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.


  1. Long story short: COVID hit and I started playing DA:I, fell in love, went back and played DA:O and am now working my way through DA2. Dueling the Arishok broke my heart - I did not want to have to do that because (aside from the terrible brutality of taking over Kirkwall and killing the poor useless viscount) he struck me as a deeply honorable and twistedly compassionate guy. And then in Act 3, I went down to the docks and sobbed when I saw that stupid statue. That statue is the worst. I hate it so much. In my headcanon, Hawke fireballs it one night.

    PS Your analyses of Dragon Age have been my constant companions as I’ve played - I’ve loved every single one of them so much. Thank you for pouring so much into each piece!

  2. I cannot believe no one has mentioned yet how insightful and entertaining this entry is. So, consider it mentioned.


"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...