“Are you Ellana Lavellan?”
Ellana looks up from The Rise and Fall of Arlathan (the book she’s checked out at least ten times in the last year), a bit startled at the intrusion. The only people who approach her at the Orlais National Library are the librarians, usually to kick her out at closing time.
And when she sees the man behind the intrusion, the bottom of her stomach drops out.
He towers over her, with a face that looks too young for the shock of slicked back white hair and the suit too pressed and formal and expensive to be accompanied with the twining branches of Mythal’s vallaslin on his forehead. He is the weirdest non-Dalish-looking Dalish she’s ever seen. And even worse, he looks pissed off and he knows her by name.
Instinctively she starts rifling through the last couple of weeks for any customers she might have pissed off. But she works three different jobs, and it’s hard to keep track of all the people she encounters on a day-to-day basis. Besides, another Dalish elf would have stuck out vividly in her memory – he’s the first one she has seen in two years – and Ellana has no memory of him.
Is he some kind of lawyer? Is she about to get sued?
“I’m sorry,” she says, mustering the polite smile she gives her customers. “I think you have me mixed up with someone else.”
The man raises an eyebrow. “Highly doubtful. You fit the description, and you’re also the only Dalish elf here.”
“Besides you,” Ellana says.
The blank exterior cracks for a second and he looks uncomfortable. It mirrors the way Ellana often feels, when countless strangers point out the most obvious way she is separate from them. The way she sticks out. It’s enough to inspire some kind of irrational and instant kinship with the elf.
“I’m Ellana,” she says. “I’m also super broke so whoever sent you to sue me isn’t going to get very much.”
He doesn’t crack so much as the hint of a smile at the joke. Instead he takes a seat across from her and pulls out a briefcase. Ellana swallows. He really is a lawyer, the expensive kind that Ellana and whatever free lawyer Orlais provides would not hope to match in a court case.
“I’m not here to sue you,” he tells her, opening the briefcase with a crisp snap. “I’m here to offer you an education.”
He doesn’t wait for the reply that Ellana is too flabbergasted to give. Instead, he pulls out a pristine, stapled document and places it between them.
“A contract. If you sign, my client offers to pay for your undergraduate degree at any university of your choosing. He is also willing to pay for graduate school, if you wish to continue your education.”
Immediately her hackles rise. This is too random. Too strange. Too close to the dream she keeps close to her chest, even as it withers with each passing year.
“This is some kind of joke,” she says coldly, folding her arms. “Who put you up to this? Alistair? I don’t think he’d be this cruel, but he is a bit of an idiot and I am going to kick his fucking ass.”
It had to be Alistair. Her roommate’s the only one who knows of her dreams for college, even though she couldn’t pay for it in a million years. Maybe he thought the joke so obvious that she wouldn’t consider it for a second. Maybe he didn’t realize how very badly she wanted a degree. Whatever impulse behind this prank, it stings. And she’s going to stain all his clothes pink when she gets home.
“This is not a joke,” the man says gravely.
“Then where the hell is this coming from?” she demands, her voice raising. Someone on the other side of the room looks up from their book and she almost flushes.
The man studies her for a moment. “Forgive me. Perhaps I have started in the middle and not the beginning. My client is a frequent visitor of this library. He has noticed you several times and has decided that you would benefit from an education and that you are unlikely to procure one on your own. Therefore, he has decided to fund it himself.”
“So . . . he’s a stalker?”
The look this man levels at her is even colder than his default setting. “Is it stalking if you two are occupying the same space at the same time purely through coincidence?”
“It’s weird that he’s been watching me all those times,” she says. “Especially since he apparently sent you instead of coming himself.”
“He wishes to remain anonymous. You do not have to accept his offer.”
“How do I know this isn’t a scam?”
The man pushes the contract over to her side of the table. “Read the contract. You are not obligated to give or pay for anything. You will receive confirmation that the debt to your university is paid before you need to set foot on campus. All that is required of you is to apply to the university of your choosing and to write monthly emails updating him as to your progress.”
Ellana takes the document in hand, even though such an act signifies her willingness to believe in this farce. She looks for any clues that this is all fake; inconsistencies, grammar errors, unprofessional language.
But the document is pristine. It states that she has full control over what classes she wants, what college she goes to, how long she stays in school. It even includes a stipend for spending money on top of tuition, books, room and board.
Even if this is a scam, the only risk Ellana takes is in having to crawl back to her three jobs if she gets kicked out of the university for not paying tuition.
That and the feeling of having her dreams crushed right when she thought she could achieve them.
“Why,” she asks quietly. “You’re trying to tell me that in exchange for thousands of sovereigns all he wants is a pen-pal? What does he get out of this?”
“He has seen a thirst for knowledge, and he wants to encourage it. He believes in your potential. Do you accept or not?”
“I -- ” Ellana falters, the hopeful and skeptical sides of her clashing.
The expression on his face is almost soft.
“Take the contract,” he says. “I will meet you here, at this table, at this hour, in three days’ time for your answer.”
He stands up, buttons his suit coat, and pauses. “I almost forgot. Whether or not you accept, my client wishes for you to have this.”
He pulls out a book from the briefcase. It’s a copy of the same book that Ellana was reading, only this one isn’t public property and its blank pages are begging for all the notes and highlights and quotes that she has scribbled in a beat-up composition book.
Ellana stares at it for so long, she doesn’t notice when the lawyer packs up his briefcase and leaves.
When the library closes, Ellana heads over to Calenhad, the bar where Alistair works. She spots him flipping bottles in the air and catching them very precariously behind his back. After shattering a hundred-sovereign bottle of vodka and ruining the manager’s shoes, Alistair was banned from such tricks, and only the threat of disappointing the many fans of his charmingly awkward flirty banter kept him from getting outright fired.
Ellana glances around the dark room to make sure that said manager isn’t here to witness Alistair’s rebellion before heading up to the bar.
“That’s some expensive floor cleaner,” she says, nodding at the tequila bottle in his hand, the price of which could pay for their electricity bill.
“I’ve been practicing, thank you very much,” Alistair says. “I haven’t dropped a bottle all day.”
“You just jinxed yourself.”
Alistair raps his knuckles on the wooden bar. “Not anymore.”
“That’s not how that works.”
Alistair ignores her in favor of gracing an older woman with a bright blue martini and his trademark grin, the one where his eyes crinkle at the corners. It works disgustingly well, made all the more effective by the fact that Alistair can only flirt decently when he’s not flirting on purpose, making him adorably, obliviously genuine.
“So. What’s up, Buttercup?” he asks, sliding over a glass of lemon soda.
“You would not believe what just fucking happened at the library.”
Immediately, his relaxed and friendly demeanor drops. “Did someone harass you?”
Back when Ellana was painfully naïve and new to the city, humans used to harass her quite a bit, because the only thing worse than being a flat-ear was being a savage, Dalish flat-ear.
“No, no. I’m fine,” Ellana says. “Though this might end up being harassment, come to think of it.”
She explains the weird Dalish elf and the deal he offered as Alistair makes various drinks.
“Are you sure one of the librarians didn’t give you a pot brownie and you hallucinated? Because this sounds utterly unbelievable.”
“It does. I don’t believe it. It’s probably a giant scam that he’s pulled on countless other poor unsuspecting people.”
Alistair gives her a knowing look. “But you want to believe it.”
Ellana sighs and chugs her soda. “Yeah. I do.”
“Are you going to take it?”
“I have no idea.”
By the end of the three days, as Ellana is walking towards the table in the library, she still hasn’t decided on an answer.
The yearning to sign it, to go to college, burns. Only her fear and skepticism keeps it at bay with hundreds of unanswered questions. What if it’s all a cruel joke and the lawyer never shows up? What if she gets to the university and they won’t let her in because her tuition was never paid? Even worse, what if she lives out her first semester and then the university kicks her out with that debt hanging over her head? She would never be able to pay it off. It took three jobs just to afford to live in a closet-sized apartment in Orlais in a barely decent neighborhood. And that’s with a roommate!
She almost hopes that the lawyer never shows, if only to absolve her from making the choice. But no, he stands patiently at the same table, hands crossed behind his back. The contract already sits at the table, a fountain pen resting beside it.
“Good evening, Serah Lavellan,” he says, inclining his head.
“Good evening . . . .” she trails off at the lack of a name.
“Ser Abelas will do.”
She raises her eyebrows. “Your name is ‘Sorrow’?” Creators, what kind of a child was he?
He gives her a frosty stare. “Will you sign or not?”
Ellana takes a deep breath.
Fuck it. What’s worse than all of this turning out to be fake is the regret that would haunt her if she didn’t try. It’s not like she’s got any other options.
Sitting on her bed with her phone in hand, Ellana painstakingly types out her first email. Her benefactor/stalker/whoever-the-fuck wants to be known only as Fen’Harel and Ellana isn’t quite sure how to take that, to be honest.
I honestly do not know what to say here. I’ve never had a pen-pal or written very many letters outside of thank-you notes that my foster mom forced me to write. So if this comes out as stilted and awkward, at least you know I got it honest.
Abelas says that you will never write back, so I guess it doesn’t much matter what I write, huh?
Is this your way of getting to know me? There’s probably not much you gleaned from watching me in the library, except for the fact that I've read the same book like fifty times and scribble notes about it like a crazy person.
I must have looked seriously pathetic for you to take so much pity upon me that you’re willing to spend thousands of dollars on me.
That is, if this isn’t some giant scam. I’m still not convinced it isn’t and you aren’t just some weird stalker who gets kicks out of screwing over poor Dalish elves. You wouldn’t be the first. And also your pen name is really weird.
I don’t know if you’re Dalish or not (it’s highly unlikely that any Dalish has enough money to pay for strangers’ educations on a whim and we wouldn’t know about them) but Fen’Harel is kind of a touchy subject in our culture.
He’s the renegade cousin of the last great elven king that staged the rebellion that got the entire royal family murdered, which is why Arlathan fell and the elves got their asses kicked by Tevinter and the Chantry.
There’s more to it than that, of course, but I’m not about to get into all the theories about Fen’Harel’s rebellion. You should read the book you bought me if you’re interested. Just know that Fen’Harel has kind of gone down into Dalish legend as a boogey man who’s always out to screw us over and make it look like he’s “helping”. So, if you wanted a clever name for a cruel trick like, say, making a Dalish girl think she’s getting her dream education before sending the university a bunch of bounced checks, Fen’Harel would be pretty damn clever.
Well, if you want details on Ellana Lavellan, you’re going to wait until I’m sitting cushy in my dorm room with all my expenses paid in advance. Then at least I would get to taste one semester of academia before it all crashes and burns.
Oh, and thanks for the book. Now I can start the process of transferring my notes in my notebook to the margins of the book. And color coordinate them with sticky flags. Because I’m a nerd like that. (There. That’s one detail about me as a thank-you present. You’re welcome.)
“So, are you going to call her?” Alistair asks as he tries to adjust the rabbit ears antenna on the television to get a better signal.
“Your mother! Or whatever approximation of your mother that she is.”
Guilt squirms in her chest and she tries her best to squelch it down. “Not yet. But I will.”
“Hmm. Sure,” he says with deep skepticism. “Is the picture good now?”
“It’s still a little fuzzy, but I can make out most of it.”
The second Alistair steps away, the nightly news dissolves into white noise.
“Ugh, forget it,” Ellana says, tossing the remote onto the empty milk crates that serve as a coffee table. “I’ll just grab someone’s tossed paper at work tomorrow.”
“Well, now you have more time to call your mum,” Alistair says brightly. “It’s been, what, two months?”
“Alistair,” Ellana groans. “She’s just going to tell me that I’m an idiot for even thinking about accepting the offer and that I should come back home.”
“Come now, that’s not very fair. She’s never said that you needed to go back.”
“She’s implied it.”
“I think that’s your guilt speaking, to be frank.”
Ellana really hates it when he’s right. Even though as Keeper, Istie should be very concerned that Ellana ditched the Dalish to go live in the world of humans, she was the only one who encouraged Ellana.
But there’s a big difference between going to live with humans and putting your entire future and thousands of sovereigns in the hands of a stranger.
“If nothing else, Ellana, just give me her number. That way, if you go mysteriously missing and no one hears from you, I can at least give her a heads up.”
“That’s low, Alistair.”
“Actually, what’s low is telling you how much it sucks to not have a mother or mother figure to call at all.”
She throws a pillow at his face.
“I hate you.”
But she gets off the couch and heads into her room and makes the godsdamn phone call.
As always, the first hello from Istie sends a bolt of homesickness through Ellana. It’s one of the reasons why she doesn’t call very often. She swallows the lump in her throat.
“Aneth ara, Istie,” Ellana says.
“Aneth ara. Thu ea?”
“I’m doing fine,” Ellana answers. “And you? How is the clan? How are the rose bushes doing?”
“Everyone is doing well. My roses are getting a bit out of control. Danyla keeps offering to trim them for me, but my bald patches are still recovering from the last time, so I keep declining her.”
And as always, any mention of other clan members doing Ellana’s old chores feels like a zap with a taser. “You should get Mihris. He should know better; he did grow up in the orchard.”
“Hmm, perhaps. I am picky about who touches my roses, you know.”
Ellana smiles. As Keeper, Istie doesn’t allow herself many personal hobbies outside her duties of tending to the clan, but her rose bushes have won awards all throughout the Dales, and she once chased a teenager from another clan off with a stick for taking one. She trained Ellana from a young age on how to tend them, and because so, Ellana was the only other elf allowed to touch them.
“I do know. Listen, I need your help with something.”
“Da’len, you know I can’t post bail for you again,” Istie warns, but there is a wry edge to her statement.
“That was one time! And making it illegal to feed the pigeons is a stupid law.”
“And that’s the attitude that got you in a cell,” Istie says, with a chuckle. “What is your question?”
Ellana tries her best to describe the situation as both hypothetical and totally not sketchy at all, but Istie sees right through her.
“You’re putting in a lot of trust in a complete stranger that won’t even show you his face,” Istie points out. “I thought you were going to pay for college yourself. That you’ve been saving up for it.”
After two years of hard work, Ellana’s got a grand total of eight sovereigns in her savings account.
“There’s no way I’d be able to save enough.”
“And the scholarships you applied for?”
“A lot of them became void after I graduated high school,” Ellana says, biting her lip.
“So the past two years in Orlais have been ultimately futile,” Istie says in that matter-of-fact tone that Ellana hates so much because it usually means she fucked up in a way she can’t argue herself out of.
“I don’t regret moving here,” she says, defiance leaking into her tone despite her best efforts.
“I’m not saying that, da’len,” Istie says gently. “I am concerned, however, that you moved away because you thought the humans could give you a better education, and after two years of hard work, the only hope you have for this dream is a stranger’s unexpected and potentially untrustworthy charity. I know you, Ellana. You don’t take kindly to debt or pity or a lack of control in your own life. And this offer you describe has all three of those.”
Godsdamn it, Alistair. This is why I didn’t want to call her. In five minutes, Istie completely annihilated all of Ellana’s confidence in this decision. This is a woman who takes days to consider all angles of buying a different brand of toothpaste and it drives Ellana crazy.
And the fact that Istie is always, always right just takes the fucking cake.
“I know it does,” Ellana says. “I don’t like that part, but this is the best shot I have at a degree.”
“You mean it’s the easiest.”
“Maela,” Ellana groans.
“I don’t know why you’re asking for my opinion when you’ve already taken the deal, da’len.”
“I have not!”
The silence on the phone is the sonic equivalent of Istie’s Don’t-You-Dare-Fucking-Lie-To-Me look.
“Okay, I have. I’m sorry. I don’t mean to argue, I just wanted to . . . hear you say that I’m not being a complete and total idiot.”
“You’re not an idiot, Ellana. It could be genuine,” Istie says slowly. “Such kindness is extraordinarily rare, but if you say his lawyer is Dalish then perhaps he is as well. Perhaps he is looking out for one of his own. Just . . . make sure you call me regularly so I know you’re alright.”
Ellana smiles into the phone. “I promise.”
“Now that you have the means, have you given any thought to what university you will try for?”
There is no debate or question about what college Ellana chooses. She emails Abelas the same night she signs the contract and pulls up the website for Skyhold University after she calls Istie.
Ellana has dreamed about Skyhold since before she graduated high school. She’s combed through that course catalog enough to practically memorize it. It’s the jewel of Orlesian higher education. It’s well rounded; it has some of the best programs in Thedas in all manner of fields, from medicine to history to criminal justice to education.
Not to mention that Dr. Solas Felassan, the author of The Rise and Fall of Arlathan, teaches there when he’s not doing field work.
Ellana could do anything she wanted with a degree from Skyhold. But the money it would take for even an associate’s degree could pay off the mortgages of everyone in her clan, so she locked that dream away, even if she couldn’t let go of it entirely.
Money isn’t an issue anymore.
Now she just has to get in.
For a month Ellana uses all her free time in the library or at her bed, studying for the entrance exam. She graduated top of her class in high school, but Ellana finds out real quick that a Dalish education doesn’t match up with what the rest of the world got.
For a month, horrible dreams haunt her at night, dreams where the exam is written in nonsense, or in dwarven, or she’s taking a test on experimental physics instead of the entrance exam.
She takes a rare day off work for the test. And despite all the anxiety dreams, the pencil-gnawing, book-throwing (calling up Alistair because she can’t figure out this one math problem and he went to prep school what do you mean you don’t know math you grew up rich!) she walks out of the library feeling fairly confident.
When she gets in the ninety fifth percentile, Alistair takes her out for dinner, and lies to the waitress about it being her birthday so they get free cake.
“You’re moving up in the world,” he says, toasting their beers together in their apartment afterward. “You’re going to leave me all alone to fend off all those vicious grandmothers on Senior Discount Day.”
Even though he’s clearly joking, Ellana’s gut squirms with guilt. Joking or not, the truth is that Ellana’s definitely ditching him to live out her dream in Skyhold and he’s stuck with his shitty apartment and two jobs and the impending need for a new roommate. And the only reason she gets to be educated and he has to rot here is luck.
Pure dumb luck.
“Oh no,” says Alistair, looking at her warily. “You’ve got a bad look on your face. Usually when you have a bad look on your face, somebody gets punched. And right now I’m the only somebody around.”
Ellana rolls her eyes. “I’m not going to punch you. It’s just . . . I came to Orlais with nothing and no one, and you – you’ve been an awesome friend to me. You’re always there when I need you. You always make me laugh. I’m going to miss you.”
There’s an embarrassing tightness in her throat, and Ellana shuts up before something equally horrifying can happen, like actual tears.
“Oh, sweet Maker, this is even worse than getting punched in the face,” Alistair moans, thunking his head on the back of the couch. “I’m not drunk enough for feelings-talk. Ugh.”
“Fuck you,” says Ellana, but she’s smiling. “It just sucks that you’re stuck here while I get the chance to better myself. You deserve more than this.” She waves her beer at the large crack that runs down the wall by the TV.
For a moment Alistair stares at the crack and then resolutely sets down his beer on the scuffed-up coffee table and turns to her, suddenly deadly serious.
“Ellana. Don’t you dare, for a millisecond, worry about me. I left behind a life with more privilege than you could ever dream of having, and I did so willingly. And yes, my apartment sucks and working two jobs is exhausting and I still have no idea what the hell I’m going to do that makes it worth the tradeoff. But I swear to the Maker if you go off to Skyhold thinking anything less than that you are a brilliant, sparkling woman who deserves this chance to live up to her potential, I will personally come up there and kick your ass. Do you understand?”
Ellana nods, a suspicious prickling in the corners of her eyes. This is why all the women love him.
“I’m going to hug you now, because I’m tipsy and you’re my best friend, and you’re going to hug me back and not wave your arms around like a lunatic or that awkward patting bullshit. And then we can pretend this whole conversation never happened.”
Alistair gives her that crooked half-smile of his, but he can’t hide the sorrow that lurks in its corner, and Ellana throws her arms around him just so he doesn’t see her own eyes watering.
She gets into Skyhold. She and Alistair go out for dessert at the fancy Orlesian ice cream shop whose “artisan” cones always pop up on celebrity social media with stupid hashtags. Even though they both make fun of the place and would rather go homeless than work there, they also secretly have been dying to try it.
Turns out the best part of elfroot ice cream is the face Alistair makes when he tries it and the accompanying spat on the pavement, followed by exclamations like “Maker’s balls! How are you eating that?!”
She ends up giving away most of her furniture to Alistair and parks the rest on the curb where it all disappears before morning. Her cot and nightstand sit in Alistair’s closet, just in case.
Despite the photocopy of the tuition check, the email confirmation, the letter about her room assignment, and details about her roommate, Ellana still has her doubts. Even so, she makes her way to Skyhold the first day they allow incoming freshmen.
Subject: So Far So Good
So I’m at Skyhold. And I have to say that it lives up to all my crazy expectations, of which there were many.
My dorm is tiny, and the two beds, two desks, and two dressers fit with barely any room to breathe. But I’m not a stranger to tiny living quarters so it doesn’t bother me. Especially since the room has a giant window that overlooks the quad in the middle of campus.
And I’m at freaking Skyhold, at least for the semester, so there’s really nothing to complain about.
I remain cautiously optimistic.
I won’t apologize for doubting you, though. You have to admit this whole setup sounds crazy. My old roommate, Alistair, thought I had eaten a pot brownie from one of the librarians and hallucinated the whole thing. I don’t know how I’ll tell anyone else about this. Maybe I’ll make up something more normal-sounding, like a scholarship just for Dalish elves, haha. No one would argue with that because of how fast they’d change that subject.
I recall promising you details about me once I’m sitting cushy in a dorm with all my expenses paid. I’m still not convinced that you aren’t some creepy stalker, albeit a creepy stalker with deep pockets, but I am indeed sitting cushy in a dorm (for now) so I guess I’ll uphold my end of the bargain.
Okay, so my name is Ellana Lavellan (but you knew that already).
I am Dalish. I grew up in a tiny town called Wycombe.
I’m 20 years old. I’ve lived in Orlais since I graduated high school two years ago.
I’ve had all kinds of jobs over the last couple of years. When you met me, I was a barista for a hipster coffee shop, a waitress at a pizza place, and I sold clothes at a store in the mall where everything was 100% cotton (they thought me being Dalish would lend some air of credibility to the place, which is stupid because none of that crap was handmade).
I really like history. It’s my favorite thing to read about.
So there you go. Ellana Lavellan, as promised.
There is a soft, almost hesitant knock on the door just after she hits send. Ellana looks up to see a young man standing in the doorway, duffel bag in hand.
“If you’re looking for Cremisius, she’s not here yet,” Ellana tells him. She hasn’t seen any hint of her mystery roommate yet, but freshmen still have a couple more days to trickle in.
“I’m, um – ” The young man coughs. “I’m Cremisius.”
Ellana stares at him. She takes in the wide, flat chest, the short hair shaved on one side, the lean muscles in his arms, the stark line of his jaw.
“You’re definitely a dude,” she says.
“And you’re . . . Dalish?” he asks, peering closer at her face, eyes tracing over the vallaslin. “Unless that’s some sort of trendy tattoo.”
“No, it’s legit.”
Ellana has grown used to people’s surprise once they realize what she is. Dalish elves have stayed isolated in varying degrees from the rest of Thedas for the last six hundred years. Even now, with the internet and global trade and trains and airplanes making travel so much easier, 99% of Dalish elves prefer to live with their clans and never set foot out of the safety of the Dales.
To humans, the Dalish are almost mythical. And people’s reaction to Ellana brewing their mocha latte is akin to encountering a unicorn in the forest.
“What are you doin—hmm.” Cremisius shuts himself up mid-sentence, for which Ellana is grateful. She has answered that question so many fucking times.
“I guess the dorm people screwed up or something,” Ellana says to change the subject.
Cremisius goes red in the face, and his shoulders tense up.
“Not . . . exactly. I was assigned female at birth, so they won’t put me in the men’s dorms. I’m trying to repeal it, but they’re not listening.”
There’s something in the way he juts his chin out, as if bracing for an inevitable shit-storm over his identity but too proud to show any shame or embarrassment, that cuts Ellana. She knows that feeling from way too many arguments with zealous Andrastians that took her rejection of the Dales to mean rejection of her entire culture and religion.
“What a bunch of assholes,” she says.
Cremisius nods and swallows. “I’m sorry. I know this will probably be awkward for you, but I promise that I-- ”
Ellana holds a hand up. “Do you snore?”
“I – I don’t think so.”
“Are you going to blast music without headphones or stumble in drunk at two in the morning or bring random strangers over so you can bang them without telling me?”
“No, I’m not an asshole,” says Cremisius.
Ellana shrugs. “Then I don’t care. I’ve had male roommates before. It’s nothing new to me.”
“Seriously? This doesn’t bother you?”
He wants to believe her, but he’s skeptical that her acceptance is so forthcoming. Ellana felt the same way when Alistair, a devout Andrastian, wasn’t bothered by her Dalish religion. Instead, he set up a calendar in the living room to mark all their combined holidays.
“What bothers me is shitty roommate etiquette. Trust me, I’ve shared rooms with enough of my clan to write a freaking book about it. If you’re considerate, I don’t care about anything else.”
The beginnings of a smile tug at his lips. He sticks out his hand.
“Thank God for all those etiquette lessons my mother forced on me, then. You can call me Krem.”
They shake hands. It’s the start of a beautiful friendship.
Freshman Orientation is that afternoon. Krem and Ellana join the flock of anxious freshmen that crowd the auditorium where they will hopefully graduate in four years. The Dean gives a forgettable welcoming speech that Ellana pays no attention to, and then they are sorted by major and last names and introduced to their advisors.
She waits in a line in the hallway as Dr. Pavus signs each of his freshmen up for their first semester’s classes. In her hand she clutches the list of classes and their course codes, having already planned her first two semesters in the library the day she moved in.
(Unfortunately, Dr. Felassan isn’t on campus this semester, but Ellana has at least the next four years to take a class with him.)
“Good afternoon, Ms. Lavellan,” he greets her, swiveling way from his computer to face her. “I’m Dr. Dorian Pavus. Have you decided on a major?”
His youth takes her by surprise, as well as his handsome face. He looks barely thirty, his black hair and thin mustache immaculate, his dark bronze skin warm and clear. Ellana fishes the list out of her pocket and hands it to him.
“Not exactly,” she says, “but I have charted out my first two semesters. Here’s what I’ve planned. I’ll get all my prerequisites out of the way first semester.”
Dr. Pavus scans her list, his eyebrows climbing higher as he reads.
“I admire your ambition, but you can’t have twenty-one hours in your first semester, darling; you’ll have a heart attack before spring break. You’ll need to learn how to walk before you can run. What’s your major?”
He looks up expectantly at her.
“I . . . don’t have one yet,” she says, fighting a hot wave of embarrassment. Humans assume the worst about her ignorance all the time; she doesn’t need to help their cause by looking like an idiotic freshman unprepared for college.
But Dr. Pavus just shrugs. “That’s alright, most freshmen aren’t sure of what they’re doing with their life. Most professors, too, really, though keep that hush hush. I don’t want you to blow our cover of being functional, capable adults.”
A smile twitches on her face.
“The best advice for undecided majors is to treat the first couple of semesters like a buffet,” Dorian continues. “Try a little bit of everything that interests you. Balance it out with two or three of the core prerequisites. That way you’re prepared for anything. What’s your favorite subject?”
He turns to the computer and types for a minute in fluid key strokes. “There. I’ve signed you up for Composition 101, Intro to College Algebra, and Intro to Post-Andrastian History. That gives you your Math, English, and History prereqs, which you’ll need for most every major.”
In spiky cursive, he jots down the time and room numbers for her on a sticky note, along with a seven-digit code.
“This is the code you need to sign up for classes. Add whatever entry level class you’re interested in, but I highly advise you don’t add more than two. I’ve seen plenty of freshmen drop out under the weight of their own course load, and it would be a shame to see someone with such potential burn herself out.”
“Thank you,” she says, taking the post-it note and tucking it in her pocket. “What do you teach?”
Dorian laughs. “I teach theoretical mathematics, and my classes routinely make grown men cry. Come find me in four or five years. I could use someone with your enthusiasm.”
The cost of textbooks almost gives Ellana a heart attack.
“Look at this,” she hisses to Krem, waving her thick hardback algebra textbook at him. “This thing costs what I used to make in a paycheck. How the hell do these people get away with this?”
Krem’s face blanches at the sight of the 500-sovereign price tag. “This is for only one book?”
As her stack of books grows, so does Ellana’s apprehension. Were books included in the contract? Would Fen’Harel think it funny to pay for everything except the textbooks she needed just to see how long she would last before she failed?
The tally rings up to well over a thousand sovereigns (just for her first semester), and Ellana swallows hard as she gives her student account number to the cashier.
It takes one long, terrifying moment for the transaction to go through, and then the cashier hands over a receipt for her to sign.
Afterward, Ellana and Krem pass the campus coffee shop and look at the menu longingly.
“Should we even bother after this?” Krem asks. “We’re both broke.”
Ellana thinks about the debit card sitting in her wallet for “personal expenditures”.
“I think we need it,” she says. “This one’s on me.”
It’s like, three in the morning but I just woke up from a nightmare and I can’t get back to sleep, and Alistair is probably still cleaning up the bar, so instead I’m huddled in the bathroom so that the light from my phone doesn’t wake up Krem.
It’s a stupid dream. I wake up and go to class and suddenly I can’t read. Everything’s in gibberish. And I can’t write. Every time I try to take down notes, my pen just draws stupid doodles, or I spell the word wrong and erase it over and over again, while the professor just zips past all this important information and then I start freaking out that I’m missing everything and I can’t even write my name at the top of the paper!
Creators, just thinking about it is giving me a panic attack.
It’s not like this dream will ever come true. I mean, Common is my first language and I started picking up Elvhen after my parents died.
But after two years in Orlais, I know what people think of Dalish elves; that we’re all stupid, backwoods savages who stab any trespasser on sight and can’t read. And I can’t handle the thought of proving any of that right. Even though I didn’t come out of the Dales to serve as any kind of example, I still feel pressured to be perfect. I know that I will probably be the only Dalish elf any human here will ever see in their lives, and I feel this stupid urge to impress them so they think well of my people.
Living up to that example in regular, everyday working life is one thing. But college is a whole different story. There are tons of humans just waiting for me to screw up so they can feel justified in thinking that I’m stupid and I don’t belong here. And I’m terrified that my scraped-together education in the Dales has done nothing to prepare me for a college level course and I’m going to fail no matter what.
I don’t know why I’m telling you any of this. It helps a little bit, getting it all out. But I think I’m trying to warn you. I know you have high hopes for me. I know that you expect me to do something great with the opportunity you’ve given me. And I’m going to give it everything that’s in me.
Just . . . just don’t hate me if I’m not perfect. Just let me keep trying.
P.S. The price of textbooks is total bullshit. The university store is ripping you off, just saying. You might want to have your sad lawyer look into that.
Ellana manages to squeeze in a few hours of sleep before her alarm goes off at 7:30. In the shower, she remembers the panic-stricken email she sent to Fen’Harel and cringes at how utterly whiny and pathetic she must have sounded. She hasn’t survived two years broke in Orlais by tolerating any kind of weakness.
But there’s nothing she can do about it, so she resolutely stuffs her embarrassment in the back of her mind and focuses instead on preparing for class. She has Intro to Algebra and Composition 101 today.
Algebra is first, at 9:30 in Aeducan Hall. The classroom is huge, styled like an amphitheater, with long tables instead of desks. Ellana sits in the first row by 9:15, pulling out paper for notes and organizing her pens and sharpening her pencils. She knows she must look so painfully eager, but math is her weakest subject and she doesn’t want to fail her first semester.
(The dream lingers in the back of her mind.)
“Oh, you are adorable,” says a familiar voice, matched with long footsteps.
Ellana looks up to see a tall, dark-skinned man placing a very large iced coffee on the podium. Peacock green silk shirt and slacks, perfectly waxed mustache, white teeth bared against dark skin.
It’s her advisor from freshman orientation.
“Good morning, Dr. Pavus,” she says. She looks down at her schedule to double-check if she’s in the right class. Sitting in on a theoretical math class would probably feel like last night’s dream in real life. “Is this . . . Intro to College Algebra? Or am I in the wrong room? I think a Professor Kondrat is supposed to teach this?”
“Yes, yes,” says Dr. Pavus. “Oghren couldn’t make it. I’m filling in. Look at you, you’ve got three different highlighters! And Maker, how the hell are you so perky this early in the morning?”
Back home she would have woken before the sunrise to help feed the chickens, and the habit has never left her, even when she tried desperately to squeeze in a few hours of sleep between shifts.
Pavus turns around and tests markers on the board before writing his name with a beautiful flourish.
“Oh no, don’t tell me you’re a morning person. And here I thought we were going to get along.” But there is a smile in his tone even if she can’t see his face.
“Don’t tell me you’re one of those people who wastes a perfectly good morning lazing around.” Ellana isn’t sure if she should be teasing her professor this early or even at all, but Pavus seems to be someone who likes a push-and-pull so she takes the risk.
“Lazing!” He spins around, mouth open, but his eyes shine. “It takes time to look this good, I’ll have you know. Lots of work and effort.”
Before she can open her mouth and something undoubtedly flirtatious and foolish comes out (it doesn’t look like it takes you any effort at all), Krem walks into class with two coffees from the student union.
“You left really early,” he says. “You didn’t think you’d get lost, did you? We only toured this campus about three times.”
“I wanted to get a good seat,” she lies, taking the cup and smelling the cinnamon and vanilla wafting from the lid. It’s scary how well Krem can read her, despite only knowing her for a few days.
“Don’t bother, she clearly doesn’t need it,” says Dr. Pavus. “She’s not like us lesser humans.”
Ellana grins. Krem slides into the seat beside her and pulls out his own notebook and freshly sharpened pencils because the both of them are studious nerds.
“Oh, that is precious,” sighs Dr. Pavus. “I haven’t taught freshmen in so long, I’ve quite forgotten how eager they are. I can’t decide if I dread or long for the moment you roll into class with a minute to spare still clad in your pajamas and taking notes on your hand with a borrowed pen.”
Soon the other students start filing in. They don’t get a moment for introduction, however, before Professor Pavus begins.
“Good morning, my eager freshmen! Heads off your desks, everyone. If I can’t sleep in, then neither can you. I’m Dr. Dorian Pavus. I teach experimental physics to graduate students, but Professor Kondrat had to check into rehab at the last minute and I pulled the short straw. If I go too fast for you children, just raise a hand and I’ll try to dumb myself down as much as possible. Clear off your desks, it’s pop quiz time! I need to see just how much your high school education failed you.”
Her insides seize up, but judging by the looks on everyone else’s faces, hers aren't the only ones.
“Good morning, my fresh-faced daisies!”
The composition professor is a dwarf with a nose that looks like he has broken it more than once, and thick copper hair in a ponytail that could rival the stoner in the back row. He sits on top of the desk, the only way he could be eye level with everyone else, and gives them all a sunny grin. Unlike Ellana’s giant amphitheater classroom in Math, Varric’s class takes place in a small, tucked away room in the library with plenty of windows, with space enough for only thirty desks.
“I’m Varric. Professor Varric to anyone who’s still carrying the memory of their mother’s handprint if they spoke too rudely to an elder. But for the love of the Maker, no one call me Professor Tethras unless you want me to deliberately fail you.”
Ellana’s lips twitch.
“Most of you probably don’t know how to piece together a sentence without screwing it up, but that’s okay. That’s what the grammar textbook I made you buy is for. I don’t teach grammar.”
“What do you teach, then?” says one obnoxious student in the back.
“After class I might teach you how to dance with my crossbow,” Varric retorts. “But mostly I teach storytelling. Everyone needs storytelling. Stories entertain, get you laid, get you out of speeding tickets, and in this class, will get you an A.”
He claps his hands. “All right. Since everyone here is a stranger to each other, you’re the perfect audience for stories. Find a partner and tell them three weird things about yourself. Then pick your favorite and your partner must write it as a story. You’ve got thirty seconds to find someone. Go!”
Ellana whips her head around, hoping to the Creators that she won’t get stuck with the smartass in the back. The woman sitting next to her has the same panicked, lost expression.
“Partners?” she asks, in a heavy accent.
“Partners,” Ellana agrees.
The relief in the woman’s face is almost comical. Ellana scoots her desk closer to the woman and brings out a sheet of paper.
“I’m Ellana,” she says, holding out her hand.
“Cassandra.” The woman shakes her hand with a stone grip that could easily break fingers.
“So, three things,” Ellana muses. “Who would like to go first.”
“I would,” says Cassandra. “I . . . am not very social. I would like to get this over with.”
“Okay. Fire away.”
Cassandra takes a moment to think. Ellana uses this time to give the woman a studying glance. She’s older than the freshmen by a lot, perhaps in her mid-to-late thirties. A deep scar mars the left side of her cheek and her black hair is cut close to her head. She’s tall and muscular and dressed in modest jeans and a thin sweater.
She looks like she could play for the Chargers if she really wanted to.
Even so, there is a striking beauty to her that is hard to look away from.
“I was born in a car between two cities in Nevarra,” Cassandra starts. “I have seven middle names. I was married once when I was very young, but it didn’t last.”
Ellana copies this down dutifully on her sheet of paper, unsure if Varric is the type of teacher to pull surprise quizzes or not.
“Seven? That’s a lot.”
Cassandra’s mouth is a grim line. “Yes. One for each godmother. It’s quite exhausting. And you?”
Ellana thinks for a moment. Everything about her childhood is generally weird to humans, especially city humans whose only exposure to nature is the park down the street. So on one hand, this assignment is laughably easy. On the other hand, what she chooses to share depends on how many questions she feels like fielding afterward.
“When I was a kid, I helped out at the halla stable. I named all the halla and talked to them like people because I thought one of them might be the elven goddess Ghilan’nain,” she starts and Cassandra’s eyes climb up at the mention of Ghilan’nain, so she dials back the religion aspect. “I almost set fire to someone’s barn making fireworks out of shotgun shells. And I got lost in a corn maze for almost three hours once and my neighbor had to find me by riding on his elk.”
She almost spilled the secret about her scholarship, but decided not to at the last second. Being Dalish makes her enough of a freak as it is without adding her mysterious benefactor to it.
“You’ve had a very . . . lively childhood,” Cassandra says with a pointed brow. “I take it you’re not a city elf?”
“She’s Dalish,” comes Varric’s voice as he walks up the row of desks beside them. “That much is obvious from the vallaslin on her forehead.”
Maybe it’s two decades of unfair stereotypes, but Ellana is surprised that a dwarf knows anything about her culture, even if he lives on the surface.
Cassandra’s eyes go a little wide. “Oh! Forgive me, I had not realized. I’ve never . . . had the honor of meeting a Dalish before.”
“Not many people have,” says Varric, eyeing her. For a moment Ellana fears that he’s going to do that thing where non-Dalish treat her like an exotic spice, like she’s going to excite their lives just by existing. It happened all the time in the clothing store she worked at. Customers would make a beeline to her for clothing advice, just for the experience of talking to her.
Instead, Varric leans up against Cassandra’s desk like he owns it, and she not-so-subtly draws her arm away from the elbow he’s propped up. “So, did you name those halla you talked to, and which one was your favorite?”
“ . . . Sarel. He was skittish. It took a long time to get him to trust me.”
“Is that why you have Ghilan’nain’s vallaslin on your forehead?”
Ellana stares at him, stunned. “That’s part of the reason. How do you know about Dalish vallaslin?”
“I’m a writer,” says Varric. “I make it my job to know lots of things about lots of different kinds of people.”
They spend the rest of class sketching out the written story of their fact. Ellana retells how she found Sarel caught in a bear trap and the ensuing months of carefully coaxing out his trust until he developed the annoying habit of breaking out of his stall just to show up in her backyard.
Cassandra lists all the godmothers who bear her namesake and how they have shaped her personality and history.
After class, Varric escorts her down the hallway.
“So, you’re holding out on us,” he says rather casually.
Ellana looks down at him. “Excuse me?”
“With the stories. A Dalish elf at Skyhold University? There’s definitely a story there, and the fact that you wouldn’t share it earlier just means it’s more interesting to me.”
Ellana can’t help but smile. An insatiable curiosity compels him to ask, rather than the snobbish surprise that a Dalish could even get into college.
“There is, and it’s certainly weird,” she says. “But I’m not ready to share it just yet.”
Varric holds up a hand. “Say no more. Certain stories require a level of trust. I’m willing to wait.”
Subject: I made it!
My first week was excellent. I risk jinxing myself, but I’ll say that classes are easy. Except for Math, but that’s because Dr. Pavus hasn’t taught freshmen in years and he’ll spiral into advanced math before dumbing himself down once he sees our blank looks. But I’m not the only one who struggles, so it doesn’t bother me.
Art History is fascinating, but Dr. Sten looks like he would kill you in your sleep if you ever showed up late. He’s the first Qunari I’ve ever met without horns and for some reason that just makes him even scarier. He’s very passionate about preserving ancient art though. The first day in class he showed us a Pre-Chantry tevine statue with missing arms and said, like someone commenting on the weather, “Someone once tore the arms off this goddess. It’s unfortunate that I will never have the opportunity to remove his arms in kind.”
And then he just changed the slide like nothing had happened.
Varric, my composition professor, is having us write a story about the most interesting fact about us as chosen by our partners.
So here are three interesting things about me that I didn’t share with my partner:
- I’m a little allergic to halla but that didn’t stop me from working at my best friend’s halla farm. I just washed my hands a lot and sneezed constantly.
- I was the only person in town to complete the library’s Summer Reading Challenge every year since I was twelve. But, granted, most Dalish don’t have the time or desire to read very much, and our library was smaller than our diner, so I didn’t have much competition.
- I once snuck out of my house and walked for three hours just to see a movie at the drive-in theater. It was held at one in the morning because it had a ton of violence and nudity and the elders banned it, but one of my classmates snuck it in.
So there you have it. The mystery of Ellana unveils a little bit at a time.
Three weeks into school, a very large Qunari sits down at the table where Ellana and Krem are grabbing lunch. Krem has made one last dash for the bread bowls before the buffet runs out, leaving Ellana alone with the intruder. His horns cast long shadows on the table, and deep scars peek out from underneath an eyepatch. A literal eyepatch. Like a pirate. He makes the chair he sits on look like it belongs in a kindergarten classroom.
I have officially found someone scarier looking than Dr. Sten, Ellana thinks.
Her spoon hovers over her mac and cheese. “Um. Hello?”
“Coach!” Krem sets his tray down beside Ellana. “What are you doing here?”
The coach grins, his canine teeth sharp as a wolf’s. “I heard they were serving some crème brûlée so I came to investigate.”
He throws his head back and laughs while Krem rolls his eyes.
“Are these stupid puns ever going away?”
“Not ever,” says the coach. He turns to Ellana and sticks out a hand that could cover her entire face. “I’m The Iron Bull. I coach the hockey team.”
“Ellana Lavellan.” Her entire hand disappears in his grip when she shakes his, but he is careful not to crush her fingers. “The Iron Bull? That’s your real name?”
“Yeah.” He says matter-of-factly. “It’s cool.”
“It’s ridiculous, but he won’t tell anyone his real name. It’s not even listed in the faculty directory online,” says Krem.
“This is my real name,” says the Iron Bull, but he’s grinning. “Don’t be jealous because your parents named you after a fancy dessert.”
Krem’s eyes turn skyward, but a smile twitches in the corners of his lips.
“So, how are classes?” the coach asks. “Got any asshole professors? You doing your homework?”
Ellana’s eyes slide to Krem, their dorm situation like the pink druffalo in the room.
“Yes, Dad,” says Krem. “I do all my homework, I take notes in class, I study in the library. I’m not an idiot, you know.”
Ellana bites her lip and looks back down at her mac and cheese. It’s none of her business if Krem doesn’t want to say anything.
“I don’t give scholarships to idiots,” says Iron Bull almost dismissively, as if the notion of Krem’s stupidity could never cross his mind. “Just seeing if you’re having a good time, if you’re making friends.” He nods to Ellana.
“I don’t have friends,” says Krem, “I’m bribing her to sit with me.”
“With gummy bears,” Ellana adds, deadpan.
The Iron Bull chuckles. “Okay, okay. I’ll leave you be. Just make sure you’re not late to practice, Cream Puff.”
He pats the table before leaving.
“So he’s . . . nice,” Ellana says, fishing around for something to fill the silence.
“He scouted me back in high school,” says Krem. “He arranged for my scholarship so I could be here.”
The situation sounds eerily familiar.
“You didn’t tell him,” she says. “I think that’s something he’d probably want to know.”
“He would go ballistic,” Krem confirms. “But . . . he’s gone through enough for me. I don’t want him to put his job at risk because of something stupid like my dorm room.”
“It’s not stupid. It’s outright discrimination! And what do you mean, he’s gone through enough?”
He looks away. “That eyepatch? He got it defending me. I was the only so-called “girl” on the team, and I’m good. The opposing team didn’t like that I beat them, so they ambushed me in the parking lot after everyone left.” A grin peeks out in the corners of his mouth. “But Iron Bull was there, waiting to talk to me about college, and he saw what they were up to and . . . well, you’ve seen him. He took on four of them at once. But someone elbowed him in the eye and he ended up losing it.”
“Holy shit,” Ellana says, because how else can you react to a story like that?
“He was chatting me up about playing for Skyhold while we were sitting in the emergency room. He didn’t care about who or what I was, he just admired my ability. When I told him that there was no way I could afford to go to college, especially to Skyhold, he got me a full ride. I owe him a lot as it is.”
“I get it. I’m sort of in the same position.” She blurts it out without meaning to.
Krem’s face looks so hopeful at the prospect of someone who understands that Ellana can’t really back down, even though this will make her even more bizarre.
“My scholarship is not really a scholarship so much as like a mysterious benefactor feeling sorry for me and paying for all of my shit?”
For a long, silent moment Krem just stares at her with his head cocked to the side. “ . . . What?”
So, Ellana explains it the best she can. Hell, she doesn’t even understand it herself.
“You don’t know this person?”
“Nope. I’ve never seen him before. Or maybe I have, but he was just some random person in the library and I didn’t pay attention.”
“And you’ve never talked to him or interacted with him?”
“Not that I know of.”
“And he just saw you reading in the library and decided to pay your way through college because . . . he felt bad for you?”
Ellana shrugs. “I swear to the Creators, Krem, I’m not making this up.”
“It sounds sketchy as hell.”
“Oh, yeah. I know. And I’m still kind of waiting for it all to blow up in my face, but for now it’s working out. I just know what if feels like owing someone and not wanting to make it any worse.”
“And if he turns out to be part of the Carta and expects you to repay your debts, what then?”
“Well . . . I better live it up these next four years, huh.”
Krem laughs and lifts up his soft drink. “To the next four years, then.”
“To the next four years.”
Or semester. Or week. Who the hell knows if or when Fen’Harel might pull the plug on this whole ordeal. However, if Ellana didn’t like living outside her comfort zone, she would have never left the Dales.