Have I ever told you how I lost my arm?
"Lost my arm". Makes it sound like it got misplaced after a particularly enthusiastic night at the pub. Pfah. And it's the left arm, which truly adds insult to injury, as I'm - I was - left handed. Now I'm having to write this with the dumb right one; the hand that was happy to assist in simple tasks and leave anything that required some precision to the far more ambitious left hand. It's taken to its new position as sole agent of all things handy with as much enthusiasm as an Orlesian noble at a Ferelden barn dance.
But enough - even a phantom reader isn't likely to invest much time in a multi-page treatise on how I feel hard done by. A friend assured me "writing it out" might help me in some way. I figure it's worth a shot. I may even remember something that could help avert the disaster that's coming (oooh! Foreshadowing!). So I'll pretend someone other than myself might read this one day and tell you what happened.
No, not the whole story of the death of Divine Justinia, the Rifts, the Mage-Templar war and the eventual victory over the darkspawn magister Corypheus. It's already been told, and told better, most notably by Varric Tethras in his book All This Shit is Weird (I cannot believe he went with that title). It's what happened after. Most residents of our little corner of the world had no idea anything beyond typical political posturing was even going on. There were a handful of people in positions of power throughout southern Thedas that knew a bit about what happened and most of them would tell you it was all a Qunari plot that got foiled.
The other part of the story - the important part - the majority of those who were told didn't seem to take seriously. Probably because it concerns elves, and they just can't wrap their minds around the idea that elves could pose a serious threat. But all that comes much later. As an opener I'll just say… shit got weirder.
I suppose a brief introduction is in order: My name is Kai Trevelyan, though most people probably remember me as The Inquisitor or the Herald of Andraste. Through a series of events that sound ludicrous even to me - and again, have been recounted elsewhere - I became the titular head of the Inquisition. Originally this wasn't due to the people who formed the Inquisition having any particular regard for me. It was, depending on how you look at it, sheer dumb luck or comically bad misfortune.
By walking into a situation at precisely the right - or wrong - time, a piece of ancient elven magic became permanently embedded in my left hand. It glowed a pretty green, and enabled me to close the Fade rifts that were ripping open, spilling demons throughout southern Thedas. As the sole Rift-closer that Thedas possessed, not to mention the sole survivor of Divine Justinia's ill-fated Conclave, I was ideal as a figurehead for the new organization; all they had to hope was I wasn't dumb as a bag of rocks. Oh, and that people would overlook the fact that I’m a mage.
It was a happy surprise for everyone, myself included, to discover that, while I'm not particularly fond of it, I'm actually quite good at leading large organizations and making sensible decisions in difficult circumstances. It wasn’t long before I’d become head of the Inquisition in fact as well as title.
Very long story short, we ended the Mage-Templar war, stopped Orlais' civil war (at least for a time), and made some lasting - and I believe mostly positive - changes in the world. Oh - and killed Corypheus and closed the bloody great hole in the sky. My colleague and friend Cassandra Pentaghast, former Right Hand of Divine Justinia and a bloody good fighter, became the Divine Victoria, head of the new, improved Chantry, Varric returned to Kirkwall to write his book, and I spent a great deal of time trudging back and forth across southern Thedas closing stray rifts.
And there was peace across the land…
…for about two years. Long enough for people to rebuild, regroup and remember all the old enmities they'd had to set aside when war had so rudely interrupted their petty squabbles. Long enough for others to decide they'd best launch their biggest and best plans to fuck things up before this peace thing caught on permanently.
The story I'm going to recount begins shortly before the Exalted Council was to commence at the Winter Palace in Orlais. I had no choice but to attend, as the subject of the Council was the Inquisition. Orlais wanted to coopt us, Ferelden wanted to disband us, and I…should let the story tell itself.
Chapter One - Day One
"I fail to see why it is necessary that I dress like a court jester."
"Inquisitor. This is Orlais and you are making an Entrance."
I swear, you could hear the capital "E".
"A certain amount of grandeur and embellishment is expected." Josephine Montelier is the Inquisition's lead diplomat and she's very good at her job. At times annoyingly good. "And you are not being asked to dress like a court jester."
"I feel like one. All it needs is a few extra sparkly bits." I glared at my reflection in the mirror. It glared brightly back at me, smug in its Orlesian grandeur. "It's not like no one knows what I look like, you know."
"That is not the point. You need to make an impression."
"Black is impressive. This suggests I'll be sending my trained nug into the crowd to gather coin at the end of the procession."
Josephine exhaled gustily, nearly extinguishing the flame on the candle affixed to her portable writing tablet. "Inquisitor. Kai. This is an Exalted Council. The Game demands you impress, yes, but not by looking like you're about to- to kick the asses of everyone there."
I heard a bark of laughter behind me. "Perhaps he should. Maker knows playing by their rules doesn't seem to have gotten us terribly far ahead." Cullen Rutherford, ex-Templar and the Inquisition's military commander, nodded agreeably to me as he walked through the open doorway. He was in matching Orlesian-appropriate grandeur to my own, though he seemed more at ease in it.
"Don't encourage him," Josie groaned. "Don't you think that's part of the reason they're starting to panic?"
I raised an eyebrow at her. "Because I happen to look both dangerous and dashing in black?"
Cullen snorted. "You've been spending far too much time with Dorian. He's rubbing off on you."
"Not nearly enough time lately. Or rubbing," I muttered. One more thing I wasn't particularly happy about these days.
Josephine ignored both of us. "As far as both Orlais and Ferelden are concerned, the Inquisition is dangerous. You are dangerous, Inquisitor. Reminding them of that when we're supposed to be negotiating with them in good faith would not be considered a social gaffe; it would be considered a provocation."
"Might I point out that this shade of red is almost precisely the same shade as the blood someone with a punctured lung coughs up, yet the Orlesians consider it festive?" I frowned at the mirror again. How did I reach a point in life where I would even know that little factoid?
"I thought the Orlesians' main problem with black is they think it's dull and unimaginative, not scary."
"They do," Josephine began.
"It's when you add in the glowy green magic hand of death and the private army that they start getting nervous," Cullen offered. "People are funny that way."
Before I could concoct something both pithy and brilliant enough to get them to concede that I really should be allowed to choose my own regalia, a young elven servant bowed her way into the room. "Your pardon, my lords and lady. The procession is ready to begin and they're requesting you take your places."
Josephine blew out her candle, set down the tablet and gave me her best please don't embarrass me look. I've grown very familiar with that look. "I know you're not happy, but please don't glare."
"I'm not glaring." I took one more look in the mirror, trying to match my actions to my words. "I may be guilty of sulking, though."
She opened her mouth, closed it again and wheeled around, marching through the doorway. "Cullen, you deal with him. I'll see you both down there."
Cullen gave me a clap on the shoulder as I joined him in a less hurried walk to the staging area. "No sulking either. I like this nonsense as little as you do, and if I'm not allowed to sulk, neither are you."
"Fine," I sighed. "But that kicking-their-asses option is looking more attractive all the time."
They stuck me on a heavily armored horse. The armor was burnished to a high golden gleam. They had, of course, included the horse-armor version of a mask, complete with long, pointy horns. My wearing black would be a provocation, but they give the horse a big, scary mask with long pointy horns. Orlais, on your most benign days you're still capable of giving me an instant headache.
Cullen and Josephine were directly behind me, riding next to each other on horses that were allowed to simply look like horses. I was mildly surprised they hadn't found matching beasts for the occasion.
Given that that was the entirety of our "retinue", I think the amount of pomp and ceremony associated with our short ride down the main concourse to the entrance of the Winter Palace was ridiculous even for Orlais. They must have had 200 soldiers in full dress uniform lined up along both sides. Above the concourse, the flower of Orlesian nobility had come out on beautifully appointed balconies to assess our -ahem- small but impeccably dressed procession. I stared straight ahead and tried to look dignified. Or neutral. Perhaps even slightly above it all. Definitely not sulking.
Behind me I could just hear Cullen and Josie. It sounded like for all his admonishing me, he wasn't as successful at the whole not-sulking exercise.
"Another parade, another bloody negotiation."
"Smiles everyone." Josie's voice had taken on a brittle brightness that almost made me regret making things more difficult for her. Almost. "We must be careful how we present ourselves."
"Why did Divine Victoria call the Exalted Council," Cullen groused. "She's kept Orlais from bothering us for the last two years."
"At increasing political cost, yes. She has done all she can, but the Exalted Council has become necessary. Orlais would control us. And based on their many marriage proposals, they have specific plans for you."
I didn't have to look behind me to know what Cullen's expression was; the fan club he'd acquired on our first visit to the Winter Palace had grown over the last few years, much to his dismay. Those chiseled good looks of his aren't always a blessing.
"Our real concern is Ferelden," Josephine continued. "They would see us disbanded entirely."
With that both of them lapsed into silence and we passed through the great gates into the Winter Palace grounds proper and another staging area out of sight of the delicate eyes of the noble guests. We dismounted and stablehands whisked the horses away as mid-level palace staff descended on us. Josie retrieved her precious portable writing tablet and was swallowed up in a gaggle of diplomatic attaches.
I lost track of Cullen as a liveried elf approached and bowed stiffly. He was to tell me where my quarters were and lead me there should I need leading. Of course, being Orlais, this wasn't as straightforward as you'd think. Cassandra, in her guise as Divine Victoria, had made it clear that I and my people would require facilities for meeting and preferably lodging somewhere outside the palace itself. As it was our organization this Council was scrutinizing, I considered it only fair that we had someplace to meet in relative privacy, This had all been arranged, along with a small outbuilding for my personal storage and wardrobe. But given I was an Important Personage, they couldn't possibly allow me to sleep in such a common area, so my bedchamber was in the Winter Palace itself, its location strictly dictated by my status relative to the other nobility present. I assured him I'd prefer to find everything myself and escaped before anyone else could be helpful at me.
I headed down a wide corridor I was fairly sure led to the exit I wanted and, more importantly, the privy (yes, I know, in written narratives we're all supposed to pretend no one ever has to do that. Bollocks. It happens. Quite often at the most inconvenient times possible.). Once that was taken care of, I set out in pursuit of my primary goal, which was to find my personal outbuilding and ditch the blasted jester outfit for something more comfortable. If the other noble guests found my attire objectionable, they could bloody well deal with it.
Funny thing about palaces: when they're swarming with people, it's easy to get turned around even when you think you're reasonably familiar with their layout. I turned down a short corridor I could have sworn led outside and instead found myself in the large chamber where the Exalted Council was to take place. The Anchor (that's the proper name for that blasted mark on my left hand) chose that moment to remind me it was there; a familiar, tingling almost-itch as it flared greenly at me. It had been doing that more lately and I didn't like it one bit. What next? I thought sourly.
Andraste's furry ass, I had to ask. There she was, heading for me like a benign dreadnought in proper Chantry dress. Mother Giselle, saying, "It has been too long. I hope the years have been kind to you."
"How have you been, Mother Giselle?" I tried to look politely interested.
"I spent last summer in Emprise du Lion, distributing food sent from the Exalted Plains." Of course you did. "The Dales are finally recovering."
I said something or other about how she travels more than I do these days.
"It keeps me out of trouble," she joked, then commented on how helpful our forces in Suledin Keep had been. I tried not to fidget. "Divine Victoria asked me to greet you on her behalf. She is currently attending to the Ferelden ambassador's concerns."
How did you even know I was here? I didn't know I was going to wind up here. "You can probably just call her Cassandra in private conversation," I pointed out dryly.
"You can ... Inquisitor."
Ever so slight a pause before Inquisitor. Coupled with a look that fell somewhere between pedantic and disapproving without completely committing to either one.
"I prefer to use her Divine name." She smiled. "Our last Divine once joked about why I insisted upon calling her Justinia. She called it my way of reassuring her that I had not completely forgotten who was in charge."
Several retorts flew through my mind in a matter of seconds, each one snottier than the previous.*
* I should explain myself here, since I'm probably coming off like a bit of a twat. See, Mother Giselle is a nice woman. She's a good woman. She's that side of the Chantry that's… rather admirable. And there's something about her that just sets my teeth on edge. Admittedly, I'm not a great fan of the Chantry in general, but my thing when it comes to Mother Giselle goes beyond that. Every time I'm around her I have an irrational urge to be rude. And sarcastic. And tell dick jokes. I think I do a fairly good job of hiding it, but there you have it.
I chose to go with, "How do you think Divine Victoria has done in these last two years?"
"It is hardly for me to say, Inquisitor," she said with that Look again. It occurred to me that it was possible I have the same effect on her that she does on me.
"With respect, that's never stopped you before, Mother Giselle." And we are both oh-so-polite…
"Victoria says she is better suited to the battlefield than the Sunburst Throne, but she has restored the Chantry… and also people's faith in it. We are lucky to have her."
I could at least agree with her last sentiment, even though I retain my doubts about the Chantry itself. "I'll speak to Divine Victoria."
"I believe she would appreciate that, Your Worship. The Divine sees the good that you do, and have done." She smiled again. "Duke Cyril will wish to greet you on behalf of Orlais. I believe he is currently speaking with the Tevinter ambassador. Many of your friends have returned as well. I hope you have a chance to speak with them before the Exalted Council begins."
Did I hear that right? "The Imperium sent an ambassador?"
"Yes, Your Worship. Dorian Pavus has taken the chance to return from Tevinter. It will be good to see him again."
Along with a frisson of pure delight at the news the Dorian was here was that little reminder of the other source of tension between Mother Giselle and myself. I've never been able to completely forgive her for the way she ripped into him shortly after he'd joined the Inquisition and even more shortly after he and I had gotten fairly serious about our relationship.
"…I owe him an apology," she continued. "I allowed my distrust of Tevinter to cloud my judgment. I am glad you saw more clearly than I did."
There are those who would be quick to point out that what I saw clearly when it came to Dorian had precious little to do with his being from Tevinter, but fortunately they weren't present. I allowed just a touch of my surprise at her admission to show. "You're going to apologize? To Dorian?"
"I have little patience for those who cannot admit they were wrong, Your Worship. Myself included." Damned if she didn't seem serious about it. "I will have to make my apology somewhere public. He will want an audience for his reaction." She was right about that; Dorian does love an audience.
Having to shift my thoughts about her from dislike with a reason to she's being nice again and I still feel an urge to be rude left me not knowing what to say, so I retreated to something safe. "Who has returned for the Exalted Council?"
"Your dwarven friend, Master Tethras, for one. I understand he spent much of the last few years in Kirkwall. I believe Ser Blackwall has returned as well…although he now uses the name Thom Rainier." And then she had to go and ruin it all with, "Enjoy time with them while you can, Your Worship. I doubt you will have the chance once the Exalted Council is underway."
Yes, thank you for reminding me that this is going to be a miserable, mind-numbing, soul-destroying days-long exercise in political wankery of the highest order. I gave her my blandest "Thank you, Mother Giselle," hoping that was my cue to escape.
"Your Worship, a final question, if I may."
Of course. Still, at least she'd included the word "final". I raised an eyebrow; go ahead.
"This Exalted Council…Ferelden would have the Inquisition disband. Orlais sees its power as another feather in a chevalier's helmet. What do you wish to do with the Inquisition?"
I'd been giving that a lot thought recently, and knew not all of my people were going to be happy with the conclusion I'd reached. She would be the first to hear a tentative version of it. "Corypheus is dead. We accomplished what we set out to do. If we're not needed any longer, and if it can be done peacefully, it may be time for the Inquisition to disband."
She looked mildly pleased. I knew she'd told others she thought we should disband, though her reasons undoubtedly differed from mine. "Thank you. Maker watch over you, Inquisitor. I will not keep you any longer."
She walked away, sparing me the necessity of some insipid farewell. I headed back toward the corridor, not wanting to follow her to whatever exit she was using. Mother Giselle always makes me feel like I've been measured and found wanting; the last thing I wanted was for her to think I'd gotten lost, particularly when that was precisely the case. To this day I'm still baffled how she knew where to find me.