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The Age of Dragons

By PrettyFrog

Fantasy / Adventure

1 - Orzammar's Palace

Saitada sighed at her reflection.  The antique armor was certainly impressive, but she couldn't help but feel overdone in steel made more for show than for battle.  At least she'd managed to convince Lord Harrowmont that it wouldn't do for her to attend a feast celebrating her military command while wearing a surface silk gown.  Grumbling, she threw the helmet onto the bed as the door behind her opened.

Gorim entered, pretending not to notice as the helmet clattered to the floor. "Greetings, my lady.  You are dressed and ready.  Excellent.  I couldn't find the armor's matching dagger, but I scrounged up a rather fancy long sword.  Do you wish to wear your shield to the noble's feast?"

She nodded, twisting her crimson hair into a tight bun atop her head and fixing it with an elf-made pin.  "Yes.  Let them see me as a warrior."

Gorim shut the door firmly and responded, "as opposed to the Paragon of Beauty?"  He gave her a low, appreciative whistle.

A laugh escaped.  "Close the door," she murmured in a sultry tone.  "I'll show you a Paragon of Beauty."

Gorim snorted. "Don't you remember how this game goes?  I get undressed, and then one of your brothers or cousins appears and thrashes me.  I'll take my chances somewhere outside the palace if you don't mind." He gave her an appreciative glance.  "Well... thoughts for later, I suppose." He winked at her playfully, and his voice changed from flirtatious to businesslike, "moving on to the business at hand... The king expects you to make an appearance at the feast, but there's no rush.  The noble family heads will spend hours boring your father with petitions and petty grievances."

Saitada nodded.  "What shall we do in the meantime?"

"As part of the celebrations, permits have been auctioned off to members of the Merchant Caste who wished to sell wares in the Diamond Quarter.  Lord Harrowmont has also opened up the Provings for young warriors to test their mettle before the upcoming battle."  He gave her a wry look.  "Rumor has it that Harrowmont hopes you'll be swept off your feet if a well-placed young nobleman wins the Provings in your honor."

"I could use a little sweeping off my feet," she said thoughtfully, adjusting the sword and shield strapped to her back. 

"I've got a well-built, magical broom just for you." Gorim grinned.  "But that's for later.  What shall we do now?"

She shrugged.  "The Proving sounds appealing.  Let's go have a look."

"With you as always, my lady.  The day is ours until the feast."

#

Movement caught her eye as they walked past her brother Bhelen's room.  A rather lovely dwarven woman stepped out of the door.  "My Lord Bhelen?" the coy, downcast expression turned abruptly to panic.  "Oh!  Oh, I'm sorry... I am so sorry, your Highness." Covering her mouth with her hand, the young woman fled back into Bhelen's room.  Saitada exchanged an amused look with Gorim before following.

The flustered young woman stammered apologies, looking like she wished the stone would swallow her up where she stood. "I...I'm sorry.  I thought you were Prince Bhelen coming down the hall.  I...Forgive me."

Saitada held up a hand in a calming gesture and made her voice gentle. "Who are you?"

Gorim shuffled his feet a moment before responding for the girl. "She's... er... it seems she's one of your brother Bhelen's newest...um, companions.  Prince Bhelen is attending the feast being held in Lady Aeducan's honor."

"No harm done," Saitada said to the young woman. 

The girl shook slightly and got her breathing back under control. "I will show myself out, with your leave, my lady."

Saitada smiled.  "Stay, if you and Bhelen would prefer.  I will pretend I didn't see you." She gestured for Gorim to follow her out of the room before allowing herself to smile.  "She's... pretty."

"I didn't notice."

"Liar."

#

A scuffle was taking place just off the steps of the royal palace.  Lord Vollney, in full armor, loomed over a smaller dwarf in scholar's robes.  Vollney kept tapping his fingers against his warhammer as if contemplating violence.

"Please, Master Vollney," the scholar was saying.  "My work is accredited by the shaper!"

"These books are lies written by the enemies of House Vollney."

"I write only what I find in the ancient records!  Lady Aeducan!" the scholar cried out, ruining Saitada's thought of just walking by and ignoring the situation.  "You can vouch for my work, can't you?  Your father loved my "History of Aeducan: Paragon, King, Peacemaker!""

Saitada planted a pleasant expression on her face.  "Ah, I greatly enjoyed that book as well."

"This worm has written a book that slanders my house!" Vollney thundered.

"That's a serious charge," Saitada responded skeptically.

Vollney continued, apparently mistaking her comment for agreement. "He deserves to die for what he has written of Paragon Vollney!"

She rubbed her hand against her forehead and sighed.  "What exactly has he written, Bruntin?"

The irate lord turned to face her, punctuating his words with grand, overwrought gestures.  "He says that Vollney - - the Paragon who founded my house, known throughout the world as the greatest of men - - was a fraud!"

"N-not precisely," the scholar interjected quickly.  "When the Assembly names a Paragon, that man or woman is then, by definition, everything one can aspire to be in the world.  They form their own noble houses, and are revered as living ancestors.  But Paragons start off as men."

"Vollney was more than a man!" Lord Vollney interrupted, taking a step towards the scholar.

Saitada moved to head Vollney off, her voice sharp. "Bruntin, you're acting like a fool."

"Am I?" He tried to loom over her, apparently forgetting that they were, in fact, standing on the steps of the royal palace, surrounded by guards loyal to her family.  "Would you allow this coward to slander your ancestors?"

"I have written no slander!" the scholar pleaded.  "Vollney became a Paragon by the narrowest margin in history - - one vote.  A vote mired in rumors of intimidation, intrigue, and outright bribery.  The records of that vote are kept in the Shaperate and are a matter of fact.  Not liking history doesn't make it any less true!"

"The scholar is right," Saitada said firmly, holding a hand up to Vollney, arresting his attempt at forward motion.

Vollney gave her a frustrated look. "You're taking his side?  What if he published a book like this about your Paragon Aeducan?"

"The truth is more important than your pride," Saitada responded calmly.

"You would not say so if it was your house, but I shall respect your wishes.  For now.  Excuse me, your Highness."

Behind her, Gorim bristled at the implied threat. "That fool has no idea how weak his house is, or how low he sits in it.  Shall I have him killed, my lady?"

Stone save her from posturing menfolk.  "What do you think, scholar?" she asked.

The scholar appeared startled by the question, and spoke hesitantly. "Well... historically it has been prudent to eliminate a small threat before it becomes larger..."

She sighed, and turned back to Gorim.  "He's not worth a blade.  Leave him be."

"As you say," Gorim responded with a note of reluctance.

As he gathered the papers Vollney had knocked to the ground, the scholar gushed, "you've shown House Aeducan a friend to research, history, and the glory of our people."

"Carry on with your work, scholar," she responded, already moving away.

"Of course.  I have much to document and organize.  Good day, your Highness, and thank you."

#

Though she did not intend to make any purchases, browsing the merchant booths was always an excellent way to get a feel for the moods of Orzammar.  Today's market seemed heavy on surface goods, silks and perfumes.  Even a few of the smith crafters were showing examples of elfish made bows.  She thought for a moment about purchasing one, but ultimately decided against it.  The bow had never been her weapon, and she was sure some Deshyr or another would read more into the purchase than her simple curiosity was worth.

"Greetings, my lady," spoke a young dwarven woman, dressed in the latest fashion.  "May I say you look striking today?  Is this your paramour?  He wears both his vambraces... unmarried and eligible!"

For a moment, Saitada felt as though Gorim was trying to hide behind her.  "I'm flattered, ladies, but I'm not a noble.  I'm a knight of the Warrior Caste," he answered.

"Warrior Caste isn't bad..." the young woman tapped her lips thoughtfully as she gave Gorim an admiring look.

The slightly older woman with her admonished, "Teli, we didn't pay gold for these permits to take Warrior Caste."

 "I guess you're right.  Sorry ser."

Saitada gave Gorim an amused look. "What's going on here?"

"They're noble-hunters, my lady.  Because a man takes his caste from his father, they hope to bear a noble lord's son.  If a noble-hunter succeeds, she is raised up to join the house as a concubine to care for her son.  It brings new swords to a house, so many nobles look favorably upon such women."

The women started to shift nervously.  Saitada gave her words a tone of approval, "we could certainly use more Aeducan swords."

"Then perhaps you'd tell your brothers to come say hello?" responded the younger woman, her voice a little breathless.

"Teli, mind your manners," the older woman gasped, but Saitada didn't miss the hopeful look.

"No, it's all right.  I will mention you."

"My lady is kind and generous beyond her duty," the older woman responded gratefully.

Gorim glanced at Saitada as they walked away, and caught the ghost of a smile.  "You'll mention them?"

Saitada smiled.  "Who knows?  Perhaps a night with a couple lovely ladies could calm Trian down.  And if he had sons to distract him, maybe he'd leave the rest of us alone for a while."

Gorim shrugged.  "I'm not entirely certain Trian would know what to do with them if you left them both on his bed wearing nothing but ribbons."

Saitada pursed her lips thoughtfully.  "Ooh, there is an idea.  I think I know what to get you for your name-day.  What do you want, blond, brunette?"

Gorim smirked.  "Anything but a redhead.  Those are way too much trouble."

Saitada laughed.

#

Saitada cursed softly.  Trian was walking towards her, shadowed by Bhelen.  She planted a polite smile on her face as she strode forward to meet her brothers.

Bhelen's own smile was cheerful.  "Atrast vala, big sister!  How surprising to run into you out among the common folk."

Trian didn't bother with a smile.  His face was set in lines of harsh disapproval.  "Especially since duty requires you attend our king father at the feast today.  Have you so little respect for him to disregard his wishes on a day set aside for you?"

Behind her, Gorim spoke up.  "Lord Harrowmont told me we wouldn't be need for hours at least --"

"Silence!  If I want the opinion of my sibling's second, I will ask for it." Trian didn't even bother to look at Gorim.

"Yes, your Highness," Gorim said before taking a slight step backwards.

Saitada bristled slightly.  "Don't speak to Gorim like that."

Trian gave her a surprised and irritated look.  "I'll speak to the lower houses and castes as they should be spoken to.  Now do as I say."

Saitada rolled her eyes. "All right, I'm going."

Trian gave what almost passed as a smile.  "Perhaps you were right, Bhelen, when you said our sister wasn't all useless breeding flesh."  He must have seen her flinch, because his tone and face softened slightly.  "I'll be along later to toast your command."  He looked for a moment like he wanted to say something else, then he shook his head.  "Come, Bhelen."

Gorim stepped towards her.  He started to put a hand on her shoulder before remembering they were in public.  Instead, he planted a cheerful smile on his face.  "That was fun.  Nothing like being talked down to by the next king."

Saitada closed her eyes for a moment, then shrugged.  "He means well."

Gorim couldn't quite keep the frustration out of his voice.  "You always defend him.  I wish I had your understanding..."

The corners of her lips twitched as she fought to regain her earlier good mood.  She forced her voice to become light.  "I didn't even get to tell him about the pretty girls."

Gorim gave her a slight nod.  "Somehow I think Trian isn't in the mood for that sort of thing right now... or ever."  He jerked his head in the opposite direction of the palace.  Her oldest friend knew her well.  "Shall we?"

#

They walked through the market.  Gorim watched Saitada move easily through the crowd, smiling and making polite conversation with merchant, noble, and guard alike.  He noted more than a few were reduced to stammers by the kind smile of the princess.  Tapping the hilt of his sword, he gave a glare to a young guard whose eyes wandered inappropriately, and saw a blush creep up the boy's cheeks.  Not that he could really blame the kid.  He shook his head, and followed her towards a booth displaying a variety of fine weaponry.

The merchant hesitated, and then spoke.  "Greetings, My Lady Aeducan.  I am... so honored to have you visit my booth.  I have a... proposition, but I dared not approach."

Gorim stepped forward, narrowing his eyes.  "Yet you dare now?"

A raised hand from Saitada held him back.  "It's all right.  I'll hear him out."

Gorim nodded.  "Very well, then.  Speak."

The merchant shuffled his feet, eyes flicking to Gorim's sword before he turned his attention back to the princess.  "Um, yes, just so.  Here is the thing.  What I mean to say is..."

"It's all right," Saitada said, her voice warm. 

The merchant blushed slightly.  "Sorry. So nervous.  I had a dagger made.  For you.  As a gift for your first command.  I, uh, sent a messenger to deliver the dagger to you.  Prince Trian had him thrown out."  He held up his hands as he rushed to reassure the princess.  "I don't know what offense he caused, but I had him beaten severely."

Saitada exchanged a look with Gorim, and he saw irritation in her eyes before she glanced back at the merchant.  "I'm sure Trian has his reasons."

He nodded, clutching an item to him.  "Won't you at least look at the dagger?"

"I'll take a look, but no promises."

"Of course!  A thousand thanks to you.  Here... here it is, your Highness."  He held out the dagger as though he were offering his firstborn child.

Gorim couldn't quite keep the admiration out of his voice.  "That's an amazing piece, merchant."

"You do me much honor, ser.  The blade has been crafted over a period of two years by masters of every art.  I wish to bless the Lady's first command, and hope that someday, when she rules, she will wear it."

Gorim felt a chill in his blood.  Dangerous words to speak aloud, in the middle of a public market.  "Trian is heir.  He will rule when King Endrin returns to the Stone."

"If the Assembly wills it.  Forgive me, ser, but whispers day the second child of Endrin will be chosen."

"Whispers, indeed.  It's a princely gift.  If Trian recognizes it, though, it may send the wrong message."  His hand itched to clasp the hilt of his sword, and then he caught the expression on the face of the princess.  "Or the right one, depending on your view."

"I'll take the dagger."  Saitada's voice was contemplative.

"Thank you!  You bring uncountable honor to me."  He handed it to her, and Gorim saw actual tears in the man's eyes.

He kept his own voice light.  "What he means is that you'll bring uncountable gold to him if you wear that piece in public."

#

Saitada was nearly to the gate when a guard stepped into her path.  "My lady.  Are you heading to the Proving Arena?"

She smiled.  "Yes.  I intend to watch the Provings."

The guard nodded.  "We have been charged with the task of escorting you to the Proving grounds."

Gorim saw her face go a bit murderous, and spoke up quickly.  "I clean forgot about that.  Forgive me, I should have informed you sooner.  The king decided you are not to travel through the commons unguarded."

"I am quite capable of walking safely to the Proving."  Gorim heard the sword in her voice, and saw the guard start to melt under the weight of the princess's gaze.

Gorim coughed.  "I did mention the merchants that won permits to show their goods in the Diamond Quarter?" he said delicately.  "There were only so many permits auctioned off, and quite a few were turned away.  Your father fears you will be harassed on the way to the Proving."

He saw relief flood into the face of the guard as she nodded.  "This is silly, but I will comply."

"Will we be leaving then?" the guard asked.

"Yes."

"We are at your command."

"You are Padar, yes?  Of house Turin?"  Saitada asked the leader of the guard.

He swallowed.  "Yes, my lady."

"I hear you held a passage against four hurlocks on the most recent excursion."

Gorim smiled to himself as he watched the princess put the men at ease.  It took only moments for Padar to begin to lose the businesslike tone, and the two younger guards were well on their way to being her loyal vassals by the time they'd reached the Arena gate.

#

The proving master glanced in their direction, then glanced again and quickly got to his feet.  "Your Highness, it is an honor to have you here.  Have you come to watch these brave warriors do battle in your honor?"

Saitada rolled her shoulders.  "No, I've come to fight."  Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Gorim place his palm over his face and shake his head.

"Your Highness, this Proving is in your honor..."

"Then honor her by doing as she says.  Lady Aeducan will fight in this Proving," Gorim said.

"I will honor today's warriors by testing their skills," Saitada said.

"Of course.  It is well within your rights."  He went to the podium.  "Men and women of Orzammar, we have a late entry to these Provings, held for the honor of House Aeducan.  I give you... the Lady Aeducan, herself!"

#

Gorim tried to keep his excitement contained as he watched his friend enter the duel.  Beside him, the two younger guards were less restrained, openly cheering for the princess.  One started to make a comment when the Lady Aeducan went toe to toe with Adal Helmi, then glanced at Gorim nervously.  Gorim couldn't quite blame him.  There was something about two beautiful women squaring off in the proving that could get the blood flowing. 

For a moment, he thought wistfully back to the days when he and the princess had been foolish and rather randy teenagers.  Then he laughed at himself and turned his attention back to the proving.  Frandlin Ivo fought well, even managing to land a hit before Saitada swept his legs out from under him. 

Hopefully, she'd gotten it all out of her system now.

#

The proving master was practically beaming when she returned to where he was standing.  "Congratulations.  Frandlin Ivo is as fierce a competitor as I've ever seen.  You've vanquished every warrior of note in today's Proving.  The ceremonial helm commissioned by your father for today's winner is yours."

Saitada inclined her head gracefully.  "Send it to Frandlin Ivo.  He fought bravely."

The proving master looked surprised, and then approval lit his face.  "The people will remember your honor and generosity for all time."

She gave him one of her warm smiles before turning to the guards.  "I am ready to leave."

Padar nodded.  "Your wish is our command."

The two younger guards could barely contain their excitement on the way back, and nearly fell over themselves congratulating the princess.  Gorim exchanged a look with Padar, who merely rolled his eyes before resuming his businesslike expression.  They parted ways with the princess promising to come cheer the young men on when they fought in the next proving.

Gorim fell into step behind her.  "Harrowmont is going to be annoyed."  He caught her catlike smile.  "Which you intended."

"It's not the matchmaking that bothers me as much as the fact that he thinks I don't actually know what he's doing."

Gorim chuckled. 

#

Duncan stood quietly, watching the various dwarven nobles scheme.  Honored guests the wardens might be in the dwarven halls, their presence was not enough to put even the slightest pause to the manipulations.  Hopefully, they could get what they came for and be on their way before they got enmeshed into too many plots.

There was a minor stir to the crowd, and he glanced towards the door.  A dwarven woman had entered, and was being respectfully greeted.  This then, would be the princess.  He saw her note him and move in his direction, and straightened before giving her a formal bow.  "Greetings, my Lady Aeducan.  It is an honor to meet you at last."

To his surprise, she returned the bow.  "The honor is mine, Warden."

"I have had the opportunity to recently meet with your father.  He speaks highly of you.  He says you may be the most skilled warrior in all of House Aeducan." 

She gave him a warm smile, stepping back from the crowd so that they could speak more privately.  "There is no may about it, I am the best."

Despite himself, he laughed.  "Yes, he mentioned your humble nature as well."  He found himself drawn in by the smile.  "We need more Grey Wardens like you.  Even as the darkspawn weaken here in Orzammar, they are stirring on the surface.  A Blight has begun.  Soon the fight must go beyond the Deep Roads, lest the darkspawn threaten all the world."

To his surprise, her face became contemplative.  "I wonder if Father would allow me to join you."

Duncan blinked, and then chuckled.  "Alas, I do not think he would take kindly to that suggestion.  As the child of the king and heir after Lord Trian, your place is here."

"True, I belong with my father and brothers, but it is the duty of the royal family to protect Orzammar from the darkspawn.  And that means aiding the Grey Wardens in whatever manner we may."  Her words gave him a surge of hope that perhaps this trip wasn't wasted after all.  "I admit, I do not know as much as I should about the Grey Wardens."

"You know of our dedication to destroying the darkspawn, our frontline presence during a Blight.  What else would you know?"

"Are there many of my people in the Grey Wardens?"

"Over the centuries, many dwarves have made names for themselves in our order.  These days, however, there are fewer dwarves and thus fewer dwarven Grey Wardens.  A pity, since dwarven warriors have the most experience fighting darkspawn."

"What does joining entail?"

"Being a Grey Warden means abandoning all ties to your old life.  It means dedicating yourself to destroying the darkspawn."

"Now that is something worthwhile.  Alas, I am an Aeducan, and Orzammar needs me here."  Her voice actually sounded regretful.

"Then it is a good thing you have other paths before you.  Some are not so lucky."

"A fair point.  Tell me, do you recruit only from the warrior and noble castes?"

"We take those worthy to be Grey Wardens where we find them."

"I must attend to my father now, but I would like to speak with you on the morrow.  I may be able to help you on finding some worthy."

"That would be most kind of you."  He kept his face polite, but he had a feeling he'd just become enmeshed in a plot.

"Now it is time for deshyrs and speeches.  Enjoy the feast, be careful of the ale."

"I wish you luck, and will speak with you again in the morning."  After meeting with Endrin and Trian, the princess had been almost like a breath of fresh air, despite the fact she clearly had something up her sleeve.  Endrin doted on his only daughter.  If she could convince him to render more aid than just a few speeches, then perhaps whatever she planned was not too high a price to pay.

The brilliant red of her hair made her easy to follow in the crowd, and he watched her move through the nobles.  She was approached easily, and treated with respect, far more so than Trian had been earlier. 

He felt a bit of shock when he heard her speak in favor of restoring surface dwarves to their rights, especially given that her father had moments earlier spoken on the importance of tradition.  Dutiful she may be, she had a mind of her own.  Perhaps an alliance with Orzammar's newest commander wasn't a bad idea at all.

#

Saitada strode to the living quarters, Gorim a few paces behind.  She considered her impression of the Warden-Commander.  Cautious perhaps, but impressive nonetheless.  And rather pretty for a human.  She caught sight of her brothers, and steeled herself.

Trian spotted her first.  "So you are a commander now.  In name, at least.  Wait - - what's that you're wearing?  That dagger."  Outrage filled his voice.

"A gift, made for me by a loyal subject."

Trian practically snarled.  "I told that man not to presume to bribe House Aeducan.  If your favor is bought so cheaply, it is your own shame.  You should be attending our father at today's feast, not gossiping with second-rate smiths!"

Saitada sighed.  "Bhelen, how was your day?"

Her younger brother's smile never faltered.  "Interesting.  I would have been at the feast, but Trian had need of me..."

"The world does not stop and start with your meager achievements.  Not even tonight.  Now, do you have some purpose in bothering us?"

"Father wants you," Saitada said.

"Of course he does.  We must discuss strategy before the upcoming battle.  Bhelen, stay here and stoke the new commander's conceit if you like, but then get to bed."

Bhelen's smile dropped the moment Trian was out of sight.  "I honestly don't know how you put up with him."

"He's not that bad."  At least he didn't use to be that bad, she thought to herself.

"There was a time I would have agreed with you, but I've recently had to rethink my views on our brother."

She frowned.  "You sound serious, Bhelen."

"Unfortunately, I am.  Trian has begun to move against you.  I never thought his much-proclaimed honor would allow him to actually act on his jealousy.  Big sister, Trian is going to try to kill you."

"What?"

"I wouldn't have believed it myself if I hadn't overheard him giving orders to his men.  Trian's decided you're a threat to his taking the throne.  Maybe he's right."

"How am I a threat to Trian?"

"He fears what you are becoming, in the eyes of the people and the Assembly.  Trian's the named prince, but only the Assembly can proclaim a king.  It would be unusual for the Assembly to ignore the king's choice, but it does happen."

"The founder of House Bemot became a Paragon and king in one move from the Assembly, and he was a commoner."  Gorim said.

"That was an extraordinary case.  But at least a half-dozen times, the Assembly has named a lesser family member - - or even someone from another house - - as king.  Twice, it was a woman."

"Enough.  I won't listen to this," Saitada said.

Bhelen laid a hand on her arm.  "You can't turn a blind eye to this!  Your life is in serious danger!"

Saitada jerked away.  "I said I won't listen to this sort of talk!"

Bhelen threw up his hands.  "You are as noble and stubborn as ever.  After Trian kills you, I suppose I will be the heir.  But that's not how I would wish it.  Enjoy your command.  I fear it will be short-lived."  He stormed away.

Gorim set a hand on her shoulder.  "Come, my lady.  The hour grows late, and you need your rest."

Saitada unclenched her fist.  "I may sleep with my sword tonight."

"And I will be right outside the door.  May the Paragons smile down on us."

#

The invitation came promptly the next morning, and Duncan found himself being given a tour of house Aeducan's armory.  Saitada's second, Gorim trailed a few steps behind them.  After a few minutes, Saitada led Duncan to an unused portion of the armory, away from the din of the smiths.  Clearly, the position was meant to provide some privacy.

"Tell me, Duncan, what do you know of the casteless?"

"That Orzammar believes they are tainted by the sins of their ancestors, and..."

"So polite.  You won't offend me with plain speech.  They are treated like dirt and denied any chance at decent work, so many turn to crime just to survive.  We treat nugs better."  She looked back out at the armory.  "I've heard there are some casteless that, in spite of being forbidden to take arms, have proved themselves capable and cunning warriors.  I wonder, perhaps, if they may be what you are looking for."

"Something tells me you have more in mind."  Duncan found himself intrigued by the direction the princess was taking.

"Some casteless serve with distinction in the Legion of the Dead, but the Legion does not speak of individual prowess.  Casteless Grey Wardens, on the other hand, could make names for themselves, and serve to prove that they are more than we allow them to be."  She gazed up at Duncan.  "You get recruits familiar with the deep roads, who know darkspawn sign and lore.  I get a chance to improve the lot of all casteless.  What say you?"

"Have you particular individuals in mind?"

"I'm chasing a few rumors.  The problem is getting them and you in the same place at the same time.  The guards are eager to impress you, and so clear the casteless out when they see you coming.  You are staying a few days?"

"Yes.  We need to know how many darkspawn may be pushing towards the surface."

"Difficult for you to get that close.  I may be able to assist there as well.  Perhaps a strike by the dwarven military to distract them so your people can get what they need?"

Duncan's eyes widened slightly.  "Such a thing would be more than I dared ask your father.  We would be most grateful."

Saitada smiled.  "I wish we could do more, but we haven't numbers enough.  Come; let me show you what our smiths have been working on.  We've found new ways of making weapons more potent against the darkspawn."

#

"Astrast Vala, big brother."

Trian glanced up from where he was examining a shield.  His face softened when he saw her.  "Atrast Vala, sister.  Was there something you needed?"

Saitada tossed a small package onto the table.  "At the market I noticed Lady Jaylia sighing over this scarf, but her sister distracted her before she could make the purchase.  I had Gorim go back for it later.  I thought perhaps you could present it to her as a token."

Trian blinked.  "I appreciate your forethought in the matter."

"House Helmi produces fine warriors, and I find I'm fond of Lady Jaylia."  Saitada smiled. 

"It will make for a strong alliance," he said.  He glanced down at the shield, then back at her.  "I was rude to you yesterday.  You did not deserve it."

Saitada smiled.  It was the closest Trian would ever come to an apology.  "I assume something is troubling you.  Anything I can do?"

"It is ghosts and shadows for now."  She saw a few of those ghosts and shadows cross his face.  Her brother had not been sleeping well of late.  She knew as well as he did that their father was a lot more ill than he let on.  Already, the crown weighed heavily on Trian's brow.  She did not envy him its weight.

She sat on the edge of the table.  She set a hand on his shoulder for a moment, and then sighed.  "If we get ten minutes to breathe anytime soon, we should do a stalker run.  I think I can take you."

He actually managed a smile.  "Little sister, the day has not yet come when you could best me."

"I'm not so sure.  I have learned the art from the best, you know."

He patted her leg.  "I wish I did have the time.  It's been too long since we..." he sighed.  "I may not have time for a stalker run, but perhaps a game of stones later?"

"Looking forward to it."  She tilted her head to one side.  "Did you get a chance to speak with the Grey Warden?"

"I fear he wants more than Orzammar is strong enough to provide.  Perhaps a Blight will remind those surfacers of what Orzammar deals with every day."

Saitada nodded.  "If the darkspawn are moving towards the surface, perhaps we could use the Gray Wardens' presence here to do some judicious scouting.  There may be the opportunity to lay the groundwork to reclaim territory."

"The risk would be great."

"True.  But on the other hand, you could be the first Aeducan in generations to actually control Aeducan Thaig."

Trian frowned thoughtfully.  "A notion worth considering.  Have you discussed this with father?"

"I thought it better coming from you."

"Good."  As Saitada started to walk away, he spoke again.  "About the dagger..."

"I gave it to Gorim."

"Wise.  Dedication such as his should be rewarded."

"I could not agree more."

He hesitated.  "There is another matter I wished to discuss with you.  I know Harrowmont has been trying to convince you towards a match." Trian set down the shield and gave her an appraising look.  "I wish you to consider his nephew, Renvil.  House Harrowmont has been ever loyal, and the match would cement ties between our houses.  And Renvil seems like a fine young man."

Saitada nodded.  "I will consider him.  He is certainly a more palatable option than Lord Edir Meino."

Trian bristled.  "House Meino oversteps itself.  I am dining with Valin tomorrow.  I will instruct him to have a word with his brother before I do."

"Partha, brother."

"Edir is unworthy of you."

"Edir barely qualifies as annoying, let alone offensive."  She made a placating gesture.  "Was there anything else?"

"That will be all."

"Atrast tunsha"

#

Gorim raised an eyebrow at Saitada before falling into step beside her.  "Well?"

"Bhelen's wrong.  Trian's planning a marriage for me, not a grave."

"It could be a way to have you let down your guard."

"Trian is many things, Gorim.  Subtle is not one of them."

"I see your point.  Are you going to go along with his plans?"

Saitada sighed.  "He could have chosen worse."  She sighed.  "He chose Lord Renvil Harrowmont."

"What did you tell him?"

"That I would consider him.  What should I have told him?  That I already have all the man I need?"  She waggled her eyebrows at him, and he snorted.

"Why not?  I'll just wear a sign that says, "Assassinate me, before Lady Aeducan marries beneath her."  They looked at each other, then laughed.  "I like Renvil," he said.  "His men hold him in genuinely high regard."

"Good to know.  I'm not unopposed, just..." she sighed.  "Not ready to settle down."  She shrugged.  "He was receptive to the thought of the feint into the Deep Roads.  By tomorrow, he'll present it to father and forget completely that it wasn't his idea."

Gorim frowned.  "You plan to let him take the credit?"

"I don't care who gets the credit, as long as the job gets done.  Who knows, perhaps becoming king will calm Trian."

"We can only hope.  Perhaps we should get going?"

"Edir Meino has been trying to court me again."

"He's a fool."

"It isn't Edir who concerns me.  It's his brother, Valin."  She folded her arms.  "Edir's flirtation is harmless, and he knows it as well as I.  Valin, however, seems to think he has an actual chance."

"Does he think your father or Trian would ever agree to such a match?"

"I think I'll run off and join the wardens before I let that happen."  She shook her head.  "Gorim, if anyone knocks on my door, I have left you with strict orders to execute anyone who disrupts my sleep."

"You are sneaking out of the palace again."

"Who, me?"

"You could let Trian fight off his own assassins."

"If they came at him with blades, I've no doubt that he would.  Which is why they will come at him with poison."

Gorim ran a hand through his hair.  "You could at least let me come with you."

"What, and have them all think we ran off to canoodle?"  She shook her head.  "Then I'd be fighting off the assassins coming for you."  She gave him a reassuring smile.  "I'll be fine."

#

Saitada ran a hand through her hair.  The potion darkened it to a mousy brown.  Dressing in servant's clothes and carrying a bundle of laundry enabled her to walk almost anywhere without being given a second look.  She saw a merchant give Valin the bottle, and smiled.  Antivan brandy.  Valin certainly knew her brother's weak spots. 

She returned to the palace, and washed the dye from her hair. 

The next morning, she was waiting to fall into step with Valin as he entered the palace.  She gave him a flirtatious smile.  "Good morning Valin.  How is your brother?"

Valin's eyes looked her over with quiet satisfaction.  "He is well, your highness."

"If you have a moment, I'd like to discuss a small matter with you."  She gave him a coy look, and walked into the library.  He followed, as she knew he would.  "Close the door?"

He did so, then turned towards her with a smile.  And stopped short as the point of her blade touched his chest.  "Your highness?"

"You have a bottle of Antivan brandy."  She flicked her eyes to the bottle he was dangling by its neck.

His eyes widened just slightly.  "Yes.  A gift, for your brother.  He has..."

"Pour a glass," she said, tilting her head towards the cups she'd left on the table earlier.

"Your highness, I..."

"Pour."

He swallowed, and then obeyed.  "Your highness..."

"Drink."

"I...” He shook his head.  "My lady, this was a gift for your brother.  I intended..."

"I am aware of your intentions, Valin.  Drink."

"I..."

"Come now, Valin.  A drink of fine Antivan brandy, or a sword through your gut.  One would think it would be an easy decision."  There was nothing warm about her smile.

His face was pale.  He looked down at the sword, then back up to her face.  He swallowed.  "How did you know?"

"You told me.  Just now."

He nodded.  "I'm sorry, my lady."

"A name, Valin."

"Beraht."

"Drink, Valin.  And this will remain between you and I."

"Thank you, my lady."  He took the cup, and sat at the table.  "My brother... he had nothing to do with this."

"I know."

He nodded.  Then drank.  The cup slipped from his fingers as slumped to lay face down on the table.  She sheathed her sword, and then walked away.

#

She jumped when Trian flung open the door to her room.  He looked around, and she saw relief fill his eyes when he saw her scribing at her desk.  "You are alright?  You didn't drink any, did you?"

Saitada blinked, and then gave him a confused look.  "Drink any?" 

He came around the desk and pulled her to her feet, peering into her eyes.  "Lord Valin.  You spoke with him?"

"Yes.  Half an hour ago," Saitada frowned.  "What's wrong?"

"He invited you to share a drink with him?"

Saitada nodded.  "He did.  Antivan brandy.  I declined.  I did not wish to give him notions, especially after our conversation yesterday."

Trian sagged in relief.  "The brandy was poisoned."

Saitada put a hand over her mouth.  "But... wasn't he supposed to be taking lunch with you?  Brother, I ran into him only by chance."  She watched realization enter his eyes.

"It was meant for me," he said.  She laid a hand on his arm, and then drew him into a hug.  He rested his head on her shoulder for a moment.  He drew back, and then looked at her.  "A good man is dead.  You could easily have been killed as well.  When I find who is responsible..."

Saitada tapped her mouth.  "He said..." She furrowed her brow.  "What was the name?  When he was inviting me to join him for the drink, he said... Barat?"  She shook her head.  "I was in a hurry to get away.  Beraht maybe.  Beraht had given him a good deal on the bottle."

"Beraht," Trian said.  "I will have my men look into this."  He gave her a tired smile.  "I did not congratulate you on winning your fifth proving."

"I am catching up to you, brother."

"Humph," he said, a trace of a smile on his lips.  "Perhaps I managed to thump some skill into that hard head of yours."

She returned the smile, and then sighed.  "Lord Edir is going to be sorely grieved.  We should do something for the family.  Edir is young, but he has a good head for tactics.  You could take him under your wing."

Trian's lips twitched, but even that ghost of a smile warmed his eyes.  "A good thought, sister.  It may have been chance, but his brother gave his life for me.  I will offer Edir a commission among my men."  He sighed.  "Have you thought about what we spoke of the other day?"

"Yes."

"I would prefer a match that made you happy," he said softly.

"Renvil will be returning in a few days.  Perhaps I will invite him to sit with me at a proving.  You and Lady Jaylia could join us as well.  I may like her, but I'm not entirely convinced she's good enough for my brother."  She winked at Trian.

"Make the arrangements."  Trian started to walk away, then turned back.  "Jaylia would... should I get her something?"

"I will make that arrangement as well."

He nodded, then left the room.  She smiled, then looked up at Gorim entered, closing the door behind him.  "I dropped the name."

"Think he'll find anything?"

"Trian?"  Saitada shook her head.  "No.  But he'll say something to Faren, and you know Faren.  You may have to actually give him the scent, but he'll follow it all the way to Rivain."  She glanced down at her desk.  "Oh, could you do me a small favor?"

"Of course."

"Would you make an inquiry of your serving girl?  I need to pick up a token for Trian to give Lady Jaylia."

Gorim shook his head and laughed.  "You know, at some point, Trian is going to need to do his own courting."

"And may the stone catch us when we fall."

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