Fear and Surprise, Chapter Twenty-Six

by artrald

A short one, this time, but at least there is one.

Previous

Up

Next

*

Nightingale closed the ledger, carefully, as if worried it might be suddenly blank if she opened it again. “Where did you say you got this?”

“I didn’t.” I smiled blankly. “Will it help?”

“Will it help, he says.” She rolled her eyes; Josephine hid a smile. “Max, if I were a mistress of hounds rather than Seekers, you would just have handed me a bag full of a couple of dozen people’s dirty underwear. And a beach’s worth of wet sand that our quarry has walked on, and a good idea of the kind of shoes they wear – who sold you this, again? Did you pay them anything insupportable? I wasn’t aware you had a firstborn child?”

“My contact seems to feel that a debt was owing, on his part. Call it a down payment.”

“At least let me know which factor was had?” Her hand waved over a swathe of map. “I do have other eyes on the Carta. It would be worth knowing where to corroborate.”

“Beyond that they weren’t many days’ ride?” I shrugged. “I was mostly too busy musing on the dental equipment of gift horses.”

“Of course you were.” She opened the ledger again with a care that belied her expression. “I don’t need to ask about veracity: if this was faked, it was faked by a Carta factor and used to record their work. Your miracle thief, is he still here?”

I shook my head. “Wanted men aren’t known for-”

“A wanted man, you say.” Cassandra’s voice cut over me. She was in an unaccountably foul mood this morning. “Little over average height; about your age. Dark hair, usually bearded, ludicrously arrogant, Marcher accent, especially in Orlesian. Air of a richer fellow than anyone has a right to be. Likely incognito, likely in company with a pair of beautiful dark-haired ladies, one Antivan, one Fereldan. Friend of Varric?”

I swear I didn’t twitch. “Does this person you’re describing in such detail have a name?”

“I thought so. And you are aggravating me.” There were dark circles under her eyes. Was Cassandra hung over? “Desist. Cooperate.”

“If my contact had wanted to be announced-”

She stood up with an abrupt and careless violence, put her hands on the map table. “My lord Herald, right at this moment I find that I do not give a shit. You will tell me whether Hawke and his compatriots are still here.”

And I suppose that it’s a measure of how far I’d come that I didn’t physically shrink away from her. But yes, I caved. “No compatriots,” I allowed after another few moments’ resistance, “and I suspect that the man himself has already-”

The door slammed behind her. I winced. “Will I still have a contact tomorrow?”

Nightingale lifted her nose from the book. “Lady Cassandra has been after that man for three years-”

“And I suppose that we shall have to live with a reputation that you can’t come to us if you’ve ever been an outlaw?”

She shook her head. “You misunderstand, Maxwell. Cassandra has been out to recruit him: the idea of reviving the Inquisition was kicking around the Divine’s court for years, if you had eyes to see it, and he was on the list of people we wanted.”

I sighed, pinched my brow. “But we just did that, as I said. If you lot weren’t so utterly focused on who my contact was…” A sweep of my hand took in half a dozen pins showing places our adversaries had been seen. “Hawke is a resourceful man with a golden tongue, who can handle himself. I’ve set him after discovering our adversaries’ aim. What they are after, with a bit more detail than ‘conquer the world, become gods and twirl their fat Tevene moustaches’. Stop us chasing around after them, maybe let us take some initiative?”

“What about the moon?” Perfectly straight face.

Only a moment’s confusion. “Well, I hadn’t really considered. Maybe he can do that next?”

“That sounds appropriate.” Her eyes danced. “I have always distrusted the moon. I am sure it is planning something. And with a man who can do anything?”

“He delivered us that book, didn’t he?”

“The problem of employing such a man as an agent,” said Nightingale over her possessive grasp on said book, “is that you make yourself more than a little susceptible. We are talking about a man who talked Flemeth of the Wilds into going half a thousand miles out of her way to save him and his family from the Blight; who talked the Arishok of the Qun into fighting a duel rather than accept the outcome of a battle that he had just won; who talked an actual abomination into surrendering itself to the Maker’s justice. Are you quite sure that this is your plan he’s implementing?”

“Not one bit,” I smiled. “It was his idea. He said that he felt some responsibility for Corypheus, so-”

She raised an eyebrow. “So have you any inkling that he is in fact associated with our cause, and not in fact running on us a classic confidence trick? In such a trick, of course, the book would be genuine-”

“Varric vouched for him.”

“Varric is a bard, a showman, a merchant, in other words an inveterate, a cheat and a liar, a trickster himself. To Cassandra he’d sworn by all that’s holy in the world that he’d neither any inkling of where Hawke was nor any way of finding out, and then suddenly he produces the man from nowhere?”

“D’you trust anyone at all, Nightingale?”

“It’s been known.” She didn’t look away. “One died, one is sitting here in this room, and one has gone off to invent half a dozen additional shades of shit.”

I blinked. “What?”

“To beat out of the dwarf.” She turned back to the book. “I’d trust Cassandra with my life and any ten thousand others you’d care to name, you understand, but I wouldn’t lie to her without having a fast horse within sprinting distance.”

My chair nearly overturned. “And nobody thought to-”

“Better she do it than I do,” said Nightingale with a businesslike air. “I’d like as not resort to weaponry. Should I quote the Chant?”

Well, that made me round on her. It was like the words said themselves.”Go on, then, sera. You show me where petty revenge is your religious duty.”

She scowled. “It must be clear, my Herald, what happens to those who deceive us. Weakness-”

“Weakness is beating the crap out of your friend because they decided to be honest for once in their life. And leave the Chant out of this.” I yanked the door open. “Now if you’ll excuse me, there’s a fight to stop.”

*

Varric had stood the instant she came into the refectory. Turned towards her, backed away. She’d kept walking towards him, steady, implacable, and that look in her eyes was the one he’d last seen her turn upon the demons of the Fade. He spread his hands, babbling something about how he could explain, putting a table between him and her.

It hadn’t been a particularly large or heavy table. The half-dozen people in there cleared right the hell away as it crashed down on its side and out of her path. His back hit the wall and he’d changed his tune to ‘don’t do something we’ll both regret’ – she didn’t even stop to tell him where to get off.

The first blow was a backhand to the face. A dwarf isn’t exactly a soft target, and a blow that would have knocked a human sprawling simply slammed his head back against the wall: he didn’t have time to stagger as she drove a knee into his gut. Just about got his forearm in the way of the elbow she was driving down toward his head, and shoved her away with sufficient force to get out from between her and the wall. Hardly ever met a human as strong as he was. He backed off, not daring to take his eyes off her.

“Give me one reason,” she said as she turned, stalking towards him. “Give me one solid reason I should leave you alive-” and as she said the word she kicked him, caught him in the temple with a force that would’ve laid a human out right there. He reeled, but she hadn’t broken anything: he got his hands up in front of him. “Cheat. Swindler. Deceiver.” She took another quick step forward, and this time he dodged away. “You chose the wrong woman to lie to, Tethras.”

“Loyalty.” He grabbed a chair, overturned it between them; she kicked it away. “You ever heard of that, sera? You pulled me in like a common-” he dodged another blow – “criminal. You asked me about the Templars’ most wanted man. And you wonder why in the bloody, stinking hellfire I didn’t just decide to spill all the secrets I was trusted with?” This table was too long for her to flip; he dodged around it.

“You were perfectly aware who we were.” Cassandra’s fury was burning white-hot. “To all of those who seek to deceive my children, know this: there is One Truth. You could have closed your mouth. You could have let your writing speak for itself. Don’t you dare pretend you did not choose to lie to me -” And she picked up a chair and she actually threw the damn thing.

Bar-fighting reflexes kicked in, but not fast enough: the chair’s leg caught him across the forehead, split his eyebrow. “Maker’s Bride, lady-”

“Shut your heathen mouth.”

“Heathen? Lady Seeker, unless you’ve got twice the years you look like, I’ve been singing the Chant longer than you have.” The back door was this way. He moved crabwise, ready to duck another missile, calculating when and where he could bolt – he was willing to bet she could run him down on the flat in no time, but he had a pretty decent sprint in him and cornered better –

She saw the same thing he did, but he hadn’t expected her to physically vault the table –

He ran anyway. Slammed the door open and barreled out. ‘To’ was the future’s problem. He was worried about ‘from’, right now.

And Cassandra didn’t miss a step, raced after him. This was a lady who ran her morning constitutional in full armour. The dwarf had misjudged her turn of speed by a catastrophic margin –

If she hadn’t crashed headlong into the door.

Peeled herself up off the floor, seeing stars, murder in her eyes. Someone had pulled that shut. “What the fuck was that?”

“Stopping a very smart lady doing something very stupid, I reckon.” The voice rumbled not far from the ceiling, from atop a mountain of solid muscle. “You want to answer me your own question?” Iron Bull fixed the human with his good eye and pinned the door closed with one steel-toed boot.

“You want to get out of my way?” Her voice was little more than a growl.

“Of course, sera,” the qunari said, crossing his massive arms. “Give me the objective, give me an order, and I’ll even lend a hand.”

“You know damned well-”

“Yes, my lady, yes I do.” He met her eyes evenly. “You’re aware of what a good qunari soldier does when he thinks he disagrees with his boss, my lady, and first thing is, he makes for damn sure he didn’t hear her wrong.”

She ground her teeth. “That little piece of shit betrayed us, Iron Bull.”

“Sure I’d have remembered being betrayed, between the bit where he was last out of Haven and the bit where he was the first of us who knew what the hell-”

“He lied to us, you idiot. He’s with us under false pretences. He brought a wanted man here in secret-”

“So, what. You want that I should bring him in for a sit-down and a chat, so he can explain himself, perhaps?”

Her eyes were flat and hard. “Do you mean to say that we are going to have a problem here, Iron Bull?”

“No, sera.” He didn’t look away. “Make me your instrument. I will carry out your will: you need only name it. You want him brought in, I’ll do it. You want seven shades of shit pounded out of one of our own in public, sera, I’ll handle it without hesitation, I’ll do it in the middle of the practice yard so every single person the Inquisition has can see what kind of people we are, I’ll give the pipsqueak the hiding of his life.” He leaned forward slightly. “But with respect, sera, if there’s an overpowering reason why you feel you have to dirty your own hands, it is nothing less than my duty to ask you whether you are so very sure you’re doing the right thing.”

Cassandra stood there for another moment, staring almost blankly at him. Then she turned abruptly away. “Bring him before the Herald for judgement.”

The Bull’s heels clicked together with a military snap.

*

So when I finally tracked Varric down in the great hall, there were three people out looking for me, Iron Bull was standing behind him like something between a jailer and a guard, Cassandra looked like she’d recently eaten a whole live hedgehog, Nightingale was lurking in a corner with a what-d’you-think-would-happen expression, and Josephine was by the big chair concealing a certain amount of inappropriate amusement behind a straight face.

“If anyone tells me that they can explain everything,” I said, sitting down with distinctly less ease and comfort than I did in my dreams of the same place, “then I’m afraid that I’m likely to lose a sense of humour I didn’t have a great deal of to start with.” I leaned on the arm of the chair like Josephine kept telling me I should. “Varric?”

The dwarf stepped forward. I noticed how he kept a hand cocked, fighter’s reflex. I noticed how he didn’t want to take his eyes off Cassandra. I noticed the black eye. “You, uh. Seem to have outlawed my next line, ser.”

“Try some facts?” I still couldn’t shake the feeling that I was in disguise, playing a part.

“Sure.” He cleared his throat. “Makes me look a bit more innocent than I am, though.”

I raised an eyebrow; Cassandra glowered. “Say it, then.”

“Short version?” He ran a hand through his hair. “I fell.”

There was a moment of silence, at that one. I broke it. “Fell.”

“‘Sright, ser. On my fool face. Own damned fault.”He was looking straight at me. We’d all read the same stories. Everyone knows what ‘I fell’ means.

“Philosophical differences, you might say.”

“With the ground, my lord Herald, yes.” I’d only ever read of someone doing this, or heard it in a tale. Where I’m from, you just say you were in a fight and don’t elaborate. Absolutely no idea they did this in real life.

I looked to Cassandra. “You saw?”

Her face was an expressionless mask. “No, ser.”

“You stormed out of our meeting, last I saw you. Where did you go?”

“I was looking for Varric. I wished to -” she glanced briefly at the dwarf, took in his bruises – “clarify some matters.”

I leaned forward. “And are they? Clarified, I mean?”

“Yes, my Herald.”

“In the face, repeatedly?”

She met my eyes. “Ser, I’m not sure what you are on about.”

I shifted uncomfortably. If I pushed this any further, someone would have to lie to someone, or –

I turned to the qunari, still stood a little like Varric’s bodyguard. “I don’t suppose you have anything to add.”

“Actually, ser, I might.” I nodded to him to continue. “Different topic, you understand, discipline matter. Speak freely?”

“You need permission?”

He perked one ear in his equivalent of a lopsided grin. “Do today, ser. See, something happened today that was beneath the notice of any backside parked in that chair you’ve got. Man in serious danger of not shutting his fool mouth. He doesn’t say anything more, we can deal. He takes leave of his senses, he starts trouble nobody wants.”

I raised an eyebrow. “I trust that you’ve got the matter in hand. The Inquisition needs this sort of problem like we need a hole in both hands and the head. If we can’t trust one another, it doesn’t matter what our cause is.”

Cassandra nodded stiffly. “If we trust the wrong person, ser, likewise.”

“I’ll ask you this once, Cassandra, then I’ll shut my trap.” I looked at her straight. “Do you consider that there is someone we have trusted who we shouldn’t have?”

There was a long, cold pause. She didn’t look at Varric. Deep breath. “I did, ser, once upon a time. We shall see if I have been correct to change my mind.”

*

Next