Fear and Surprise, Chapter Twenty-Two

by artrald

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*

With passion’d breathing does the darkness creep.
It is the whisper in the night, the lie upon your sleep.

2 Transfigurations 5, Chant of Light
tr. Divine Eudoxia

*

Anther, ‘thallan.” That was cast over her shoulder as another tray was set straight.

Course she were there. Empress would hardly leave home without her little mistress of whispers. She was supposedly in charge of the servers, keeping ’em presentable, keeping ’em stocked, high as a knife-ear could rise, making it all run smooth. Patois was as good as a code in the imperial court. Every alienage has its own, all just about intelligible to the others, but your accent might as well be a badge on your arm, and Briala’s said Val Royeaux just like Jenny’s did.

Serannas.” Jenny pitched in. Naught so suspicious as idle hands. “What’s the chat?”

“Might say the same. You huntin’ or fishin’?” Fishing finds trouble, see, and hunting makes it. “Know some lovely plump trout -”

“Ain’t neither.” Proper dance, this, keeping it all moving. “Huntin’ a hunter.”

Vraiment?  Whose?” The local elf’s eyes were sharp. “That you’d find my help, of all people -”

“Dunno, do I, or I’d be asking them?” Fielded an errant goblet almost before it fell. “Their mark’s big, though, the biggest, none of your local spats.”

Briala blinked, skipped a beat; Jenny covered for her. “You’re not sayin’ what I think you are.”

“Uh-huh. Sure as hen’s eggs. Selene goes down, Gaspard steps up.”

“Not by your hand, he don’t.” Briala showed her teeth over the wreckage of a tray of blinis. “Hear me, little miss red? You leave-”

“No-no, you mistake.” Jenny passed the tray on. “Bad things if she fell, that’s the story, like, nobody wants ’em. Think I’ve a fondness for the Duke?”

“Funny way of showin’ it,” Briala said darkly. “Where’s you been, Jenny?”

“About the work,” she countered. “You know the chat about a Herald, a proper-”

Harelda! Merde!” A scowl. “Since when you given one furrow for the shems’ god, Jenny?”

“Since I seen stiff actual corpses out for blood, a-and things with more eyes than teeth. Since I seen what a templar’s really for, and what a mage is, and the Game’s bad, yeah, but this is worse.” It was like she was talking to herself. “I made a decision, right?”

“Changed your name, then, have you? Passed it all on?”

“It’s all the same. Still looking out for them as get stepped on.”

“And tell me again why you’re here?”

“Empress. She falls tonight, Orlais is-”

“Orlais?” The spymistress abandoned all pretence of trying to work to round on her. “There’s templars and chevaliers and wizards and all kinds of bloody shems just lining up to keep their shem sitting some stupid chair. And me and all, even. And then there’s Red Jenny. And I and mine can go to sleep nights thinkin’ no, it’s good, it’s fine, ’cause out there’s you bein’ what I want t’ be and can’t. I play the Game for Selene ’cause I know you’re out there playin’ it for the People, and you come in here and what d’ I go and find?” Her eyes were venomous. “You’ve bloody bunked off to be a hero.”

“Don’t get it, do you? If we lost this, Briala, there ain’t a world left to play in.” Jenny swallowed. “Maker’s will-”

“Jenny, where we standin’?”

“Palace kitchen.”

“Right.” She went on before Jenny could open her mouth. “What land? Whose? Go on. Tell me you recall what it means. The name, I mean.”

Narrowed eyes. “Not what I-”

“Go on. Tell me, ‘thallan. Or I swear I’ll round your bloody ears off.”

Jenny hissed the words. “Dirthavaren. Promise Kept.”

“For why?”

“The shems gave us it. Well you know this. Gave it to Shartan, Andraste’s Herald, freely and forever, for his service.”

“And see how well that name is, huh?” Briala gestured to the colours she was wearing under the apron. “How I’m wearing me own noble heraldry, even. Welcome to the winter palace, Jenny dear, don’t mind the mess, a shem’ll be around to sweep it.”

“Briala-”

The other elf leaned close. Her voice had the quiet of a razor. “Fuck the Maker, Jenny, and fuck his shiny hat. We sang the Chant and they walked all over us. We sang the Chant and they called us backsliders and they burned us out. And here we are serving drinks in the ashes of our own bloody palace, and how dare you say you’re fightin’ for the small when your first word out your mouth is ‘Empress’.”

“An’ look who says so!” Jenny’s voice rose aggrieved. “Or did I miss whose service ye’re in, whose secret y’are?”

“Plough your furrow and all, jillie.” The two of them were practically nose to nose, and they were drawing a bit of a crowd, but none of the others would step in. Briala swearing like gutter trash? Someone was going to come off worst here. “Did ye not notice maybe the war? Yeah? You went off playin’ Maid, ever thought to see what happened behind ye? Few deaders walkin? Cry me a river. Dirthavaren bleeds. The Dales are burning. Our people, our land, no matter the bloody flag. Shem and elf alike, all for two people’s grand little bit of Game, and y’know how much I heard of Red Jenny? Your little dead drops are full, Jenny, your friends are stuffed with sob-stories they ain’t told you. Half dozen girls went out and done things you ought’ve, you know, three of ’em killed, two caught, one crippled. Don’t know how many more I didn’t hear of ’cause they got away with it-”

And she trailed off. She trailed off because Jenny had gone completely dead still and pasty pale with fury, and because her hand had gone out of sight behind her back. Her voice that cold venomous hiss that meant this was killing serious. “You calling me a coward?”

“Aye,” Briala hissed back. “Happens I might be, or tell me ye’re not here because you ran away, se dirth’an da, all proper, and I’ll call you liar t’ your face. Now draw, Red Jenny. Fuckin’ draw on me. Scatter the Way of Peace to the winds, wipe our arses with the vir atisha’an. Let’s crimson up the place for our abused bloody honour like shems, and fuck your mission and fuck the Empress and fuck you.” Sudden motion, she shoved Jenny back by the shoulders. “Or fuck off. I’ve got a second remove to send out and a job to do.”

And in a trice Jenny was not there, a door slammed, and Briala sagged for a moment. Dicey, that had been.

Then out went the new orders.

*

She was to make out that she always enjoyed balls this much: that she’d avoided them because they were dangerously distracting rather than because they were full of drunken, lecherous idiots. Seemed that the easiest way for the two of them to do that was by actually having some fun.

It had started as a joke, between the two of them. The princess and the hedge-knight: ridiculous. Patently. But they had their orders – make a scene. And so, a scene they would make. Neither of them were anything more than the backup, anyway: no reason not to have a laugh at the same time, Blackwall had said, and after a moment’s calculation Cassandra had assented.

It hadn’t taken long to teach the man to dance after the fashion of the court; the hardest part had been doing it without Max and the others finding out what they were planning. But Blackwall was a natural athlete, and his sense of timing was good, and he was as light on his feet as she was and his hands were strong.

He’d smirked when the herald had used her royal title and the litany of seven names she had, and she’d muttered “Get on with it” under her breath. He’d known protocol for escorting her, exactly; he’d called her by the Nevarran style of ‘Highness’ rather than the Fereldan usage ‘Grace’; his bow had been properly Orlesian, and synchronised with the curtsey she’d made in a way that she wished Max had been able to do: and most tellingly, he knew how to move his head to give intonation and expression when wearing a mask, and that one she hadn’t taught him. Blackwall was Orlesian, and gently born at that.

Which meant that he knew more of the game they wished to play than he’d said he did: fine. She could use that.

It was quite against her nature to make him do things for her as if it amused her: instead she amused them both by taking the compliments any high-born woman gets at these things and making millstones of them around the neck of the giver. She was well known by reputation, and the calluses on her hands and the muscles in her arms would give it away otherwise – she made everything out as a veiled slight or a misjudgement or a slur against her companion, and otherwise laboured to insert idiots’ feet into their mouths, and then he would gallantly ask if she’d let him defend her honour, or she’d smilingly offer to defend his. And roughly speaking, no bugger was prepared to deliberately offer insult either to Divine Justinia’s champion or to a grey-masked man who could probably snap them in half with one hand.

Gave her a moment to reflect, that did, really. The man on her arm made most of the others here look like striplings, slugs, fools or geriatrics. Didn’t matter what had chased him away to be a Warden. Nobility obliges one, and here was a man who just by existing showed them the meaning of that. What had this pack of daffodils done to make the world a better place?

She feigned another sip of wine. She hoped it’d do nothing to the Warden, who was just drinking it – hell, he knew what he was doing. Did with everything else, including how to have fun at a state occasion –

The music interrupted her chain of thought. Time to take it up a notch. She requested of him a dance, and he accepted with a bow: and just as they’d practiced, she led him in the dance rather than the other way around. It wasn’t usual, of course: but they were of a height (she hated being taller than her partner) and why not draw more eyes, while they were about it?

She hadn’t told him that she was going to lift him in the air; she’d taught him the step you used if you couldn’t, and trusted that he’d be capable of playing along, as indeed he was. They were certainly drawing eyes, increasingly unsubtle ones. By the end of that dance she had given up entirely on keeping a straight face. And there was another one after it, and this time he led and she let him. It had started as a joke. But somewhere along the way, perhaps, neither of them were quite truly sure that it was one any more.

*

The empress now in attendance, the whole place had realigned such that everything that was done could conceivably have been done for her benefit and pleasure. Nobody turned their back upon her, whether dancing or speaking or anything at all: it was as if we were upon a stage, and she the audience.

It was hard work, pretending I didn’t want to be here, keeping in mind why I was there. The food, the music, the dance, and above all Josephine’s company, her perfume, that delightfully confidential smile of hers – my slightly intoxicated state had little at all to do with the wine. In terms of guests of importance, well, we weren’t even technically the Inquisition’s only representatives here: we were a long way down the list of people to meet the Empress, and so it was a case of amusing ourselves until our turn came.

Cassandra and Blackwall had taken the instruction to attract attention and they had run with it. She was making as if this was the first chance she’d had to let her hair down for years, and he was playing the man of mystery and doing it very well. They didn’t so much dance as flirt to music, increasingly outrageously, and by the time that Josephine was quietly observing to me that she hoped that Blackwall knew what he was doing, I suspect that anyone else would be thoroughly sold.

Problem was, they did their job too well. Didn’t just catch the eye of anyone looking out for us. Caught mine, and all, and held it –

Which meant that Jenny had to get my attention by actually walking right up to me and physically taking my drink out of my hand.

I looked down my nose at her like the aristocrat I wasn’t. She scowled at me, then jerked her head at the footman against the far wall as she concealed the gesture with something between a curtsey and a cower. “Look lively,” she mumbled just loud enough to hear. “Going south, it is, now her nibs is sat in her chair and everyone’s half clear on wine nobody watered. It’s the shem servants, ser, all of ’em, they’re wrong. Sword calluses, new livery and they smell wrong. Elvhen here won’t talk to me, reckon they’re down to it, be ready when they brush off. Weapons stood in the flowers by the doors. Can’t find Nightingale or Solas.”

My blood ran cold. Four people we’d brought who could handle this, and two of them were dancing, and two of them were vanished. “Well,” I said, trading a worried glance with Josephine. “Time to earn our keep. If the other two aren’t here, they’re doing something useful. You get ready to deal with the surprise.”

The elf nodded and then she wasn’t there.

*

A little like the famous Game of Forms, this – I am a mouse, hole-hiding, all-evading – except that Solas was in no mood to play. The spell stopped up both ends of the mousehole and boiled the air inside; the witch became a salamander, of course, but she showed herself not incompetent by combining that with a disjunction on the spell itself, keeping moving, getting out before he did something inescapable.

Salamander to gecko the moment she left the hole, and up the wall, but Solas was no novice either, and spotted her the moment he entered the room. She’d not seen this spell before, never seen anything like it: the spider’s web loomed large before her and she obeyed screaming instincts to evade it. Needed a faster form – she dropped off the wall and over his head as a starling – aha! A weakness! He could be wrongfooted, as he grabbed for her instinctively and missed.

Sudden gust of wind slammed the door to, as she swept towards it – he couldn’t very well have chased her in the ballroom – she flashed into hawk’s shape, hard experience saving her as she made a turn that few shapeshifters and damned few actual hawks could have made.

Servants’ corridor. People in here. She dived immediately, down to ankle-height, a blur as she bled off speed until she could shimmer into the familiar cat’s shape without tripping over her paws. Calculated risk, this, that the elf wanted the party to continue and so he’d not risk another overt spell panicking the servants: it paid off, as he just simply ran after her. And again, a lot of elves wouldn’t have even been slowed by having to pass three people in a narrow corridor, but while Solas didn’t exactly run headlong into anyone, he did have to slow his steps. One of his supposed kin called out to him as he ran that it was all right, it was only the palace cat – damnation, she thought, he’ll have noted that.

Into the kitchens. Normally not her first choice of places to be chased, every hand against her in here, but right now the bustle was an excellent cover –

Wait – that face didn’t fit –

The witch arrested herself halfway through forming the mental image of a mouse, turned nearly a right angle and leaped, climbed quickly and surely onto the shoulder of a woman who had once been a single breath from murdering her.

*

Nightingale’s first instinct, to take her assailant and throw it a good distance, had been stilled by a word hissed in her ear in a voice she remembered well. She put a hand up to steady the creature on her shoulder; as she did so, out of the bustle of the crowd came a Solas who looked about ready to murder someone – met her eyes – significant look at the cat.

“What are you doing in here?” Her tone, she was definitely addressing the animal. “Let’s get you out of the kitchen, hmm?” And fussing over the suddenly quite catlike creature she got them out of the crowd as soon as she could.

“I suppose,” said Solas the moment the door closed behind them, “that you’re going to tell me you know exactly what you have there?”

The cat looked around apparently calmly and her mouth made shapes no cat’s could. “We’re old friends.”

“Mm.” The elf put his back casually against the door. “Mind introducing us, then?”

Nightingale had stopped petting the cat the moment they were out of sight. “Solas of the Inquisition, may I present Morrigan daughter of Flemeth, of the companions of the Maid of Ferelden?”

The two mages looked one another in the eye. The exact same words from both mouths. “You have no idea how dangerous this one is.”

And the human’s chuckle was a genuine snatch of merriment. “Oh, once we get beyond ‘competent mage’ I genuinely stop counting, you know. Both of you have saved my life: both have put me in fear of it. Let’s count it like that.”

Solas’ shadow was still larger than it should have been. “If you are thinking of that as a mortal, Seeker, you are mistaken.”

Morrigan’s hackles rose. “Says the man whose name translates directly to-”

Solas’ teeth flashed, voice and mannerism distinctly inhuman. “Don’t.”

“Enough.” Nightingale looked between the two of them. “Can this be politely explained?”

“Politely?” Solas hadn’t blinked. “We were here seeking someone, and we have found her.”

The cat didn’t move, and neither did the woman whose shoulder she was sitting on: her voice was even. “This creature has threatened someone under my protection. Did he do so on behalf of the Inquisition?”

“Depends who it was,” said Nightingale softly, “and why. His appearance here, though, it surprises me less than yours.”

Morrigan’s eyes hadn’t left Solas’s. “Her name is Selene. She wears a decorative hat.”

A pause. Solas blinked, and the size of his shadow had been a trick of the light. Nightingale looked from the one to the other.

And it was she who spoke first. “If I ask you as to why?”

Morrigan shifted slightly. “She feeds me. I kill mice for her, and rats, and birds, and the snakes they leave in her bed.”

Nightingale considered. “If you were anyone other than the Morrigan I knew…” A decisive nod. “We’re not here to hurt the Empress. Discussion wastes time. Solas, I trust her, go.”

He shot the cat a venomous look. “That prophecy in full: that Empress Selene shall fall at Midwinter and a supine Orlais be overcome by an invasion from the Fade. You may at the least guess which side that puts your human friend on, if you’ve no faith in the honour of the elvhen.” Spun on his heel. “And when this is done, you and I, we talk about your mother.”

The witch snorted. “You could deign to look me in the eye to blackmail me.”

Still with his hand on the door, Solas looked down, pained expression. “I do hope you guard your tongue better when you deal with the horrors of the Fade, girl – those words just told me your life story. But you know me not at all if you think I’d sell it to your mother. Come: we can talk later.”

*

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