Fear & Surprise, Chapter Ten

by artrald

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*

No matter their power, their triumphs,
The lords of Tevinter were mortal:
Human and doomed to die.
To them a voice whispered within their hearts,

“Shall you surrender your power
to time like the beasts of the fields?
You are the Lords of the earth!
Go forth to claim the empty throne of Heaven
And be gods.”

In secret they worked
magic upon magic
All their power and all their vanity
They turned against the Veil
Until at last, it gave way.

Above them, a river of Light,
Before them the throne of Heaven, waiting,
Beneath their feet the footprints of the Maker,
And all around them echoed

Silence.

But when they took a single step
Toward the empty throne
A great voice cried out
Shaking the very foundations
Of Heaven and earth:

“AND SO IS THE GOLDEN CITY BLACKENED
WITH EACH STEP YOU TAKE WITHIN MY HALL.
MARVEL AT PERFECTION, FOR IT IS FLEETING.
YOU HAVE BROUGHT SIN TO HEAVEN
AND DOOM UPON ALL OF THE WORLD.”

Thus violently were they cast down,
bearing the mark of their Crime.
For no mortal may walk bodily
in the realm of dreams.

So were their bodies maimed and twisted
That none should see them
And know them for those that once they were.

Deep into the earth they fled,
Away from the Light.
In Darkness eternal they searched
For those who had goaded them on,

Until at last they found their prize,
Their god, their betrayer:
Their sleeping dragon. Their taint
reached even unto the false-god, and the whisperer
awoke at last, in pain and horror,
And led them to become a blight unto the nations of the world.

Threnodies 8, Chant of Light
attributed to Hessarian
founder of the Imperial, or Black, Chantry of Tevinter

*

They opened the gates for him.

The unearthly green of the light from that bloody cloud was bright as the full moon, but in his cloak with the hood pulled up he could’ve been anything; he couldn’t see the crossbows’ points. Tried to spur his horse forward, managing a feeble twitch of the heels; luckily she knew what he wanted.

Never been here before. Couldn’t really hear the voices calling to him, asking first who he was, then demanding, then inquiring hesitantly and redundantly if he was all right. Couldn’t hear them. But the horse knew where she was going, made her exhausted way up the incline towards where perhaps other horses might be.

Slowed to a confused halt in the big dark shadow of a building of some kind. Clearly, he was there. Clearly, therefore, somehow he had to reach the ground. Reins in left hand. Lean forward, grip the saddle, foot out of the right stirrup – the world turned upside down, hit him hard in the back and the back of the head and then it was later.

The light hurt his eyes. Something was dreadfully important but it escaped him. He was sitting, not lying down. He wasn’t wearing his armour. He wasn’t wearing his shirt. Someone bending down before him, eyes intent. She was the source of all of the light in the world.

Hadn’t he been injured? He supposed that he had. The memory was fading, like a dream upon waking. Certainly the only feeling his body was giving him now was tiredness. He must have gone to sleep here and dreamed that he’d ridden hard – from –

He tried to say the place’s name. It was so very important. Words didn’t seem to come out right. He couldn’t move. Maybe this was the dream. Maybe he was still in the saddle, or lying on the ground somewhere along the highway with a raven pecking at his fresh scars, waving a hand in front of the eye he was confused to own, to see if he was paying attention.

“Wake him.” A woman’s voice, an alto. It meant little.

A higher voice, middle-aged. “With all due respect-”

“Ser Blackwall thought it was worth getting on a horse injured and riding himself and his mount half to death to get here before morning. Wake him.”

A reproachful pause. “This is on your conscience, you know.”

“It can get in line. Do you want that I should go and get Solas?”

A sigh. More light. Brighter. Insistent. A sudden feeling like fire in the blood, like every muscle in his body wanted to contort itself at once, and Blackwall  sat up violently and swore explosively in Orlesian. Spots danced and kneaded before his eyes, especially the right. The woman who had been the source of that light had a hand on his shoulder. “Can you see me?”

“Mnh. Merde. Ow.” He blinked a few times. “Inquisition?” he slurred.

“That’s right. You’re safe, now. In Haven.”

He nodded, carefully, in case his head came off. The memory of his wounds was fading like a dream. Surely he had imagined ever being in pain. “Need to see. Sera Cassandra. Important. Demons. Hole in the – nngh.” The mage frowned and the dizziness faded. Blackwall looked around, his eyes found the pale lady in the black tabard and were convinced to focus. “M’lady, the Inquisition, I need your help, your man with the hand. Demons, there are. Not walking dead, a-actual – things with seven arms and seven eyes and – they didn’t have skin, they had teeth -”

Cassandra’s tone was as level as her expression. “Where?”

“Redcliffe.” The word seemed to breathe life into him and colour into his cheeks. “Redcliffe town. There’s a rift not ten feet outside the south gate.” He swallowed hard. “I got the damned gate shut, but it cost me -” he blinked – “A shield. An eye, o-or so I’d thought. Half a dozen broken ribs.” Careful glance at Cassandra. His wits were coming back. “The arl’s a dotard. His people aren’t that many.”

“But Redcliffe is well defended nonetheless.” That was a newcomer, a redhead in hastily thrown-on leathers, walking like a dancer or a cat. “My people tell me nine true battle-mages, and twice that number of the apostates’ militia, including the arl’s own son; the standing guard is fifty.”

He grunted. “Not fifty, not since sundown. And say what you like about the mages, but that town would be a burning ruin right now if not for them, and my bones would be on the heap with the rest, Warden or no. Connor Guerrin was-” his voice clotted in his throat for a moment, nobody who looked like that should still be alive – “hurt. He said his people will hold as long as they can, but while they might see one dawn, he doesn’t reckon they’ll see the next.”

Cassandra clasped her hands behind her back. “Nightingale, you have Connor Guerrin in your book. When we show up with a score of Inquisition templars, will he work with us or against us?”

“With. If I am not there, of course.” She smiled crookedly. “That house has seen the best of the Chantry Militant, but not of me personally.”

“Right. Go: wake Lord Trevelyan. Remember to knock.” She turned to the black woman. “Make him able to ride, and his horse -”

“Oh, I’m coming with you.” The hand she offered Blackwall was surprisingly strong. “If this is to be a show of force, dear, let’s make sure we show some.”

*

I’d limped out into the village square to find my horse already saddled, with the look that said she was very much prepared to play torture-instrument today; my legs protested that it wasn’t time to go back up that bloody hill and my head reminded me that it was more like midnight than dawn, and my shoulders protested the weight of my plate and chain. Walked out into that square and there was Vivienne in what looked very much like a riding outfit wrought of shimmering chainmail, if chainmail draped like cloth, and it was like the weight and the aches and the tiredness lifted from me as if the light that shone around her was a week of hearty food and bed-rest.

We mounted like we weighed nothing at all, and as Cassandra led us out at the trot I could tell that even the horses could feel it. My old girl had been chosen for her placid temper, but even she was throwing her feet out like it was spring and all was right with the world; Cassandra had to have a few words with her own more spirited fellow, all set to take off at a flying gallop. And once we were on the road proper, Cullen took the pace up: I was used to riding long distances at a palfrey’s comfortable lope, but we kept going faster and faster until it went from routine to exhilarating and out the other side into a feeling very much like I had a fine new tiger by the tail, or at least by the reins – not that I felt that my horse was paying any attention to anything I was telling her.

Should have hurt. Didn’t. A month is not long enough to train a man to ride this fast on Fereldan roads, not to keep up with a column of seventy-five centaurs. The templars were sweating, variously pale and flushed, their faces unreal in the ice-white light that lit our way and filled us to the bones. The rest, the Inquisition’s patchwork outriders, they reflected the easy serenity of the light itself; weightless we rode, like ghosts ourselves. I remembered Solas’ words about the cost of magic and wondered who was paying for this, and how, and if my arse would tell me in the morning.

It felt like we’d ridden halfway to forever in this dream, hooves eating up the miles in endless pounding rhythm, the whole world become nothing but road and horse and rider. This was what it was supposed to feel like, what it was supposed to be. This was the dream of riding, not the real thing.

And we crested the final hill and the wooden palisade of Redcliffe town fairly shone with light. No need to inquire where the fighting was. No need to ask where we could help. We could see it plain as day.

It was like a thunderstorm had come down to live in that town. As I looked, there was a flash and a clap of thunder rolled towards us from the south gate. Light blazed atop the southern wall, blue-white, hard-edged and inhospitable. Seven points of light there were, like it shone from seven lamps, and each lamp was held aloft by a figure robed in darkness, and I reeled a little as it faded, only for another thunderclap a couple of dozen hoofbeats later, another flash, an uneven irregular pattern that continued as we rode closer.

We reined in and dismounted some way short, the dream of lightness fading away, feeling like Vivienne had picked it up and folded it away like a fair cloth, but it didn’t take away that feeling of vitality that it had lent me. The templars were passing a flask from hand to hand, each taking a sip in turn, suspiciously little water for sweating warriors – a shiver went down my spine as I heard each one repeating the next verse of something out of the Canticle of Trials and realised that that was not water at all. The sacrament lent steadiness to their voices and strength to their arms, not lifting them above the world as Vivienne’s magic had but bedding them into it, and they took down their curved shields and strapped them on, a wall of steel and faith.

Dawn was just threatening to tip its nose over the horizon. Last week or so I’d become far too familiar with this unearthly time of the bloody morning. But I wasn’t seeing by the glimmer on the eastern sky. Because in the middle of a half-circle of blasted and baked earth like terracotta, bones and arrows and broken weapons and shields strewn here and there, not far from the stout and blackened timbers of the sealed gate and about six feet off the ground, stood the biggest rift I’d seen since we patched the big one. And it shed for us a green and poisonous light like the one from my nightlight, a light that didn’t give a damn that the templars didn’t think it should exist.

And as we watched, that rift stretched obscenely in the air. Hands reached through, unlovely things full of claws on the end of spindly arms that were too long, and legs that reached to touch delicately at the ruined earth below it, the bulk of a bloated body –

Lightning struck again. Vivienne raised a hand in warding, but it was nowhere near us. And when the thunder had rolled off and away, all that was left of the demon was bones and blasted earth. And Blackwall swore.

“Wasn’t like this when I fucking left,” was what he said, to be precise. “Can’t hold for long, they said-”

“They cannot.” Vivienne nodded to the seven mages on the walls. “Three staves between seven mages, you will note, and they are not using them: they are using power and talent to substitute for preparation. It will last until sunrise, and then they will be no good to anyone for days afterward:  I do not propose that we discover whether they have access to a second shift.”

A voice spoke to us from the air as we walked warily closer, a man speaking at a conversational tone, using magic rather than raise his voice. “Beware,” he said, the accent thickly and tiredly local. “Beware and come no closer!” His voice sounded thin and plaintive, his warning slightly pointless and flat; it came to me that that was our templars, their aura doing its job and driving back the magic. “We have it contained, and the dawn will quieten it; please, my lords and ladies, if you walk into that… I’ve seen it. You will die. That’s not a, a threat. It’s just how it will be. Please. There’s a west gate, I can meet you there?”

Vivienne shot Blackwall a glance. “Did you know there were Tevene here?”

“Tevene? You sure?” The bearded man shook his head. “I’d’ve laid you damn good odds there weren’t.”

“Yes, my good man, I’m quite sure.” She nodded to the speaker, leaning on a wooden crenel. “The spell he’s using is of Tevinter origin, Ersken’s Telikousis; fair enough, a good third of them are, except that there was a superior version invented at the very Circle any man with that accent studied at. Thus.” She flicked her wrist and an orb of half-solid white mist seemed to form in her hand. “Who speaks?”

“Surprise Vints. Lovely. My favourite people.” Cassandra stepped forward, ahead of the templars, and Vivienne cast the mist gently into the air before her; she spoke Fereldan. “I thank you for your concern, friend, but I know what I see before me. In the name of the Sunburst Throne, I commend you for your valour and thank you for your aid.”

The voice was filled with concern. “M’sera, surely you know that this is no mere magic you see: the knights by your side-”

“I know.” Cassandra’s sword scraped out of the scabbard and behind her the templars drew as one. “I do thank you, ser. Without your aid, our task today would be a hollow one and sad indeed. But you have done enough.” She smiled, and I swear, if I’d been a demon, I’d’ve been crawling right back up inside that rift just about then. “Stand back.”

The demons had been holding back, of course. Hiding, biding their time, concealing their strength, and waiting for some fool to come close enough, and we called their bluff. They tried to come at us from thin air, from all sides and above, but Vivienne spoke to the air and the things were cast back by a sudden howling of wind that was almost solid. The templars’ blades cleaved the creatures’ chitinous hide as if it was nothing harder than bare flesh; the demons fell upon them and not just did the line hold, but they kept up their implacable advance. Behind the templars, our warriors made a forest of spearpoints; barbed spearheads with crosspieces like hunting spears, they had: and the demons were quite real and solid enough to be met like a boar or a bear, to be stuck with a dozen points, to bleed, to fall.

We’d done it half a dozen times before; we did it once more. I walked up like the man I was dressed as, feeling just as out-of-place as my old master the idle Marcher prince would’ve been, and I stabbed my hand into the rift like a blunt needle into coarse cloth. Hit me like a board, greyed my vision, froze my hand solid. Grab, twist, like I had hold of the Veil itself – the world was speeding up, everything just happening too fast, events all piling on top of themselves – pulled hard towards me and I could feel my bones creak – I could see Cassandra standing to my right, staring at me for a moment then reaching out to me like a flash and Vivienne physically pulling her away, moving like lightning –

I got my hand out of the rift and opened my fingers and everything snapped back together, feeling like I was suddenly twenty feet tall and far too narrow. Fell panting to one knee and tried not to collapse – I could just about hear two people talking incredulous and excited on the top of the wall, Cassandra saying quietly that it didn’t usually take that long and Vivienne making a slow worried affirmative noise. Yeah. Give me a minute, I said, and they did.

The next thing I really noticed was the town gate scraping and juddering itself open. The hinges were bust, I could see as I straightened myself up, and someone must have magicked up solid stone pins out of thin air to replace them. But even I could see that the soldiers who opened the gate were wrong.

Men, every one of them, full armour, helmets open, halberds held easy, like they couldn’t quite decide whether we were friend or foe. Olive-skinned in the unflattering mage-light, dark-haired: nobody would mistake these men for Fereldans. And they met a rank of wary templars, their drill lent a sudden professional snap by what I’ll call national pride. It didn’t matter to them in that moment that I was a Marcher, because dammit, if you can see one single Vint then everyone else in the world is a southerner.

So I tried to borrow a little of their straight-backed resolve, stood next to Cassandra and made ready for the usual act where she did everything and pretended it was my idea – and the soldiers parted for a soft-clad hooded man who blanked Cassandra, Cullen and the templars completely. “Lord Maxwell.” His baritone voice was thoroughly cultured and his Fereldan had a scholar’s perfection, too accurate to be native. A rich man. “My name is Felix Alexius; on my own behalf, on that of Redcliffe town and of the house Guerrin I thank you.”

I frowned slightly – “You speak for the arl? Is Connor…?”

“He suffered injury in the town’s defence, ser; he sleeps, now.” He bowed slightly. “The least we can offer you is that same healing art. Are any of your people injured, beyond yourself?”

I caught Vivienne’s tiny shake of the head – “We’ve our own healers, ser, though I dare say we’d welcome a chance at least to catch our breath and water our horses in safety.”

He smiled unctuously. “Your work is, I must say, almost distressingly effective. I should admit never to having seen in action the holy warriors of the south before this night, and as I say, gratitude is your expectation and your right. But for my own part, it is a poor guest indeed who invites his hosts’ sworn foes in for a spot of breakfast.”

“Who’s a foe?” I responded a little indignantly. “Ser, Redcliffe sent to the Inquisition for aid, and aid we gave. If we and your hosts were enemies, all we’d have needed to do was take our sweet time.”

“…Ah.” He raised his eyebrows. “This is awkward – I know for a fact that my father would have my eyes if we admitted all of you; and he sleeps, right now, as do the arl and his son, and as I said…”

Cassandra stepped in before I floundered further, making it look very much like she was intervening before I exploded in his face. “You’ve had no surety that the Inquisition is not merely a pack of templars flying a false flag, and the Hand of the Divine’s word is no better to you than anyone’s off the street – and to fight that little battle we did rather bring a small army. But surely common politeness does not have a lord’s door closed to his noble visitors: I’m sure your father does not mean to ask Lord Trevelyan to rough it like a common soldier.” This was a trick she’d clearly borrowed from Josephine – asking for a favour from second-in-command to second-in-command in the face of two unreasonable masters – and it was all the more powerful for the fact that it was completely unexpected. “Might his lordship’s party not at least take breakfast at the inn?”

The young man bit his lip. Came to me that under that hood he was younger than I was, and he latched onto her gambit like a lifeline. “I am sure that a small party would not be objectionable,” he said, and the Tevene soldiers relaxed, and if we actually had been invaders then Cassandra’s harassed expression and reasonable words would just have opened that door easier than a battering-ram.

But we weren’t, and no harm done.

*

You know, I mused to myself, I could actually get used to this part. I just behaved predictably – like the noble lord any servant would prefer – walked in, assumed the world would be ordered according to my desire when I got there, and what d’you know. Cassandra and Cullen between them turned a wary company of soldiers into one honour guard and one armed camp; Vivienne stuck to my side, lighting our path and making sure I wasn’t about to fall over, and the assuredly neutral Blackwall took my other side dour and solid.

Not that I’d had a lot of experience of towns that had just recently been under siege, but Redcliffe looked oddly peaceful: yes, there were a couple of dozen of the well-armed black-armoured Tevene bustling around as well as the people in Redcliffe colours and cheaper equipment, yes, the ground was a bit torn up for a dozen yards inside the gate, but where were the injured, the bodies? Blackwall’s eyes were a little wide with surprise: Vivienne practically radiated paranoia: Felix was politely opaque.

By the time I’d got to the inn, it was absolutely a fit place for a noble lord to break his fast: any servant will tell you that it’s amazing how fast you can make somewhere halfway presentable if you’ve a real incentive and reason. Simple fare and small beer, and I felt a little guilty for feeding my face, but to be honest I needed it: closing the rift had taken more out of me than I’d bloody thought. Surely the defenders would’ve commandeered the inn – it was the second thing the Seekers did in Haven, right after the chantry – where was the chaos Blackwall had seen? Magicked away?

I muttered as much to Cassandra and she nodded, eyes worried, said that she couldn’t see an illusion, and in much the same breath Vivienne said there wasn’t one. I suppose you’d have to be some kind of idiot to put an illusion in the path of a mage of her calibre if you even half suspected what she was.

And even before we’d finished our food the door opened to admit a mousy little elf in a simple hooded black robe, and the elf’s face was enough to shoot Vivienne to her feet and her expression was incalculably sad.

“Lord Trevelyan,” said Vivienne before anyone else could speak, and I could hear the flat shock in her voice. “May I… present Fiona, Grand Enchanter of the free mages of-”

“Vivienne, please.” Fiona’s voice was the only thing about her which gave away her age. She turned sad eyes upon Vivienne. “I speak for those people no longer. May I present my sodalis and senior, Felix Alexius-”

Vivienne’s eyes went wide. “Tell me you haven’t.”

“I – this was not how I had intended you to hear, but – you did not answer our call. I’m sorry, old friend.” She took a deep breath. “As of this day, I and my people have sought and been provisionally granted sponsorship from Magister Gereon of House Alexius. The Order of the Temple will today be formally warned on behalf of the Magisterium of Tevinter that any act of aggression upon us shall be considered an attack upon our sponsor, and retaliated to in the fashion justice would demand.”

Cassandra blinked. “You’ve – sold yourselves to Tevinter.”

“A technicality, only.” Felix bobbed his head. “Yes, my father owns her contract, as he does mine, for that matter – but one who ignores realities in favour of niceties is little more than a well-dressed corpse, as they say.” He smiled, as if to at least dress his threat up in a seemly veil.

“And you’ll say, of course, that I missed the debate.” Vivienne’s tone could have cut glass. “Because the College of Enchanters had it between last sundown and this sunrise entirely – and I was otherwise engaged.”

“Were you not?” Fiona’s smile was just a little too pat, and Vivienne practically exploded.

Nom d’un putain d’un bordel de merde, Fiona, you know exactly what I was doing,” she snarled. “I was on a horse. Can you think perhaps where I might have been riding?”

Fiona weathered the storm and stood her ground. “I don’t propose to repeat our last altercation, Vivienne. It’s done. Aid arrived here around midnight, and to Calenhad this morning; you know what the situation was like inside the Circle Tower. This was the price-”

“Ferelden, you mean, and quite possibly eastern Orlais to boot? On a silver platter?”

Felix cleared his throat and Fiona shut her mouth, and Vivienne clenched her fists. “I do feel,” he said quietly, “that I am fast becoming a fifth wheel here, and a more formal dialogue might head off unlooked-for conflict; I shall return with my father, that this might be done properly?” He looked me in the eye. “I might say, though, that my house’s goals and yours aren’t incompatible in the slightest; I am almost certain we seek the same thing by the same route. Still -” he bowed – “allow me to return when the magister has risen.”

The instant the taproom door had closed, Cassandra rounded on Fiona. “Are you aware, enchanter, of the three reasons that we didn’t all grow up speaking Tevene?”

Fione’s tone was less than polite. “Go on, then.”

“First? The templars. Who, as just shown, haven’t been reliable for three years. Second? The legions of Orlais. Who, as you well bloody know, couldn’t be relied on right now to eat their gruel in the morning if the empress told them to. Third? The Circles.” She took a deep breath. “Who will be their latest, greatest fifth column, starting this morning.”

“Indeed?” The elf mage raised an eyebrow. “D’you know who backed us into this corner, Templar?”

“You address Seeker Cassandra of the Inquisition,” Vivienne said coldly.

“Really? Oh, fabulous.” She bobbed a little mock curtsey.  “It’s always nice to meet the author of one’s misfortunes in person. How does it feel, Right Hand, to be the one who started a war? I suppose that tomorrow, I shall have to ask you if it’s habit-forming?”

“Rich words, coming from-”

“That’s enough.” I realised, with no little surprise, that those words were mine. Lord Trevelyan would’ve spoken up, so I had to. “Lady Cassandra, I do believe your words concerning the breach in the sky were along the lines of ‘whatever it takes’?” I turned to look the elf in the eye, in the way they don’t like. “Grand Enchanter, whatever you’ve seen or been told. The Inquisition doesn’t give two shits about who started your war, and I personally have only two sets of enemies in this world.” I held up two fingers on my left hand, let her see the light in my palm. “First? The Breach and its rifts and all its little demons. Second? Anyone between me and that. And everything else? Every single other thing that there is in this world? Can wait its damned turn.”

Cassandra turned her hard eyes on me. “You really mean that, don’t you. You’re prepared to-”

“Save the world?” Had I really just interrupted Cassandra? “You have spoken to Solas lately, I take it: would you say that we can afford to be squeamish about our allies?”

“Squeamish?” Cassandra shook her head. “Max – dealing with the Templars or the free apostates is ‘not being squeamish’. But to truck with Tevinter – the world’s principal centre for the study of maleficence – you have literally no idea the kind of people with whom you propose to deal. Because Nightingale and I and people like us have defended you against them for the last-”

“Oh, spare me.” Fiona scowled. “Do you know that the rate of abominations in the North is perhaps half of ours? That the Refuge of Tranquility is so infrequently performed there that there is only one Circle equipped to carry it out? That the forbidden magics – with the exception of a variety of blood magic – are rarer there than they are here, because they are understood?”

“And the Inquisition. Don’t. Care.” Blackwall spoke for practically the first time since he’d come through those gates. “Sera, it’s like we say in the Wardens. The smallfolk don’t care. The darkspawn don’t care. Why should we? Yes, fine – you don’t have a nice shiny oath of knighthood for the Inquisition yet, but the thing’s the same, you’ve got a duty to do. When the wolf’s at the door is not the time to argue about whose axe you’re using.”

Cassandra raised an eyebrow. “Indeed? And when they stay over tomorrow because we invited them in today? And when they call in that loan we took, that favour we owe, and that same oath you talk about has us trapped in a fight we didn’t start and don’t want?”

“Then that’s part of those words ‘any price’ that you spoke.” He set his jaw. “The Wardens learned a long time ago not to let our principles stop us doing what was right, my lady. Lord Trevelyan, he’s scared of getting hurt. You can see it every movement he makes. To him, just risking his life is paying a price. You aren’t like that, or leastways you don’t look it. Your price is here.” He nodded towards Fiona, towards the door through which Felix had left. “Now, are you paying, or are you going?”

Her mouth made a flat line. “Vivienne.”

“Cassandra.”

“Don’t tell me you agree with these fools.”

“I think our options are every bit as thin as Maxwell paints.”

She hissed out a sharp breath. “All right. We shall see how they negotiate.” She shot me a glance with narrowed eyes. “And we shall promise nothing.”

*

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