Fear & Surprise, Chapter Eleven

by artrald

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*

Spite ate away all that was good, kind, and loving till nothing was left
but the spite itself, coiled ’round my heart like a great worm.

And in my darkest hour, I turned from Her
and vowed that I would destroy Her.

At the moment of Her death I knew what I had done,
and I wept.

I shall bring the lands of my fathers to Her Word.
Therein lies their salvation and mine.

And She came to me in a vision
and laid Her hand on my heart.

Her touch was like fire that did not burn.
And by Her touch, I was made pure again.

Despair not, said She, for your betrayal was Maker-blessed
and returned me to His side.

I am forgiven.

Canticle of Maferath, verses 10-18
translated from Tevene
Chant of Light, Imperial Authorised Version

*

Magister Gereon Alexius, his son and his retinue trailing in his wake, looked a great deal like an older version of myself. Average height, thickset, comfortably fleshed, ruddy-featured and soft in the manner of the man who not only ate all the pies but has a fellow to make more for him when he runs out. His black samite robes looked like they’d cost an unspeakable amount of money; he was dripping with rings; if lucre is filthy, then he stank to the Void and back.

Cassandra saluted him, fist to breastplate, and I followed suit; Vivienne curtseyed, her eyes not leaving his – Blackwall nodded – the Vint made a curious little gesture with his hands in return. “Greetings, Lord Trevelyan, Lady Pentaghast; Enchanter; Warden. I hear that Fiona has already enlightened you concerning our announcement?”

“Well, I haven’t seen the bill of sale, but I feel I can take that at least on trust.” Cassandra wasn’t going to give half an inch.

His brows lifted slightly. “Dear lady, I am sure you are aware of the concept of a legal fiction. It’s my duty to feed, clothe, house and defend my bonded people, to be their advocate when they need one, to help them build their families, see to their education, ensure that they have ways to productively direct their endeavours: the greatest legal sanction I’d ever have need to level at one of my people would be to dismiss their bond. Why, legally speaking, my own son is my bondsman – I do so hate the Fereldan word ‘slave’.” He smiled slightly. “As a matter of fact, m’sera, if I did show you my ledgers of account, you’d see just how much red this little adventure has added to them.”

“So why are you here?”

“Oh, you know. Whosoever causes harm without provocation, and all that; my southern brothers and sisters in the Gift have never been far from my thoughts since that unspeakable mess in Kirkwall three years ago.” He smiled falsely. “But one never does only one thing at once, of course: there is a specific reason for here and now, and not to put too fine a point on it, I’m given to believe that you have chosen to make your home underneath it?”

“You’re genuinely here for the Breach.”

“Does that surprise you? It shouldn’t: you are, after all. The templars and the Circles both have their agents with the Inquisition; I do note the Warden at your table, and I’m informed the Beresaad of the Qun have sent you one of their best; why, we only need a Dalish keeper and a lyrium dealer and every power in Thedas will be represented. Do you wish now to proudly tell us that you have all of this in hand? That I can take my knowledge and my resources and just shuffle off?”

Cassandra’s mouth made a flat line. “If I were prepared to discard the Maker’s law to solve the problem, Alexius, it would already have been solved.”

“Aha: here we are.” The affectation was so very much like his son’s. “I do declare, the stories you must have been told about us!” His smile was that of a kindly old storyteller. “My dear Seeker, personally I’m in the habit of fighting a fire by putting it out, rather than by summoning as much flame as I can in an effort to confuse it: thanaturgia would serve no meaningful purpose, and theurgia would simply ensure that the caster would die first and suffer least. Dare I hold out the forlorn hope that the rift has been analysed and studied rather than simply ignored or perhaps – ah – prayed at?”

“Snapping and growling will get us less than nothing,” I butted in, perhaps a little bluntly. “How much lyrium are you prepared to put in place of that nice polite mouth of yours?”

“Raw power, is it?” He raised an eyebrow. “It’s just possible that I have tricks you don’t, old boy, but suffice to say that I’ve more than enough if we need it. Full access to the phenomenon, without any templars within a hundred yards: I can feel from here that it’d be touchy work under the best of conditions, and I could do without knowless assassins breathing down my neck as I worked. I’d be bringing in seven people and a cartload of materiel, and need the latter lifted to the site of the Sanctuary – things would clearly go better if I had access to a couple of dozen native bearers, who’d of course be paid for their trouble. My son would accompany me to field questions about my work – I’m afraid that I’d brook no interruption to me, not if we wanted a clean job.”

“I would be observing personally,” said Vivienne, “along with for preference Fiona and additionally Enchanter Elaine of Ferelden Circle, and a fourth mage to be chosen by the Inquisition leadership at a later date. You’ll understand that we’d have thirty templars at your minimum safe distance.”

He nodded, businesslike. “Of course, trust but verify and all that. We’d have salvage rights over the area-”

“Unacceptable,” snapped Cassandra. “Those are the ruins of a holy shrine of the White Chantry.”

“And the Imperial Chantry, my lady. Nevertheless, power a thousand miles distant is very like no power at all: very well. We’d have sight of all items salvaged at least, and an option on negotiations to buy anything unusual – I am not out to recover religious relics, Seeker, I am after examples of a rare magical phenomenon that would be no better than junk to a southerner.”

“Red lyrium?” I don’t know why I remembered it, the spike of unprepossessing rock coming up out of the ground like a claw, Varric’s reaction a shock and horror that he hadn’t shown to ravening ten-foot demons.

And the magister’s eyes widened for a second – he covered it very fast, but I know what I saw. How did we know that, his eyes had said. “Lyrium is coloured by the dwarvish house that procures it, messere: the royal house alone has red in their colours, and they prefer to use gold. No, I am serious when I say that what I am looking for would look like actual junk and trash to anybody but a mage, but to my personal work it has quite a value.”

“Junk and trash?” said Cassandra. “Of course it will. We’d reserve the right not to sell you anything at all if we don’t like your price.”

“Or my face, Lady Seeker: yes, yes. As regards-”

He froze. Beside him, his son suddenly swayed on his feet, the colour draining from his face, and the magister turned to him with every appearance of sudden concern. “Felix?”

The young mage wiped a forehead suddenly sticky with perspiration. “My spell. I think it’s fraying, father – I’m-”

“Your exertions.” The portly magister frowned, all pretense of paying attention to us gone. “What did you take last night? How much did you interact with that emanation?”

“Little, father – I -” He leaned suddenly and heavily on a table. “It’s definitely fraying. I’ve taken nothing but a little av’vai to stay awake-”

“Av’vai? What possessed you to take a stimulant – you know the risks – hold still.” The magister muttered a couple of words and the young man’s colour improved as if it had been painted on. “Look, it doesn’t matter. That will stick for long enough to get you sorted out; come on.” He stood abruptly. “My guests, this will have to wait: I’ll entertain you this evening. Come, Fiona, I’ll need you.” And they left, all bustle and fuss, and the oddest thing of all was that Vivienne the master healer hadn’t so much as raised an eyebrow.

Then she and Cassandra shared a look, and got up, moving in silence; and then the two of them turned, grabbed one of the tables in the room as if choreographed and pushed it hard against the wall.

Precipitating a yelp of pain out of nowhere, and the sudden recollection of all in the room that there was a man sitting there, that he’d always been sitting there, that as a matter of actual fact he’d been there since we walked in.

Well-kept black hair and moustache, aristocratic features and a northerner’s olive skin; the man was wearing colours so deep they had to be magical. Looked like he practically pomaded his moustache with money. Pained expression, though more for the loss of his spell than the bruise, I’d wager. “Let me start by saying,” he said, and his accent was as northern as the magister’s had been, “that I can explain.”

“Good,” I said, covering shock with a smile. “Been waiting ages for someone who can.”

He smiled appreciation at the joke. “All right, so. The big man doesn’t know I’m here, and we’d all like to keep it that way. His name’s a bad word to say. Want to talk about him? Know he’s awake and elsewhere. Paranoia and divination’s a terribly gauche little combination, but it does suit him. My name’s Dorian Pavus, and you’ve never heard that before in your lives, have you? No matter-”

“Magical researcher, graduate of Vyrantium Circle; I was on the panel that allowed your book into Orlais, messere. In fact, one of our own researchers at Haven right now is busily translating your graduation thesis from Tevene.” Vivienne’s hands and her eyes were actually a little brighter than the rest of the room. “And you mean to say that you’re genuinely here out of academic interest?”

“Would that I had that luxury.” He put his hands on the table. “Lady Seeker, you’re hurting me: do you mind awfully?”

Cassandra kept up the pressure. “You were spying on us.”

“And let me guess, mentioning an illusion at all is your code for there being one. You can tell when that man is lying to you, m’sera, let me explain to you the trick -”

“His mouth moves. We also have that joke in the south. What is your purpose in spying upon us?”

“Uh. Mostly I’m spying on the magister, to be quite honest.” He gave a somewhat strained attempt at an ingratiating smile. “But we can help one another, you and I, our goals are aligned.”

She snorted. “The first words you will ever hear from any Tevene-”

“I know who must have killed the Divine,” he said quickly. And Cassandra’s eyebrows went up, and the light in Vivienne’s eyes wavered once like a candleflame in a draught, and the room went utterly silent.

He looked down at the table and cleared his throat delicately, and Vivienne took her hands off the table and Cassandra pulled it slightly back, inch or two, just enough for the man to take a deep breath. “All right,” he said. “Now we find out if you really are southerners, because if you work for Tevinter at all then I’m about to die. The Divine was murdered by one of four people, and all of them are dead. Magistrix Amana Belastra, Magister Tol Marinx, their apprentices Bel Ennaver and Vhena Serrastra. They attended the Conclave in place of the delegation from Llomeryn, who had a nasty accident en route-”

“You realise that this will mean war,” said Cassandra evenly into our silence. “Our beloved Most Holy slain? By Tevinter, for all that your Archon will swear that he didn’t do it until he is purple in the face? For less were the Second and Fourth Exalted Marches declared.”

“Right. Right. But is the south in any condition to actually do that? With the Circles broken and the Templars abandoning their posts, with the Seekers barely holding it all together?” Dorian shook his head. “Even if the kingdoms laid aside their feuding and sent the full measure of their armies. As the qunari wars have shown, as the Dalish wars did an age before, an army without an answer to battle-magic might as well pack up and go home. You might know the formulae for the various Templar sacraments, but you can’t just brew up lyrium tinctures en masse, shove them past someone’s teeth and expect a warrior, much less a functional human being.” He leaned on the table. “The question is whether you should fear invasion, m’sera, not whether we should.”

Pause. I don’t guess that I was the only one whose mouth went dry at that. Cassandra’s tone was quiet. “And should we? Is that why you are here? Testing our vigilance?”

“Honestly?” Dorian raised his eyebrows. “No. The legions are strong, don’t get me wrong, but – Everyone’s just got too much to lose. The Magisterium in general would gain immeasurably, but the first few magisters to go on a foreign military adventure would lose their holdings at home for sure- hell, it took a qunari invasion to get the legions to mobilise as anything like a proper army, and even then we only beat them because the giants treat their mages like circus animals, and even then the echoes of that feeding frenzy at court are still dying down today. Tevinter could only invade you if someone removed all of its leaders and replaced them with sane people.”

“All right,” she said, and I could feel the storm building behind her words. “Speak. The murder. How. Why.”

“How?” Dorian made a face. “I’m as yet unsure, except that it left a first-water vevilosaric emanation – excuse me, ‘a hole in the sky’ – above the Sanctuary of the Ashes. Why? Power. Those that don’t have it want it, those that have it want more; I can tell you what one of those four was trying to sell me, but – it was insane. I have no idea what it was that they believed they were actually doing.”

“So tell us.” Vivienne smiled thinly. “One of the things I do for a living is decipher insane megalomaniacs.”

“You too, eh?” He returned the exact same smile. “Break the Aitiotic Limit, was what it boiled down to. Not as in, create a controlled experiment with a result impossible in the waking world, there’s a whole field for that. But break the limit. Hammer it. Shatter it. And show them, show them all, et cetera ad nauseam.”

“I don’t speak old Tevene.” Cassandra looked to Vivienne.

“Something that is not only impossible, but nobody would want to do if it weren’t.” The enchanter pursed her lips. “Imagery fits, though. Literal desecration and blasphemy to create the same figuratively – I suppose you will say that ‘and then what’ is not a question that you got to ask. Why are you here, Dorian?”

He winced. “What the magister said, only I’m actually trying to save the world?”

“Simply a traitor?” Blackwall’s deep voice rumbled.

“Indeed I am. A traitor, a fop, a knave, and a bloody Vint, to boot. How am I to be trusted?” The little smile hadn’t gone away: he locked eyes with Cassandra. “I know what I look like. But m’sera, you could have had me dead three times today already, and I’m not joking when I say that if you want that to happen with your hands clean, just tell the big man that I’m here.” Passion lit in his eyes. “But stop him, m’sera. With or without my help. Poison, magic, a damned knife? He is not here to help you. He’s here to carry on where they bloody left off!”

Vivienne frowned. “That isn’t going to work. The Breach isn’t a half-finished working, it’s a broken one. You can’t just pick it back up like so much knitting.”

“With all due respect, m’sera, who are you to make the judgement of what a magister is or isn’t capable of?”

She snorted. “The First Enchanter of Montsimmard Circle? I might have come from the creation faculty, but anybody who wants to lead has a duty to hold teaching credentials in several fields and at least certification in the others: I fancy I know the difference between possible and not.”

Dorian raised an eyebrow. “And what has that to do with your experience with vevilosaric emanations? I suppose you’re going to try and tell me that this phenomenon is unique and unprecedented?”

Cassandra blinked. “What?”

“Not a bit of it. It’s atypical – its size, mostly – it’s almost certainly thanatogenic, that is, there were deaths in the casting, because you’d have noticed someone hauling a cart full of lyrium up the mountain. But it’s not at all unknown to magic. The South’s mages aren’t exactly known for their close and careful study of the finer points of applied blasphemy.”

“While you and the magister are?”

“Which might well save all our bacon, so .” He looked from each of us to the next. “So uh. Are you with me, or do we have to see whether bringing this building down on all your heads will buy me sufficient time to run away?”

Cassandra’s eyes were hard. “You shall have no free pass for being Tevene. You have ably demonstrated that you know full well what I will not tolerate. Should you resort to the forbidden magics -”

“You will do worse than kill me for that, so I’d better make any transgression the dangerous-to-self-and-others kind? It’s almost as if my people aren’t the only ones with a poor reputation.”

Cassandra nodded, slowly, and she let the table go. “Even so. I’m more moved to believe you than him, I think. Presumably we’re not in too much danger taking tea with him, simply because he’s not in a position to just take what he wants?”

“Yes, quite. I wouldn’t stop on the top of the Sanctuary for celebratory drinks with him, but while you’ve still got an army of templars between him and his objective he’ll be as safe as a kitten.” He shrugged. “Also, he’s unlikely to risk any harm to his son. Dotes on him. The one weakness he’s still got, as you saw earlier.”

“That appeared fairly transparently staged, to me.”

His teeth were very white. “It was, but try getting the magister to believe that. Don’t like doing that too often – if nothing else, I still haven’t given up hope for him either.”

“You expect me to believe he’s on your side?”

Dorian snorted. “He’s Tevene, m’sera: he’s on his side. His father’s the only one who’s been able to treat his condition. Then again, his father’s also pretty much to blame for his condition, so, make of that what you will. The son can’t stand against the father: he’s a guttering and nearly burnt-down candle against a bonfire.” And he leaned forward, over the table. “On this scale, m’sera, I’m a blazing torch. But you and yours, you are water. Cassandra, I swear, I’m on the level. Help me put that fire out.”

Cassandra held his eyes for a moment more, then nodded. “We’re in.”

*

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