Fear & Surprise, Chapter Six

by artrald

Previous

Up

Next

Another productivity bonus chapter.

*

…The question will forever be asked of each of the surviving canonesses of the Chantry, I suspect, until the day that we die: why exactly is it that we did not embrace the Inquisition wholeheartedly upon its foundation? After all, the Chantry Militant, the traditional guarantor of our temporal power and neutrality, had been increasingly in a state of crisis for years; no revered mother could make good upon the threat of calling upon templars for aid without risking being dragged into their war, and to make alliance with apostate mages was not merely to take a very dangerous stand but also to use what should be the direst threat of last resort as a blunt instrument. The Seekers, as our one remaining functioning ally, had been the only safety net with which our balancing act was afforded, and a stilletto was ever a poor substitute for sword and shield; why, then, would we not throw our hearts into the Seekers’ new project?

And perhaps we would have, if all had appeared at the time as I above relate: needless to say, it very much did not. For all the prowess and strength of character that had propelled her to her position as the Hand of the Divine, Cassandra Pentaghast was neither a good strategist nor a good communicator: her typically blunt and unornamented presentation of her orders at an emergency session of the remains of the Divine’s Council was misunderstood by all present as a transparent and deeply inappropriate power-grab from a woman who had suddenly found her political support crumbling in the wake of the Conclave debacle.

The reaction of the Lord Seeker to the announcement, though of course his posturing was no influence upon our judgement, is the stuff of popular legend. Yet to this day, one cannot help but wonder how much of that was due to Cassandra’s simple, unornamented style: what would have happened if the man later called the Herald of Andraste had been the one to request our cooperation that day, and not his handmaiden the Seeker…

from the memoirs of Hevara, Grand Cleric of Val Royeaux, 9:40 Dragon

*

Cassandra finished speaking, and the sound of clapping filled the chapter-house – the clapping of a single pair of black-gloved hands, the Lord Seeker giving a resounding one-man round of applause, and Cassandra half-turned to face him, carefully not turning her back on the Divine’s empty throne. Their eyes met like duelists’.

“Bravo, sister; well presented, well-spoken and well crafted. I especially like the convenient nature of the order, the note of prescience alluding to the events of what would literally have been the following day – I suppose your witnesses to the unsealing of your warrant are Nightingale and Kingfisher and Mynah?”

“Kingfisher was lost alongside the Divine, honoured brother,” Cassandra responded stiffly. “As well you know.”

“Do I?” He looked us over. “Very good, sister; your account is heard and understood; that will be all.”

Sometimes you don’t need to see through a mask to tell someone’s expression. “Lord Seeker – I’m not finished.”

“No, no, I think that Council has had quite enough in the way of earthshaking revelation for one day, and you are surely exhausted from your trip; it might be best if you were to return to the cloister and allow Council to discuss these matters further.” He turned back to the canonesses, as if we were the floor show. “I beg chapter’s indulgence for poor Cassandra; she -”

Poor Cassandra took a rough hold of the man’s shoulder, meaning to turn him physically to face her; instantly they were at the centre of a semicircle of templars, eight hands on hilts, eight pairs of hard eyes staring right at her. Iron Bull, his arms folded, was between me and them as if he had never been standing anywhere else. Varric backed up towards the door on noiseless feet. The silence got a little harder-edged.

“For shame,” said the Lord Seeker evenly, not moving, neither blinking or looking away from Cassandra’s eyes. “To threaten my grieving sister so.”

“I acknowledge my error, ser.” One of the templars spoke, little more than a whisper. “I shall seek to correct it.” None of them moved a muscle.

“How dare you.” She kept hold of him. “I am the Right Hand of the Divine Justinia, and no subordinate of yours-”

“Indeed you were; there are many creatures known whose appendages would continue to twitch upon their death for hours, but surely it would be a miracle for one to be still active a good fortnight thereafter.” He glanced down at her hand on him. “Do you truly wish to make a scene here, Cassandra? Ask our audience, perhaps, how many of them will support your little creative adventure? Shine, as you are so fond of saying, the harsh light of truth upon your works? Do you wish to me to use the long words, the ones I can’t put back again?” He let the words fall into silence and dropped his voice to nearly a whisper. “Do you truly hate Mother Chantry that much, that you would tear down the last branch of her support over something as paltry as your retirement plan?”

“Go on,” she growled. “Say your damned words, Lucius, and behold my trembling fear. The Inquisition-”

“The Inquisition.” He turned away, playing to the audience, and Cassandra let him pull free. “The corpse of an honourable name four hundred years in the ground, disinterred and desecrated and strung up a flagpole, and you propose to parade it before the world at the head of a pack of malcontents and deserters and oathbreakers, mercenaries and idiots and heretics?”

Cassandra flushed quite pale. “You accuse Seeker Leliana Rossignol, Knight-Captain Cullen Rutherford of Honnleath, Her Excellency Josephine Montilyet, Lord Maxwell Trevelyan of Ostwick – quite apart from my own honour, this will not stand. You’ll retract, ser. I will not have it.”

“You will not have it?” He spun on his heel and faced her once again. “Oh, but this is priceless. Did you not arrive in the same party as the man you call Andraste’s Herald? Is he not literally standing in this room right now?”

Uh-uh. It was like my lips were nailed shut. Maybe some kind of storied hero might have opened his trap then, saved the day with a glorious speech – not me. Not a chance.

“Andraste’s Herald?” Cassandra’s eyes were seeking out Chancellor Broderick among those seated. “Your source has been listening too much to the rumours in the taverns, Lord Lucius. There were three of the Order of the Temple within earshot when Lord Trevelyan made his account of the events at the Sanctuary of the Ashes; the Order of the Temple are at heart soldiers, and soldiers have a habit of drinking after a battle, and drunken people talk, and three days was enough to create really quite an exceptional rumour. Unless I miss my guess, your source must have left Haven upon the day I unsealed my orders.”

“You really have no regard for the truth, do you.” He shook his head, as if sadly. “Suddenly, then, it is that you deny that your ‘new Inquisition’ possesses a holy mandate?”

“Of course it does. The Divine’s final order is here in black and white, hand and seal.” Cassandra gestured with the copy of the warrant that she had brought. “But you are asking about the miracle. The abatement of the Breach in the sky.” She looked to me. “That is rather why I risked bringing here our only hope of closing that Breach. He is right there if you wish to cross-examine him.” Exasperation leaking out around the edges of her self-control. “Something did happen to him. Something that with all we have had at hand we have been unable to explain. Something that bears our investigation. But I will not stand here and hear a simple decent honest man decried as a heretic on the strength alone of what others say of him.”

I steeled myself; as it turned out, I needn’t have bothered. The Lord Seeker simply sniffed, a little theatrically. “Bullshit.” Once again playing to his audience. “The fragrance in the air is growing, n’est-ce pas? Your little actor, thoroughly rehearsed, his lines double-checked to remove every shred of potential blasphemy and leave just the right amount of suggestion? To hint at a miracle? To suggest that – this – provincial bumpkin could be some kind of prophet of the Maker? Does he even speak Orlesian?”

I mean, I was having a little trouble following when they spoke so quickly, but – I opened my mouth –

“Silence.” One of the canonesses – no, wait, golden chasing on the funny hat, that meant something special – had taken to her feet. She didn’t even favour me with a glance. “Seekers, this unseemly discord is very much unlike the conduct the Chantry requires from its defenders; I can scarce believe that I must intervene, as if in some dispute of children. Lady Cassandra, as your own lips have pronounced today: Divine Justinia is dead. That title that you claim is retained by its holder as an act of compassion to the grieving, not as some kind of grotesque platform from which to grasp at the reins of power.” The old woman’s voice was precise and measured and final as a key in a lock, and Cassandra put her heels together and looked firmly at the floor. “Lord Lucius. We have heard the accounts just as you have. A literal hole torn in the sky, a desperate defence by a scant couple of dozen templars, mages and Seekers, and yet none can describe how it was that they succeeded, without mentioning a man who was neither Gifted nor armed – not to mention the many attestations we have of materially embodied demons of the Fade walking abroad from Redcliffe to Lydes – you cannot tell me there is nothing to this! You surely will not pretend that it is business as usual!” She looked from one of them to the other. “There can be no question that there is a holy cause here, and there shall be no question that the warrant is genuine; if you wish to raise one, Lord Seeker, then by all means let me have a notary summoned and issue the order myself.” She raised an arthritic hand in benediction and all I could think was that it looked just like the way I’d shoved my hand into that breach. “Go to your Templars; take them to Haven. Solve this in the most expedient-”

“Canoness Hevara.” The sheer lack of respect in the Lord Seeker’s tone was enough to shock her into silence. “You do not understand. Haven was an atrocity beyond bearing, yes; as was Kirkwall; as are a dozen others I can point to. Just because this one happened to target our beloved Most Holy and happen in plain sight does not make it any less of a symptom, and not a cause. But I agree: it is time for the Seekers to act in sureness. I shall take your blessing in the manner in which you intended it, and I thank you for your sanction of our holy cause: yes, by all means I shall solve this, and yes, we march tomorrow.” He cast a disparaging glance at Cassandra. “I am afraid that in the presence of those of unknown loyalties I cannot speak for where.”

And I don’t know whether it was some hidden meaning to what he said, or some signal I missed, but Cassandra backed up to Iron Bull’s side immediately and Varric was hissing at the chanters to open the damned door and the only movement either of them made was to stand in his way. “You have made a series of serious accusations, Lord Lucius.” Cassandra’s hands were open, her stance even, her weight on the balls of her feet and she hadn’t drawn. The qunari hadn’t even moved. “Were you thinking that you’d make some kind of arrest to go with them?”

“Don’t be a fool, Raven.” Lord Lucius took a step towards us, and his templars were at his side and they were a hairsbreadth from drawing those weapons.

“You are the ones who threaten to defile this holy place.” Cassandra’s voice wasn’t much more than a growl. Iron Bull hadn’t moved in the slightest, and I found myself wondering exactly how much difference his size made, and that it probably was not eight people’s worth –

“By all means, sister, let us take this outside, where everyone can see.” He nodded to the chanters behind us and the doors came silently open.

And, well. That bloody tore it.

Because the courtyard was seemingly full of templars, and while I’m sure they didn’t wear those fine cloaks to war, their armour was real enough. I picked out our own half-dozen escorts standing helplessly in a little knot over there, and it was Varric who swore out loud.

Iron Bull didn’t give more than a glance. “Hnh. Company. Orders, sera?”

The two Seekers met each other’s gaze, neither making a move, like wolves staring one another down. The silence stretched. I swear everyone in the room could hear my heart pounding.

But Cassandra blinked first .”Damn it. Stand down. We’re all friends here.” She hadn’t even looked out of the door. “My lord,” she grated, “clearly you have much to discuss with Council, and I and my people are tired after our long journey. Your permission to return to the cloister and rest, thence to await your orders.”

“Of course.” He smiled, an acceptance of victory, and raised his voice. “Please escort Her Grace and her companions to the Cloister of Cathaire; we would not wish for them to become lost en route.”

*

And, well. As arrests went, this was probably the least objectionable I’d ever been a party to. The Cloister was a tall, pretty building, and the guards on the door were hooded and humorless Templars, but if this was a prison then it was a prison fit for a princess. You know, last season’s tapestries, nowhere to tie a dozen yards of hair, peas in every last feather bed – not a servant in sight – I tell you, if this palatial place was somebody’s idea of hell, then somebody needed a damn good hiding.

Looks like Varric was just as confused. Our ‘escort’ ushered us into a finely decorated hallway and closed the door with a polite little click – with himself on the outside – the dwarf stared at the door and then at Cassandra, and his eyebrows nearly disappeared into his hairline. “Uh.” He made a show of checking that he was still armed. “Could I uh.” He turned to Cassandra. “Have the annotated edition, maybe? Of the translation from Orlesian into what-the-actual-fuck? With footnotes on topics ranging from ‘why’ to ‘the hell are we in a damn palace’?”

“This is no palace.” Iron Bull nodded to the door. “That door is rune-sealed. Easier to break down a wall. Nobody but perhaps a templar could even touch that lock to pick it, and what templar learns to pick a lock? I’m betting I could take a sledgehammer to those pretty windows and it wouldn’t even leave a mark.”

Cassandra opened a door to reveal a light and airy hall the size of a rich noble’s solar and similarly furnished: fine chairs, a writing-desk, a table furnished with half a dozen actual decanters. “The Cloister of Cathaire is where we keep over-bred idiots until their people can be summoned to take them in hand – hence naming it after one of Andraste’s generals – it sounds like an honour, it feels like an honour for approximately long enough to get that door shut, and it’s utterly impervious. This is a studied insult to me personally – the Lord Seeker knows exactly what I think of gilded cages. As for the rest of you, though?” She stalked over to the drinks table. “I suspect he will leave us to stew until morning; plenty of time for his vanguard to set off, plenty of time for his orders to be sent out without my interference. So I suggest you enjoy your stay in one of the finest guest-houses in the world. Have a drink. Have a seat.”

Well, you didn’t need to tell me twice. Regardless of anything else, better to sit than stand – mindful of Iron Bull’s lessons, I put my back to a wall and my arse on one of the expensive chairs.

She poured out a measure into one of the glasses. “Iron Bull? I’ve seen qunari drink blightwasp venom; there’s nothing here quite this sharp, but this is probably the closest we have.”

His ears twitched. “I have had whisky before, Seeker. You know, once or twice. For medicinal purposes.”

Varric just stood there, looking at them incredulously. “Have you two lost your mind? You know perfectly well that-”

“Varric.” She motioned him inside the room with a quick gesture. “Come and sit down. What is to your taste? Brandy? Sack?”

His eyes narrowed. “You’re not seriously going to drink anything they gave us.”

She raised an eyebrow. “If they wanted us dead, we’d have been lost down a side-street and never seen again. The drink in this place is as safe as if I had furnished it myself. Come, see for yourself.”

And the moment the slightly bemused dwarf stepped inside the room, the door closed itself – my ears popped – and Cassandra put down the decanter with a sigh. “Honestly, Varric. I thought you said you were from Orzammar.”

“So, no whisky?” Iron Bull held out a hand with a plaintive expression; she shoved the glass at him with a scowl and he fielded it without spilling a drop.

Cassandra stepped to the exact centre of the room. “Short version? Lord Seeker Lucius was my superior until the Divine appointed me rather than him as her Right Hand. You got all you need of our history from our conversation, I believe; he’s abandoned his post if he’s come back to the capital, which worries me far more than anything he said over there: he was at Grand Master Samson’s side because we desperately needed some sanity beating into that idiot. We got everything that we needed from that conversation: the Inquisition has the Chantry’s blessing, now, did you notice? And Lucius has just locked me in one of my own damned dungeons: he deserves everything that he is about to get.” She looked at Varric, still standing there slightly slack-jawed. “Sit down and shut up: you’ll abrade the spell.”

Iron Bull froze, the drink halfway to his lips. “Magic.”

“Yes. Transfigurations, first chapter, third verse – mages exist for a reason, and it isn’t to sit around in ivory towers making armour for lords with more money than muscles. Have you never seen a spell before?”

“Yeah, sure. Just… surprised, that’s all.” He sat back, deliberately took a sip of the whisky and his expression said that he regretted that.

“Osprey.” Cassandra looked straight up and spoke in a loud ringing voice, and the echo was wrong, as if she was standing in a bare stone room and not this palatial hall. “The name of our mage is Minaeve, apprentice to the late Enchanter Thorvald; failing that, the Seekers have… acquired an apostate named Solas who may be able to hear you. We came to the city with the Bull’s Chargers company, camped outside the Sun Gate; reassure them, if you please, or we will be dealing with surplus rescue attempts. For Nightingale: the Eagle flies south and east tonight or tomorrow with the whole flock, and I know not where. This will leak to the Grand Enchanter; that is acceptable.”

A pause.

Silence.

“Bah.” Cassandra scowled. “I suppose a response was too much to hope for.” She turned to the rest of us. “All right; Osprey now knows where we are, and all that remains to us is to sit tight. We will have a few moments before the spell fades and our watchers become able to overhear us again – Is there anything anyone desperately needs to know in secrecy?”

Varric raised a hand, his lips sealed; he looked meaningfully at the door.

“I’m very well aware you can pick the lock on our front door, and I’m very aware that the Bull and I can handle those guards, and if we suddenly have an overpowering need to be out of the capital without weapons or mounts, we can be.”

Iron Bull spoke up. “You seriously took the mages’ side, in the Apostasy?”

“The Divine and her people took neither side and have agents on both. Neutrality means -” She glanced at the door; its handle was slowly turning by itself. “If you play no favourites and people assume you are on one side, that is by itself informative.”

And the door opened, with nobody opening it, and there was a slight little pop from the air, and Cassandra picked up the decanter she’d laid down with a raised eyebrow. “Mm. Another one for you, Trevelyan?”

I waved a hand in languid impression of a money-for-brains arsehole. “Don’t mind if I do, Seeker.”

*

The sack was barely passable, and Varrick identified it as having traveled a dozen miles and aged maybe a year; the brandy had all the subtlety of a lump hammer; Iron Bull opined that he could have pissed better whisky, and I said that truly was this place the most refined of tortures, and Cassandra growled, but I think she was amused. Varric had – of course – a set of knucklebones, and the three of us fell to playing while Cassandra knelt in what looked like a terribly uncomfortable position in the entryway and I could hear her whispering the Canticle of Trials.

And just as night had properly fallen, the key turned in the lock.

The door had creaked when we first came in; it opened in complete silence. The one holding the handle –

Short little thing, scruffy blonde hair, Varric’s height, pointed ears; she was dressed in what looked like the desecrated corpse of a fine young lady’s ball-gown, odd and mismatched sleeves, skirts hacked off around the knees, bare mud-stained legs, and the whole thing accessorised with a good solid pair of boots. She didn’t take her eyes off Cassandra as she stepped inside, moving like a cat, and pushed the door closed negligently with one foot.

“Hoy, quick,” she said, by way of greeting. “Spectin’ someone?” I suppose she thought she was speaking Orlesian.

Cassandra nodded to one of the carvings on the wall. “I suppose that Lord Lucius sent you?”

“Pff.” The elf smirked. “Eavesdroppers only hear ill, am I right? Don’t flap, that bugger’s got his head in a bucket. I get the right house?”

“You did.” Cassandra unfolded to her feet. “Come on, boys,” she threw over her shoulder. “Time to do some work.”

The elf crossed her arms. “You raised in a barn?”

Cassandra blinked. “Excuse me?”

She cleared her throat. “Introductions. Polite, right? Can’t go ’round calling you ‘quick’, you’ll only get confused with the others.”

Sigh. “I’m Raven. These are Varric, Iron Bull, and -”

The elf turned, walked straight past Cassandra towards me, and all three of my companions were half a step towards getting in her way when she fell unfeignedly to one knee, bowed her head. “My Herald. The bigjobs might’ve forgotten what’s what but some people still know. May have noticed you’re in danger.” She looked up at me and her eyes flicked in Iron Bull’s direction briefly. “You want to lose these?”

Varric snorted. “Like to see you try.”

The elf went extremely still, and I saw Iron Bull uncross his arms – just a casual gesture, but he hadn’t done that when threatened by half a dozen templars. Her voice had ice in it when she spoke. “I’d like that too. Can I?”

So that had been about long enough for me to get my wits together. “N-no. No. They’re my bodyguards.”

“As y’say.” She nodded. “Great job they’re doing, too. Never mind. Herald’s one of ours now. One foot, one hand, one finger, one thumb, anyone puts any one out of place, they lose all four.” And she turned her gaze to the floor. “M’name’s Jenny, lordship, Red Jenny.” Behind her, I saw Cassandra’s eyebrows go right up. “You want out?”

“I was expecting you, Jenny.” I saw her eyes go bright at that. Shit. What did I say? “And yes, we need to get to Osprey as soon as we can.”

Another quick, sure nod. “Can I get up?”

“It was your idea to kneel,” I said – me and my big mouth –

And she stood immediately in a single fluid motion, moving like she hardly had a solid bone in her body, and I very nearly flinched back. But her eyes were still bright in a way I don’t think I’d ever seen pointed at me before, and she met my eyes for a moment and flashed a delighted little smile without showing her teeth. “You’ll follow, then, lordship.”

She pulled lightly on the door-handle and it swung silently open. The hall outside was empty, bare of guards, bare of everything but four red bundles of cloth. Templar red. Jenny picked one up and literally threw it at Cassandra; picked up a second, walked over, presented it to me with a duck of her head. “Cloak, lordship, and a mask in that.  Keep moving, yeah? Head down?” She nodded to Iron Bull and Varric. “Idjits said three bigjobs, didn’t let on that they meant a quick, a rock and a -” she looked up at Iron Bull – “Whatever y’are. So where it’s light, you boys are walkin’ in front playin’ prisoner, right?”

Cassandra was already pulling her cloak on. “You all she sent?”

“There’s one truth.” She opened the front door, again without a sound; again, no guards. Looked back at us. “Shadows are a good thing. C’n you see in the dark?”

“I can,” said Varric. “Rest of ’em, not so much.”

“Kay.” She turned to me; I had the cloak around my shoulders and was regarding the mask that had come with it, quartered red and white with black streaks that reminded me of a rat’s whiskers. “Lordship, on m’life, by m’name, you’re safe. Come with. We’ll be walking in darkness but dark and quiet’s better than the other way, and it’s just as soon, like.”

I shot a glance at Cassandra; she frowned, but she nodded. I put the mask on. “Lead on, Red Jenny.”

*

And she hadn’t been joking about the darkness. The avenues of Val Royeaux, the boulevards, they fairly shone with the fairytale starlight glimmer of lightstones strung in every tree and set in every statue; we’d been on one for about fifty feet when Jenny took us down an alley and into the gloom of the narrow back-streets, behind the facade and into a disorientating maze of what were probably charming little streets in the light. She took the lead; Varric brought up the rear; the rest of us were practically blind. Just about see my hand in front of my face.

“So,” Varric asked quietly. “Red Jenny. Who’s that?”

“A folk hero,” Cassandra answered. “The bogeyman of the upper class. Play your games all you like, they say, but noblesse oblige. Keep faith with the lands and the people you rule. Or one day you will look around and find that Jenny has joined your table.”

“And Jenny plays for keeps?”

The elf snorted and didn’t turn her head. “Other way about.”

“Oh?”

“Psh. She’s bearing tales, not me.” No further words seemed to be forthcoming.

Cassandra cleared her throat. “The idea is that Jenny is there to wreck the Game. Just an unexpected finger on a scale, here or there. A letter misplaced, an instruction misunderstood. Someone does their job too well, or not well enough. A distraction ends up being the main event. A minion unexpectedly takes initiative. Suddenly the ground beneath your feet is shifted; your moves don’t do what you expect; allies are offended, rivals take advantage, the Empress’s people have a habit of turning up, and everything is your fault.”

“You’re telling me she keeps the backbiting from catching the populace? Keeps the Empress’ peace?”

Jenny spat. “Wash your mouth, rock.”

Cassandra’s voice was troubled. “Red Jenny has never done the Throne’s work. But something else concerns me. The stories, all of them, they disagree on many points. Some say Jenny is a human, some say she’s an elf; some say she’s an abomination, some say she’s just a name to be borrowed, a mask to be worn. They disagree about how she works, and what it takes to offend her, and what it takes to get her to stop. But one thing they agree on, Jenny -”

“Just the one?”

“- Could you perhaps tell me how it is that you dared lay claim to that name in one breath and lie in the next?”

Silence, a moment. Jenny stopped, stock still.

Behind me, Varric was checking our ways out. Cassandra hadn’t moved. And the silence was broken mostly by Iron Bull’s soft deep chuckle.

Jenny turned like a whipcrack. “Think it’s funny, y’big bastard, say aught like that?”

“This town.” The giant shook his head, still chuckling. “This fucking town, I don’t even know any more. Every single time. Are you really?”

“No?” She took a couple of steps away, just hardly visible in the gloom. “You want I should ditch the three of you, lose y’in the dark? Is that what you want?”

“It’s odd,” Cassandra said. “I believe you about Lord Trevelyan, now and before. But you’re telling me that Red Jenny truly works for the Seekers of Truth?”

“Why should she not?” I thought I could see that Jenny had a hand behind her back, like she was going for a knife. “Problem child, am I right? Too tall, mayhap? Too mouthy? Maybe she’s a bit too honest?”

The Seeker sighed. “If I just wanted to walk out of the city, girl, I wouldn’t have waited to be rescued. We needed to get to a specific person, quickly; the Cloister was where we were meeting her people.  And you are-”

“All grown up, clodhopper, not a quick’s chick, maybe the ears was a giveaway? No, I ain’t one of Most Holy’s little birds. No lies, though, never lied, not to a Seeker, not to the Herald, I never. One truth, right? Right there in the song?” Her teeth were white in the dark. “You made all those lies up yourself, Lady Seeker, and your words you spoke are comin’ back or I’ll forget who you work for and we’ll see how well you dance.”

And Cassandra looked at the elf for a good long moment, then shook her head. “Very well, Jenny. I heard for myself some words you did not speak, and no wonder that they were not truths. I’ve no grounds to call you liar.”

“Hmph. Bloody quicks. Just words t’you, ain’t it.” The elf stood there another couple of breaths, clenching and unclenching her fists, then hissed to herself and turned back around in the darkness. “Hsh. Pick your feet up. Osprey, soonest. You heard.”

Cassandra raised an eyebrow. “She didn’t send you, and you expect us to believe you know where she is and that we’re expected?”

“What d’you take me for? You’re looking for the Iron Lady; she’s at her meant-to-be-squeeze’s, the sad one who never ploughed a furrow in his life. ‘Cross the river and halfway up the hill.” The elf threw a grin at us over her shoulder in the gloom, all trace of offence gone like it had never been there. “Last one there’s a shem.”

*

See a great house on its own and it’d look out of place, it’d look gaudy and over-the-top and horrible. But to see the nobles’ abodes of Val Royeaux was to see the mansion in its natural environment. ‘The hill’ was a literal avenue of mansions, strung with starlight and punctuated with statues of masked heroes on enthusiastic horses; I was sure it had a pretty Orlesian name that his nibs would’ve been taught and forgotten. You’d find a place a little like this in Antiva City or Minrathous, in Kirkwall or Ostwick, even in Denerim – but the difference is that in Val Royeaux it was half a mile long and there were three of them. The City of the Sun might’ve been designed for them, and here they flourished.

We were going up the back, of course. Quite a substantial little road there, wide enough for a cart – you don’t exactly see them making deliveries to the front door, I suppose – and none of the people on the road paid us too much heed, beyond the odd furtive glance at the big guy with the horns.

Until Jenny stopped us outside of the back of one of the great houses just as the gate was opening, and it was her neat little step into the shadows that had all of us expecting a betrayal –

It was a templar. Two of them. Three. Red cloaks, armour, going immediately for their swords upon seeing unexpected people in the gloom, and stilling that impulse just as quickly. Because it was our templars, the ones we’d come with from Haven. And they were as surprised to see us as we were to see them. Cassandra shook hands; I was offered a handshake as well. “Uh. Lady Seeker.” The knight-lieutenant bowed his head to Cassandra. “We were just on our way to rescue you.”

The Seeker actually smiled. “Let me guess. Osprey sent out more than one party, written orders, and somehow everyone thought that everyone else was going to the Cloister of Cathaire and nobody actually went?”

“That’s… disturbingly accurate, actually, sera. I’m guessing they’re always this much of a bunch of buffoons?”

She shook her head. “Whether or not they are in the general case, in this specific one it’s not their doing. Madame de Fer is at home?”

“And in good voice, sera, yes.” He winced. “I decided I’d take the squad on the basis that, y’know, a lady’s got a right to yell at her own servants in private.”

“Very good, Lewin. Fall in.” She made to enter.

Jenny hadn’t come back out from her shadow; I made a point of turning to her, figured that there was no point losing the good graces of someone like that. “If I’m welcome, my friends are,” I started –

“Cheers, right, but there’s some things too rich for my table, lordship.” The words came from somewhere else entirely. Pretty sure she was throwing her voice. “Those words, though. You mean ’em?”

“I do.” I didn’t even look at Cassandra for that one. I’d heard his nibs give this sort of invitation to people before, and it usually meant a headache for the servants, but it was exactly what he’d have done.

“Kay.” And I thought that perhaps I could see a smile in the shadows. “Be seeing you, right?”

*

Next