Fear and Surprise, Chapter Twenty-Three

by artrald

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*

Maker, my enemies are abundant.
Many are those who rise up against me.
But my faith sustains me; I shall not fear the legion,
Should they set themselves against me.

traditional Nevarran prayer
incorporated into Chant of Light, Trials 1: 1

*

The preparations were made to the music: that’s how they coordinated it. I was watching for the elves, hardly saw them leave, but it was enough: we put down our drinks, started to move casually towards the dais. Not sure what good we could do but by the Bride we were going to be there to do it. Cassandra and Blackwall were in the middle of the dancers, unreachable. Couldn’t see any of the others; wouldn’t expect to.

The key changed, giving the dance a distinctly martial, bombastic note, and every door to the place clicked quietly and determinedly shut. I could see Gaspard and his people moving, and by the way they were after the dais rather than the doors I rather suspected they were quite aware of this plan. The human servants – come to mention it, they did look suspiciously burly – suddenly they were all stood by flower arrangements, columns, statues, any other place you might stash a weapon. “Wrong,” Josephine said quietly as we moved. “All of this is wrong. The Empress’ intelligence service is famed – where is the counter-move, if this is a threat? This looks choreographed, to me. She believes she is perfectly safe.”

“Mage or something, you think?”

She shook her head. “Enchanted things, maybe, but even those mages who play the Game don’t do it by magic. Gaspard and the Empress do both have templars -”

“Our adversaries force-fed an entire town with red lyrium to forge them an army that could cross a kingdom without needing to stop and resupply; I don’t think their agent will be hindered by politely unwritten rules.”

She winced. “You coin a fine phrase. But my original point stands. I know Empress Selene’s style and I think I can read her. She believes this is all according to plan.”

Which, of course, was a good cue for the music to stop; in their gallery the musicians laid down their instruments literally in the middle of a bar. The dancers spun on in uneven disharmony, narrowly avoiding one another, turning to the Empress and to the musicians and to each other and drawing breath to demand of all and sundry just what in the hell was happening –

Duke Gaspard stepped up onto the dais and laid a hand over a jewelled pendant he wore: his voice, precise and lordly, filled the room as effortlessly as if he stood beside each one of us. “My lords and ladies,” he said. “If you are not aware of the necessity for this interruption to events, and worry as to my reasons for bringing my -” he nodded to the ‘servants’, by this point quite armed – “unannounced guests: I assure you that there is no danger to loyal subjects of the Throne. My dear cousin has simply gathered us all here for an announcement, one that I wished . My lords and ladies, I give you Selene Valmont.”

I didn’t need Josephine’s expression or the nobility’s general indrawn breath to translate the deliberate breach of protocol in those words. The only noblewoman to be introduced without an honorific at all would be the daughter of a minor house, and not the eldest daughter at that – except perhaps at knifepoint, which arguably we were. The Empress stood, gracefully, and she too was wearing a pendant that spread her voice through the room in that perfectly logical and natural way magic has.

“We thank his lordship the Duke Gaspard des Chalons for his eloquence and respect.” The Empress, of course, was doing it back, with no mention that the two of them were kin, and using the least of his styles. “Part of what We wish to say, of course, has so helpfully already been said by him: although We request your indulgence for his boldness and your hospitality for his uninvited guests.” She might have been a carven and painted statue for all the expression she showed. “There is no quarrel between Us and Our loyal subjects, nor can there be one: the duty of Orlais, beloved of the Maker, seat of the Sunburst Throne, is to more than itself.” A flick of her fingers indicated the Duke. “We would have you know that this man you see is to be commended for his diligence in pursuing the good of Orlais and her people over any thought of personal gain. Let there be no shadow of a doubt: what We have to announce today is of his making entire.”

The empress’ even gaze swept the room. “We recognise the difficulty that the Imperial succession places within the hearts of Our people; We recognise and understand how they might believe that the interest of Our nation lay with a strong, healthy, honest family rather than an Empress without official consort. Today, We place that difficulty at an end, and all like argument behind us all.” She inclined her head to Gaspard, and he bowed to her, though not nearly deeply enough; the sweep of her arm took in the assembled nobility and by apparent careless chance the armed guards. “And in the sight of such witnesses, indeed.” The corpse of a smile. “We are thus pleased to announce this day that Lady Florianne des Chalons is to be adopted into Our lonely household as Our own younger sister, henceforth granting her in her own right the name and mask of the Valmonts of the House of Drakon; her husband Gaspard, who stands here before us all, We accept as Our brother-in-law; and her daughter Odette We name as Our niece, thus granting her in her own right the name and mask of Dauphine and heir.”

Gaspard had gone scarlet under his mask. A click of his fingers and half a dozen of the guards had moved into a position that was somewhat more of an overt threat. He’d taken his hand off his amulet, but the snarl of his voice was quite audible over the silence that had greeted the Empress’ words, over the sound of a room holding its breath. “I do believe, cousin, that you are mistaken. A slip of the tongue, perhaps, an error. Your attempt at magnanimity is clear, but you forget that my wife is already your kinswoman. My daughter will already wear the crown one day. You offer me nothing I do not already have.”

The empress shrugged, her tone still that same cold condescension. “Furthermore, in this time of uncertainty and danger-”

Don’t you ignore me.” At my shoulder, I felt Josephine tense at his words. Nobody interrupts the Empress when she is speaking. “D’you imagine that your cosy little unwritten rules are stronger than the steel at your very throat? Preserve what respect I still have for you and-”

“Where is dear Florianne?” The empress’ voice cut like a blade. “Sweet Odette? Or anyone to explain for Us the sanity among this sound and fury We hear?”

“You tread a very dangerous line, cousin.” The duke and his guards now had the Empress’ people completely surrounded. Josephine and I had got ourselves as close to him as we could; I saw Cassandra and Blackwall at the front of the pack of nobles, ready to step to the empress’ defence if it should come to it. Reminded me of nothing so much as a game of tafl. “There’s not a hand in the winter palace that would raise a blade in your defence.”

“Oh,” she said, with unconcern affected, “but you seem to be wrong. Why, Our own brother-in-law is here -”

“You’re insane, woman.”

She laced her fingers. “One supposes that it is possible that miscalculations could be made on one or two counts.” Again that smile that was nothing of the kind. “It had been noised around, perhaps, that Our brother-in-law cared for the wellbeing of his family?”

He narrowed his eyes. “I am very sure that-”

“Oh, but We do not refer to the person of the Empress, who is of course above the machinations of the Game.” She did not move at all. “But as We were saying before a quite regrettable interruption: for the duration of the present uncertainties, the heir to the Double Crown cannot possibly be placed at hazard.” Her eyes bored into his. “Her safety among the household of the Empress shall be sacrosanct even above that of the Empress herself.”

“What are you saying?”

The smile continued. “Simply that while the Grand Duke’s personal guard were so graciously travelling here to ensure the security of Our own person, We saw it only fit to return the favour. Your wife, sir, and your children are the guests of Our house at Valmont: and there they shall safely reside for the duration of the disagreement in Dirthavaren.”

“Guards,” Gaspard snapped. “The Empress is fatigued. You will escort her-”

“Hold.” Cassandra needed no magical aid for her voice to be effortlessly audible at the back of the hall. “The Sunburst Throne claims the honour.”

“The Sunburst Throne oversteps its mandate,” he growled.

Blessed are the peacekeepers, the champions of the just.” She stepped up onto the dais with those words, and her eyes sought out faces that she knew. And after a moment, and with a slightly apologetic glance to Gaspard, the templar standing next to him joined her. Blackwall stepped up to her other side. Another moment and I pushed forward, around the duke’s bodyguards, to stand beside him. Josephine took my side. The two other templars from the floor stepped up also.

“Your Grace,” said Cassandra. “I don’t pass judgement upon your cause. But are we Fereldans, to watch our leaders brawl like animals on the floor of the imperial court, to make our policy upon the whim of a sword’s point? Are we Tevene, so caught up in our internal affairs that the wolf at the door finds it unlocked and unguarded? You will come to terms.”

“Will I, now.” The Duke was playing to his supporters. “Do you imagine that your lips need only frame a verse of the Chant and I’ll meekly surrender to the cast-off appendage of a woman three months in the ground? Or perhaps you and your righteous few have forgotten where the advantage truly lies? Do you truly believe that the Revered Mothers would fritter away what relevance they still possess by denouncing the rightful wearer of the crown and the hero of Dirthavaren, with as you rightly say the wolf at the door? That I cannot do with any of you exactly as I please?”

And as Cassandra’s eyes blazed I realised sharply that she thought that our mage had her back. “I would not be so eager to make such enemies, in your place.”

There was a long, cold silence. I could see the guards sizing us up. I literally had no idea what I’d do if they came for me with those swords.

“Very well,” he said at length, and his voice was little more than a growl. “You and your lackeys have permission to escort the Empress to the palace chantry, Lady Pentaghast. I don’t imagine that your duty will permit any of you to leave.”

*

Of course, when it did happen, it was shockingly fast. We’d closed in around the Empress, who was going meekly and without overt trace of smugness, and because being stared at with a drawn weapon draws one’s attention, we were mostly looking outward. It certainly didn’t feel like we were demonstrating our neutrality. Felt like we’d just chosen a side, and to be honest it felt like we’d just chosen wrong. (Felt bloody odd to be thinking of the Chantry as ‘we’, and all.)

They’d opened the door for us. Palace guard the other side and their eyes said mostly that they were being well paid for this. Cassandra was in the lead, a couple of steps through the doorway: we were behind, the Empress and her bodyguards-cum-handmaidens were pretty much in the doorway exactly. And the first I knew of it was Jenny’s high loud cry from nowhere, “Blade!”

I froze. Didn’t even see the weapon flash. Cassandra had slammed backward into the Empress at the same instant, carrying her physically off her feet and toward me – the handmaidens were turning on her – the templars looked like they were coming to her defence – to call it chaos would be an understatement. A hairpin flashed in a handmaiden’s hand, lengthening the same instant to a dagger long as her forearm – Blackwall caught her wrist as she drew back to strike, had the weapon off her like she’d handed it to him. I stepped neatly out of the way as the Empress fell in a tangle with Cassandra on top of her –

A man came towards me. I didn’t have time to see more than the snarl on his face, I didn’t even have time to see what he was holding in his hands. He rushed into me, trying to push me out of the way, trying to get at the Empress, and by sheer instinct I stood my ground. I mean, Krem had done his best, but I wasn’t exactly a sprite of a fellow, and weight counts for a good deal in a brawl – I didn’t move an inch. Wasn’t till he pulled back his right arm that I saw the knife in it, little thing, blackened blade. Panic. I just shoved the man and he staggered back and didn’t really connect.

Other side, Josephine stepped back smartly to let Blackwall come stand over them – someone came for him, I saw out of the corner of my eye, and I heard the solid smack of his fist into their forehead, and they fell backward. Everyone was shouting. Couldn’t hear a damn thing.

The man came at me again. He was the templar that had come to the party with Gaspard, I think. Knife held low. He swung for me with his other hand and closed the distance between us as I flinched, and I just kind of got my left hand up between us in a childish get-away-from-me sort of gesture –

Green light. The world seemed to stretch around my hand. Just for a moment the man wasn’t really real –

He fell backward away from me. Dropped the knife. I think he screamed. Tearing at his doublet, at his undershirt, trying to get away from anything that had touched me. His chest under the shirt was blackened in the shape of my brand, and his fingers were clawing at his skin around the burn. He was opening and closing his mouth, gasping desperately to breathe now, tearing at his skin, trying to get the brand off him, weakening, and I couldn’t look away until he stopped moving. I saw people’s eyes wide and scared as they looked at me. I saw the guards bring their swords up to be between me and them. That fear could be the only thing keeping me alive – I didn’t stare at my hand with the horrified fascination that I felt. I raised it as if it was a weapon and people stepped back.

The man that Blackwall had hit got back up to his feet, went for him again properly. Ducked the Warden’s right hook, replied with a jab that he blocked with a grunt of pain – and nobody should have been capable of throwing a blow that hard with just a short little punch like that. Blackwall gave a little ground and the man took it, and more – walked straight into a gut-punch that should have put anybody on the floor, took it like a love-tap – and hammered the Warden hard enough on the point of the chin to take him off his feet.

Didn’t survive to enjoy it. Cassandra had managed to get up, had whirled up behind him as he moved. She took him on the back of the head with her left elbow and it didn’t stop him. She put her fist up under his chin as he turned to face her, the blow snapping his head back, and it didn’t stop him. And that’s when she stopped treating him as human. Her kick broke his kneecap and he threw a punch. She swayed around it, grabbed the wrist and used the leverage against the side with the broken knee, threw him to the ground, and carried the arm-lock straight on around until his shoulder snapped. She knelt astride the man’s back and knotted the other hand in his hair and slammed his face into the marble.

Maker’s breath, he was still moving.  He rolled to the side and she was thrown off. Pulled himself to his feet. The Empress’ handmaids behind him were backing off from him, side by side now with the templars they’d been attacking not moments before.

“Sword!” Josephine’s voice was ragged with fear as she held a hand out. The guards weren’t about to let theirs go. “A sword, curse you!” Cassandra rolled to her feet, side by side with Blackwall.

And the voice I heard then was one I’d never been quite as glad to hear. “We can do better than that, I think,” said Solas distinctly, and whether they knew they’d done it or not, the nobles had stood aside for him. He muttered the spell to himself in the hissing stutter-step speech of the elves, and most of the light had drained out of the world because his shadow behind him filled a good half of the ballroom.

The shadow struck, once, silently, like a snake or a scorpion might, as the shattered creature that was supposed to be a templar turned its face towards the mage. And the creature put hands to its throat and its mouth flapped like a fish out of water, just like the man that I had touched, and died clawing for life and air on the marble floor of the ballroom of Halamshiral.

*

The silence lasted all of a dozen heartbeats, Solas’ hands still raised clawlike, his eyes focused on his prey, his shadow still hugely coiled behind him, Blackwall and Cassandra still tensely arrayed between it and the Empress, but one strike had been enough.

It was Duke Gaspard who broke the silence, looking at the shattered ruins of the two bodies on the floor. “Can somebody please tell me,” he said in a voice with too much fear in it to be as kingly as he wanted, “what the bloody hell that was supposed to be?”

“That was why we were here, ser,” I said, and you know, it was true enough for this conversation. Barely took my eyes off the one I’d killed to acknowledge I was talking to him. “Solas. Cassandra. Please tell me it was only the two.”

Solas tilted his head. “Permission to approach them.” First time I’d ever heard that meekness in him.

“Granted.” Cassandra met the eyes of the remaining two templars. They probably felt she was asserting her authority, rather than studying them for signs of some unseen corruption. Regardless, they gave way to her.

The elf mage went quickly to the side of the dead ‘templar’, knelt. Looked like he was checking for a pulse; the little brown cat at his heels gave the body a sniff, and looked like it wished it hadn’t. “Good odds it was only the two of them, but they’ve hid from me before.”

“What kills them?” The Empress had a better grip on herself than her cousin.

Solas’ tone remained meek and elf-like, and he even remembered not to look directly at her. “Easiest way to say it is, they are unholy.” I didn’t think he had it in him, to talk like that. “Ironically, a good loyal Templar is your best bet, or milord Trevelyan over there. That lacking, I can do it, or dismemberment would work. As for what they are?” He frowned. “I cannot give you an answer you would -”

“You have heard of a schism in the Seekers, one that parallels that between the Circles and the Templars,” said Cassandra. “Doubtless you have been told it is about doctrine, or maybe you have heard that it is a grab for power, a move for the succession to the Sunburst Throne, perhaps even a ploy by Tevinter?”She nodded to the corpses on the floor. “Behold our enemy. The one I recognised was Ser Varault: I believe he came here in your own party, Your Grace?” She went on before Duke Gaspard could begin to bluster. “Imagine how it would have looked if he’d succeeded. Your daughter is recognised as Dauphine and one of your party responds by murdering the Empress? Whether in full view of the court or in private where the only witnesses are me and mine?” She shook her head. “The rising in Dirthavaren would be a party game in comparison. You ask what these people are? Look only at what they do.” She straightened. “Your Majesty, this is what we fight. The Inquisition formally requests recognition and license to operate within Orlais.”

The Empress inclined her head. “Subject of course to the writ of the White Divine.”

“When we have one.”

“But of course.”

“Done.” Cassandra turned to the room at large: if Gaspard could play to the audience, so could she. “Now,” she said, with a long-suffering expression that drew not a few smiles from the nobility. “Where were we?”

*

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