Fear and Surprise, Chapter Twenty-Five

by artrald

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*

A sister shall hold no land, for her duty to the Maker shall overshadow her duty to her country. If a sister shall be found to be an heiress, the world shall say that the heiress is dead.
A sister shall inherit no more title than mere courtesy, for her duty to the Maker shall overshadow her duty to her retainers. If a sister shall be found to be an heiress, the world shall say that the heiress is dead.
A sister shall have neither wife nor husband, for her duty to the Maker shall overshadow her duty to her spouse. If a sister shall be found to be a wife, the world shall say that the wife is dead.
A sister shall raise no child, for her duty to the Maker shall overshadow her duty to her child. If a sister shall be found to be a mother, the world shall say that the mother is dead.
A sister shall serve no mortal liege, for her duty to the Maker shall overshadow her duty to her liege. If a sister shall be found to be a servant, the world shall say that the servant is dead.

from the Rule of the Seekers of Truth
adapted for Divine Justinia I from the Rule of the Inquisition of Nevarra
original author unknown

*

I dismounted with a reasonable amount of dignity and she stepped down from her pony as if it was nothing more than a ladder; she cast a jaundiced look at Solas’ retreating back. “Long ears, he’s got,” she said disparagingly.

“Long ears and a short mouth,” I noted, and she smirked.

“Bet your life?”

I turned my left hand palm-up briefly. “I somewhat already have, you know.”

Wince. “Right. Kay.” Deep breath. Discarded her pony’s reins carelessly, flopped herself down on the bank. “Kay. Ice all broken, and shit. Back at Halamshiral I showed a card I ain’t played before and you want t’ know what gets me to get it out, ’cause a knife-ear who talks like a grand lady’s like a sheep in wolf’s clothing, am I right?”

Shook my head. “It’s not about what use you can be to us. You’re invited to our counsels; you’ll speak up if there’s something you can add, same as any of the others. I don’t need to know secrets you don’t want to tell.” Sat down myself. “But it seems to me that you have something to say and you’d like an excuse to say it.”

“Shit.” She stretched. “I d’know. Maybe. It’s like – what’s my name?”

“Red Jenny. I’d guess Jenny Royan?”

“Fitzroy, if you’re from Val Royeaux alienage. Joke, see, real funny. Shades of, no elf’s got a father. But no, I ain’t.” She scratched her head, ran her hand through her short blonde hair. “Well, I was, but I ain’t, right? Never had parents. Took f’r a thief, age of six. Would’ve been my hand they had off’f me, but this old quick magistrate took a shine. Personal custody.” She shivered. “And I know, right, could’ve been a bloody sight worse and wasn’t. Grand old biddy, she was, empty nest, she’d lost her little girl and wanted a spare, all dressed up like a moppet.” She plucked at the skirt she had on, as usual some threadbare piece of crap she’d nicked and made to fit. “So lonely the old lady was. Only answered to ‘Mum,’ from me. I called her havhallan once, right, tryin’ to be nice. And you know what she did?” She looked up at me with a crooked expression. “Took me to the kitchen pump by my ear. Washed my actual mouth. Soap and all.”

“Knew there’d be a reason you didn’t bathe.”

Harelvhalon s’an da!” Laughing she threw a handful of grass at me. “Merde de chevre! Lave ta bouche!” Then her eyes went wide and she clapped her hand over her mouth. “Uh. My Herald. Forgive-”

I shook my head, still smiling. “Forget it. So uh. How does the rest of your story go?”

She looked down. “Twelve year I were Lady Emmald’s daughter. Sound as a bell that lady was with her mask on, not many saw her with it off, but she was pretty much howling at the moon, and worse she was every year. Twelve year she kept me like a songbird or a prize nug or a princess in a tower, girl and woman. Didn’t look much like a quick girl, not when I was half a dozen year a woman grown, but you wouldn’t know it t’see me all dressed. Like a game to her it was, like a pet.”

“That’s…”

“Insane?” She shrugged. “Mais oui. Try telling her that. I mean, I know. I slept safe and warm, I knew where my meals were, no idea how to starve. Lived better as a quick than any of the People and most of the quicks. Talked like one, dressed like one, thought like one. Read all the books, and she’d a lot of ’em. Guess you’d call me a little cracked, and all.” She dropped another handful of torn grass. “Then the lady goes the way of all shems. Just… didn’t wake up one day. Maker just called her home.” She looked up at me simply. “I’m curious. What would you’ve done?”

I shook my head, said the first words to come to mind. “I’d have run.”

“Aye?” She made a face. “P’raps. I should’ve. Didn’t. Bride’s musty crack, I was thick back then. I made out like it weren’t fair. I knew the law and the Chant, I’d read ’em. Nothing about ‘no elves’. Rich woman, I was, in my head. Took it all the way to the comtesse.” Showed her teeth. “Lady Emmald told me I was heir. Believed her, you know. Told them all. And right up there in comtesse’s court I find out that I’m a possession.” Her eyes glittered with memory. “She didn’t tell me, see. I knew my mother was odd. Could see my cage bars all right. Knew a bit of what I thought was the world out there beyond ’em. But nobody ever bloody bothered tell me not to expect to be a person.”

“Damn,” I said quietly.

“Yeah.” She stared at nothing. “I got out. Hahren of the alienage took me in, he’d no need to, no right to, I’d nothing to my name and I weren’t really an elvhen. But – I d’know. He put a head on my shoulders, taught me t’ speak proper. He asked me what I wanted and all I said was, put a stop to the shit. Make the bastards watch their feet. ‘Cause I was raised to know better, see, knew what most of us don’t, that the twats at the top are doin’ their own rules wrong. That they’re s’posed to do right by us and they bloody know it and they don’t.” A shrug. “O’ course, himself couldn’t shelter a criminal. But I wasn’t the first one o’ the People to reckon the world needs a good kick up the arse; wasn’t the first one to have the idea of taking revenge by stopping it being a game. He found me a place to be, a thing to do. They could use my smart voice and my company manners and not long before they could use my aim with a bow and all. I didn’t make up the name of Red Jenny, but, y’know. One day someone fell over and dropped it. I picked it up, like. That was – some while ago.”

“And you’re serving it well.”

“Thanks, right? But I ain’t, not for true. Not like them as was. I’ve worn to it like a pair of good boots, like, but. Some troubles out there I’ve run from or fallen on my face at. Like Dirthavaren, till you came along. Think I was in Val Royeaux because that’s where the work was?” She stood suddenly, turned and made me a perfect and graceful curtsey, and the noble bearing and accent slid on like a glove. “Serafine d’Emmald is the name, Lord Maxwell, the name the only mother I had ever gave me. And if I choose, I shall still pass for a little lady, should there be sufficient reason.” A flash of white teeth, a smile like a human’s, not an elf’s. “And there, now, I’ll fold that up and put it away, and you’ll realise I trust you not to get it dirty.”

And I stood, and I bowed to her. “May I prove worthy of your trust, sera d’Emmald.”

“Fits, right?” She grinned. “Nobody knighted me but the old bat. But yeah.” She looked me in the eye deliberately. “Not a lot of people know all of that at once. Not worthless to give it an airing, right?” A glance off in the direction of the others. “Right. Now let’s catch ’em up, before your reputation takes irreparable damage.”

“Irreparable. Watch it. Long word for a guttersnipe, Jenny.”

She blew me a raspberry.

*

It was cool, in the garden of Skyhold, and the day’s work was done, and the excuses had run out some while ago.

It wasn’t to fool anyone, this act, and it wasn’t to make a statement. It couldn’t really be a ruse, and the point of disguise was largely gone, and an idea that had seemed laughable – or that’s what she’d told herself, at the time – well. It no longer was.

They talked – well, mostly, Cassandra talked, and supposedly about getting to know one another, shouldn’t work so closely together without knowing a little more, and so on. It gave her an excuse to look at him, and the tales she had that she could tell him were entertainment both to who he said he was and whoever he was hiding. Clearly he’d been expecting her to grill him on background and the Wardens, try and catch him out and tease out some more truth, now he’d shown he was nobody’s farmer; just as clearly she’d surprised herself and him by discovering she didn’t care. Provided he had that square jaw and black beard and liquid brown eyes, his soft dark voice and muscled arms and strong hands, and what the hell else was it worth having a quiet garden for –

Decision reached, she didn’t even finish her sentence. Stood up, quickly, from the bench they’d been sitting on; so did he, of course, and she didn’t step back out of his way, and her hands caught him by the waist and he froze.

“Highness,” he said, and written in his eyes was every reason they’d made this joke to start with, and he didn’t pull away.

“Go on,” she said, feather soft. “Tell me I am wrong.”

“My lady-”

“My lord,” she breathed.

“This isn’t right.”

“Wardens don’t swear chastity any more than priestesses do. Only give me one word,” she said, and her eyes were saying something else entirely. “One word. Tell me I’m wrong. Tell me to unhand you, tell me to go away. Tell me you don’t want me to go on.”

His hands on her shoulders gave her her answer. “My lady, you’re beautiful-”

“Tell me,” she said, lost in his eyes, “how I get on with cages. Tell me how I like the idea that my body is a piece in someone else’s game, and not even a good piece. Tell me how I like a set of bars, their names ‘princess’, ‘obligation’, ‘royal’.”

“Tell me,” he said, “how it can be that wishing for a thing to be can make it so.”

“Tell me what cannot be, between a knight of a noble order and a simple priestess. Between two champions of the Inquisition quite alike in dignity. Between-”

And his hand was on the back of her head and their lips met, harshly at first, and then not; an endless hopeless while later they parted; a while later still she breathed.

“That is what cannot be,” he said,and his voice was rough. “Let me go, my lady.”

She took her hands off him as if she’d been stung.

In silence she watched him walk away.

He didn’t look back at her, and in revenge she didn’t stand there watching for that long after he’d passed out of her sight.

*

I opened my eyes. Back in that throne, in that hall, dressed as some sort of prince. I recognised the place this time. This was the big chair in Skyhold, the great hall. Memory told me this was the same place I’d dreamed of before, but memory does funny things in dreams.

Solas was sat to my right, smaller chair, less grand. His shadow was vast behind him, as if I was where all the light was coming from, and it really wasn’t the same shape as his body. He had a glass of the wine we’d been drinking at the party; sipped it and raised his eyebrows in appreciation. “Herald,” he said, and the voice had a depth and a resonance to it that he didn’t have awake. “Do you have a moment to chat?”

“Do I have a choice?” I said, and it felt like the words said themselves, and he frowned like a stormcloud.

“Have you been paying attention to anything I have ever said?” He stood, abruptly, and the chair he’d been sitting on wasn’t there the moment he got up. “Or would you perhaps like to rephrase your words?”

Chastened, I nodded. “All right. I suppose what I meant was -” I looked around at our surroundings – “I don’t appear to have anything other than time.”

He spun on his heel to look at me. “Indeed. But it’s yours. If you would prefer a different sort of dream – glories ancient and lost? Flying? Heart’s desires? Your pretty girl, perhaps? -”

“Enough, Solas.” I raised a hand in what I hoped was a conciliatory gesture. “You want to talk to me. That means I really ought to want to listen.”

He shrugged. “Fine. Your brand. Back at the winter palace. You used it. Talk to me.”

“Is this an education, or an interrogation?”

“A little of both,” he said. Continued to pace. “The red templars are something new. All that I said about them was true, but – they worry me.”

“You killed one easy enough.”

His eyes were bright points in shadow. “Easy is not the word I would use. His body was wreathed around with lyrium, and he knew what he was doing with it – the weapon I’d brought would have been useless, along with most offensive magic, and Dorian or Vivienne in my place would likely have been better placed getting Cassandra that sword than trying to hurt the man directly. What I did was thin the Veil for him – in most humans all that spell would have done would be to create terrifying hallucinations. What I want to know is what you think you did.”

“It might have been just the same,” I said, cautiously. “I think. I just – pushed. Pushed him away. And I felt something stretch under my hand, like cloth.”

“You thinned the Veil.” He cast a weary eye at me. “By accident.”

I gave a self-deprecating grin. “Do I ever do anything any other way?”

“It’s not a virtue,” he said sourly. “Cause of death in both cases was poisoning. The curse on the lyrium made itself real, manifested as foulness of some sort, and over they went. Comparable to the blood of darkspawn, if faster.”

“Makes sense,” I said. “Around the Breach, there were those weird angular rock things. Red lyrium, said Varric. If it comes from the Fade in the first place -”

“Oh, our conclusions can go further than merely that. Unstable things don’t form naturally, so, we know what Corypheus is doing with his orb, for example.” Solas turned around, clasped hands behind his back. His shadow followed him, more like a cloak than a trick of the light. “But that’s not our concern right now. You used your brand. By accident, true, but you wielded it as a weapon, and that door cannot now be closed.”

“I had no idea what I was-”

“No, quite. D’you realise what would have happened if you’d lashed out in rage, in fear for your life?” He answered his own question. “Clearly you don’t. Blank eyes, little between them, as the saying goes. Can you wield a blade left-handed, or shoot a bow?”

“I use both hands on my sword, if that’s what you-”

He shook his head. “But you haven’t so far torn your practice pell screaming out of the world, so…” A brief, humourless smile. “Congratulations, Max: you have a weapon the likes of Cassandra can only dream of, and you’re quite literally too cack-handed to swing it.”

“Do I even have to?” I looked down at my hand, at the green light that spilled around my fingers. “You say the door cannot be closed. Can’t I just… you-know… not use that door?”

He smiled at that. “Of most people, I’d suspect mockery at those words, or subterfuge. But you?” He turned to face me, put his heels together. “Do you believe, Lord Maxwell? You have seen the Golden City’s gates. Do you believe there’s a silent but benevolent creator somewhere beyond, just waiting for the world to prove itself sufficiently moral and harmonious?” He raised a finger as my mouth opened automatically. “Think, will you, before you speak?”

I looked him in the eye. Bit my lip. It would have been hard not to speak. The idea of lying to him didn’t cross my mind. “I-I believe in the Chantry. In the Inquisition. In this whole thing where we close the holes in the world or at least we fence them off, and stop the people who want us dead. And I believe that there’s a lot I don’t understand and some of it happens to and around me for some reason. And the rest is too big for people like me. That do?”

More than anything else, the answer seemed to simply amuse him. “I suppose it will somewhat have to: all right. Cleave to that, Maxwell. Stick to that attitude. It will help. Advice, then, for a man determined to cling to humility: do not try to use your brand, even unthinkingly – intention matters, but apparently not nearly so much as I’d initially thought. How much use do people make of the palms of their hands, anyway?” The smile was genuine enough, but as to whether it was mockery or mirth –

“Or what? What would it do?”

Solas looked as if the words had a bad taste. “Consider, if you will, what Corypheus called himself in one breath and said he’d suffer no rival in the next. Consider yourself a child sitting in a tent, with a lit candle for a nightlight.” And abruptly he was holding one, and it was the source of all the light that there was in the world. “By all means keep away the dark with it, Max. But don’t upset the candle.” And the light was fading, and all that I could see were his white eyes and his white teeth. “And do not play with fire.”

*

Varric collared me over breakfast. A private word. Not like any of us to play cloak and dagger when we didn’t have guests: I suppose that Kirkwall habits died hard. He took me to the north range of the castle: this side faced a thousand-foot drop or near enough, so the reconstruction work had largely been elsewhere so far: these rooms were going to be our storehouses once we had enough to store. There was nothing in the room he took me into, nothing at all –

There was a man standing behind me. I swear there had been nowhere for him to hide. Little over my height, once-attractive features ill-hidden by an unkempt black beard, a man wrought of rawhide in an adventurer’s hardwearing shabby clothes, but as I looked at them I saw fine stitching, good leather, expensive cloth: a rich man, then, disguised as some kind of bravo or soldier of fortune. A little older than me in years, perhaps, but he’d seen a hell of a lot more life. Satchel on his shoulder, leather thing, a little out of place. He bowed a little too shallow and a little too easily, just like a nobleman in disguise, and I matched it. “Varric,” I said carefully, “mind making an introduction?”

“Lord Inquisitor Maxwell Trevelyan of Skyhold, may I present -” the dwarf stumbled over the words, and our guest raised an eyebrow and waited – “Tobias Hawke, the Champion-”

“Of nowhere,” said the man smoothly in Marcher-accented Fereldan, his voice a pleasant baritone. “And we’ve met. You attended an investiture of mine, if I’m not mistaken?”

“That must have been Finlay,” I parried. He was testing me. “My little brother. I’ve never been to Kirkwall.”

Hawke nodded. “Right you are. Funny things memory does; Fin Trevelyan looks nothing like you. Anyway: you’re here, I’m here, Varric brings me, and this isn’t a social call. I hear a conversation might be had involving stories he’s told about me?”

I looked around us, at the bare disused room. “Here? You sure you don’t want to go somewhere more civilised? Have a drink?”

He shook his head. “I once had a terrible taste for luxuries, messere; it’s best that I not indulge, I’ll only end up feeling the hard life more keenly.” A sudden, roguish smile, a flash of something that used to be. “Also, you might call me a wanted man. Something about a war? Bunch of idiots might say I started it?”

“Bunch of books say it wasn’t your fault?” I returned the smile, a little guardedly.

“That’s right,” he said cheerfully. “Varric asked me not to make them authorised biographies, they sell better as romances.” A sidelong look at the dwarf, a private joke. “My good lady had more input than I did, stipulated some rules about how I was, uh, portrayed -”

“A skirt-hound with a girl in every bed?” I chuckled. “Some lady you have.”

“Messere, you don’t know how right you are. And you’ve clearly actually read the books: I suppose that all I can offer is my condolences.” The man’s good humour was infectious. “I assume you actually are here chasing the true and honest?”

“Ran into an old villain of yours,” I said. “Hawke and the Legacy.”

“Didn’t say I’d read the books, did I?” He gave a smile he didn’t mean so much. “Tall fellow, skeletal, practically mummified. Little misshapen. Tevene accent. Would’ve come across as some sort of mage?”

“That’s the bugger. If by ‘some sort of mage’ you mean ‘feat of magic that had our lot picking their jaws up off the floor’.”

“Mhm.” He looked at me levelly. “Northmarch. We were there on business. The Wardens wanted a better route for Orzammar steel, and we wanted the custom a little too badly: they’d give us a better price for my lip-print in blood, dried would do, and when I wanted some details they told us a story. Turns out they had an ancient vault, and the seal had got close to wearing off about fifty years ago: they’d hired an apostate mage to put it back: that was my father. Now they were worried about the vault. Noises off, and the like, terrifying dreams. Needed it sorted out, and this time they had a Warden mage – but he couldn’t break my father’s spell without some kind of a link.”

“Sounds entirely honest and legitimate,” I said, and he snorted.

“That’s what I said. We sauntered up with enough force to level the castle, and offered to deal with their vault problem instead. My mage unpicked the door in two breaths flat; we took the thing inside by surprise, and Maker’s own good and honest, that’s why any of us walked away. I’ve fought five abominations in my time, straight face to face: there’s what you might call a knack. Never got time to work out what the abomination was, beyond a name and half of an insane monologue. It was short and nasty, and we were bloody lucky the Warden mage was a half-decent healer. Then my own mage – the Dalish archmage Merrill Kirker, if you know who that is? – gave us a count of three to get our hairy bits out of that vault, then she sterilised it. There weren’t even bones left.” He shook his head. “Damn thing was laughing as it burned.”

“Reckon I can tell you why,” I said darkly.

“Mhm. Varric filled me in.” He ran his hand through his untidy black curls. “Makes it halfway to being my responsibility. Yes, I couldn’t have known, but that’s basically my life story, but let’s be clear.” His eyes were bright. “I’m here to help. What do you need?”

And I’m afraid that what I mostly did was stared blankly. I mean – literally, here was a storied hero walking up and casually owning up to the very deeds that he was renowned for, and asking me for orders?

After another moment or two he nodded. “Ah-ha. Got you. New to this, are you?”

Just about managed to nod. “Sorry. You uh. Caught me off guard a little, I typically-”

He waved his hand. “Know the feeling. Trick is, messere, just pick something. Bull through and clear up later.” Raised an eyebrow – “Aware of the irony. Moving on – You’re opposing this guy and his crazy cult. Varric said they use red lyrium, but he also sees the shite on every street corner and blames it for dry rot – can you…?”

“Confirm that our cult probably has dry rot?” I nodded. “Two people off their heads on red lyrium tried to kill Empress Selene. In Therinfal, the templars force-fed it to two-ish thousand townspeople. I’m pretty certain of this one. You’re telling me you might be able to find some kind of way to track it down?”

“Better than that, Lord Trevelyan.” Smug little smile. “You’d be interested in any haul of the stuff, anywhere, I assume?”

I nodded. “Our mages paint it as basically concentrated evil. Nobody should own it, and none of the sources of it are up to any good.”

“I don’t believe in evil. It’s all just people. But yes.” He swung the satchel off his shoulder. ” Much as I’d like to say that the chase is likely to be the kind I do – rooftop shenanigans, derring-do, and so on – I suspect it’s likely to be done in smoky rooms by accountants and spymistresses. The lyrium market isn’t large; the import accounts of the official traders are easily got, if you’ve an empress’s ear. This is the other half of that market: I relieved it the day before yesterday from a fine gentleman from the Carta, who run protection for every lyrium smuggler from the Anderfels to the sea. Call it a down payment.” Perfect teeth grinned. “Damned if I can read the thing, though. Presume you’ve got someone.”

*

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