Fear & Surprise, Chapter Fourteen

by artrald

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*

And there I saw the Black City,
Its towers forever stain’d,
Its gates forever shut.
Heaven has been filled with silence,
I knew then,
And cross’d my heart with shame.

1 Andraste 11, Chant of Light
attributed to Andraste, Bride of the Maker

*

The tales would lead you to believe that it was a dark and stormy night: and bollocks was it. Matter of fact, around Haven it had actually been snowing on and off for most of the past week; early autumn it might have been, but a month and a half had been enough to get us quite used to the fact that the Breach gave us unseasonable weather. The lyrium arrived late one evening, but Solas refused even to touch it while the sun was down, something about the Veil being thin enough already: he spent the evening closeted with every mage we had and every mage the Circle had sent, and once we’d reassured ourselves that they weren’t about to kill one another, we left them to it and got some rest. Tense evening, tense night, tense morning, and Krem laughed when I turned up for my run and said that he’d heard we were climbing the hill for real later, so I got off lucky.

Then, of course, it was more of that good old hurry up and wait. Those mages who’d slept at all had woken before sunrise, and they started work the moment it was safe: Minaeve the apprentice explained sheepishly that she’d been voted the least useful person who understood what was happening, so she was here to direct us, and Cassandra reserved her scowl of a response for a focused and oblivious Solas.

But it amounted, for the non-mages, to a whole lot of waiting around and getting snowed on. Clearly the mages were busy; Solas bore the caskets of lyrium into his workroom one at a time and there must have been five people in that little place, and clearly they were doing something complicated, and just as clearly we were to keep out. Cullen detailed half the templars to ensure the stairs were secured, mostly for the sake of dealing with their restlessness.

So it wasn’t a dark and stormy night. It was late morning, or at least, I hadn’t yet resigned myself to the fact that I was going to miss lunch, so it was still morning. The templars were treating it like a drill; the secular troops were clustered around fires looking at them like they were lunatics; and there’s only so long you can sit there waiting in the absence of danger, and we were about to declare that the mages were too slow and have lunch. And then Vivienne opened the doors of the workroom, and Solas was escorted by Fiona and the four Circle mages he’d deemed steadiest, and Dorian was following them, and they were carrying the power between them like a blanket, and up the hill we went.

The sky was pure white, and the bowl of black glassy rock where the centre of the Sanctuary had been was a couple of feet deep in snow. You could just about see the swirling angry inflamed green of the Breach up there, just about make it out with a squint. Minaeve whispered to the snow and melted little channels onto its surface, lines to show us where we were supposed to stand. My part was actually pretty simple. Solas knew me: he’d written out my orders in words of one syllable, and he’d made me a little drawing in case even that wasn’t quite enough.

I walked down the line to the centre, each careful step marking the virgin snow, my sword’s scabbard making a little trail behind me. I stood in the centre and I kept my hands by my sides and looked down as the diagram said, and the mages took position, one by one.

Vivienne first, Fiona, then the four mages of the Circle, then Solas took three steps down the exact same path I’d made and Dorian stepped behind him to close the circle: then Solas came to stand before me, and he pushed back his cowl. And as each of them in turn bared their head, I could see where the lyrium had gone, and why we’d been waiting. The spell-pattern had been drawn onto their very skin, fine twisting patterns carefully drawn out in lyrium decoction, and it had stained their skin like henna, if henna gave off a quiet blue light that pulsed softly with the heart’s beating.

And Solas raised his right hand, no more than that, and the magic began. No more ritual words, no grandiose chanting. He didn’t need to speak. He knew this spell inside and out.

Behind him, Dorian raised his own right hand, whispered a word that sounded like elvish, and light gathered to his fingertips, streaming down into the careful designs stained upon his skin. And each mage in turn followed suit, a quiet word, a gesture, and the light leapt from one to the next as if they were lighting candles, and the circle came around to Dorian again: as one the mages brought their hands together before them, the circle was closed and the snow ceased to fall, the flakes simply hanging there.

Then as my instructions told me, I held out my hand, palm open, palm up. And as they hadn’t told me, I prayed. Maker’s Bride, I whispered to myself. I’m a fraud and a fake. There should be a hero here, you understand, a hero instead. You missed, and you got Harry Osten, and bloody lucky for you that the Divine’s little birds were there to pick me up. But here I am, milady, here I am like you wanted. I turned my hand like the instructions had said, turned it so my fingertips pointed at the Breach with my palm out towards Solas.

And he caught my eyes, and for a second there was a hint of a smile for how ridiculous we all must have looked, damp, freezing, half-smothered in snow. And then without much ceremony at all he snapped his fingers, and every muscle in my body locked me still, and it felt like –

It was indescribable. A bit like having a foot-long red-hot poker jabbed down my arm, and a bit like falling into ice-water, and a bit like throwing up a couple of gallons of freezing bile. Through the hole in my fucking hand.

The world was getting brighter and brighter around the edges, and I’m told my eyes were glowing, that my mouth was locked open in a scream I couldn’t voice. It was all getting less real, like everything I could see was a fancy painting on a canvas backdrop.

I was standing on shifting scree. I was standing on hard baked glassy rock. I was up to my arse in snow. I was blinking dust out of my eyes. The sky was black. I mean, it was white, my eyes were telling me it was absolutely white, but underneath that it was black, and the light I could see by, the real light, was coming not from the sky, not from the sun, but from somewhere that was somehow downhill.

I couldn’t move, but I turned my head. It was exactly like dreaming. I turned my head and looked downhill and saw it, and it was familiar like a nightmare, the kind you know you’ve had before. Spires, tall and shining; a great high wall; a gate that was majesty and horror all in one. I realised that I’d seen it before, that the Sun Gate and Val Royeaux must have been fashioned in its image, that here before my smarting eyes was why the walls of that city were golden. And yet it wasn’t a source of wonder, to look on it, it wasn’t joy that stole my breath. It was fear that that place shed like radiance. And you couldn’t call this city golden. The golden towers were veined black, every wall marred with unlovely asymmetric pustulous corruptions of foul darkness, and I recalled a verse from the Chant about the Black City, the Seat of the Maker, the place that had been ruined for all time by the sin of humanity –

I tore my eyes away. Looked away, uphill. There was someone there, and we’d met; once before in my life we’d met, and she was just the same, robed in gold and white, a grand, serene, silver-haired, straight-backed old lady. I tried to thank her, but somehow my mouth wouldn’t move, I couldn’t get the words out. But she knew. She could see just as I could the canvas the world was painted on, with Solas and the other mages standing there, with the snow, with the hole in the sky. And gracefully she stepped in front of me to stand just beside where Solas was supposed to be, and just like he had she reached out her hand and snapped her fingers.

*

“Hold her still.” The speaker is behind and above me. The hands on my shoulders tighten and push me down into the chair with unstoppable strength. My hands are tied tight behind me, my fists clenched, my wrists twisted awkwardly crosswise. They’ve left my ankles free.

It’s only a little room. A store-room, the walls covered in shelves, the far end stacked high with barrels, a lone crate open. Just enough floor-space for their purposes. There are five of them, counting the two behind me. Four of them making a square, hooded, veiled. Two men, two women. The one who’s talking, he’s stayed behind me and I can’t see him, but I’ve got a very good idea of where he is.

 “Why are you doing this?” My voice is a frightened old woman’s, old, high, thready. Somehow it’s familiar.

“Gag her.” There’s no emotion in that voice at all, no human feeling. “I want you paying attention to the pattern and nothing else.”

I do not despair as the cloth is forced into my mouth and tied tightly. Why should I? The Maker is my strength. I will have been missed already. My people will be minutes away.

“Begin.” That voice is infinitely cold.

The mage to my left reaches under her robes, comes out holding a lump, a twisted patterned ball of polished wooden roots the size of a baby’s head. She runs her fingers over it, and I can see she’s pricking them on sharp hidden thorns, drawing blood, and it’s drinking it up. Speaks to it in a hissing stutter-step speech that I recognise as elvish, but I don’t hear the words. Passes it around the circle. Each mage speaks to it in turn, feeding it, cooing over it, speaking more elvish, and still I can’t catch the words, and each word hangs upon it, catches on it, feeds it. And the third one passes it around to the man behind me, the one who was speaking to me, the one whose face I haven’t seen, and even I, even here, can feel the hungry malevolent power building within that foul thing.

And it makes perfect sense that I relax my hands, straighten my wrists and the bonds fall from them, that I haven’t moved or struggled and so the grip upon me is weaker than it should be, is unprepared – I still myself entirely, and I wait.

The door opens.

It’s a servant, a mostly-full jug of sweet wine dangling from his right hand. Dressed Free Marches style in doublet and breeches – Ostwick yellow, fresh on for the summit they had been – and I’ve never seen him before in my life – I recognised that face, what with seeing him in the mirror every morning. His eyes widen. He starts to move to shut the door.

The man who had me by the shoulders lets me go, turns to deal with the interloper.

And it is now or never. I spin to my right off the chair. Nobody would expect that an old woman has this grace, this coiled power, not when I always take such care to walk as if I haven’t trained for an hour every morning and evening since the age of ten. Already I’m sweeping my hand out, the edge like a blade – I just about have time to register the figure I’m striking at, tall and skeletal yet somehow lumpen – he’s grasping the ball of roots before him in one hand – I strike out at that, and the thorns draw my blood.

It’s knocked from his hand. His mismatched face is suffused with rage. It flies through the air, tumbling.

The servant catches it by reflex. The thorns catch into the palm of his left hand. He screams. I’d screamed. It had felt like the whole world was turning inside out. I dropped my jug of wine and I grabbed my wrist.

There is a green flash that is brighter than anything that I have ever known. And the canvas backdrop upon which the world is painted, it catches and it frays and in the face of that burning light, it catches fire.

And I remembered. I could remember it all. Someone up there had been a hero, Solas had told me. And absolutely someone had. And absolutely it hadn’t been me. I’d lifted a jug of wine from a side-table after the dignitaries had gone through to make their important speeches. Nobody would ever miss it, and his nibs wouldn’t need anything till they came back. I was finding a nice quiet place to get to know it a little bit better, and what I’d found instead was – uh. And she’d turned, whirled herself to one side off her chair (it fell over) and somehow threw something at me, and I’d caught it in one hand, and then everything had gone insane.

Solas lowered his hand. To this day I’ve no idea how long had passed in that one instant. Less than an hour? More than a heartbeat? I fell the moment the magic released me, I fell limply to one knee in the snow and I tried very hard not to ruin the hour of our victory by losing my lunch.

*

“You do realise that if I can find you, Max, the others can.”

I turned with a start. I reckoned I’d been pretty clever, but apparently the cunning of a Marcher manservant is nothing to that of an Antivan diplomat: her smile was more than recompense. “Of course. I just…” I sighed. “A little time to myself?”

“I can go…?”

“It’s all right.” I sighed, leaned back against the windowsill. “Neither are you about to hoist me to your shoulders and carry me around the camp, nor are you particularly likely to write down my every word in case of wisdom; I’m quite safe.”

She’d been carrying a jug of wine and a pair of pewter goblets; she set them down on the room’s little side-table. “Mm. The one sort will think you’re drinking yourself under the table, you know; the other that you’re praying alone.”

“And you’re in the former camp?” Damn, but the sight out there was nothing compared to the one in here.

“I could not be drawn.” She was handing me a goblet; I couldn’t help but mirror that smile as best as a man like me could. “To the sky, my lord: the sky and the far side of it.”

“Long may they stay separate.” We toasted; we drank. The wine was quite excellent: of course it was. Why would she drink anything else? “I wasn’t really doing either, you know. Just – thinking.” It sounded stupid. Flat.

“Dangerous habit, thinking.” She took up station next to me, close enough that I could smell the scent she wore. Lilacs, I think. “I’d recommend not going alone. Did you have a topic?”

I shrugged. “They’re celebrating. Like I said, shoulders, circuit of the camp.” The wine was too good to swig: I sipped. “About half a thousand people out there wanting to deluge me in as much of the rewards of virtue as I don’t deserve.”

“Half of them will be just as homeless tomorrow as yesterday, you know.” There was sadness in that smile. “Why should we deny them a little joy tonight?”

“It’s not that I object to.” I took another sip of wine. “What did I do? Those down there are the folk who answered when others ran. They shed their blood and their tears in an uphill struggle on a sliding slope and I swanned in and took the credit. And right now if I walked down there and sat down like I was going to tell some sort of story, they’d have set it to music by dawn and they’d be beating down the Grand Cathedral’s door to add it to the Chant by teatime tomorrow.”

“You did save them, you know. None of this would have been possible-”

“D’you know the first thing I did when I saw the hole in the sky? I tried to run away. Cassandra had to kick my arse to get me up that bloody hill.”

“And what’s that got to do with the price of bread? I was in the chantry hiding, making all sorts of offers to the Maker and his Bride if they’d just make it stop.” She fluttered a hand elegantly. “You’re talking yourself into something foolish, you know. I can hear you, even if you can’t.”

“My options aren’t exactly long. What else do I do?” I savoured another sip of wine. “Take Blackwall up on his offer? Try on Warden grey?”

She made a face. “I don’t know. Mark my words, Warden Blackwall is as Fereldan as my foot – why lie about something like that, something where the truth cannot possibly be incriminating or embarrassing? I mean, in a matter of life and death I’d put my safety in his hands in a heartbeat. But I wouldn’t like to have to get on a horse and follow where he led.”

I sighed. “Of course. Why would anyone I know ever have a simple, straightforward agenda? All right. I can’t do that. And you’re going to tell me I shouldn’t go home.”

“Is there so much there for you, child of a bawdy-house, beneficiary of a dead man?”

I leaned back against the windowsill and I was silent for a good long moment.  A while, it was, since I’d thought of Ostwick and home, of the tall white buildings and the narrow streets and long nights spent on flat roofs, of waking before the sun to wait hand and foot on a man not fit to lick clean the boots of this lady who’d once considered him a match – clearly until she’d seen his picture – eventually I shook my head, slowly. “I’ve no family, not really. And all my proper friends were up at the Sanctuary with his nibs. I mean, I’m pretty sure that House Trevelyan would keep me on if I turned up at their door. But no. It’s just – like I said. My options aren’t many.”

Her expression had just the right touch of fragile uncertainty to prick at the conscience. Like there was a right answer and I hadn’t chosen it and that made me a monster. “Have you just considered – just – staying right where you are?”

“And what happens when Max Trevelyan’s no use any more, eh?” I shook my head. “The Inquisition just got what it wanted from him. It’s been made very clear to me. I had one job. I did it. It was a simple task, but someone had to do it. Congratulations, me. Done, now. Time to disappear, leave Cassandra a nice useful martyr.”

“We can think of new tasks for you, you know.” Her voice was making all the hairs stand up on my neck.

“Aye?” I turned around, leaned on the windowsill and looked out over snow-blanketed Haven. “And what the hell use is an overweight, ill-favoured, untrained sot of a manservant masquerading as a womanizing arsehole of a foreign nobleman?”

That drew an eyebrow. “About as much as a rich girl who doesn’t actually have any money, eldest daughter of a name more properly infamous than famous, ambassador from a crown both distant and powerless, too easily recognised to be one kind of spy and too proud to be the other?”

I blinked. “But – you’re…”

“I meant it about my name. You supposed me a young widow taken into the Divine’s court on some merits you imagine me to have?” A sip of her wine concealed amusement. “I bought the place I had at the Divine’s court. I bought it because people will lend money to a family that is in the Divine’s confidences that they will not lend to a family whose principal defining feature is debts deep enough to sink – just to take a random example – the marriage prospects of an otherwise perfectly eligible daughter. And I’ve been treading water ever since her death, and carefully not wondering how deep it was. If I were to come home with nothing further to show?” She sighed. “I need the Inquisition. I need this investment to pay off – I need it to be more than it is today – or I’d be better off never coming home at all.” And she looked to me. “Don’t go, Harry.”

“What are you suggesting?”

“It’s to our interests for you to stay, and you live far better here than you do at home.” She turned to look at me. “Tell me you don’t like being Max Trevelyan, when all is said and done. Tell me it isn’t preferable to eat higher on the hog, to sleep safe and warm, to be waited on, to give orders, go to the counsels of the high and the mighty, speak and be listened to?” Her eyes were bottomless in the dimness. “The Inquisition will need a figurehead. Someone who isn’t Cassandra. You’ve been doing that job admirably; all you need to do is continue and the task is yours. You never know; you might decide there are things about it to like.”

“There are those, for sure.” My eyes were trapped in hers. “And you reckon that between us we can make the Inquisition into what you want? And what you get is a return on your money, and what I get is a life Harry Osten always dreamed of?”

“Mmm. Also, the unthinkable might happen, and the two of us become fast friends.” Her smile was delicious with mischief. “For certain I wouldn’t be proposing this scheme to a man I didn’t like.”

And I sort of flapped my mouth like a fish at that one, at her tone of voice, at the fact that it was slowly sinking in that she must have left celebrations of her own to deliberately come and conspire with me alone in a room she could easily have chosen to stand at the other end of –

When something on the horizon just caught the corner of my eye, and my mouth just dropped open as I turned my head to look, and in the same moment Josephine was far too ladylike to swear.

*

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