Saturday, June 22, 2019

The Temptation of Hissrad: The Demands of the Qun, Part 1

What do you do when you realize that your country may have wronged you, lied to you, and used you to kill, capture, and brainwash hundreds of potentially innocent people? Bull faces this potential reality in "The Demands of the Qun."
THE IRON BULL: My people don't pick leaders from the strongest, or the smartest, or even the most talented. We pick the ones willing to make the hard decisions... and live with the consequences.

Greetings, fellow Thedosians! Gird your loins, this is gonna be a long one...  Welcome to my fourth piece in my series on the Qun and its mysteries, thanks to the beautiful and brilliant minds of Mary Kirby, David Gaider, and Patrick Weekes. In previous weeks, I've attempted to examine the Qun's foundations in Dragon Age: Origins, thanks to Kirby and Gaider, as well as analyzing its representations in the trilogy, from Sten and the Arishok, to a newer and more complex representation of a Qunari character in DAI's The Iron Bull.

This post marks Part 1 of 2 in my in-depth examination of The Iron Bull's loyalty quest: "The Demands of the Qun," where Weekes's interpretation takes center stage with Bull, and I'll be following this with a final post and analysis to complete my thoughts on the entire quest itself.

Onward. Aaaand here we go!

So... What does it mean, to abandon your faith, your country, your people? To realize that every truth you grew up with, each fact you never questioned, each comforting assumption... may have been wrong? And not just wrong, but horrifically, tragically wrong? When every righteous blow of your weapon may have gone astray and killed those who had simply desired freedom?

What do you do when you realize, in fact, that your country may have wronged you, lied to you, and used you to kill, capture, and brainwash hundreds of potentially innocent people?

That's pretty heavy stuff. And that's what The Iron Bull is faced with in his loyalty quest, appropriately entitled "The Demands of the Qun."

It's a pretty dramatic and emotional scenario, not least because Bull isn't the only one asking those questions and making those decisions. As his leader, commander and Inquisitor, we're making them too. And he will judge us for our choices.

Oh, boy, will he judge us.

Bull admits why the Qun drives him: "It's like being a block of stone with a sculptor working on you."
The Blows of the Chisel

I mentioned this in my opening examination of the Qun, but I love that, in one of our earliest conversations with The Iron Bull, Bull tells us a key fact about what moves him and inspires him as a part of the Qun:
"It's like being a block of stone with a sculptor working on you. One day, the last of the crap gets knocked off, and you can see your real shape, what you're supposed to be."
Bull is no stranger to pain or strife. Give Bull a challenge and he smiles that narrow smile and charges right for it. So I love the idea that writer Weekes has presented us with this as a part of Bull's core identity, that for him pain under the Qun is simply the process of turning his imperfection into perfection, of sculpting him into who he was meant to be.

It's a terrific simile for Bull to use, and an expression of an idea that would certainly be believably attractive to the kind of person Bull reveals himself to be—to one who seeks improvement, who wants to be challenged to realize their best and most capable self. And it makes sense that Bull, a lifelong adherent, soldier and spy, would find it comforting. "This hurts," he would think, "But it's worth it."

The concept of this pain as the price of perfection irresistibly reminds me of C. S. Lewis's famous observations about God. He felt that pain was simply God's way of crafting each of us into a better person. Lewis famously said:
"I suggest to you that it is because God loves us that he gives us the gift of suffering. Pain is God's megaphone to rouse a deaf world. You see, we are like blocks of stone out of which the Sculptor carves the forms of men. The blows of his chisel, which hurt us so much, are what make us perfect."
Pain Equals Perfection

Lewis's idea is certainly an interesting and persuasive concept, and it has been a favorite of mine since I was very young, even though (while I was raised Catholic, and also had a brief Amy Grant phase in college), I am nonpracticing when it comes to religious faith—I'm pretty hardcore atheistic, with just a single filament of hopeful agnostic, at this point. Although I support whatever faith gets my friends and loved ones through their days, I just can't quite get there all the way to belief, myself.

But I've always loved Lewis's writings and essays even so, and I remember in the past, when faced with hard choices and the terminal illnesses of loved ones, I did seek a higher meaning, a higher power or awareness... and I held onto Lewis's words tightly, wanting to believe there was meaning in pain. It was a comforting idea—not one I was able to sustain long-term, although I do believe that adversity and suffering can make us kinder and more empathetic to others overall.

But it was a beautiful simile. Almost too beautiful.

Either way, it's notable and interesting that this sustains Bull, and it also seems to me to echo Sten's similar "I am their work" statement back in Dragon Age: Origins. This thinking is exactly what the Qun encourages, that each citizen is simply a tool, a thing for the Qun to hone and use for its own good. 

And this way, according to Bull's thinking, the Qun is always there for him, and his pain, trauma and grief are simply tests of his own worthiness. The blows of the chisel, making him perfect.

Until the break in the sky.

When he joins the Inquisition, Bull's a definite paradox. He talks a good game, but he's also spent the past decade as far away from Par Vollen as he could possibly get. 
The Broken Tool

As we make our way through the story of Dragon Age: Inquisition, and witness the many amusing banters between The Iron Bull and the rest of our companions, it's no surprise that a number of those conversations (as well as those initial talks with the Inquisitor) circle continuously around the question of Bull's adherence to the Qun and its tenets. Bull expects this, and is genial if guarded, and he's also openly amused at how alien his concepts seem—especially in the conversations about sex and parenting.

It's interesting right away—remember, Bull encourages the idea publicly that he's his own person, since it's useful to his work as a mercenary and spy, even if he doesn't go so far as to actively play Tal-Vashoth. But when he joins the Inquisition he's a definite paradox, as he talks a good game of Qun loyalty, but (let's be honest) he's also spent the past decade as far away from Par Vollen as he could possibly get. When you look at his actions in the big picture, he certainly seems like a man desperate for safe haven (ahem, sorry).

And yet he doesn't show that outwardly. He's assured, confident, charismatic and casual when it suits him (and when it's most strategically advantageous). There's no sign externally of a man on the run, of a warrior who seeks shelter. It's arguably written all over him for the first major chunk of the DAI story, yet it's never ever spoken by him, save for a slightly weary admission to Solas during their endless early bickering that not everyone in the Inquisition would fare well under the Qun (like Sera)—and this includes people he has grown to care about.

The Liar

But despite the fact that Bull may have his own private reservations about his place in the Qun, as far as we can tell within the Inquisition in those early days, he's a secure, superb and nimble propagandist, parrying with Solas on the nature of free will, and deftly shrugging off any implications that he harbors even a fleeting disloyalty. He's proud, after all, of the fact that he once turned himself in to the reeducators after his traumatic breakdown after Seheron. He wanted them to "fix him," they seemed to do so, and then sent him far, far away. And he was more than happy to oblige—and too relieved at the change in his circumstances—to question what was actually happening there.

But Bull is smart. He may be a superb liar, but I don't think he lies to himself.

So at some point, late, late at night... in those taverns after last call. Or after a little welcome release and oblivion with any one of a number of partners in little rooms above the bar... Bull would have had to face facts: He'd been thrown away. He was inches away from being a bas, a thing, and a defective one. A broken tool. And now the Qun had sent him off to do what little they thought he was still capable of doing, until he fractured all the way.

In those complex moments, Bull had to have known the crossroads was approaching. And he'd know that he'd have two choices when that moment arrived: To prove his loyalty (no matter what the cost), or to break away, for real. And for all time.

It's no coincidence that the first things Bull does upon departing Par Vollen are to choose a glorious new name and then to gather a family for himself.
The Good Soldier

So as we prepare for "The Demands of the Qun," the Qun has largely left Bull. In sending him off to roam Thedas, they've thrown him out like an unruly pet... but with a string attached to that collar of his... just in case they need to yank him back.

The problem here is that Bull is nothing if not stubborn to the ends of the earth. And loyal. He doesn't admit to being tossed aside. He's not resentful of his superiors or of the Qun itself. He's just sorry he didn't live up to the task he was asked to accomplish—it doesn't matter that he lasted five times longer than anyone else on that Seheron detail. He just sees that he failed, got patched up, and allowed himself to be sent back out into the wide world while he could still be of some use to the Qun.

At this point, Bull departs Par Vollen for a decade, charging joyously forth across Thedas in order to gather information (and coin), to take down foes in skirmishes, help the little people, and to rebuild some kind of life for himself. And I believe it's no coincidence that the first things he seems to do are to choose a new name (something new, something glorious), and then to gather a family.

It's no coincidence that even as he seems to acquiesce to the Qun on his journeys, Bull nevertheless embarks on a series of subconsciously rebellious actions against the core demands of the Qun itself.
Divisions of Loyalty

As I've referenced earlier in my examinations of the Qun, an important concept in the Qun is the idea of "Asit tal-eb"—"It is to be": the idea that everything and everyone in the world has a nature, acts accordingly, and that all these things come together to form a proper order—such as a beast killing its prey, the locust devouring crops, or the water flowing to the sea.

What's sort of ironic to me, then, is that Bull, post-Seheron, goes on a roundabout journey of self-actualization... a journey in which I would argue that he is actually, to some extent, simply becoming his true self. Which, rather ironically, is not against the demands of the Qun. Bull was right about his potential to change, just wrong about the source: It is not the Qun that transforms Bull, but rather himself and his capacity to feel... his grief, loss, loyalty and love—first for Krem, then for the Chargers.

So when you analyze Bull's actions after Seheron, it's not a coincidence to me that even as he seems to acquiesce to the Qun on his journeys, he nevertheless embarks on a series of subconsciously rebellious actions against the core demands of the Qun itself:
  • The Qun doesn't use names. Bull gives himself a name. And further names his loved ones.
  • The Qun breaks up family units, recognizing their danger to the whole. Bull builds a family.
  • The Qun sees people as things, tools, implements. Bull seeks out real, emotional connection on a constant basis.
  • The Qun does not allow sex and love to commingle. Bull may seek and find a potentially, genuinely fulfilling romance, either with Dorian or the Inquisitor.
It's a theme with Bull, and very interesting as his loyalty quest approaches: His words and demeanor give us nothing but a passionate adherence to the Qun. I think he truly believes this... well, in the topmost part of his mind.

And yet...

I wrote once about how Solas in DAI is a man in a waking dream—of what might be, of potential happiness. In yet another parallel between the two very different men, I believe the same is true for Bull, too, in the first half of DAI's story events. 
A Servant of Two Masters

Bull nevertheless covers his bases, and does it well. Many (if not all) of Bull's actions are those of a deeply divided man. He continues to be a terrific and no doubt informative spy living and working in plain sight. He reports to the Qun regularly. He apparently continues his progress to seduce the Inquisitor—a task that we know in hindsight to be both potentially effective as a gamble, and (at least, at first) remarkable for its combination of heat and coldness.

We only learn most of this later, but looking back, it appears to me that for much of the first half of Inquisition's story, Bull is walking both worlds. He's marking time, speaking both sides, and doing so pretty well. Bull has already shown himself to be adept at compartmentalization, and all his training enables him to do so now, with incredible skill. So he can be the good spy... as well as a truly good guy willing to die for the people of Haven.

Yet also... basically, I think... until "Demands of the Qun," divided or not, compartmentalized or not... I do think The Iron Bull feels a true kernel of real hope, albeit unspoken and unacknowledged, when he joins the Inquisition. And that, when he seduces the Inquisitor (or Dorian), therefore, I think he also does so out of at least some genuine attraction and interest.

I wrote once about how Solas in DAI is a man living a waking dream—a dream of what might be, of potential happiness. In yet another parallel between the two very different men, I believe the same is true for Bull here, as well. After all, what better way to sell a lie than to believe it yourself?

And so for a little while, Bull's a man who can play the game, give lip service where required... while reserving his heart.

Meanwhile, rescue by rescue, Bull saves who he can, just as he did when leaving Par Vollen: the brave loners, the misfits, the forgotten ones—just as he'd saved Krem, then Dalish, Grim, Stitches, so many others in the Chargers. People who had themselves been abandoned. And he makes them his family. Ever since his childhood as little Ashkaari, he was a person drawn to saving and protecting others. No wonder then, that he wholeheartedly approves of the work to help restore Thedas, and of his role in helping the poor, lost, wounded, and disenfranchised.

That's who Bull is. At his very best self... at least.

Sometimes the rescued can become the rescuer. Such is the case with Krem.
Rescuing the Rescuer

For me, this is vital to understanding Bull's position as we approach his loyalty quest here, and his mindset. He has, at least physically, left the Qun—a feat he's also explored at least to some degree mentally, even if he cannot even admit to himself yet. He has given himself a name, a family, a place, even the chance for potential redemption from the past deeds that haunt him and from the inner savage he fears.

Sometimes, the most beautiful thing about being rescued is that you yourself can become the rescuer. Which is why I love the symmetry that Krem, Bull's first rescue, the person who would become his spiritual son, is the person who gets Bull to join the Inquisition. As if Krem himself knew Bull would need a new outlet, a new place to establish himself. As if Krem was seeking for some way to save the big-hearted captain who'd saved him.

And it worked. After building himself up with Fisher's Bleeders and eventually creating his own mercenary force with the Chargers, Bull joined the Inquisition, at Krem's direct urging, bringing along the rest of Bull's joyful, raucous Chargers family. 

It's interesting here to note that Bull instantly tells the Inky about his dual allegiances. "Hey, I'm a spy!" I think he does so because it's expedient and smart to instantly build trust and present a picture of amiable incompetence, but also (I'd argue through my rose-colored glasses) because he wants to be real. What if he simply wants to tell the truth where he can? What if he got tired of roaming, and wanted to find some semblance of a home? By the time the Inquisition has reached Skyhold, even with the breaks in the sky, life is suddenly warm and welcoming for Bull and the Chargers. They have a home base, a purpose, plenty of money, warm beds, and companions and friends always ready to raise a glass or spin a tale. 

And presto, Bull finds himself with at least the possibility of a new life, all thanks to Krem. It's pretty safe to hypothesize that Krem probably wanted Bull to at least consider leaving the Qun permanently, if he could bring himself to go Tal-Vashoth. Krem probably saw far more clearly than Bull how damaged he had been by his former life.

It's implied that Krem not only got Bull to join the Inquisition, but that he may have done so in a loving and active attempt to save Bull—to get him away from the Qun for good. Were the other Chargers part of this, as well?
Building the Chargers

There's a little kernel of a hidden story to how Bull came to join the Inquisition, if we pay attention to dialogue from Bull, Krem, and even Vivienne. If we do so, we get a clearer presentation of how events proceeded for Bull and the Chargers: First, the Breach appeared, with Bull and the Chargers on missions in or around Orlais. Then the Inquisition formed, and Krem then went to Bull and actively, deliberately suggested the Chargers do their part. 

Here's how Bull summarizes events in the Fade later on, if we bring him along on "Here Lies the Abyss":

The Iron Bull (as Krem): "Hey, Chief. Let's join the Inquisition! Good fights for a good cause!" 
The Iron Bull (as himself): I don't know, Krem, I hear there are demons.
The Iron Bull (as Krem): "Ah, don't worry about the demons, Chief! I'm sure we won't see many!"
The Iron Bull (as himself): Asshole.

Still, all later grumbling about demons aside, Krem had convinced Bull, and he'd agreed. Something about the situation called him to answer. Bull would have then reached out to Par Vollen and gotten permission (and, it's implied, additional orders—to infiltrate the Inquisition organization, to get close to the Inquisitor, etc.), then sent Krem to offer their services.

So to get back to my main point, what touches me about this scenario is the implication that Krem not only got Bull to join the Inquisition, but that he may have done so in a loving and active attempt to save Bull—to get him away from the Qun for good. It's tempting to wonder if this wasn't just Krem, but a collective attempt by the other Chargers, as well.

And then Gatt shows up at Skyhold, and here we are. When the Qunari yank that string and remind Bull that you can leave Par Vollen, but that it takes a lot more than that to be out of sight of the Qun... so of course it's fitting that the fate of Krem and the Chargers themselves will lie in the balance. Will Bull save his self-made family, or recommit once and for all to the Qun?

It's a cruel scenario, and its impact is irrevocable. And our choice there will depend upon whether we simply—like the Qun—view Bull (and the Chargers) as disposable tools, as things... or whether we value them as something more than bas.

Meanwhile... I'll resume this further in my post to follow, when we find Bull on that painful rainy hillside on the Storm Coast in Part 2...

Thank you as always for reading!

Saturday, June 15, 2019

Meaningful Banters: Dog and Sten, Crime-Fighting Duo

"I'm a giant with a war dog. Either I am making a delivery, or I am besieging your fort. Hope for the former." Sten and Dog. Crime-fighting duo. And it is GLORIOUS.
STEN: (Resigned Sigh) ... Fine. Bring me the stick. But this is the last time, I swear it.

This is a silly, sweet, goofy post simply to celebrate the unspoken adoration between Sten and Dog in Dragon Age: Origins.

Because it deserves illustrations and blog posts and statues since it is, honestly, amazing. Sten seems to have a special affinity for delicate things. For flowers, kittens, animals. For creatures weaker than himself. And it's a lovely, hidden and very subtle character note.

He has an especially lovely relationship with the Warden's mabari ("Dog") if they saved the dog in one of their earliest quests.

Which is why I think we need to visit it here, since it is sweet and adorable and funny and we really need it, especially (if you're me) after analyzing the nihilism of the Qun for two weeks straight).

So here we go:

The first thing you must absolutely accept is that Sten does not like animals. Nope. Nope. Nope. He may pet kittens and play with them. He may talk seriously to our darling Dog (whom I call "Barkwise," called "Barkspawn" by the fandom) but oh, no, he does not care about them at all.


Sten Hates Pets

However, late, late at night, if you are awake at the Warden's camp, you may witness a few cracks in Sten's armor when it comes to your faithful canine companion:

DOG: (peers up at Sten, tail wagging)
STEN (sternly): We don't have time for this now.
DOG: (Dog continues peering, a little more determined)
STEN: No, absolutely not.
DOG: (Whines)
STEN: There is no time. We have work to do.
Dog: (Whines)
STEN: (Resigned Sigh) ... Fine. Bring me the stick. But this is the last time, I swear it.
DOG: (Very Happy Bark!)

Meanwhile, back at Camp, Sten is pretending not to adore Dog and pay him allegiance. Because he is Sten and has a secretly chewy nougat center:

DOG: (Barks)
STEN: I don't understand you.
DOG: (Whines)
STEN: ... Are you trying to say something about a child in a well?
DOG: (Dog gives Sten a quizzical look)
STEN: No? Never mind, then...

Sten visits again another night at camp. Dog gazes into his eyes:

DOG: (Growls)
STEN: (Growls back)
DOG: (Growls)
STEN: (Growls back)
DOG: (Barks)
STEN: You are a true warrior and worthy of respect.
DOG: (Happy Bark)

There's a subtext of this -- that Sten appreciates a fellow warrior, even a wordless one. But let's face it. The tragedy and sweetness of Sten is that he loves animals. And they love him. Look at his little shy hidden moments with kittens, with talking to Barkwise (DOG) like he's an equal. It becomes apparent that the Qunari do not allow these indulgences, and as in most cases for me with Sten, it kind of breaks my heart.

Y'all, Sten just wants a pet. Or maybe a houseful. I know Cullen breaks the Internet as of Trespasser with his imaginary sweet home for retired mabari, but come on, Sten is more your total ASPCA guy, going:

STEN: You are here to adopt a pet.
VISITOR: Yes, sir.
STEN: What kind of an animal do you wish?
VISITOR (swallowing visibly) I wish... a dog.
STEN: Simply for use, or affection?
VISITOR: (squeakily) Affection?
STEN: That is doubtful due to your country's insistence upon canines primarily as useful agents of protection.
VISITOR: Fereldans love their dogs, sir. We do indeed.
STEN: As you should. Hmm... 

A break.

STEN: And how do you feel about felines? They too, require love and serve a purpose...
VISITOR: I would be open to a cat as well. But we need something to guard our homestead.
STEN: I see. Yet still, a feline that helped to guard your barn and surrounding areas would manage the vermin and give a home to a highly worthy animal. 
VISITOR: Ah... I...
STEN: And they are highly amusing, felines. Try dangling a piece of string. They respond with surprising enthusiasm.
STEN: It is... quite charming.


VISITOR: I'd love a cat and dog, please.
STEN: Thank you. Please sign here, here, and here. And please make sure you spay your feline after you have a litter to succeed her in your barn. I will be following up personally.
VISITOR: Ab—er, absolutely.

Sten, with genuine regret: "And now, I'm talking to an animal. I've been in this country too long."
Barkwise: "HAPPY BARK!"

Best. Mission. Ever.

So of course Sten chooses Dog for the Fort Drakon rescue of the Warden. And it is EVERYTHING:

They are challenged. Sten shrugs with all the centuries of Qunari assurance on his shoulders and in his visage. He is stern, calm, immovable:

STEN: I'm a giant with a war dog. Either I am making a delivery, or I am besieging your fort. Hope for the former.
GUARD: I wasn't told we were getting a mabari.
STEN: Must I point out the obvious? I'm a large, impatient man with a war dog. Either let us in, or get someone who will.

The guard lets them in. Because, come on. Sten and Dog.

STEN (to DOG): This is pointless. We should simply go in fighting.
STEN: And now, I'm talking to an animal. I've been in this country too long. 
STEN: I am supposed to take this dog to the kennel!
GUARD (dubiously) You're a dog trainer?
STEN: ...I have a dog. What more do you want?
GUARD: I don't even know what you are. But you certainly don't belong in here.
STEN (to DOG): I didn't want to sneak in, anyway.
GUARD: Men! We're under attack!
DOG convincingly begins to shake, shudder, and retch.
GUARD: What's wrong with him?
STEN: I know nothing of... beasts. You are Fereldan, don't all you people keep dogs?
GUARD: I'm not poking and prodding no mabari to see what's wrong with him. I like not bleeding.

They are allowed entrance. And all is right with the world.

Sten and Dog, fighting crime. One dimwitted guard at a time. Coming soon to a network near you. OR IT SHOULD BE.

Sunday, June 2, 2019

Romancing the Arishok (The Qun and DRAGON AGE II), "Asit tal-eb, Part 3"

Everyone has a weakness. The Arishok is mine. Well, he's actually one of maybe 20-30 weaknesses of mine across the Dragon Age game trilogy, but you get the idea. (Wait, hey, Solas isn't reading this , is he...?) Also, props to the always-talented Nick Thornborrow for this beautiful fresco.
THE ARISHOK: We remain until we fulfill the demand of the Qun. Or until the demand changes.

So, like, okay, I admit it... there are certain Dragon Age characters I sometimes find it difficult to be objective about. Simply because of, well... basic, animal, um, hotness. 

For instance, consider my darling Arishok, from Dragon Age II. My Hawke walks up those stairs to him at the Qunari compound in Dragon Age II and I'm already doing a happy dance, delighted to see my big, bad, forbidden, kingly, Qunari pseudo-boyfriend again. Every time my Hawke reaches the top of those stairs for the first time, I sort of go into a daze, gazing at him with little hearts in my eyes and imagining our iconic Lady and the Tramp moment eating spaghetti together in a nice little dive restaurant in Kirkwall, shyly culminating in a kiss over a bad chianti candle and checkered tablecloth.

I mean, yes, okay, fine, he's terrifying. He's a zealot. BUT LOOK AT HIM.

Wait, where was I? 


Nope, nope, hold on. I can do this. I can write an objective column about the Arishok without my tongue unrolling like a party favor. No, really.

Here we go. Wish me luck.

It's not easy to be a ruthless, cruel, totalitarian yet magnetic leader with a noble and brooding profile. Especially one trapped in a back alley for years (and without Wi-Fi)... in Kirkwall, of all fricking places. KIRKWALL.
The Exhausted Zealot

When we meet the Arishok, he's tired, dignified, bored, and hanging out on a bench semi-sort-of tricked out to look like a throne.

He seems really unhappy to be stuck here in Kirkwall, and who can blame him? I mean. It's Kirkwall. My take on Kirkwall is that even ships in the vicinity find themselves violently sheering away from the harbor, reacting like living marine mammals and carrying their careless passengers far from its toxic seas and airs.

And, look, if I consider the Arishok's situation, I can find a surprising amount of sympathy for him, even given his brutal actions later on. The single most important relic of his people has been stolen, and he cannot return home without it. It's simply the code of his people, the requirement of his mission. So he's trapped. He must retrieve the relic, which means he's stuck in this vile, nasty powderkeg of a backwater, watching its Viscount crumble, its Commander go mad, and its mages and templars trade blows in an eternal conflict... and he can't do anything but hang out and watch Netflix.

He does seem to like this one person, Hawke. Hawke has charisma. Hawke is color-coordinated. Hawke is brave, honest and forthright. Hawke is also extremely attractive. (My Hawke is especially attractive, just so you know. This is important as far as my romantic subtext with the Arishok.)

But pretty early on, the frustratingly narrow-minded yet attractive Arishok begins to ponder the possibility of a date with Hawke (OH SHUT UP).

Meanwhile... talk by talk... we learn who the Arishok is... what he believes... and what he wants.

Aw, dammit, Arishok, GO HOME! Go home! And then CALL ME!
A Question of Honor

As our interactions with him begin, the Arishok has been shipwrecked and trapped for far too long. He is desperate for companionship and has completed all the jumbles, New York Times crossword puzzles, and Candy Crush updates, when Hawke shows up at his carefully barricaded Qunari compound in Kirkwall, which is why he is so interested and immediately invested in Hawke when she (my Hawke's gender) shows up to say hello.

HAWKE (among options): You won't honor your bargain [with Jevaris]?
ARISHOK: There is no bargain to honor. His offer for the gaatlok was refused, so he invented a task to prove his worth, when he has none.
JEVARIS: I broke my beard getting your outcasts killed.
ARISHOK: You hired someone more competent and now stand in their shadow pretending it is yours. You dishonor their accomplishment. Get out of my sight before I bother lifting my sword.
HAWKE (among options): Nevertheless, you have benefited from his actions.
ARISHOK: Do you think we are unable to hunt our own outcasts? This was interference, nothing more.
JEVARIS: So I get nothing for all this work?
ARISHOK: If anything, we have been denied the righteous application of the wisdom of the Qun. What payment should I exact for that? Go, dwarf, before I begin my tally.
At this point, Jevaris argues about being paid and that gaatlok is a product people want. The Arishok views his efforts as tiresome.

ARISHOK: There is no profit in empowering those not of the Qun. The means of creating the gaatlok is ours alone. It shall be dispensed only to our enemies, in the traditional manner.

And... Jevaris leaves in disgust. And the Arishok also is tired and irritable and pretty much done, and just wants everyone gone.

ARISHOK: You will leave as well, human. There is no more coin for you here.

He whispers to himself and this is a big moment... and it's pretty truly moving. He whispers to himself about what is right and wrong... a real question to his inner self. It's interesting, moving... and creepy. This is where the Qun becomes a religious calling even in an areligious context. Because the Arishok is admitting he feels that to leave Kirkwall unconquered, to leave its people outside the Qun... is wrong. 

ARISHOK: (to himself) We have a purpose, but when it's done, do we leave Kirkwall like this?

I think this is a key moment: The Arishok feels an actual duty to conquer this place, to bring it within the order of the Qun. It does not appear to be a need that arises from a wish for battle or conquest, but simply from his disgust for what he sees as needless chaos and disorder.

Then he looks down, and of course, typically, Hawke is still there. Brave, heedless, and waiting for more info. (Note: I'm going to boldface a few key lines of dialogue I think are directly tied to the Arishok's allegiance to the Qun.)

ARISHOK: Why do you bother me, human? I hire no blades and need no goods. Your kind thinks selfishness and want are normal. This city, all of it, leaves a bad taste.
HAWKE (among options): If you despise this place, why haven't you left?
ARISHOK: Since we arrived, I have seen nothing but greed and weakness. Dwarves, humans, elves—just... festering. No order, no goal. You are one of the few I have met with any ability. And yet this too was random, a result of selfishness. I cannot fathom how a mire like this can be justified. You say we should leave, but how can you bear to stay in this chaos?
HAWKE (among options): I agree. It's a mess.
ARISHOK: But you don't see that as a problem?
HAWKE (among options): I see it as an opportunity. And I intend to take full advantage.
ARISHOK: Karasten are soldiers. The Qun made it so. They can never vary from that assigned path, never be other than they are meant to be. But they are free to choose within that role. To accept and succeed, or deny and die. Glory is clear and defined. It is an undeniable certainty. What "full advantage" can you take without that authority? 
HAWKE: He's free to choose to obey? That isn't contradictory to you?
ARISHOK: He chooses to be. As do we all, long before any of your meaningless freedoms are presented. (a beat) I am not the one to educate you. I did not intend to land here. But this city may demand certainty. I suspect we are done, human.
HAWKE (among options): I don't think Kirkwall would do well under military rule.
ARISHOK: The rule of the Qun is not military. It is discipline and order.
HAWKE: How is that different?
ARISHOK: To your limited understanding, it is not. You fear soldiers that arrive to remove your pitiable vices. But they do not control Qunari. The triumvirate divides and governs. One is nothing without the others. 
HAWKE (among options): Can you tell me about the other two parts?
HAWKE: Then we can learn nothing.
ARISHOK: I am no more equipped to explain than you are to understand. Arishok, Arigena, Ariqun. Pillars of the Qunari, of the nation that must be. There is but one way to know these things, human. And I have yet to decide if it must be done.

This is one of my favorite little moments—both from Hawke, who is canny enough to point out that she is attempting to learn from him—and from the Arishok, who interestingly notes that he is not there to be her teacher, and he is not looking to evangelize or to convert her.

And then there is that chilling and disquieting moment: "There is but one way to know these things, human. And I have yet to decide if it must be done." He is, of course, talking about conquest. Purification and order through violence.

I think what's scariest here is that the Arishok speaks with that flat assurance we previously saw in Sten. He speaks about his actions without emotion, and with a flat affect, as if they are predestined. The residents of Kirkwall are not people to him, just things. Bas. And right now, they are in his way.

HAWKE (among options): You're a long way from home. Why did you come?
ARISHOK: To meet a demand of the Qun.
HAWKE: Which was?
ARISHOK: It is a matter only the Qunari understand. We remain until we fulfill the demand of the Qun. Or until the demand changes.
HAWKE (among options): How many Qunari have you lost to the Tal-Vashoth?
HAWKE: That seems unlikely.
ARISHOK: We lose nothing when weakness abandons the Qun. It is the Tal-Vashoth who have lost themselves.
HAWKE (among options): You guard your powder carefully. 
ARISHOK: It is a tool that can only be allowed to exist under the ordered authority of the Qun. 
HAWKE: It could benefit many people.
ARISHOK: It does now. Just as swords benefit warriors, but are not given to children. (a beat) Well... your children. 
HAWKE: Farewell.
ARISHOK: Panahedan, human.

I love the Arishok's final exchange here. There is the faintest ghost of a smile on the line about children and swords... and real, slight affection in the final, "Panahedan, human." Hawke is someone he has begun to care for.

MY HAWKE: How do you feel about dinner? Maybe the amusing glass of pinot grigio?

Alas, the Arishok does not hear me. Facepalm.

Oh, honey, no!
The Savage Within

I've taken great care to transcribe the Arishok's dealings with Hawke in Dragon Age II here, because they communicate the way the Qun's code and constructs are etched in stone. There is no stretching any meaning, no wishing for a more elastic outcome.

The Arishok, for instance, visibly likes and warms to Hawke in DA2. But this is not a happy tale, and everyone involved already seems aware of that. Hawke and the Arishok may respect one another. But they are also on a collision course with death; liking or no, the Arishok is also the person she is, in most cases, destined to kill, to be killed by, or (if Isabela is turned over) who simply postpones conquest for another, yet inevitable, day...

One key moment in the next meeting involves the Arishok's description of the theft of a decoy recipe for gaatlok that was in fact actually a recipe for saar-qamek, a poison gas. While the qunari are immune to it (interesting, given what it does), others who are exposed to it go into a blind, insane and savage rage.

HAWKE (among options): So how dangerous does this fake mixture become?
ARISHOK: It is not a threat to Qunari. For your kind, it is as dangerous as those who breathe it. 
HAWKE: Can you elaborate?
ARISHOK: The gas kills, but first it turns allies against their own in blind rage. So, the greater the skill of those sent against us, the more dangerous they become to their own people. 
HAWKE: Hard to control at the best of times.
ARISHOK: It is no longer our problem.
HAWKE (among options): Did you just leave the decoy lying around?
ARISHOK: We did not make it easy. Three Qunari died defending it. Enough to impart a sense of worth. If the real formula were at risk, the Qun would demand that we protect it to the last of us.
HAWKE (among options): I appreciate you bringing this to me.
ARISHOK: I have long thought this city would destroy itself. This would only hasten the inevitable. Panahedan, Hawke. I do not hope you die.

"I do not hope you die!" Come on, from the Arishok, that's practically a declaration of love!

My Hawke, courageous and slightly pumped after this passionate decree, bravely, suggests they act on their feelings:

MY HAWKE (casual): So, Ari, how about dinner? I know a great little Italian place down on the water. It's right under the really creepy left-hand statue of the guy writhing in agony, and the restaurant is run by a blood mage who makes an alfredo sauce that is literally magical.
ARISHOK: There is no point under the Qun in my meeting you for such an event. Also, I must admit that for me, cilantro tastes like soap.
HAWKE: Shit. I love you. Call me!
ARISHOK: Farewell, basalit-an. You are a strange creature.

Having struck out publicly, my Hawke walks away from him then, giving him a good look at the entire package, then looks back over her shoulder, shaking her pretty, pretty hair over her shoulders. Which, in DA2, actually moves fetchingly!

HAWKE: I know.

Mutual Respect

Still hopeful for a date, Hawke returns again to talk to the Arishok, this time with sincere news, truths, and regrets about the theft of the fake gaatlok recipe:

ARISHOK: They say we were careless with our trap, that this is our fault. But even without the saar-qamek, there would have been death. This elf was determined to lay blame at our feet. I admire conviction with a focus, but your kind are truly committed to weakness. 
HAWKE (among options): She was angry to see her people losing their culture by claiming yours.
ARISHOK: We accept those who submit to the Qun. The weak naturally seek the strong. It doesn't matter. We did not come equipped to indoctrinate. I am here to satisfy a demand you cannot understand. 
HAWKE: It's been a long time.
ARISHOK: It will take as long as needed. No ship is coming. There is no rescue from duty to the Qun. I am stuck here.
HAWKE (among options): That is not the understanding of city leaders and their... supporters.
ARISHOK: Let them rot. Filth stole from us. Not now, not the saar-qamek. Years ago. A simple act of greed has bound me. We are all denied Par Vollen until I alone recover what was lost under my command!

He stands, resolute and definitely scary. A loss of control we haven't seen until now.

ARISHOK: That is why this elf and her shadows are unimportant. That is why I do not simply walk from this pustule of a city! (with increasing heat) Fixing your mess is not the demand of the Qun! And you should all be grateful!

He calms himself visibly.

ARISHOK: Thank you, human, for your service. Leave.
MY HAWKE: How do you feel about Greek food?
ARISHOK: Leave me, human. No matter how deliciously prepared, grape leaves will not tempt me from my path.
HAWKE: Seriously?
HAWKE: You make me sad.

She leaves, giving him another view of her best side.

Still, she is hopeful. In her fatally optimistic mind, Kirkwall is simply the setting for one giant rom-com.

As she walks away, she smiles.

"Well, Shit."

And then it finally all just goes to hell. As it was always fated to do. Do you know that old Johnny Mercer song about what happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object?

Yep. Something's gotta give. In this case... it's Kirkwall. 

The powderkeg finally ignites. And it's because of a pretty staggering and ugly situation in which a city guard raped an elven girl. When her family attempted to get justice, they were ignored and there was evidently not even the pretense of investigation. Her brothers then  took matters into their own hands, confronted the rapist, and the confrontation ended in his death. The two elves then went to the Qunari compound and offered themselves as converts to the Qun, to become viddathari.

At this point, Aveline is now self-righteously seeking to have the two elves returned to the city in order to receive justice, but I have to admit that I'm utterly uninvested in Aveline's feelings here, and her outrage is honestly pretty gross to me. There are definitely racist undertones to the situation—the fact that an elven girl was horrifically attacked by one of Aveline's own guards with zero outcome or punishment (Aveline carelessly refers to "rumors" about the crime), while her brothers' search for justice on the other hand requires the personal intervention of the Captain of the Guard and the risk of a political incident.

ARISHOK: The elves are now viddathari. They have chosen to submit to the Qun. They will be protected.
HAWKE (among options): Have they truly converted, or are they simply using you as a shield?
ARISHOK: They have chosen, and so have I. You have seen the corruption in this city, the suffering that is allowed. All to selfishly deny the truth of the Qun. Let us look at your "dangerous criminals." 

The elves enter, under Qunari guard.

ARISHOK: Speak, viddathari. Who did you murder, and why?
VIDDATHARI ELF: A city guard forced himself on our sister. We reported him... or tried to. But they did nothing about it, no matter what we said. So my brothers and I paid him a visit. 
AVELINE: That doesn't excuse murder.
HAWKE (among options -- my answer): Yes, it does.
HAWKE (among further options): Are these elves telling the truth?
AVELINE: There have been rumors. I will investigate, but they still took the law into their own hands.
ARISHOK (earning a fistpump from me): Sometimes that is necessary.
AVELINE: Like you avenged the Viscount's son? It was not right then, and it's not right now.
ARISHOK: Their actions are mere symptoms. Your society is the disease. They have chosen. The viddathari will submit to the Qun and find a path your way has denied them. 
AVELINE: You can't just decide that. You must hand them over.
ARISHOK: Tell me, Hawke: What would you do, in my place?
HAWKE (among options): As a guest in this city, I would keep the peace.
ARISHOK: I see. I cannot leave without the relic, and I cannot stay and remain blind to this dysfunction. There is only one solution.
AVELINE: Arishok... there is no need for—

Oh, dammit, Aveline. 

Lighting the Fire

Much as I usually love her elsewhere across the years in DA2, Aveline makes me pretty angry here in her moral relativism (her inability to understand or to, patently, believe the elves, is pretty gross). So when the Arishok here makes a magnificent "Talk to the hand" gesture, I give a fistpump. Seriously, it is perfection.

But then, of course, he takes it too far. It can't just be an exchange of ethics and viewpoints. This, at long last... is a matter for action. A demand of the Qun. He can no longer stand by and watch.

ARISHOK (to soldiers): Vinek kathas.

Aaaaghghg. "Seize them." It's come to this. So Hawke and buddies fight their way out. And at the last moment, Hawke exchanges a lingering glance with my adorable Arishok.

At this point, I mentally rush magically shrieking into my computer screen. Using my mage abilities, I blast into the screen and run up the steps to the Arishok.


Sadly, even in my imagination... the Arishok looks at me with contempt. I am, apparently, not his type. Even in my fantasies. Which is why I need about 351 more decades of therapy.

Onward. Everyone's doomed. My poor Hawke's self-image will not be the only casualty today.

The Arishok's Brief Victory

The story rolls onward mercilessly. The Qunari attack the city. All mayhem breaks loose. The Arishok tosses the head of the poor Viscount, although let's face it, he knows how to make an entrance...

ARISHOK: Here is your Viscount. 
RANDOM CITIZEN: You dare? You are starting a war!

Aaaand... a Qunari soldier kills him. Oops.

ARISHOK: Look at you. Like fat dathrasi, you feed, and feed, and complain only when your meal is interrupted. You do not look up. You do not see that the grass is bare. All you leave in your wake is misery. You are blind. I will make you see. 

MY HAWKE: Hey. Dude. No need to be sizeist.
ARISHOK: Bite me.
HAWKE: Promise?

Okay, okay. Hawke and friends have entered like the utter badasses they are. It isn't even slow-mo (but you totally get that impression anyway). My Hawke is of course deeply wishing for sunglasses as well.

ARISHOK: But we have guests. (a beat) Shanedan, Hawke. I expected you. Maraas toh ebra-shok. You alone are basalit-an. (to room) This is what respect looks like, bas. Some of you will never earn it. (to Hawke) So tell me, Hawke. You know I am denied Par Vollen until the Tome of Koslun is found. How would you see this conflict resolved without it?

MY HAWKE: Pizza?
ARISHOK: (eyeroll)

Sigh. So. Depending on choices, Isabela may enter with the Tome and give it to the Arishok at this point.

ARISHOK: The Tome of Koslun... (reverently)

If she has returned here, Isabela banters with Hawke about her vulnerability and realization that she had to do the right thing. And Hawke can either show support for Isabela here, or accuse her of betrayal, among varying options. Either way, eventually, in most cases, the Arishok hands the Tome to a soldier.

ARISHOK: The Relic is reclaimed. I am now free to return to Par Vollen. With the thief. 

Oops. Surprise from Isabela, irritation from Fenris. Outrage from my Hawke that he isn't talking about their impending date.

But seriously: Things aren't looking good for our pirate rogue.

Isabela in Chains

If you're playing a meaner, more renegade Hawke, you may choose to give Izzy back to the Qunari here, and it's pretty dramatic and sad:

FENRIS: You thought you could strand them here for four years without consequence?
ARISHOK: She stole the Tome of Koslun. She must return with us.
HAWKE (among options): Sounds like you have something very specific in mind.
ARISHOK: She will submit to the Qun and the Ben-Hassrath. More than that, I will not say. 
HAWKE (among options): Take her, and go.
ARISHOK: Most wise.
ISABELA: No! Hawke, you bastard. I came back to help you!
HAWKE: You are helping.
ISABELA: Fight me, you coward. If you're going to send me off with them, fight me first.
ARISHOK: Hawke has denied you. You are not worthy of facing true basalit-an. 
HAWKE (among options): I'd love to, Isabela. But you heard the man.
ISABELA: This is what I get for believing you were different. That you... cared about me.  

Oh, honey. Isabela is dragged off fighting and cursing Hawke. It breaks my heart. I can't do this in my actual canon playthroughs. (And no, I can't give Fenris back either.) But as she leaves, the Arishok faces Hawke.

ARISHOK: The Qunari have what we came for. We will go. But know this: One day, we shall return. 

Isabela Stays

Or Hawke (yay!) refuses the request:

HAWKE: You have your relic. She stays with us.
VARRIC: I'm sure he'll take that well. Rivaini, you might want to move a bit this way.
ARISHOK: Then you leave me no choice. I challenge you, Hawke. You and I will battle to the death. With her as the prize. 
Isabela: No. If you're going to duel anyone, duel me.
ARISHOK: You are not basalit-an. You are unworthy.
HAWKE (among options): I accept your challenge.
ARISHOK: Maravas! So shall it be.

Inevitable Outcomes...

So Hawke and the Arishok fight. Depending on his feelings for your Hawke, you may either end up fighting party to party (you and your companions against a group with the Arishok), or in single combat if he finds you worthy and basalit-an. 

The fight, for me at least, is both deeply upsetting and deeply comic. Every single time I've played it, it encompasses my poor adorable and of course highly attractive Hawke running and running and running around the room, doing figure-eights around the pillars, her faithful hound nipping at the Arishok's delectable hindquarters, while shrieking "I JUST WANTED A DATE! A NICE DINNER! A CHANCE AT A RELATIONSHIP! WE COULD HAVE HAD SOMETHING BEAUTIFUL!"

The stupid freaking gorgeous Arishok, being stubborn and idiotic as noted, I am sorry to say, does not hear her, and he does not stop the battle and suggest that they work things out over a chessboard, a nice bottle of wine, and a game of strip poker.

Nope. He just keeps trying to skewer his true love and eventually she pummels him into submission. Except not in the fun way.

He's toast.

Then, my Hawke weeping copiously as he lies there on the steps, bleeding needlessly and near death, the Arishok gives her his final words...

ARISHOK: One day... we shall return.

My Hawke rolls her eyes at this continued evidence of stupidity, then sniffles and rallies. She faces him proudly.

HAWKE: When you do return... CALL ME!

Summoning his one single moment of coolness and humor, the Arishok gives her a faint thumbs-up.

Aaaand... the Qunari leave. And my poor Arishok almost-boyfriend is just sort of lying there, all dead and gorgeous on the steps. Seeping into the carpets and stuff.


Then Meredith comes in, yadda yadda yadda. Meredith being Meredith. The Qunari aspect of our story is done.

And my poor Hawke goes off to a group dinner with Izzy and her companions to celebrate her victory, while crying into her spaghetti and mourning her lost "Lady and the Tramp" moment. Varric walks her home and never talks about the fact that she may or may not have tried to kiss him. Hey, Varric's a gentleman.

Victory is in the Qun.

The Incorruptible Warrior: Sten Introduces the Qun (Asit tal-eb, Part 2)

To have affection for Sten is to discover, with heartbreak and surprise, what it feels like to care about something immovable and changeless. Like, say, a rock. He cannot be moved, swayed, or changed.
STEN: One day our ships will come to these shores. And the antaam will bring this land to the Qun. But it does no good to dwell on it.

This marks the second part of my series on the Qun—you can view the first, a "big picture" take, here

Meanwhile, if you're a regular reader of my blog, you already know I love Sten, even as I mourn the fact that he is a subtly tragic figure—someone trapped, indoctrinated, into a worldview from which he will never escape. 

Even the knowledge that (according to BioWare canon) Sten ultimately becomes one of the three leaders of the Qunari triumvirate as Arishok, succeeding the dead or disgraced Arishok of Dragon Age II, and who then works presumably alongside the Arigena and Ariqun to guide his people... even knowing that, it doesn't really assuage my sadness.

It's still tragic. Because, to me, Sten's destiny is an endless circle that begins and ends with a cage, and the Qun is the reason why. We rescued him (or may have chosen to do so, at least) in Dragon Age: Origins, offering him a chance at redemption and success in his mission for his people (to answer the question, "What is the Blight?" and to, presumably, help to address it).

Sten did this—with both loyalty and courage, with honor and with a kind of cautious, hidden gentleness. He learned about the world, demonstrating a kind of naivete we normally associate with youth (I was so surprised to realize Sten is middle-aged when I did my timeline!) as he was exposed to a greater world. It seemed to me that for the first time, he was allowed softness. He picked flowers and petted kittens when he thought no one was looking. He gazed at paintings and silently treasured even tattered, ruined works of art in his year of traveling with the Warden and companions. He developed a fondness for cookies. He may even, almost shockingly, have begun to demonstrate real feelings of friendship and care (or... more?) toward the Warden, or for Shale, calling them "Kadan," an endearment both romantic and non-romantic... designating in Qunlat "where the heart lies."

Witnessing all this, I was really invested in Sten. Not least because I have massive voice kink and he has one of the most beautiful and underappreciated voices across the trilogy, thanks to voice actor Mark Hildreth (and people: please watch The Looming Tower if you didn't already because it was amazing, and Hildreth is terrific among a superb cast).

But yeah: I cared about him. I watched his evolution with interest. I was, ultimately, truly invested in Sten! And playing DAO for the first time, I naively envisioned a zillion potential resolutions for Sten. I mean, I really, really expected them: That he'd die defeating the Archdemon. That he'd stay in Ferelden or the Free Marches if he lived, not returning to Par Vollen. That he might even fall in love with the Warden and allow himself to glimpse a wider world. 

But, no matter what outcome I envisioned... there was a common denominator to each: That Sten could not go back because he had seen too much.

Oh, I was so, so naive.

Because Sten of course does none of these things. Sten is affected by the world outside the Qun. He visibly moved and surprised by many of his relationships and revelations as the story progresses.

Right. And then he goes right back to serving the Qun. While maybe implementing a smuggling network to ensure he has access to cookies. And maybe also to kittens and paintings, too.

But nothing really changes for him. He is who he is. He serves who he pledged to serve. His loyalty was really never in doubt.

It is not a coincidence that we meet Sten in a cage. The subtle tragedy is, I believe, that Sten will never really leave it.
The Regretful Conquerer

So... sigh... Sten goes back.

He fricking goes back.

Which is tragic, maddening, and... true to character. Because that's what a good Qunari does. And Sten is a good Qunari. Despite his familial bonds with his companions, despite the camaraderie of those chilly nights around the fire, listening to the songs of Leliana, trading stories with his friends... he does not, as Bull does, create something lasting that he will carry with him and even replace his fealty to the Qun's demands. He does not give himself a name, or warm to a nickname given by others. He does not value the Qun above individuals.

To me this is inexpressibly sad. Sten, by the end, visibly loves his companions. Still, if the Viddasala appeared... he'd kill every single one of them on command. Because he is Sten of the Beresaad. He is one of many. He serves the Qun. And to the Qun he will always return.

This is my take. This does not mean I am remotely okay with this. NOPE. Honestly, this outcome for Sten affected me very strongly. I'd just been so sure! So sure he wouldn't go back. I'd been conditioned by movies, by fiction. Surely a Sten who had glimpsed the wide world of Thedas, who'd sniffed the delicate perfume of roses and daisies and violets... who'd played with little fragile kittens, shadowboxing gently with tiny paws... who'd realized the value of art for art's sake... surely this guy wouldn't go back to his totalitarian prison?

But he would; he does. And honestly? I can't blame him. It's what most people would do. It takes a tremendous, tremendous amount of change, loss, and courage to truly change who you are, what you want, what defines you, and what you view as safe. To discard your belief system and to change what you think you know and understand about the wide world.

There are some key moments, sure, where Sten reveals an affecting combination of wisdom, naivete, certainty, cruelty, and softness. Upon revisitation, however, the main emotion I view for Sten is... regret. Sadness and grief. Not at his impending departure from people he loves. But rather, at their impending conquest by his own people

Sten doesn't want to care for the Warden, or this world. He knows what the Qun will do to them. And he will do whatever he is asked to do to bring the Qun to these lands. But it becomes apparent, as with Bull later on, that he can feel these things without any actual joy in the potential for conquest.

Sten reminds us of a crucial fact that is apparently ever-present in his mind, even if not in ours: "One day, our ships will come to these shores. And the antaam will bring this land to the Qun. But it does no good to dwell on it."
"You Make Your Own World"

One of my favorite moments to exhibit this duality—this affinity for a people that (in his mind) is already conquered can be seen a beautiful monologue by Kirby and acted by Hildreth, where Sten describes his take on the world.

He speaks slowly and softly, and with more patience than is apparent at first glance. He is sharing something important to him, truly attempting to teach:
"My people have a tale: A great ashkaari during his travels came upon a village in the desert. There, he found the houses crumbling. The earth, so dry and dead that the people that the people tied themselves to each other, for fear that a strong wind would carry the ground out from under their feet. Nothing grew there except the bitter memory of gardens. 
"The ashkaari stopped the first man he saw, and asked, What happened here?
"Drought came, and the world changed from prosperity to ruin, the man told him.
"Change it back, the ashkaari replied.
"The villager became angry then, believing the Ashkaari mocked him, for no one could simply change the world on a whim.
"To which the ashkaari answered, Then change yourself. You make your own world."
If the Warden questions him here, he answers:
"Are you sure of that? Tell me, when you awakened after Ostagar, was the world the same as it had been before?
"Believe in whatever you like: Absent creators, or whimsical gods. Follow prophets, or ashkaari, or omens in the earth and sky. You will find wisdom only if you seek it."
 A moment later, Sten seems to realize that he did not communicate the lesson he desired. He sighs, then explodes in frustration and sadness. "Parshaara!" he cries out. "We should move on."

The main aspect here is that Sten is truly and obviously upset by this conversation here, and feeling genuine emotion. 

WARDEN (Optional): You think the Qunari are coming to convert us?
STEN: One day our ships will come to these shores. And the antaam will bring this land to the Qun. But it does no good to dwell on it. 

He ends in exasperation and hidden sadness, as he so often does: "Parshaara!" he laments, as he always does. "We should move on."

The Memory Apart

As I revisited Sten as a character in my last DAO playthrough, I realized something: That his time with the Warden and companions was something he saw from both the ferocious present and from the regretful future.

In other words, he was never going to leave the Qun. Nor was he tempted to do so. On a subtle level, and rather horribly, Sten was simply regretting the atrocities that would be required to bring these people under the code and rule to which he subscribed. He was seeing their future suffering, and regretting not that they would suffer, but that their suffering would be necessary at all.

Compare this to Bull's admission in DAI to Solas, that Sera, for instance, would not be able to function under the Qun. Bull is being honest there; he's not cloaking the realization in regret. He is able to eventually go Tal-Vashoth precisely because for him the glass orb of the Qun's world is cracking; he does not lie to himself about the foreseeable tragedy of what he sees, nor does he excuse the Qun's part in that tragedy. For all his superb gifts for subterfuge, despite his Hissrad self... Bull is willing to be honest with Solas there. And I think it's one of many reasons he is able to be rescued, if we take that chance to do so.

It's a timely comparison, as I've already noted that, among our leading characters, Bull for instance is certainly formidable at compartmentalization. But so, it turns out, is Sten. To illustrate this, I've assembled a few banters that provide a further taste of this (purposely omitting most of those I covered in my other article on Sten here). Here goes:

LELIANA: Are there Qunari bards?
STEN: Why wouldn't there be?
LELIANA: I don't know. You don't seem like very musical people to me.
STEN: You base this on me? I am a soldier. The antaam does not do battle with lutes.

I love this one above, because it's a reminder that there's so much we simply do NOT know about the Qunari people and their culture. Personally, I suspect that Qunari music would echo the music of the Soviet Union and other rigid, more militaristic cultures—in other words, heavy on the use of music as a useful tool for marching, inspiration, and formal celebration. I'd suspect we'd get lots of drums and percussion, lots of hymns and battle songs, and incorporating wind instruments that are easy to play and transport into battle. 

But we'll never know so far, because, dammit, Sten does not reveal more than this.

The Warrior and the Rogue

Meanwhile, Zevran is characteristically curious and fearless on the topic of the viddathari, and I love the way he hones in immediately on how the elves as viddathari take a place within the culture:

ZEVRAN: Hm. Yes. Well, I've heard that the Qunari actually put the elves in charge? Over the humans? Is that true?
STEN: Some of them.
ZEVRAN: Only some? Which ones are they?
STEN: The ones who belong in charge. That is the way of the Qun.
ZEVRAN: How does this Qun determine who belongs in charge?
STEN: The tamassrans evaluate everyone and place them where their talents merit.
ZEVRAN: But elves, in general, merit higher places than humans in Qunari society?
STEN: Some of them.
ZEVRAN: Back where we began. It's like talking to a water wheel.

It's interesting that, later on, it is not Zevran who sparks the conversation, but Sten himself, who is remembering someone for whom he once felt pity:

STEN: I knew one of your countrymen once, elf.
ZEVRAN: Oh? Have you been to Antiva, then?
STEN: No. Until I came to Ferelden, I had never left the islands. She came to Seheron twice a year with the traders who bought spices from the northern jungle. Only she among the traders would speak to the antaam. Questions about the rainforest, its depths, and the things to be seen there. We humored her. She was... an unfortunate soul.
ZEVRAN: Unfortunate in what way?
STEN: She was a Crow, as you were. Sent to assassinate the kithshoks, leaders of the army of Seheron, for the Tevinter Imperium. We knew this, and pitied her.
ZEVRAN: I'm surprised you did not simply slay her.
STEN: There was no need. Her questions were meant to show her the way through the jungle towards our fortifications. And so one day, she snuck into the jungle to find her target. We found the pieces of her body in a tree, where the spotted cats kept them for later. We had never told her that our kithshoks were the ones who negotiated all the trades at the port.
ZEVRAN: Then she was a fool. That's not very sympathetic, I'm afraid.
STEN: It was her ignorance we pitied, not her mistake. She believe we hoarded things we cared for as her own people do. We were sorry for her, that she thought only some people were important.

I find this exchange both illuminating, ironic, and deeply sad. Sten admits that he and his brethren pitied the elven woman, even as they set her up to die. Meanwhile, he ends on a whopper: "We were sorry for her, that she thought only some people were important."

I mean, Sten. Dude. Darling. Isn't that exactly everything that is wrong with the Qun? That "only some people [are] important?" That some people aren't even people, but things? Talk about unconscious irony.

Many of Sten's truths to Shale are pretty heartbreaking upon examination. For instance, the implication that there is no place for them at all, as in this admission to Shale: "We accept beings of all walks of life, so long as they are willing to accept their place in the world." My question: Or... lack of place?
The Ballad of Sten and Shale

But beyond his conversations with the Hero of Ferelden and his increasing potential respect for them... for me, it's Sten's conversations with Shale (voiced by the fabulous Geraldine Blecker) that are, in some ways, the most moving and bittersweet, because he openly adores her, yet he also acknowledges that his own people might not value or allow her admittance (even though she herself shows a total willingness to convert to the Qun):

SHALE: What do you estimate are the chances of success, Qunari?
STEN: For the Grey Warden? Little to none.
SHALE: So, why does it follow? I do not risk death, but it does.
STEN: My mission is no different from the Grey Warden's. I must see this through to the end.
SHALE: It would rather perish than give up its quest?
STEN: Indeed. There is honor to be salvaged in such a quest, no matter its chances.
SHALE: Honor is a curious thing. It is far better to be practical.
STEN: What use is practicality when it leads to cowardice and emptiness? It is better to live well, than to live.
SHALE: An, uh... interesting theory.
STEN: There is worth in your life, Shale. There is value, but only if it is used.

The implication above, to me, is that Sten latches onto the wrong aspect, and that Shale is somewhat disappointed by his misinterpretation. And then the stakes ramp up a bit, as below:

SHALE: I have a question of religion, Qunari.
STEN: For you, kadan, I will answer.
SHALE: Would its "Qun" accept a convert that was a golem?
STEN: I do not know. It has never happened. We accept beings of all walks of life, so long as they are willing to accept their place in the world.
SHALE: And what place is that?
STEN: One of equality. Within the Qun, an individual exists to serve.
SHALE: Hmm. That is less appealing. Would it consider birds to be its equal as well?
STEN: Birds? Birds are... but animals. Enlightenment does not await them.
SHALE: Excellent. That sounds very promising.

Poor Shale. Years of dealing with bird shit while immobilized would certainly create a hatred for guano... and birds in general.

It's really charming and funny. However, if you really want to start feeling a tug at your heart, here's the one that gets me, where Sten is openly afraid to share with Shale... that she has no probable place under the Qun:

SHALE: I have heard an interesting tale of the Qunari.
STEN: Speak, kadan.
SHALE: I am told that the Qunari put mages on leashes. Leashes! What a delightful concept!
STEN: It is not something that one should take pleasure in. It is done because it is necessary.
SHALE: Why not put them out of their misery? Crush their skulls and be done with it. Fast. Efficient. Fun.
STEN: You have been offended by such men, so your bloodlust can be forgiven. But these ones you speak of are to be pitied. Even so, they must serve, just as any other must serve. All must find their place within the Qun.
SHALE: It does sound like a delightful place where it comes from. Mages on leashes. What will they think of next?
STEN: I can not say that they would not wish to put a leash on you as well, kadan.
SHALE: Hmm... That does sound less fun. Yes.

Shale is naive on equality. She's terrifyingly without ethics, but she's also kind of adorable. And as far as equality, Shale's amusingly fine on a lack of it for others, as long as she herself isn't at the bottom on that issue:

SHALE: The Qunari mentioned something of equality when we last spoke.
STEN: I said that all were equal under the Qun, yes.
SHALE: What of humans? Surely they would not be as equal as others.
STEN: All who accept the Qun have their place, as any other. In the lands we occupy, even the Elves have come to embrace this concept.
SHALE: And if this place is at the bottom?
STEN: If that is where one belongs, then that is where one should be.
SHALE: The Qunari are a very practical people, Sten.
STEN: It is as I have always said. But I thank you.

Like, okay, yes, as above... Shale's kind of horrible in terms of her lack of ability for empathy or kindness... and yet, let's face it—also hilarious, and wonderful, as long as one is not a bird. 

Uncomfortable Revelations

But moving forward, I wonder if Sten felt genuinely sad upon reflection after this next conversation. Where, friends, Shale basically divulges that she lusts after Sten and enjoys watching him fight on a physical and sexual level. And, I mean, she basically implies that she is, well, probably in love with him, also.

And all... just a few moments after he praises her as... a construct. A thing. (Cries.)

It's everything that's wrong with the Qun in a single conversation:

SHALE: I wish to say that it has been pleasant fighting at the Qunari's side.
STEN: I feel the same. You are a remarkable construct, kadan. A warrior to be feared.
SHALE: No more than the Qunari, surely. The way it strikes down its foes, marvelous!
STEN: I smile each time you roar a battle cry, knowing our foes tremble.
SHALE: I could watch you fight all day long—the skill you display, the form, how the light plays on its muscles... I mean... yes. Well done. With the fighting.
STEN: You, as well.
SHALE: Right.

The worst part: Shale, his kadan, is openly admitting to lust for Sten here... and he's just as obviously completely oblivious to that fact. And it's so touching and painful.

Which is why, even if this is a ship that sails too rarely, let's face it, there's a part of me that wants Shale to return in DA4 after reattaining her female dwarven form, and then for her to walk down the streets of Par Vollen, approach Sten's throne, and go, "Hi honey! Miss me?"

If she does, much as I ship Sten and my canon Warden and dream that, in some realities, he follows her to their own choice of a life and land apart... I will be equally delighted if Sten merely looks down at this wonderful new version of Shale, living and whole, as she returns to him... and smiles.

I know it's a vain hope. It comes from the same place as my conviction that Sten could never possibly return to the Qun after the defeat of the Archdemon. 

But it makes me happy to believe the lie.

Just a little.

"Dragon Age: Dreadwolf" Predictions & Ponderings (and "What's in a Name?" Redux)

He doesn't call, he doesn't write, but finally, it looks like we might be hearing from Solas at last (2023?), as BioWare announces t...