Fear & Surprise, Chapter Seven

by artrald

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*

At the word of the Maker’s Bride,
Ten thousand swords r
ang from their sheaths.

At the word of her herald Shartan, the sky
Grew black with arrows.

A great hymn rose over the Valarian Fields gladly proclaiming
That those who had been slaves were slaves no more.

Canticle of Shartan, stanza 10, verses 1-3
Chant of Light, unauthorised version
confiscated from Val Royeaux alienage

*

We didn’t need to ask where Osprey was. Not that I could really understand every word when someone was speaking Orlesian quite so very fast as she was, but I’d had sufficient bollockings in my time to know one when I heard it. From the tone and flow of it, here was a seasoned tongue-lasher, and she’d just about got herself over the opening arguments and was really starting to hit her stride.

The door was another work of art, with a very surprised elf standing outside, his eyes the size of saucers as we walked up; Cassandra knocked, and the torrent of invective came to a sudden halt. And the door slammed itself open quite unattended and the servant winced.

The woman who stood in the room’s centre facing the door, one imperious hand raised – the words her portraitist would probably use would be along the lines of ‘magnificent’ or ‘statuesque’. She’d have been taller than me in bare feet, and she was wearing three-inch heels. Her gown was all strange-angled bands and intersecting stripes of starling’s wing black and mother-of-pearl white, one iridescent black glove and one shimmering white, an elaborate grey and white wig; she had the dark skin of the Orlesian west, and she wore a variegated black-and-white mask a little like the bird she was named for.

And she froze, for just that instant, and the mask hid an expression that I swear was more of a guilty schoolgirl’s than you’d ever expect on a middle-aged lady, and Cassandra just stood there with an eyebrow raised and let the silence go on.

“Leave us,” Osprey said shortly to the half-dozen assorted guards and servants she’d been berating, and they fairly fled – “Raven, my dear. Reports of your incarceration are exaggerated, I suppose?”

“Hardly.” Cassandra stalked at least far enough in that the door could close behind us. “A third party diverted your people and saw to our escape in the same breath; my guess is that they wished to acquire the Inquisition’s gratitude and were unaware that it was my own bloody jail. Casual magic, Osprey?”

“Hardly.” The tall woman mirrored Cassandra’s tone.

Cassandra half-smiled. “Dare I ask?”

“Spreading it around, my dear. All the world knows that you don’t cross Madame de Fer; someone has forgotten, and that means the old reputation needs a new lick of paint; I am sorry that you had to see. This is Lord Trevelyan?”

“It is.” I stepped forward and managed to kiss the hand she offered without looking too much the bumpkin. “My friends, Varric Tethras and the Iron Bull.”

Enchantée. As it were.” She smiled expansively. “My name is Vivienne; yes, I am an enchanter, first among equals at Montsimmard Circle, and as you may gather from my increasingly transparent alias, I was the Divine’s creature back when that was a sought-after honour. Won’t you come in? Have a drink? Make yourselves at home? You must be terribly fatigued from your incarceration.”

“You aren’t as funny as you think you are, but thank you for the thought.” Cassandra shook her head shortly. “We leave tonight. As I said, Eagle’s on the march, and it was too much to expect for him to blab his destination while he was grandstanding – if he is after Haven -”

“My dear, what do you imagine that your own fair visage will do that Nightingale and Cullen cannot? I’m quite certain they can die just as well as you can, as well, if it comes to that.”

“You mean apart from the people who flocked to a banner I raised, who might as well be wheat to a scythe as far as he’s concerned?” She frowned. “The Breach, the thing that killed the Divine – it was not a one-off affair, not some kind of explosion, it is an ongoing effect. We patched it with the aid of one of the apostates, but none of the survivors of the delegation has ever met this before, in the Fade or out. If the templars just barge in there singing, especially if they are dumb enough to slay the man who put it there -”

“At which point?”

Cassandra pursed her lips. “I had never seen the Fade, Vivienne. Not awake. Not until I stood in the ruin of black glass that was once the Sanctuary of the Ashes and looked straight up at a hole in the sky that was tearing wider before my very eyes.” She shuddered. “Not an illusion, not an influence, not a shallowing in the Veil – a physical breach, much as that is nonsensical – you must have read the reports of demons abroad – and it was growing, and all we bought was time.”

“I see.” Osprey tilted her masked head slightly. “But he knows nothing of this, and even if he did, his talk was of the Sanctuary atrocity as a symptom of the Apostasy and of his own desire to make a solution. Alternatively he marches for Lake Calenhad. He has to know the Grand Enchanter is at Ferelden Circle, that they are gathering there; the rhetoric fits better-”

Cassandra frowned. “How?”

“A decisive move. End the war with-”

“No, you misunderstand. It is not a thing within his power. That island is to all intents and purposes impossible to beseige and starve out, and the prospect of an assault is simply ludicrous – we shall warn them, of course, but Lucius would have to be literally insane to try.”

“My dear, these are-”

“Insane times, I know.” Cassandra shook her head. “I have no idea what his game is. He was assigned to the Templars, to advise Master Samson and keep what leash we can; his appearance here suggests only that the leash is the other way around. He is supposed to be in Therinfal.”

“Maybe he will come to his senses and go back there.” Osprey smiled.

“Woe betide he do something I actually want.” Cassandra’s answering smile was wintry at best. “Bah. Nightingale will find him – but regardless, we ride for Haven tonight. I assume your delegation is ready?”

“She can be easily enough, yes.”

Well, that drew a frown. “Let me guess. You asked for volunteers, refused to outright order anyone and got fewer than you would have liked.”

“As a matter of fact, I had a couple of dozen -”

Cassandra glared. “This had better be worth hearing.”

“Allow me, please, to guess a little concerning your ‘hundreds of volunteers’, Cassandra.” Vivienne began to pace. “Were there, perhaps, more than a few tradesmen? Apprentices? Squires? Innkeepers’ daughters. Did you give out a strident call to the faithful only to find it answered largely by the enthusiastic, the fanatical, the foolhardy and the young?”

“I assume you have a point.”

“I do.” She turned to look at Cassandra. “Of those four adjectives, my dear Raven, which would be useful in a mage who you propose to pit against a blasphemy so terrible that the fact of its existence is tearing holes in the Veil for a hundred miles in all directions?” Her voice was still the same sweet Orlesian purr. “The principal mission of the Circle of Magi is to protect its people from the world-”

“Fat lot of good protecting them will do if we can’t stop the Breach.”

“And a fat lot of good twenty enthusiastic volunteers will do if they lose their heads.” She shook her head. “I’m not bringing Tranquil anywhere near that, either – I’m slightly appalled that you left Helisma and the others in that town, given the effects they are experiencing.”

“They volunteered. What was I to do, turn them away?”

“Of course they volunteered: they are Tranquil with a skill to use-”

“And my other options for those skills were a rank apprentice and an elvish apostate who pretty much just walked in out of the woods.”

“And if your own six-year-old child volunteered on the basis that they had a useful skill?”

“Looking at that hole in the sky, Vivienne? Completely honestly?” Cassandra met the mage’s eyes levelly. “I’d have signed them up. At least let them go down fighting.”

She looked away. “Maker defend us from the valor of the knightly; I suppose this is why she made you Hand. Will I need to bring my own staff?”

“Of course. We are likely to need firepower before this is-”

A soft chuckle. “Secretary, groom, maid? I’d say ‘templar’, but there’s a shortage, and I hear you have your own?”

“I doubt that Mynah will turn away qualified people, but I would appreciate it if they knew what they were getting into. This is not some kind of pleasure-jaunt I propose.”

The enchanter sniffed. “I don’t employ cowards – and no, they are neither Tranquil nor mage either. Your equipment and your horses have been very, ah, thoroughly rescued; only give me time to change and say good-bye to our gracious host, and we may be gone.”

*

So we’d found the Chargers all packed up and ready to move, and we’d made a bastard of a miserable few miles of forced march in the rain. Iron Bull’s orders set up the camp well away from everything and warned us that there’d be no fires in the morning, and the only one who wasn’t cold and miserable was Vivienne in a giant fur cloak that fairly radiated warmth. Varric and I had mucked in with the others getting tents up and I’d finally bloody bid him good-night and closed the flap, hauled my armour off –

There was someone sitting on my camp bed, a dark shape in the darkness, and as I started to scrabble away it lunged and I ended up lying on my back with my attacker on top of me and a gloved hand over my mouth, and I swear, my life flashed before my eyes – “Hush, lordship,” whispered a woman’s voice in my ear.

I stopped struggling and she removed her hand, went and sat back down just as fast as she’d jumped on me. Little thing, blonde hair – Jenny. It was Jenny. I sat up. My pulse caught up with me; my hands started shaking. “W-what are you doing here?” I breathed.

“Said I’d see you.” There was a smile to the elf’s whisper. “Safe yet, lordship?”

“Uh. Well, you’re here. Is that safe?”

“Knew you’d get it.” Her voice was very soft, almost not there at all. “I’m good, right, but not alone at it. I can do this, someone else can, thought I’d have a look and see if they’d thought to.” She tilted her head, birdlike. A thought. “The quicks outside. Yours? You here by choice?”

“I am. The men are Iron Bull’s.” Some of that Orlesian paranoia was rubbing off on me, I think. “Cassandra pays him.”

“Figured that last. But Cassandra’s yours, right?”

“Cassandra’s the Maker’s.”

Jenny shook her head, a curiously violent gesture. “Harelda says I. She ever heard him? No, so she says she’s his, she’s hers with a bit of a wish. Anyway. What I came to say. Not long.” She took gently hold of my left hand by the thumb, bent her head down, touched my thumb to the top of her head. “Yours.” She released me and I took my hand back and she looked at me straight. “This world’s going straight to shit, Herald. Lot of people say there’s a Maker who wants it not to. Lot of people say, here’s his man, this one right here, the one who lived for a reason.”

“So, the stories say that Red Jenny-”

“Fucks with the bigjobs when their toes get too big? Tread too heavy and it’s not fun any more?” She nodded. “I’d’ve set the lady straight if she wasn’t on the right. Tell me, though. You seen anything in this world might look like a giant-fuckoff footprint with big ugly toes?”

I smiled. “Got you.”

“Uh-huh. So yeah. That’s me. Here to clip some toes.”

“And keep mine trimmed and all.”

“Psh. Like you’d need it. But you ain’t wrong.”

“I accept your service, Jenny, I, uh.” Really wasn’t sure what to say. What would his nibs say? “I’ll do right by you. A-as long as it’s in my power.”

“And I’ll help you keep that, am I right, the power?”

“Right.” Pause. “So, uh, I was just going to bed?”

“Mm-hmm. Looks like you need it.”

Pause. “Uh. Do you propose to, well. Stay in here?”

“D’you propose for bull-face to sell you in your sleep?”

I blinked. Pinched the bridge of my nose. “For once. Just for once. I’d like someone in this bloody world to have my best interests at heart.”

“Uh-huh. Feel you. Been there. Not there there, but there.” She was silent a few moments. “But now I’m here, and now there are, because me. Not leaving till this is done, right?”

So it’s come to something when the scary little assassin is trying to be reassuring, and it had come to something quite again when it was almost working. I nodded, slowly. “You know there’s, uh. Nowhere for you to-”

“Warmer than a tree and drier than a ditch. Don’t flap.” She got off the bed.

I flapped my mouth a moment in disbelief. “People will, people will talk, you know. You coming out of my tent.”

“Yup.” She stretched. “Look there, they’ll say. There goes a man who’s living a thousand years.”

*

I was woken the next morning by a curse and a thump.

The curse was very clearly in Krem’s accent; the thump was him hitting the floor with Jenny on top of him and a knife a half-inch under his chin.

“No, no, stop!” I catapulted into wakefulness. “Jenny, he’s one of ours!”

“Then he knocks like a good lad,” she hissed. The knife went away. Krem didn’t move.

“Morning, my lord,” he said with far too much cheerfulness for someone lying on the floor with an arm twisted behind his back. “New girlf-”

“Try again.” She tightened her grip and he winced.

“New staff, then? Done some hiring, have we?”

I threw him a helpless look. “Krem, meet Red Jenny, my maid. Jenny, meet Krem, whose job it is to make sure I don’t die of stupid.”

“Hey, is that what I do?” He grinned. “Shit, man, are you ever in trouble. Good morning, Red Jenny; knock-knock.”

She let him up. “There. So hard?”

The grin didn’t waver. “There will be four drawn swords outside this tent right now.” He raised his voice a little. “Put ’em away, boys, we’re good.”

“Right you are,” came a voice from behind me, far side of the tent.

“You staying?” he asked her.

“I stick like his nose does.”

Businesslike unflappable tone. “Okay. We’ll sort you out a bed and a-”

“Got one. Thanks ever.”

Krem looked at her, at me, back at her. “You know what? It’s not worth it. You’re still alive: we can trust her. What I came to say? Breakfast’s up and you aren’t, so, fix that. Princess Sunshine says we’re on our way soonest.”

I smiled despite myself. “Don’t let her hear you call her that.”

“I’m evil, not stupid.” He shot a glance at Jenny. “Your maid can help you with your armour. We’re not saving you any bacon.” He made to leave.

“Ain’t no bacon,” she cast after him reproachfully, and he parried with more of that smile.

“Can’t save him any, then.” He bowed his way out.

*

Quite a party we’d become, now – me and Varric commiserating over our sad lack of centaurhood, Vivienne and her half-dozen status symbols showing me what a real noble looked like – and somehow the templar riding at her side looked more like a companion than a minder. Cassandra’s eyes ever on the road behind, more troubled each day we travelled. Iron Bull and his men in easy camaraderie, hard eyes on watch behind the relaxed attitude. And Jenny only there when I looked for her, just part of the background, just not there when she didn’t need to be.

As it happened, none of the others seemed to bat an eyelid at the elf coming with us. I’d expected to have to defend her, at least to Cassandra, but apparently not; and Bull’s only comment was that tiny knife-eared killers were all the rage in the capital this season, and he was kicking himself for not having picked one up himself. And for the most part, yes, she played the elf. Much as people think it’s so, they aren’t born servants any more than humans are: this wasn’t the first time she’d filled this role, though her bright eyes and pricked ears were looking out for more than just what I’d want next. I suppose she’d grown up with it like most of them do. For my part, I got used remarkably quickly to having her around, strange as it really was to be waited on – it became somewhat of a game for her to try and find me things before I wanted them, and for me to appear not to need waiting on at all. It’s little things that make the world bearable.

There was – I remember it well – one joke around the campfire, one single joke from one of the Chargers about me liking them short. And Jenny turned her head and looked straight at him and asked him if he didn’t find ploughing three furrows a night to be a bit of a strain on campaign, before having an appraising look at a couple of the others of his lance and telling him that she didn’t really share his taste in partners, but she was glad he’d found happiness. And there was a very quiet moment. And then she gave the tiniest bit of a smile, and the men burst out laughing and proclaimed that this elf was all right, and I saw Cassandra visibly relax.

It was a fortnight’s travel back to Haven at a reasonable pace. Everyone we met on the road was going away, not towards, and as we got closer we started finding towns and villages half-deserted. Wasn’t just that malevolent carbuncle of an unnatural cloud that stood over Haven itself, either – Varric stopped to talk to more than a few of them and came back with what sounded like overblown tales of spectres and ghosties and things with more eyes than legs, and Vivienne made a face and said they rang true, naming every single one of the creatures the smallfolk had seen and saying that none of them had any business turning up outside a bad dream. Demons need a body to walk, she said, it’s a rule. And Varric said that someone should go remind the demons of that, and she smiled and said that it was on the list.

We were met by a patrol out of Haven when we were still half a day’s ride from the place – the watchtowers were new, as was the simple black surcoat with a staring white lozenge of an eye, and the slightly wide-eyed riders seemed to have got it into their heads that it’d be disrespectful to look directly at me, so I was just stuck with the mental image that they were talking to my horse. And Cassandra questioned them closely, and they said they’d seen no sign of an army – she left them with the knowledge that they were looking for one, and we rode for Haven.

The village itself – we’d been gone, what, a month – it was unrecognisable. A tall stockade had sprung up around the base of the village, making it almost a bailey, if the solidly built village chantry were a keep; outside, what had been a field had had a veritable battalion of wooden pells and quintains set up, and each one had its associated trainee with a stick. Here a squad trained with spears under the watchful eye of a templar; there, a set of butts was being approximately peppered with arrows; the white eye of the Seekers – and apparently the Inquisition, now, why not – stood upon the black flag that flew from every flagpole.

And the gates stood open, and when I’d ridden out of here I’d done so like a badly stowed sack of grain, and I rode back in like I actually might have some kind of business sitting on a horse. Still just all felt a bit unreal, like I was – well, I suppose I really was – dressing up as someone else, riding his horse like he would, wearing his armour and his colours, living his life.

Cassandra grabbed Iron Bull and peeled unexpectedly off, dismounting as if she was hiding a pair of wings under that cloak and collaring a quickly very worried Cullen; Vivienne was practically ambushed by Nightingale, kissed on both cheeks and submerged in a torrent of questions; and I walked in the front door of the Chantry and very nearly ran straight into a man in a complicated Orlesian mask and bowed by reflex.

The man returned my bow just as deep as I’d given it – his eyes took in the colours I was wearing – “The very man himself!” was his opening gambit, in an Orlesian accent you could cut with a hacksaw.

So of course I replied in Orlesian, polite smile – “Well met: I believe you find me at a disadvantage, my lord…”

“Marquis du Rellion, your worship,” filled in Josephine’s voice from some distance behind him, and I caught a slight air of desperation.

(My what?) “But of course,” I said – Rellion, we’d passed that on the way to Val Royeaux, so that made this man one of our closest neighbours – “I do apologise for not being able to greet you the instant you arrived, ser: I was speaking at the Grand Cathedral. I hope that my people were able to help you?”

He blinked. “The Grand Cathedral.”

“I am afraid so, ser. The demands of Mother Chantry must come first for all of us, I’m sure you’ll agree.”

A slight, defensive huff – “Of course. But now that you are here -”

“Please, tell me.” I smiled an approximation of his nibs’ smile. “What can I do for you that Lady Montilyet cannot?”

His voice was sickly-sweet. “I was told that there were certain – ah – decisions that only the leadership of the organisation should be making – certain things that would require your oversight – certain things that your hand and seal alone could provide?”

I nodded as if I had a clue. “Indeed, ser? I see.” I looked pointedly around at the doorway where we were standing – “Shall we go somewhere more suitable for a discussion of business?”

“Oh, here will do just fine; it shall not take long, and I am sure that all involved shall take your word as good enough.” He smiled a smile that was a little too broad, a little too pleased.

And, well. I knew that expression anywhere, and together with Josephine’s expression – “Ah, yes. What was it that you said that we owed you?”

The smile broadened a little. “Numbers are so tiresome; your lady châtelaine has the details. I believe the balance of your obligation to be somewhere around a thousand imperials?” Or in real money, enough silver to take a bath in? I closed my mouth and attempted to swallow the urge to invent an entirely new type of swearword; he saw my raised eyebrows and got at least the neighbourhood of the right impression. “Ser, much as nobody questions the rightness of your cause, yet a righteous man meets his obligations: I must do my own duty to my own liege, and that money must be found somehow: either I must administer and run my lands myself or I must collect my due from those who do; it is that simple.”

“Your… due. You are telling me that you are the Sanctuary’s landlord?”

“The Chantry, of course, operated here as per a longstanding agreement between the Sunburst Throne and her imperial majesty, but as the Divine has been now a month in the ground, and as you do not propose to be holding these lands as her legal heir…” He shrugged. “Haven and this land have been part of Rellion since time immemorial. We shall permit the Inquisition to use them, of course you may, but as I said…”

“Ser, with the kind of money you suggest, you could buy this village and everyone in it.”

“Ser, I do believe you grasp my point exactly.”

I narrowed my eyes, nodded slowly. I think that Josephine, stood behind him, might actually have been praying at this point. “I do take your meaning concerning your feudal obligation, my lord marquis. It is not right, after all, that you pay tax on land you don’t oversee: all of the burdens of a fief, you could rightly say, and none of the rights.” He nodded firmly, and I went on before he could talk over me. “But clearly -” I patted my pocket with a droll expression – “I am afraid I do not have that sort of a sum on me. What if, instead, I were to represent to the lady arlessa upon your behalf? Ask in the Inquisition’s name for your taxes to be lessened by the amount that you would otherwise be out of pocket?” I gave what I hoped was an ingratiating smile. “Perhaps neglect to mention that the census was before the disaster, rather than after?”

His smile melted like snow in summer and he glared and behind him Josephine’s eyes had gone very wide. Shit. I mean, I’d intended to offer to do him a favour instead of money we clearly weren’t good for – what had I done wrong? What had I accidentally said? I should just have kept my fool mouth shut. There was a long enough pause that I wondered if he was going to walk out silently, then he said tightly, “Don’t put yourself out, herald. I am very sure that I can find my liege-lord all by myself.”

He couldn’t slam the door, not with me standing in it; he settled for stalking out. Josephine was still looking at me with an expression of rank surprise on her lovely face; I met it with a polite smile. “I’m sorry?”

“Just out of, ah. Curiosity more than anything else.” She recovered her composure with a fake little smile. “Did you do that on purpose?”

I winced. “Beginner’s luck? Or lack thereof?”

“If you have any of that ‘luck’ left to spare, I can use all you can sell me!” The smile reached her eyes like the sun coming out. “Through what looked a great deal like force of sheer ignorance, I just saw you demolish his claim to this place, show his words up for the self-serving tosh they were and point out that we are in Ferelden, so if he tries to force the issue then the Empress will make Queen Anora a gift of his head on a plate for daring to disturb the peace, and you did it without destroying the work I’d done in making him think that I was the reasonable one: Cassandra herself could not have done better.” And she met my eyes for a second and made my heart skip a beat – “Keep it up, my lord-”

“Lady Montilyet, it’s not right you calling me that.”

She raised an eyebrow. Maker, that lady was pretty. “You and I have not even broken bread together, ‘Lord Trevelyan’; only be thankful that I am keeping the ecclesiastical titles for best. Now, come: you must tell me all about Val Royeaux, and I have half a dozen things for you to sign, seal or arbitrarily modify.”

I frowned. “But who am I, anyway? Why do I get to sign things? And come to that, what was all that ‘your worship’ about?”

“Oh, we decided the evening before you left. You’re an ignorant, high-handed foreigner who’s used to getting his way: such a useful superior you are.” She took my arm. “I swear, if you didn’t exist, we’d have to invent you. The title I used is the style of the Grand Master of the Templars, which I supposed to be approximately correct for the Inquisition’s leader: congratulations, your worship.”

I stopped dead. “All right, look, that’s enough.” She blinked at me and her dimples got if anything cuter; I carried on regardless. “There’s a young lady who joined our service while we were in Val Royeaux. Jenny, she’s called. She bent the knee to me the moment she saw me because of what people say about me, the Herald thing. Lord Lucius had us locked up; she got us out, regardless that Cassandra’s backup plan would’ve done the same. And when Cassandra made the slightest hint that she had been saying anything that was not the exact truth? She nearly started a fight with three people twice her size and more over that insult alone. Because the Maker made one Truth and she was, she was horrified by the notion that one of the Maker’s servants would be lying.”

She nodded. “It is a common enough way of thinking about that part of the Chant, yes, especially among the elves. Should I walk you through my line of reasoning? I tell you that I do not set out to-”

“Cassandra apologised. And what Jenny said was – it was just words to us, wasn’t it. It was just a – it struck close to home. You know? That words were just noises to make. True or false didn’t matter, it was whether it was useful. Just like it doesn’t matter what my mother called me -”

She turned her eyes on me and I wondered if I could see a trace of mockery in them. “Is that what you believe?”

“There’s only one truth.”

“There is.” She squeezed my arm, gently. “Tell me, Max. Of the things that you have done in the past four weeks, while we have been parted – how many of those things have you done better precisely because you were very conscious of who you were, of the mistakes that you must not make, of what you are putting on, of what you must live up to?”

Taken aback, I stuttered for a moment. “Y-you mean-?”

“I mean that it matters very much what your mother called you.” Her conspiratorial, knowing smile again. “Or at least, it did when you walked in that door just now.”

“You’re doing this on purpose?”

She looked at me straight. “My lord, we are. I don’t apologise. Three days ago we sent two dozen riders to the aid of Fort Connor, where a breach has opened in the courtyard; fourteen returned, and five of those will never fight in the front line again unless Enchanter Vivienne has some way of healing a broken mind. Solas has not left from his work for more than a few minutes in the last eighteen days. Our engagements with embodied demons have gone as well as they have because we have been able to take advantage of magical healing for the more hideous injuries: that healer is seventeen. In the room behind me and to my right are six of the Tranquil whose bodies and minds are slowly being torn apart by the chance contacts they make with images and reflections of the Breach in the process of trying to discover a solution to a problem that as far as we can tell, nobody has considered seriously since the fall of Arlathan. And at some point, I suggest that you find Ser Cullen and discuss quietly with him the side-effects of the sacraments of a templar.”

Stung, I backed up a little. “I was only saying-”

“If you feel that any heartache, risk or inconvenience that you or any of our people suffer are not worth the gains they provide us, then tell me – and sooner, rather than later. But I will not apologise for playing for keeps, and for using every weapon we have.” Her eyes were fierce. “The Maker did not give me Cassandra’s size and strength, or her training and background, or the rank and titles she so readily disdains. He did not give me His Gift as he did to Vivienne, and He did not give me Nightingale’s heart and mind of steel. I believe you could say much the same. But what He did give us, that we shall use: and if it is discovered that we can give more, if it is discovered that there is a thing we can do for the cause and we are not doing it, then we shall give more, do more, and damn the cost. It is not that a holy end justifies all means, Max.” She took my arm again, and her tone softened. “But neither is this a business in which one may tie one’s hands. We should consider ourselves lucky, you and I, that such suffering as we have had has so far been of the infinitely bearable kind. Come; I really do require your seal.”

*

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