need to charge you rent."
I shook my head with a soft snort of laughter. "Shall we go for a walk along the battlements?" I asked, pointedly looking at Alistair's guards. I wasn't going to be spouting Warden business while in earshot of anyone but the King.
Alistair looked at me gravely. "Is that necessary?"
I shrugged, but nodded, just as gravely. "I might need to discuss some things with you that shouldn't be overheard."
Alistair stared at me for a long moment, searching my face, but eventually nodded. "All right. Callum, please stay here. I'll be back shortly."
The Captain of the King's Guard narrowed his eyes disapprovingly, but nodded his assent. "As you wish, Your Majesty."
I smiled at my old comrade at arms. "Just let me clean up."
Without waiting for an answer, I walked over to a stone ledge where I'd left a basin of clean water, a cake of harsh peasant soap and a coarse hessian towel. I flared some fire magic to set the water steaming before I scrubbed the crusted remains of archdemonic gore from my hands and fingernails. I dried off with the towel. Maker, it was nice to have warm fingers again, even if only temporarily.
"Come on then," I said, setting off around the few exposed remnants of the archdemon towards the unguarded battlements.
Alistair sighed, but followed. "You know, your determination to ignore my new station in life - one that you forced on me, I might add - is causing equal measure of amusement and disaffection among my servants and guards, not to mention quite some scandal among the nobility."
I laughed at the complaint. "Exactly how long have you known me? I don't believe in titles, Alistair, and I wont use them. Unless sarcasm dictates, of course.."
"Of course," he replied with a smirk in his voice. He caught up to me as I leaned on the stonework surrounding the top of Fort Drakon, my forearms against the rough granite.
"So, what brings you all the way up here?" I asked him.
He mimicked my stance, leaning on his forearms on the battlements and looking out over the city. Being over a foot taller, he had to lean down further. It didn't look particularly comfortable. "Well, sometimes I just find myself hankering to relive the good old days. You know - you and me, naked together in a cell downstairs."
"Anora would cut your testicles out of your scrotum with a cheese knife if she heard you talking like that."
Alistair's smile wiped away the fatigue from hard months of ruling a shattered nation. "Well, that image certainly helps add to the atmosphere of imminent pain, torture and death, doesn't it? It's almost just like it was when we were locked up downstairs." He looked at my expression. "I suppose it's a good thing you called me over here alone. She won't hear about it from me, so unless you tell her, we're in the clear."
"Well, since she can't stand to associate with the likes of me, I doubt I'll have the opportunity," I laughed. "That is of course assuming that she hasn't followed you and is eavesdropping on us now."
Alistair laughed too, clear and honest. "She'd never have made it up all the stairs to the top of the tower. Not one for strenuous exercise, my wife. She hates the idea of perspiration. Thinks it should be outlawed. I plan to come up here the next time I need to get away from her."
I snorted softly. "She'd just send someone with a cheese platter to stand at the entrance and let the smell waft up the stairs."
"Curses. Foiled again. My grand scheme needs some work it seems." The smile fell away, and the lines of fatigue returned. "I need you to finish this… this… distraction of yours, Kat," he said, gesturing back to the remains of the draconic corpse. "You're the Commander of the Grey in Ferelden, and you have duties that you need to see to."
"I also need to finish this, Alistair. It's important."
The King pursed his lips together. "Why is it taking so long? We could have stripped the false Andraste down to the bone in less than a week had we the time and inclination."
I sighed. Keeping things secret from Alistair didn't sit well with me, but this was potentially too big to let him know. I stuck with my prepared script. "I'm not just stripping it down for usable materials! I'm trying to document all its weaknesses! You know that. Anyway, I'm nearly done; I should only be another week or so. And at the end of it, you and the rest of the Wardens will have copies of a detailed manual on the biological weaknesses of archdemons. It will be very useful come the next Blight. Or can't Ferelden survive without me for two more weeks?"
He scowled. "Kat, we need you. I need you."
"Surprised, I am not. I'm amazed this country hasn't collapsed under the weight of its own incompetence."
"Kat," Alistair said, exasperated.
"What? You know it's true. Between the Battle of Ostagar and the end of the Blight, we didn't meet another single person in the entire country who was both an ally and capable of finding their own arse without one of us assisting. I'm amazed Eamon can use the privy without someone to hold his-"
Alistair coughed. "Yes, yes, I get the point. And since disagreeing with you simply ends up with me being ranted at for an hour, I'll shut up now."
"See? Being King has made you wise beyond measure."
He grimaced. "Thanks awfully," he said, his usual cheerful manner briefly shining through once more. "But I was serious when I said I needed you. Ferelden is weak - we're ripe for invasion. We need a show of strength, and despite your feelings on the matter, you are the strongest symbol we have."
"You just said I've got duties to the Wardens. How will that work with being your symbol?"
"Hopefully, we can manage both. But about that - I've received some correspondence from Weisshaupt. The First Warden is getting a bit impatient for your report of the Blight and wants a lot of the archdemon blood you collected. They're nearly out."
I grunted, not particularly bothered by the First Warden's impatience. The man had abandoned Alistair and I, holding the Wardens from other countries back for 'when' the Blight consumed Ferelden and spread. As a tactical decision, it made a pragmatic, if evil sense. Grey Wardens had been essentially peripheral for four hundred years, and extracting ongoing tithes from governments for unspecified future services was difficult at the best of times. A Blight destroying an entire country because it had no Wardens would probably ensure prompt payment of tithes for the next century or so.
But, speaking as one of the two Wardens he had chosen to sacrifice to improve his political position, I found myself a bit put out. He could wait - we had. "I'm working on it in my copious amounts of spare time. Like when you aren't parading me through the streets or when I'm not working here. Anyway, I'm nearly done with that too. He can sodding well wait."
"Still put out with him, huh?"
I snapped my head round to glare at him. "I can't believe you're not! You still blame me for sparing Loghain! At least he was actually trying to save Ferelden!"
Alistair's face darkened. "Maker's breath! He-"
I took a deep breath and held up a hand. "Let's not have this argument again. It never ends well," I pleaded.
"Fine," the answer came with an explosive breath.
I sighed. "What did you want me to do, Alistair?"
He paused, weighing his words. "I need you to go to the Circle."
I dropped my head and sighed again, deeper this time. "Maker preserve me. May I ask why?"
"The Chantry hasn't recognised Anora's proclamation giving the Circle independence."
"Surely you aren't surprised. I didn't expect Anora to actually announce it, I only asked for it on a whim."
Alistair grunted. "We expected resistance; it was never going to be a popular idea with the Divine."
"What does Irving have to say? He should have some clout - he and the other mages stood up here with me against the archdemon."
Alistair shrugged, his face carefully blank at my less-than-subtle dig about his absence at that decisive battle. "I haven't received anything from Irving since before he got back to the Circle six weeks ago. For all I know, Greagoir had him imprisoned for not rejecting the proclamation."
"Ah. And you want me to go and find out what's happened."
I shook my head. "Have you sent anyone else?"
"Yes. The templars are denying anyone access to the island, even Royal messengers. And since they control the ferry…"
"What makes you think they would let me in? Or that they won't just arrest me?"
Alistair's expression morphed into one of shock. "You're a Grey Warden! They can't arrest you!"
I snorted loudly, sounding not unlike Oghren snoring. "Right. I'm safe from them, so long as they don't outnumber me ten-to-one and that there aren't any reliable witnesses nearby."
Alistair looked troubled. "Do you really think that, or are you just being pessimistic?"
I gave a small shrug. "I just don't trust them. In my entire life, of all the templars I've encountered, there have been exactly three who saw me as something other than a danger to be neutralised. The rest all looked as though they were working out how hard they'd have to swing to decapitate me."
"I hope I'm on that first list."
I chuckled softly. "You never took your vows, remember? No, I mean Cullen, Bryant and Otto. They all treated me as a person first. Especially poor Otto, he actually treated me with respect. But he got a trident through the heart for rejecting the Chantry's stance on letting the elves fend for themselves, Cullen was tortured into insanity and Bryant was probably slaughtered by the darkspawn at Lothering."
"Fair enough." He paused. "Will you go, Kat? Or am I going to have to order you to go?"
"You are a bastard, you know that?"
Alistair chuckled softly. "I seem to recall telling you that very fact one night at camp."
"I don't get it. Why me? You know what my brand of diplomacy is like."
He nodded. "I do. Oghren is more subtle. That's why I'm sending you. Look, Greagoir is ignoring the usual royal overtures. I need someone who is capable of shaking things up a bit. Eamon pointed out that you could probably shake the tower enough to bring it down."
"How nice of him. I may just have to have a long chat with your Chancellor," I grumbled, standing up straight and turning around. "You are aware that if I go, the templars will get aggressive. They don't like that I'm no longer under their control. And I will meet aggression with aggression. If I don't, I'll be imprisoned in that tower before you can blink. Since I don't like being locked up, there will be some... unpleasantness."
Alistair grimaced. "You don't know that. Greagoir might let you in and listen to you."
"I do know that. And if you were honest with yourself, you'd admit you know it too."
He sighed. "Fine. I know, but it might not be as bad as you think."
I shook my head at his naivety. "There are going to be deaths, Alistair. I guarantee it. I won't go in there unprepared, and I will defend myself at the first sign of aggression. Those templar deaths will pretty much ensure her Grand Bitchiness will be on your doorstep demanding a predictable and disproportionate response."
He rubbed his brow, looking harried. "I know," he almost whined, "but royal requests regarding the Circle sent to her get rebuffed too. She's blatantly waving her autonomy from me while pushing hard to extend her own influence over me, and I can't back down. I must show her that I'm not a Chantry doormat. Just... try to keep the unnecessary deaths to a minimum, yes? I need to send the Grand Cleric a message that she cannot simply ignore the Crown when it suits her."
I snorted. "Yeah, sending me to the Circle to deliver a message will do that, for sure."
He shook his head at my tone. "Please, just try and be diplomatic? Having her call for an Exalted March would be a little inconvenient right now."
"I imagine you're right."
"Kat, look, I need to get someone into the Circle Tower first before I can negotiate this, and you are the only available person who is permitted access."
"I do not consider myself a Circle mage anymore," I insisted.
"I know, but the Grand Cleric does."
I smirked. "Yes, I got her request-slash-demand that I return to the Circle's governance. I didn't bother responding." I sighed deeply. "All right. Give me ten days to finish up here. I'll have my report to the First Bastard in Weisshaupt done by then too. If I go by the North Road, I can stop in at Soldier's Peak on the way. I need to discuss an idea I had with Avernus, assuming he and Jowan haven't killed each other yet."
"I'll have a patrol ready to escort you."
I shot a surprised glance at him. "What for? The off chance that there's another archdemon out there? I have Thunder; I don't need any more of an escort."
Alistair shook his head. "As formidable as your gigantic mabari is, you're an Arlessa, or at least you will be after the next Landsmeet. You are entitled - and expected - to travel with an armed escort."
"And you're an idiot. Wardens cannot hold a title. You're only the King because there isn't another direct descendant of Therin blood, and that you renounced being an active Warden. Do you seriously think that the majority of your nobles would vote to let an elf hold a title, let alone one as prestigious as Arlessa? They'd laugh in your face, even if you threatened to perform bowel surgery on them with a rusty spoon. A majority certainly wouldn't vote to let a mage hold a title. You might get a couple with unmarried younger sons on side by nominating an unmarried woman, but do you honestly think that you can stand before them and ask for their blessing to let an unmarriable, elven, Grey Warden mage run the most valuable arling in Ferelden? You're bonkers."
He chuckled. "You're severely underestimating your popularity, you know. The Grand Cleric is becoming quite miffed at how much your accomplishments have raised the profile of mages. Nearly every noble in the country has sent her a request to allow them to hire one or two."
I blinked. I hadn't known that. "Really?"
"Yep. Mostly as healers, of course, they all got reports of Wynne's effectiveness during the Blight. But several on the Bannorn want a mage for other things – it's more effective to use mage fire to purge Blighted fields, for example. Joining their guard to assist with bandit attacks, that sort of thing."
"Only Circle mages? Didn't you send out word for apostates to serve in the army?"
"I did. I got a shrill note from the Divine herself about it, but having healers and elementalists in the ranks will help with limiting attrition and increasing assault strength at a time when we really need it. Any non-maleficar mage is welcome to join, but they will have to submit to the Circle when they leave service."
I snapped my head around to stare at him. "What?"
He held up his hands in a gesture of peace. "Don't look at me like that; I had to give the Grand Cleric that concession to get her to stop yelling at me, and I think she only agreed when she realised that she wouldn't have to use her resources to hunt all the apostates down. But those outside the Circle will have a safe haven as long as they are enlisted." He grinned, and raised a finger, adopting a lecturing pose. "Remember, they are entitled to enlist for as long as they like. Technically, they don't have to go back to the Circle."
I frowned, pleased that he hadn't just agreed to discard mages who helped his country. "That still doesn't explain how you're going to convince a bunch of pompous, egocentric nobles that they should just roll over and vote the way you want."
"Leave it to Anora. She has a plan."
"Somehow that idea does not surprise me. Nor, I might add, does it fill me with confidence. Does this plan of Anora's involve me inadvertently insulting some powerful noble who happens to be standing in the way of some unrelated royal scheme or two, gruesomely and publicly killing him in the subsequent honour duel and thus improving her position while cowing the rest of the recalcitrant nobles into line?"
He looked horrified. "No! Why in the Maker's name would you think that?"
I crossed my arms. "Experience," I forced out through clenched teeth. "You have met your wife, haven't you?"
Alistair shuffled uncomfortably, but didn't deny it. "Yes, I mean, no! Wait, I mean, yes I've met my wife, and no, her plan doesn't involve you killing anyone. At least I don't think it does. I can't follow one of her schemes from one end to the other without keeping notes."
I bit my lip. "What about Orlais? Does she have plots to counteract their territorial ambitions?"
"Yes. The Empress is trying to reestablish diplomatic ties, but..."
"If her spies find out just how weak we are from the Blight her aid would come with the non-negotiable addition of chevaliers."
He nodded glumly. "She already knows, but yeah. I think we managed to buy ourselves maybe three or four months by neutralising Marjolaine and collecting Cailan's correspondence at Ostagar, but already there are Orlesians who claim to be merchants arriving weekly with plenty of coin but little in the way of inventory."
"I've been thinking about this, you know."
Alistair's eyes brightened. "Really?"
I nodded. "We may be weak, but we've got a remarkable amount of good will with others within our borders. Why bother negotiating with Orlais when you can strengthen your position locally? You've let mages know they'd be welcome serving the country, how about the elves and dwarves?"
"What do you mean?"
"Contact Lanaya and some of the other clan Keepers and negotiate some sort of troop swap agreement. Suggest that some volunteer archers and scouts from the Dalish clans could come and work with your army to destroy the darkspawn stragglers in the Bannorn, and you could likewise send some of your troops to work with them getting the darkspawn out of the forests. There's plenty of archers in the army who'd jump at the chance to spend a few months learning the craft from the best. And during the Blight, some of the Dalish warriors expressed admiration in the way our forces worked as a unit. Lanaya was stunned at the way a squad of twelve men could work together to hold a line of three times that many darkspawn in place to be picked off by archers and mages."
He considered it for a moment. "That's not a bad idea."
I warmed to my topic. "Elves trained to function as a unit would be far more effective than individual hunters. And elven-trained human archers would be an asset to any army. But the real benefits would flow from camaraderie. Humans and elves fighting together against a common enemy would generate mutual respect, not just for individuals, but for both races as a whole."
Alistair nodded thoughtfully. "Anything that lessened the chance of fighting between the Dalish and humans would be a positive. I can't see the dwarves deciding to come to the surface though."
I smiled at the thought. "Hardly. It took a Blight and an ancient treaty to get them out this time. No, I was thinking something different for them. Bhelen is a progressive, relatively speaking; I'm sure he's aware that the dwarves have only a couple of generations before the population levels are unrecoverable."
"So what would be mutually beneficial? Or perhaps more to the point, what would be mutually beneficial that Bhelen would agree to that wouldn't strain our resources? Are there enough dwarves on the surface to help with population problems?"
"Yes, but I was thinking about helping him reclaim some of the old Thaigs. Restricted as they are to just Orzammar, they have no room to expand. With the darkspawn in retreat, they have a once in who-knows-how-long chance to bring a couple of their abandoned Thaigs permanently back under dwarvern control. It would help on all fronts - more room for their current population, greater availability of ores to mine, and the deshyrs would focus their resources on reclaiming and defending new territory instead of fighting each other over the same shrinking territory. If Bhelen could get some Thaigs restored and populated, the Assembly could potentially set him up as a Paragon. He'd go for that faster than Oghren goes for your drinks cabinet."
Alistair frowned. "That's a lot of risk for little reward on our part."
I shook my head in disagreement. "Only if you're on the front lines; and it would be pretty insulting to suggest that they wouldn't be up for the task. No, we wouldn't need to offer any military help. Our company made some pretty good maps of the Deep Roads during our time down there. We could use them to locate other possible Deep Road entrances in western Ferelden."
I sighed, mentally cursing Eamon. Alistair's upbringing was not one you wanted in a King. "Part of the dwarvern mindset is that everything needs to be done below ground. If we can find entrances near the Aeducan or Ortan Thaigs - or maybe even Cadash Thaig - we could create overland supply routes to them without the need for travelling through miles of darkspawn-infested tunnels. All that trade would help get coin moving in Ferelden again, which would flow into tax revenues. And the dwarves would be in a far better position to defend the reclaimed Thaigs with strong, stable supply lines they don't need to use half their warriors to defend."
"I suppose they would. But why those specific Thaigs?"
"They're the ones we know of that are under Ferelden territory or close to the border. And I suspect that Bhelen would be most interested in reclaiming his family's Thaig. Fortunately, that is the one that has the best chance to be reclaimed. It is the closest to Orzammar. Plus, it's near Redcliffe; a trading post at a Deep Roads entrance between the two would be booming within months of occupation."
Alistair thought about this. "What about the others? The City of the Dead would be the best one to fortify, given its position and layout. Hold that one and Bhelen could reclaim the other nearby Thaigs at leisure."
"Bownammar is well into Orlesian territory, so unless you want to give the Orleasians the trade revenue, we can't really help there. Mind you, a repaired and reclaimed City of the Dead up would be an incredible sight."
"You see, this is why I wanted you as my advisor. Why hasn't Eamon suggested these things?"
I scowled, my mood evaporating instantly. "Eamon is an idiot, that's why."
Alistair closed his eyes and shook his head. "I won't argue, not after last time, but you have to admit that he's the best of a bad bunch."
"Since I haven't had the opportunity to be completely screwed over by any of the other contenders, I'll have to take you word for it."
The King smiled sadly. "Forget I said anything. Do you have any other bright ideas?"
Yes, but you won't like them, I thought to myself. "Some, but they're long-term plans for Soldier's Peak and the Wardens rather than things that would impact the day to day running of Ferelden."
He cooed and clapped his hands like a child seeing a pile of presents on First Day. "Ooo, like what?"
I paused, wondering exactly which of my plans I should tell him. "Well, like setting up Avernus' tower at the Peak as a small Mage Circle - without the templars. A place where we can study magical subjects that the Chantry bans because they consider them dangerous. Or, more realistically, because they have no way to control them. Shapeshifting magic, Dalish magic, Arcane Warrior magic, Blood magic, anything. Circle mages, apostates and maleficars alike could come and study, so long as they abided by a peace agreement and shared their knowledge with the Wardens."
Alistair shifted uncomfortably. "Blood mages too?"
"It would be rude to eject the current occupants and hypocritical to exclude others if they stayed. Besides, you need to understand how something works before you can develop effective defences against it," I argued. "Just imagine how much more effective Warden mages could be if we could all change shape, wear armour, carry swords and resist mind control."
He winced. "I don't disagree; really I don't, but..." He struggled, unable to voice his concerns. I wasn't surprised; his templar training had instilled certain values, even if the past year and a bit had done quite a bit to erode them down to realistic levels. "Do you have any ideas that won't give me indigestion?"
I grinned at him, wondering how he'd take this one. "I'd like to try and get my hands on some dragon eggs or maybe some newly hatched dragonlings."
Alistair's left eye twitched. "Why?" he asked, slowly and carefully, already dreading the answer.
"Because griffons are extinct," I said simply.
He closed his eyes and appeared to count to twenty. Perhaps thirty. "Tell me you're joking."
"Tell me it wouldn't have been useful having a handful of tame, fire-breathing dragons to ride during the Blight."
"You know what? I'm just going to stop asking for ideas that have nothing to do with running my kingdom. I'm all set for nightmares now thanks to just those two."
"A pity," I said with a toss of my head. "The next one would probably give you insomnia." I paused, considering. "Or you'd have me confined to a sanitarium, I can't be sure."
"Right. Keep that one to yourself, if you please."
"I appreciate it."
"Glad to help."
He shook his head, laughing. "I do miss talking like this with you, Kat. When you're done here, come and relax in the palace for a day or so. I'll have a missive for Greagoir and a proposal for Bhelen drawn up. If you're going to the Circle, it makes sense to add Orzammar to your itinerary."
I tapped my chin in thought. "Write one to Lanaya too and I'll swing down south on my way back. I wanted to head down into the Wilds soon anyway."
"Dare I ask why?"
"I don't know, do you dare?"
He paused weighing his options. "After what you said before... It's nothing too horrible, is it?"
I shook my head, deciding to put him out of his misery, despite how amusing his reticence was. "No,
I'm just going to look for some plants that grow down there for some experiments. I can't get good samples here in Denerim."
He looked relieved. "I believe you, if only because I really don't want to know if you're lying." He paused, and started laughing before continuing. "Just think, you could point out all the places of interest to your escort on your round tour of Ferelden." He forced his voice to a higher pitch that resembled my own awful voice. "That's where we killed a bunch of darkspawn. And that's where the Antivan Crows failed to kill us."
I snickered at the idea. "That's where another bunch of assassins sent by a mad Orlesian bardmaster failed to kill us."
"That's where a group of insane cultists failed to kill us."
"That's where a misornithic golem of stone squished some men that failed to kill us."
"That's a big word," he said approvingly. "That's where some giant walking trees failed to kill us."
I snorted at that memory. "That's where our camp was attacked and a stark-naked Oghren charged out of his tent and killed a bunch of darkspawn. They too failed to kill us."
"Ugh, don't remind me. I've been trying to purge the memories of that night." He again did that horrible impersonation of my voice. "That's where we faced Flemeth in the form of a High Dragon. She burned off all my robes and I had to walk through the Korcari Wilds in the charred remains of my smallclothes. But she also failed to kill us."
I punched him on his rock-hard bicep and growled, "That's where I took the King's virginity. Much to Morrigan's disappointment, it failed to kill him."
"You started it."
"I don't want to play this game anymore." He rubbed his arm. "You do realise that lèse majesté is still a capital crime, right?" he asked, smiling.
"You do realise that sending people to hang me is a crime punishable by me flaming my way through all your guards and burning you to a crisp, right?"
He appeared to consider this. "Is that one in the current statutes? I don't remember seeing it written down."
My lips were twitching with the effort of not laughing. Alistair's templar-trained discipline of course meant that he managed to keep a straight face. "It's more an established precedent than an actual law. Does the name Howe mean anything to you?"
He tilted his head to one side, pretending to think hard. "Hmm, I seem to recall someone by that name. Didn't we kill him after he failed to kill us?"
"Yes, but you've just described an awfully long list of people."
"True," he said. He looked out over the city and sighed, his mirth evaporating. "I'll see if I can organise some building supplies and craftsmen to go with you to Soldier's Peak. There's still a lot to do here, but hopefully we can spare some people. We should get at least part of the Peak cleaned out and the doors and windows repaired before you start sending others to live there. Did you want to take Oghren with you? His patrol is due back in a few days."
I shook my head. "No thanks. He's enjoying his time in the army, and he has the respect of the troops, something he never got in Orzammar. Plus, he's keeping more of your people alive than I ever could. Better to keep him teaching young soldiers to fight darkspawn safely than wandering around the countryside with me. I'll take Zevran with me though."
Alistair coughed. "Er, I've sent him on an errand. Sorry."
Oh? The templar-turned-King was utilising the masterless assassin? He was maturing. Anora's influence, no doubt. "No problem. Thunder will keep me company. If the other Wardens don't show up to take their archdemon blood allocations before I leave, I'll take it all with me to the Peak. It will be safe there."
Alistair reached out and gave me a chaste hug. "It will be safe at Vigil's Keep too you know."
"You see, there's a rather large assumption there. It wouldn't be safe if I'm not Arlessa. Now sod off so I can get back to work. I'm on a deadline now."
He chuckled. "Always a pleasure talking with you, Kat."