Fear and Surprise, Chapter Twenty-Four

by artrald

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*

The Old Gods will call to you.
From their ancient prisons they will sing.
Dragons with wicked eyes and wicked hearts.
On blacken’d wings does deceit take flight:
The first of My children, lost to night.

Canticle of Silence stanza 3, verse 6
stricken from the Chant of Light on the orders of Divine Lydia

*

The palace gardens had been quite clearly designed as a place for clandestine association; rather than risk being overheard in the palace, Solas and Morrigan had gone for a walk. The witch was wearing what could imaginably have been her original self-image: of course, Solas mused, it was quite literally impossible to discern whether she were any older than the stripling she appeared. Her clothing doubtless conveyed subtle signals as to her supposed class and station, signals that were every bit as meaningful as the plumage of the hawk she’d been for twenty sul’an or so during that farcical little chase earlier, and he paid them every bit as much heed. The walking-stick she bore, now, that was something else entirely: Solas had decided that an equal threat display was called for, and he held his own weapon lightly in his right hand.

“So,” the witch said, a little uncertain. “Given that you called my bluff earlier, would you consider it fair for you to start?” Her smile was beautiful and fake. “Who are you, and how do you know my mother?”

Nobody can raise an eyebrow like an elf. “No. I think you shall start, in payment for your insolence.”

Morrigan blinked. “That really is not very polite. I had been under the assumption that we were trying to be friends, you and I.”

Sultel’an: ða’len t’ƿïra shem’vhen da, naë?” A sigh at her evident incomprehension. “Bah. I should simply have continued to speak Arlathani when I doubted your identity. No, girl, you know very well that the two of us will not be friends, or do I give you too much credit? Do you have even the slightest inkling with whom you are dealing?”

Stung, she changed her tack. “One without ‘even the slightest inkling’ of how civilised creatures behave. Unless I’m quite mistaken, I have dealt with your kind before; although never, I must admit, with such a successful spirit of Pr-”

Don’t.” For just a moment she could see the points on Solas’ canine teeth, and the shadows lengthened, and it was like standing upon a high bridge and looking straight down, like standing before the spirit Justice or facing up to her mother in a rage. “So, no. You’ve no clue with whom you speak. Have you at least the decency to know the correct angle to take, in this situation?”

“Well?” The sudden smile she now adopted was a decade old and borrowed from a dead man. “I could always change into a bear.” The tactic was counterintuitive, borrowed, unnatural – and yet it was quite surprising how well this worked. “I hear that it solves a vast number of problems.”

It was certainly enough to get the elf to meet her eyes. There was that eyebrow again. She didn’t say anything. She just kept a face that was perhaps just the slightest hint of other than straight, around the edges. Solas stared straight into her eyes in a way she’d never seen in any other elf. Then in another moment, the corner of his mouth lifted slightly, the teeth went away. “Dare you,” he said, with the faintest trace of humour to his voice. “That famed technique, Asha’bellanar’s ursine incantation of cordial relations. Long have I dreamed of meeting it in the flesh.”

No abomination would display that kind of emotional range. She returned the favour. “Don’t push me: I am ready, willing and able.” She kept the smile: knew it suited her. “So. In my own words, given you’ve identified me by guesswork already? I am a daughter of the Lady of the Long Years and I know what that means and who my mother is. If you know that much, you know that a daughter of the Lady’s joined forces with a Fereldan hero to slay a great monster in the Korcari Wilds about nine years ago? A winged creature widely held to be somehow a wielder of magic?”

A slight nod. “And I can pick up the story from there. You know, of course, that your mother is more immortal than, for example, you are, and nobody lives to that sort of age in a hole with only one way out of it. So you are in hiding here?”

“I am.”

“Might I suggest perhaps that this strategy becomes less than optimal.”

She frowned. “My mother does not come lightly to Orlais – I suppose that is because it is your territory? – and Halamshiral in particular is an excellent place to hide what magics I must wreak.”

“This place is steeped in nightmare. What are a few more?” He nodded sagely. “It is an excellent hole to sit in and await death.”

“Whereas instead you’d suggest – what? Joining the Inquisition and playing hero? Riding out against foes I’m neither trained nor particularly eager to face, until your reach exceeds my grasp? Staff or no staff, I am no battle-mage.”

A flick of eye contact. “The world will not line itself up all orderly to teach you such skills, ða’len. Personally, in your place, I would present myself as a young recruit either to Merrill Kirker or Connor Guerrin. Either could be easily seduced into providing you with a safe refuge, and both have access to training and resources that in your place I’d be learning just as fast as I could. As for the Inquisition? If we succeed, why, there will come a day that your mother will come for you, and you will likely have no convenient monster slayer to hand. And if we fail, then your daily survival will need every inch, ounce and erg of the power you are currently using to play housecat.” He shrugged. “But what do I know about living as a freelance mage?”

“You may be right.” She looked away. “I didn’t see those attackers, hahren. I-”

Solas let out a noise of disgust. “Oh, stick to tongues you speak.”

“As you wish – I could not see or sense them, the false Templars, until after they struck.” She leaned on her staff. “It is not simply wounded professional pride. They could have been after me. I was literally standing by Varault’s ankle earlier in the evening and I had not even an inkling.”

“If it makes you feel any better, their own eyes were similarly dull.” The elf’s expression softened slightly. “It is quite a unique feeling, isn’t it? To see, just for a moment, the flash of the blade that could have ended your existence, where so many simply could not?”

“A feeling,” she said carefully, “that most likely a mortal simply could not grasp.”

And that nod that he gave was almost approving, and certainly she understood that its implications were thoroughly meant. “Those ‘false templars’, as you call them. One of our mages has made a study. They are – h’m. Artificial. Akin to the genuine templars. People once, of course, but they’ve been deliberately fed not merely lyrium but some kind of working of magic, a curse or taint. Something different, something other, something unhealthy.”

“Cryptic.” She pursed her lips. “Do you have better?”

He stroked his chin. “From here it is conjecture – our researcher is one of the more competent shemlen I have ever seen, but the effect is genuinely something new. The templars are the closest perhaps, but it is like – You have studied the walls and the gates of the Golden City?”

That wasn’t a question. Every mage worthy of the name could answer that question. “The Chant of Light has some fairly definite ideas about what that particular contamination is, although I am sure you are about to tell me that what is written and what is true are very different things?”

“Actually, in this case, it’s broadly accurate.” A slight expression of distaste. “The timelines are grotesquely wrong, but the basic principle of half a dozen mad Tevenes going looking for the Old Gods, looking in the wrong place and poisoning the Golden City in the process is quite well attested, as is that as the origin of the Darkspawn of the Blight. There is reason to suspect that the corruption of the false Templars is similar in nature-”

“What about the Grey Wardens, then?” Morrigan caught the instinct for a smug smile, at being able to mention a thing that the elf could not, and suppressed it hard.

Solas blinked, looking straight ahead and seeing nothing. The silence stretched until Morrigan was almost tempted to break it herself, but then he opened his mouth. “Go on.”

“The Wardens. I don’t know if you have ever had the chance to examine them closely; I have. Their initiation consists of ingesting a decoction of lyrium that has been deliberately altered by introducing a mixture of the blood of darkspawn and the blood of each Warden present. A few drops of each, only, and far less lyrium than is required to induct a Templar. The survival rate is likely-”

“Enough.” He swallowed. “Apparently it is not only your good self who fails to see that which they are standing right next to. Much of what the Inquisition has is based upon a good look at one of their commanders or figureheads, a megalomaniac known as Corypheus the Elder One, who shares a name and general aspect with a creature once held in a Grey Warden prison and thought to be destroyed; I’d assumed him simply an abomination that the mortal cult was using as a weapon, but among the taunts he cast at us were words that if I took them for truth – yes. Suddenly a great deal of things fall sharply into – yes. And then the provenance of that creature becomes very clear.”

A pause. Morrigan decided to push her luck. “That being?”

“Oh.” He shrugged. “One of the legendary progenitors of the darkspawn, the mage-lords who brute-forced their way through gates that Arlathan had thought impassable. Specifically, if his words are true then he was the high priest of their god of silence. In passing, of course, this makes his claim to great age a little more credible.”

She nodded. “You shall notify the Wardens?”

He frowned. “Our Warden contact is a clodhopping incompetent who lies like a rug and displays little to no concern for his order’s cause; I suppose this is what they get for recruiting from the scum of the earth.”

“But surely Leliana has had some luck? Her connection to that order is nearly as good as mine.”

“Clearly she has not,” he said tartly, “or would I be repeating what I just said?”

“Well, then,” she said. “There is a thing I can do, something that you want. I can find for you my old ally Kallian Dener, the one the whole world likes to call by a demeaning name concerning her marital status. She’s an irritating habit of assuming everything of which she disapproves is linked to everything else, but this is a situation where that’s almost actually true: playing to her prejudices will buy you a powerful ally. And I’m fairly sure your Inquisition could do with everything she can provide you.”

“Go on, then,” he said with perhaps more of a long-suffering expression than she deserved. “Your price.”

“There’s only one currency worth having, in the long run.”

He snorted. “In the long run, we’re all dead.”

“Are we, now?”

His eyebrows went up. “That is not a coin I pay in, ða’len.”

“And rightly so.” Her smile didn’t let up.

He looked at her straight. “Is knowledge the single valid commodity you speak of? Or power?”

“Knowledge,” she said without a moment’s hesitation. “A mouse doesn’t live out its life by being bigger, faster or stronger than the cat.”

“If mice lived out their lives,” he said drily, “cats would have died out long ago. You truly believe I’d risk your mother’s ire by assisting you?”

“Teach me anything you wish, save only that I did not already know it. There is more to life than hiding.”

“Says the hermit.”

She shook her head. “I was studying, here. The Game of Orlais-”

“Is simply the squabbling of rats in a bag. Hardly the most occult of subjects.”

“I was not studying magic, Solas: I’d enough of that to be going on with, and a more pressing need. My study of the Game was undertaken in order to understand-” she gestured around at the palace- “People. Flemeth’s idea of training on the subject was to kick me out of the nest and see whether my instincts functioned, and to nobody’s surprise but hers, my ability to communicate with others turned out to be… somewhat underdeveloped. You clearly know Leliana: she made an impression on me, you know, when we travelled together. She showed me that social interaction was a skill, that it could be learned, that it could be trained: I needed this skill far more than I needed evocations and metamagics. So I have studied people.”

“Well, well. Perhaps you aren’t the idiot you’re dressed as.” Solas nodded. “Forgive me if I do not shake your hand. Yes, I’ve things I would not mind being known by a creature such as yourself, and some of more than academic interest, and if you’ll take my offer of tuition sight unseen then I’ll make it on those terms. Only find me your Warden.”

*

“You can’t seriously have believed that I’d accept your supposedly generous offer. It boiled down to one utterly meaningless title and a shiny mask for my daughter to play with.” Gaspard had his elbows on the table: they’d eventually had the thing actually set up in the palace chantry.

The Empress didn’t rise to it. “Our people are uninterested in chaos as a way of life: it is not our way that the strong rule over the wise and the cunning. My offer of concessions was a test, yes, but it was quite real. If you’d dealt honestly, turned up ready to sit down at this table rather than being forced here? Perhaps things would be different.” She waved a hand languidly towards Cassandra and Josephine and me, standing in attendance. “As it is, it’s somewhat moot given that we’ve an external threat to consider. The foolishness in Dirthavaren stops until this is done with, I’ll withdraw the Third and the Sixth, you’ll stand down the Fifth.”

He scowled behind his mask. “Armies are the wrong tool for this threat. You’ll support the Inquisition’s efforts in your personal demesnes and I’ll match you step for step, but no further.”

“Armies may be the wrong tool, but a civil war is the perfect breeding-ground and I won’t have it. The legions stand down.”

“And what do I give my people? Oh, I’m sorry, it turns out that the time is not right to make everything right, try again next year?” He shook his head. “You surely cannot expect me to go home empty-handed.”

“I do apologise, cousin, but if I grant you any concessions after this evening’s performance then every hot-blooded fool who fancies themselves Drakon reborn will think they can make their fortune with a stupid little threat. On the other hand, I’m not entirely heartless. Your candidate for the succession in Lydes was the husband, wasn’t he?”

“You think to buy me with piecemeal dribs and drabs?”

She made a face. “If you hadn’t threatened me so publicly, dear boy -”

“And what d’you call making hostages of my family?”

“Prudence, as it turned out.” She spread her hands. “Gaspard, be reasonable. If I capitulate, if I allow your breach of the rules of the Game to be rewarded, then next year Tirashan or the Reach decide that they want some of the same, and while that would not be my problem if I gave you what you clearly desire, it would be the problem of Orlais.” She held up a hand to forestall his retort. “But I recognise you are the only one capable of preventing the war in Dirthavaren. If I give you nothing – if I allow you to reap the just consequences of your actions?”

He surged to his feet. “You will not expect me to-”

“Oh, sit down.” She met his eyes. “If I do as I wish, as I ought, then in a month you’ll have the Fifth Legion behind you no longer, because you’ll have bled away all of your supporters. And in six months’ time Dirthavaren will be little better than if a Blight had come for it, because there is suddenly no single person there who does not want a war proper – As I say, Gaspard, you have started a fire, and roughly speaking it is only you that can put that fire out. So make me an offer.”

“Finally.” He leaned on the table rather than do anything that the empress said. “You’ll appoint me master of the privy purse. The shock of the attack has quite overcome you: I have stepped up to assist in this difficult time. I’ll want to make a few appointments, of course, principally d’Abernon of the Fifth Legion for Marshal of the East -”

“In other words, you’re after half the kingdom, and the only reason it isn’t my hand in marriage is that you’ve a wife already.” She laced her fingers. “You’ll have the Imperial Mint instead: if it’s your aim to pick the imperial pocket, you might as well cut out the middleman. D’Abernon can have her chair despite her actions this year – although of course I’ll make it out as an olive branch of my own, forgiveness for her confusion of loyalty, rather than giving you any credit publicly. Presumably you’ve got favourites to replace the families the insurgents put to the torch.”

“I’ll not accept the mint alone, cousin – do I look like a robber-baron to you? Lord Provost would be acceptable. The subsidiary titles and banners of Dirthavaren to be in my gift de jure as well as de facto: those who brought order to the province require reward, and I don’t want to have a dozen little claimants coming out of the woodwork a couple of years down the line.” He considered. “And something for my daughter. It’s hardly right for you to recognise her as Dauphine without a gift of substance.”

“H’m.” She considered. “There is an irony in placing a man who provoked an armed uprising at the head of the courts, but you are right that they require the firm hand that you claim to be, and d’Estaigne will retire without too much fuss. It was of course my intention to make a gift to dear Odette in her own right: a pony from my own stable, and somewhere to ride it, of course. Dirthavaren reverts to me, there being no Grand Duchess of the Dales, but I would welcome your recommendations for those who might bring some order to the place.”

“E-excuse me,” said a voice, and it took me a moment to recognise Jenny’s. Josephine winced; Cassandra shot the elf a glare, but it was quite ignored.

The Empress turned to regard the newcomer, her face composed into a meaninglessness as blank as her mask. “You are an agent of ours, are you not? Might we know the meaning of this interruption?”

The elf nodded, quite fearless. “I am none of Briala’s, your majesty: if anything I’m Inquisition. It was I who found and called out the blade that was to end your life. Your spies and informers in the palace, my lady, they were not bought: we’d say they had turned stag. Defected, turned coat, stood down, swapped their sides, you understand.” She was speaking with a decent stab at a noble’s accent. “Their reasons are ones you might like to make account of, when you speak of Dirthavaren.”

“Indeed?” She glanced to Gaspard. “I was aware of an attempt to bribe them, certainly, and had instructed my housekeeper that it was to succeed in at least a limited fashion. And none of my household here are locals: my housekeeper is no fool.”

Jenny made a face. “Perhaps, my lady, but your words tell me you just don’t understand. Dirthavaren rose up, and in came the legions at your command. And stop me if I am wrong, my lord, my lady, but the legions were not told to politely listen to the cares of the people who had risen up and to make them right, were they?” She clenched her fists by her side. “Maybe none of your elvhen came from round here, not them nor their mothers or grandmothers. But they did, and they did, and they did. Because this is where we’re all from. This is where the Dales are, whatever they say in Ferelden.”

“And this makes every elf in the empire my cousin’s ally?” The empress’ voice was mild. “You suggest that my people would truly trust him over me in this matter, simply because of the colour of his flag?”

“Truly, I do not know.” She looked to Gaspard. “But if I was to wager, I would say that his mouth opened, and words came out, and someone heard them and thought they meant something.”

He snorted. “I offered the elves nothing more than money.”

“Yes, and I’m sure they took your coin, and I’m sure it’s on its way right now to where it can do good.” She’d walked up to the table, looking up at him. “But that isn’t what you offered to the peasants, to the people who’d burned their lords on the pyre, is it? Not when they’d be satisfied with words that you could say for free, words about justice and right and truth and honour.” Deep breath and she met his gaze. “Dirthavaren rose up for a reason and you told everybody that you would make it right and how does this do that?” Fire in her eyes. “The Throne giving out the fancy hats or you doing it, you’re giving them to people who aren’t from the place, and their best reason for having the title is that they made the right friend. They can’t make good on whatever they paid you for that unless they collect their dues and they can’t do that while the place is in revolt. And that means that the first thing, the very first thing that all of your nice shiny people will do is-”

“Is bring order, girl. Dispense justice. That is the way the world works. Would you rather see us descend into-”

Let me finish.” She’d got those words, that tone from Cassandra. They shocked him into silence. “The first thing your people will do is make enemies of people who are the best chance they’ll ever have for proper supporters. And for the next ten years if you want any profit out of Dirthavaren you can bloody whistle.”

He blinked, wrongfooted. The empress smiled, very slightly, and sat back.

“Or tell me I’m wrong,” said the elf, and stared him down.

“Make me an offer,” he growled, and I saw her steel herself rather than shrink away.

She nodded, slowly. “There is a network. You will name some people you trust. I’ll give you names and signs they will use, to learn the places they can go to hear the wrong in the world.” She glanced to the Empress. “I shall choose some people in the Empress’ service as well, to hear these things. And what your people do is, they will bring justice like they ought, in whoever’s name you like. And they don’t abuse the trust I give them; they don’t take my name in vain.”

He looked down at her. “Or what? What name could you possibly have that is worth all of that?”

She smiled, and he could see her teeth and the points of them. “Your grace cannot possibly be that dumb: or if you are, perhaps you might ask your children. It’s a sacred trust, my name is, and a duty.” She nodded to me, to the Inquisition. “And it had me take a side in a larger matter again. If you make me regret my choice for a second time, Gaspard des Chalons, then they will sing of what happens next.”

*

“So, what now?” I glanced down at Jenny, riding a damn sight more competently than me. “A lot of promises we received, there. You’re confident they will keep their word?”

She blinked, perhaps surprised I was asking her rather than Nightingale. “Aye, they will. Empress at least, ’cause there’s a head screwed on. And half Gaspard’s men just ’cause they’ll need to know the name to get the goods, and by that point piss on what Gaspard reckons, ’cause they all heard that name from their ma, right?” She threw a glance over her shoulder at our other companions. “And the other half because Gaspard, because I spoke some words where Princess Sparkle could hear.”

Apparently Cassandra was in a good mood; all Jenny got was a hard look. “She’s perfectly right. The Lord Provost of her Majesty’s court cannot be seen to be dishonest. If he begins to forget – well – he’ll be encouraged not to, by Nightingale’s people if we have to.”

I nodded. “I couldn’t read either of them. Is that a problem we’re going to have to go back and fix a second time?”

Nightingale spoke up. “I do not think so. A great deal of the stability of the Empress’ throne rests upon her spy network, and Gaspard knew that – while what he thought he was doing was injecting well-paid agents in there, he was in fact stacking it with enthusiasts of a cause to which he paid lip-service. I assume you had a hand in that, Jenny?”

“It’s like some bugger with a bush and shears, right?” She smirked. “Briala was a jewel in muck. Empress’ maid, like, but her mind’s sharp as. So we give her a chance to show it, she goes up into the right place, rises like a bubble. Done my job better’n me for a while back there. But yeah. Handled new people, did it well, then in comes a way to make things right and of course they all jumped, it was why they were there.”

Josephine nodded. “Passing details to the Empress’s people as well as Gaspard’s effectively puts the Empress’ spy network into play in the Game. So the goal – improvements in Dirthavaren, the reason for the revolt in the fist place – is accomplished as a side-effect. It is all very neat.”

“Cheers, right? Nearly makes up for spending so much time round a bunch of quick bloody nobles.”

Josephine stuck her tongue out in unladylike fashion; I grinned. “But you must have at some point before, right?”

Innocent look. “You mean, other than when I was spanking their arses, and not the nice way?”

I raised an eyebrow at her. “You don’t want to tell me, that’s fine.”

“Oh, look, a daisy.” Jenny pulled up. “Josie, dear, can I borrow the Herald to help me pick it?” She looked straight at her. “You lot go on ahead.”

*

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