I know, I know. I've got two other stories going on. But I got to talking to pennies-4-eyes the other night and we had this big discussion about hurt/comfort and what it was and what good hurt/comfort was. We also talked about how a lot of Dalish aren't particularly Dalish seeming and how foreign everything from Ostagar on would seem to them and the result of all this was that we both decided to write Dalish stories with male Dalish protagonists-at some unspecified point in the near future. And then Zevran got all chatty on me, so here you are. I've not forgotten Corin, I'm just taking the deep breath before the plunge into all that battle stuff. Hope you enjoy!
Orson Saltwell woke confused. He was not in his bed in the rather squalid rooms he'd been reduced to since his fortunes had changed so drastically two months ago. Instead, he found himself tied to a heavy wooden chair, in what looked like another run-down room with few furnishings other than a rickety table, a couple of chairs and a cot. A rather nice lamp, looking out of place here, illumined the surroundings with a pleasant, golden light.
"Ah, you are back with us at last, Master Saltwell," a mellow voice with an Antivan accent said from behind him. The speaker moved into his range of vision-a handsome elf clad in expensive drake skin armor with the tanned skin common to Antiva's northern latitudes. Wheat-gold hair fell to his shoulders and his left cheek was adorned with the swirls of an abstract tattoo. "It took some time to find you, I will have you know. You covered your tracks well. But I have an associate who is very good at ferreting such information out."
Saltwell tried his bonds. An expert at binding people securely so that they could be tortured, he could tell there was no getting out of the ropes, which felt as if they might have wire in the core of them. "Look, I don't know what your problem is, or who paid you to solve their problem, but I have money too," he wheedled in what he hoped was a reasonable tone, his stomach clenching in fear. "I know I don't look like it, but I have a couple of caches hidden. Let me loose and I'll take you to them."
"Under normal circumstances, I might be tempted," the elf said with a regretful smile. "But these are hardly normal circumstances. I was not hired to capture you. This is a labor of love."
"What is this about?"
"As many victims as you have had over the years, I imagine it must be confusing." The sympathy in the elf's voice was patently false. "Orson Saltwell, head jailor of Fort Drakon. Rendon Howe's favorite torturer-aside from himself, of course. Even at one a day, the score mounts up quickly. And you and Howe did a lot more than one a day."
"I'll have you know that any interrogations I did were under the sanction of the Arl of Denerim and the Regent of Ferelden!" Saltwell blustered.
"Tssssk. We both know that is not true, at least in part," the elf said reproachfully. "Yes, some of what you did was at Arl Howe or Teyrn Loghain's order. But at least as much was just because you liked hurting people. You needn't try to deny it. You're hardly the first I've known with such…tastes after all. But indulging those tastes can be very expensive in the long run. Because the more you indulge them, the more potential enemies you make."
"So who is this about, exactly?"
"The Hero of Ferelden. Who managed to kill the Archdemon despite what you had done to him mere days before."
"He killed Rendon Howe! The Regent ordered that he be interrogated!"
"What you did hardly counts as interrogation."
Despite the danger he knew himself to be in, Saltwell could not resist a sneer. "Oh, is that what this is about? He was a good piece, I'll grant you. He give you any, you knife-eared bastard, after my boys and I got done with him? Showed him what real men could do?"
Something only half-seen but disturbing flickered behind the golden eyes for a moment. "Actually, it's not like that at all. He's a dear friend. And the best man I've ever met."
"Best knife-ear, don't you mean? Doesn't count as a man."
"Neither do you." The dagger came seemingly out of nowhere, impaling his left hand to the heavy arm of the chair. Saltwell screamed.
"Ah, but I am remiss!" the elf said when the noise had died down. "Let me introduce myself. I am Zevran Arainai; former Crow, adventurer and sometime assassin. Also Blight Companion. As such I have, as you might imagine, connections. But even with those connections-you are in the profession in a manner of speaking and will appreciate this I am sure-it is extremely difficult to procure lanthrax in Ferelden." Arainai pulled a small vial out of the pouch on his belt. "So difficult, in fact, that I had to dispose of your accessories in that particular crime by more mundane means." He sighed and shook his head sadly. "Messy means at that. Took forever to get the blood off my armor, I can tell you. But you, Master Saltwell, were the instigator and ringleader and as such deserve special treatment. I hope you appreciate the trouble I've gone to on your behalf." The vial moved towards the blade of the knife.
Saltwell tried to move his hand, sickened a little by the feel as the flesh slid upwards the tiniest bit on the blade, widening the wound. But his wrist was bound too tightly to move further. He whimpered.
"Oh come now!" the assassin scoffed. "It's not like all of your fingers are broken! Even with magical healing he will feel that and what you did to his legs to the end of his days." The mouth of the vial tipped, hit the blade. A viscous substance dribbled down it to the wound on Saltwell's hand. The torturer shrieked.
"And there you go," the elf said, a pleased expression coming over his countenance.
"Antidote! You must have an antidote!" Saltwell cried. "Whatever you want, I can help you! I have friends!"
"Of course I have an antidote. What sort of assassin do you take me for?" Arainai's smile was coolly contemptuous. But you have no friends left, Master Saltwell. And you have nothing you can give me. Save for your extremely painful, extremely prolonged death, of course."
Orson Saltwell fell to screaming and cursing then, the vilest imprecations he could think of spewing from his lips, interspersed with cries for help in the hope that someone would hear and come. The elf simply listened with an air of polite attentiveness on his face.
"We are in the Alienage, just so you know," he said. "The elves know who you are and what you did to the Warden. The same elvish Warden who saved them all from the darkspawn. None of them are going to interfere. In fact, several of them volunteered to help. I had recruits lined up all around the vhenendahl."
Despite what Arainai said, the door opened and Saltwell looked hopefully towards the opening. But instead of succor, the City Guard he'd been avoiding for the last two months, there was nothing but a young human woman, also clad in drake skin like the assassin. She was red-haired and beautiful, carrying a market basket on her arm.
"Ah, my nightingale, you return. And is that roast chicken I smell? You are a goddess!"
"Roast chicken, those wonderful spicy roast potatoes and vegetables we had the other day, cheese and fruit and this," she said in a lilting Orlesian accent, producing a bottle that looked to be of venerable age.
"Most excellent!" Arainai exclaimed. "Come, put it over here." He gestured to the table and helped the young woman set out the food and plates and goblets.
"Miss! Please! You have to help me!" Saltwell pleaded.
Glacial blue eyes turned on him. "I think not! After all the trouble I had finding you?" She looked at the sweating Saltwell, then at Zevran Arainai. "First stage?"
He nodded. "Indeed. I waited for you. We're just getting started."
The complete lack of sympathy for Saltwell's plight on her attractive face horrified the torturer. He was even more horrified when she pulled a handful of sovereigns out of her purse and put them down on the table. "Stage six." Recollecting the countless times he and his men had made casual bets on some prisoner's stamina or willpower, it was totally demoralizing to be the subject of such a thing himself.
The assassin grinned, a flash of perfect white teeth. "I am feeling lucky today." He pulled out sovereigns of his own. "He's too evil to die easily. He'll go all the way. Stage seven."
As the two settled down to enjoy their dinner and watch him die, an incongruous thought flitted through Orson Saltwell's panicked brain. How can eyes the color of the sun be so cold?
"Ah, Zev. Thanks for coming. I've got something for you."
"Indeed, Your Incredibly Buff Magesticness? I cannot tell you how glad I am to hear it! I have been waiting for this day-"
"Zev, do you mind? I'm serious here." Alistair Theirin furrowed his brow and gave his aching forehead a rub. I spend too much time in this office, he thought. I need to get out more.
"I am serious as well, my luscious liege." Seeing the king's pointed glare, the assassin subsided.
"Sergeant Kylon sent me a report. It seems bodies have been turning up in back alleys all over Denerim. Five of them, in fact."
"There is nothing so extraordinary about that, my studly king. This is Denerim, after all. That is a little more than usual, but not by much."
"Yes, that's true," Alistair agreed, trying to stick to the facts and ignore the florid appellations. "But the interesting thing about this is that these bodies all have something in common. They all used to work as jailors in Fort Drakon."
Zevran assumed an expression of polite interest. "Indeed? What a coincidence!"
Alistair's hazel eyes narrowed. "Yes. It is. Want to know something else interesting? One of them was the head jailor. Orson Saltwell. Kylon says it looks like he died very badly. Of poison, most likely." He leaned back in his chair, eyes intent upon his friend. "I thought you might look into it for me. Help Kylon out."
Zevran shrugged. "I could, but I doubt I could add anything useful to his investigation. If it is a Crow connection the good sergeant is worried about, I can assure you there are currently no Crows in Denerim."
"I'm sure he'll find that disappointing. Are you certain you can offer no help in this matter?"
"I'm afraid not, Alistair." Zevran's tone was dripping with regret. "The good sergeant is on his own where this matter is concerned. I am sure it is simply coincidence that the five men who violated Lhaine Mahariel on a certain night in Fort Drakon are all dead now. After all, Ferelden is a place known for its miraculous coincidences. Like you and Lhaine surviving the Tower of Ishal, finding the Ashes of Andraste, managing to end a Blight in just a year…the list just goes on and on." Limpid golden eyes met hazel, held them for a long moment.
"Maker!" Alistair groaned. "You did it, didn't you?"
"What can I say?" Another fluid shrug of the shoulders. "Each craftsman to his trade. Your horse throws a shoe, you get a farrier. Your roof starts leaking, you get a thatcher. You want a bunch of evil-minded, torturing, rapist thugs gone, you get an assassin."
"Zevran Arainai, I didn't ask you-"
"No, you didn't. This was done all on my own. Well, not entirely on my own. Leliana helped. Because this needed to be done. For all of us, for him and for you."
"Have you heard anything from him?" The question was almost inaudible.
"No. Have you?"
The king nodded, picking up a letter on his desk. "He dictated this to Lanaya. It came yesterday. You can read it if you like. It's not like it's a love note or anything."
"Did you want it to be a love note?" Zevran asked, taking the letter, his eyebrow arched.
"I want…Maker, I don't know what I want any more," Alistair said morosely. "All I know is that there's this Lhaine-shaped hole right here," he indicated the space at his right side, "and it hurts. But I also saw how he was at the celebration. His control was hanging by a thread because there were too many people around him. Too many shems. He couldn't put his back to a wall and he needed to and he was terrified that he'd lash out at someone. It was the celebration that made him decide to go south with Ashalle, you know. 'I am too angry still and I have no control over it,' is what he told me. Having to go out and show himself to the crowd afterwards damn near killed him." The new-crowned King of Ferelden got up and began to pace about the room as Zevran read.
Keeper Lanaya is being kind enough to write this for me. A letter from my own pen would be much messier and use much shorter words! Ashalle and I arrived at Ostagar with Lanaya's clan quite safely. The weather held most cooperatively and it was a very restful trip. I did not realize how much I missed the creaking of moving aravels until I heard the sound once again. And it is nice to be with the halla once more.
With winter coming on there is little we can do at present in the way of actual construction, but the dwarves you sent are surveying things and starting to make plans for the spring. The Shaper they have with them is enjoying comparing what is left of the actual Tevinter construction with the ancient contracts for the work that still exist in the Shaperate.
Lanaya would like to know what you want us to do about any remains of Wardens or soldiers we discover. We've already encountered some and have left them where they are for now, thinking that you might send someone in the spring to take an accounting and return them to their families if identification is possible or make other arrangements. We are marking the locations of those we have found already so that they may be more easily discovered again when the snow melts. The Warden-Commander has not yet been found. I do not know if he will be, but if he is, I will write to you immediately for guidance.
I am sorry that I could not stay with you, Alistair. I know that this is a difficult time for you and that you have much to learn and adjust to. Please know that if there had been any way I could have stayed, I would have. You did not wish for the burden of the throne and I promised to help you if you came to it, and then failed in that promise. I apologize again for that. It pains me to be foresworn and to know that I failed you. I wish you well always and hope that the upcoming holiday season is a happy one for you.
Your Warden brother,
The signature was in a different hand than the text; Lhaine's own, Zevran realized and realized also that he'd never seen it before. But then, Lhaine had only become barely functionally literate in the last year. "A friendly letter in truth," he said when he had finished. "But to me at least, there are hints of something else."
"Nice to know it wasn't just me imagining that. But it's the part about him thinking he failed me that gets to me," Alistair said, pausing momentarily to take the letter back and set it gently down on the desk. "Lhaine never failed me. I understand that he was hurting too much to stay."
"Very commendable of you. But I ask you again, my friend-what is it you want?"
"I don't really have the right to want anything," Alistair said with a shrug, resuming his pacing. "When I first understood that Lhaine was interested in…being with me, I should have done something then. But I was too shy and confused and when he realized that I hadn't ever…you know, he backed off so that I could make up my mind. Then Drakon happened, and now he won't want anything like that ever again."
"Not necessarily," the assassin demurred. "I've been raped before myself, Alistair. More than once. Such is the price of being devastatingly attractive and of lower rank in the Crows." The king turned to him, startled. "And no, it is not something I care to discuss with you, for it does leave its marks. But as you are well aware, despite those experiences I still have sex and enjoy it. You are not one of the people who raped Lhaine and you are a person he trusts. It would be possible eventually, I think, for you to be together in that way if you both really wanted it."
"But were you ever tortured?"
"As a matter of fact, yes. Never to the extent of what Lhaine endured, but withstanding torture is part of the Crow training regimen. And now that you've brought up all that unpleasantness, the least you can do is wear a hole in the floor to some good purpose and go over to the side table and get me a brandy." Zevran popped his hip up onto Alistair's desk and watched as the King of Ferelden served as his drinks waiter. Alistair also poured himself a big glass, the assassin noted with approval. The Chantry Boy had done a deal of growing up in this last year.
"In any event, whether he can want that sort of thing or not is irrelevant," Alistair said after he'd brought Zevran his drink and taken a sip of his own. "I'm the King. I have to marry some woman and make lots of little kinglets if I can. And Lhaine's a Warden and the Hero of Ferelden. He's not my knife-ear boy-toy. I know there have been plenty of Kings who married for policy and got their kicks on the side, but I wouldn't do that to him. I respect him and I think…I think that maybe the only thing I can do for him is to be the best King I can be and try to make this a kingdom where there are no alienages and everyone is a first-class citizen-mages and humans and elves and dwarves alike."
There was a long moment of silence. Alistair took another swig of brandy and looked up to find Zevran regarding him thoughtfully over his own glass.
"And just when did you become a man of vision, I wonder?" the assassin mused.
"One night in Fort Drakon," Alistair replied, his eyes hazel flint of a sudden. "Listening while they did that to him in the next room. I decided then that I needed to become King, so that I could try to make Ferelden a kingdom in which things like that didn't happen. Ever again."
"You do realize that such idealistic Kings seldom last long, don't you, my friend?"
The mulish look of determination Alistair Theirin was known to display when facing dragons, revenants or Archdemons manifested itself. "Then so be it. But I'm damn well going to try."
"The Chant says that such worthy efforts lead us all towards the Light, even when they fail," Zevran said, approval in his amber eyes. "It will be interesting to watch your attempt." He took a sip of his own brandy, then swirled it about in his glass for a moment. "I was thinking…I could go to Ostagar and see how Lhaine is, if you would like."
"You, Zev? Ride south? Into the snow and the cold? What have I done to deserve such loyalty?"
Zevran shrugged. "Been a good friend? Saved my life how many times now?" He gave Alistair one of his rare, direct looks. "I am worried about him too, and unlike you, my presence is not required at the First Day festivities. Isn't this going to be your first big chance to enact courtship rituals with half the kingdom's eligible young women?"
"Don't remind me," Alistair groaned.
"Come now, Alistair! It is not as bad as all that! There is not a nubile maid in the kingdom, no matter how gorgeous or well-born, that you cannot have."
"The nubile maids all come with strings, Zevran."
"Uncharacteristically clever of you to realize that."
"Please don't come over all Anora on me."
"And how is our favorite former queen?"
"Still in the tower. Which is where she'll stay until she's willing to swear fealty to me. And if she doesn't do it soon, Gwaren's going to someone else."
"Have you told her that?"
"My, but you've grown a great, big, swollen pair, haven't you?"
Zevran chuckled. "I would have paid good money to see that! Very well, my friend, I can leave in the morning if you wish."
"That would be wonderful," Alistair said, tossing the last of his drink back. "I'll see that you've got a Royal Guard escort. And a sizeable purse so you don't have to camp out until it's absolutely necessary. Not that there are a lot of inns in that direction."
"That is sadly too true. The things I do for you…" Zevran sighed theatrically, set his glass down, got up off the desk and sauntered towards the door.
"Speaking of things you do, or rather that other thing you did," the King said softly, "thank you, Zev. Maker forgive me, but I'm glad those men are dead."
Zevran Arainai turned and swept Alistair a deep bow. For once, there was no mockery in it. "As am I, Your Majesty. As am I. No thanks are necessary." Then he was out the door.