Fear & Surprise, Chapter Twelve

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*

It is said that the Vints have no word for slave, in the same way that a fish cannot be expected to have a word for water. Every one of them is born into slavery, from the highest to the lowest, every one of them shackled, whether with coin and contract or with cold black iron. To be free in Tevinter is to be either paid-off or written-off: either the very top or the very bottom of the order of humanity.

This perfidy extends not just across their fields and dockyards and forges but across their whole society and even their army: their inexplicable insistence that only a man is qualified to be a warrior stems originally from the thousand-year-old ruling that a mother’s owner owns her child’s bond under Tevinter law (and thus a man is intrinically less valuable and more disposable). The bizarre and pernicious cults of masculinity and femininity that have sprung up like mushrooms throughout Tevene society serve only to show the folly of such a distortion of the natural order of human nature.

And where in this the Chant? Why, the Black Chantry owns its own people, from the self-proclaimed ‘revered fathers’ to the lay chanters – oh, you mean, where is the adherence to the Chant of Light? Well might one ask, for it is said that whoever pays the piper calls the tune…

Canoness Hevara
speech before the Imperial College of Censors, Val Royeaux
9:22 Dragon

*

The magister was apparently well enough respected to make free with invitations to the arl’s table. And once again, nobility and damned fine vittles coincided in the chance to sit down and be served properly at a meal like this: much more of this and I swear they’d be rolling me home. The arl himself, sixty-seven years old, looked more like eighty, acted older and could have been the father of the middle-aged Orlesian lady sitting at his side; Cassandra told me quietly that it was a magical injury he’d sustained in the Blight. The magister sat opposite us and talked at garrulous length: Maker, but that man was full of himself. The kind to laugh longest and loudest at his own jokes, the kind to fill his cup and his plate to overflowing at another man’s table.

And just as predicted, with the doddering arl and the lady arlessa soon to bed, the magister seemed intent on drinking people under the table. Wasn’t so much poisoning, that he was after, as the opportunity to loosen a few tongues. I played my part – this was all in the plan – and made myself out a lightweight, all the while spilling vaguely anecdotes culled from my years cleaning up after his nibs. Blackwall bundled me off to the rooms we’d been given; Cassandra drank nothing; and if the Tevene archmage and the Orlesian archmage wished to have a contest of skill over whose charm against intoxication was stronger, well, that was at least a game that they both understood.

Neither of them, of course, hampered by the hangover that I’d feign the next morning. A somewhat reproachful Jenny had arrived in the night, and I enjoyed the lie-in of being woken at dawn. The magister, of course, slept late; his people knew their business, though, his son handling much of the arrangements for their departure, and the sun was well up by the time he was basically wheeled out and bundled onto a horse. Five mages other than the two of them; two bodyguards for each of the mages, three for the magister’s son, and none for the man himself, who rode with me and Blackwall. The Vints’ equipment rode in a cart.

We met our own people at the gate; thirty templars, fifty outriders, and a second contingent who were suspiciously well outfitted for our usual idea of baggage train, but such apparently were the expected dangers of the road, and who were the Vints to know our usual procedures? And of course the smartly turned-out and sharply disciplined templars were guard of honour to the mages, shields bright-burnished and armour gleaming in the morning light.

Naturally a little frosty nervousness was expected on both sides: just as naturally, Cullen made an attempt to allay it, starting the Inquisition troops off on an old travelling song that the Tevene turned out to know; of course they had brought guards who spoke Fereldan. And they reciprocated with a song of their own, with the odd, barking rhythms and tones of the north, and the back-and-forth gradually eroded the Vints’ hair-trigger wariness; and finally with a mischievous and quite uncharacteristic grin (and a scowl from Cassandra) Cullen led the southerners in a soldiers’ song that started off ribald and got steadily worse. Nobody who knew either Cullen or his people would have believed them capable of such a thing – but the northerners didn’t, now, did they, and the disciplined unison with which the templar officers made the suggestive hand-gestures gave away only the skill of their horsemanship. If I remember correctly, they’d got the song from the Bull’s Chargers.

And the punchline of the song was just as filthy as everyone had imagined; and as broad grins cracked into laughter up and down the column, as the magister himself turned to Blackwall with a smile, all fucking hell broke loose.

I knew my part: the moment Cullen laughed, I reined in and concentrated on getting out of the way. The templars who’d ridden up far too close behind the mages spurred their horses sharply forward; the outriders marking the Tevene guards struck out at them in near-unison; and Blackwall punched Magister Gereon hard in the chin with the front corner of his grey shield.

It was overwhelmingly, shockingly quick. Violence, real violence, is. Surprised, caught completely off balance and even half out of breath, half of the Tevene were unhorsed before they even knew what was happening. The six chosen to deal with the mages, Cullen among them, were among the best riders in the Inquisition; six mages were variously tackled, pushed, beaten or dragged from the saddle and half-a-dozen panicked incantations shattered in the unimpressed grasp of our templars.

And it would have been over in that one instant if Gereon’s foot hadn’t caught in the stirrup, if his bloody horse hadn’t spooked and bolted. The beast went careering forwards dragging the swearing magister along the ground, and damn him, the experienced mage’s reflexes held. Upside down and with his robes mostly over his head he somehow pulled out an amulet he’d had around his neck, pointed it forwards at the world in general and me in particular as he released power through it – from nowhere Dorian stepped out between us, right hand upraised, outlined in that moment in afterimage green –

*

Head down in noisome moistness I awoke with a squelch and swore vociferously.

“Heh. You and me both.” I recognised Dorian’s voice. It was dark in here, wherever it was, and I flopped ungainly over onto my side. “You quite all right over there, old man?”

“Not to put too fine a point on it -” I squelched – “I seem to have woken up face down in a fucking midden. You?”

“Much the same, I think. Hang on a tick.” There was a more prolonged series of damp undignified noises. “Yehi’or,” he said, or something, and the air took on a radiance of a sullen amber.

And yes – we seemed to be in a midden. It stank – no – it reeked. It was wet. We were both of us covered in nameless blackish gunk. Walls were stone underneath all the crap, and there was a fine thick layer of that. Slight slope to the floor of this long, low space. A glimmer of light twelve foot above us was probably a drain.

“Well,” said Dorian reflectively, “that could have gone a bastard of a lot worse.”

“Oh?” I oozed into a sitting position and opened my hand to add a sickly green flicker to Dorian’s light-spell. “Name three ways.”

“We could be in the untrammelled depths of the Fade right now; the big bastard could’ve been smarter and thrown something I didn’t have a counter for; that hand of yours could’ve decided not to come with us,” he rattled off promptly. “I am almost sure we’re not worse than dead.”

I blinked at him while trying to make words.

He shrugged wetly. “I am reasonably sure we’re not even dead, for all that. D’you feel a need to piss? Because I do, and what sort of hell has that kind of mundane attention to detail?”

Still struggling with what was going on – “So, what. He was going to turn me into a toad, and you teleported us out of the way?”

Dorian shook his head. “No such thing, I’m afraid. I mean, that could’ve been what happened, but it wasn’t, and not because that’s impossible at least twice over.”

“Sorry, what?”

He sighed. “I did not do what you said I did.”

I looked around. “This doesn’t look like any roadside I’ve met. You’re not telling me someone picked us up and moved us.”

“No.” He frowned. “I’ve got a device that tells me that sort of thing, and I checked it the moment I opened my eyes. We definitely haven’t been touched by anyone other than ourselves since the last time experience was continuous.”

“Smaller words? For a man who isn’t even slightly magical?”

He glanced at my hand. “Which man is that? Smaller words – teleportation, no such thing. Can’t be done. So we must have stayed still. And nobody picked us up and moved us. So the rest of the world must have moved: that’s not impossible, it’s just improbable.” Shook his head. “Anyway, irrelevant. That amulet – easiest way to say it – it’s like your hand. It’s got something in it that can’t possibly exist. That can be used to do things that can’t possibly happen, like, I don’t know, accurately predicting the exact day it would be a good idea to show up with a small army? This was all theoretical or confined to tiny instants in a wizard’s forge until a month or so ago, when something blasphemed so hard that the impossible suddenly wasn’t unthinkable. The emanations, the holes in the Veil, they make it all work. Follow?”

“Right. So he could have been trying to turn me into a-”

“He was just throwing power at you to see what stuck, to be honest.” He hauled himself unsteadily upright. “Most mages aren’t so thoroughly great at casting with a broken jaw while being bounced repeatedly on their head.” Stuck out a slippery hand to me: I took my feet.

“So, what you did was…?”

“Caught it. Threw the first impossible spell that came to mind in the hope that the two would fight and we could get away.”

“So you did teleport us.”

He winced. “Not… exactly.”

“Dorian. Not to put too fine a point on it. Where in the fornicating bloody arsebollocks have we ended up?”

“The question is ‘when’, I think.” He glanced up at the drain above us, looked back at me apologetic. “The world turns on its axis, see, exactly one whole revolution a year. Can’t be exactly a year, or we’d be right where we left off.” He raised his hands as if fending off the idea that I might disapprove. “I told you, first impossible thing to come to mind.”

“You mean this is like a vision of the future? In the Fade somehow?”

“Sure, why not.” He looked around us at the sewer. “Though darkness beset me, so shall Hope be my lantern. D’you reckon you could lift me to that grate up there?”

“Whatever would we do if I said I couldn’t.” I cupped my hands and he stepped to my shoulders with an easy unexpected grace. “What d’you know,” I said, “turns out I didn’t eat every single pie. Looks like you had one or two yourself.”

“Funny man.” He grasped the grating. “All right – not as bad as it could be. Store-room. Below ground, I think. Close your eyes.”

“Shall I do a little dance as well?” I closed my eyes.

“Do let me know where you get your material. M’dura.” A hot orange flash, a thin high snapping sound, and the grating dropped down around us in pieces. “Now, then.” And he lifted himself up through the hole with the casual ease of the kind of man that I was supposed to be.

“…Okay?” I looked mournfully up at his face in the gloom and realised that he’d just very effectively stuck me in an oubliette. “So how do I get out?”

“Half a tick.” And his face was gone.

I was halfway through cursing the bloody man’s name under my breath and starting to look for another way out when I was mostly hit on the head by one end of a coil of rope, which I kind of looked at dumbly as it snaked down.

“Come on, then. Nobody about.”

I took hold of it with slippery hands. “You’re aware that this is going to end poorly.”

“I’m sorry, I left my step-ladder in my other trousers. You know, the ones that aren’t covered in literal excrement?”

I tried to climb the rope.

Repeatedly.

Eventually we did get me up it. But it took him pushing from the bottom, and me pulling and swearing, and by the time we were done we were both literally head to toe in filth, and then he hauled himself out and we both flopped there on the floor of this store-room for a moment, and it was just the most inexplicably hilarious bloody thing, and it was all we could do to just sit there corpsing like idiots.

At which point a man in Redcliffe livery pulled open the store-room door. And as he and I stared at one another and he was drawing breath to yell, Dorian spat a word that struck my ears like a hammer and the man crumpled as if he’d been punched in the back of the head.

“Fun’s over,” he said. “Redcliffe livery, which is a mercy: we’re not thousands of miles off-target. Means we’re almost exactly a year either back or forward. But that man will be missed.”

I looked from the mage to the servant. “He dead?”

Dorian checked the drooling body for a pulse. “No. He’ll learn to walk again, I’ll wager.” He looked across at me. “If he’s not some sort of spirit, and this not all a hallucination. I don’t suppose you’re familiar with Redcliffe castle?”

“Never been here in my life.”

“Damn. The wards kept me out unless I wanted to show my smiling face. So. Do we have a plan for getting out?”

“Out?” I frowned. “You’ve got a plan for what to do after that, then?”

“Did you suddenly want to set up home here?”

“But if this is a vision, impossible as it may be -”

“Won’t we just wake up, and find this all a bad dream?”

“Yes?”

“Feel like gambling your body and soul on that? I don’t. Do hold still a moment. Yish linkos.” He walked around behind me, drew a circle in the muck on my back with his finger, then clapped his hands and the two of us were quite clean. “Well, now they won’t smell us coming, at least.”

“Can’t you just do the trick where nobody can tell you’re there?”

“Got six hours?” He beckoned. “Let’s move.”

*

You’d think that the undercroft of a southerner’s castle wouldn’t be that different from that of the viscountal palace that I was more familiar with. Few more dungeons, perhaps – a viscount has people for that sort of thing – but overall, not terribly different. And I suppose that poor repair might easily have left the odd door off its hinges or too warped to close – but I wasn’t expecting irregular pillars of rough-hewn rock from floor to ceiling, clearly out of place, like pillars of flowstone that had clearly engulfed a doorway here, a barrel there. I reached out to poke one with a finger, and the wan green of my nightlight reflected an impossible lambent red off the stone, and I jerked my hand back like it had taken a snap at me.

“Lyrium?” Dorian frowned. “What in the void’s name-?”

“There was stuff like this sticking up out of the ground under the Breach.”

“Uh-huh.” He looked at the stuff as if it was doing him a personal insult by existing. “Lyrium. Red. Never seen it for real. Let’s hope you’re right and this is all a dream.”

“Aren’t you supposed to be able to tell?”

“And hear how I didn’t say ‘yes, yes, you’re right’ when you asked.” He moved on past the rock, that seemed to simply drink up the illumination he shed. “Rule one of visions is rule one of reality: play along, or eat the consequences.” He nodded to a door ahead of us. “Rule two is explore. Watch my back.”

And you know what? Be careful when you take a mage’s advice.

The door was locked: he whispered to the keyhole and pushed it open, a thin wisp of smoke rising from it. Room inside, well, it stank, no two ways about it. Stank like a prison. He looked inside a moment, paled, tried to pull the door shut, but by then I’d seen it.

Another of the flowstone pillars dominated a corner of the room. It had eaten a chair. There had been someone on the chair.

Shorter than a man and broader, with the kind of face you’d call honest: wide nose, strong jaw, full lips, clear blue eyes under a fine layer of translucent stone; and I knew it, and Varric’s name tumbled from my lips before I got my hand to my mouth to stop it. Leaned on the wall to stop my breakfast coming up. Fuck. And there was, there was something about this that made it feel like it wasn’t a nightmare, like it was too real, and I’d been drinking with him just yesterday, and –

He blinked, the little stone caps over his staring eyes cracking and splintering.

I didn’t quite scream, but my next conscious memory is hitting the wall on the far side of that room and seeing a sudden wary point of focused light come to rest on the otherwise immobile Dorian’s fingertips.

His voice was creditably level. “Someone you know?”

I nodded. Words wouldn’t come right then.

“If he were only petrified, I could fix it no problem, but the lyrium will sour any spell I throw, I -” he moistened dry lips – “Your friend is dead, without any of the benefits of that state. We move on?”

“Can’t we…?”

“Do something for him?” Dorian frowned. “That stone will be fragile enough – think of dried mortar. I literally can’t risk touching that stuff lest I get a splinter on me. It’s not just regular lyrium – look at how it reacts to your hand – you could probably tear him out of it, but -” he shook his head. “I wouldn’t give good odds that there’s enough soul in there to be worth saving, let’s put it like that.”

“F-fffuck.”

“Uh-huh. Do I need to pull you by the hand?”

“But how – Varric’s fifty miles away -”

“People do have a habit of moving if left unattended.” He stepped back into the room, peered judiciously into the cells. “They keep someone in the wizard-locked cell, but she’s not in here right now, and the others are – empty. Nothing here for us.”

“Right.” I tore my eyes from Varric’s immobile pleading stare and we left him there. “Vision. Play along.”

I didn’t miss Dorian’s troubled expression. “As you say.”

*

Up the stairs were supposed to be servants’ quarters. More lyrium, up and down the walls disturbingly like veins. We avoided another servant rather than hurt him. I let Dorian lead the way; it was like he knew where he was going, though he claimed he was just following his nose. Play along. Around and into what should have been the servants’ kitchen – with a lock on the door? Again he spoke to it; again it opened smoking.

Two men in here, the further one in soft black robes, the closer in a tunic of the magister’s black livery and wearing a sword; there was a third figure in here, more like a bundle of rags in a chair, her arm strapped to a table –

The guard’s eyes widened and he went for his sword; Dorian went not for him but for the man in the robes, speaking another word like a box round the ears which the robed man deflected with a sharp gesture. So it was that I collided with the guard, not really thinking, as he was halfway through drawing his sword. Bundled him headlong backwards into the wall, got my hand to his face as he concentrated on trying to get his weapon in hand. Put my knee in his cod hard, slammed his head into the wall, and kept banging it until he stopped struggling. Perhaps I’d killed him. Dreamlike. No time to stop and think.

I whirled – to see Dorian staring wide-eyed at the robed man, from whose mouth blood was running freely: abruptly he fell, and standing behind him was that filthy bundle of rags that had been in that chair, lank red hair falling to put her face in shadow.

She’d torn the chair apart in standing. She’d ripped the oozing mess of her right arm right out of the straps on the table. And with her left hand she’d taken the little wooden dip pen her tormentor had been taking notes with and she’d driven it up and into his skull the moment his attention was off her. And I knew her name.

“Leliana?”

And all she did was nod, crisply, as if her condition didn’t mean a thing to her, as if her own blood wasn’t dripping from her right hand as her victim’s blood dripped from her left.

Dorian stepped forward immediately with a spell of healing on his lips; she flinched at the light about his hands, but let him stop the bleeding. He started a second spell and she made a little animal noise in the back of her throat and shrank away, and this time she’d got a belt-knife in her hand, must have been the dead man’s.

“Enough magic,” I said quietly, and our spymistress nodded as she shot him the dispassionate look of a killer. “I imagine you thought we were dead.”

She nodded. No words.

“And after we’d gone, everything went tits-up?” I swallowed. “Haven, too?”

Nod. She bit her lip.

“Look, It’s going to be all right. We’ll get you-”

She darted forward, grabbed hold of my left hand with her right, looked me in the eyes,  shook her head slowly. Turned it palm-up and open. Pointed the knife’s point at the brand on me. Pointed upward, mimed a wide circle.

“There’s a reason you can’t-”

“They cut her damned tongue out,” Dorian spat; Leliana just kept her eyes on me, still holding onto my hand like she couldn’t quite believe it. “I can’t reverse that with what we have.”

“Bollocks to that.” I nodded to the dead Vint’s notebook. “I’m sure I saw pen and ink around here somewhere.”

*

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