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Sofia di Castelbuono

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#1
[[16th Haring, 9:35; morning]] Cauthrien

The audience with the king hadn’t gone horribly wrong, and Sophia had quite enjoyed all the diplomatic pleasantries. It brought back memories of the etiquette lessons of her childhood – although her enthusiasm for official events had largely lain with how much she could get away with eating before anybody noticed. Dwarven ale might be a sin against the name of alcohol, but they knew how to cook meat until it was so tender it almost fell off her knife, and she had enjoyed discovering that yesterday.

Frankly she had indulged so much that even her Warden appetite had struggled to keep up. It had made a nice change from the roasts made over campfires in the days preceding, and Sofia wasn’t the sort of person to say no to a pleasure once it was offered. She had gone to bed with a full stomach and happy heart, although something (likely the proximity of the darkspawn in the Deep Roads below) prevented her from a proper rest.

Consequently she had woken early, and decided to wake herself up properly by going for a wander. She and Mysaria had visited the Shaperate the day before, but one afternoon had not been enough to have a decent look around, and she wanted to go a little more slowly through the Diamond Market this time. Yesterday they had gone through in a formal procession that hadn’t left much time for having a proper stare.

Most markets on the surface were roughly the same in what they offered, although the quality varied drastically. Sofia would always favour the markets of home the most, with the bright silks and the sweet, soft fruits that gleamed gold-pink in the sun and made a mess of whoever ate them. But she had enjoyed the tumult of the Denerim markets too. The Diamond market had something of both; the stallowners were more boisterous in vying for her attention than she was used to, but she allowed herself to be drawn into the clamour for a while, eventually emerging with a few examples of dwarven cloth draped over one shoulder and a pauldron that was assuredly more about style than practicality. At least it might be useful if somebody tried to shoot her specifically in the upper arm.

Smiling a little ruefully over her impulsive spending, she turned her steps towards the Shaperate, and noticed that she wasn’t the only Warden out and about yet. Cauthrien was making her way through the throng, upright and dignified, and apparently on the same heading as Sofia. Sofia wriggled her way through the crowd and caught to her. “Good morning, Cauthrien! Are you going to the Shaperate? I’m just heading there myself.”
 

Cauthrien

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#2
Ghosts from her past were far from new, though it had been a few months since the last time that Cauthrien had encountered one. Her prior interaction with Shale had been limited to a single encounter, and no words had even passed between them. But it had been during what remained the worst moment of her life: the confrontation outside the Landsmeet, and the massive stone and crystal construct looming behind Aedan Cousland and his other companions had been impossible to miss.

The golem had not been overtly hostile during their meeting before King Bhelen, but the lack of any visual cues from facial expressions or body language had been unsettling, and combined with the memories stirred to life had been enough to have her at the Proving Grounds much of the afternoon, drilling in solitude. She had declined offers from those wanting to spar; Niamh, Siali and the others had acquitted themselves admirably on that front, and she had nothing to prove and no wish to take it easy on an opponent. She had reduced three training dummies to piles of splinters and scraps of leather before she had judged herself sufficiently wearied to sleep.

She seldom remembered her dreams; those triggered by the proximity of darkspawn were the exception, but when she had awoken from restless slumber, all that she could recall was a sense of urgency and malaise, shrouded in shadow and stone. After the fourth time, she had given up and risen, downed a hearty breakfast and set out for the Shaperate.

The merchants in the Diamond District were nothing if not persistent, however, and she found herself sidetracked by the armor and weapons vendors. Wade remained one of the best smiths in Thedas, but dwarven smiths were also renowned, and Cauthrien purchased two more maces to tuck away, suspecting that it might not be easy to find her backup weapon if she dropped it in a dark tunnel or cavern. Then the healers’ stalls, and while the Wardens had come prepared to care for their own, the additions to their number made it prudent to add some more poultices and potions. Shale would need no healing, but Dirthon showed every sign of being an utter disaster on an expedition of this type. Unfortunately, it had been quite clear that leaving the hapless dwarf behind was not an option, though she had gotten the decided impression that Bhelen didn’t really care if he made it back. That mystery she intended to unravel before they left tomorrow, and with her purchases secured in a light pack, she had resumed her progress toward the Shaperate, ignoring the merchants’ importuning calls and trying her best not to be bowled over by a tide of determined shoppers with much lower centers of gravity.

“Good morning, Cauthrien!” She turned to find Sofia working her way through the crowd, evidently having completed her own shopping. “Are you going to the Shaperate? I’m just heading there myself.”

“I am. I see you got the necessities.” Said with a bit of a smile, hoping that the other woman understood that she was joking. After shoving her boot into her mouth to the knee while they’d been on the road, she was taking pains not to cause further offense needlessly. Growing up around Anora and spending time with Breanna had left her accustomed to the lure that pretty fabric had for some women, and the awareness that her own preference for steel and silverite over satin and silk put her very much in the minority. They were well stocked for their excursion already, so there was no harm in indulging personal tastes, but -

“What is … that?” she asked, nodding at the ornament that the mage wore on her upper arm; fabricated from shiny metal and bright feathers, it looked as though one of the tailors for noblewomen had decided to take a stab at making armor after hearing it described and finding it entirely too drab.
 
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Sofia di Castelbuono

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#3
Cauthrien was heading to the Shaperate, and she cast an amused eye over Sofia’s purchases. “I see you got the necessities.”

Unlike her comment about Sofia’s cosmetics, there was no barb in her words, and Sofia accepted the wry observation with a chuckle. “I am something of a magpie. And merchants always seem to note my interest in shiny things, to the chagrin of my purse.” Not that she ever lacked for money - the Wardens paid a stipend, and she augmented it with the occasional piece of magical healing or surgery as needed. She’d never charge somebody who was desperate and destitute, but a rich man who needed help hiding his case of the clap was usually only too happy to pay handsomely for both the cure and discretion.

“What is...that?” Cauthrien nodded towards the new piece of ornamentation. It had been a folly, and while it might provide some protection in battle, any attempt at stealth would be out of the question if the decorative parts caught the light.

“Something never to be used in battle,” Sofia promised. Unless she was caught short, which was always possible. “I don’t believe it is actually intended to serve as real armour. It is rather like those massively overdone weapons some people with more money than sense have hanging on their walls.” She’d lowered her voice a little at this point, well aware that several of the people perusing the stalls in this area and not very subtly eyeing the pair of them might be exactly the type she was describing. “But I thought it might look impressive on diplomatic occasions.”

She wasn’t going to play down the fact that she liked it, or that’d just make it seem even more like she’d squandered the money. “You never know what might please people.” She grinned. “And it pleases me.”

Sofia adjusted the fabrics on her shoulder. “Did you need to get anything first?”
 

Cauthrien

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#4
Sofia accepted Cauthrien’s jest with an easy laugh. “I am something of a magpie,” she admitted with no trace of self consciousness. “And merchants always seem to note my interest in shiny things, to the chagrin of my purse.”

“They’re good at that,” Cauthrien agreed. The weapons and armor merchants in Denerim never tired of trying to entice her, but most of her purchases were made for the order. She’d spent too many years traveling light to begin accumulating frivolous possessions now. Books, perhaps, but the library at the compound was well stocked. Certainly nothing like the gaudy creation that the mage was sporting. Perhaps it was enchanted?

“Something never to be used in battle,” Sofia assured her, which would seem to indicate no enchantment. “I don’t believe it is actually intended to serve as real armour. It is rather like those massively overdone weapons some people with more money than sense have hanging on their walls.” Cauthrien arched an eyebrow at that, but the Summer Sword, while undeniably large, was not an ostentatious weapon … at least, not to her own way of thinking. Certainly not in comparison to some of the axes and swords she’d seen more than a few of the dwarven warriors sporting, which made the sudden drop in Sofia’s tone only prudent. “But I thought it might look impressive on diplomatic occasions.”

“It’s … shiny,” Cauthrien conceded, then offered a wry smile. “Not quite my style, but it suits you.”

“You never know what might please people,” the Antivan informed her with a smile. “And it pleases me.”

Which was all that really mattered, was it not? She certainly didn’t need her commanding officer’s permission for a personal purchase, and any further discussion risked inadvertently causing offense again, so Cauthrien simply nodded.

“Did you need to get anything first?” Sofia asked.

“I have what I need,” Cauthrien replied, patting the pack that she carried, then hesitated as her eyes fell upon a stall that was offering what looked like yarn. She approached and picked up a skein, fingering it curiously. “What’s it made of?” she asked the vendor. Not wool or silk; the texture was wrong.

“Lichen fibers,” the dwarven woman told her, eying her curiously. “Warm, and it sheds water. Here.” She held out a knitted glove and Cauthrien studied it: surprisingly soft, but strong, and the muted blues, greens and reds were not like anything she’d seen before.

“How hard is it to dye?” she wanted to know.

“It’s tricky,” the merchant admitted, adding with pride, “but my great-grandmother developed the technique that lets it take up the color better.”

Cauthrien nodded, selected three skeins in differing hues of blue and paid the woman. “I knit,” she explained to Sofia as she tucked her purchase into her pack, then shrugged. “Not well, mind you, but if you’re ever in the market for an ugly hat, I can set you up.” Roland and Tessa had accepted theirs with good grace; Roland had even worn his in public.

“Your thoughts on the audience yesterday?” she asked as they resumed their progress toward the Shaperate.
 

Sofia di Castelbuono

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#5
Sofia took it at face value that Cauthrien wouldn’t be impressed with the frivolity of her purchase, but to her surprise the other woman accepted her reasoning and conceded that it suited her. Sofia beamed in response, then decided it would probably be best to be about her actual business. Manners being important, however, she asked Cauthrien if she needed anything before she went striding off into the distance.

She had what she needed, but clearly not everything she wanted, as the Warden-Constable halted by a stall and, at the merchant’s invitation, fingered some of the fabric. Lichen thread. Sofia wondered at how that had come to be, whether it had been the work of a lone genius or a long period of refinement over generations. As with most things, it was probably a combination of both. Good ideas rarely came out of the clear blue sky; there was always something that birthed them.

It was good fabric regardless, capable of shedding water but also of taking on dye. Cauthrien selected a few. “I knit,” she offered as explanation. “Not well, mind you, but if you’re ever in the market for an ugly hat, I can set you up.”

Sofia chuckled. She was never in the market for an ugly anything, but she appreciated the offer. “Given Ferelden’s weather, I may well take you up on that at some point.”

They moved away from the stalls, and Cauthrien’s mind turned to other matters. “Your thoughts on the audience yesterday?”

“Intrigued.” Sofia loosened the collar of her dress slightly; the further they went in, the warmer it got, and while it was welcome after the journey, the clothing she had bought for purpose was now a little on the heavy side. “I have heard rumours about King Bhelen, and his rise to power; yesterday’s meeting was not proof as to his ascension, but it did show he plays his games carefully. There was no reason not to tell us that a venture into the Deep Roads would be necessary - in fact, it would have been smarter to, to ensure we came well prepared.”

A moot point, as the Wardens were always ready for a fight, but still.

“So I wonder why he did not. If he was unsure whether we would call it all off and leave his men to fetch the records.” That was likely it - Bhelen would probably prefer to keep more dwarves alive and not care too much if a Grey Warden or two died in their place. It was their purpose, after all. “And offering Shale as our companion was a practical choice, but you’d think he’d want to keep a guardian like that around at all times.” Sofia mused quietly as they ascended the steps. “I wonder if there’s something else there he might want us to pick up from the Memories. Although I could be overthinking it.”
 

Cauthrien

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#6
Cauthrien rather doubted that the fashion-conscious Antivan would ever wear a hat that looked like a misshapen mushroom (and was still a vast improvement over her earliest efforts), but Sofia’s laugh was not unkind.

“Given Ferelden’s weather, I may well take you up on that at some point.” She had not complained overly much, but she had quite plainly been unimpressed with the deep snow and bone-cutting winds during their trek. Cauthrien accepted this with a nod, then got back to the business at hand, asking the mage for her impressions on the previous day’s events.

“Intrigued,” Sofia replied, tugging the laces at the neckline of her dress. It was definitely warm in the vaulted cavern, and Cauthrien had realized that there was a practical purpose behind the high ceilings. Without a place for the hottest air to rise, temperatures at ground level would be truly stifling. “I have heard rumours about King Bhelen, and his rise to power; yesterday’s meeting was not proof as to his ascension, but it did show he plays his games carefully. There was no reason not to tell us that a venture into the Deep Roads would be necessary - in fact, it would have been smarter to, to ensure we came well prepared.”

She kept her voice discreetly low as they walked. Cauthrien stayed close, listening attentively even as her shifting gaze took in their surroundings. The statues that were on display outside of many of the noble houses they passed had caught her eye the previous day, simply because they had borne no resemblance to the stylized dwarven shapes that adorned the rest of the city. They had seemed familiar, and after the encounter with Shale, she was sure: they were golems, albeit quiescent ones, standing motionless and dark.

“So I wonder why he did not,” Sofia went on. “If he was unsure whether we would call it all off and leave his men to fetch the records.”

“Don’t think I didn’t consider it,” Cauthrien snorted, “but he’s likely right about how thinly their lines are stretched, and distracting the darkspawn to give us an opening has its own dangers.”

“And offering Shale as our companion was a practical choice,” the mage observed thoughtfully, “but you’d think he’d want to keep a guardian like that around at all times.”

“I got the feeling that he doesn’t have a great deal of control over what Shale does,” Cauthrien suggested wryly. “The Shaper, on the other hand …” She trailed off, shook her head. “Keeping that one alive down there is going to be a trick,” she predicted. “Wouldn’t surprise me if he’s hoping that one or both of them doesn’t come back.” The golem’s lack of subservience would undoubtedly grate on Bhelen, but why would he be so interested in getting rid of Dirthon in such a roundabout way? From the rumors she’d heard the previous day, he had no reservations about disposing of those who displeased him, and a number of ways to do it in such a way that made it quite clear that his wishes were bing carried out, even while no direct evidence could be linked to him.

“I wonder if there’s something else there he might want us to pick up from the Memories. Although I could be overthinking it.”

“No,” Cauthrien disagreed as they climbed the steps to the Shaperate. “I’m wondering the same thing.” Accurate maps of the abandoned areas of the Deep Roads would be valuable, but the manipulations that seemed to be going on suggested another, hidden motive.

Inside, robed Shapers offered them respectful nods as they moved among the lyrium-inscribed Memories that were reputed to contain records of dwarven history dating back to the founding of the first thaig. “What were you wanting to research?” Cauthrien asked Sofia as her eyes fell upon something that had not been there the day before: Shale, standing against one wall, as motionless as the golems elsewhere in the Diamond Quarter, though a faint light rippled through the crystals embedded in the golem’s body. The Shapers ignored the golem, walking past it without a second glance, as though it were a part of the decor. Odd; she would have expected more curiosity, though perhaps it had been present long enough that all their questions had been answered.
 

Sofia di Castelbuono

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#7
Sofia smiled as Cauthrien snorted. That they would take on the darkspawn as requested had never been in dispute - but it was nice to know that their current leader would consider saying no if the request had been ludicrous. Of course, to some people descending into a thaig overrun with darkspawn accompanied by a scholar and a golem to get some stone rubbings from possibly long since degraded carvings would sound ludicrous, but they were Wardens. And therefore, well versed in dealing with the ridiculous.

Speaking of golems, Sofia had been surprised by the offer of Shale, although she wasn’t arguing how useful she would be in the Deeps. The fact that swords and arrows would likely have little effect beyond chip marks was a plus. Cauthrien pointed out that it might not have been as generous as it seemed. “Wouldn’t surprise me if he’s hoping that one or the other of them doesn’t come back.”

That was a grim take, but not beyond possibility. Sofia also pointed out that in terms of ulterior motives, Bhelen might be hoping that the Memories they were to record would contain something of use to him as well. Failing that, they’d be clearing out a section of the Deep Roads for him, which could only benefit his standing.

Cauthrien agreed, then the conversation ceased as they walked into the Shaperate and Sofia drew in a breath. Along the walls was line after line of writing, inscribed in lyrium, and shelves stacked high with stone tablets. Sofia enjoyed libraries, and even though the books here might be more solid than those she was used to, she smiled with the prospect of all the knowledge that they offered. She headed for the nearest shelf, fingers hovering, when Cauthrien interrupted her thoughts. “What were you wanting to research?”

Yes, she had come here for a purpose. “I wanted to look up anything that is known about the thaig to which we’re going. Just because it was lost doesn’t mean all records of it were. What are you looking for?”
 

Cauthrien

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#8
All of the mages in the group had gravitated toward the Shaperate the previous day, so Cauthrien hadn’t been surprised to find that was Sofia’s destination today. “I wanted to look up anything that is known about the thaig to which we’re going,” the Antivan explained when she asked. “Just because it was lost doesn’t mean all records of it were. What are you looking for?”

“Much the same,” the Warden-Constable replied. Yesterday, her curiosity had been of the more generalized sort, and she’d dug into the records on darkspawn. Unsurprisingly, the dwarves did not hold to the Chantry’s opinion on the origins of darkspawn, but she had been surprised to discover that there was no corresponding dwarven tradition, beyond some speculation on the existence of a First Mother deep in the bowels of the earth - a prospect that made her quite glad that she seldom remembered her dreams.

Today, with a destination laid out for them, it seemed prudent to seek out whatever information could be found on Cadash Thaig and the Deep Roads that lay between it and Orzammar. With the golem here and apparently originating from that thaig, there was potentially a chance to gain firsthand information.

“Good morning, Shale,” she greeted the golem politely as she approached. “I was wondering if you would mind answering some questions?”

The golem remained motionless and silent, not even a change in the slow rippling of light through the crystals to indicate awareness, much less a response. Did golems sleep? Or hibernate? Or whatever living stone did?

She cleared her throat, tried again, a bit louder but still polite, as was only prudent when addressing something eight feet tall that could crush you like a bug with a single blow. “Good morning, Shale.”

“It won’t talk.” Dirthon, the nebbish and harried Shaper who had apparently been designated the golem’s keeper, informed her as he approached.

She looked to him, then back to Shale in puzzlement. “It spoke yesterday.”

A resigned shrug. “It speaks when it pleases,” Dirthon said, sounding peevish and aggrieved. “It goes where it chooses.” He seemed ready to say more, but cast a cautious glance upward to Shale’s face, the stone carved into a rough approximation of features, and closed his mouth, lips pressed tightly together. That squared largely with the written accounts that Aedan Cousland had left of his exploits during the Blight; when not extolling the advantages that the golem had provided in combat, his words had frequently borne a distinct edge of exasperation at Shale's intransigence.
 

Sofia di Castelbuono

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#9
Sofia was excited at the prospect of going to the Memories. She had wondered before how adherents of other religions explained the existence of darkspawn, but there had not been many texts on the matter at the Circle library, and even outside that she had been hard pressed to find answers. Either information was being suppressed or simply she had had no luck. Sofia, for all the love she bore the Maker and his bride, would not deny that it might have been the former. The Chantry was a powerful organisation and those tended to react poorly to contrary opinions.

She was particularly intrigued what the dwarves might make of them, given they had no god on which to blame them, and she hoped to stumble on some mentions of it while she researched, but her primary aim was learning more about the thaig they would be exploring. It was unlikely to be an easy journey, given the darkspawn had been given plenty of time to have the run of the place. Whatever advantages they could buy in geographical knowledge was worth having.

But the best source of information on that would come from one who had known it, and in that, Bhelen’s decision to have the golem accompany them made a lot more sense. It said something about the draw of knowledge that she had barely noticed Shale when she first came in; now Cauthrien approached the golem who had been standing silent and still as – well, stone, only the flickering light from the crystals giving any indication she was more than a statue.

In fact, Sofia wondered if it was in fact a statue, given it didn’t respond to Cauthrien at all. Dirthon gave an explanation, of sorts. “It speaks when it pleases. It goes where it chooses.”

Not she but it. Sofia wondered if Bhelen had been cosying up to the golem, in his way, by using female pronouns, or if the dwarves around Shale were so used to her by now that they felt safe being a touch rude. She abandoned the inscriptions on the walls for a moment, and headed over to the golem, intrigued by the prospect of a challenge.

She simply looked, at first, silent, gaze intrigued as she examined dents and crevices that did not look to be part of the original design, clearly caused by weapons. How would you overwhelm such a creature? Surely all weapons would simply dull themselves against the stone eventually? One gouge was quite deep. Possibly an axe. How would healing work on Shale?

The head turned in her direction, very slightly. Sofia adjusted the angle of her gaze, following the crystals embedded along the golem’s shoulders, openly fascinated. There was magic trapped in those gems. The ability to create golems had been lost to the dwarves for years, so either this was something left over from that time or something Shale had allowed to happen recently. Which meant that maybe ancient dwarves had worked with magic?

There was a sound like several stones shifting and grinding against each other, coming from within the golem herself. It took Sofia a moment to recognise it as the equivalent of a grumble. “I have been informed by other fleshy ones that your kind considers it rude to stare.”

“I was admiring your gemstones, Lady Cadash.” Which was true; other than her fascination with the theory behind it, they were quite well cut. “They are rather lovely. And allow for some magical conduction, unless I miss my guess?”

Silence. Oh well. It had been worth a try, and she’d got a sentence out of her. She was about to turn away when Shale spoke again. “You are correct.” A pause. “They are pretty.”
 
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Cauthrien

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#10
Sofia had approached while Cauthrien was speaking to Dirthon and stood, staring up at the motionless golem in fascination.

The faintest grating of stone was audible as Shale’s head turned just a bit, light glimmering in the crystals that served as eyes and rippling across the gems embedded in the stone shoulders, and the mage studied the shimmering jewels with interest.

“I have been informed by other fleshy ones that your kind considers it rude to stare.” The words were accompanied by the sound of stones scraping together; was that how it spoke? Was its voicebox carved from stone, and if it was, how had it been done?

If Sofia was startled at the rebuke, she gave no sign. “I was admiring your gemstones, Lady Cadash,” she answered, as politely as if addressing a noble at court. “They are rather lovely. And allow for some magical conduction, unless I miss my guess?”

According to Aedan Cousland’s account of the Blight, the crystals had provided enhancements to the golem’s offensive and defensive capabilities, imbuing with fire, ice or lightning. Shale, however, made no response, either to confirm or contradict this, and after several moments of waiting, Sofia seemed ready to leave.

“You are correct,” Shale spoke up suddenly. “They are pretty.”

“They are,” Cauthrien agreed, which was true enough, though it seemed odd that a talking rock would be concerned about such a frivolous matter. Not that she intended to say as much aloud, mind you. Being so that foolish a few days earlier had gotten her a broken foot; an offended golem could likely break a great deal more. “Lady Cadash,” she began, deciding that Sofia’s choice of address might be the reason that Shale had favored her with a response, “we were wondering if you could provide us with any information about Cadash Thaig.”

The massive stone head shifted back until the glittering crystal eyes were pointed at her, but the golem said nothing. “I realize that you have not been there recently,” she clarified, wondering exactly how long it had been, “but if you remember anything -”

“You served the foolish king at Ostgar,” Shale interrupted her, “and you betrayed him.”

“I did,” she replied evenly. It was the truth, after all.

“Then you served the mad king,” the golem continued, its inflectionless tone making it impossible to decide if it was accusing or merely stating fact, “and you betrayed him at the Landsmeet.”

Cauthrien could feel Dirthon’s curious gaze, and a few of the other Shapers had paused to observe the exchange. “I did,” she said again. No excuses or justifications, because there were none that mattered.

“And now you serve the Wardens,” Shale concluded. The head cocked ever so slightly in an oddly human gesture. “Will you betray them, as well.”

“I will not.” Cauthrien lifted her chin, meeting the crystalline gaze squarely. “I am a traitor and regicide twice over.” She wondered if Sofia had known before now. “The Grey Wardens offered me the chance to atone for my crimes with a life of service to their order. I will not betray them.” That she would once have sworn the same of both Cailan and Loghain still haunted her, infusing every decision with self-doubt, but she was wiser now than she had been then, and she could only hope that would be enough.

“I hope so,” Shale replied. “It would be a shame - and quite messy - if I had to squash you.” Granite hands the size of hams shifted ever so slightly in emphasis, but before Cauthrien could respond, the golem went on. “I remember nothing of Cadash Thaig,” it stated. “I remember nothing of my life as a dwarf; I only remember the moment of my becoming.” A brief pause, and a decided edge to the resonant voice as it continued. “It was not pleasant.

“It is my hope that visiting the thaig where I lived as a dwarf will help me to remember,” Shale continued. “I asked the Warden to take us there, but he refused. The dwarven king has promised for many months now to mount an expedition, but always finds another excuse.” The onlooking Shapers abruptly remembered their original business and scampered away; sensitive topic, it seemed.

“King Bhelen has tried,” Dirthon broke in nervously, “but our forces are stretched too thinly to attempt to reach a thaig so deep in territory held by the darkspawn.”
 

Sofia di Castelbuono

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#11
Sofia beamed. That Shale had responded to her at all was a victory in itself, and she was delighted that it had been to agree with her on a decorative matter rather than a practical one. While most of the Wardens took some care of their appearance, neither did many of them spend much more than the bare minimum of time on it, so she enjoyed conversing with those who did have an aesthetic sense. Cauthrien did agree as well, but immediately segued into a more relevant matter. “Lady Cadash, we were wondering if you could provide us with any information about Cadash Thaig.”

Shale said nothing at first, then interrupted as Cauthrien attempted to continue. “You served the foolish king at Ostagar. And you betrayed him.”

Ouch. Sofia was surprised that the golem knew of such things, or even cared. Maybe she didn’t, and was simply making an observation. Cauthrien conceded that she had, without an attempt to explain why – or why she’d eventually turned on Loghain. Sofia had yet to question Cauthrien directly about that herself. Rumours abounded, and eventually she would ask. But not now. Shale was bluntly asking if Cauthrien would betray the Wardens as well.

“I will not. I am a traitor and regicide twice over. The Grey Wardens offered me the chance to atone for my crimes with a life of service to their order. I will not betray them.”

Cauthrien’s voice was steady. Sofia found herself wondering over the other woman. She’d been surprised when she’d first heard the stories; the other woman seemed so married to discipline it was hard to imagine her disobeying an order. And she wasn’t the type to do things for the sake of self-promotion. Which indicated that at the time, she must have had one Fade of a good reason. Even if it turned out to have gone sour.

Even if she had had inclinations of betrayal towards the Wardens, it would be silly for Cauthrien to act on them now, anyway. Shale’s threat aside, they were heading into an area filled with darkspawn, and Bhelen would certainly question it if she were the only one to emerge alive.

Either way, Shale remembered little of the thaig. The Hero of Ferelden – who in many ways, appeared to have not been all that heroic – had refused to take Shale with him when he entered the Deep Roads, and the king had been dragging his heels as well. Dirthon took that opportunity to mount a shaky defence of his sovereign, and despite not one piece of granite on Shale’s face shifting even slightly, Sofia could feel the golem’s contempt from where she was standing.

“And yet the Warden was able to penetrate into the deepest reaches of the Roads with a band of less than a dozen. An embarrassing precedent for your warriors, wouldn’t you say?” That conversation was clearly over; Shale turned her head from the spluttering Shaper. “I will assist you because I want to find out about my past, not because the king has ordered me to.”

An idea flickered at the back of Sofia’s head. A possibility as to why Bhelen might be keen on acquiring the Memories of the place where Shale had come from. He already had a firm grip on his kingdom, bolstered by the dissolution of the Assembly; a cadre of totally controlled golem guards would make him near-impossible to unseat. He just needed to learn how it had been done.

Sofia bowed slightly to Shale. “Of course, Lady Cadash. Still, thank you for joining us.” She nodded in the direction of a line of carvings that none of the Shapers were near. “Cauthrien, would you look at this with me?”

Once they were separated from the others, Sofia started following the carvings with her fingertips, murmuring out of the corner of her mouth. “We need to keep an eye on Dirthon when we retrieve the Memories. I think there may be something there it would be better for nobody to know about.”
 

Cauthrien

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#12
Shale remembered her transformation from dwarf to golem, but nothing before that. Aedan’s writings on the Blight contained no details on this, which likely meant that he did not think that the information would be of use to him. And Shale’s tone suggested that asking for more details would not be well received. The golem hoped to reclaim the memories of her past in the thaig where she had been born, and complained peevishly that King Bhelen had failed thus far to fulfill a promise to provide an escort.

Less than two days in Orzammar, and Cauthrien already knew that criticizing its king was a bad idea. King Alistair took such things in stride, and with a surprisingly self-effacing humor, though he had shown himself quite willing to crack down if criticism threatened to boil into sedition. He listened to his subjects, though, and acted on their words often enough that most were willing to accept the times when he did not. Bhelen ruled with an iron fist, and had reshaped the tradition-bound society of the dwarves in a matter of years, gaining in both prosperity and territory, killing or imprisoning any who opposed his decrees.

Shale had demonstrated the previous day that she was not cowed by the dwarven monarch, and with good reason; if destroying her was even possible, it would cost Bhelen heavily to achieve it. The stick was not an option, so he had fallen back on the carrot, but he’d kept it just out of reach for too long. And the golem was not afraid to say just that.

Those who were listening were not so insouciant. Presumably, failing to defend their king was a crime only slightly lesser in magnitude than criticizing him, but it seemed likely that the keepers of dwarven history and tradition did not hold any great affection for a king who had turned both upon an ear. Most of the onlookers simply scurried away. Only Dirthon spoke up, protesting that the darkspawn numbers were too great to risk an expedition.

“And yet the Warden was able to penetrate into the deepest reaches of the Roads with a band of less than a dozen,” Shale observed, the first time that Cauthrien had seen the golem addressing her chaperone directly “An embarrassing precedent for your warriors, wouldn’t you say?”

It was due as much to Aedan Cousland possessing the Maker’s own luck as his group’s prowess in combat. That none of the non-Wardens had become tainted in all the months of fighting darkspawn was well nigh a miracle, but that did not lessen the insult to Bhelen, and Dirthon turned white beneath his beard.

Indifferent to the dwarf’s distress, Shale turned back to Sofia. “I will assist you because I want to find out about my past, not because the king has ordered me to.”

The mage dipped a courteous bow. “Of course, Lady Cadash. Still, thank you for joining us.” Turning, she tipped her head in the direction of an isolated section in the Memories. “Cauthrien, would you look at this with me?”

As excuses went, it was decidedly transparent; Cauthrien could no more decipher dwarven runescript than she could read Antivan. She’d needed a Shaper to translate for her yesterday. But she offered Shale a parting nod and followed.

“We need to keep an eye on Dirthon when we retrieve the Memories.” Sofia spoke without looking at the Warden-Constable, her eyes on the runes that she traced with a well-manicured fingertip. “I think there may be something there it would be better for nobody to know about.”

“That wouldn’t surprise me.” Cauthrien matched Sofia’s low pitch, looking at the runes that the mage was touching. “I doubt he’d bother sending anyone with Shale if he didn't hope to gain something from it.” From the corner of her eye, she could see a couple of the Shapers trying to edge close enough to overhear. “Can you actually read these damn things?” she asked. The shimmering of the lyrium in the etchings was starting to make her eyes feel like they were crossing. “If not, we should probably ask for a translator. Nice work getting Shale to talk, by the way,” she added. The golem certainly hadn’t seemed inclined to conversation before the mage had joined them.
 

Sofia di Castelbuono

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#13
Perhaps her given reason for drawing Cauthrien away had been a little see-through. Fortunately, none of the Shapers followed in their wake; either because they’d been rattled by the interaction with Shale, or they were happy to look extremely busy and important and therefore avoid being asked awkward questions, at least for the moment. Dirthon, irritably, had made his way to the rear of the room and was pouring out a mug of something that looked both dark and potent. She’d occasionally seen tutors in the Circle library doing something similar, whenever a student asked a particularly foolish question.

More urgent than that was communicating that they had another task to attend to while they were clearing the thaig. Keeping Dirthon alive seemed fairly important, simply because he was the one Bhelen had chosen to go down there - but they also had to make sure he didn’t find anything that the king might find useful in his war against anybody who didn’t pay him complete obeisance.

Cauthrien agreed. “I doubt he’d bother sending anyone with Shale if he didn’t hope to gain something from it.”

Sofia watched where the other woman’s fingertip was tracing the runes. She could read a little of the dwarven script - nights in the Circle could be long, and in that instance you could improve yourself by broadening your knowledge (or, the templars claimed, start dabbling in blood magic). The name of some dwarf born two centuries prior was here, along with a list of his accomplishments. A smith, if she had it correctly. And utterly uninteresting in comparison to the knowledge that others were now trying to sneak a little closer.

“Can you actually read these damn things? If not, we should probably ask for a translator.”

“I can read some. If I heard it spoken aloud I probably wouldn’t understand it, but I did a little translating from time to time at the Circle.” And it had been useful on occasion for sending coded messages. Most topsiders didn’t read this script. Giving the people she associated with the basics was useful. “A person can get through their whole life in Common, but I always enjoyed learning new languages - although I never thought I’d get much of a chance to use them.”

“Nice work getting Shale to talk, by the way.”

Sofia smiled at the compliment. “I suspect people aren’t polite to her all that often.” Cauthrien had been civil, of course, but occasionally being brainlessly chatty had its place. “Except out of necessity. And I did genuinely like her crystals.” She looked back over her shoulder. “I’m fascinated as to how dwarves, with no magic, managed to create something like her. And augmentations as well. I could likely have long conversations about that.”

Her voice had lifted, ever so slightly, for the benefit of the Shapers behind her. Of course she had no intention of actually learning the technique - let alone passing it on.
 

Cauthrien

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#14
“I can read some,” Sofia said of the dwarvish script that the runes of the Memories were graven in. “If I heard it spoken aloud I probably wouldn’t understand it, but I did a little translating from time to time at the Circle.”

“How many languages do you know?” Cauthrien asked curiously. “I can read a bit of Orlesian, and recognize insults in the language, but not much beyond that. Never really needed to know anything besides the Common tongue.” And, to be honest, she’d never had any real interest in learning where there had been no need, when other pursuits had been more practical.

“A person can get through their whole life in Common,” the mage observed, “but I always enjoyed learning new languages - although I never thought I’d get much of a chance to use them.”

“The Circle doesn’t let mages travel much, I take it?” Of course they wouldn’t; far easier to control them in confinement. Not that the Grey Wardens were much better; each nation’s order kept an almost clannish tie to their homeland. Transfers were rare and almost always occasioned by necessity - such as the harassment of Warden mages in the Free Marches - or politics, such as the friction that had resulted in Sofia being sent to Ferelden. Cauthrien had been wary at first, but while the Antivan had made no secret of her ambitions for advancement, she seemed content to earn it on her own merits. Certainly, she had shown the most success so far in communicating with Shale.

“I suspect people aren’t polite to her all that often. Except out of necessity,” Sofia remarked, and Cauthrien felt a twinge of guilt. She’d been courteous, but treated and thought of the golem as a thing; Shale quite plainly did not consider herself as such. “And I did genuinely like her crystals.”

“They were … pretty, I suppose,” Cauthrien agreed. Odd that a golem would have such - human - concerns, but having once been flesh, and female, it made a bit more sense. And made a creature of stone a more typical female that Cauthrien herself had ever been.

Sofia gave a sidelong glance at the Shapers who had drawn close in a less than subtle bid to overhear. “I’m fascinated as to how dwarves, with no magic, managed to create something like her. And augmentations as well. I could likely have long conversations about that.”

“They wouldn’t be all that long,” one of them replied. “The Paragon Caridin created them using the Anvil of the Void, but any chance at recovering the technique ended when the Warden destroyed the Anvil.” The disgruntlement in the dwarf’s voice was plain.

“At the Paragon’s own request!” another Shaper countered vociferously. “Who are we to countermand the wisdom of Caridin himself?”

As the pair fell into an argument, Cauthrien addressed another of the Shapers, who was looking on nervously. “I was hoping to find whatever information is available on Cadash Thaig, and someone to translate for me, please?” She would not drag Sofia away from her own research.

“Of course, Warden.” The dwarf looked relieved at the chance to be away from the squabbling, likely because the one who had spoken up in defense of the destruction of the Anvil was calling into question Bhelen’s determination to revive the lost technology. “Follow me, please.”

Unfortunately, while there was no shortage of information about the disgraced House Cadash, which had been exiled en masse from Orzammar more than fifty years earlier, of the thaig little more was known besides the fact that it had been destroyed once by the dwarves of Kal Sharok, then rebuilt only to be lost to the darkspawn in the first Blight and never recovered.

A growl from her midsection reminded her that it had been some time since breakfast; she thanked her translator and went looking for Sofia. “Ready for lunch?” she suggested, wanting to be away from here before they discussed any of what they had learned.
 

Sofia di Castelbuono

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#15
“How many languages do you know?” Sofia tried not to be too happy about the impressed expression on Cauthrien’s face. “I can read a bit of Orlesian, and recognise insults in the language-” Sofia almost chuckled, then realised what some of those insults might have consisted of and restrained herself - “But not much beyond that. Never really needed to know anything besides the common tongue.”

“Besides Antivan, I can understand Orlesian to a fair degree, although my accent apparently verges on the blasphemously bad,” she grinned. “And of course Common. Dwarven I have scraps of reading for - that is about it.”

Languages had long been of interest for her, although she’d generally assumed chances to practice with native speakers would be few and far between. Senior Enchanters could be granted leave on occasion to go out into the world with a templar escort, and she’d actually made it to the point where she’d been on a few closely guarded expeditions alongside longer-serving members of the Circle. She might have found herself afforded more freedom than most, but she hadn’t counted on that. At least it had turned out to be useful, after all.

“The Circle doesn’t let mages travel much, I take it?”

Sofia shook her head. “Mages can be assigned to missions outside of the Circle - if a village or a noble family needs healing that their physicians cannot supply, for example, or if some firepower is needed for a construction project.” And occasionally worse. It was not unknown for unscrupulous Knight-Commanders to allow mages to be loaned out to well-paying parties who wanted to extract information from somebody. Most people were so terrified of what magic could do that the mere presence of a mage loosened their tongues. “But they’re under heavy guard the whole time, and it’s generally not encouraged to have any interaction other than is necessary. To avoid making ties in the outside world.”

It was astonishing how quickly those ties could be made, particularly between an outsider and a mage with little experience of how the world worked - and how many mages ended up paying for it later when their bellies began to show.

Fortunately those days were long behind her, and the Taint had all but removed any chance of having to make a harsh decision on behalf of a child of her own. In a different life, she would have liked many. As such, she enjoyed the opportunity to play with or care for the children of others when it came along.

Conversation moved on to Shale, her decorations, and how the dwarves had achieved the creation of the golems without magic. If there was no lyrium involved, Sofia would eat her own entire left leg. The Shapers certainly didn’t have any answers. In fact, a couple of them fell to squabbling, until Cauthrien sent them for whatever could be found.

There was not much about the thaig, alas. Hopefully the stone sense possessed by Dirthon would fill in the geographical gaps in their knowledge. Sofia made what she could of the information presented to them, but as ever, preparing for any eventuality would hopefully cover all their bases. She had just finished making a list for herself of items she needed to pick up before they headed into the Roads when Cauthrien came back over to her.

“Time for lunch?”

“When is it not?” Sofia offered, with a playful smile. She’d been a little ashamed of her appetite when it had first manifested after her Joining, considering the ravening hunger somewhat undignified, but she’d long since accepted it as part of the experience. Now she just tried to enjoy every meal to the full rather than bolting it. She tucked her scroll of parchment back into her bag and fell into step alongside Cauthrien.
 

Cauthrien

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#16
Grey Warden appetites being the reliable things that they were, Sofia accepted the suggestion of lunch readily, putting her notes away accompanying Cauthrien toward the door. The Warden-Constable inclined her head politely in Shayle’s direction as they left, but though the crystal eyes glittered, the golem offered no other response.

“I wonder if her memories will return as we get closer to the thaig?” she mused as they stepped through the massive doors into the Diamond Quarter, richly garbed dwarves eying them - some in open curiosity, others in a sidelong and wary manner. “I suppose it’s not likely to be the same as she might remember, at any rate.” Fewer dwarves, more darkspawn. Lots more darkspawn, in all likelihood. And whatever besides the maps Bhelen was interested in.

They passed a crier who was blaring a grandiose-sounding announcement about King Bhelen’s sponsorship of an expedition to reclaim the lost Cadash Thaig, giving full credit to the benevolent monarch, mentioning the ‘brave and mighty Grey Wardens’ almost as an afterthought.

The smells wafting out of a restaurant at the edge of the Commons nearest the Diamond Quarter drew her in, and she led her companion to a table with no one seated nearby, picking a chair that put her back to the wall and her eyes on the door. Old habits died hard, and she’d never even tried to shake this one.

She waited until the waitress had brought their drinks and taken their order. No cider, so she settled for a dwarven ale, sipped cautiously, then called for water. Even with food as a buffer, it was strong for her tastes, and she was keenly aware of the need for a clear head.

“As far as I can tell, anybody who doesn’t have their head up the King’s ass is afraid of him.” She offered her blunt assessment in a low voice once the waitress had set the water before and moved away. The circumstances had a disquietingly familiar ring to them, and she could feel the pull of tension along the back of her neck through her shoulders. Grey Wardens did not involve themselves in political matters … until they did. This was the result.
 

Sofia di Castelbuono

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#17
Cauthrien kept their conversation on relatively inconsequential things as they excited the Shaperate, musing on Shale’s missing memories. Perhaps direct contact with her former home would release something blocked within, although in truth Sofia was not sure what there would be for Shale to remember. Created a golem, she had likely been used for heavy lifting and for war, and by this time she might have had such a long succession of masters that one would seem interminable from the other. And even without the darkspawn, the centuries had likely reshaped the thaig, a thought that Cauthrien shared. “I suppose it’s not likely to be the same as she might remember, at any rate.”

“Perhaps. Dwarven construction and engineering is second to none. More might have lasted than we would expect, although doubtless the darkspawn have left their mark all over the place.”

In truth, Sofia was deliberately not thinking more than she had to about what they would be facing. She’d fought darkspawn hundreds of times in her five years of service, but mostly only had to deal with one or two each time directly while keeping her fellow Wardens from falling during the battle. In the Deep Roads she would likely face far more, and she would simply have to be prepared. By focusing on quantities of ingredients, the lists of tasks to be done, and the wider question of Bhelen’s motivations, she kept herself from having enough time to become nervous.

Through the busy marketplace and over to the tavern that Cauthrien led them towards, she ticked through the list in her head. She’d salvaged all she could from the Shaperate, and she needed to mix some more potions. She also vaguely recalled reading that some varieties of moss down here could be used in place of bandages, even boasting some medicinal properties. She would have to investigate. If she could harvest materials along the way, it would also help.

Once inside, she ordered a wine and food, before cocking an eyebrow at Cauthrien. The Constable’s expression was difficult to discern, but she radiated the energy of somebody with something on their mind. “As far as I can tell, anybody who doesn’t have their head up the King’s ass is afraid of him.”

“Even those who do, I’d say.” As many people had benefited from Bhelen’s rise to power as had been toppled by him, but they would all know that their position was precarious. All it would take was for the king to decide they were a threat. “He’s...charismatic, and what he’s done for the casteless paints him as a leader not tied by tradition - one who will allow his people to rise based on merit rather than the actions of their ancestors.” An idea Sofia found totally laudable, even though she doubted Bhelen had done it out of pure compassion. “Defying him on anything would make a lot of people angry."
 

Cauthrien

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#18
The visit to the Shaperate had borne less fruit than Cauthrien had hoped for, but perhaps more than she had been expecting. What they had learned had only intensified her misgivings about this mission, however. Shale’s memories of the thaig where she had been born were lost; the golem’s reason for accompanying them was to try to recover those memories, and any details that she might have been able to provide might well have not matched up to the reality after the passage of centuries and the ravages of time.

When she expressed this sentiment aloud as they walked, Sofia seemed less sure. “Dwarven construction and engineering is second to none. More might have lasted than we would expect, although doubtless the darkspawn have left their mark all over the place.”

Cauthrien nodded. “She’ll be a useful ally against them, anyway.” Odd that once she had begun using the pronoun, it seemed to fit the massive construct.

The restaurant that they chose was not overly crowded, allowing them a table well away from prying ears where she could openly voice her concerns that those not allied with King Bhelen feared him.

“Even those who do, I’d say,” Sofia murmured thoughtfully. “He’s...charismatic, and what he’s done for the casteless paints him as a leader not tied by tradition - one who will allow his people to rise based on merit rather than the actions of their ancestors.”

“He’s canny, I’ll give him that,” Cauthrien agreed. “He’s created a solid base of support with the carrot and stick method … enough to offset the traditionalists that he’s alienated.”

“Defying him on anything would make a lot of people angry,” Sofia warned her somberly.

“I’m not planning on it,” she replied, taking a sip of her ale and washing it down with water. The waitress brought their food: bowls of a meaty stew and a basket of the oddly textured bread. Cauthrien ate a bite of the stew; her eyes widened at the unexpected spiciness, and she took a healthy swallow of ale to cool the fire. “That was … unexpected,” she coughed, drinking some water to offset the alcohol and taking a more cautious spoonful, accompanying it with some of the bread. Better.

“He wants something besides the maps,” she went on in a low voice. “Something he’s not telling us. If it doesn’t affect the Grey Wardens, I’d have little reason to oppose him, but if it doesn’t affect the Wardens, why hide it from us? We’ll need to keep our eyes and ears open,” she concluded, taking another careful bite, feeling her eyes watering a bit. “What do they have down here that’s so hot?” she wondered, poking at the bits of red floating in the broth; they didn't look like mushrooms.

“Peppers from Antiva,” the passing waitress offered brightly. “It’s a new dish, but it’s one of the King’s favorites, and it’s quite popular. Do you like it?”

“It’s … different,” Cauthrien conceded, casting a wryly amused glance at Sofia. "Taste like home?"
 

Sofia di Castelbuono

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#19
Cauthrien agreed with Sofia’s assessment. Since their spat in the woods on the way here, the other woman seemed to have gained much more respect for her opinions, which besides smoothing Sofia’s ruffled feathers had also improved her own opinion of Cauthrien. It was a vital trait of any leader to admit their mistakes and adjust their attitudes accordingly. It was also one she had observed as lacking in many ‘leaders’ she’d known throughout her life. She wondered if Bhelen would admit it if he miscalculated.

Only if in doing so, it gained him some advantage, she imagined.

Although Bhelen’s methods shouldn’t have any bearing on their mission - he hadn’t asked them to bring back the Memories themselves, after all, just taken advantage of the fact they were down there anyway to provide additional protection for the Shaperist - it was a background source of concern, given what they might find down there. Sofia pulled her mind away from it as their food was delivered, and a familiar scent tingled in her nose.

She’d had no idea that dwarves had any taste for spices in their food, but was happy to adjust her perception of dwarven cuisine accordingly. Sofia inhaled the aroma before she picked up her spoon, enjoying the gentle wash of memories that the scent brought back. Her childhood home, the Circle, the barracks at Selemy...she hadn’t had anything like this since boarding the vessel to Ferelden.

It occurred to her a moment later that Cauthrien might not have had anything like this at all, but didn’t have time to get a word of warning out before Cauthrien swallowed quite a large mouthful. Sofia had to bite the inside of her cheek slightly not to laugh as the other woman’s eyes bulged. She concentrated on her own portion, dipping in the bread and savouring it. She could have been eating in any tavern in Antiva.

Cauthrien regained herself enough to mutter a few more words of concern about Bhelen’s motivations, and Sofia simply nodded her agreement. The old adage about Wardens not getting involved in politics flitted through her mind - and was promptly ignored. She didn’t trust Bhelen as far as she could throw him, although like Cauthrien she had no idea how he might benefit from this whole situation.

Cauthrien was distracted from further dissection by her re-engagement with the spicy stew. Sofia continued to eat sedately. It wasn’t even that fiery by the measure of some things she’d eaten in the past. There was an orange variety of pepper called the Salamander, the seeds of which could just about take the top of a man’s head off. Periodically it had been sprinkled into the enchanter’s or templar’s food in the Circle, usually without warning. A small rebellion, and usually entertaining. Cauthrien seemed less amused than curious. “What do they have down here that’s so hot?”

“Peppers from Antiva,” the waitress jumped in, and Sofia beamed. “It’s a new dish, but it’s one of the King’s favourites, and it’s quite popular. Do you like it?”

Cauthrien’s response was diplomatic. “It’s...different.” Accepting her current discomfort with dignity, the Warden-Constable cast an amused glance towards Sofia. “Taste like home?”

“I could be at the table of my childhood estate,” Sofia confirmed, before spooning down another large mouthful. She wasn’t immune to the tang of the spices, just more used to them, and her cheeks pinked a little before she doused the tingling with more bread. She smiled at her bowl. “The cook used to make a dish, with lamb baked in a crust of breadcrumbs and spice before being curried in a pot with a thick sauce of tomatoes and chillis. We had to have it with milk, or one of us might have run off to stick our heads in a water barrel. It was one of my favourites.”

She chuckled softly. The ache of such memories had eased with the passage of the years. Now she only felt fondness, and the quiet happiness that came with unexpectedly experiencing a piece of home so far away from it.

“I take it that it’s a bit livelier than you’re used to?”
 
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