Fear & Surprise, Chapter Five

by artrald

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*

Orlais! Jewel among nations!

A chunk of rock a little different from the others, a little more rigid and orderly, thinks it’s better than them, and the world agrees; pretty only by accident, forged in ancient flame and turmoil, carved out from the muck by the sweat of the underpaid and exploited, polished and cut into a bright sharp sparkling thing by one who knows exactly how to exploit its flaws, but strike it just right and who knows what will happen?

Val Royeaux! Pearl among cities!

Layer upon layer of meaningless lustre laid down lovingly over year upon year, held jealously behind enveloping stony walls yet accounted beyond all price by the high and the mighty, an ornament to empresses and a treasure to kings, all look upon you and desire you, but what is at your core? A perfectly ordinary speck of dirt.

To all intents and purposes, from the end of the Divine Age to the middle of the Dragon Age Orlais was the political, social and religious centre of gravity of southern Thedas, and that glorious nest of vipers Val Royeaux was the beating heart of the nation. The strange thing was not that the Seekers reported almost immediately to the capital of the nation next-door upon the founding of the Inquisition; the strange thing was that their plans were not to base it there in the first place. I fancy the hand in this was that of the shadowy figure known as Leliana the Nightingale, lowborn, an assassin and spy by training, a highly competent individual with whom I had a long-standing and respectful personal acquaintance; contrary to popular imagination, the Herald of Andraste had surprisingly little input into the Inquisition’s early structures and decisions.

Alone of the organisation’s leadership, Leliana would have been the one to grasp immediately that to base the nascent Inquisition to somewhere where the nobility felt comfortable would have been to be submerged in the scheming and plotting of the so-called Game of Orlais, the never-ending jockeying for position fostered by successive empresses and Divines in a very successful strategy to maintain status quo ante under nearly all circumstances. Later, perhaps, when the Inquisition had become a force to be reckoned with, they might engage in the Game with some hope of meeting successes as well as defeats; but with neither widespread power nor influence of its own, the Inquisition’s only substantive asset amounted to one single impressive piece of paper: the courtiers of Val Royeaux have never been well known for their respect for those.

The Morrigan
A History of Southern Thedas

*

We rode for Orlais two crazy, bustling, confused days after. Cassandra left Cullen in charge of the supposed army, Nightingale to oversee everything else, and Josephine had surprised everyone by volunteering to play châtelaine on the basis that she had done it before; she was too busy even to see us off.

So it was me, Varric and Cassandra and half a dozen templars, astride some of the finest horses I’d ever been ashamed to sit like a sack of meal. The dwarf’s pony had the most beautiful tack, white leather fit with bright steel buffed till it shone, and he saw me looking at it and gave me a pugnacious look as if bracing himself for a jab about it. But it didn’t come. Because all I could think of was that there must have been a little lady who came Haven on that little mount, a girl who must’ve climbed that hill, here with her father most like to see history made, a girl whose charred and desecrated bones were still up there keeping company with Lord Trevelyan and the five others we’d brought and with the rest of the Ostwick party and with the comely sister I’d winked at on the way in and with all of the bloody rest of them, every life, every laugh and every hope and every love and not me –

I looked away quickly so Varric wouldn’t see the ghosts on my back. And I told myself firmly that a princess whose grooms have to keep her tack mirror-bright like that is a spoiled little brat and not worthy of my grief no matter how good her company. I looked away and I pulled my hood closer against the rain and I turned my back on that bloody place and wished myself deeply, frankly and fervently home.

But I’m not a mage.

We rode that day as far as a little shitstain village I never really even knew the name of, stayed in a little shitstain inn grateful for our custom, noticed Varric slipping the ostler twice the tip he should have. Nobody else in the inn and nothing but the sound of the wind and the rain, and our talk was subdued and desultory, and my sleep in the finest bed in the place was disturbed and rotten.

Another day north and it was the royal highway. Old road, older than both of the countries at either end; before the Maker had a Bride this land was under the thumb of Tevinter, and say what you like about the bastard northerners but they build to last. The paved stones of the road had a shiny facing on them that I’d never really looked at before, almost like they’d been glazed, or melted; I’d seen stone like that elsewhere, I realised, I’d seen it before, and I kept my lunch down with an effort. Varric, well, I suppose dwarves don’t care about ghosts, literal or figurative. Cassandra kept her eyes on the horizon.

And that evening I kicked up a fuss, or a bit of one, anyway, as we rode straight past a perfectly good inn as dusk was on its way, and I asked Cassandra if we were going to be riding through the night and all – and she snorted and said that we weren’t staying at an inn that night; she’d arranged to ride the rest of the way with a caravan.

Clearly she’d told the others the plan, anyway, because they weren’t grumbling. Not content to save a few pence by having us sleep rough, it was like she wanted to make the point (again) that I was soft and unused to hard riding, hard living – was the idea to toughen me up? – and I was still muttering irritably when she took us off the road and into someone else’s camp.

My guess got upgraded from ‘merchants’ to ‘mercenaries’ as we were met by what was clearly a sentry picket, two men in well-used shabby gear, and one of them let out a piercing whistle as we got close enough for him to see who we were. The other one stepped aside, pointedly getting out of our way, and Cassandra led us into the middle of the camp.

The difference between these soldiers and the enthusiastic rabble at Haven was night and day. Our people would be singing at this hour, still working, or Cullen would have them on their evening run, or they’d be at prayer. These men – all men, they were, my guess would be about fifty of them – were lounged casually about the camps and fires like cats, well fed, well equipped and affecting no more interest than a vague curiosity. Nothing to do, so they were doing nothing. Except that every single one of them had a weapon right there within reach, and there wasn’t a man in the place with his back to us, and that vague curiosity also meant that every eye in the camp was looking our way.

We dismounted and the templars took our horses in charge, and there were even empty pickets for them; we were expected. We were met by a short, smiling, beardless youth in the dark green cloak that seemed to be their uniform – he didn’t bow to me – I liked him already. “Your grace,” he said to Cassandra; his accent was slightly exotic, not one I placed immediately. “My apologies for the poor welcoming committee. We expected you earlier.”

She shot me a slightly sour glance. “I’m afraid that good horses don’t make for good riders without a little practice. You’re Bull?”

The young man’s teeth gleamed. “If I am, your grace, then someone’s playing a joke on me as well as you; I’m Krem Aclassi, and you’d call me his equerry if you were feeling like a bit of mockery. Let me take you to the boss.”

The tent he led us to was was taller than the others – I guess everybody’s allowed to have some kind of sop to his ego. Too tall, it was, the door-flap a good seven feet. No guards. Aclassi pulled the flap open unannounced and barged in – I suppose you don’t really expect proprieties from a bunch of hired swords. “The guests, boss,” he was saying by way of introduction –

And, uh. Yes. The giant tent had one person in it, and as he stood up it was more than a little clear why. It wasn’t ego. This was a giant tent because it was a tent for a giant. Seven and a half feet tall if he was an inch, slate-skinned, and there was enough muscle on those massive shoulders that he didn’t seem to have a neck to speak of. Black leather eyepatch. Horns an actual ox would be jealous of. And he put his fist to his chest in a salute that Cassandra and Aclassi both echoed by reflex, and he inclined his head to the Seeker; his voice was a not unpleasant baritone. “The Raven’s reputation precedes her. You and your templars are welcome to our camp.”

“My thanks, Iron Bull. Might I present Maxwell Trevelyan and Varric Tethras.”

“Hnh.” He looked down at us. “A heretic and a smut peddler. You have an odd choice of-”

“Have a care, qunari.” Cassandra kept her tone light. “I would hate to have to break you.”

“Yeah, there’s a deposit.” The giant’s ears twitched. “Keep your habit on, Lady Seeker. I have a distinct fondness for heretics, and I wouldn’t dare harm a hair on the artist’s head until he’d finished his latest series: half my men would lynch me.” Absolute deadpan delivery. “Hail, Herald of Andraste. You ever heard of me before?”

I shook my head. Opened my mouth and words came out; lucky for me they were more than ‘you know, you’re really big’ – “I had what you’d call a sheltered upbringing, ser.”

“Nobody knighted me, Herald: I’m too tall, they couldn’t reach, and besides I prefer my rewards a little more tangible. Short of it is, I’m the hardest bastard you’ll find anywhere around the Sea, and I’m sure I’ll recall what this bunch of hangers-on I’ve got are good for at some point. Done work for the Seekers before, and when some cunt poked a hole in the sky I said to myself that that looked like somebody’d have work for us. Turns out the Raven wants us on caravan duty rather than killing nightmares? We can do that. The fee’s the same and we’ve got perfectly good feet.”

“I see. Well, Bull -”

Iron Bull.” His ears twitched. “You want the bull without the iron, you buy me dinner.”

“Iron Bull. I must say, I feel safer just thinking about having a giant for a bodyguard.”

“Squirt like you needs a bodyguard?”

“He does.” Cassandra looked the Bull in the eye. “If this man dies, bad things happen; I am not talking about politics. This is as serious as anything I have ever done.”

He turned to look down at me. “You’re special?”

I held out my left hand. A steady green light was just about visible through the glove. “This is – uh – the missing piece that came from the hole in the sky. If this breaks – like it would if I died – we’re all fucked, everyone’s fucked.”

He raised an eyebrow. “Don’t like that idea much. You keep paying us, Herald, you’re gonna live a thousand years. I’ve got an arrangement with Death, you see. He doesn’t want to tangle with me. He leaves us alone, doesn’t he, Krem?”

“Shit, no.” The young man’s grin was a little macabre. “We lost Vair in Amaranthine, Ress in Gwaren, Porker and Mann and Torfe in that clusterfuck in – come on, boss, what you using for eyes?” He tapped his finger under his left eye, the same one the qunari had a patch over. “They just all happen to fall where you weren’t looking?”

“Course. Right. That whole deal-with-death thing was just the story I made up that one time.” The giant looked down at me. “You take us up, Herald, you’ve got the best. But we’re not made of magic, and I will not do half a job. You want me watching your back, you’re going to watch it just as hard yourself. How long’s your life been in danger? A week?”

“Uh, about that, yeah.”

He nodded. “Figured. Long enough to get casual; not long enough to get scared out of that. You’ve got your back to that door. If someone came in right this instant, Krem here would knock you to the ground, and me or the Raven would avenge you – and I do mean avenge, because you’re not wearing an ounce of armour and there’s no guarantee my man is faster than theirs, and by that point we are as you so eloquently put it ‘fucked’. In short, lordship, the only reason your dumb ass isn’t in the ground right now is luck, and let me be very clear, I never in my whole career met anyone too lucky to die. You understand me?”

“Uh, yes. O-of course. Anyone too dumb to listen to his bodyguard-”

“Is apparently called Maxwell Trevelyan.” The qunari’s voice overrode mine effortlessly. He surged forward quick as you like, grabbed hold of me by the upper arms, literally picked me up with a grunt of effort and dumped me at right-angles to the door, which Krem moved to block. “Second lesson, tents are neither a barrier to sound nor people. Behind you is another tent, just right there. Two armed men in it, just as much my guards as the guys out front. In the morning you’re having armour. Have you worn it before, and don’t just say ‘of course’, because I am not here to challenge your masculinity. I want to know if you need lessons.”

“But, uh. Isn’t your camp a safe place?”

“Depends if you’re too dumb to listen to your bodyguard.” He twitched his ears.

“Uh. No.” I glanced at Cassandra. “I’m not used to armour.”

“…Is the correct answer. Yes, lordship, the Chargers’ camp is the safest place you’ve been since your mother dropped you out, and in this hallowed sanctuary you will still be wearing a shirt of mail, because staying alive is a lifestyle, not something we do on special occasions.” He looked to Cassandra. “So, Seeker? Caravan to Val Royeaux and back, your lives as safe as ours; you put us up outside the capital and I come inside with you to preserve his lordly hide. Contingent on him obeying my orders and my not giving stupid orders. First refusal on your next job. You’ve already reviewed our rates. Down payment?” He held out his hand.

“You’ve already received it.” She met his eyes coolly.

“All but the handshake,” he said.

“One question, first.” Varric spoke up, and the two of them looked at him with not a little surprise. “You’re not tattooed where I can see, and you’re not wearing vitaar.”

“That didn’t sound like a question.” The Bull raised an eyebrow.

“Uh-huh.” The dwarf clasped his hands behind his back. “Question coming, then. There’s two types of people from Par Vollen, Iron Bull.”

The big guy snorted. “I don’t call myself the Iron Steer, you know.”

Varric smiled a tight little smile. “Funny. I’d introduce you to the last funny guy from Par Vollen I met, except he’s in a hole in the ground. Messere, it’s a simple question, and I’ll use the long words if you want me to.”

He nodded. “It appears the Raven’s reputation is not undeserved. Your answer, Tethras – I am ben-hassrath of the Beresaad. That do it?”

“It does.” The dwarf raised his eyebrows. “It does, indeed. This guy’s trustworthy, Cassandra. I’d let him marry my daughter if I had one I knew about.”

Thank you, Varric.” She held out her hand to Iron Bull. “I apologise for my disgusting little comrade.”

The qunari’s ears twitched as he shook it. “No need. There’s no way such a lady could bring herself to tie down a free spirit like me. Welcome to our company. And your lordship?”

“Uh, yes?”

“Report back to Krem at dawn, and obey him as you would me, clear?”

“Right, sure. Will do.”

*

There was a scrap of parchment folded into the top of my pack when I came to undress that evening. I read it by the light of my glowing bloody hand.

BEN HASSRATH QUNARI EQUIVALENT OF SEEKERS OF TRUTH
BERESAAD ADVANCE GUARD
SHE IS AWARE
SLEEP WELL
V

Smug little bastard probably slept like a baby.

*

Armour is uncomfortable. It’s tight, it’s awkward, it feels a little like you’re carrying someone pick-a-back the whole time, and it stinks. And ‘just a light little mail shirt’ weighs enough that you’d put your back out if you bent over wrong. Felt like I was moving like an old man in all that bloody ironmongery.

At least I was on horseback, you’d say. Right. You ever ridden a horse that far, day in, day out, up hill and down dale, armoured? Even at a walk? I swear, those horses’ previous owners must’ve had balls of solid steel, or maybe they didn’t have balls at all. His nibs used to ride everywhere – he was a nutter, he was a complete bloody nutter. Before that day I’d thought that things were a pain in the arse? Well, I was wrong. You know what’s a pain in the arse, and the legs, and the back, and everywhere else? Riding a horse, that’s what. The Maker put horses into this world solely to hurt us. A saddle is a fucking torture implement. I swear, I was growing whole entire new types of muscles inside me just so that they could hurt.

I was beginning to suspect that Cassandra and the templars weren’t really humans. They were centaurs. They were sticking out of their horses like they just fucking grew there, riding like there weren’t really human legs under there at all. Guess it’s all right for those born and raised a centaur. Didn’t help that the only person in the whole of the camp with a single shred of compassion was Varric, and only because he also hurt.

Apart from thinking us soft, though, Iron Bull and the mercenaries were good enough company. They drank, they sang, they told coarse ugly jokes, they made out like they were the scum of a dozen nations, but they were accommodating and friendly enough. They played around as if they didn’t respect their leaders, but they knew their business, and the few orders that I saw given were obeyed as naturally as you put your hood up when it rains. Between them and the templars there was the occasional jab about pretty little toy soldiers on the one hand and drunken rabble on the other, but nothing behind their backs; they did seem to respect one another, or at least, that’s how it looked to me, rank civilian that I was. And there wasn’t the tiniest sniff of trouble on the road, of course, not for a company of nigh-on fifty.

Everyone in the world has heard stories about Val Royeaux. I mean, there are probably people living in gutters who wouldn’t know if Orlais was north or south or east or west of them, who nevertheless have heard that the Orlesian emperor lives in a city all of gold. I mean, yes, we all know it’s just a lick of yellow paint. But I tell you, cresting a rise and seeing the golden walls of the City of the Sun shimmering atop that distant hill, it was just a little bit magical. We were going there. I was going there. On a horse, no less, with a retinue, like a proper lord, like every child has dreamed of.

Not paying attention, I nearly fell off my horse; Krem nearly pissed himself laughing. I tell you, travelling with the Chargers was good for the soul; I can heartily recommend it to anyone who might be feeling the prickling fingers of pride upon their conscience and judgement. If you’re full of shit, they will tell you that you are full of shit. If you’re ridiculous, they will laugh. If you’re playing the rich know-nothing tosser, they will tell you you’re being a tosser.

But no matter how many times I got something wrong, there was someone there to sort it out; and despite the fact that Iron Bull could absolutely tell that I’d never worn chainmail before in my life, he never said a word about it. Yes, I know that on one level this was because Cassandra was watching, that they wanted another job after this one. But I got the feeling that it wasn’t just that they’d been ordered to make a proper job of it. These were good people that the Seekers had found to come with us, and both then and later I was glad of that company.

*

We set up camp that night just a little bit outside the city proper – I asked Cassandra why we weren’t going two miles more and sleeping in good honest beds, and she shook her head. “What do you see when you look at those yellow walls, at the Sun Gate?”

“Uh. Is this a trick question?” I looked, in case they had changed since I last saw them. “I see the first city of Orlais. Famous all over the world. Paved with gold, they say, or at least with yellow marble.” I gave the glittering gate a last wistful look. “Probably got the finest inns in the world.”

“So it is certainly alleged.” She raised an eyebrow. “What I see is an attractive, well-maintained, manicured – even lovely – snake pit, full of snakes. Poisonous snakes. And underneath the snakes, there are spikes, and upon those spikes are other, smaller spikes, and those too are poisonous. Yes, the beds are soft. Yes, the food is good. Yes, the art is beautiful, the city is glorious. And yes – if you are a commoner, or a merchant – Val Royeaux is the greatest city in the world. But for our kind, Lord Trevelyan? For the nobility, be they Orlesian or no?”

I sighed. “Snakes.”

She nodded seriously. “Snakes; poisoned spikes; the occasional spider or scorpion.”

“Are your order not based here? Is the Grand Cathedral-”

Her eyes smiled, slightly. “Oh, yes.  Nightingale is a snake herself, you know. Mynah, as you may have noted, is a snake-charmer.”

“And you?”

“I have been known to eat snakes.” She dismounted, fluidly, as if it was no harder than stepping down off a ladder.

“Was that -” I hastened to follow suit, and managed not to fall on my face – “Was that a note of joculation I detected? A sense of humour, perhaps?”

“I’m afraid you’re quite mistaken. You want Mynah for that.”

I shot her a look; she appeared quite focused on dealing with her horse; I did likewise. “It’s not a character flaw, you know.”

She appeared not to have heard me. “We still stay outside the walls tonight. Tomorrow, yes, we go within.”

It’s interesting just how quick one picks up the basics of a groom’s trade; I was doing most of this without having to think about what one did next. “Don’t tell me you aren’t bored of camping.”

“Bore-dom. Yes.” She lifted the saddle off her mount as if erasing the last traces of evidence that she had ever been a centaur. “I remember what that was, I think. I last met some in ‘twenty-nine, back when the weight of the world was being shared with maybe a dozen other people and it was the Maid of Ferelden’s job to save it.” She shot me a look. “I call that feeling ‘peace’ now, Max, and I value every last damned moment; if you’re not doing similar, I urge you to start. I suppose you’d like a second reason to camp outside the city tonight?”

I paid attention to what I was doing. There are things horses don’t like: let’s not do any of them. “You’re in charge. You said we camp here? Though it be the middle of a swamp in a thunderstorm full of dragons? We camp here. Kind of what that means.”

“A third reason, then.” She passed me a brush. “For you, the city looks like rest and relaxation. We’d likely spend the evening in a drinking-house, with Iron Bull on one side and Varric on the other.” Turned and set to work on her own mount. “Do I look to you like the kind of creature who drinks with Iron Bull and Varric Tethras deliberately for enjoyment’s sake?”

“Or with me?”

She snorted. “I don’t know you. I met you once, five years ago. Before the war. Before half of everything. You were a fatuous ass.”

I raised her an eyebrow. “You sure you don’t know me?”

“Funny.” A long pause filled only by the sounds of brushes, horses, the mercenaries’ camp. “Tomorrow will be work. For you, for me, for Iron Bull; I have no idea what Varric means by the word, but probably also for him. We need sleep, meditation, preparation, rest. Not a night’s drinking, punctuated by the occasional requirement to make an ass of oneself. I know that the mercenaries have sent into town ‘for supplies’, and that will include some of the excellent local wines; heartless harridan though I may be, I shall not require you not to join them if that is how you feel you must prepare. I will say, though, that I shall have less than no sympathy for a hangover.”

“Heard and understood.” I patted my mount on the shoulder. Truly was a lovely horse. Wasn’t her fault that she was put on this earth to terrorise and torture those who dared to believe that riding was a natural mode of travel. “And you prepare best with stoic silence, prayer and other things that you’d think people only did in stories?”

“Some of those stories are about me, you know.”

“Oh? Any I’d have heard?”

“No.” She gave my horse a look over. “Not incompetent. We shall make a proper lord of you yet.”

“Look. You know I’m not one. Right? This whole ‘milord’ thing. You know it’s not true?”

“I am a Seeker.” She met my eyes. “The Maker only made one Truth. I know it when I see it. Tomorrow, we declare the Inquisition’s existence. It doesn’t matter that we shall not mention the claims of the common people as to who and what you are: if they have not reached the canonesses’ ears by now, then they have no business wearing those pretty hats. And they just may accept His Lordship Maxwell Lionel d’Auchin Trevelyan as Andraste’s herald where they would send Harry Osten to the gallows without a second thought.”

I sighed. “And that’s the sole reason I am with you?”

“There is a hole in the sky.” Her mouth made a firm line. “The Circle is broken. The Templars see nothing but the apostates, and the apostates are too busy trying to save their own lives to be of any use. The Seekers are scattered, dwindling in number, doing the best they can, but they are – not winning. Without your testimony, we are nothing but a splinter group who are doing nothing but making the problem worse. But your story – the Truth – that one single hint that there is something that the faithful can do – it could be enough. It could be enough. The crowned heads of Thedas all have their problems, but none of them will ignore the words of the Chantry. The Empress of Orlais – any one of the border princes – Queen Anora and her pet legend – even my damned cousin up in Nevarra. All we need is momentum.”

“And to get that, we need this -” I opened my palm for a moment, let the light spill – “and we need it attached to a man of noble blood and true heart.”

She nodded, shortly. “Many men would jump at the chance.”

“Many men are complete bloody idiots, milady.”

That was definitely a snort of laughter. “You can say that again. Now, look here. If you have decided that I outrank you in that city, Lord Trevelyan, it is because I have decided to break the habit of a lifetime and answer to ‘princess’; and if I am doing that, then you are damned well calling me ‘your grace’ as a viscount’s son ought. ‘Milady’ is vulgar and will not pass your lips again. ‘Lady Pentaghast’ or ‘my lady’ is a familiarity that you have clearly earned by the fact that you saved my life. Understand?”

I blinked. “Princess?”

She made a face. “Fifteen years ago, I held my rank as a show of favour to my cousin once-removed, the king of Nevarra. The day before the Divine died, I could have stood straight and say that I held it on merit alone. And I shall say to you what I have said to every member of the Seekers with whom I have discussed this: if you back me into a corner where I have to wear a tiara of oak-leaves in silver, then after the occasion has finished we shall find out if you can digest the bloody thing; and that is the last I shall say on the matter.”

“Very good, my lady.” Now, there’s a phrase I could pronounce. “May I be dismissed?”

She twitched an eyebrow. “Go. Find the bloody dwarf, I suspect he’s halfway down a barrel already. Drink. I shall see you in the morning.”

*

I won’t pretend that the City of the Sun was anything other than glorious in the morning’s light. The brass-faced Sun Gate literally shone in the morning sun; the marble statues, the bright breadth of the Imperial Avenue, the height and richness of the buildings – yes, I know that we were coming in the front door, but I couldn’t help but see exactly why people make up endless songs about that place.

The templars had broken out the proper uniforms, and suddenly this half-dozen men and women I’d seen swapping good-natured barbs with the mercenaries were transformed into an intimidating red-cloaked wall of muscle. Similarly the rest of us were properly turned-out; Varric was suddenly wearing a merchant’s silk brocade; Iron Bull was dressed in what you might call the Fereldan style, or you might call battle-ready armour that someone had given a bit of a polish. Cassandra had traded her ratty black tabard for a surcoat bearing the white eye of the Seekers and a habit and cloak after the Templar style, though hers were black.

Back at Haven they’d let me go through what remained of Lord Trevelyan’s things, and I was now properly done up in his spare yellow doublet, brown shirt and hose, and the best of his surviving hats. Yes, I looked nothing like an Orlesian noble – but Lord Trevelyan was nothing like an Orlesian noble, either. Better to be an authentic foreigner than an idiot who’d rented last year’s fashion. At least I spoke the language – his nibs had had terrible trouble picking it up, to the point that his tutor had had the whole household speak to him in nothing but until he got the hint. It had been a hard bloody spring, that, but I swore then that if I ever met that old codger again I’d fill his purse till he needed to hire a man to hold his trousers up.

Every Orlesian noble wears a mask; everyone in a mask in Orlais is a noble, or pretending. To be caught wearing a mask you aren’t entitled to – even that of a hedge-knight – is to lose an ear; run out of ears and they’ll take something else. Anyway, the simpler the mask, the older the family, just by the simple token that all the good ones were taken. And as we trotted through those beautiful gates, Cassandra fished out a blank-faced half-mask in glossy black and put the thing on with every appearance of distaste. Raven, eh? I very nearly said something; it was self-preservation alone that restrained me.

We were certainly turning a lot of masked heads as we rode, I’ll give her that. I mean, this was a road designed for making entrances, and it was pretty much a spectator sport to sit and watch; to be honest, while they were probably taking my expression for one of deep concern for the state of the world or something, it was actually one of concentration as I struggled to keep my horse trotting along in formation with the bloody centaurs and not jounce along like a sack of meal. And the snakes turned their masked heads and watched us with their beady eyes and hissed sweet nothings to one another as we passed.

The Grand Cathedral, we were headed for. The heart of the Chantry, the centre of the Maker’s will for Thedas. Nothing in Val Royeaux was small or unassuming, but the sheer magnificence of this place – what surprised me, actually, was the magic. Quite literally the whole building must have been enchanted. The stained-glass of the Cathedral didn’t leave such things as perfect sunlight to chance – they had been spelled so that the light would strike them just so even if it was grey and horrible outside. There was no way, no actual way that the whole place had been literally roofed in solid gold, but that’s certainly the way that it looked. The building was taller, lighter, airier, more spacious, larger than life; it was like a slice taken out of a fairytale, a dream of a beautiful perfected world, and it shone like a diamond in sunlight that wasn’t even properly there.

We dismounted before the great arched door, and it felt a little like trespassing – like I wasn’t fit to sweep the floor in a place like this, like I was dirtying it just by looking at it, like the clatter of horseshoes was some kind of unforgivable cacophony beside the quiet strains of the Chant of Light that seemed to encompass and enfold the whole place – Cassandra caught my expression and inclined her head as if to say you’re-welcome.

Iron Bull just looked up at the glorious golden spire, wrinkled his nose and said that the Black Divine’s house was half the size, and did they not realise that this particular dick-waving contest had been won a century ago; Varric chuckled, and Cassandra said quietly that the phallic metaphor was at White Spire on the other side of the city, and this was a monument to the Maker’s glory, thank you very much.

The chapter-house that we wanted wasn’t part of the Cathedral itself. It was a lesser thing, an octagonal building of the ever-present yellow marble nestled almost in that great edifice’s shadow. Cassandra had sent ahead: there was an honour-guard for our templars to meet and exchange formal salutes with, there were novices to take our horses, there was a worried-looking young priestess to meet us on the steps.

“My duty to you, Lady Seeker, and to you, uh.” She stumbled over a clear lack of any kind of ecclesiastical title to give me. “The nightingale sings because there is an eagle; the osprey is aware and watches, alert; is there a reply?”

Nightingale – a message from Haven? – I really needed to get them to teach me their codes if I was going to stand a fair chance of surviving all of this. Cassandra’s expression was unreadable behind her mask, but she had gone very, very still; her voice was urgently quick and quiet. “My compliments to the osprey; as the proverb goes, any port in a storm. I’m understood?”

“You are, honoured sister.” The priestess ducked her head. “Only-”

“Calm yourself, Delilah; I am quite big enough to look after myself.” And the priestess nodded mutely and pretty much fled.

“Trouble?” I could’ve sworn Iron Bull’s lips hadn’t moved.

“Maybe. Draw only if I do, no matter what happens.” Cassandra straightened her back.

The giant grunted, moved to take position behind me and a little to my right, keep his good eye out.

“Do I need to, uh-” I didn’t turn to look at the Seeker.

“No. Follow me.” And the door to the chapter-house was opened for us by a pair of burly chanters.

And – people were expected to actually work in a place where the ceiling, the very floor were priceless works of art? Did one just get art-blindness, after living here a while? How sad would it be, to walk into a place like this and not be awed? Bah. Anyway. The walls were absolutely lined with holy women, but we were expecting that. The formal robes of a simple priestess start out as the colours of a flame, and then the deeper the colour and the richer the fabric thereafter, the more important the wearer – I’d seen the Grand Cleric of Ostwick at formal services, and her robes were crimson brocade – and the half-dozen old ladies sitting either side of the great empty throne on the dais at the back of the room were all in silk so dark it was almost purple.

But before the throne there were four men and four women in woollen Templar habits the bright scarlet of spilled blood. And between them there was a grey-haired, masked, clean-shaven man in black that was the match of Cassandra’s own. His mask, too, was black and bare of expression, though it bore a pair of stylized white bars across one cheek, giving the impression of a facial scar. He stood with his back to the throne, his hands clasped behind him, his bearing military, his posture spear-straight, and he looked straight into Cassandra’s eyes.

“My lord Lucius.” Her tone suggested that they had met by chance, upon the street perhaps. “I thought you were in Therinfal, by the side of Master Samson.”

“Alas.” He inclined his head, stepped to one side, and the line of templars parted. “But do not allow my presence to deter you, sister. What was it your communication reported? The final order of the Most Holy?” He bowed, very slightly, in the direction of the throne. “Let it never be said that I impeded such a thing, I’m sure.”

Cassandra took a very, very slightly shaky breath, produced the scroll, and stepped forward. “Holy Mother Hevara; honoured canonesses, elders and prebendaries; my lord chancellor; my lady deaness; assembled chapter.” She narrowed her eyes. “And my most honoured Lord Seeker. I beg your indulgence to present an account of the circumstances surrounding the death of Divine Justinia and the appearance of the Breach, and I present her final orders to me.”

*

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