Hespith/Branka, pre-game. The honor of being a Paragon's captain does not come without a price.

Branka calls you down during the long month of Firstfall, when the days have nearly ticked over into Haring, and children and book-balancers alike wait eagerly to flip the calendar year. It is winter, which means that some of the trade with outsiders will slow. Above the earth, you know that the temperatures are plummeting, and that the water has frozen; people are dying because they are freezing to death, huddled around their hearth fires. It must be terrible to live outside of the Stone's nurturing embrace. Poor surfacers.

Orzammar is warm. The estate is cozy and safe, filled with the industry of dwarves in contented rhythm as they tend to the business of the House. They nod to you as you descend the stairs to the workrooms, trusting in your ability to protect them. These days, Branka allows very few people to spend any length of time around her; the fact that you are one of the privileged gives them more confidence in you. You are Branka's captain. Even when they cannot reach her, they still have you.

"Hespith." She is up and waiting for you when you step through the door. Her eyes are shot with red; she has been staying awake too often, ignoring clocks and her own internal rhythms, enduring days and nights established from willpower alone. There is a tray of food at her elbow, uneaten. "Have I told you my latest revelation about being a Paragon? Do you remember?"

You tell her you do not.

Branka laughs, shoving at the edge of the table and causing the bench to scrape. She is not dressed properly for labor; her sleeves are long, and stitched with leather that has been worked until it is softer than a baby's skin. The robe is a new gift from one of the other noble houses - an offering that is her right as a Paragon, all honor to those who may be allowed to give her praise. The rings on her ears are finespun gold, as delicate as a spider's kiss. The ones on her fingers are flush with jewels. When the band on her thumb clicks too loudly against its neighbors, she scowls and yanks it off, tossing it indifferently towards the table. It lands in a side dish of vegetables, spattering cold gravy.

Already in motion, you advance methodically across the room until you are at Branka's side, nudging the stale tray aside. She tolerates your proximity, for which you are glad. This is not one of her worse moods.

When you present a demanding hand, she leans back on the bench. Your other hand bears a damp washcloth. Once she offers up her palms obediently, you firm your lips and scrub down her skin as if she were a child; it is not that Branka is a lackwit, but she sometimes does not care for the simple pleasures of the immediate world, such as good food and the sweetness of touch. When left to her own devices, she lets her hair become limp, her fingers chapped. She does not take proper care of herself.

By the time you have finished cleaning her, wiping off traces of sweat and soot, she is smiling again. Her body is relaxed in your grip. You do not relinquish her immediately, cradling her hands like twin sculptures of the finest glass, unbearably precious. Your nerves ache at the contact, but you do not let go.

"Orzammar only cares about you if you are a Paragon, Hespith." Resuming her speech without losing the flow of it, Branka abandons you first. Idly, she reaches out and fishes through the plates on the fresh tray, lifting covers on meats and soups that exhale puffs of steam. You catch up the edge of her sleeve before it can drag through the broth. "If you are a genius. Otherwise, you are nothing - you are only one step higher than the dusters themselves. But once you become a Paragon, you realize that you do not care that much about what Orzammar thinks." The carrots are passed over in favor of the breaded nug. Branka peels a slice off, sliding the points of her fork into the tender meat, and licks sauce off the tines once she's done. "That is the cruel truth about Paragons, my Hespith. Only those who are suited to become them are the ones for whom the rank means nothing. We have a greater pursuit that we must follow. A greater goal. We must take care of Orzammar, because it cannot be counted upon to take care of itself."

As Branka forages for whatever nourishment might catch her eye, you carefully pluck the discarded ring out of the vegetables, wiping it discreetly on a napkin. The jewel's brilliance is undiminished despite the patina of sauce. It could feed a family in Dust Town for years. It would get them killed, too, before they could pawn it; perhaps that Artisan Caste widower would be a better choice, unable to support his two children on his own. He might have the connections to sell such a thing discreetly.

A wrench at your arm startles you out of your thoughts. The ring goes flying, screaming metallic chimes as it clatters off the furniture and rolls unseen into a corner. Branka yanks you towards her, then shoves you down at the bench, chest-first towards the stone.

For a moment, you think about trying to resist her. You are strong enough to do it.

But you do not say no to a Paragon.

As you are pinned against the bench, spine wrenched back, neck twisted, Branka holds your face and studies you like one of her diagrams. You wonder if she is dissecting you with her eyes: peeling back layers of skin and tissue and muscle, flaying you alive so that you live and breathe at her convenience.

You inhale, and hold the air in your lungs, and wonder if she is measuring that too.

You tell her - as carefully as you can - that her presence was missed at the Satinalia festivities. Messengers have been asking if she will be present for the First Day celebrations. What would she like you to tell them?

She loosens her hold, just enough for you to be able to hunch your shoulders. "Is there any cause to celebrate when the darkspawn are crawling on our doorsteps? Bah! I'll do no such thing, and they should know better than to ask." Her hand fists in your collar - tight, so tight - and then relaxes suddenly, gentle now over your body as she smooths down your shirt. Her fingers mold the fabric firmly against your skin.

You feel your own heart working frantically in your chest as you watch her hand move. Even after Branka has resumed eating, keeping the tray at a distance so as not to splash the sauce on her books, you feel her still, touching you.

In truth, it has been a while since Branka attended any celebration. She has grown all the more weary in direct proportion to the number of invitations that have stacked up on the doorstep. Oghren had offered to go in her stead once, and she had thrown her head back and barked harsh, dry laughter; then she had turned a sneer upon him, saying that the smell of nug was bad enough already. He had not understood the mockery. You had had to intervene.

That did not keep the invitations from arriving. All of them came with one name writ large, and only one, wooing the Paragon Branka. Branka: like a bronto, Oghren had called her the last time, and they had fought. She had outwitted him easily in the first few minutes, and had spent the rest of the argument throwing out lazy taunts that he had blustered through, growing steadily red in the face, understanding his ignorance but not much else.

You had recognized her tactics, then pierced the cloud of her sarcasm, and it had frightened you. It had frightened you, because you knew how indifferent Branka was being, the cruelty so effortless that you knew it would not entertain her for long. Oghren had ended it first by trying a reversal of his temper, laughing it off, thinking that she would be mollified if he treated the matter as nothing important. She had accepted his touch for a moment, and then had shaken it away, turning down the hall without a word of farewell.

Oghren had stood there, flustered, awkward, knowing how much was slipping out of his reach but unable to quantify or grasp it, like a child trying to measure steam by shaping it in their palms without being burned. You had given him a sympathetic look - it is Branka, she is a genius, she must be tolerated - and had left in search of her.

Oghren had not understood. You do not understand, but you must try. The House is counting on you. Orzammar itself is relying on you to take care of the rare jewel that Branka is, with all the frantic energy that is splitting her apart from the inside.

The month of Haring comes and goes. Wintermarch clambers in. When you find Branka in the northwest workrooms, she is muttering about saving Orzammar again; the strain of her own intelligence is tight in her face, the terrible burden of a brilliant mind. On her worktable, papers are spread out like the flayed skin of a corpse. The parchments are decorated with geometric shapes distilled down to the most basic bones: triangles, squares, circles. Lines connect the figures at random. No words are provided for explanation; there are no labels for the diagrams. You can never tell the difference between one page and another, but Branka can sort through them deftly, finding meaning buried inside the blank spaces.

You asked Branka, once, why she did not annotate those sections of her work. She snorted, and said it was because there was no one but her who would understand anyway.

It is a bad sign when she reaches this point, as dangerous as the tell-tale jitter of a hurlock's gangly lope, or the smell of spilled oil on the air. As you watch, too cautious to step into the room yet - the hallway is pillar and stone, you know a dozen different ways to defend in such a space - Branka dashes a paperweight against the ground. Her movements are unfocused; she picks up books and flasks at random, only to put them down again when they do not instantly satisfy. Her eyes blink over and over, too fast. She starts and stops smiling, and it looks like a corpse baring its teeth, lacking all humor and life.

Despite your shaken nerves, you do not retreat. You cannot bear to see her fight against this, this horror, this riddle that is killing her from the inside. You can do nothing against this foe: you cannot strike it, it will not bleed. It will only gnaw and gnaw at Branka's mind while you wait helplessly beside her, watching her fight a battle you cannot touch.

Your resolution crumbles like sand. You go to her, cursing your own wariness, babbling words to try and calm her down. She turns to you, ink wet on her hands. She tangles her fingers in your hair, and you allow her to pull you down, across the stone table, giving everything you can to her, everything she might ever need to take.

The winter is long this year. It does not touch Orzammar directly, with the stonework warm and safe, but it makes its impact known in other ways. The Legion of the Dead have been sending back requests for supplies more often; they are too proud to say that they need assistance, but you are canny enough to interpret the meaning. If they are near enough to Orzammar that they can send a messenger, then it means they are not far enough in the Deep Roads. They have been pushed back.

You are canny to see this. You are not the only one.

The castes are restless. Gossip runs up and down the streets, like nugs gone loose and squealing. The houses of the Warrior Caste grow sullen. There is talk - discreet, yes, but sufficiently audible to the right company - that perhaps enlistment in the Legion should be more actively encouraged. At least for now. Only until the ranks are replenished.

There is always talk.

Oghren stomps and huffs. He is intolerable in the summer; he is unbearable in the winter, when trading has slowed and there are no fresh rumors and gossip for distraction. No beer from the surfacers, no bounty to glut himself upon. Nothing but the maneuvering of the nobles and the darkspawn, both of them endlessly hammering on his limited patience. He curses and swears and sits with his forehead against his hands, yelling at the slightest provocation, trying to understand why all the world has changed when he hasn't yet.

In order to spare herself from what she calls noise, Branka secludes herself more and more often in her workrooms, until you search there first by default. It is a strange convenience. You know where to find her now, rather than waste hours hunting through corners of the city - but you cannot shake the queasy feeling that this degree of solitude is too much.

She does not look up when you bring her the afternoon tea. It is tea this time, because she grew erratic the last time that you offered her beer; she drank in sullen silence for the first half, and then started laughing, horrible bitter chuckles that you do not want to hear repeated. Now it is tea.

You set the tray down gently before her, and give the books a disapproving glance. She is studying the Anvil of the Void again. There are few enough documents on the subject that you can recognize each one by now. All have visited the estate in turn, and still Branka is not satisfied.

One of her hands jerks when you speak up about it; she covers the page automatically. Only when you are careful to remain perfectly frozen does she relax, though she shoves the book further away from you, using herself as a shield. You know better than to provoke her frazzled nerves. Instead, you open the sugar jar.

She takes the cup after you urge it into her hands, but only consumes a perfunctory sip before swishing the dark liquid around and around the rim. "Do you recall the coal I developed, Hespith? I took inspiration from Orzammar itself. The coal burns, but its toxins are directed inwards, cycled back into the structure of the coal itself - which the fire, in turn feeds upon. Elegant. Self-cannibalization, very tidy. It uses itself for fuel."

Mirth seizes her at this last part. The chuckle bubbles and crawls out between her lips, causing them to curl. You look away.

"But there is a flaw in my coal, Hespith. I will not tell them. They will not admit it. Instead, they will one day make a Paragon not out whoever proves me wrong, but in who 'improves' it."

Your lungs draw in a sharp breath automatically, though Branka is no warmongerer; she has nothing but passive scorn for the Assembly, a low-level bile that sees no need to purposefully stir up dissent. She will not walk the floor, call out publicly what she sees as heresies - though they would tolerate her, if she did. They must. It makes you afraid of what would happen if they did not.

You touch her arm.

"Hespith." She makes your name sound like a snake. She hisses against your ear. You imagine her tongue to be as cool and dry as a serpent's belly, but she is far more moist than that. "I am your Paragon," she whispers. "Say it."

You do. You say it, again and again. Everything she wants. All for her.

"I cannot stand Orzammar like this," Branka confesses one night. The candles flicker; shadows writhe over the walls, tracing and tickling the intricate carvings. She is in your bed, because Oghren is in hers. There are days when you do not know where you will end up sleeping that night - nor do you care, so long as she is with you. "It will fall. It is falling, and what good are Paragons if none of us can save our own nation?"

You roll over onto your stomach, bracing yourself on your elbows. She reaches up and tugs on your hair. Her own ruddy strands are cut short, to keep them from getting caught in her work, but she does not mind longer styles on you. You smile, happy to indulge her.

Then she lets go, and grinds the heels of her hands into her eyes; startled, you catch at her wrists, afraid that she might damage herself by accident, that her anger has caused her to forget how fragile living bodies are. Without your elbows to support you, you tumble forward, and roll your shoulder in time so that you squash your head against the pillow rather than fall on Branka herself.

A few desperate moments later, and she subsides, muttering into her pillow as the anger seeps out of her body like water escaping into earth. You are not upset with her; you always knew that she loved Orzammar. She is enough like Oghren in that way, to bluster over what is precious to her, to tease what is dearest to her heart. They both have the same kind of spirit, the same intensity of passion; both follow their instincts to the fullest, never ashamed of their own natures.

But Branka is becoming obsessed. Her dream lures her away from the safety of Orzammar, like a lantern gleam guiding a trapped miner who does not realize they are walking blindly towards a pit. She lives and dreams the Anvil, subsists on rumor instead of bread. To hear her speak, each death of a warrior to darkspawn is a death wasted; even the Legion is a pointless act of despair and heroism, for nothing will hold back the tide but the Anvil. Until then, the best that a dwarf can hope for is to die in vain.

The worst part is, she might not be wrong.

You roll over and pull Branka into your arms. She stirs only a little, still restless, too restless to even pretend to sleep. The muscles of her back are hard as corded steel, betraying the pent-up frustrations brewing inside her.

When you ask if she is certain about this, she buries her face against your collarbone, pressing bone to bone.

"I have searched everything in the Shaperate, hoping for other options! There are none! Only one thing might save Orzammar now, no matter how desperate it may be. It is the Anvil, my Hespith. Only the Anvil, nothing but the Anvil can change our fates now. And what harm is there in looking? Either we die in the Deep Roads or we die here in our beds, but at least we might have tried. That fool, Caridin!" She pushes you away, but only for your own protection as she rises back to her knees, grasps wildly for anything that might weather her rage. A pillow goes flying, smashing against a weapons rack. "The method for golem creation cannot be that brilliant, if even that dolt Hirol could figure out how to build upon it. Why can I not understand it, Hespith? Why can I not understand this?"

You tell her she has done enough. You tell her that she is brilliant, that she will find another way, a method that is safely inside Orzammar, a method she can and will develop. You remind her that there are many other resources that the dwarves can research without battling headlong through darkspawn-ridden thaigs. You tell her - without intending to, since she does not need to be distracted by details as minor as your feelings - that you love her, that you love her completely, but thankfully she overlooks this part.

Instead, she cups your face, turning upon you next in search of an answer, as if she were a miner searching for faultlines in the earth. As if you are a stone under her touch - as if you will shatter once sufficient pressure is applied, at the most crucial stage of crafting. She looks for the places where you will break.

"Hespith," she murmurs softly, marveling out loud, as if she has finally come to a conclusion that she had lingered on for hours before solving. "My Hespith. My captain. Are you... afraid?"

The answer is yes. But you will not falter. You cannot shatter. You must be strong for Branka, strong no matter what she says or does, loyal as she cannot be loyal to herself.

You tell her you will begin the preparations for the Deep Roads tomorrow.