Fear and Surprise, Chapter Thirty-Seven

by artrald

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*

Let the blade pass through the flesh.
Let my blood touch the ground.
Let my cries touch their hearts.

Let mine be the last sacrifice.

Canticle of Andraste, 7:7
Chant of Light

from words allegedly spoken by the prophet Andraste upon the news of her husband’s betrayal
as recorded by Shartan her herald

*

I regarded Solas and Josephine evenly, as if their words hadn’t been a surprise, and the chill of the evening chose that moment to bite, and I ignored the feeling that my legs were suddenly far too long and the ground far too far away.

“Well,” I said, carefully. Aware both of them were looking at me as if I might suddenly explode in rage or flee in terror. “I suppose you didn’t say ‘inescapable’ when you meant something a little less certain, there, Solas?”

The elf inclined his head. “There exist very, very few curses for which there is no counter-curse. This is one. If you die, he dies. Easier to stop the sun in its course, trade winter for summer -”

“Tear a hole in the sky?” I raised an eyebrow.

He snorted. “I believe I’ve said in the past that you’re not the most idiotic of your kind: but no. Reversing the Breach – let alone causing it in the first place – was straightforward and simple compared to what I have done here. Undoing it is quite literally impossible.”

“Well,” I said, again. “There’s a bloody relief.”

He shrugged. “You are conversant with my trust in other people’s competence in these matters; also, Lord Maxwell, do I strike you as the kind of creature who would willingly live for any longer than necessary in a hole with only one-”

“I cannot believe that the two of you are being so… sanguine about this.” Josephine looked from one face to the other. “Max, you do understand that in absolutely none of our plans is a repeat of what we did to you at Haven? That we truly are not yet to the point where such a desperate scheme would have to be considered?”

“I know. I do know that. But that’s not the problem.” I met her eyes. “It’s – just – D’you not worry about what could happen if we failed, Josephine? Does it not keep you up at night?”

“You know that it does,” she replied with the smallest hint of reproach.

“Right. And you know very well that I have seen what could happen if we fail. At Redcliffe, with Dorian.”

“And somehow your own death doesn’t count as a failure?” She put just the slightest catch into her voice and it hit me in the chest. “Max, we have had this conversation before, you and I. You are perfectly aware that you are more to -” a very slight pause, for a word that she didn’t need to say – “to us than simply that thing that is on your hand.”

“I saw you, in that vision.” I didn’t look away. I didn’t elaborate. She got it. “Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to die. But to know that I’m not risking that coming to pass? To know that quite literally whatever I do, that won’t happen?” I shrugged. “It’ll do.”

“It will not,” she said, and the steel in her matched anything I’d ever seen. “At the very least, you and I had a right to be told: there is a gulf between victory and the avoidance of complete failure. And, yes. I would probably be able to salvage my family from complete ruin if the Inquisition falls, and you have seen that, too.” She didn’t let up for an instant. “And you know where you saw that, and don’t make me say more in public.”

I nodded, weakly. “I understand, Josephine, I – it’s just -”

“Well, I am glad that you will sleep better for knowing Solas’ opinion of us, at least.” That wasn’t a smile at all. “But please do give your friends’ poor nerves a thought, won’t you?” And in other words, she wasn’t finished with this argument at all.

I made a lame attempt to deflect her – “So uh. Solas. Do you mind explaining it a little more? So we can be sure we aren’t surprised like this again?”

Solas folded his long-fingered hands before him. “This all started with the question: who is our enemy. What are they, where does their power come from, the usual. The Venatori, the core and root of it all, they are archaeologists first and foremost, and like any Tevene they desire power. A step on this road is the cult of the Elder One: gods alone know where they dug up that hoary old knowledge, but they acquire the name Corypheus and what they assume is his nature, and likely arrange for raiders to disturb his ancient and sealed tomb. Once freed by the destruction of the ancient horror into which he was bound, he’s easy enough to summon, so they do that: they string him along with promises of power and start using him as a weapon. Unfortunately-”

I blinked. “Sorry – how long did you say you have known all this?”

Crooked smile. “Alternative theories are welcome; this fits everything I’ve known and heard. The Elder One is more like a spirit than a mortal: his power doesn’t spring from within, he needs an alternate source. They eventually tire of his endless thirst for their blood and give him the vampiric equivalent of a baby’s dummy; unfortunately, they are uncouth mouth-breathing barbarian idiots. What they think they are giving him is a piece of ancient elvish junk: an orb of thorns they found in a ruin they vandalised half a dozen centuries ago, the secrets of which they could never unlock. A curio, only – a source of a tiny amount of power, which will drink blood and seemingly give nothing back; not even worth breaking down for spares.”

“The orb of thorns from Haven.”

“The same.” Solas showed his teeth. “I like to think that Corypheus has to spend a few moments retrieving his jaw from the floor as he realises what they gave him.”

“Which is?”

“The sovereign’s orb of Vel’lamethan: that is to say, one-third of the crown jewels of a kingdom that makes Tevinter look like a child’s sandcastle.” He wrinkled his nose. “As a contemporary of the orb’s makers, the Elder One recognises it immediately and believes he is conversant with its secrets; greedily he unlocks it and joins it to himself. The next morning he rules the cell who are supposedly his guardians; the next week he rules the Venatori across Tevinter; from there to Haven isn’t much of a stretch. His goal, to breach the Veil and set himself up as god-king of a world that he doesn’t care how much he damages in the process, because he could go on to make any repairs needed.”

“And then, what. The Divine just physically knocks it out of his hands and into mine, and that’s enough to make everything go to literal hell – and this somehow creates a bond between him and me?”

“Between you and the orb.” Solas smiled the smile of a cat toying with a mouse. “Suffice to say that the Elder One’s grasp of ancient lore is less complete than he thinks; in order to use the orb he willingly opened a gate, and it was with perhaps some surprise that I found it not even guarded. So I killed him before I even learned who it was that I’d slain, in fact – though he’ll not know until your death. It’s far better than he deserves, but this is an imperfect world.”

“And when we meet him in battle and fell him another way, what then?” Josephine insisted. “Forgive me, but the word ‘bond’ doesn’t usually go only one way.”

“Oh,” Solas said airily, “you’re quite right, of course. If he were mortal, this would be a serious issue. Luckily, of course, he is roughly as immortal as they come. No, our preferred outcome is to pretty much tie him up in a sack and sit on him for Lord Maxwell’s lifetime.”

Her eyes narrowed. “Is this not the plan that worked so well with that nightmare dragon creature?”

“Indeed it is: that is broadly because that is how you fight such a creature.” He returned her gaze mildly. “Knowledge is quite literally power in such confrontations, which is why the alleged ‘dragon’ had the upper hand when we mis-identified it; and I know the Elder One’s name and nature very well indeed, and I am more familiar with the orb he is using than he is.”

“And you think your nature so very well hidden?”

“Oh, yes.” He unlaced his fingers one by one, slow careful precise movements, looked down at them as if the sight were unfamiliar. “I should be able to do to our enemy what the dragon did to me at Adamant. And even if I cannot-”

“Very well.” Josephine glared down at the elf. “Then let me make one thing perfectly, utterly, crystal clear concerning your other options. If your assumptions concerning Corypheus turn out to have been arrogance rather than justified confidence? If it turns out that you cannot simply brush him aside as you claim you could?” She jerked her head at me. “I wish you to understand that to kill Max to hurt Corypheus is not a thing that can be contemplated.”

“D’you think I am fond of the idea of slaying my friends? D’you think that I have kept him alive for this long, only to throw him on the fire?”

“Very nice, but there’s a difference between what you just said and a promise.” She didn’t blink. “I want you to give me your word of honour, Solas.”

His face was in shadow. “You know not what you ask.”

“Do I not?” The alien words rolled off her tongue as if she’d grown up under a heart-tree. “Melana’an na ha’dirth da, Solas, I am quite familiar with the custom I invoke, and I say I shall have your oath

“You shall not.” The simple force of that word brought with it a blanket of silence that shut her mouth and for an instant drowned out the sounds of the camp and the whisper of the wind, and Solas turned away from us both. “I do not apologise. It is likely – it is probable – it is my fullest intention that what you wish me not to do shall never come to pass.” And his voice dropped to a hiss that I’d never heard from him before. “But the moon shall cease in her path and the stars shall fall from the sky before I shall submit myself to the will of a human. Not you, Lady Josephine; not you, Lord Maxwell. And most certainly not the Elder One.” He didn’t even glance back. “I believe that I tire of this conversation. Good night, the both of you.”

*

She bade me good-night, as well – but she caught my sleeve as I turned to go, and laid a finger to my lips, knowing full well the effect that would have on me. Thus frozen, she listened to Solas walk away into the night, a judicious amount of time after his footsteps had faded, and then retrieved her finger with a significant glance in the direction he’d retreated. “Just before you turn in, Max.”

“I know. And I’m sorry. You did ask me before to remember the effects of my actions on others, and I said I’d try to-”

A slight shake of her head was enough to silence that train of thought. “Never mind that. What I mean to say -” she darted a glance out again after Solas – “I know elves and mages both have long ears – Do you know how good his hearing truly is?”

“Better than mine, is all I can really muster.”

“Well, this will have to do.” Deep breath. “Solas is not as good a liar as he thinks he is.”

Chill down my spine. “Uh. Sorry, what?”

She nodded, eyes wide. “You heard me perfectly.”

“I… see. Any idea what he was, I mean, I know him a little better than you do, perhaps I could work out what he…?”

“The orb,” she said. “He does know what it is, but I’d wager a fistful of gold that the name and story he gave us were lies.”

“Odd. So he knows that I’m no kind of scholar – would he have reason to believe that you were?”

“I’d be very surprised. He’s wary of me, but no more than any other human, and he outright told you he believes himself the only competent person in the world.” She frowned. “At the outside, he’d allow that I have a good memory and am the type to ask Dorian or Vivienne?

“So it’s something that he thinks they might know – he’s been working with Dorian, has a pretty good idea of the man’s level of education -”

“It’s not magical lore, I’d think, because we’d just accept that as going over our heads. Folklore? Some kind of name from story or myth?”

I blinked at her. “Wait. Wait just a moment – a name.”

“A name?”

“His name. What would Solas care about, actually care about us knowing? He’s told me all kinds of things, seemingly tipped his hand all over the place – right from the start he’s been quite relaxed about being an expert on forbidden lore, he talks casually of the fact that he could solve this or that problem with dark magics but out of principle he isn’t, he’s openly pagan in front of Cassandra and talked about being an apostate even before we recruited the other mages.”

“Touched a nerve when I asked him to swear an oath. But when I asked about whether his identity was hidden, what did he say?” She pursed her lips, considering. “You seriously mean to imply that his name is so old, Tevene archaeologists are lining their museums with their castoffs?”

“I suppose that I’d have to be,” I said. “I mean, I know he’s lying about his age. How old do elves get, anyway?”

“If we are truly speaking of legends?” Her eyes were so big and dark, it was nearly hypnotic. “It needn’t be his name – it could just be him. There is literally a story about exactly this. It says that Tevinter discovered death: that before the humans there wasn’t such a thing. It says that the oldest of the elves were actually immortal, and that they live still. It says that they walk among the elves of the city, pass among them like the brothers and sisters they are. The Dalish version says that the ancient lore, the crafts, the songs, the religion, is somehow a living tradition since the days of Arlathan-and they say this despite everyone involved knowing that the Dalish are the descendants of the slaves freed by Shartan in the First Exalted March, and all they will say is that there were elders even in the Tevinter days.”

“And then Solas just whistles for the Maid of Ferelden when he needs her and there she is. Single greatest living elf as far as we know, famously bows her head to nobody, and she came meek as a lamb: and what did he quote but religious authority?”

“Yes. Yes, I think we have it. I think there’s a story that he thinks that someone in the Inquisition could know, that will associate the true name of that thing with a better name for him than the one we have. And of course, we wouldn’t know the elvish crown jewels if they were dumped at our feet, and he’d be able to pick something that was similar enough if Dorian hit the books looking for it.”

“And charitably, he might just be making sure that there’s no way that his identity could spread.”

“And uncharitably?” She shivered. “If any of us can be said to know him, Max, it’s you. Do you feel entirely comfortable accepting the assistance of a man who lies to us because we might recognise him from a myth?”

“About as comfortable as I feel with the whole concept of him making me into a weapon to kill an ancient horror, without my knowledge or permission?”

“Relieved?” A hesitant little smile made a joke of it.

“Terrified,” I said, and returned the expression. “But it’s still a step up from the alternative.”

“Frying-pan or fire.” More hesitance than smile, that. “That’s about my feeling.”

“Or in other words, say the worst is true and we have just identified Solas as a cleaner, tidier version of our enemy, different goals perhaps. You response would be to antagonise him?”

“This isn’t about response, Max. It’s too late, It’s far too late not to trust him, and he seems to be genuinely trying to help. But – just -” She shook her head. “It’s worth the reminder that if you say you’ll ally with anyone, then ‘anyone’ is who you get.”

“And, I guess, that if all that unified the ragged bunch who dug up an ancient name on Divine Justinia’s orders was the desire that tomorrow happen on schedule, then we should thank the Maker we’re as unified as we are.”

“Luck, is it?” Josephine arched an eyebrow.

Now what I’d meant to say was something half-meaningless about her competence and that of the Seekers, but she was so close to me and her eyes were so beautiful in the twilight and what made it out of my mouth was “Lucky that I have you.”

And she blushed, actually coloured, and I’m fairly sure it was genuine: and then she laid her hand lightly on my arm. “You may depend on me,” she said, soft as rose petals. “After all, are my fortunes not tied up in yours entirely?”

“Of course. Bride forfend anyone could ever have an unselfish motivation.” I smiled.

She didn’t. “You may do me too much credit, Max. You’re aware of why I’m here.”

I looked her in the eye. “Because you couldn’t possibly let an assistant organise our army’s train when you could do it better, and all of the rest of your work can be done on the hoof.”

“That is not what I meant, and you know that.” She sighed. “Look, Max -”

“I know-”

“You don’t.” She turned away and I caught her hand and she tightened her fingers on mine. “Not truly. You saw my nightmare, in the Fade. You know that for all my flirting, for all my pretence that there’s more to this than a calculated arrangement, I need you.”

“It was a bad dream. Nothing more. And we kicked its arse.”

“If you could truly banish that spectre you speak so lightly of with a longsword, Max, I’d find us a priestess before midnight and our families could lump it.” She smiled crookedly to herself. “Max, the straightforward truth is that ‘my plans’ need you as much as Solas does. If you died tomorrow then the whole world would shortly be informed that we’d married in secret, and widowhood would suit me.” She stared out at the dark. “And don’t you dare make me have to do that.”

“Not planning to,” I said lightly, and clumsily I put my other hand on her shoulder and she stepped back against me, warm, feminine, fragile, and I felt her take a long slow deep breath.

And I held her for what seemed like forever and that was the last we said to one another that night.

But don’t get me wrong, I slept alone.

*

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