Anything you recognise is Bioware's. Anything else probably belongs to them too.
Leliana made a face. "I cannot believe you sent Oghren of all people to audience with the Divine," she said with a small shake of her head. The faint whisper of a smile belied the chastisement behind her words.
Cassandra regarded the smirking elf, considering what she knew of her; and what she had learned of her in the last day, and made a rather simple deduction. "It was a deliberate insult."
Kathryn flashed a smile and a nod in her direction. "It was. There were other reasons, of course, but I didn't want the old battleaxe to think the Fereldan Wardens took her at all seriously."
Gaylen gasped and Leliana covered her mouth at the blatant disrespect shown to the previous Divine, but Cassandra simply rolled her eyes. "Did you instruct him to eunichize Prince Florensten, contaminate the holy font and publicly humiliate himself?"
"Nope. He did all that of his own volition. One of the reasons I specifically selected him was for his complete lack of diplomacy and inability to feel shame. But I was very impressed by just how infuriated he made our Orlesian hosts. The Divine was a mixture of red from embarrassment and white from fury." Kathryn evaluated her audience, smirked, and continued. "I even stole a massive, garish emerald and diamond necklace from the palace for him to give to Felsi as thanks." She held her hands up to her neck and ran them down her chest, miming the outline.
Gaylen started coughing and wheezing.
Leliana and Cassandra both wore expressions of disapproval. "I suppose I should not be surprised that it was you whom pilfered the Imperial Jewels," the Navaran Seeker said tartly.
Kathryn shrugged. "Why would you be? I stole Loghain's crown, Rendon's silver and looted many a Bann's Denerim assets during the Blight. And that was with your colleague's willing assistance, I might point out," she said, indicating Leliana with a tilt of her head. "If we did all that to Fereldan-born, what possible reason could I have given you that would make you think I'd hesitate to help myself to jewellery simply because it belonged to someone foreign and royal?"
Cassandra pursed her lips, trying to ignore Leliana's faint blush of shame. "So a simple Grey Warden's wife wears the most expensive necklace ever crafted. What did you do with the rest? Give them to the local beggars?"
"Nope. After solidifying dwarvern control of Kal'Hirol, Bhelen finally had enough support among the deshyrs to marry his casteless consort. I gave the crown to Rica as a wedding gift. When she wore it next to her husband's Paragon-forged monstrosity, it barely rated as a tiara. The other jewellery and weapons..." the elf trailed off, a wistful smile on her face.
"I kept the earrings and bracelets; I thought they were pretty and the idea of an elf mage wearing jewellery commissioned for the Orlesian emperor gave me tingles. Aedan and Fergus turned all sorts of wonderful colours when I wore them to a party they threw. The rest? I plucked out the jewels and smelted the remaining metal down into gold and silverite ingots. I bought the debts of selected Orlesian nobles with them."
Cassandra nodded, finding herself unmoved by the fate of the irreplaceable. "Your foray into the realm of Orlesian finance."
"Indeed. The beginning of it, at least. Val Royeaux opened up whole new vistas for me."
I leaned on the rail near the bow of the ship, looking out over the Waking Sea. The bright summer sunlight glittered off the top of each wave like thousands of sparkling diamonds. Several other vessels were within sight, sloughing their way through the choppy water with varying grace. The boards of the ship creaked and shifted in time with the rocking; rocking that had Oghren's face greener than his eyes. He hadn't come out of his cabin since we'd passed the breakwater of Highever's port.
Though not nauseous, I still felt unwell. My heart ached for Thunder. I had been almost as upset as he that he would need to be left behind. But keeping my presence a secret would be difficult if the single most recognisable hound in the world turned up in Orlais. It had been days before I could think of him without tears forming in my eyes.
Fortunately, we did have that distraction about half way through our trip. It was cathartic to let loose some destructive magic.
The spires of Val Royeaux in the distance caused me an odd chord of discomfort. I couldn't help but feel they were built to intimidate friend and enemy alike. Fort Drakon and Kinloch Hold were both tall, but they were built in antiquity by the predecessors of Ferelden. These towers were modern in comparison, built by the ancestors of those who resided within.
As I glared at the marvels of modern engineering, a voice from behind said, "We'll arrive tomorrow morning."
I turned. "Aedan," I greeted with a nod. "We look closer. Couldn't we reach the docks today?"
He shrugged. "We could, but the tide will be turning soon. It would be like trying to drag the ship up hill."
"Ah, I see. Well, Oghren will just have to wait. He'll no doubt want to travel back home either overland or through the Deep Roads."
Aedan leaned on the rail next to me. I was struck by the odd similarity between him in that pose and Alistair, leaning on the edge of Fort Drakon next to me so long ago in the lee of the archdemon corpse. "I'm sure he'll be happier off the ship. And from what I understand, he'll be quite upset to have missed the little ado with the pirates."
I shook my head. "Nah, he's missed entire fights because of me before. He'll mumble 'sodding elf' within my hearing a couple of times before consoling himself with the knowledge that we're trouble magnets and that the next fight will be just around the corner. Life with me is never dull."
He hummed an agreement. "I shall have to look into hiring mages for the rest of my teyrnir's shipping. Perhaps even commission a vessel or two specifically for battle; to take the fight to the pirates. It will be expensive, but worthwhile if more pirate vessels in Ferelden waters are reduced to ash."
I considered the possibilities. "There are always going to be people who figure it's easier to take stuff from others than work for it themselves. Pirates are like bandits. We fundamentally changed the banditry problem in my arling by using loaded, fat wagons as lures. Kit out your ships as if they're merchants rather than for battle and send them up and down the coast. Once their numbers are thinned a bit it will make the remaining pirates a little more wary about hitting genuine Fereldan merchants."
He chuckled, his deep voice making the laughter soothing. "I keep forgetting that you have a wickedly sharp mind. Your magic makes you as subtle as a sledge hammer in a fight."
"It has been remarked upon. Those pirates who tried to attack us certainly thought so. Their ship burned rather prettily."
He grunted an agreement before he turned and looked at me intently. "Are you going to be all right? It won't do at all for you to raze Val Royeaux to the ground."
"Wouldn't that make the negotiations easier?" I asked lightly.
"Shorter," he corrected firmly. "But far less productive."
I sighed. "It was a joke, Aedan. You don't need to treat me as an invalid."
He grunted. "Kat, I have nothing but the highest regard for you and your abilities. You were – are – the very person Ferelden needs; someone with the ability and drive to do what is necessary to triumph. Without you and your efforts our country would be nought but a blighted wasteland. I don't have the words to express just how indebted we are to you. But your proximity to these negotiations has the potential to be disastrous."
"I can be discreet," I insisted. "You've given me this lecture before. Three times by my count."
He sighed again. "It bears repeating. And it's not just you. If either you or Connor are identified it will severely hamper our efforts. We have to-"
"-announce everyone in the retinue, I know. And by hiding me and Connor you could be accused of bad faith. Aedan, I know. And I'm telling you now, these negotiations are a sham."
"I know that," he said forcefully. "I also know that we are in danger. If one of us were to die in an accident, no one would shed a tear. In many ways, it would even help their position, so I'll be shocked if we don't get attacked at least once during our travels in the city; probably while we're out shopping or on a hunting trip rather than at the Imperial Palace."
I snorted. "I thought the Orlesians were supposed to be cunning. That sounds a bit unsubtle."
He grinned ruefully. "It won't be anything as overt as a squad of Imperial Guards dressed in rude smocks. Someone from the Imperial Intelligence Service will be spreading rumours of a wealthy Fereldan noble arriving with few guards. Every thug and ruffian in the city will be waiting for us."
"Those we can handle. Just keep those amulets I gave you on and your potion within arm's reach. If you're poisoned, they'll glow green. Pull the cork and drink it immediately."
He nodded, and looked out over to the city on the horizon. "I'm not stupid, you know. You won't tell us what you plan, but I can hazard a good guess. Revenge won't change what happened."
I shrugged. "No, it won't. And that's not why I'm here."
"You don't need to know," I insisted.
"Are you going to kill the templars who abducted you?" he demanded pointedly.
"No," I responded, with very specific honesty.
"Then what?" he demanded.
"Have you ever heard the phrase, it's easier to get forgiveness than permission?"
He drew a deep breath and let it out in a long, steady stream. "I can't countenance this, Kat. By Royal decree, I am leading this delegation. If I think for one moment that you, or whatever you are planning, will put either the negotiations or anyone under my protection at risk, I will do whatever is necessary to stop you."
I looked up into his clear and honest eyes. "I would expect no less of you."
He nodded, satisfied that he had made his point. "I have no wish to be at odds with you, Kat. No sane person would. But I have a duty, and I must see it through." He gave a soft bark of laughter. "I'm a Cousland. It's our family motto."
The next morning, rather than the much larger and busier merchant shipping docks, the ship's captain steered us towards the fortified quay reserved for royal and diplomatic vessels. True to Aedan's prediction, we docked less than an hour after the sky began to lighten the next morning. True to my prediction, Oghren was all but pushing everyone else off the gangplank into the water in his rush to shore.
Once I was off the ship, I bumped my shoulder against him to keep him from staggering. Aedan, Teagan and William presented themselves and their credentials to the dockmaster. The officious little man held his chin high and a scented square of cloth near his nose as he greeted the delegation with as much disdain as he could muster. The effect would have been less ludicrous had he been slightly taller. As it was, his haughtily raised chin could be explained away by having to address a man over a foot taller. Aedan was very tall, after all.
"Sodding surfacers," Oghren grumbled. "If I ever meet the utter bastard who decided a floating wooden box was a good way to travel..." The threat was somewhat neutralised by his pale complexion. He pulled out an earthenware jug and took a swig. Colour returned to his cheeks so quickly it was like a potion.
I answered with a whuff. I'd long figured that the easiest way to smuggle myself into a city was to do so as a mabari as part of a Fereldan delegation. Connor was snug in mouse form in Oghren's backpack.
He wiped a hand across his mouth. "'m glad Fels didn't want to come," the berserker continued, looking better but still sounding shockingly weak. "She doesn't need to see me like this."
Pickering struggled down the gangplank with a few heavy bags. "I'm glad to be back on dry land," he groaned.
"You and me both, laddie. Fancy a drink?"
Pickering looked at Aedan's back. "Er, I don't think we should go anywhere yet. I think we're meant to go to the palace."
Oghren snorted. "Who said anything about going anywhere?" he asked, pulling another bottle out from a different pocket. "Here, give this a go. It'll put hair on your chest."
"I have hair on my chest," Pickering retorted with the pride of youth.
"Then it'll put more hair on your chest."
Pickering considered that, and reached a decision. He took the offered bottle and raised it to his lips. A single swallow caused some amusing bulging in his cheeks and an explosion of coughing.
"Good stuff, eh?"
Eyes streaming, Pickering handed the bottle back. "What is that?" he wheezed.
Oghren grinned. "Just something Drake and I cooked up."
"What's in it?"
"Apples," Oghren replied. "Well, mostly."
Our entourage was escorted from the docks to a number of waiting carriages. Obviously they were sent to impress, or at least demoralize. Precious metal featured prominently in the tracing; the identical black horses each had silver-embossed reins, the curtains were made of shimmering silk, and even the spokes of the wheels were plated in gold.
I fought down my first instinct, which was to steal them.
The trip to the palace was short, barely half a mile. A veritable army of servants met us in a staging yard. Our contingent was outnumbered by the swarm of valets, maids and groomsmen who escorted us into the Imperial Palace.
It was like a fairy tale, full of tall, narrow towers topped with spires, and artworks dotting the walls along carpeted corridors. The rooms in the Imperial Palace assigned to Aedan and the rest of his party turned out to be... palatial.
Shadow and I received looks of consternation from several of the staff. One impeccably dressed fellow wafted one of those scented handkerchiefs that seemed in fashion in front of his face. He begged that we mabari move over to and remain upon the padded linen laid out in one corner of the room.
We sat stock still on an expensive carpet in the centre of the room, staring up at him, our mouths open and our tongues lolling. A canine sense of humour is pretty basic.
There were several items of correspondence that needed attention; one of which was addressed to the Wardens. While Aedan, Teagan and William established themselves in the various adjoining bedchambers, Oghren broke the wax seal and opened the letter.
"Heh, the First Warden thought Nate would be coming. More fool him." He scanned the parchment. "I'm supposed to go see the local Wardens, who'll have further orders. Fair enough. Coming?"
I whuffed an affirmative, but darted over to his pack. With my nose, I noodled out one of his Legionnaire gauntlets.
"Yeah, you're probably right."
A short while later, Oghren bade farewell to the noblemen and sauntered out into the palace corridors. I trotted at his side, looking the very picture of an obedient warhound. Even having lived on the surface of Thedas for a few years, Oghren still retained his dwarvern sense of direction. He led our way out without taking a single wrong turn.
The guards on the main doors did challenge us, but Oghren ignored them. Guards were supposed to keep people out, after all. "Those nughumpers need to learn how to speak a proper language," he muttered to me.
I gave a canine laugh.
Before we reached the gates, a young man bolted out of the palace and over to us. In a thick accent he offered to act as our guide while in the city. His expression indicated that any refusal on our part would probably be considered a failure on his.
Oghren at least picked up on the unspoken plea. He shrugged and asked to be taken to the Grey Warden compound. With a nod of understanding, we were off out the main gates.
We meandered through the streets of Orlais, following our guide. I was rather pleased to be in my canine form; the sights of Val Royeaux would probably have me gaping like an uncouth idiot had I walked the streets as an elf.
Where the streets of Denerim were mostly packed earth or cobblestones, Val Royeaux was almost universally paved. Expensive Ferelden buildings were constructed of stone. Here, they were sheathed in marble. Denerim's main 'market square' was literally a single open area with barely enough room for a few dozen temporary stalls; and it was only called a square because calling it 'market concave-irregular-polygon' would have caused you to be run out of town. The Place du Marché was an enormous, sprawling entity, with row upon row of vendors selling everything from jewellery to silks to wine to poisons – or possibly fish, I wasn't sure.
Even Oghren was impressed. "It's a good thing Felsi decided not to come. She'd have spent a year's worth of my loot in a day."
I gave him a whuff of agreement, to which our guide gave a look of surprise.
The Grey Warden compound was just as impressive as the rest of the nearby buildings; which was to say it looked like it would suit a teyrn as a city house in Denerim. Oghren introduced himself to the doorman, and we were granted entrance.
Though quite sparse compared to the palace, the inside of the compound was by no means austere. The walls were panelled in varnished hardwood and the floors polished. Trophies dotted the walls at regular intervals, though the specimens were decidedly unimpressive compared to what I'd faced in the last few years. A few Wardens wandered the halls, some carrying books, some carrying weapons. But they were outnumbered significantly by the servants.
Of course, an established Warden compound had an enormous kitchen and corresponding staff.
We were led to a set of well-appointed rooms; two bedchambers connected to a reception room lined with tapestries and furnished with deep leather chairs. Oghren was invited to make himself comfortable and to ring a small bell on a side table to summon a servant. We were left alone.
"Not a bad spread," Oghren remarked, gazing around the room. "Some of those chairs look a bit flaky though."
I eyed the delicately carved and contoured chairs, and didn't disagree.
He dropped his kit and noodled around, examining a cabinet at one end, looking for something to drink. He gave a bottle a detailed examination. A few moments later there was a knock at the door.
It was a Warden. He had dark hair and an impressive moustache, the points of which stretched down past the sides of his mouth to level with his chin. "Well met, Brother. I am Stroud," he introduced himself. "We were expecting Nathaniel Howe, but from Fiona's description, you can only be Oghren Kondrat."
"Aye, that's me," Oghren replied, putting the bottle down. The pair clasped forearms in greeting.
"It is an honour to meet you." He spoke the language perfectly well, though with a strong Orlesian accent.
Oghren looked a bit sceptical at the claim. "Really? Your note said…"
"Any correspondence you received was not from me. Like you, I am merely a guest here to witness the excommunication ceremony. I represent the Grey Wardens of the Free Marches."
Oghren snarled at the reminder.
"However, any Warden is honoured to meet someone who stood against an archdemon. My Commander is a student of history. Through his examination of the archives he has come to the conclusion that you are the only non-Warden to trade blows with an archdemon and live since the First Blight."
"Heh, really?" Oghren asked dubiously.
"Just so. The report of the battle we received describes your heroics vividly. Did Urthemiel truly pick you up in his mouth and spit you out?"
Oghren unconsciously rubbed his chest along the line of scars. "Aye. Blasted lizard had the worst breath you've ever smelled. Stank even worse than a Dust Town sewer."
Stroud shook his head in wonder. "Incredible." He appeared to notice me. "This is your hound? An impressive beast."
Oghren shook his head and snorted in amusement. "She's not mine. If anything, you could say that I'm her dwarf. She goes where she wants; does what she wants. We've fought together a time or two though. So long as you don't speak that fancy Orlesian, she can understand you well enough. I'll give you a warning though; don't get her angry."
Stroud blinked. "She understands language?"
"I see. The tales of the warhounds of Ferelden are not exaggerated then?"
"Nope. Even the Qunari that bunked with us during the Blight respected them. I just wish they'd let me hitch up some chariots."
Stroud nodded, his mind obviously not on dogs or Oghren's plans for canine cavalry. "If I may – I have some information for your Commander. It is regarding the Warden named Anders."
I suddenly found myself intensely interested in the conversation.
"Sparklefingers? What of him? He scarpered a few months back."
Despite the momentary confusion at the odd nickname, Stroud continued. "I encountered him in the Deep Roads near Kirkwall."
"Eh? What was he doing there?"
Stroud sat. "That is quite the story. Essentially, he was befriended by a Ferelden-born refugee in Kirkwall by the name of Hawke. Hawke and her sister were partners in an expedition into the Deep Roads to loot what they could while the darkspawn were in retreat."
Oghren nodded sagely. "Best time for it."
"Perhaps," Stroud replied, diplomatically. "But you are aware that there are other dangers in the deep. Dangers that are just as lethal as the darkspawn they wished to avoid."
"I didn't say it wasn't a monumentally stupid idea," Oghren pointed out, "just that it was the best time to risk it."
Stroud inclined his head, acknowledging the point. "The taint is insidious that far down. Hawke's sister became infected on the journey back to the surface. My Wardens and I were patrolling nearby and Anders sought us out. He asked that we Join Bethany."
Both Oghren and I snarled. The fact a dog seemed able to follow the conversation astonished Stroud. "The sodding deserter is giving out our secrets too?" Oghren spat.
Stroud shook his head, still looking at me appraisingly. "More like – confirming a rumour. He said only that joining the Grey Wardens would delay her tainted death. I accepted her as a recruit and took her with us. Bethany underwent the Joining and survived."
"So where did Sparklefingers go after that?"
"Back to the undercity of Kirkwall. He has established a clinic of sorts in the area known as Darktown."
Oghren frowned. "Eh? A what?"
Stroud looked at the dwarf quizzically. "A clinic. He heals the injured and sick among the numerous poor of the city."
I glanced up at Oghren. That didn't sound like Anders at all.
"Really? That doesn't sound like something he'd do," he said to Stroud, echoing my thoughts almost verbatim. "Sparklefingers is the sort who'd let the world go hang so long as he's left alone."
"Then perhaps he has changed from his time in the Wardens. Facing the darkspawn may have given him a sense of duty, or compassion. Or perhaps he is merely trying to right a pervasive injustice."
I yelped as the epiphany born of Stroud's words struck.
I paid little attention to the rest of the meeting. The conclusion that Justice was still in the mortal realm and hosted within Anders was based on circumstantial evidence and second-hand observations, but it was persuasive. I pondered how to react to the news while keeping as little attention as necessary on my surroundings.
Stroud and Oghren chatted for a while, swapping stories of their time in the Deep Roads. The Orlesian Warden-Commander made an appearance, and started when he recognised Oghren's name. The fact that my old friend had actually traded blows with the archdemon turned him into somewhat of a celebrity among the Wardens of Thedas, behind only Loghain and myself.
As the identity and history of their guest spread, most of the other Wardens in the compound stopped by to be introduced to him. Oghren took it in his stride, not finding it at all odd or uncomfortable that warriors would wish to congratulate him on his martial accomplishments.
Representatives from the Anderfels, Tevinter, Nevarra and the Free Marches were already here, and the ship carrying the Antivan and Rivani Wardens was a day or so overdue. The Divine had declared that the ceremony of excommunication would take place with all representatives of the wronged party witnessing.
I was darkly amused that she was more correct than she suspected.
The gossip in the compound indicated that her unprecedented action had not been made out of a desire for reconciliation, as Alistair believed. The political and financial pressure the Grey Wardens had brought to bear on the Chantry had quite literally forced her into a humiliating retreat. The Grand Cleric of the Anderfels had been all but taken prisoner; interrogated long and hard over the possible involvement of the Chantry hierarchy in the abduction of a Grey Warden. Tithes had been ordered withheld and there had even been skirmishes between templars and Wardens. The Black Divine had even published propaganda, seeking to persuade the masses that action taken against me was against the will of the Maker.
I briefly considered sending the bastard a note of appreciation.
Oghren was offered a bunk in the barracks as night fell, but he declined. His kit was still back at the Imperial Palace, along with a much larger selection of booze. He made his farewells, we picked up our young guide who was snoozing in the compound's antechamber, and headed back.
The streets of Val Royeaux were much different at night. Where Denerim was lit by candlelight from windows and by the City Watch's torches as they made their rounds, the main streets of the Orlesian capital were lit at regular intervals by magical, glowing sprites contained in glass orbs. It gave the place an eerie feel, full of dancing shadows.
Of course, the sense of unease was compounded by the fact we weren't alone. We were followed most of our trip, but not accosted. The mysterious figures did well to keep out of sight, but in my canine form I could hear their whispers and footsteps quite clearly.
Aedan and William were still up, discussing some important diplomatic strategy. The Teyrn looked relieved at our appearance, presumably due to the lack of visible blood. We did not disturb them.
Once behind closed doors in Oghren's assigned bedchamber, I reverted to my elf form. "Interesting day."
"Tell me about it," he grumbled, scrounging around in his pack. There was a clink.
I rubbed the back of my neck. "I need to ask you a favour."
He chuckled and took a swig. "This got something to do with what you've got planned for them arses?"
I nodded. "The Divine won't hand them over to the Wardens, even though she has to disavow their actions. I need to follow them once they've been excommunicated, but I need whatever guards placed on them to be distracted."
He nodded. "I can do that. As a matter of fact, I think I can do you one better."
He grinned, and there wasn't any humour at all behind the expression. "You want a distraction, I want to show them how pissed I am with them. Hacking them all to bits would be my first choice."
I smiled. "It would probably cause more problems than it solved. People would talk, you know?"
"Aye. Sodding surfacers; you don't know how politics is supposed to be played."
I punched him on the shoulder. "I remember seeing Harrowmont's dwarves butchered in the street of Orzammar. Is that what you mean?"
He nodded. "Aye. They didn't make trouble afterwards, did they?"
"True. But that only works when you've got the men to pull it off. And while I could feasibly lay waste to this entire city, let's keep that as a last option."
He grunted in amused disapproval. "Fine, I'll get you your distraction, and no one will be hurt. Well, not too many. And not unless they get really pissed at me."
"Oh aye. Count on it."
Kathryn paused. "For all the Divine's disparate motivations, the ceremony turned into a farce."
Cassandra snorted. "An understatement."
The elf shrugged. "I'll admit that it was my fault. I wanted to infiltrate the group of excommunicated templars and discover where they were to be taken to begin their lives of 'reflection and restitution' at a distant monastery. I'd already started planning their abduction. But I left the details of the distraction up to Oghren. You know the rest."
Leliana looked at her friend intently. "What tipped you off that the men were not those who abducted you?"
Kathryn snorted derisibly. "Their physiques, of course. Not a single one was short and slender like Darrian. And it was patently obvious that Peggie wasn't among them."
Leliana frowned. "Peggie?"
"William Sutherland, of South Reach," Cassandra supplied. "He lost a leg to a wound Kathryn delivered him in the Korkari Wilds."
The bard shook her head. "They truly must have believed that you died under the earth, if they did not even try and match the physical characteristics of the perpetrators."
Kathryn chuckled darkly. "For an order of warriors, there weren't as many individuals with one leg as you might imagine. But in any event, not all of them did actually believe me dead."
Cassandra frowned. "How do you know that?"
"That," Kathryn said with enigmatic satisfaction, "was the genesis of Anora's Hands. But we're getting ahead of ourselves. The excommunication ceremony was held the day after the Antivan and Rivaini Grey Wardens arrived. We were summoned and assembled in the Grand Cathedral. The twelve templars were brought into the temple, stripped to their kilts and blindfolded. I could tell right away that they weren't the men who captured me, but as Connor and I were in our surreptitious shapes up in the rafters, I wasn't in any position to explain that to Oghren."
Gaylen frowned. "Surreptitious shape?" he whispered to Leliana.
Leliana laid a hand upon his. "She was a mouse."
Kathryn grinned at him. "Just after the ritual started Oghren stood up in the silence and swore bloody retribution upon them as they were led down the aisle to the Divine. It caused a bit of a fuss, but he eventually shut up at Stroud's insistence. The priest spouted some ritual words, chastising the templars for their actions and their blackened souls. She then tore their amulets from their necks. They were daubed with filth, splashed with brackish water, and slapped on both cheeks with a bundle of twigs before being herded out and away to their fate. There was a service then, to pray for my soul and theirs, but Oghren stormed out."
Gaylen blinked. "Out? I thought he stayed."
The elf shrugged. "He needed to leave to give credence to his performance. Everyone could believe that an alcoholic dwarf would drink himself into insensibility. And appearing drunk enough to get away with insulting everyone so very badly was necessary. Half an hour later, he stormed back in, and the entertainment really began."
I watched in amusement as Oghren stumbled back through the entryway of the Cathedral, looking as though drunk as a lord. And given the near-empty bottle of absinthe in his hand, everyone below thought him soaring like an eagle as well.
That wasn't what caused the stunned silence, however. Even I blinked at his sheer audacity. He was naked. It was not a sight for the weak-hearted; dwarves were not the most attractive race in Thedas, and Oghren was no prize by even their measure, but he was most categorically male. And the row of angry, silver-purple scars running diagonally down his chest and abdomen stood out vividly among the many, many scars on his body. It was obvious that he was a warrior; and just as obvious that he was used to injury.
To the sea of gaping mouths, he made some slurred, disparaging comments. The transept was, in his words, 'dinky' when compared to the glory of the Deep Roads. The design of the vaulted roof was so woeful that he cast aspersions on the ancestry of the architect. He suddenly stopped speaking, mid-insult. For a moment, he looked as though he were solemnly considering some weighty issue.
He looked around, and gave a small shout of discovery. He turned his back on the congregation, giving them an unrestricted view of the other row of archdemon-teeth scars on his back. He zigzagged over to the font of holy water at the door, balanced the bottle on the edge with exaggerated care, and rose unsteadily onto his tiptoes.
For one glorious moment, the only sound in the entire building was a gentle tinkle.
The combined, outraged roar that followed the assembled crowd overcoming their collective shock would have scared birds a mile away into flight. One templar somewhat quicker on the uptake rushed my friend, only to discover that though seemingly inebriated, Oghren still had a warrior's instincts. And a mean backhand.
The templar spun and fell to the floor with a crash, several teeth skipping along the stone floor. Oghren didn't even pause his piss; or even lose his aim. He just shook his hand, dislodging the tooth embedded in the knuckle.
Several Grey Wardens closed on him, though with much less aggression. Stroud begged him to cover up while a couple of Rivaini Wardens raised their cloaks to shield their dwarven brother from the eyes of the rest of the congregation. Their expressions showed that they found the entire episode highly amusing, though were desperately trying to hide that fact.
Voices went from raised to howling as the crowd's mood fed upon their own outrage. Arguments sprang up all through the assembled crowd. Several templars stationed outside the cathedral rushed in to see what all the fuss was about.
And throughout it all, Oghren just finished his ablution as though it were the most normal thing in the world. He even shook to ensure all the drops ended up in the font rather than on the floor.
How considerate of him.
One garishly dressed chap barged forward through the crowd. He obviously had the rank and mood to cut his way through a crowd of pissed off nobles. I couldn't make out his words over the din, but his mottled face indicated that he had some pretty strong views on my friend's disrespectful action.
Stroud and the Orlesian Warden-Commander met the charging fellow head on, holding up their hands in a gesture of mollification. The action had little success; the peacock simply leaned to one side and shouted at the dwarf. Oghren looked at him quizzically, and then staggered a few steps closer.
My friend looked at Stroud, his expression baffled. Stroud spoke quickly, and understanding lit up on Oghren's face. Whatever was said caused him to look around for something.
As Oghren searched, the Orlesian Warden-Commander made some sort of plea with the Divine, whose face looked even more pickled than usual. She flatly refused his request.
Oghren stomped over to the first templar who attempted to stop the desecration of the sacred font. Appearing barely able to keep his balance, he deliberately bent over with his bare backside prominently pointed towards the crowd.
The sight proved too much for more than one lady. Several fainted. The Divine gasped and turned away. I ached all over from the effort of not reverting to my normal form to laugh.
Oghren wrenched off the prone templar's right boot. He gave a whoop of success and set about putting the metal shoe on.
The confusion in the crowd mounted. Even Stroud just stood there, completely befuddled.
Single metallic shoe on, Oghren stamped it a few times to settle his foot, stood as tall as a dwarf could and announced, "All righ', 'm r'dy."
Over several vocal objectors, the peacock barked an order in Orlesian. Everyone moved back, leaving Oghren, Stroud and the unknown man in the centre of a widening space. Stroud made one last ditch effort in mediation, but was rebuffed by both parties; an aggrieved shout by the man and a nonchalant shrug by the dwarf. The man barked an order at Stroud, who nodded, and offered Oghren his sword. Oghren glanced at the blade, snorted with derision, and looked back at the man, swaying only slightly.
With an expression of defeat, Stroud backed away as well. He raised an arm, and counted slowly. He dropped his arm swiftly.
The man exploded into action, drawing his sword back and then leaping forward. He thrust his sword in a very dramatic, yet highly visible way. Even I would have had no problem defending against it.
Oghren moved forward too, stepping forward with his left foot. He slapped the blade aside with his forearm, opening a small gash. Using his momentum, he brought his armoured right foot up abruptly, kicking the popinjay hard in what Oghren would call the twig and berries.
The butterfly gave a truncated half-grunt, half-squeal as he was propelled into the air a good foot and a half. He collapsed upon himself like a snail into its shell. Every man in the room, with the exception of Oghren himself, winced. That kick would have dropped a bear.
In the silence that followed, Oghren snorted with derision at the trembling ball of agony on the stone floor in front of him. He made a rude gesture to the rest of the assembly, turned and stormed out, his departure captured by the odd clanking of one blood-stained metal boot.
I had to scratch Connor's back to get his attention. With a gesture, I sent him off on his mission, while I scampered down and away back to our rooms.
Cassandra raised a fist to her lips, as though in thought, to cover the traitorous twitching.
Kathryn grinned knowingly at her, but continued.
The aftermath was predictably loud and recriminating. Fingers pointed in every direction. Aedan and Teagan came under some sustained criticism, though they rightfully pointed out that Oghren was not officially a member of their entourage, and they had not been invited to witness the excommunication ritual in any event.
The Wardens, though officially censuring Oghren for his behaviour, privately applauded his actions. The fact that the Divine herself had given permission for the impromptu duel to take place weakened the Chantry's objections. The fact that Florensten had been championing the Chantry when he had been comprehensibly defeated, in the very house of the Maker himself, humiliated the Divine all the more.
Oghren, of course, ignored it all. He stayed at the Orlesian Warden compound, soaking up booze and compliments while the diplomatic storm raged. He happily sparred with dozens of our brothers, showcasing an entirely unique blend of dwarvern berserker and Qunari discipline. A few of the more experienced Wardens were capable of standing head-to-chest with him for a while, but his inventive, unsporting techniques ended most mock-battles just seconds after they began.
It was refreshing, and quite pleasant, not to be the focal point of crowd rage. But things were not universally satisfactory.
I was lying as a canine in front of the fire, mulling my plans when my little spy returned. It was entertaining to see his little nose twitch as he checked for anyone watching.
Connor returned to his human form. "I found them, Arlessa Kathryn. You were right. The one called Darrian was there."
I fought down a shiver before returning to my own elf form. "First things first, are you all right? It can't have been easy for you, watching over a bunch of templars."
His eyes flashed, but he nodded. "They weren't the ones who did… It wasn't them. I'm fine."
I nodded slowly. "Okay then. Was Darrian reporting to the Knight-Divines?"
The lad bit his lip. "Sort of."
"What do you mean?"
Connor suddenly looked nervous, a marked contrast to his previous silverite expression. "Um…"
It amused me that someone less than fifteen years of age who'd killed over thirty grown men was still nervous around me. I reached out and placed a hand on his shoulder, noting with some surprise that he was now taller than me. "Just tell me, Connor. I won't be angry with you."
"He is a Knight-Divine. He was promoted."
An icy river of horror spread through my gut. Of all the possible scenarios I'd considered, that had not been one of them. "Tell me everything," I ground out through clenched teeth.
He flinched, but nodded. "I followed the Knight-Divine from the Cathedral. There is a big room where they meet. They finally went there today, and I managed to get there just after the meeting began. Darrian was – forceful."
"The decision to make the dwarf Oghren the Fereldan Warden's representative has Kathryn Surana's influence all over it."
One of the Knight-Divines nodded. "I agree with you there," he said in heavily accented Orlesian.
"Darrian, she is dead," another insisted. "Dead, or as good as."
"You do not know that, Fenwick," Darrian insisted. "None of you do. Without access to her phylactery or corpse, we have no way of confirming her status."
The Knight-Divine named Fenwick slammed a fist on the arm of his chair. "I took her into the Deep Roads myself! I stayed and listened as she was carried away by the darkspawn. She had no weapon, no armour and no magic. She is either dead or spawning. In denying that, you are giving her far too much credit."
Darrian rounded on the templar and jabbed a finger in his direction. "And you do not give her enough. She and those she surrounds herself with are capable of feats that border on the impossible. We sent more than enough men to eliminate a crippled dog, an apprentice mage and a bodyguard who was, by all accounts, unexceptional. Yet our men died while this Pickering, Apprentice Guerrin and the dog all survived. How? We don't know. But they did and testified that the Hero of Ferelden was abducted by templars. The second worst case scenario I predicted."
Fenwick coughed. "They must have had help to-"
"Balderdash! Do you honestly think it likely that they encountered help on a deserted road in the middle of the night capable of defeating an eight man squad? Or that perhaps we underestimated an unknown guard, someone who was given the task of protecting one of the most singularly powerful mages in Thedas?"
Darrian continued. "I warned you to be mindful of Kathryn's ability to escape the inescapable. You thought you could break her spirit; you failed. You left her to be tormented at hands of a psychopathic misogynist, and in less than a quarter of an hour he was emasculated and she had the rest of the squad feeding her!"
"Conchobar is an imbecile!" Darrian snapped. "He is a spiteful, vindictive idiot. And giving him oversight of the Nevarran Circle all but guarantees that a subversive element will form within a year. If we are lucky, they will be discovered before anyone can be harmed."
An older man cleared his throat. "Your analysis of situations and predictions have always been impressively accurate, Darrian, but I feel your personal involvement with this mage may be clouding your judgement."
Darrian's shoulders slumped. "You are wilfully blinding yourself to a possibility that could spell disaster for the Chantry," he insisted. "Just the knowledge that Chantry forces abducted her has caused much dissention. Divine Beatrix had to endure humiliation beyond belief to assuage the indignation of the Grey Wardens. If Kathryn Surana lives, the theatre show performed today will be for naught."
Fenwick crossed his arms. "Why can you not admit that you were wrong? You said that if she were alive, then she would make a personal appearance at the excommunication ceremony. The Wardens can sense their own. Our agent in their ranks confirmed that no unannounced Warden gained entry."
"Unless she has found a way to hide the taint in her veins," Darrian said, but without conviction.
"You sound as though you are desperately searching for a reason your prediction did not bear out," the older Knight-Divine said sternly.
Darrian rubbed his forehead. "I know. I apologise. But there is ample reason to believe that Kathryn Surana lives. The Wardens are hiding someone at Soldier's Peak; we know this. Nathaniel Howe disappeared for months; who would have the authority to send him anywhere? Ferelden's representative is the most insulting choice imaginable; exactly the sort of person she would send. Even her bodyguard Pickering is in the Ferelden entourage! The man who testified in front of the Ferelden King that templars abducted his vassal. His presence is a blatant taunt to us!"
"Or he simply could be a highly competent guard whose skill ensured he was selected to protect Teryn Aedan," the oldest Knight-Divine suggested, his tone sceptical.
Darrian appeared to recognise that he had lost his audience. "I know that the probability of her surviving the Deep Roads in her condition was remote, but if she did then it explains much of what we do not understand. She is unquestionably the most talented living battlemage outside our Circles. While it may be uncomfortable to believe, it is possible she has the capability to lay waste to a fortress as happened at Ostagar."
That did not go down well. "Preposterous! I refuse to believe that one mage could slaughter a hundred templars, let alone almost ten times as many."
"Then what did? And why have we not seen it since? The Fereldan King is not concerned that a force capable of such destruction sits on his southern border, so he must at least know of it, if he has not allied with it."
Fenwick interjected. "Perhaps it was a dragon. The Wardens of Ferelden have been seen with dragons as pets. Perhaps they tamed it?"
Darrian shook his head. "A dragon is a destructive beast for certain, but capable of laying waste to a fortress manned with almost a thousand templars? I think not. It took fewer than two dozen people to directly battle the archdemon during the Blight. It took just four to kill the false Andraste in Haven."
"Both groups led by the very mage you think capable of destroying the garrison at Ostagar," the older Knight-Divine pointed out.
Darian waved his hand brusquely. "Those were simply the examples in living memory. Historically, the dragon-hunters of Nevarra worked in small teams. As demoralising as facing such a beast is, it was possible for a small, well trained, well equipped group to slay one. No, whatever it was that destroyed the men at Ostagar was powerful with a human intelligence, capable of strategy and tactics."
"This discussion is pointless. You believe that Surana lives, I do not. We," he clarified with a wave of his hand to encompass the entire room, "do not. You offer no proof, merely speculation coupled with predictions of doom if you are correct. I am sorry my friend, but unless you uncover some convincing evidence, I cannot entertain these suggestions."
Darrian slumped as the group dispersed. A few touched his shoulder as they left, but offered no words of encouragement. Eventually, only he and Fenwick remained in the room.
Fenwick spoke. "I must ask, what action do you wish us to take? Does it require that we believe her still living?"
Darrian sighed deeply. "She knows our names, thanks to that idiot Conchobar. If she does live, then the Chantry cannot disavow itself from her abduction. Every man involved needs to be removed from their positions and reassigned."
Fenwick's expression bulged with surprised indignation. "You ask for too much. I have striven my entire life to become a Knight-Divine; and now having been promoted to their company, you wish me to voluntarily resign my commission?"
"Fenwick," Darrian began.
"No! I refuse to entertain such a notion." He stormed from the room.
Darrian sat alone in silence for a long time. "No," he whispered. "You wouldn't. And in that pride are the seeds of our downfall."
I took a deep breath and let it out slowly as Connor finished his report. It was a lot to take in. He looked at me with an odd expression on his face. I nodded and said, "Well done, Connor. Excellent work."
"Thank you, Arlessa Kathryn."
I scratched my cheek. "You know, having a mage with the ability to shapeshift as a spy would be advantageous, don't you think?"
He nodded. "I thought about that as I waited for the Knight-Divines to meet. King Alistair could use lots of mages that way."
I smirked. "Anora would be a better bet, I'm guessing. Alistair would probably be more inclined to use you as he does me – as a blunt instrument when his wants to make his displeasure known."
"His Majesty wouldn't do that!"
I raised an eyebrow. "Connor, the king sent me to the Circle because they weren't answering his letters. I killed fourteen templars because they wouldn't let me in or out of the building. I slaughtered two dozen assassins in a Denerim cell in one night and scared the rest into working for him. Half the reason Alistair hasn't had as much trouble from the Landsmeet as his predecessors is that all the nobles are terrified of me."
He looked at me uncertainly, but seemed to accept the point. "Um, can I ask a question?"
"Why did you choose Oghren to come with you? It annoyed the Knight-Divines, but he's not really suited to sneaking around. And you need to be sneaking around."
I considered how to answer. "It couldn't have been anyone else."
I sighed. "Of all my Wardens, Oghren is the only one I could trust enough to do what's necessary, if the worst happened. He's the only one who could."
He frowned. "No, all your Wardens would do what you wanted them to. They would follow you anywhere."
I held up a hand. "You misunderstand. Oghren can do all the templar tricks; he can smite harder than just about any I've met. He's tough, strong, resistant to magic and can make hard decisions in the middle of combat."
He looked lost. "What are you talking about?"
I closed my eyes, wondering if I should burden the lad with the answer. I quickly quashed that thought; Connor was hard and tough, and treating him as a child would be an insult. "Oghren is the only Warden I have who could, and would, kill me if it was necessary."
His eyes bulged and his mouth dropped. "What?" he breathed.
"For all the healing the Ashes did, I still thought there was a chance that I could have lost my mind if I encountered Darrian, or one of the other templars who kidnapped me. That's why I picked Oghren to come. If I lost it, he could stop me before many people were hurt."
Aedan gave me a sour face in response to my question that evening. "No, the negotiations are not going well."
I snorted. "You expected that, remember?"
William daubed his upper lip with his napkin. "Lord Aedan's frustration is justified, Arlessa Kathryn. Our Orlesian counterparts are demanding significant restitution for the loss of their military assets during the recent unpleasantness."
I felt my jaw drop. "They attacked us… invaded us… and they're demanding we pay them for their losses?"
"Just so," the fussy little man said, completely unperturbed. He placed the napkin back on the table, aligned precisely to the rest of the cutlery. "The sheer audaciousness of the demand leads me to suspect the negotiations are intended to fail." He picked up the teacup for another sip.
I frowned, wondering if there was another explanation. Such a blatant tactic sounded out of character for the subtle Orlesians. "Are they playing for time? Or are they trying to extract unreasonable concessions?" I scratched my head. "Or are they looking to punish you for Oghren's actions?"
Aedan shook his head. "Not the last at least. They made the initial restitution demand before the excommunication ritual. The Empress' lead negotiator has been somewhat more obstinate in his negotiations since, it's true, but their strategy has not changed."
I rubbed my chin. "How much are they-?"
Aedan snorted. "Too much. Ferelden, crippled as we are, could not afford a fifth of what they are demanding. It is beyond all reason."
I looked at him in surprise. "You were actually considering paying them?" I blurted. "I mean, I was just curious what they thought we couldn't come up with."
William replaced the cup and once again picked up the napkin, fastidiously wiping his upper lip and moustache. "His Majesty's instructions were to negotiate a peace treaty at any cost. Our hosts may well be subtly trying to establish how depleted Ferelden's resources are."
Aedan nodded, impatience in his manner. "Of course they are. But they're not even-"
"Is the payment timetable in question?" I interrupted.
Both men stared at me. "Excuse me?" Aedan said.
I collected my thoughts. "Have the negotiations focused on the timetable to deliver the restitution? I mean, could we agree on a figure, and then agree to pay in instalments?"
William clasped his hands and leaned forward. "Arlessa Kathryn, wartime restitution is traditionally paid over many years. It is fundamentally designed to force the vanquished nation to remain weak and underpowered for a long period."
I nodded. "So, what if you didn't agree to a set amount, but rather the longer it takes to pay, the more you hand over?"
Aedan looked at William. "What are you getting at?"
I sighed. "How much are they asking for?" I retorted pointedly.
"They are holding firm at one hundred thousand Imperials."
I blinked. No wonder Aedan was annoyed. "Wow. That's ambitious. Imperials, that's their gold coin, right?"
I got two nods.
"Right, so offer, I don't know, five thousand if you can pay it now, or ten thousand if you can pay it by this time next year. Increment it by five thousand a year until their full amount is reached. And then in return for concessions we need, offer to increase the total amount if we take longer to pay."
"Kathryn, we don't have five thousand now. We won't have five thousand for years. We would be going backwards every year, owing more and more. That sort of agreement would impoverish Ferelden for generations, if not forever."
"Yes, but would they go for something like that?"
"Of course they would! It would ensure that in a couple of years they could march over the Frostbacks and overrun us with an army equipped and financed by our own coin!"
I grinned at him. "But if I could get you five thousand now," I suggested, "we could get much needed concessions without having to cost Alistair a single copper coin. By paying off the debt at a much earlier time."
Aedan blinked. "Where would you get five thousand Imperials from?"
I shrugged. The Imperial treasury would no doubt have what I needed. But he didn't need to know that. "The Wardens here might have that sort of coin on hand, given the number stationed in Val Royeaux. I know I have enough to cover it back at Soldier's Peak, so I could borrow it from them and ship it to them once I get back."
William looked over at Aedan. "My Lord Aedan, I believe that could well work. It would certainly enable us to turn the results of these negotiations to our favour."
Aedan pursed his lips. "I can't imagine many situations where suddenly having a chest of gold would not be in your favour. But that will only work if Kathryn can secure the loan. The Wardens here don't know that she's alive. And then there's the fact that King Alistair would owe Kathryn an enormous debt."
"Let me worry about that," I said. "Raise the suggestion in your next session with the Orlesians. Wring every concession you can from them at the expense of future payments you won't need to make. But don't finalise the agreement until I show you the coin."
Before he could answer, the door handle turned. By the time it swung open, both Connor and I were back to our animal forms; mouse and dog.
It was Teagan. He looked at me, not noticing his nephew. "We've been invited to a soirée by one of the Empress' allies."
I shimmered back to an elf. "A what?"
"A party," he clarified, sighing at my ignorance. "It's tomorrow afternoon, to be held at a mansion outside the city."
"How far away?"
He sighed. "Little more than an hour or so on horseback. But it will take half a day for a carriage to ride there and back."
"Does the route have multiple places for an ambush?"
Teagan actually gave a small smile at that. "Funny you should ask."
Aedan raised an eyebrow. "Can we decline the invitation? We are in the midst of fairly important negotiations."
Teagan shook his head. "Ordinarily, yes, we could do so without losing face. But for some reason, our Orlesian counterparts are guests at the soirée as well."
"How convenient," I mused. "Will you be attacked on the way there or after you leave?"
Aedan snorted. "Oh, on the way back to the city, I'm sure. There will be too many witnesses during the day."
I grinned at him. "Well then, let's get to planning. Exactly who is throwing this shindig, and does he have any valuables he'd miss?"