Fear & Surprise, Chapter Twenty-One

by artrald

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*

The latter half of 9:40 Dragon was a time in which the war between mages and templars held its breath. Poorly informed about the events of the peace summit a couple of months earlier, the Templars and Circles outside of Ferelden seemed collectively to consider that their peculiar state of war could be held in wary abeyance first until harvest was in, and then for the winter. The Chantry saw their chance to make this temporary stalemate into a nascent peace, but with a deafening silence from almost everything that counted as central leadership among the Templars and little from the Grand Enchanter beyond hysterical accusations of atrocity, such truces as were established were far too temporary and local to be useful.

Meanwhile, in Orlais, the general propensity of civilised humanity to tear its hard-won advantages in half and burn them down at a drop of a helmet was going from strength to strength. What had started as little more than an opportunistic brushfire uprising in Dirthavaren in ’39, by the end of ’40 threatened to escalate into a full-blown rebellion: one of the three legions sent to pacify the area marched straight into disputed territory and joined the rising, and in one of the sudden moves for which the Game is famous, the rising was suddenly all about the cause of Grand Duke Gaspard for the imperial crown.

The change was far too late in the year to actually do anything about; by the spring Gaspard would be thoroughly established, and suddenly Empress Selene’s task would become one of crushing the rebellion before it escalated further, and all without showing weakness to the empire’s northern neighbours or taking her eye off the highly volatile situation between the mages and templars. Something would have to give, and given the recent adventurism by a Tevinter magisterial house in Ferelden, it was unlikely in the extreme to be the northern front: the Empress’s tail would quickly be in a trap.

But as is so common in Orlesian internal affairs, the point was not – was never – to actually fight a civil war. The whole rising existed merely to provide a failure condition for the Empress: to bring her to the negotiating table, to make her vulnerable, to extract conessions or perhaps even bring the throne itself into play. Neither side truly wished to see any more of the fertile land of Dirthavaren ravaged by war. Thus, therefore, the grand ball at Halamshiral: rather than the traditional private affair, that year it was thrown open to anyone who was anyone, a peace summit in all but name, a true battlefield for the Game.

And thus again, as is so common, it had been the smallfolk who had marched and suffered and died that the Empress might be forced to throw a party at the winter palace, and none of those for whom they marched paid their cause anything more than lipservice, and if the truth were to be told, nobody found this the slightest bit strange.

The Morrigan
A History of Southern Thedas

*

“Halamshiral.” Nightingale tapped the pin on the map. “The winter palace of the Orlesian empresses. One of the real battlegrounds of the Game. And according to your vision and Dorian’s…”

The redhead’s pretty face suddenly recalled to me that mask of scars, that patchwork of voiceless pain and hate that had written for us her memories of nightmare. The eyes, her eyes were identical. I looked away. “The Empress is murdered. Some bigwig called Gaspard steps up, does bugger all when the Elder One comes, the last chance to stop him is lost. You think we haven’t averted that already, what with sewing up the hole in the sky?”

Dorian answered that. “I think that on a scale of one to ‘we’re indelibly fucked’, the consequences are bad enough to get us paranoid, at least?”

“Indeed.” Nightingale put her hands on the table. “Apart from the simple consequences, the ball is useful to the Inquisition: it is our chance to receive an official sanction for the Inquisition’s activities in Orlais before the spring. I do not enjoy being an outlaw, Maxwell: so far, we’ve claimed to be legal and that’s been enough, but we have no legal right to operate, and with the rising in Dirthavaren, the empress is likely to be less than sanguine about sudden military action she didn’t ask for. Mynah.”

The beautiful lady nodded. “Lady Cassandra’s family can be prevailed upon; the empress would not dream of insulting them, and will imagine her our true observer. Blackwall will escort her; the two of you are to play floorshow. Nobody will believe we aren’t up to something; no offence, nobody will believe you two are up to anything subtle.”

“You call it ‘prevailed upon’.” Cassandra’s eyes smiled. “My aunt would fall over herself to give me an unavoidable opportunity to play princess. Sending me with a common-born man – do you want that much of a scandal?”

A shrug. “Blackwall is a knight and more importantly a Warden, and speaks Orlesian like a nobleman: he’ll do. Meanwhile, I shall have procured an invitation from Gaspard.”

Cassandra raised an eyebrow. “The traitor?”

“The empress’ foully slandered cousin.” Dazzling smile. “I’m known at court: they will consider me to be completely inoffensive, a lost little ingenue without a serious sponsor. They will naturally assume I am there to work on my own problems under the Inquisition’s aegis, and not wonder at all that I blagged an invite out of a Gaspard hungry for legitimacy. Lord Maxwell will accompany me -”

I gulped. All that made it out of my mouth was “Last time I – I was warned off Orlesian nobles. Something about snakes?”

Josephine’s laugh was musical. “I can’t imagine what Cassandra has been telling you, but yes, the Game will be in full swing. The cover is that you are basically an ornament on my arm, there to posture and pretend usefulness and demonstrate that you are not dead; little is expected of men at Selene’s court, anyway. The most you’ll need to do is show a little fang at Lord Lucius until Cassandra can take him down a notch or two. Nightingale.”

The spymistress nodded. “We shall arrive with an entourage and it shall melt into the general millieu of servants. Our principal job is to discover and neutralise the assassins: Cassandra and I were two-thirds of the core of Divine Justinia’s personal guard, Solas is not immediately taken for a mage, and this is Jenny’s home turf; if it can be done, we can do it. Meanwhile Mynah gets us taken seriously, and Lord Maxwell is effectively there to not be a frothing lunatic. Imperial sanction is your goal; imperial aid is a good thing, but not crucial. If you can get the Empress understanding our cause, so much the better.”

I tried to sound professional. “And when it all goes to hell?”

She tilted her head. “D’you have a specific insight?”

I realised that she was not mocking me. I glanced to Mynah and saw only eyes poised and ready to take notes. I looked around at the whole room and I realised that everyone was prepared to change the whole plan based on a single premonition, and my mouth went quite dry-

Shook my head. Snap out of it. “I just have a bad feeling, is all.”

“Welcome to the Game,” said Nightingale, and her smile was unpleasant.

*

It’d not been a good couple of month.

In quite actual fact, this whole autumn had been a bit of a plough. Yes, Jenny. Swoop in, rescue the lordship, meet Andraste’s own herald – uh-huh, be he never so bloody odd – all excellent pastimes, all great ideas, all a bit o’ fun – specially compared to Jenny’s work, which if it’s fun all of the time, y’r doing wrong – all fun till it weren’t.

And there still weren’t a way you killed a demon with a bow. They reckoned they ain’t done it with a whole arsebuggering mountain, what chance an arrow in the eye got?

Course, being was better than not. Ever chose life over not, that’s the vira tisha. Get the rabid mutt by the scruff, you better have a plan for what to do next, or when you put it down that mutt’s biting one person first and best.

And, well, this whole thing, it’s got floppy little ears and it’s frothing at the mouth and coneys don’t bark like that. And what d’you say to the herald of Andraste? The man who actually for-true walked out to give one in the eye to the evil one and came out of the whole thing whole? The man you follow around and actual corpses get up and actually walk? Sorry, lordship, I thought you was gulling us all, all I wanted was in on it? (Or was that last a lie? Dark watches of the night it was easy to convince herself she didn’t believe, that nobody did, not really. But listen to his words and her hands moved by their own selves.)

And even Andraste’s help only got the man out alive, skin of his teeth, didn’t help a bloody bit otherwise?

Red Jenny looked rueful at the man’s back. So Haven hadn’t been so bad; so Skyhold was at least a roof for all she felt like a fifth wheel on a wagon. So the ploughin’ what, it was a roof and a bed and a table, for all that the table was poor. But now – now out they hop, off back to Journey’s End, Halamshiral, back to the Game. Back to Orlais. Back to shame.

And what could she say? Yeah, I know the place, y’r walkin’ into danger? Like that’d slow the shems down. Don’t make me go back? Like his lordship wanted to, and like she hadn’t sworn to him.

No. She’d go. She’d go, and she’d find Briala. The Empress’s little mistress of rats. The empress wouldn’t have tired of her yet, she far was too useful. And elvhen talk reason, right, even when the whole world’s gone to stink. She’d slip Solas – good he was in the wilds, but he was Dalish, wasn’t he? Much use here as a boiled icicle? – and she’d talk to Briala. Bent copper will get you good yellow gold that that one’s in on anything palace.

And nobody there need even mutter the words Red Jenny, or talk about old oaths and who was contrivin’ what, or what anyone actually believed.

*

Halamshiral shone. The elves had had a palace here, once, long before humanity: when Andraste freed them from slavery this had been their capital, and when they fell to idolatry this is where the Orlesians had burned them out, and Empress Magritte had the place razed to the ground and rebuilt in the very latest fashion. The roofs were tall and peaked, the halls wide, the windows great panes of crystal grown and set with magic; in the daytime, the place was light and airy as a woodland glade, and at night it glittered like the crown jewels, a palace of light and gems and marble and mirrors, a place of marvels. Solas had noted sourly that none of those who’d designed the place or built it would be allowed past the doors today.

The nobility was out in force. Young men in tight-fitting doublets and bright hose, a little like the fashions of my homeland, showing off a narrow waist and a well-formed leg if such were available for the showing; young ladies elegant in long gowns, the heavier and richer the better, a naked display of the wealth they owned or stood to inherit. Older people in much the same, but for those whose place in the world was already established, the gown was simpler, lighter, and with just one or two exquisitely valuable and preferbly artistic jewels to display good taste. In other words, we couldn’t afford to dress like the movers and shakers, although we could just about look like their children; as I believe I’ve mentioned, Josephine could look like a princess in rags, let alone the velvet gown she’d cadged off a friend.

And then there were the masks, of course. The mask’s pattern didn’t dictate its material, Josephine had informed me, only its shape and colour, and if one was anyone, one had a right to several: never miss an opportunity to play games and send signals. For this event, she was playing up the connection with the Divine, and thus she was wearing the shape and colour she’d been given when she took up the embassy to the Sunburst Throne, Antivan crimson and white in a half-face mask vaguely reminiscent of a bird: and because she was there to play seriously, her mask was a lacelike confection of wire that hid nothing at all of her expression or her beauty. Meanwhile, Lord Trevelyan’s permitted mask had been somehow found out: a half-face in Trevelyan gold and cream, and mostly it made me look like I’d come dressed up as the sunrise.

Gaspard was a tall, thin man, his mask a halved cream and purple, and his attire rich as a king’s; he wasn’t wearing a sword here, of course, but he was wearing spurs, heeled boots and a chevalier’s belt; his toadies, all of them, dressed like they’d recently been told that something was unutterably fashionable about being a soldier and they were trying to work out what it could be. He spoke with us, complimenting Josephine perfunctorily, discussing with me the supposed hardships of life on campaign, as if either he or I had ever met them. It came to me that he was talking to me to be seen talking to me, that he cared significantly less for anything I said than for my rank, for the fact that to a certain mind the Inquisition had sent its most important member to his camp and fobbed the loyalist faction off with our figurehead princess. Unasked, even, he offered us carte blanche to operate in his own lands, and also in the disputed Dirthavaren; there was our payment, and in return I was to stick around Gaspard’s faction and look like a steely warrior who despised all of this formality and show; as a matter of fact, in my mind I was mostly impersonating Cassandra.

As for the other guests, the nobility of Orlais, it wasn’t snakes they reminded me of so much as a crazy man’s painting of a flock of peacocks. Any hope of keeping track of which mask was which vanished in a flutter of heraldry, and I just hoped that to Josephine this was an open book in a language she read. I exchanged politenesses and smiles with people who professed to know Lord Trevelyan’s parents and had plainly never heard of him. I talked about wine – a topic Josephine had found that both she and I had expertise in, and therefore a perfectly innocuous shared interest to use – with a man who turned out to be the master of the palace cellars, and I’m almost certain that my companion was pursuing her family’s business interests between the lines. I sampled delicacies that most people would think the likes of Harry Osten had never before tasted – to which I’ll say only, who d’you think serves the things? – and I sipped at exquisite wines that nobody should ever have put in the hand of a man who’d drink anything still liquid enough to pour out of a skin.

And suddenly from behind Josephine and I were overtaken by a torrent of high-pitched enthusiasm in (indeed, mostly out of) quite a gorgeous gown of Montilyet family colours. And where I’d wondered at Josephine’s mask, clearly artfully designed to highlight rather than hide, this young lady was wearing something that seemed only to count as a mask in that one wore it on or near one’s face: and what it seemed that she was squeaking was my companion’s name, in piercing tones largely audible only to small children and cats.

Apparently Mynah was ‘Josie’ to her sister, and apparently the Montilyets had been blessed with two daughters with dimples you’d do murder for, and apparently the elder had had all of the brains, restraint and good taste. I mean – dear Yvette treated language like perfume, it was there to captivate and enrapture and add to the image, and she applied it liberally and left a trail of it in her wake. Perfectly clear that she meant none of what she said; perfectly clear she’d remember none of it tomorrow; and for some reason she was pretending to be more than a little tipsy: one single flirtatious look in my direction, though, and Josephine practically bared fangs and I was very glad I’d succeeded at keeping my eyes where they belonged.

“She is cleverer than she looks,” murmured a Josephine either faintly despairing or entirely charitable as her sister was scraped off onto the nearest passing man who looked like fun, “but she does rather look like the village idiot, doesn’t she?” She traded heart-stopping smiles with the girl as the latter triumphantly led the equally brainless-looking fellow towards the dancing by the wrist. “And she’s the chip off the old block, you understand.” A sip of her drink. “I’m the exception, in that I’ve a moment for the seneschal, a head for money and a taste for things that aren’t poetry, romance and trash.” Her eyes suddenly a little over bright. “And the man she’s making eyes at is so far in debt it’s a wonder he can afford his own mask: how joyous, they’ll have something in common.”

I nodded, smiled, trod water, tried to keep my mind off the situation and onto our goals. “So we’ve met your sister, met the duke, got some platitudes off him: what now?”

“Now?” She handed her glass off to a passing servant, motioned for me to do the same. “A turn or two around the floor, and I know you can’t dance, it’s all part of the act. Eyes out for Lord Lucius.” She took my hand: it was still a little like being alighted on by a butterfly. “If he’s not there, we join Cassandra to be introduced to the Empress, and we repeat the whole dance we contrived for Gaspard.” She led me after her sister, somehow managing to imply by the set of her shoulders and her expression that she’d civilise me if it killed her. “And do try not to look like you’re enjoying yourself. You’re a warrior, remember? You’re bad at this.”

“Horror,” I said quietly as I took her hands for the dance and this was somehow permitted. “Privation. Hardship.”

*

There was never any realistic way that the two elves would have stuck together. Jenny, dressed as a servant, was practically part of the furniture any time she stopped moving; she went into the winter palace like a snake into long grass, eyes off her for one instant and she was gone. Solas was wearing much the same, but he was quite entirely wrong: from his hair to his voice and manner to the way he stood, only a human could have thought him anything other than a fish flapping around out of water.

But of course, he wasn’t exactly there to talk to the servants.

Somehow he found his way through to the bustling, steamy kitchens. Somehow, standing there like a lump, he was handed a tray to carry by someone swirling by who was belatedly identified as a flour-stained Nightingale. Somehow he made it into one of the halls, and only the humans could have thought he was supposed to be there, but that was enough, and that was where he needed to be.

And quite what he saw and how he saw it, given that there were several templars right there: it’s perhaps a mystery. But his eyes passed expertly enough over the nobles, and whatever it was he saw, he was satisfied: onward he moved, keeping to the edges, aping the others of his distant kin he saw flitting around the edges of the humans’ supposedly elegant festivities. No cover here, but apparently the ears were cover enough. The dancers themselves, nothing unusual, protective pieces and curios: a man with an undershirt supposedly charmed against blades, a man with a mask enchanted to let him see through masks, a lady with something similar for cloth, that sort of thing: nothing concerning.

The duke, and the empress’ ladies-in-waiting – the lady herself was to emerge later – both fundamentally similar, the nobles at the centre under genuinely effective but subtle defences, a couple of discreetly armed bodyguards, and each side had a templar. Sign of the times, of course, that the four templars in the building were effectively rogues, clearly each brought in as their own separate coup: the place should have been practically crawling with them –

What was that?

He spotted it for a moment across a ballroom. Small, nonhumanoid, fast moving. And as out of place as he. Quickly as he could he closed the distance. Didn’t dare mask his own scent, and its senses had to beat his. Just another glance he needed. Skipped past an elf going the other way carrying a tray, and the two traded places with a grace that put to shame anything on the dancefloor. Kept going. There. There.

Met the cat’s eyes and crossed his fingers –

She turned and left the ballroom slowly, tail held high, empress of all she surveyed. He picked up a tray and slipped out, handed it off, found the cat’s trail. A side-room, a place that later on in the evening would be a place for assignations and backroom deals, and the door had been closed and quite definitely locked.

H’m. Glance up and down the corridor. Tap on the lock with a bony finger and the bar slid back; habits learned in a different kind of lair entirely curled his fingers into a warding gesture as he nudged the door open.

The room: elegant decoration, mirrors, no cat. One human, though. Tall as any of her kind, well-dressed, but not overly so: a lady-in-waiting with hair of the same mouse-brown colour of that cat’s fur, with eyes of that same startling green. No mask, but it’s not as if she needed one. New face, she was wearing, unfamiliar. No mistaking her, though, not to Solas’ eyes.

“You,” he said, and his expression betrayed little but mild surprise.

“Me.” The witch smiled an opaque human smile. She looked no older than thirty, today. “Anther in atisha, ‘ma falon,” she said in the cant of the gutters of Denerim.

Solas raised an eyebrow. “Serannas… ma vallanne.” Whimsy could go both ways: when in Orlais, massacre the language the way they do, perhaps? “Fancy meeting you here in the very flesh.”

“I might say the same, my dear.” She waved languidly to a couple of chairs. “You’ve come in peace, I hope.”

“So do I.” A move for a move. “No notion you were west of the Frostbacks, but I suppose every swallow flies north in a bad enough winter.” Solas took a too-high chair at the same moment she did.”You’re here to do a thing?”

Her eyebrows were thin elegant arches. “If I were?”

“Well, then perhaps I might be, too.” Just the warning hint of coldness to his voice. “It would depend on the thing.”

“I’m not actually certain I answer to you, ‘ma falon.” In most humans, that air of visceral physical menace might be taken as accidental. Not this one, not at all. She knew exactly what she sounded like.

“We’ll be civil. This place has been neutral how long?”

The witch’s eyes danced. “You always were funny.”

And Solas’ expression grew only colder. “You never were as funny as you fancied yourself. And you’ll tell me why you’ve taken it upon yourself to come here. What’s so important as to threaten a hundred years of companionable peace and quiet.”

“I’ll note that you are here as well, my friend. And I was here first.”

“Pah.”

She put her chin on her folded hands. “I’m not here to quarrel. A question for a question, an answer in kind, all I ask, surely not so much. Just this: why are you here?”

Sigh. Fine. “Prophecy,” said the elf at last, and raised a hand to forestall her reaction, “and I know, and I know and I know: only trust me, that it is somewhat more than plausible. Have you ever known me chasing wild geese? And as for my price, I turn your question about. My business here is chasing the future. A prophecy, the details of which you don’t need, involves the empress.” He met her eyes, implacable. “Your turn.”

“Coincidence,” said the woman, and as she did so she saw Solas’ eyes narrow. “Neutrality or no. Empress Selene is mine.”

He blinked. “Would you perhaps like me to use another language for you? D’you have some kind of problem with the words? Only -” he shook his head slowly, a little disbelieving – “that is a decidedly perverse definition you have there for the word ‘neutral’.”

She shrugged, a gesture for which her gown was born. “Simple enough. This isn’t your lair, and it isn’t mine: you’re as much or as little at home here as I. We pass in the night, we show the odd fang, we recognise our-”

“Oh, spare me the pseudomystical codswallop. We’re no more beasts in the ashes of Halam’shiral than we were in the salons of Vel’lamethan, and no matter the face you have on. Your writ does not extend here, and I’m not one of your – daughters -”

He froze.

And in that moment, his shadow in the candles’ light was larger, far larger than he and darker, his mien inhuman entire, and the witch’s eyes widened: and in the same instant she leapt up from her seat, and in the instant that he struck, she was a mouse and under the door.

He spat a blasphemy against a god whose name had been lost longer than Orlais had stood, and the door flew open at his gesture, and the hunt was on.

*

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