Fear and Surprise, Chapter Thirty-Four

by artrald

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Yes, I’m aware just how long this is running. DA:I is a huge game and I’ve already cut half of it ^^;

*

To speak of the Fade as having geography is to speak of the sea as having the same: for sure, the fish would tell you it does, but does the sailor care, once the shallows are behind her?

It is enough for any mage to know that there are shallows, that mirror the world, and deeps, that do not, and that dreamers see both – and that there are depths beneath, that catch the dregs that fall from above, in which strange creatures live that never see the light of day.

The Dalish may claim to have ventured there, and of them we read in publications from Tevinter: yet I’ve never in my career known of anyone who says that there is anything there of any use, nor met anyone who has been there for any reason other than to say they had: a poor reason to do anything, let alone magic.

To hypothesise that at the bottom of this putative ocean lies some kind of afterlife, simply because the Arlathani wrote of sending their elders there once they had outlived their usefulness? It is not simply foolishness: it is a danger, a trap for the unwary. I hardly need tell any of you that dreams have power, and false ones just as much as true: and each one of you will teach when your turn comes, and one need not be very much of a mage at all to dream oneself a journey from which there is likely no return.

Vivienne, First Enchanter
speech to graduating class of Montsimmard Circle, 9:34 Dragon

*

They’d been suspicious of hell of the Vint, initially. Everyone was. This was Orlais. But honestly, after Dorian had stilled the flames in the lower stair and helped them get enough rubble out of the way to get some trestles up and most importantly put a temporary working over the hole in the roof to keep the rain out, the Wardens were more than prepared to drink his health. And then they discovered that the northerner had never heard of ale (“It’s like a kind of beer?”) and nothing was for it but that he had to be taught.

The castle was still well-provisioned, and the Wardens had never kept servants, so the hospitality they could provide the Inquisition was pretty much as good as it would have been without what Dorian was referring to as the regrettable draconic interlude. In the morning, they would choose their new leader – Dorian sort of envisioned some kind of gladiatorial contest, given what he’d seen of them – and then, well, they’d see. Common opinion of the rank and file that the Inquisition had to be the Wardens’ allies, for no reason more complicated than that they’d drawn swords side by side.

Politics, Iron Bull loudly declared, and the fates of nations, were for those who didn’t have to die in the dust: and everyone would drink to that one, and let’s celebrate still being alive.

And how the Wardens could drink – and how the Chargers could – and Iron Bull had natural advantages and Dorian had a decent head for alcohol even leaving off his charm against intoxication, and they came to the conclusion about two hours into the impromptu feast that the rock of Adamant Fortress was most likely filled entirely with drink, like, put a tap in that wall for dark ale and that one for pale and that one for porter.

And thus it was that Solas returned and leaned against the wall in the shadows of the burned-out stair, and saw the Wardens and the Inquisition making merry with hours’ work still to do, with a hole in the damned ceiling for crying out loud, and despaired faintly of humanity in general, and let Dorian know he was there.

“Bull?” said Dorian, carefully.

“Still iron over here.” The big guy took another appreciative pull at his ale-jack. “Yes, mate.”

“Solas has returned.”

“Can he walk?”

Dorian shrugged. “Either that or he flew here.”

“Does he want to fix that?” The giant located a smaller tankard among the ruins of the feast.

“Sot.” Dorian cleared his mind with a weary effort and threw his voice to the elf, still with his back to him. “My drinking companion invites you to join us. Is anything actually on fire?”

“You did see the creature, I trust.”

He nodded. “It was impossible.”

“Clearly not.” The elf’s expression was sardonic as he slunk over to join them. “It survived Clarel’s blast, you know.”

“Clarel didn’t.”

“Last resort of the incompetent,” said Solas coldly. “The thing flew east: you’ll forgive me if I didn’t dog its trail.”

Dorian poured Solas a drink. “And the Herald? The Maid?”

“If they likewise took wing and flew off, I’ve no conception of how: and they are not under that pile of rubble.” Solas gave the tankard an experimental sniff and made a face.

Dorian nodded. “So. The Herald is missing presumed – I’ve actually no idea, beyond what’s happened to every other mundane I’ve heard of being exposed to the raw Fade. The Dragon-God of Silence not dead after all, but instead flying off in the vague direction of everything we know and love. Corypheus still at large and invulnerable, for all that we foiled his plan to equip said dragon with a corps of brainwashed defenders recruited mostly from the only people with any hope of slaying it, who turned out to be woefully unequipped to actually fight it.” He raised his tankard. “Your health.”

“Finished, human?” Solas made no move to drink. “What state are your divinations for the Herald?”

“Well, after this little lot, I suspect the answer is ‘fucked to bastardry.” Dorian took another pull at his own ale. “All seriousness, Solas, you truly think I’m putting my face in the Fade here, after fucknuts came through and nearly had us all dead?”

“An interesting new title: I shall remember it forever.” The elf sighed. “Fine: I am as exhausted as I’ve been since the retreat from Haven, but we’ll see if I can’t locate him when I’ve rested. You’re right that the tower will be no good to man nor beast after, but it can’t be helped: and I’d be in no danger. Your thoughts on the dragon, then, O Tevene?”

“I resent that one.” Alcohol on the man’s breath. “Just because my people worshipped it back when your people worshipped trees and halla deer and statues of wolves.”

“This morning, you mean?” A raised eyebrow. “But more seriously, I meant that you’re a student of applied blasphemy, and you just saw enough of it to last a non-expert a lifetime.”

“What, no superiority? No ‘I was reading books on this in Vel’lamethan since shortly before your people invented fornication’?”

“You’re fishing, Dorian. You are also an expert, and -ah.” He shook his head wearily. “You insist on asking me to admit it: fine. I admit it. Your knowledge of this magic is likely as applicable as my own, and of all the humans’ mages you’re the one whose opinion on this I’d value. Now tell me what you were looking at.”

Dorian sat back and smoothed his moustache and failed to conceal his satisfied smile. “The blasphemies I use in lab work are of course against dead ideologies: no point offending living ones. So I know a spell targeted at Dumat when I see one, and that was pretty much spot-on. I’ve no idea what that screaming circle spell of yours was, but as far as I can tell, the spell didn’t in any sense at all miscarry.”

Eyebrow. “It failed, Dorian. Miserably.”

“It did?” Dorian sat up straighter. “I’d been assuming it had a subtle effect that the dragon countered.”

A half-smile. “It was a binding abjuration, and about as subtle as half a brick. I assumed the dragon had somehow grown sufficiently fat on Venatori worship to simply break it.”

“Well, that I can categorically say didn’t happen. None of the randomised discharge I’d have expected; I appreciate you had your eye on other things.” His tone was thoughtful. “So I don’t think that this is a… vevilosarics problem… at all?”

Solas stroked the beard he didn’t have. “A deduction springs to mind. Properly targeted, rightly cast, neither avoided nor countered, but failed?”

“So the target was absent. In other words? That wasn’t the Dragon of Silence.”

“I suspect that I concur.” Both mages sagged slightly. Solas handed his tankard wryly back to Dorian. “So drowning our sorrows can take a back-seat to saving the world. You’re truly insufficiently sober to divine?”

“Try insufficiently competent.” Dorian shrugged. “High divination is for archaeologists and witch-hunters. What do we do if they are truly gone?”

“Now, that one I do know.” Solas smirked. “We laugh.”

Dorian blinked. “Sorry?”

“At Corypheus.” The elf’s voice was merry. “Because if they are gone, then he’s as stymied as we are: so we follow him. Unless he’s lying about his name, he’s one of the greatest mages your species ever put out. If our foe can’t find the Herald, nobody can. And if the Herald dies, the Elder One is quite spectacularly heþa‘an.”

Dorian concealed his ignorance of foul language in elvish. “You’re joking.”

“I’m not.”  Solas’ eyes twinkled. “With all you know about me, human, do you think I would trust in a plan with only one outcome?”

There was a pause.

“… How?”

He tapped his nose. “If I am lost to the Inquisition and you are not, then know that Lord Maxwell leads the charge for a reason, and you’ve heard it.”

Dorian was silent for a good long moment. Took another gulp of ale as if to wash out the taste of that thought. Stared at Solas. Eventually opened his mouth. “Your work? Or just taking advantage?”

“Are you genuinely asking me to give you hints?”

A chuckle. “Actually, I was wondering whether you could undo it. All the ways I can think of in which that could be done are sufficiently reciprocal to be a real damper on a man’s future career.”

“Oh, dear.” And Solas’ smile was as open and transparent as a brick wall. “I did have you painted as brighter than that.”

*

Humbling, that’s what it was. Intimidating.

I mean, okay, I wasn’t as good as Krem, but I wasn’t terrible – hadn’t I killed all those spider things on my own? Hadn’t I taken down Josephine’s demon soon as look at it? – but the long and the short was, when we forged ahead into the darkness and the things that lived in it decided to see what we tasted like, it was Kallian who made sure we ever made it out of there alive.

It was like the difference between letters carefully formed on a blackboard with a stick of chalk and the elegant, curlicued hand of a professional scrivener. I could make the sword go where I wanted and hit something so it wouldn’t twist in my hand; Krem was a professional doing a tradesman’s job of battle; and the Maid flitted like a shadow and her blade was a long continuous deadly sweep and where it went, things bled. She was tiny, a whole foot shorter than me, but that just meant there was less of her to get in the way: she was moving with the same sort of spare efficiency I’d seen in Cassandra, but the lightest-seeming touch of her blade put the things down like a hammer.

And there were too many for her.

I mean, we were forging ahead. Krem was one side, I was the other, Josephine in the middle, because she’d no armour. A thing came from behind us and I took off the end of a bladed limb with what felt like a parry: a moment later Josephine had spitted it. Krem was leaped on by a spider the size of a horse, saw the thing coming at the last moment, and his spin out of the way opened it from top to bottom. There was something twenty feet tall in front of us and the first we knew was that Kallian cried “Heads!” and it came crashing down face first with its limbs flopping like a broken puppet.

And I’d picked a direction and we stuck to it. The things were getting bigger. This one had a dozen arms: it dived into the ground like it was water and Kallian waited a beat, then cried out high and swung an arcing double-handed blow at air that wasn’t empty when she connected. It was far too hot in here: I was soaking in sweat where I wasn’t covered in crap. That one threw a glob of foulness that I barely ducked and Jenny put an arrow through its eye and cried “Twelve!”

For a moment I believed with a hugely irrational surge of pride that Kallian and Jenny were keeping score – that our Jenny was playing on the same level as the famous dragonslayer. Then she cried “Eleven” a moment later and I realised she was counting down her last dozen arrows, and that was fear I was feeling, all right.

Something ahead of us was terrible. I could feel it. There was a centre to this place and in it was something too terrible for words and Kallian looked to me briefly for a direction, and I pointed and she smiled and showed her teeth.

A giant creature swatted Kallian out of the air and Jenny put an arrow in each of its eyes as Krem gave it something else to think about, and Kallian pretty much bounced to her feet and it couldn’t see her and then it was dead, and Jenny shouted “Four!” We were each of us bleeding somewhere, I think. No idea what from. Just scrapes and scratches and glancing little flesh wounds we’d just ignored. We were climbing over the bodies of dead and dying nightmares, forging towards the source of our fear. I slipped and Josephine had me on my feet in moments and her eyes were wild and we were both so terribly out of breath. This had to work –

“There!” She pointed. A moment later and I could see what she’d seen. The ground was painted and carpeted with the nighmares and with their dead: but there, maybe fifty yards away, there was a space they were leaving. A space that was owned. A space where something had been. We could see bare cavern floor. There.

And we did it. Somehow. We got there. “Two!” cried Jenny, as something long and serpentine coiled up and over us and Krem stuck his sword in it and ripped a ten-foot slash in its gut, as I took three feet off the end of a tentacle, as Kallian spat catlike at a horribly segmented thing I didn’t want to look at too closely and neatly severed its arm as it lunged.

“One!” Something cannoned into me. I twisted, but in that moment it had grabbed me with a dozen horrid brown little grasping legs, and Krem pulled it off me with a cry and I turned and stabbed the thing. I was panting, spots before my eyes. We were there. We’d made it, and Jenny shot her last arrow and came out with bright knives and the four of them made a constantly moving circle around me and hoped I knew what I was doing.

And, yes. So did I, really. I’d rather expected a barrier, a blind spot, a bright place, something to push on, something to cut, something at all – I raised my hand and felt like a pillock and heard Kallian say whenever-you’re-ready and Josephine snap at her to shut up and let me work.

Work. Yes. Indeed. Nothing was happening. I tried to reach for the feeling I got when I closed a rift, and the light around me deepened, but that was it. I tried to think of turning the ‘pages’ of our conversation with Faith, and I could feel that there was only one page here, and I could see the end of that page approaching with terrifying speed –

The others were all looking the same direction now, they’d seen something and they sure as hell didn’t like it. Krem swore. I could hear Josephine breathing quick and scared close behind me. I had my eyes closed now. Heard Kallian’s voice, level, controlled, professional. “All right. Keep behind me.” It wouldn’t help to open my eyes and see, and I had my head bowed anyway –

still needed something to push on, something to cut –

look down

My sword had been dangling forgotten from my right hand. I reversed it, grasped it point down in my left hand, put the other on the hilt for control.

And drove it into the ground as I fell to one knee.

And we fell through the floor.

*

The tip of my sword hit stone and I opened my eyes with a gasp. I was still out of breath, spots dancing before my eyes, and above me in the air was a twisting curling ragged scar of a rift, and fine dust was pouring through in a flood. I was kneeling on a wooden table? I looked around wide-eyed. The air was full of dust. We were in a hall full of loudly surprised people, lit by magic. Josephine close behind me, catching herself on my shoulders as she landed and overbalanced forward. Jenny landing on a chair and taking it over backwards and rolling to her feet. Krem falling to the floor on his face in a very real-sounding clatter of armour and weapon.

Kallian suddenly coming through the rift backwards like she’d been thrown, covered in dust, cannoning into the table with a splintering crash and a loud harsh cry. That made five. One job, I had. Stood up on this suddenly unstable footing. Reached up, into the rift, felt it catch on my hand as frost blossomed out from me in all directions: hold, twist, pain, pull, and the flow ceased.

And now I could collapse.

I think I ended up sitting on the edge of the table. Didn’t really register where I was. Didn’t really register that the table was half collapsed. Everything hurt. Josephine standing there before me, now. Moment more before I could pull myself together enough to see her.

She had an ooze-soaked rag that had once been a handkerchief and, well, it was cleaner than my face. Looking at me carefully, as if to see if I was still breathing. She was panting just like I was, shaking like a leaf.

“I think,” she managed, “I think perhaps that this time, we may have gone one fashion statement too far.”

I nodded. I tried to smile. We’d been covered in sticky slime at the point we’d had that dust dumped on our heads, and in my case it was rimed white with frost. I don’t know what we looked like, but I’m fairly sure we didn’t want to. But Josephine’s smile streaked in dust and tears and blood and a dozen kinds of slime was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. “Said I’d bring us back.”

“Never -” She swayed. I caught her. Couldn’t properly stand upright myself. Collapsed back down on the table, which chose that moment to give up the ghost entirely: we landed on the floor. She held on. “Never doubted a moment.”

Someone put a cloak around us, was the next I noticed. They’d brought a litter for Kallian, an unhealthy pallor on her weatherbeaten face, and Jenny was hissing at Solas in somewhere between Orlesian and elvish and gibberish. Solas was here? That was good. Magic was what we needed now.

Iron Bull had picked Krem up off the floor and roundly bollocked him for going for the horses rather than the castle gate, the stable was solid stone and charmed against fire, and the profit was quite gone on a job where the Chargers lost their second-best man, and what the hell was wrong with him. And Krem gave a crooked smile and said he was pleased to report no dead and one injured, and did he have permission to knock off for a drink or seven and a bit of a wash, and they shook hands.

Dorian did get around to the two of us, after he’d caught Krem before he ran off and got him to stay still long enough to mend a cracked rib. Said a couple of words to the cloak, and it curled around us and became suddenly comfortably warm, at which point the frost melted and he realised that no, we were really very thoroughly covered in the literal stuff of nightmares, at which point we were equally thoroughly ordered to go with the nice people and get clean.

And thereafter the haze of exhaustion descended and the next thing I clearly remember is going to sleep on a hard Warden bed and dreaming of nothing at all.

*

I knocked on the door. My muscles complained that I should still be in bed, where they weren’t complaining that I should properly be six feet under or objecting to my existence at all. Standing hurt.

“It’s unlocked.” I dutifully entered. Tiny little cell, really, you’d think that they’d treat a noblewoman better, even if she was an elf – no, my memory corrected, the Wardens skim the scum off the gutter and call it cream. The Maid was a condemned criminal once, and she hated that title anyway. She propped herself up on her elbows and scowled. “Lethallan?” she called.

Jenny’s head appeared round the doorway.

“Our eaves don’t drop, sulevi’an?”

Je me dirtherai,” Jenny said like that was a prayer, and bowed her head to me, then pulled the cell door closed. I watched the exchange bemused.

Kallian raised me an eyebrow. “Guessing you ain’t here for pleasantries. Have some privacy, gratis, on me.”

I nodded dumbly, sat on the room’s one chair. “As pleasantries go, though. How are you?”

“Had worse.” She shifted a little, uncomfortably. “Just about. Problem with dwarvish armour, it’s not enchanted to help you fight another day, it’s there to make this day as long as possible. Walked into the Fade with a four-inch wood splinter in my belly thanks to that bloody flappy thing, you know that? Took a bit more scathe in the fight. Your healer, Solas, he’s a damned treasure, you look after him, hear?”

“You saved my life more than once in there, Commander, I-”

“Yeah? Right back at you. Means we stop counting and drop the formality.” She put her head on one side. “The Fade. Was a conversation in there we put off for later. This that, I suppose?”

Shrug. “Well, we might as well put this privacy you asked for to some use.”

“Right.” She fixed me with a burning green stare that made me want to duck my head like an elf. “So. What d’you reckon it was we saw in there?”

I picked my words carefully. “I saw and heard everything you did, and some things you didn’t.”

“You’re very sure? Spirits can’t change your memory, but changing what you think you saw is their stock and trade.”

The dragon is not a dragon. The mousetrap is a millstone. The apparition looked like a, more like a cloud of glowing light for you. The others saw other things.”

Not fazed by the revelation, not at all. I suppose in her profession she’d seen everything there was. “So we’re on the same lines.” She shifted again. I’d never seen anyone need bandages after a magical healing before.

“And, well. I’ve never seen anything like that before.” I folded my arms in front of me. “The way you were acting, you had?”

She showed teeth. “I have.” Her eyes bored into mine. “I’ll ask you again. What did you see?”

“I, uh. Not sure. Faith, was its name – her name – Faith. Name and nature, she said. Didn’t deny when I asked if it was a demon. Didn’t like the word.”

Her turn to pick words with due care. “Lord Maxwell, I c’n talk about this, but I won’t appreciate you goin’ all judgemental if you do. Good for you?”

I nodded. “Sera, you can snap me in half. I’m not about to tell you what you can and can’t say.”

She smirked. “Right. So. Demons, you’ve heard of. Rage, fear, hatred, desire, pride, sloth and the like. Like the nightmares. Comfortable that they exist? Comfortable what they are?”

“Comfortable is a strong word. But yeah.” I straightened a little as I sat there, remembered how it had felt to swing that blade. “I’ve fought and killed them.”

“I noticed. So – if bad dreams are demons, what about good dreams? Yeah, fine, some of those are just demons of desire or pride or whatever. But you ever had a dream where good things happened, where everything went right? A dream where the world’s ills weren’t?”

“One or two.”

“Hurts, don’t it, to wake?” She looked away. “Anyway. They say that there are spirits of all kinds of things, not just base things and bad things. You say this one was faith: I’ve heard tell of spirits of compassion. The one I’ve met for myself was Justice, and the wisest mage I ever met called it rarer than rocking-horse shit.”

“So, what? It helped you against the Blight?”

She raised an eyebrow. “It trapped a village worth of people in a fate worse than death for more than a hundred years. It desecrated one of the holiest temples of my people. We ended up giving it what it wanted because that was the only way to get it to leave. There wasn’t even a thought of getting it to help us, ser. What the stories say is that the spirits aren’t like riding a pony, they’re like riding a halla deer. You can get on easy, and if you’re going where the halla’s going then it don’t mind taking you. But those horns there, they ain’t for turning its head. They’re for making you a stain on the grass.”

“She, the spirit said she sang the Chant. She could’ve lied to me, she could’ve said she was the Bride and frankly I’d have believed her. I wanted her to be the Bride. And she said no, but she believed the Bride had sent her, because she had no other reason she would’ve found herself in that place where we were. You do know that she was the one who helped us patch the hole in the sky, the exact same creature.”

Kallian’s eyebrows went right up. “Aye, and that’s what you’d’ve loved to hear, right? Fits right in with something obscure in the Chant or something?”

I chuckled. Looked away. “While we’re speaking truth and being informal, Kallian, I’m not exactly your first choice of holy-man. Suspect you know more Chant than I.”

She smirked. “My first choice of holy-man’s an elvish hahren, ser, but I hear you. Short of it is, if she gives you orders she’s no right to, and any authorities and blessings she gave you are damned lies.”

There is one truth,” I said automatically.

“Aye, and I’ve fought beside your Sister Nightingale, and I know what Seekers mean when they say those words. Of all of us there, I reckon we all saw something different, aye?”

“You all did, yes.”

That made her blink. “More to you than you’d think, ain’t there. Very well, ser prophet. Any but you and me see through that illusion?”

“No.”

“So it seems we’ve got ourselves a decision to make.” She gave me another glare. “Who killed the archdemon, Lord Maxwell, and why?”

I blinked. “What?”

“The archdemon of the Fifth Blight. Don’t tell me you never heard the tale.”

“Uh. You’re going to say it wasn’t King Alistair? And for the love of Queen Anora?”

There we go,” she said sourly. “Plan was, it wasn’t going to be, and dammit, but it was my kill. He and Morrigan kept its attention, I ripped its throat open, stood there as it was thrashing around realising it was dead. It was going to be me, it was supposed to be me.” She looked away, staring at the wall, at nothing. “But that shem bastard couldn’t bring himself to let me. He – got me off guard, decked me, killed it before I was back on my feet, and of course he died doing it.” I opened my mouth to say something and she raised a hand to forestall it. “And why, you’ll say, because that don’t make sense with the tale? Well.” She said the words as if they had sharp edges. “He got me off guard with the first kiss he ever gave a woman and he damned well meant it.”

I’m afraid I had a great deal of difficulty concealing my surprise. “I, uh. Never heard the story that way before.”

“Aye.” She shook her head, as if to clear it. “Which is funny, right, because sure as sure nobody who saw that could be confused as to why Alistair was the one to die, and I never told any story but the true one. But by the time that tale came back to me, the man I loved had killed that whole thing his damn self, all for another woman he’d barely even met. Yes, they were to wed, but that was politics. Shems lie, Maxwell, they tell stories, they decide they ain’t heard enough truth so they make themselves some more. All the time. You get this one chance to give ’em the foundations, and I reckon you don’t want to claim to be servin’ the Maker’s Bride in the same breath you tell a lie.”

I nodded slowly. “Kallian, I – The Inquisition’s rank and file, they’re there because they believe. Yes, half of ’em were refugees we took in, the lost, the dispossessed. But they stay because they think we’re on a mission from the Maker’s Bride. They stay, a-and they’re riding out at arms in frozen bloody winter and fighting horrors like we saw yesterday and without your magic arms and without your training, and the whole damned thing makes sense in their heads and they know the Maker’s on their side, because of what I am. And you want me to go out there and give them not a nice little black-and-white story but a nuanced message that says that at best, the Maker sent an actual demon to help us?”

She sat back a little, and winced as she did so. “Truly it is that you think so little of ’em?”

“Kallian, what I’m trying to say is that my people want – need – simple. Hell, I’d love some myself.”

“Witnessed, seconded, motion carried,” she said wryly.

“Right. So if I tell them we met Andraste then I’m doing wrong, those who bear false witness and work to deceive others and all that crap. But if I tell them that every time they thought the Bride was helping us, it was this – demon? I mean – the Inquisition would fall apart. They came for the immediate danger, they’ve stayed for Andraste’s Herald. They need a Herald.” I ran my hands through my hair. “And the worst bloody part is, it isn’t even sure that it isn’t holy. The demon herself believed the Bride sent her. And even without -”

“That well-known truthbearer, a spirit.”

Shook my head. “I say again, I’m sure and certain we had her help fixing the hole in the sky. Same creature. Certain as my own name. But my point is, it’s more complicated than is or isn’t.”

“So it’s all right for people to call you after a lie?”

“No.” I met her gaze evenly. “But neither is it right for me to take away something they believe in when it doesn’t even have to be false! It’s like I came to ask your advice, or something.”

“Advice.” She made a disgusted noise in the back of her throat. “Maxwell, the honest truth is that my legend is an accident. I don’t like it, I don’t want it, I don’t need it and I don’t use it, and if there was a truth that would break my story, I’d tell it in a heartbeat and get back to my job.” She paused a moment, seemed to come to some sort of decision. “The one sort of advice I’m qualified to give is that I know my instincts for right and wrong are true, because if they wasn’t then I’d be dead. And my instinct says that right at the start of the Chant of Light is written what you shouldn’t be doin’. And that’s all. That’s it.”

“So, what. You think I stand up and tell them it’s all a lie?”

Her mouth twisted. “Didn’t say that.”

“Then what do I do?”

“Fuck off.”

“I beg your pardon?” I kind of choked the words out.

“Fuck off, as in, go away, with a bit of added shut up.” She showed her teeth, catlike. “I’ve told you what you don’t do, and what I don’t do is tell you what to say, fuck off.”

“Y-you’re serious.”

She mirrored my expression. “You’re still here.”

I stood. It was her tone of voice. I obeyed without thinking. Looked down at her. “I-I’d hoped that perhaps-”

“Do I have to make you leave?”

“No, no. Of course you don’t, my lady, I -” I swallowed. “Just, I don’t know. Thank you anyway, I suppose.”

Her expression softened very marginally. Steel to stone, let’s say. “Out,” she said. “And make your own damned decisions.”

And so I obeyed. Both parts.

*

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