Artrald, Ian Cattes, Requiem, Whoever

Alternative Origins, Mass Effects, other writing

Category: Hawke’s Flight

Fear and Surprise, Chapter Twenty-Six

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

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*

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

Aside: Redecorating, also Field

So my computer is in pieces right now and my house is being redecorated. Next week I shall be in a field pretending to be a wizard. Despite this I fully intend to have at least some kind of update to show for it, but I don’t know how realistic this is, so, just a heads up.

Fear and Surprise, Chapter Twenty-Four

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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.”

*

Next

Fear and Surprise, Chapter Twenty-Two

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*

With passion’d breathing does the darkness creep.
It is the whisper in the night, the lie upon your sleep.

2 Transfigurations 5, Chant of Light
tr. Divine Eudoxia

*

Anther, ‘thallan.” That was cast over her shoulder as another tray was set straight.

Course she were there. Empress would hardly leave home without her little mistress of whispers. She was supposedly in charge of the servers, keeping ’em presentable, keeping ’em stocked, high as a knife-ear could rise, making it all run smooth. Patois was as good as a code in the imperial court. Every alienage has its own, all just about intelligible to the others, but your accent might as well be a badge on your arm, and Briala’s said Val Royeaux just like Jenny’s did.

Serannas.” Jenny pitched in. Naught so suspicious as idle hands. “What’s the chat?”

“Might say the same. You huntin’ or fishin’?” Fishing finds trouble, see, and hunting makes it. “Know some lovely plump trout -”

“Ain’t neither.” Proper dance, this, keeping it all moving. “Huntin’ a hunter.”

Vraiment?  Whose?” The local elf’s eyes were sharp. “That you’d find my help, of all people -”

“Dunno, do I, or I’d be asking them?” Fielded an errant goblet almost before it fell. “Their mark’s big, though, the biggest, none of your local spats.”

Briala blinked, skipped a beat; Jenny covered for her. “You’re not sayin’ what I think you are.”

“Uh-huh. Sure as hen’s eggs. Selene goes down, Gaspard steps up.”

“Not by your hand, he don’t.” Briala showed her teeth over the wreckage of a tray of blinis. “Hear me, little miss red? You leave-”

“No-no, you mistake.” Jenny passed the tray on. “Bad things if she fell, that’s the story, like, nobody wants ’em. Think I’ve a fondness for the Duke?”

“Funny way of showin’ it,” Briala said darkly. “Where’s you been, Jenny?”

“About the work,” she countered. “You know the chat about a Herald, a proper-”

Harelda! Merde!” A scowl. “Since when you given one furrow for the shems’ god, Jenny?”

“Since I seen stiff actual corpses out for blood, a-and things with more eyes than teeth. Since I seen what a templar’s really for, and what a mage is, and the Game’s bad, yeah, but this is worse.” It was like she was talking to herself. “I made a decision, right?”

“Changed your name, then, have you? Passed it all on?”

“It’s all the same. Still looking out for them as get stepped on.”

“And tell me again why you’re here?”

“Empress. She falls tonight, Orlais is-”

“Orlais?” The spymistress abandoned all pretence of trying to work to round on her. “There’s templars and chevaliers and wizards and all kinds of bloody shems just lining up to keep their shem sitting some stupid chair. And me and all, even. And then there’s Red Jenny. And I and mine can go to sleep nights thinkin’ no, it’s good, it’s fine, ’cause out there’s you bein’ what I want t’ be and can’t. I play the Game for Selene ’cause I know you’re out there playin’ it for the People, and you come in here and what d’ I go and find?” Her eyes were venomous. “You’ve bloody bunked off to be a hero.”

“Don’t get it, do you? If we lost this, Briala, there ain’t a world left to play in.” Jenny swallowed. “Maker’s will-”

“Jenny, where we standin’?”

“Palace kitchen.”

“Right.” She went on before Jenny could open her mouth. “What land? Whose? Go on. Tell me you recall what it means. The name, I mean.”

Narrowed eyes. “Not what I-”

“Go on. Tell me, ‘thallan. Or I swear I’ll round your bloody ears off.”

Jenny hissed the words. “Dirthavaren. Promise Kept.”

“For why?”

“The shems gave us it. Well you know this. Gave it to Shartan, Andraste’s Herald, freely and forever, for his service.”

“And see how well that name is, huh?” Briala gestured to the colours she was wearing under the apron. “How I’m wearing me own noble heraldry, even. Welcome to the winter palace, Jenny dear, don’t mind the mess, a shem’ll be around to sweep it.”

“Briala-”

The other elf leaned close. Her voice had the quiet of a razor. “Fuck the Maker, Jenny, and fuck his shiny hat. We sang the Chant and they walked all over us. We sang the Chant and they called us backsliders and they burned us out. And here we are serving drinks in the ashes of our own bloody palace, and how dare you say you’re fightin’ for the small when your first word out your mouth is ‘Empress’.”

“An’ look who says so!” Jenny’s voice rose aggrieved. “Or did I miss whose service ye’re in, whose secret y’are?”

“Plough your furrow and all, jillie.” The two of them were practically nose to nose, and they were drawing a bit of a crowd, but none of the others would step in. Briala swearing like gutter trash? Someone was going to come off worst here. “Did ye not notice maybe the war? Yeah? You went off playin’ Maid, ever thought to see what happened behind ye? Few deaders walkin? Cry me a river. Dirthavaren bleeds. The Dales are burning. Our people, our land, no matter the bloody flag. Shem and elf alike, all for two people’s grand little bit of Game, and y’know how much I heard of Red Jenny? Your little dead drops are full, Jenny, your friends are stuffed with sob-stories they ain’t told you. Half dozen girls went out and done things you ought’ve, you know, three of ’em killed, two caught, one crippled. Don’t know how many more I didn’t hear of ’cause they got away with it-”

And she trailed off. She trailed off because Jenny had gone completely dead still and pasty pale with fury, and because her hand had gone out of sight behind her back. Her voice that cold venomous hiss that meant this was killing serious. “You calling me a coward?”

“Aye,” Briala hissed back. “Happens I might be, or tell me ye’re not here because you ran away, se dirth’an da, all proper, and I’ll call you liar t’ your face. Now draw, Red Jenny. Fuckin’ draw on me. Scatter the Way of Peace to the winds, wipe our arses with the vir atisha’an. Let’s crimson up the place for our abused bloody honour like shems, and fuck your mission and fuck the Empress and fuck you.” Sudden motion, she shoved Jenny back by the shoulders. “Or fuck off. I’ve got a second remove to send out and a job to do.”

And in a trice Jenny was not there, a door slammed, and Briala sagged for a moment. Dicey, that had been.

Then out went the new orders.

*

She was to make out that she always enjoyed balls this much: that she’d avoided them because they were dangerously distracting rather than because they were full of drunken, lecherous idiots. Seemed that the easiest way for the two of them to do that was by actually having some fun.

It had started as a joke, between the two of them. The princess and the hedge-knight: ridiculous. Patently. But they had their orders – make a scene. And so, a scene they would make. Neither of them were anything more than the backup, anyway: no reason not to have a laugh at the same time, Blackwall had said, and after a moment’s calculation Cassandra had assented.

It hadn’t taken long to teach the man to dance after the fashion of the court; the hardest part had been doing it without Max and the others finding out what they were planning. But Blackwall was a natural athlete, and his sense of timing was good, and he was as light on his feet as she was and his hands were strong.

He’d smirked when the herald had used her royal title and the litany of seven names she had, and she’d muttered “Get on with it” under her breath. He’d known protocol for escorting her, exactly; he’d called her by the Nevarran style of ‘Highness’ rather than the Fereldan usage ‘Grace’; his bow had been properly Orlesian, and synchronised with the curtsey she’d made in a way that she wished Max had been able to do: and most tellingly, he knew how to move his head to give intonation and expression when wearing a mask, and that one she hadn’t taught him. Blackwall was Orlesian, and gently born at that.

Which meant that he knew more of the game they wished to play than he’d said he did: fine. She could use that.

It was quite against her nature to make him do things for her as if it amused her: instead she amused them both by taking the compliments any high-born woman gets at these things and making millstones of them around the neck of the giver. She was well known by reputation, and the calluses on her hands and the muscles in her arms would give it away otherwise – she made everything out as a veiled slight or a misjudgement or a slur against her companion, and otherwise laboured to insert idiots’ feet into their mouths, and then he would gallantly ask if she’d let him defend her honour, or she’d smilingly offer to defend his. And roughly speaking, no bugger was prepared to deliberately offer insult either to Divine Justinia’s champion or to a grey-masked man who could probably snap them in half with one hand.

Gave her a moment to reflect, that did, really. The man on her arm made most of the others here look like striplings, slugs, fools or geriatrics. Didn’t matter what had chased him away to be a Warden. Nobility obliges one, and here was a man who just by existing showed them the meaning of that. What had this pack of daffodils done to make the world a better place?

She feigned another sip of wine. She hoped it’d do nothing to the Warden, who was just drinking it – hell, he knew what he was doing. Did with everything else, including how to have fun at a state occasion –

The music interrupted her chain of thought. Time to take it up a notch. She requested of him a dance, and he accepted with a bow: and just as they’d practiced, she led him in the dance rather than the other way around. It wasn’t usual, of course: but they were of a height (she hated being taller than her partner) and why not draw more eyes, while they were about it?

She hadn’t told him that she was going to lift him in the air; she’d taught him the step you used if you couldn’t, and trusted that he’d be capable of playing along, as indeed he was. They were certainly drawing eyes, increasingly unsubtle ones. By the end of that dance she had given up entirely on keeping a straight face. And there was another one after it, and this time he led and she let him. It had started as a joke. But somewhere along the way, perhaps, neither of them were quite truly sure that it was one any more.

*

The empress now in attendance, the whole place had realigned such that everything that was done could conceivably have been done for her benefit and pleasure. Nobody turned their back upon her, whether dancing or speaking or anything at all: it was as if we were upon a stage, and she the audience.

It was hard work, pretending I didn’t want to be here, keeping in mind why I was there. The food, the music, the dance, and above all Josephine’s company, her perfume, that delightfully confidential smile of hers – my slightly intoxicated state had little at all to do with the wine. In terms of guests of importance, well, we weren’t even technically the Inquisition’s only representatives here: we were a long way down the list of people to meet the Empress, and so it was a case of amusing ourselves until our turn came.

Cassandra and Blackwall had taken the instruction to attract attention and they had run with it. She was making as if this was the first chance she’d had to let her hair down for years, and he was playing the man of mystery and doing it very well. They didn’t so much dance as flirt to music, increasingly outrageously, and by the time that Josephine was quietly observing to me that she hoped that Blackwall knew what he was doing, I suspect that anyone else would be thoroughly sold.

Problem was, they did their job too well. Didn’t just catch the eye of anyone looking out for us. Caught mine, and all, and held it –

Which meant that Jenny had to get my attention by actually walking right up to me and physically taking my drink out of my hand.

I looked down my nose at her like the aristocrat I wasn’t. She scowled at me, then jerked her head at the footman against the far wall as she concealed the gesture with something between a curtsey and a cower. “Look lively,” she mumbled just loud enough to hear. “Going south, it is, now her nibs is sat in her chair and everyone’s half clear on wine nobody watered. It’s the shem servants, ser, all of ’em, they’re wrong. Sword calluses, new livery and they smell wrong. Elvhen here won’t talk to me, reckon they’re down to it, be ready when they brush off. Weapons stood in the flowers by the doors. Can’t find Nightingale or Solas.”

My blood ran cold. Four people we’d brought who could handle this, and two of them were dancing, and two of them were vanished. “Well,” I said, trading a worried glance with Josephine. “Time to earn our keep. If the other two aren’t here, they’re doing something useful. You get ready to deal with the surprise.”

The elf nodded and then she wasn’t there.

*

A little like the famous Game of Forms, this – I am a mouse, hole-hiding, all-evading – except that Solas was in no mood to play. The spell stopped up both ends of the mousehole and boiled the air inside; the witch became a salamander, of course, but she showed herself not incompetent by combining that with a disjunction on the spell itself, keeping moving, getting out before he did something inescapable.

Salamander to gecko the moment she left the hole, and up the wall, but Solas was no novice either, and spotted her the moment he entered the room. She’d not seen this spell before, never seen anything like it: the spider’s web loomed large before her and she obeyed screaming instincts to evade it. Needed a faster form – she dropped off the wall and over his head as a starling – aha! A weakness! He could be wrongfooted, as he grabbed for her instinctively and missed.

Sudden gust of wind slammed the door to, as she swept towards it – he couldn’t very well have chased her in the ballroom – she flashed into hawk’s shape, hard experience saving her as she made a turn that few shapeshifters and damned few actual hawks could have made.

Servants’ corridor. People in here. She dived immediately, down to ankle-height, a blur as she bled off speed until she could shimmer into the familiar cat’s shape without tripping over her paws. Calculated risk, this, that the elf wanted the party to continue and so he’d not risk another overt spell panicking the servants: it paid off, as he just simply ran after her. And again, a lot of elves wouldn’t have even been slowed by having to pass three people in a narrow corridor, but while Solas didn’t exactly run headlong into anyone, he did have to slow his steps. One of his supposed kin called out to him as he ran that it was all right, it was only the palace cat – damnation, she thought, he’ll have noted that.

Into the kitchens. Normally not her first choice of places to be chased, every hand against her in here, but right now the bustle was an excellent cover –

Wait – that face didn’t fit –

The witch arrested herself halfway through forming the mental image of a mouse, turned nearly a right angle and leaped, climbed quickly and surely onto the shoulder of a woman who had once been a single breath from murdering her.

*

Nightingale’s first instinct, to take her assailant and throw it a good distance, had been stilled by a word hissed in her ear in a voice she remembered well. She put a hand up to steady the creature on her shoulder; as she did so, out of the bustle of the crowd came a Solas who looked about ready to murder someone – met her eyes – significant look at the cat.

“What are you doing in here?” Her tone, she was definitely addressing the animal. “Let’s get you out of the kitchen, hmm?” And fussing over the suddenly quite catlike creature she got them out of the crowd as soon as she could.

“I suppose,” said Solas the moment the door closed behind them, “that you’re going to tell me you know exactly what you have there?”

The cat looked around apparently calmly and her mouth made shapes no cat’s could. “We’re old friends.”

“Mm.” The elf put his back casually against the door. “Mind introducing us, then?”

Nightingale had stopped petting the cat the moment they were out of sight. “Solas of the Inquisition, may I present Morrigan daughter of Flemeth, of the companions of the Maid of Ferelden?”

The two mages looked one another in the eye. The exact same words from both mouths. “You have no idea how dangerous this one is.”

And the human’s chuckle was a genuine snatch of merriment. “Oh, once we get beyond ‘competent mage’ I genuinely stop counting, you know. Both of you have saved my life: both have put me in fear of it. Let’s count it like that.”

Solas’ shadow was still larger than it should have been. “If you are thinking of that as a mortal, Seeker, you are mistaken.”

Morrigan’s hackles rose. “Says the man whose name translates directly to-”

Solas’ teeth flashed, voice and mannerism distinctly inhuman. “Don’t.”

“Enough.” Nightingale looked between the two of them. “Can this be politely explained?”

“Politely?” Solas hadn’t blinked. “We were here seeking someone, and we have found her.”

The cat didn’t move, and neither did the woman whose shoulder she was sitting on: her voice was even. “This creature has threatened someone under my protection. Did he do so on behalf of the Inquisition?”

“Depends who it was,” said Nightingale softly, “and why. His appearance here, though, it surprises me less than yours.”

Morrigan’s eyes hadn’t left Solas’s. “Her name is Selene. She wears a decorative hat.”

A pause. Solas blinked, and the size of his shadow had been a trick of the light. Nightingale looked from the one to the other.

And it was she who spoke first. “If I ask you as to why?”

Morrigan shifted slightly. “She feeds me. I kill mice for her, and rats, and birds, and the snakes they leave in her bed.”

Nightingale considered. “If you were anyone other than the Morrigan I knew…” A decisive nod. “We’re not here to hurt the Empress. Discussion wastes time. Solas, I trust her, go.”

He shot the cat a venomous look. “That prophecy in full: that Empress Selene shall fall at Midwinter and a supine Orlais be overcome by an invasion from the Fade. You may at the least guess which side that puts your human friend on, if you’ve no faith in the honour of the elvhen.” Spun on his heel. “And when this is done, you and I, we talk about your mother.”

The witch snorted. “You could deign to look me in the eye to blackmail me.”

Still with his hand on the door, Solas looked down, pained expression. “I do hope you guard your tongue better when you deal with the horrors of the Fade, girl – those words just told me your life story. But you know me not at all if you think I’d sell it to your mother. Come: we can talk later.”

*

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Fear & Surprise, Chapter Twenty-One

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*

The latter half of 9:40 Dragon was a time in which the war between mages and templars held its breath. Poorly informed about the events of the peace summit a couple of months earlier, the Templars and Circles outside of Ferelden seemed collectively to consider that their peculiar state of war could be held in wary abeyance first until harvest was in, and then for the winter. The Chantry saw their chance to make this temporary stalemate into a nascent peace, but with a deafening silence from almost everything that counted as central leadership among the Templars and little from the Grand Enchanter beyond hysterical accusations of atrocity, such truces as were established were far too temporary and local to be useful.

Meanwhile, in Orlais, the general propensity of civilised humanity to tear its hard-won advantages in half and burn them down at a drop of a helmet was going from strength to strength. What had started as little more than an opportunistic brushfire uprising in Dirthavaren in ’39, by the end of ’40 threatened to escalate into a full-blown rebellion: one of the three legions sent to pacify the area marched straight into disputed territory and joined the rising, and in one of the sudden moves for which the Game is famous, the rising was suddenly all about the cause of Grand Duke Gaspard for the imperial crown.

The change was far too late in the year to actually do anything about; by the spring Gaspard would be thoroughly established, and suddenly Empress Selene’s task would become one of crushing the rebellion before it escalated further, and all without showing weakness to the empire’s northern neighbours or taking her eye off the highly volatile situation between the mages and templars. Something would have to give, and given the recent adventurism by a Tevinter magisterial house in Ferelden, it was unlikely in the extreme to be the northern front: the Empress’s tail would quickly be in a trap.

But as is so common in Orlesian internal affairs, the point was not – was never – to actually fight a civil war. The whole rising existed merely to provide a failure condition for the Empress: to bring her to the negotiating table, to make her vulnerable, to extract conessions or perhaps even bring the throne itself into play. Neither side truly wished to see any more of the fertile land of Dirthavaren ravaged by war. Thus, therefore, the grand ball at Halamshiral: rather than the traditional private affair, that year it was thrown open to anyone who was anyone, a peace summit in all but name, a true battlefield for the Game.

And thus again, as is so common, it had been the smallfolk who had marched and suffered and died that the Empress might be forced to throw a party at the winter palace, and none of those for whom they marched paid their cause anything more than lipservice, and if the truth were to be told, nobody found this the slightest bit strange.

The Morrigan
A History of Southern Thedas

*

“Halamshiral.” Nightingale tapped the pin on the map. “The winter palace of the Orlesian empresses. One of the real battlegrounds of the Game. And according to your vision and Dorian’s…”

The redhead’s pretty face suddenly recalled to me that mask of scars, that patchwork of voiceless pain and hate that had written for us her memories of nightmare. The eyes, her eyes were identical. I looked away. “The Empress is murdered. Some bigwig called Gaspard steps up, does bugger all when the Elder One comes, the last chance to stop him is lost. You think we haven’t averted that already, what with sewing up the hole in the sky?”

Dorian answered that. “I think that on a scale of one to ‘we’re indelibly fucked’, the consequences are bad enough to get us paranoid, at least?”

“Indeed.” Nightingale put her hands on the table. “Apart from the simple consequences, the ball is useful to the Inquisition: it is our chance to receive an official sanction for the Inquisition’s activities in Orlais before the spring. I do not enjoy being an outlaw, Maxwell: so far, we’ve claimed to be legal and that’s been enough, but we have no legal right to operate, and with the rising in Dirthavaren, the empress is likely to be less than sanguine about sudden military action she didn’t ask for. Mynah.”

The beautiful lady nodded. “Lady Cassandra’s family can be prevailed upon; the empress would not dream of insulting them, and will imagine her our true observer. Blackwall will escort her; the two of you are to play floorshow. Nobody will believe we aren’t up to something; no offence, nobody will believe you two are up to anything subtle.”

“You call it ‘prevailed upon’.” Cassandra’s eyes smiled. “My aunt would fall over herself to give me an unavoidable opportunity to play princess. Sending me with a common-born man – do you want that much of a scandal?”

A shrug. “Blackwall is a knight and more importantly a Warden, and speaks Orlesian like a nobleman: he’ll do. Meanwhile, I shall have procured an invitation from Gaspard.”

Cassandra raised an eyebrow. “The traitor?”

“The empress’ foully slandered cousin.” Dazzling smile. “I’m known at court: they will consider me to be completely inoffensive, a lost little ingenue without a serious sponsor. They will naturally assume I am there to work on my own problems under the Inquisition’s aegis, and not wonder at all that I blagged an invite out of a Gaspard hungry for legitimacy. Lord Maxwell will accompany me -”

I gulped. All that made it out of my mouth was “Last time I – I was warned off Orlesian nobles. Something about snakes?”

Josephine’s laugh was musical. “I can’t imagine what Cassandra has been telling you, but yes, the Game will be in full swing. The cover is that you are basically an ornament on my arm, there to posture and pretend usefulness and demonstrate that you are not dead; little is expected of men at Selene’s court, anyway. The most you’ll need to do is show a little fang at Lord Lucius until Cassandra can take him down a notch or two. Nightingale.”

The spymistress nodded. “We shall arrive with an entourage and it shall melt into the general millieu of servants. Our principal job is to discover and neutralise the assassins: Cassandra and I were two-thirds of the core of Divine Justinia’s personal guard, Solas is not immediately taken for a mage, and this is Jenny’s home turf; if it can be done, we can do it. Meanwhile Mynah gets us taken seriously, and Lord Maxwell is effectively there to not be a frothing lunatic. Imperial sanction is your goal; imperial aid is a good thing, but not crucial. If you can get the Empress understanding our cause, so much the better.”

I tried to sound professional. “And when it all goes to hell?”

She tilted her head. “D’you have a specific insight?”

I realised that she was not mocking me. I glanced to Mynah and saw only eyes poised and ready to take notes. I looked around at the whole room and I realised that everyone was prepared to change the whole plan based on a single premonition, and my mouth went quite dry-

Shook my head. Snap out of it. “I just have a bad feeling, is all.”

“Welcome to the Game,” said Nightingale, and her smile was unpleasant.

*

It’d not been a good couple of month.

In quite actual fact, this whole autumn had been a bit of a plough. Yes, Jenny. Swoop in, rescue the lordship, meet Andraste’s own herald – uh-huh, be he never so bloody odd – all excellent pastimes, all great ideas, all a bit o’ fun – specially compared to Jenny’s work, which if it’s fun all of the time, y’r doing wrong – all fun till it weren’t.

And there still weren’t a way you killed a demon with a bow. They reckoned they ain’t done it with a whole arsebuggering mountain, what chance an arrow in the eye got?

Course, being was better than not. Ever chose life over not, that’s the vira tisha. Get the rabid mutt by the scruff, you better have a plan for what to do next, or when you put it down that mutt’s biting one person first and best.

And, well, this whole thing, it’s got floppy little ears and it’s frothing at the mouth and coneys don’t bark like that. And what d’you say to the herald of Andraste? The man who actually for-true walked out to give one in the eye to the evil one and came out of the whole thing whole? The man you follow around and actual corpses get up and actually walk? Sorry, lordship, I thought you was gulling us all, all I wanted was in on it? (Or was that last a lie? Dark watches of the night it was easy to convince herself she didn’t believe, that nobody did, not really. But listen to his words and her hands moved by their own selves.)

And even Andraste’s help only got the man out alive, skin of his teeth, didn’t help a bloody bit otherwise?

Red Jenny looked rueful at the man’s back. So Haven hadn’t been so bad; so Skyhold was at least a roof for all she felt like a fifth wheel on a wagon. So the ploughin’ what, it was a roof and a bed and a table, for all that the table was poor. But now – now out they hop, off back to Journey’s End, Halamshiral, back to the Game. Back to Orlais. Back to shame.

And what could she say? Yeah, I know the place, y’r walkin’ into danger? Like that’d slow the shems down. Don’t make me go back? Like his lordship wanted to, and like she hadn’t sworn to him.

No. She’d go. She’d go, and she’d find Briala. The Empress’s little mistress of rats. The empress wouldn’t have tired of her yet, she far was too useful. And elvhen talk reason, right, even when the whole world’s gone to stink. She’d slip Solas – good he was in the wilds, but he was Dalish, wasn’t he? Much use here as a boiled icicle? – and she’d talk to Briala. Bent copper will get you good yellow gold that that one’s in on anything palace.

And nobody there need even mutter the words Red Jenny, or talk about old oaths and who was contrivin’ what, or what anyone actually believed.

*

Halamshiral shone. The elves had had a palace here, once, long before humanity: when Andraste freed them from slavery this had been their capital, and when they fell to idolatry this is where the Orlesians had burned them out, and Empress Magritte had the place razed to the ground and rebuilt in the very latest fashion. The roofs were tall and peaked, the halls wide, the windows great panes of crystal grown and set with magic; in the daytime, the place was light and airy as a woodland glade, and at night it glittered like the crown jewels, a palace of light and gems and marble and mirrors, a place of marvels. Solas had noted sourly that none of those who’d designed the place or built it would be allowed past the doors today.

The nobility was out in force. Young men in tight-fitting doublets and bright hose, a little like the fashions of my homeland, showing off a narrow waist and a well-formed leg if such were available for the showing; young ladies elegant in long gowns, the heavier and richer the better, a naked display of the wealth they owned or stood to inherit. Older people in much the same, but for those whose place in the world was already established, the gown was simpler, lighter, and with just one or two exquisitely valuable and preferbly artistic jewels to display good taste. In other words, we couldn’t afford to dress like the movers and shakers, although we could just about look like their children; as I believe I’ve mentioned, Josephine could look like a princess in rags, let alone the velvet gown she’d cadged off a friend.

And then there were the masks, of course. The mask’s pattern didn’t dictate its material, Josephine had informed me, only its shape and colour, and if one was anyone, one had a right to several: never miss an opportunity to play games and send signals. For this event, she was playing up the connection with the Divine, and thus she was wearing the shape and colour she’d been given when she took up the embassy to the Sunburst Throne, Antivan crimson and white in a half-face mask vaguely reminiscent of a bird: and because she was there to play seriously, her mask was a lacelike confection of wire that hid nothing at all of her expression or her beauty. Meanwhile, Lord Trevelyan’s permitted mask had been somehow found out: a half-face in Trevelyan gold and cream, and mostly it made me look like I’d come dressed up as the sunrise.

Gaspard was a tall, thin man, his mask a halved cream and purple, and his attire rich as a king’s; he wasn’t wearing a sword here, of course, but he was wearing spurs, heeled boots and a chevalier’s belt; his toadies, all of them, dressed like they’d recently been told that something was unutterably fashionable about being a soldier and they were trying to work out what it could be. He spoke with us, complimenting Josephine perfunctorily, discussing with me the supposed hardships of life on campaign, as if either he or I had ever met them. It came to me that he was talking to me to be seen talking to me, that he cared significantly less for anything I said than for my rank, for the fact that to a certain mind the Inquisition had sent its most important member to his camp and fobbed the loyalist faction off with our figurehead princess. Unasked, even, he offered us carte blanche to operate in his own lands, and also in the disputed Dirthavaren; there was our payment, and in return I was to stick around Gaspard’s faction and look like a steely warrior who despised all of this formality and show; as a matter of fact, in my mind I was mostly impersonating Cassandra.

As for the other guests, the nobility of Orlais, it wasn’t snakes they reminded me of so much as a crazy man’s painting of a flock of peacocks. Any hope of keeping track of which mask was which vanished in a flutter of heraldry, and I just hoped that to Josephine this was an open book in a language she read. I exchanged politenesses and smiles with people who professed to know Lord Trevelyan’s parents and had plainly never heard of him. I talked about wine – a topic Josephine had found that both she and I had expertise in, and therefore a perfectly innocuous shared interest to use – with a man who turned out to be the master of the palace cellars, and I’m almost certain that my companion was pursuing her family’s business interests between the lines. I sampled delicacies that most people would think the likes of Harry Osten had never before tasted – to which I’ll say only, who d’you think serves the things? – and I sipped at exquisite wines that nobody should ever have put in the hand of a man who’d drink anything still liquid enough to pour out of a skin.

And suddenly from behind Josephine and I were overtaken by a torrent of high-pitched enthusiasm in (indeed, mostly out of) quite a gorgeous gown of Montilyet family colours. And where I’d wondered at Josephine’s mask, clearly artfully designed to highlight rather than hide, this young lady was wearing something that seemed only to count as a mask in that one wore it on or near one’s face: and what it seemed that she was squeaking was my companion’s name, in piercing tones largely audible only to small children and cats.

Apparently Mynah was ‘Josie’ to her sister, and apparently the Montilyets had been blessed with two daughters with dimples you’d do murder for, and apparently the elder had had all of the brains, restraint and good taste. I mean – dear Yvette treated language like perfume, it was there to captivate and enrapture and add to the image, and she applied it liberally and left a trail of it in her wake. Perfectly clear that she meant none of what she said; perfectly clear she’d remember none of it tomorrow; and for some reason she was pretending to be more than a little tipsy: one single flirtatious look in my direction, though, and Josephine practically bared fangs and I was very glad I’d succeeded at keeping my eyes where they belonged.

“She is cleverer than she looks,” murmured a Josephine either faintly despairing or entirely charitable as her sister was scraped off onto the nearest passing man who looked like fun, “but she does rather look like the village idiot, doesn’t she?” She traded heart-stopping smiles with the girl as the latter triumphantly led the equally brainless-looking fellow towards the dancing by the wrist. “And she’s the chip off the old block, you understand.” A sip of her drink. “I’m the exception, in that I’ve a moment for the seneschal, a head for money and a taste for things that aren’t poetry, romance and trash.” Her eyes suddenly a little over bright. “And the man she’s making eyes at is so far in debt it’s a wonder he can afford his own mask: how joyous, they’ll have something in common.”

I nodded, smiled, trod water, tried to keep my mind off the situation and onto our goals. “So we’ve met your sister, met the duke, got some platitudes off him: what now?”

“Now?” She handed her glass off to a passing servant, motioned for me to do the same. “A turn or two around the floor, and I know you can’t dance, it’s all part of the act. Eyes out for Lord Lucius.” She took my hand: it was still a little like being alighted on by a butterfly. “If he’s not there, we join Cassandra to be introduced to the Empress, and we repeat the whole dance we contrived for Gaspard.” She led me after her sister, somehow managing to imply by the set of her shoulders and her expression that she’d civilise me if it killed her. “And do try not to look like you’re enjoying yourself. You’re a warrior, remember? You’re bad at this.”

“Horror,” I said quietly as I took her hands for the dance and this was somehow permitted. “Privation. Hardship.”

*

There was never any realistic way that the two elves would have stuck together. Jenny, dressed as a servant, was practically part of the furniture any time she stopped moving; she went into the winter palace like a snake into long grass, eyes off her for one instant and she was gone. Solas was wearing much the same, but he was quite entirely wrong: from his hair to his voice and manner to the way he stood, only a human could have thought him anything other than a fish flapping around out of water.

But of course, he wasn’t exactly there to talk to the servants.

Somehow he found his way through to the bustling, steamy kitchens. Somehow, standing there like a lump, he was handed a tray to carry by someone swirling by who was belatedly identified as a flour-stained Nightingale. Somehow he made it into one of the halls, and only the humans could have thought he was supposed to be there, but that was enough, and that was where he needed to be.

And quite what he saw and how he saw it, given that there were several templars right there: it’s perhaps a mystery. But his eyes passed expertly enough over the nobles, and whatever it was he saw, he was satisfied: onward he moved, keeping to the edges, aping the others of his distant kin he saw flitting around the edges of the humans’ supposedly elegant festivities. No cover here, but apparently the ears were cover enough. The dancers themselves, nothing unusual, protective pieces and curios: a man with an undershirt supposedly charmed against blades, a man with a mask enchanted to let him see through masks, a lady with something similar for cloth, that sort of thing: nothing concerning.

The duke, and the empress’ ladies-in-waiting – the lady herself was to emerge later – both fundamentally similar, the nobles at the centre under genuinely effective but subtle defences, a couple of discreetly armed bodyguards, and each side had a templar. Sign of the times, of course, that the four templars in the building were effectively rogues, clearly each brought in as their own separate coup: the place should have been practically crawling with them –

What was that?

He spotted it for a moment across a ballroom. Small, nonhumanoid, fast moving. And as out of place as he. Quickly as he could he closed the distance. Didn’t dare mask his own scent, and its senses had to beat his. Just another glance he needed. Skipped past an elf going the other way carrying a tray, and the two traded places with a grace that put to shame anything on the dancefloor. Kept going. There. There.

Met the cat’s eyes and crossed his fingers –

She turned and left the ballroom slowly, tail held high, empress of all she surveyed. He picked up a tray and slipped out, handed it off, found the cat’s trail. A side-room, a place that later on in the evening would be a place for assignations and backroom deals, and the door had been closed and quite definitely locked.

H’m. Glance up and down the corridor. Tap on the lock with a bony finger and the bar slid back; habits learned in a different kind of lair entirely curled his fingers into a warding gesture as he nudged the door open.

The room: elegant decoration, mirrors, no cat. One human, though. Tall as any of her kind, well-dressed, but not overly so: a lady-in-waiting with hair of the same mouse-brown colour of that cat’s fur, with eyes of that same startling green. No mask, but it’s not as if she needed one. New face, she was wearing, unfamiliar. No mistaking her, though, not to Solas’ eyes.

“You,” he said, and his expression betrayed little but mild surprise.

“Me.” The witch smiled an opaque human smile. She looked no older than thirty, today. “Anther in atisha, ‘ma falon,” she said in the cant of the gutters of Denerim.

Solas raised an eyebrow. “Serannas… ma vallanne.” Whimsy could go both ways: when in Orlais, massacre the language the way they do, perhaps? “Fancy meeting you here in the very flesh.”

“I might say the same, my dear.” She waved languidly to a couple of chairs. “You’ve come in peace, I hope.”

“So do I.” A move for a move. “No notion you were west of the Frostbacks, but I suppose every swallow flies north in a bad enough winter.” Solas took a too-high chair at the same moment she did.”You’re here to do a thing?”

Her eyebrows were thin elegant arches. “If I were?”

“Well, then perhaps I might be, too.” Just the warning hint of coldness to his voice. “It would depend on the thing.”

“I’m not actually certain I answer to you, ‘ma falon.” In most humans, that air of visceral physical menace might be taken as accidental. Not this one, not at all. She knew exactly what she sounded like.

“We’ll be civil. This place has been neutral how long?”

The witch’s eyes danced. “You always were funny.”

And Solas’ expression grew only colder. “You never were as funny as you fancied yourself. And you’ll tell me why you’ve taken it upon yourself to come here. What’s so important as to threaten a hundred years of companionable peace and quiet.”

“I’ll note that you are here as well, my friend. And I was here first.”

“Pah.”

She put her chin on her folded hands. “I’m not here to quarrel. A question for a question, an answer in kind, all I ask, surely not so much. Just this: why are you here?”

Sigh. Fine. “Prophecy,” said the elf at last, and raised a hand to forestall her reaction, “and I know, and I know and I know: only trust me, that it is somewhat more than plausible. Have you ever known me chasing wild geese? And as for my price, I turn your question about. My business here is chasing the future. A prophecy, the details of which you don’t need, involves the empress.” He met her eyes, implacable. “Your turn.”

“Coincidence,” said the woman, and as she did so she saw Solas’ eyes narrow. “Neutrality or no. Empress Selene is mine.”

He blinked. “Would you perhaps like me to use another language for you? D’you have some kind of problem with the words? Only -” he shook his head slowly, a little disbelieving – “that is a decidedly perverse definition you have there for the word ‘neutral’.”

She shrugged, a gesture for which her gown was born. “Simple enough. This isn’t your lair, and it isn’t mine: you’re as much or as little at home here as I. We pass in the night, we show the odd fang, we recognise our-”

“Oh, spare me the pseudomystical codswallop. We’re no more beasts in the ashes of Halam’shiral than we were in the salons of Vel’lamethan, and no matter the face you have on. Your writ does not extend here, and I’m not one of your – daughters -”

He froze.

And in that moment, his shadow in the candles’ light was larger, far larger than he and darker, his mien inhuman entire, and the witch’s eyes widened: and in the same instant she leapt up from her seat, and in the instant that he struck, she was a mouse and under the door.

He spat a blasphemy against a god whose name had been lost longer than Orlais had stood, and the door flew open at his gesture, and the hunt was on.

*

Next

Fear & Surprise, Chapter Twenty

Delayed a day. Sorry. On the back-end, what is happening is a combination of (a) lots of larp events (b) vacillation on which bit to do next. DA:I is *huge* in comparison to DA:O and a lot of the plot is gated behind Skyrimesque bits that wouldn’t be fun to write. I’ll think of something.

Previous

Up

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*

Arguably, what should have followed our immuring ourselves in a castle in the Frostbacks and scrounging enough supplies for a thin autumn and lousy winter should have been naught save a thin autumn and a lousy winter, possibly with a good three or four months to answer the question ‘so, what now?’ Nobody marches armies in winter, nobody thinks it a great time to ride out abroad; it’s a time to consolidate and story-tell and mend and recover; and roughly speaking, not a bit of it.

The first rift west of the Frostbacks was met by mages out of Montsimmard: our scout’s words were that it was like the sky fell on it. The battle-mages scoured it clean, baked the ground, raised a wall, set symbols on it to keep out passersby, thought themselves far superior to the Fereldans – and then something the size of a horse squeezed itself physically out of the rift, and the only reason anyone made it away from there at all is that the slowest one of them tripped and fell.

And the news that closing the hole in the sky hadn’t fettled it went through the Inquisition like the shock of a charge. Yes, we raised shields, closed ranks and set to: but we really, really had not wanted to.

Regardless of what was opening them – a question that exercised the mages Solas and Dorian to the point that they had chased every single other soul from one of the old towers, and strange lights and noises came from it day and night – it wasn’t just a simple matter of riding out to close them. In Ferelden, by virtue of who and what we were, and because frankly the law of the land was a little less tight, we had implicit permission from Amaranthine and Redcliffe. As if the Maid would tell people off for riding out after monsters; as if Redcliffe would look up from the mages’ war for one moment. But the rifts were now opening in Orlais, and the Empire was highly suspicious of foreigners haring hither and yon across their land, and in Orlais even a holy cause has to have papers. And at least to start with, Cassandra and Cullen were all the way over the other side of Ferelden, and Iron Bull wasn’t the most likely of holy warriors, and the Herald’s reputation was complicated and confused.

What work we could do, actually went fairly straightforwardly. The routine that had served us so well in Ferelden actually worked perfectly well in supposedly sophisticated Orlais. Nightingale’s outriders aroused less suspicion, talked to peasants, put pins in maps; Mynah and her message-birds told the banns what to expect; and where we had to, where we could, the Iron Bull rode out with the Herald of Andraste and brought down the hammer.

Come spring, or if the mages made a breakthrough, we’d hunt down the Venatori, we’d lance this boil. But that winter was simply a matter of marking time.

Lace Harding, Inquisition chief of scouts
Collected Testimonies of the Heroes of the Inquisition
published by Tethras and Sons of Kirkwall

*

Varric had received the bird from Cassandra with the general air of a man who’d assumed the worst some while ago, and had no further room to be surprised – while, yes, it’s good to be right, he really looked like he’d rather not have been. Immediately he made a rather ghoulish request – permission to dig through Templar personal effects at Haven – and I granted it almost before Nightingale had slight doubtfully said that she couldn’t think of anything actually dangerous he could want there.

I didn’t expect him to disappear into our makeshift forge upon his return – apparently all he’d wanted from there was a flask of wine. I didn’t expect him to request a series of increasingly strange things, like a kettle and a set of metal thimbles, or an old pan nobody minded him absconding with; the blacksmith complained vociferously that the dwarf was mad: he seemed to want to boil water with a furnace. Varric emerged a while later with three little metal thimbles full of brightly coloured metallic gunk, and pretty immediately he called on Dorian: and then the two of them came to our war-council looking as grim as death.

“The templars at Haven. You said they were behaving -” Varric made a face – “Oddly. You know, more oddly than to be mounting an attack on a village halfway across the kingdom without any apparent plan for what next.”

I nodded. “Was it the marching through hip-deep snow, or was it the complete disregard for-”

“Right.” He held up the cups in his hands. “So I’ve seen templars behaving strange before. Like, collectively insane, and spare me the jokes. Any individual one looked all right, apart from the one at the top, but you looked at what they were doing all together and they were basically wearing their smallclothes on the wrong end, you know? And again, when I saw it last time, there was this thing where there was way more lyrium around than there should be. Recruiting drive, but no more lyrium buying. Way more templars. Hatred of mages. Insane rhetoric, outright crazy.”

“The Kirkwall Rising.” Nightingale nodded slowly. “Where the Apostasy started.”

“Right.” He threw a glance at Dorian. “So on a hunch, right, I went and cooked down some lyrium out of the sacrament they had with them at Haven. Took it to the magister here, along with a shaving of red lyrium and a scrap of blue that I was saving. See if maybe his bad guy and my bad guy were friends.”

“Uh, still somewhat really very much not a magister, old fellow,” said Dorian. “Anyway – I – think that we might well have struck some sort of metaphorical motherlode. I’d never seen this stuff in the flesh, but it wasn’t that much of a challenge – let’s say I’ve met the style. Remember the vision we had? Pillars of lyrium-like rock growing through bodies we really hoped were dead?” He gave a significant look to the thimble Varric had in his hand.

“You’re shitting me.” I looked at the thing like there was a snake in it.

“Sorry. I wish.” He stroked his moustache. “I have absolutely no clue – and let me tell you, I don’t mean you need to go and get a better wizard, this is my own field here, I’m probably the best there is – I haven’t the utter foggiest how that was done, in the way that a little boy juggling two apples looks at a man keeping half a dozen knives in a flashing figure of eight and has no idea how that’s going on. But what you’ve got -” he shook his head. “So lyrium is called elu’alas in elvish, ‘earthdreams’? It’s not as metaphorical as you might imagine. On a fundamental level the stuff isn’t really real, or at least it’s not entirely – anyway. If the blue lyrium is like a regular confusing jumbled not-quite-sure dream, and the gold is like a vivid and satisfying dream that ends well? The red stuff is a fever-dream, a hallucination. It’s not just terrifying in the moment, it’s unhealthy, it’s – contaminated. Using it for magic would be a terrible idea. Eating it -” he shuddered. “Just no. The contamination would spread.”

Nightingale raised an eyebrow. “Symptoms?”

“Insanity, but if I didn’t know that the templars could do it, I’d have said that of regular lyrium ingestion. Addiction. And -” he waved his hands vaguely – “uh. This is going to sound terribly unprofessional. But – you read in the Chant, about the evils of the past corrupting the Fade-”

Nightingale’s expression was droll. “The authorised Chant says ‘the evil of mankind,’ my dear Vint.”

“Right. Exactly.” Dorian nodded. “That’s exactly what it is. It’s like someone sat there on, I don’t know, a gallows and drained all the bad thoughts out of a thousand criminals and bottled it somehow. It’s not grand and sweeping, it’s little and petty, it’s a little crystallisation of stupid and wrong. If it weren’t for the whole templar thing, I’d say these people would be the perfect host for a spi-” he bit off the phrase – “a demon.”

“So, it’s bad,” I said. “Got you. So what does this mean?”

Varric ticked off on his fingers. “It means that I may know some more people who are our enemies’ enemies; I’ll bring them onside if I can. I’ll make noises at my patron in Orzammar, too, try and get us a proper contribution from the dwarves: a potential alternative lyrium source will have them falling over themselves to aid us. It means that we can’t choke off our enemies’ lyrium supply, because this stuff breeds somehow-”

Felt sick, remembering. “Yeah.”

“Right. It also means they can take anyone who can take up a sword and send them crazy, if that’s any use-”

“The Templars in that valley weren’t behaving like I’d expect just from exposure to this stuff, so my guess is that the Venatori are steering them somehow,” offered Dorian. “Brainwashing -” I didn’t miss the stutter in his voice – “It’s legal where I come from, although most people consider it somewhat infra dignitatem. I’m surprised it’d work on templars; perhaps this hints at a weakness we can use?”

Nightingale shook her head. “There is no gate so high that it cannot simply be opened.”

“You’re not wrong.” He tapped his chin. “A creature of the Elder One’s power and likely background could absolutely have been subsuming the wills of others.”

I frowned. “Isn’t he dead?”

“Rather doubt it, I’m afraid.” He shrugged. “This is, what, the third time that we know of that he’s been flattened, blown to the four winds, turned to ash, otherwise toast?”

“Hey, we didn’t know!” Varric sounded aggrieved. “Never seen Merrill Kirker wrong about something magic. Never seen her – I mean – five years I knew that girl, and while the rest of the time she was the most ham-fisted klutz you ever did see, while I saw her fail pretty hard a couple times, I never once saw her make the wrong call about magic she could see. And she said he was dealt with.”

“Well, looks like you witnessed her life’s one shame.” His moustache twitched. “Say. Do you think she-”

He shook his head emphatically. “I asked. Nothing from her. But she’s not my only friend.”

*

“Question for you, sera.” Blackwall ‘s expression was companionable. An easy man to like. “If it’s not impertinent.”

“Ask,” Cassandra said. “If it’s not.”

“Seen you fight, sera. Against the demons, I mean, mostly. Never seen the like. I mean, I know you must’ve had experience with the Inquisition, but the way you were stalking the big ones, like you know what you’re doing. You got that from somewhere. You weren’t just trained to fight humans. Who teaches that?”

“Apart from your lot, you mean?” She regarded her hands a moment, the light grip on the reins, the gloves she was wearing. “I’m Nevarran. My first posting with the Order was back north.” Note in her voice that sounded surprisingly like a pride in her country that she’d never felt at the time. “A stripling turning up at the court of King Markus wearing a blade, without even the excuse of being a foreigner, had better be able to keep up.”

A raised eyebrow. “And I’m sure you taught them a fancy Orlesian trick or two, but-”

A snort of what might have been laughter if it were funny. “Ser, you misunderstand entirely. Duelling isn’t unknown, but they aren’t Marchers or Antivans to take offence at the drop of a hat. No, my countrymen hunt – and my graduation assignment was to attend the Nevarran court and remind them that soft living didn’t breed soft people. I killed my first drake when I was seventeen; the Templar I was supposed to be squiring for was most put out.”

“Heh. I’ll bet.” They rode on a few more moments. “So, your order. I’ve only ever heard rumours and tales; you’re the first one I’ve actually met. Is it like it’s a deadly secret, or are you just, you-know. A bit on the uncommon side?”

“We’re certainly the latter. And getting less common now that the Lord Seeker sided against the birds of the Divine, although I’ve only heard of half a dozen incidents. I’d be surprised if there were more than fifty of us left, a little over half of whom answer to Nightingale and me.”

He raised an eyebrow. “Fifty? I’d thought fewer. Never seen another one ride up to your gate.”

“There are such things as messenger birds, you know. Tales have it that we’re everywhere, or rather, they should – but we’re far too busy to sit around in one specific place chatting.”

“Mm. So, you’re like the Sunburst Throne’s eyes and ears, then? Sort of secret Templars?”

“Somewhat.” She smiled. “Some of us are better at the secrecy than others, of course.”

“Right. Right.” A pause. “Isn’t it sort of incriminating to have to carry that sacramental stuff around with you everywhere? Or do you just go from chapter to chantry to Circle, like a hedge-knight but religious?”

“No, no. We aren’t Templars, even if we have dispensation to masquerade as their attendants and novices.” She caught his raised eyebrow. “The Seeker initiation is longer, slower and subtler – we recruit from among Templar novices – if you never discover that you are being trained, you do become a Templar. But if you do? If you pick up on what you are supposed to do? Well.” She plucked at her black tabard. “You get to wear a different coloured coat.”

“Suits you.” He returned her smile. Did the man think that she was flirting?

“It had better,” she said. “I’m not changing it. But it is more than wearing the coat, of course. Something about the initiation – surrounded by Templars, you can’t tell, but you develop a sense for the supernatural. Demons and magics cannot fool us. Our dreams are forever filled with the song of the Chant.” Her smile went crooked. “The only nightmares I ever have are the ones I meet awake.”

“Huh. I know that feeling.” Blackwall stared off at the horizon. “Our oath. Sure you have something similar. We swear to defend the innocent. Do the right thing by ’em, when no other bugger would. That’s what being a Warden’s all about, all those lifetimes there ain’t darkspawn to kill. Hedge knight with pretensions, almost, though morals don’t pay as well as tournaments.”

“So, seeing as you’ve asked me. Where did you learn?” The question was automatic. “Seems to me you trained to fight mortals as much as monsters.” More, even. The man put far too much trust in his shield for someone who fought ogres.

His tone was offhand. “Oh, there are absolutely castles and organisation and armies and so on, for most of us – Adamant in Orlais, Amranth Keep in Ferelden. I don’t want you to get the impression that we’re all hedge-knights and upstart peasants.”

“Certainly you aren’t. You ride awfully well for a man born a commoner.”

His smile turned self-deprecating. “Actually, I fight awfully well for a horse farmer. Lost everything to brigands, just a bunch of soldiers some supposedly noble lord turned loose after they kicked Orlais out. Warden saved me from losing what little I still had, took me in in return for a horse and a bit of local guiding and I stuck around.” It was a lie, but that didn’t matter. Everyone knew Wardens recruited from the street, the stocks and the gallows. “But the important bit is the oath. The cause. To be perfectly frank I couldn’t give two shits about the darkspawn.”

“Aren’t you in the wrong profession for a man who doesn’t care about monsters?”

“Never said that, sera. I just don’t see why the ones with the ugly faces should get all the attention, is all.”

*

We called it the armoury. One day it would be. Today? Today was not that day. It didn’t even have a door on. It had a roof, one that didn’t let in the rain; it had four walls and a level floor; it was convenient for the place that had once been the castle’s proper forge, and would be again just as soon as the mages and the blacksmith had worked out how the place had been ventilated. But at least we could store stuff here in reasonable expectation it wouldn’t rust or rot or be eaten by rats or whatever. And it was down here I’d been led. No mountains to climb in here. I mournfully supposed that there were probably stairs.

“Here.” Krem took down a tabard with the Bull’s Chargers livery. “Shove this on you.”

I looked at the thing quizzically. “Trying something new, are we?”

Crooked grin. “More education. Hear you’ve some native talent in this direction as it is, so we’ll save the lecture for later.” He gave me an appraising glance. “You’re a bit clean, but a lady will have my kidneys if I change that. Come on.”

I followed, nonplussed. “So, what are we climbing this evening?”

“Down.” He was clearly enjoying my confusion. “Two rules, this evening. First off, you’re not there to talk. Secondly, you’re nobody special.”

I gave an easy smile that had less than usual to do with Lord Maxwell. “That I can do. My name will be Harry.”

He gave me a slightly funny look. “‘You don’t look much like a Harry; but fair enough. Nobody we’re talking to tonight will have seen you close enough to know your face, and nothing we’re going to hear is something they’d say to it, if you catch me.”

“You’re worried about their loyalty? After all we’ve-?”

A chuckle. “Nice stick, lordship. Now you’ve at least got hold of an end, best to keep hauling – after all, you’re going to be spending the evening sitting down, and best not to sit on it; allons-y, as they say where Harry’s from.”

“No, he’s not.” I leaned a little bit on the accent of my birth, the sharp quick gutter cadence that I’d painstakingly dropped when I was twelve. “Marcher he is. Strong and silent’s not a new thing, y’know?” Harry Osten didn’t keep his back straight; he didn’t walk like he ought to be wearing a cape; he didn’t talk like anybody ought to listen when he opened his mouth. I ran my hand through my hair, pulled the thong out, re-tied it myself, just a little crooked.

“Native talent. I suppose he did say.” Krem blinked. “Okay, Harry. On we crack.”

There still wasn’t much fuel, and what there was was reserved for cooking – the mages’ tethered flames were fine for heat and light, but had a tendency to cover your food in tiny pieces of whatever they were ‘burning’, but at least the people weren’t cold. Solas’ fires were little affairs, looked like a scrappy little campfire, but gave a surprising amount of warmth and burned for an evening and a night on no more fuel than a few blades of grass. Vivienne’s didn’t need fuel at all, and lasted for as long as their magic circle lasted, but gave off precious little heat; we were using them for beacons and lighting. Fiona’s burned stone, trash and anything else that touched the hard-edged vicious little bluish flame, and nobody trusted them, but to a certain kind of mind that made them fun.

And Dorian’s looked just like ordinary campfires, except that they would take rocks as fuel if you left them in there long enough, and they were as flamboyant and colourful as the man himself; and it was to one of these that Krem had led me, and the people sat around it were a motley bunch. There was a mustachioed Vint, one of those Dorian had talked into turning coat; there were three women from Haven in their patchwork kit; there was a hedge-knight from Amaranthine; there was one of Harding’s human outriders, in what was supposed to be black with a white eye on it. And I hadn’t seen Krem sweep up that bottle, but there it was, and anyone with good cheer was welcome, and I was completely unrecognised.

Harry didn’t talk much, but that was all right: he wasn’t some sourpuss bastard, he laughed at the jokes and passed the bottle and his companion was a likeable sort. They were telling war stories, of course, get some enjoyment out of giving the militia recruits a bit of a wide-eyed scare, few knowing looks between the Vint and the hedge-knight, clearly thought themselves the veterans here.

So the man from Tevinter, in his stained gambeson that had once been blue, leaned back and clearly it was his turn for a tale. He’d been one of Alexius’ men, technically a slave of course, but that was half the world away. You join the army in Tevinter because you get to be equal, you get to be one of a brotherhood of thousands; the men fight, the women run the camp and the train, and while the masters might tell you where to march, the brotherhood of soldiers tells you how. You obey your master, yes, but you trust your sergeant like an elder brother. And when the metal meets, you’re glad of your brothers shoulder to shoulder beside you, you’ll face the great thirsty blades of the giants happier knowing your brothers have your back.

Ah, the giants – tremendous fighters, real proper warriors, they. You’d think them thick, more muscles than brains, but one look at Iron Bull tells you they’re not, and his countrymen are much the same. Terrifying fighters – humans against giants is like sending boys against tall broad men – and the worst part is, they think. False retreats, sudden charges – ambushes, ambushes in the middle of a plain bloody battlefield in broad daylight – and they’ll fight in darkness and bad weather and mud to sink a man, and they’ll fight to the last man to defend their leaders and their standards. Even the tal-vashoth, their pirates, their outcasts – leaderless you’d think they’d fold right up, but they still fought like demons, like men possessed.

Possessed, you say?

The militia-women looked at one another and the youngest-looking one spoke. You have no idea what demons fight like, she said, and now it was her turn to look at her fellows and play the veteran. And she told the tale of the day the sky opened. She’d carried a crossbow up the hill behind the templars when the Herald had come to close the Breach. She’d seen the things that had walked out of the thin air, sat themselves up out of the mud, or just opened the eyes of animals or the dead – and didn’t she just have a good memory for what she’d seen and what they’d done.

They saw Harry’s haunted expression and asked him if he had a tale of his own. Krem was ready to cover for him, but he just gruffly told them in short clipped sentences about a corpse trying to pull me into its grave by the ankle; and then Krem stepped in and told something about the Chargers and the previous business they’d done, hired by Amaranthine town when the darkspawn tried to claim the place to live in after the Blight.

And of course that had our Fereldan knight tell a tale of the Maid, because apparently he’d fought in the Queen’s Army at the battle of Denerim and she’d saved his life and he’d saved hers. She hadn’t even known it. His squad had been in the square before the keep when the spawn had come surging in – they’d killed so many spawn they were practically knee deep – they’d been forced back, separated from the keep – and then there’d been a new shock of ’em and he’d thought that was the end. Then, out of nowhere, she’d come. Her and the king, bright blades, grey armour, and they’d literally killed their way through the spawn as fast as a man could run. The way he told it, he and his people had come in after them, blocked the door, and bought the time for them to kill the dragon.

So Krem told a tale of a job in Nevarra – they hunt dragons in Nevarra, and the Chargers were playing beater – only the bloody thing turned and fought. And that’s when Krem had found out the difference between a good boss and a bad boss. Because a bad boss puts you in that place and then expects you to hold the bloody thing off while he goes and winds his crossbow and shits himself. And a good boss does what Iron Bull did then, which was know when a job’s gone south and get your butts out of there.

And this got them nicely talking about leaders they’d had. About idiots with an eye only for their own importance, who’d have a fellow flogged before they’d admit it was their fuckup. About great and glorious warriors who got a lot of good people killed by leading from the front with no thought of those who followed. About the bann who wanted his people to think well of him, so he’d drunk with them and joked with them and made like he was one of them, and had the void’s own job getting them to follow orders, because why would one of their own know any better than they did? About the lady who gathered herself an inner circle, trained them better, gave them the best of everything, trusted their advice, listened only to them – and was then surprised when her whole company told her what she wanted to hear rather than what she needed to know.

About Cassandra, expecting no less of everyone than their best, but asking nothing of anyone that she wouldn’t give of herself – and I learned that they loved her, even as they feared her, because they wanted to be her. About Cullen, and that the general opinion was that they were so very glad he wasn’t the only one in charge, because he wouldn’t leave them a minute to rest that wasn’t just another chance to file into chantry and sing – but if there was anywhere a proper holy man was all right, it was this cause. About the Iron Bull, and the hedge-knight chuckled and asked when would the masters learn that no true leader is ‘just one of the guys’ –

And Krem met the man’s eyes and quietly told of the time they’d been stiffed on supplies, and the Bull had gone hungry till he made it right ‘because he could stand to lose a few pounds’. And the time a dozen of them had been arrested in Gwaren for looking a bit northern around the edges, and the Bull had beat a path to the castle door and practically dragged Bann Cauthrien down to give her constable the hiding of his life. And not least, the way the Bull got his patch on his eye.

Which was to find a half-dozen men beating an innocent youth to death on a Tevinter tavern floor and go methodically about feeding them their own weapons, and took one in the face doing it. And then he gave the lad a job. So, no. Bull isn’t just one of the guys. He’s their big brother, the one you wished you had and didn’t, because there’s only one Bull and he’s here, handling the sharp end for the Herald.

Leading quite nicely on to – The Herald. What was he like?

None of them mentioned Haven. It was just kind-of there, too big to talk about, and of course it was something that everyone knew. No, they talked about the way that he rode, like, he wasn’t used to it. He held a sword like it scared him, or, he had when this had all started. He didn’t talk much to the soldiers, clearly didn’t know much to say. One of the militia-women laughed and said she’d been serving in the inn the day after he patched the hole in the sky – he came down on Lady Montilyet’s arm like he’d never seen a commoner in his life, he actually asked them why they were bowing, made a joke of it.

Oh, said the Vint – one of those, eh?

And he met half a dozen stares hard as steel. The girl from the inn said that the Maker doesn’t only call you if you’re feeling ready, and if ever she thought she was being asked too much, she just remembered that scared face in old clothes that looked almost like he’d borrowed them, remembered what the Maker asked of the Herald, and if he could do it then she could. The hedge-knight said the Bride chose him for a reason, and you’d learn it if you watched him ever. And Krem said something in Tevene, sounded like the Chant.

And the discussion moved on, a trifle uncomfortably at first, but we had a good evening, headed off when it got too late. Back to the armoury, back to dress as Lord Max again, and of course Krem came with.

“So, lordship.”

I sat on a bit of rubble and nodded. “Neat trick, and one I’ll keep around. I get the lesson, as well. Maker put me in charge, and I’ve still got that credit. But only I can keep me there.”

He made a face. “You keep playing at being informal, your lordship. You keep pretending like your funny hat doesn’t matter, like you don’t care what people call you. And that’s fine, right, up until someone wants to trust you with their life and everyone’s around them. It works for my boss, because he already proved what he is.”

And for me it’s more about concealing that, I didn’t say. “And the big stuff, the reason Cassandra and Cullen believe, it’s too big. The problem’s too big and expensive for them, so they’ll tell stories about it, but they’ll follow someone like the Bull, someone they can look up to without straining their neck, if you know what I mean.”

“I do.” Krem smiled faintly. “Works for my boss, right, but think of Cassandra. They don’t follow her because she drinks with them, mostly ’cause she doesn’t. They’d be terrified if she tried. But I’ve honestly heard a man trying to argue that if Cassandra and the Bull sat down to table together, she’d drink him under that table and through the floor below. I’ve heard the same about the Maid of Ferelden, for crying out loud, and she’s no bigger than an itch. You walked out of a story. They want that story. The better you are, the better the story, the better they will be. As you said, the Maker gave them an idea of you. You know what it is. You heard. They imagine themselves in those shoes.”

I laughed at that one. Had to. “They’re bloody welcome to it.”

“I know, right?” He flashed a grin. “But they don’t know that. You’ll never be Cassandra, you’ll never be the Bull. But they’ll never be you, either. Play your cards right, lordship, and don’t forget about them, and they’ll love you for it.”

“No pressure.” Rueful nod. “Another matter, Krem. Something you said back there. There more to that line you gave them, about how the Bull lost his eye?”

Silence. He looked away.

“Sorry. I-”

“It’s not a thing.” He bit the words off, looked off at nothing; I just waited. “That lad was me. What the soldiers were doing, it wasn’t out of line by their lights. Call me a deserter. Let’s just say I don’t exactly agree with our friend of the evening about the virtues of my homeland’s armies.”

“Strikes me as a funny profession for a deserter to go into.”

“Didn’t run away because of the work.” He folded up the tabard I’d borrowed, put it away. “Anyway, old news. It was a long time ago, in another country.”

“And besides, the wench is dead.”

“Yes.” I had trouble reading the fellow sometimes: he said that word like it had kicked his cat. “Best sod off, my lord. Get your fool head down. You’ve got a date with a mountain tomorrow morning.”

*

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Fear & Surprise, Chapter Nineteen

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*

‎Ma chere Severina,

It is with not a little excitement that I write to you today. The official announcement will not truly be until the spring, but I felt simply unable to keep an old friend in the dark so long – my dear, we are re-opening the high pass through the Frostbacks to the south-east of your demesne, the one the dwarves used in the time of Drakon the First. I write this letter from the highest tower of Skyhold Keep: we are to be neighbours!

I am correct, am I not, that your family is still in the enchantments trade? Only I was reading our map, yesterday, and I could not help but notice that our road is like to be the very quickest route from the Imperial heartlands to Redcliffe, Calenhad and Orzammar – in short, my dear, it nearly cuts a third from the travel time, not to mention the avoidance of the tariffs at Amaranthine and at Halamshiral. (Between you and me, Severina, I have always thought it bordered upon daylight robbery to tax you twice for your trade.)

Ourselves – well – here is the part I am truly proud of. The citadel’s masters are Chantry through and through – Seekers and Templars and neither man nor lady of business between them. They have literally no idea of what count as fair rates and ‎no conception of the value of goods unless it is waved under their nose. I mean, Maker forfend that we should propose to cheat them – but they think like generals and priestesses and not like merchants, and thus one might find a succession of terribly interesting arrangements should one have the wherewithal.

For example, this month they are worried about their stocks of food: and rather than purchase some, they have the general’s instinct that trades in kind are always better. Indeed, when I tentatively broached the idea that tariffs might be waived in exchange for the odd shipment of supplies, say, and access to a market to buy more – Lady Cassandra wanted a handshake deal on it that day, as if the goods were mine to offer!

I enclose the rates upon which I have her signature: by my numbers, this works out at nearly a ten per cent reduction on the duty payable at Amaranthine alone, and of course, the goods need never go anywhere near Halamshiral at all. And lest you worry about the legalities, my dear, let me set your mind at ease – it is exactly the same from a legal standpoint as accepting goods from the Anderfels with a Grey Warden stamp. I should like to see them accuse Cassandra Pentaghast of smuggling with a straight face!

Do feel free to pass this opportunity on to a friend or two, my dear. The only reason everybody isn’t doing it is that I’ve only told a select few – I am sure I can trust to your good sense concerning the best distribution of this information.

letter from Josephine Cherette Montilyet to Comtesse Severina Delaval, written in the autumn of 9:40 Dragon

*

“Ah, Lord Maxwell.” Josephine looked up from the makeshift trestle that she was using as a desk. It was completely beyond me how she continued to look so good, even in a plain brown smock with her hair scraped back and caught in a simple thong – “Good of you to drop by. I have a couple of things for your seal, if that’s in order.”

The wax was right there, and despite everything I was still wearing that spare Trevelyan signet: I busied myself. “So,” I said, “what am I signing away today?”

“Nothing incriminating,” she said, businesslike. “A denial of rumours that we are dead; a polite little note to Queen Anora apprising her of the situation; a couple of invitations to smugglers and would-be tariff dodgers.”

“Mm. All quite innocuous, really.”

“I do my best.” She watched me pour out the wax, press the seal. It was curiously mundane. The kind of thing I did before a mountain fell on me.

We both opened our mouths at once: she shut hers. Then looked at me when I didn’t talk. Eventually she raised her eyebrows. “Yes?”

“I, uh. Just wanted to.” Words. Sometimes they’re hard. “Apologise.”

The response was quick enough to have been practiced. “I can’t readily imagine for what.”

“My lady…” Couldn’t see anything in her liquid brown eyes other than barred gates and high walls. Trailed off. Tried again. “I didn’t have your permission.”

She dropped her gaze quickly back to her work. “I shouldn’t think that’s how it’s expected to work.”

“I just – My life was mine to risk, I’m not anybody: Lord Maxwell is. He isn’t just mine. He’s got, you know. Responsibilities. And I didn’t think of that.”

“It worked out,” she said, neutrally, her eyes still downcast. Picked up her quill with a precise little motion. “I’m quite certain that it would be impossible to take ‘Lord Maxwell was abrogating his responsibilities’ from the people’s testimonies of the retreat from Haven, and I’m sure nobody would hear that from me.”

“I didn’t come in here to talk to the people.”

“No,” she said, and frowned at her letter. “I imagine you didn’t.”

“I’ve given offense-”

“No, you haven’t.” She didn’t even glance in my direction. “Will that be all, my lord?”

“Uh. Of course.” Out of my depth. Entirely out of my depth. I stood up, somewhat awkwardly. “I suppose – I – should be about my business.”

I caught her sigh as I was halfway to the salvaged cloak that was serving her as a door. “Maxwell, stop.” Did what she said, put my back against the archway. “What was it like? Walking out of that?”

I put my head back against the stone. “Cold. Lonely.” Deep breath. “I really – there was a point when – Let’s just say that’s the second time in my life I woke up and didn’t bloody expect to.”

She raised an eyebrow. “That was the point you’re supposed to say something romantic, you know. For the bards’ sake, if not anybody else’s.”

I coloured slightly. “My lady, I-”

“Oh, never mind.” Her expression was unreadable. “Don’t think me ungrateful. You saved us; you lived; the way things turned out, we couldn’t have orchestrated your performance better if we’d tried. Any reason I might have to be – it isn’t with you I’m displeased, and it isn’t your problem. But…”

“Go on?”

“Well – the next time the Blessed Andraste calls on you for something, I suppose you could try and encourage her to give my poor nerves a moment’s consideration?” Her tone of voice wasn’t quite right to be joking.

Fake joke, forced smile. “I’ll be sure to mention it.”

She nodded mock-seriously. “After all, our transitory welfare is so very important. I’m nearly sure that’s how the Chant goes.”

“It is, though,” I said. “Isn’t that kind of the point?”

She bit her lip, looked down. Moment before she spoke, soft voiced. “How do you do that, Max?” She laid down her quill again with a little click. “How d’you – every single time I underestimate you -” she shook her head. “Yes. All right? I know.” She met my eyes. “I need to get over myself. I’ve dealt a dozen times worse to a dozen different people in the Divine’s service. I’ve broken households and brought people low and taken people’s homes and given them far worse than a few days’ trek starving in the snow, and for no more or different cause than ours – and if that’s acceptable then this is acceptable, and regardless I’ve no right to let less than a week’s – transitory – I’m sorry.” She clasped her hands. “You have things to do, and-”

“Rather believe I’m doing them,” I returned her gaze flatly. “I’ve got a duty to you, my lady-”

“You’re quite permitted to use my name, you know.” She made herself smile, forced lightness into her voice. “I’m relatively sure that we can tolerate the familiarity.”

“All right, but – As a leader, as the Herald, as a friend, I hope – hell. Even if all it is is a-a half self-interested obligation to make sure that House Trevelyan is around and useful to House Montilyet. A noble has responsibilities as well as rights, and I did actually volunteer for this set. I – forgot some of all that. I won’t do that again if I can help it.”

“And I suppose my part of that bargain is to try not to lose any more sleep or bite any more nails over what might stop you keeping that promise.” She nodded softly. “Or any others I might consider you’ve made.”

“I haven’t forgotten.” I swallowed. “I, uh. Don’t think I physically could.”

“Careful, Max. That was almost a compliment.” That perfect, beautiful smile was fake. I was beginning to recognise it. The mask had slipped; the mask was back. My audience was over.

*

Cassandra reined in her mount. It was a pleasure, a pleasure and a charm to ride with a group who actually knew what they were doing, for once. Cullen and Vivienne, she knew well, but Blackwall’s inclusion was a bit of a gamble, and for once that had paid off. Wherever he had learned his skills, he rode like a seasoned chevalier – indeed, better than most she’d met. It wasn’t just that they’d made excellent time: Cassandra might never have been cut out to be an outrider, but  knight or no, there was something about the road that made one smile.

Therinfal never had been pretty. The keep was Tevene, impractically high and pointed; the walls were Orlesian, and nothing seemed to quite fit; tall and imposing the redoubt sulked, hunched over its town like nothing so much as a drake jealous of its kill. And something, of course, was wrong. Vivienne mused that why couldn’t they go somewhere nice, for a change, and Blackwall said that at least there weren’t darkspawn.

Well, if she would bring a Warden.

Wasn’t just darkspawn that weren’t there, though. It was the month of Harvestmere: every chimney should have had its own thin trail of smoke, every home’s hearth should have had a fire. The road should have been bustling, or at least the gates should have been closed tight against some threat – it was enough to unship their shields and loosen their blades and keep wary eyes out, it was enough for Cassandra and Vivienne both to mutter that there wasn’t a rift there that they could see.

Nothing.

They went unchallenged at the open gate. The town could wait. This place had been the de-facto headquarters of the kingdom’s templars, and the gate stood open and the battlements were empty. Surely they hadn’t left their castle entirely unattended?

She let Cullen take the lead: he was the one who’d been here before. He dismounted quickly and the sheer ordinariness of tying up his horse was incongruous. Vivienne muttered that she couldn’t hear anyone alive, but a mage’s senses aren’t what they could be around templars. Poked briefly around the stables – empty. Not a horse, not a groom. Nothing.

It was Vivienne who spotted the spill of blood.  Someone had died here. More than one someone, now they were looking for it. Little sign of a struggle. And as Blackwall pointed out, no bodies. Darkspawn would have torn everything apart and burned it. Bandits would surely have left more sign of a fight.  A rift and the corpses would be here still and walking. None of the blood was templars’, she said – no lyrium in it.

Both gates of the gatehouse swung unevenly open at a touch, and shouldn’t have. Still no sounds. No people. Still nobody on the walls. Had Corypheus taken every single person, Templar or no? The forge was cold – blood here, too, like someone had fallen across the anvil itself, and the mage said it was a couple of weeks old. It was all making a picture that wasn’t other than chilling. At least the Inquisition had taken no for an answer, had –

Movement. Vivienne pointed up to a tower window – Cullen and Cassandra, templar trained, closed on the mage with their shields raised against arrows, while Blackwall simply got his head down –

Silence.

Fine. Something in the keep. Chilling pictures and worrying inferences could wait until the place wasn’t dangerous. Cullen led the way, and rather than find out whether Blackwall had the Wardens’ famous habit of arbitrarily grabbing the vanguard the moment there was action to be had, Cassandra brought up the rear. The place was well-designed, keep and castle both – if there was anybody in there with the idea that this would be a good day to ambush them, they had absolutely perfect ground, but they’d be in for one hell of a surprise regardless.

Cullen knew where he was going. The inner ward, at the foot of the tower – someone had put sand down on the bloodstains here; the rain had mostly done its job in washing them away, but it was still quite clear. There had been executions, right there, and not a few. The templars had cleared the whole inner ward and gathered here and watched.

The doors were still unbarred, the halls dark and silent. Their footsteps echoed on the stone. They came wary into the great hall, and Cullen curled his lip, traded a glance with Cassandra darkly. This was supposed to be the Maker’s place, the Maker’s hall: the great gilded lectern of the Chant was here, but the book of the Chant was closed, and no voice kept up the Chant, and the very silence itself was blasphemy. And it couldn’t have been an attack. It could have been no kind of outside force. Because the Chant was the heart of the fortress. If the book was still here, and it was, then this would have been where any stand would have been made, and not while any of them drew breath should there have been silence here.

There had been a Seeker here. That was the bit that made Cassandra feel sick. Lord Lucius had come here, or at least, the Seekers’ agents had had no evidence he was anywhere else. Maybe he’d even been here when the decision to leave this place was taken. And he’d allowed this. The executions – perhaps there was a reason, one couldn’t tell without more information. The march on Haven – it was wrong, it was against the Maker’s will, but you could see how someone would get the impression that it was allowable. But this? Nobody who had studied even one week in a Chantry anywhere from the frozen south to the sun-baked north, from the eastern ocean to the Anderfels, nobody could look upon orders to deliberately allow the Maker’s house to fall silent and not seen an unforgivable desecration.

If they’d been here seeking charges to lay against the masters of Therinfal – with whom? – if they’d been here simply to discredit – they could have stopped right here and gone home, if not satisfied, then at least successful. This sight alone, five years ago, and the leadership of the templars of Ferelden would have been on its knees before the Sunburst Throne for judgement.

Quick steps to the lectern, and Cassandra broke its chain and took up the tome. It was ornate, it was unwieldy, it was heavy: she slung her shield to carry it. But it was that or open it and sing. Either this place wasn’t a chantry,or it wasn’t silent. She didn’t miss that Blackwall raised an eyebrow. Charitably,  that might have been an impressed look – though what a pass to come to, that one is thought better of for doing what any of the Maker’s children ought?

Spiral stairs. Best place for an ambush. None came. The window they’d seen something at was in the quarters of the inner circle, but the place was quiet, the doors latched – all but that one. The servants’ door, quietly concealed – the hinges were bust. Far side, a poky little room – broom cupboard, back stairs, and the dumbwaiter – and it was full of broken furniture. They’d piled things against the door, tried to barricade it, and it had been kicked down.

Vivienne put a sudden finger to her lips, stepped forward absolutely noiselessly into the room – the hatch of the dumbwaiter was open a crack, and she pulled it suddenly open. And a startled little face with pointed ears disappeared rapidly downward from view.

Aneth ara, ma falonne!” She might have learned her elvish in Montsimmard, but it was hopefully intelligible. “Mai na! Eni atisha an!

A pause. A soft voice, a young man’s, came from the shaft. “Harel’an da.” If a rabbit could talk, this is how it would sound. “Sena t’shem.”

Sulais vien.” The alien syllables stuttered off her tongue. “Em’ma eravhenne da.”

“Aye? Era’vhen… la chevalen Orlain da?” There was uncertainty in that voice. “Bloody chevaliers and a mage, and you try and call me friend?”

“Well, I can tell you whose friend I am not.”

“Prove it,” the voice hissed. “You’re a mage? Show me.”

Vivienne whispered a word and flicked her fingers, and the dull glimmer of the room’s lightstone burst into sunlit radiance. “I am Vivienne de Fer, of the Inquisition.”

“The who?”

“The Templars are our enemies.” Damnation, but that was painful to hear. “They attacked us at our home. We stood them off. We came to look for the rest of them, and we found Therinfal empty.”

“You uh.” The elf appeared again, slowly. His eyes were big. “You… fought them?”

“And we are still alive. These are Cassandra, Blackwall and Cullen, knights of the Inquisition. Who are you, ma falonne?”

“Tarry Haiver. I was a scullion here.” His eyes darted around the four of them. “Do you – do you know? When are they coming back?”

“I don’t think that they ever will be.” Her voice was grim. “I don’t know how many of them ran away. The terrain wasn’t friendly.” (There is one truth. Cassandra quietly admired Vivienne’s ability in telling it.)

“Dread Wolf.” Guilty glance, but they didn’t call him out for the heathen oath. “I – I’m not sorry, milady.” Seeing no disapproval in their faces, he ventured further – “Murdering caivhen shems got what they deserved.”

Vivienne held out a hand to help him out of the hatch; he ignored it. He was filthy; they could barely recognise the Chantry livery he was wearing. “Tell me,” she said gently. “What happened here?”

His eyes darted to the corners of the room, the routes out. He didn’t want to step away from the hatch; they gave him space. “They uh. They – how much d’you know?”

“Let’s say I just about know the Templars have a castle here.”

“Right. Right. Always said this is the last holy castle, but it was a backwater, right?” He looked firmly at the floor. “But templars been coming here for months, riding in from all over the whole kingdom and sticking around, but that was all right. They brought their people with ’em, we made room, we had the whole place running, everybody who’d been here to start with got a bit more important, all good. Anyway,when the place was, like, nearly full,a bunch of bigwigs came to see the Grand Master, talked to him for a long while. Heard one of them was a Holy Seeker, so we was all getting everything just so. And when they’d finished they made a big speech, got all the templars in the great hall, talked to them all.”

“What did they say?” Cullen frowned.

“What do I look like, a book? It was all big words and Orlesian and so on and I wasn’t there. But they was cheering him long and loud. Anyway, next morning they had the gates opened, the big ones all the way, and they went down to town and I don’t know what they said, but up into the castle came, like, everyone. All the shems, all the People, all of everyone. And they gathered up and a dirty great shem stood up and they said quiet for the Lord Seeker and he gave a speech.” The elf ran his hand through his ratty hair. “And he said about a holy cause, whole world had gone mad, full of -” he stopped dead and looked straight at Vivienne and went quite pale.

“Go on,” said Vivienne quietly. “I give you my word as an Enchanter, if you offend me then I shall do no more than leave.If you anger my knights then I shall not allow them to harm you.”

The elf gulped. “Right. He said the mages had corrupted the Chantry-” and he noted the firm set of Cassandra’s jaw as he said it, and didn’t more than stutter – “a-and the Templars had to become holy enough to face them, and he s-said this meant everyone, said we could all be Templars if we wanted to be holy, we could all drink and take up the blade. Every knight and squire, every scullion and villein, every man and woman and child would be-”

Cullen’s swearword was louder than Cassandra’s; she gave way to him. “Children?” He curled his lip, and little Tarry took half a step to put Vivienne between the two of them. “A child cannot become a Templar. It’s not just -” he glanced at the outsider Blackwall, carried on regardless – “It’s not just against the Rule, it’s physically impossible. The initiation doesn’t take.”

The elf nodded. “The kids, they just sent ’em away if it didn’t. Put ’em out into the night. But that wasn’t the half of it,” he said, darkly.

“Tell me they didn’t,” Cassandra growled. “The sacrament is poison to your kind.”

“Don’t need to tell me that, milady.” He looked up from the floor. “They lined everybody up and they had great chalices of the stuff. You stepped forward, you said the words in Orlesian, repeated them after the -” he stepped literally into Vivienne’s shadow, trying to hide from Blackwall’s thunderous expression – “I swear, milord, I’m not lying, I’m not!”

“No,” growled the Warden. “No, I’m sure you aren’t. Go on, boy. It’s not you I’m wanting to break in half.”

A nervous, jerky nod. “They drank, everyone did it. And -” He swallowed hard. Went on. “Some of ’em, they threw it up, or they fainted o-or whatever, and they said that the Maker had judged ’em unworthy and they took ’em away. They gave it to Vhena, the hahren, and she just, she fell over and foamed at the mouth – and they -” His voice went. Deep breath. “We ran, those that could, we hid. They found us. Most of us.” He wrung his hands. “And I-I didn’t see, but everyone they thought was unworthy. They took ’em away and I, after they left I s-saw the bodies. In the midden.”

Vivienne spoke softly. “How many of you are left?”

“Maybe half a dozen of us got out that night. Ran to the town, told everyone. The shems, the ones who hadn’t gone up to the castle, the elders, the kids, they ran. We -” he looked down – “I don’t know. We went back, because they had our hahren.” He shivered, top to toe. “The others left when they learned she was dead. Vir atishan, they said, but I just think they was scared. I stuck behind to do for her, and for the others. Couldn’t just leave them lying on that heap.” He sniffed. “I stole their poor bodies away, one by one. Laid them out in the kitchen garden. I don’t think anyone saw, or I don’t think they cared. Then they left. All of them. They took everything they could. I think I’m alone.”

Cullen frowned. “It’s – dammit. This should be – it’s impossible.”

“Milord, I’m telling you -”

“No, I mean -” his lips moved silently a moment – “Entire cauldrons of sacrament. Inducting a templar isn’t easy – you can’t just give them a tiny sip. To take a couple of thousand people on at once, you’d – they should have used up their whole supply five times over, just that night. There’s a reason we didn’t just start recruiting new templars for the Inquisition, we wouldn’t have been able to support the ones we had. There isn’t supposed to be that much lyrium in the kingdom.”

“I have a notion,” said Vivienne. “You saw the stuff, right, Tarry? You saw what they were drinking?”

He nodded. “Stank like hot metal.”

“That’s the stuff,” said Cullen. “You don’t forget it. Normally it’s mixed into wine. The first time, not so much.”

“It would have been coloured,” said Vivienne. “It would likely have shone like brushed gold-”

“Not like gold,” said the elf, and Vivienne nodded. “It was bright red.”

“Maker’s sacred breath of creation,” Cassandra breathed. “Cullen, tell me I am wrong. What would the sacrament look like, taken in red wine, say?”

“It’s black.” Cullen frowned. “I’ve seen red Templar sacrament precisely once before.”

“Kirkwall?”

“The new recruits, the Circle guards and the Knight-Commander. The ones who took more than the bare minimum.”

“That’s what I was…” Her mind was racing. “I… think we owe Varric an…” She turned to the others. “Vivienne. Blackwall. Go with Tarry, take the castellan’s quarters apart. I want correspondence. They had black-market contacts, I want to know who. Cullen, with me. Lyrium store. Now.”

*

Next

Fear & Surprise, Chapter Sixteen

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*

Those who oppose thee
Shall know the wrath of heaven.
Field and forest shall burn,
The seas shall rise and devour them.
The wind shall tear their nations
From the face of the earth.
Lightning shall rain down from the sky,
They shall cry out to their false gods,
And find silence.

7 Andraste 19-22, Chant of Light
attributed to Andraste, Bride of the Maker

*

So, yes. Life choices, Harry. Excellent ones.

Like the ones where you stand there in the square before the chantry, full armour, torch in one hand, borrowed cloak flapping about your shoulders, Tevene turncoat at your side, and watch the bad guys stalk warily into the place that was kind-of-sort-of beginning to feel like home?

Warily, because they could tell something was up. Warily, because the first few dozen onto the road learned that it was thick with caltrops. Warily, because the odd arrow winged its way silently out of the night whenever anyone looked too important. Just because the illusion wasn’t, in fact, concealing an ambush was no reason not to have it conceal a few surprises, and Jenny would’ve been the last out of Haven if it wasn’t for the fact that she could run faster than Varric, and both of them could see just fine with the snow reflecting the moonlight.

Felix glanced behind him as if he was nearly as scared of our people as he was of the enemy. “All right,” he hissed to me. “Dying out of hand won’t save anyone. We need to make this last as long as we can: our time is denominated in lives. You need to know one thing: keep him talking. No matter what happens. No matter what you see and what you hear, we have to keep talking. No matter if he doesn’t look like he wants to listen. No matter if it’s complete and utter bullshit. I hear you’re good at that. Just keep your mouth going. The magic will do the rest. While someone is talking, even if I am dead and burned, they will not see our people, they will not start the fight. And when that fails? Not when he stops listening, but when he stops talking? Run. And hope. Got me?”

I nodded.

“So, then.” And he took a deep breath, and I nearly didn’t see him run his left thumbnail from his right wrist down to the tip of his right index finger, nearly didn’t see him flick one black drop into the snow and then put his foot firmly on top of the smoking scar it left. My eyebrows went right up, and he put his left index finger to his lips. “Last refuge of the incompetent,” he whispered, and then he clasped his hands behind his back and we waited.

As I’ve said, it wasn’t perhaps the best mood that the Templars were in by the time they’d got to us. But (not, I guess, that I’d had ‎such a truly vast degree of experience) these men and women weren’t behaving like any Templars I’d ever met. The ones I was familiar with, they were disciplined, of course they were, but they gave you the impression of a brain in their heads, they weren’t just soldiers, they were smart ones – or that was the impression they were out to give. But these –

There was nothing behind those eyes. That was what it looked like, that was my first thought. They reminded me most of the Tranquil. Same sort-of wrong feeling to them, like something inside me looked at them and hated them, like – I shivered involuntarily to see them, nothing to do with the cold, or with what I was here to do. Just a visceral reaction. Ugh. And they spread out, weapons at the ready, shields raised (still human enough, then, for our sharpshooters’ little threat to have them jumping at shadows) and this was where I held my breath, because this was the point that it might have all been a ruse, the spell might not have taken, they might have just slain us both out of hand and gone on looking for our army –

But they halted. They stopped. Drew up a wall of steel, shoulder to shoulder, each shield blazoned with the Sword of Hessarian. And the man who stepped out from between their ranks had made no effort to disguise himself at all. No kind of Templar, no kind of southerner – hell, no kind of human that was, and Felix spoke a quiet word and his defensive spells rippled into redoubled life, and Corypheus smiled.

The creature had about a foot of height on me, came across as a little broader at the shoulder – his head wasn’t quite in the middle of those shoulders. His right leg had an – excrescence, a black twisted coil of foulness that extended it for a couple of inches and made his walking uneven. His scalp was half-bare, half covered by another such hideous mass, black hair falling straggly down to his uneven shoulders – no man could have been born like this. He was wearing a parody of the mage-armour that I’d seen the Circle mages wear, black leather and patches of mail, and he bore no staff in his nearly skeletal hands, and about his neck on a slightly incongruous hempen string was the orb of blood-drinking thorns.

And I realised where I’d seen foulness like that before. It was on the gates and the walls and the broken gilded towers in the vision I’d had of the Black City of the Fade. And I realised that if I could tell, then Felix could certainly tell, and he was trembling like an aspen leaf.

So naturally, I stepped forward.

“Not today, thank you,” I said, and I do believe I may have grinned. “Honestly, I don’t know who keeps ordering these armies – were the caltrops perhaps not a hint?‎ I really don’t think the Inquisition could use another four thousand likely lads and ladies in Templar plate, I really don’t think we – Corypheus, I take it? -”

“As a matter of fact, you’re not wrong.” The creature had that same cold cultured voice that we’d heard before. “And you would be Maxwell Trevelyan and Felix Alexius. This is supposed to be a surrender, I take it.”

“What else does it look like?” Felix was scared. I mean, I was scared, but Felix – something about the creature terrified him beyond bearing, and he was casting his words in the face of that fear like they were some sort of shield. “C-come in? Have some tea?”

“Oh, do let the grown-ups talk, you stupid boy.” Corypheus didn’t slow down, kept walking, kept staring. “I’m not sure we were properly introduced, last time we met, were we, Max?” He gave the very tiniest of bows. “My name is, as you’ve guessed, Corypheus of the Magisterium of Holy Tevinter. Guardian of the gates, keeper of the keys, mah’el in the Divinity of Dumat, very much at nobody’s service but mine own; and you are?”

“Maxwell Trevelyan. But you knew that. My lineage is irrelevant. My people, as you might have gathered, there’s only the one who’ll show himself. But there’s only one person on my side who matters at all.”

‎Corypheus’ expression curdled into infinite contempt. “Let me just let you in on a little secret, my boy. From one fellow in the business to another, so to speak.” I’d got him. I’d judged him right. The bastard had an ego bigger than his army. Guess I’d see how far that went – “The name you’re about to claim. That flag you’re about to run up your pole. Take it from one who’s seen, hmm? Andraste is dead. Not divine, not exalted, not ever-living, and certainly not at the Maker’s side. I’ve seen the seat of the Maker, boy.” He smiled a smile not even a mother could love. “It’s empty. He’s gone. I mean to say-” he looked like he was actually playing to an audience that wasn’t here, and just for an instant I noticed Felix beside me, sweating, breathing shallow and fast, not even blinking, blood dripping from the hands he’d clasped behind him and misting before it touched the ground- “I even went back. After the First Exalted March, after they’d put the little idiot to death. I went back, just to see if there was any truth in it.” He smiled like a wolf. “There wasn’t, you know.”

I played along. “You do know,” I said, “that there’s approximately no way you are going to get away with this. Your five thousand are all very well against a few hundred – a chantry here, a village there. But the day you stop playing bandits is the day you -”

He hadn’t stopped walking. Got right up to me, reached out his hand, and Felix stepped between us; the scrawny Vint cleared his throat. “King, I believe you said. Something about living like one?”

Corypheus sneered. “Did I? Are you sure?”

“You think you’re so tough.” The shadows around the two of them began to deepen, Felix’s eyes literally beginning to shed light. “And I’m very sure you are bigger than me, to boot. You want me dead? I’m a stain on the landscape. But renege upon a deal with House Alexius and I will see you walk away empty-han‎ded.‎ Do I need to draw you a little picture?”

“Well, aren’t you a thing. Proud as anything. Here’s my prey sent right to my hand, like I threw you a stick.” Corypheus eyed me with the smile of a creature that knows exactly where its next meal is coming from. “Do remember the first rule of turning your coat, boy: take the deal. Even when the deal changes, take your life and take your deal and run. Because – and trust me, everyone knows it – traitors are scum.‎ So, congratulations, scum. Good boy. You get to live. Now get out of my way.”

“You don’t get it. Even now, you bastard, you don’t get it.” The aura of power around Felix deepened, his face very pale, beads of sweat rolling down his face. “You’re the Elder One, aren’t you? You’re the one the Venatori are supposedly working for? The ‘holy, most ancient and eldest secret one’ the inner mysteries speak of?” He spread his hands. “I was one of them, Elder One. I was the one chosen to be your conduit. Your vessel. Back when they didn’t know you’d been imprisoned, back when you were just a glimmer in a ritualist’s eye. My father has already tried to sell me to you.” He moistened his lips. “And all that achieved was -”

And the illusion, the spell of perfect health, cracked and fell from him like scales. Felix was bald on the top of his head, the remaining snowy wisps every bit as ratty as those of the monster before him; his skin was wrinkled and scabrous and spotted, his mouth lipless and wide, his teeth unnatural and pointed, his legs of uneven length, his back hunched, his fingers elongated, and his fine soft black robe hung loose upon him as every ounce of fat on him was gone. “So,” he said, and monstrously his voice was still that same cultured tenor. “If you could see your way clear to giving me my life? Perhaps we would indeed have a deal.”

Corypheus cocked his head, curiously. “H’m. Well, of course that would have happened. If I could’ve been freed by something as simple as a thanatoic invocation, d’you think I’d have taken so long to -‎ Oh, I see. You think this is personal. You’ve talked the southerners into letting you and this creditable illusion of Maxwell here have the first go at me, while concealed by your Art they prepare their own sordid little trap?”

“Pretty much, yes.” Felix shrugged. “How am I ‎doing so far?”

‎”Not overly poorly. A genuinely gifted illusionist, is what I see before me. Not over-much power, but talent, and a rare-enough specialty to be worth a little digging. Original, pristine, in the flower of youth? I might have been able to use you. I might well.” The monster shook his head. “But thus foxed, distorted, broken, wreathed about with layers and layers of crutches and healings and cosmetics? I’m sorry, dear boy. You’re just not worth the time and effort to repair.” And he stretched out one misshapen hand to where I stood rooted, and he flicked his fingers and light swirled as my heart thudded in my chest-

And nothing whatever happened.

And the ruined face of Felix Alexius smiled a hideous, monstrous smile. “Surprise,” he said, and underarm he threw a lance of boiling, screaming blue-white fire that ‎caught Corypheus in the gut and knocked him physically from his feet. He followed through immediately, red light flaring in his right palm and striking downward like a lash –

The monstrous man caught the lash one-handed and simply pulled, and suddenly he was standing and Felix had fallen to one knee. And yes, I was still just stood there like a lump, just watching – what exactly could I have added? – as he continued to gloat and Felix continued to wane.

“Again, dear boy, I must say: not bad.” He looked down at the young man at his feet. “An illusion to conceal only the fact that there’s no illusion? A blood-magic spell solely to feed my ego, to make me talk my head off rather than slay you out of hand?” The voice that had shown nothing at all as it called for my surrender and dismemberment bore for an instant something not unlike an uncle’s good humour. “Full marks, boy. And that sucker-punch? Truly an excellent attempt. Your father himself would’ve fallen here.” The smile withered entire. “But suffice to say you should have turned your coat an even number of times. You’ve hardly damaged a thing, unless you count my patience. And the Elder One is no merciful god.”

And he looked Felix in the eye and he lifted his hand, and my protector simply was no more. Green light; an after-image; a shadow; dust; and the merest sense that just maybe, that was exactly as the young man had wanted, that he hadn’t wanted to walk out of this alive.

‎And Corypheus turned that unlovely visage on me, and he raised one threadbare eyebrow, and he said quite simply, “Next?”

“Alistair Theirin,” I said, with a defiant grin I didn’t feel. “Kissing a beautiful maid, slaying a dragon, saving the world.” I didn’t let his ‎foul gaze beat the idiot grin off my face. “Name a king to live like, right? Or were you perhaps entombed in that mortal prison you were talking about, for his reign?”

Yes, all right. Mostly I had no idea what the hell I was supposed to say. Corypheus narrowed his eyes. “I was about to say,” he said as he stalked toward me, “that this was nothing personal. That it was simply that you were in my way, a matter of sheer chance, that I’d do the same to anyone who’d so clearly just been in the wrong place at the wrong time – bad luck, old boy – but this is disrespect. Lese-majeste. Faced with an audience, one on one, with your infinite superior – and all you can find it in you to do is to run at the mouth like a slobbering idiot.”

“Sorry,” I said. Well through fear, I was, by this point, and out the other side. It’s the only way to explain my behaviour. The spell. Felix’s spell. It was holding. Corypheus was standing there, just standing right there, and he was listening to me, and nobody was killing anyone or running anywhere – “It just sort-of happens sometimes, I’m afraid. Terrible affliction, really. Nothing anybody can do, and believe me, they’ve tried -”

He snorted. “You really don’t understand any of what this is about, do you.”

“You could always tell me. Then you wouldn’t have this problem, and we could communicate like civilised adults – find a solution to this problem that doesn’t involve my body being carved up like a-”

He shook his head. “As I said. I was going to say that. But then you had to go and render me disrespect. And I am afraid that the whole world shall shortly require to know what happens to those who give me disrespect.”

And he reached out, and he took my left wrist almost gently in his hand, and he just turned it until he could see my fingers closed around the green glow in my hand. He didn’t ask. He simply nodded, and an agonising shock ran down my arm and my hand opened of its own accord. “There,” he said. “That – should -”

He paused. Tilted his head.

“Oh, dear,” I said. “Something you weren’t expecting? I mean, you are the expert.”

He narrowed his eyes, his voice a sudden venomous hiss. “What have you done?”

“Who, me?” I gave him the most innocent of looks. “Nothing of note, really.”

“You call this nothing?” He put his right palm to my left. Green light flared; I expected it to hurt, but it didn’t, it just felt like his palm had stuck to mine. He lifted his hand and mine came with it. “I’ve read your biography, boy, I know your life story-” and wasn’t that a cheery thought – “You’re no mage. Not a sniff of talent to you, not even a latency. You’re an idiot and a glutton and a borderline barbarian from a country that was scrubland and scree the last time I walked this earth, and right there on your hand is a working of magic that nobody alive should be capable even of comprehending?”

“I’m sorry,” I said. “Did you just happen to find out that you didn’t know everything?”

He lifted our hands again, and twisted slightly in what was for me the wrong direction and my elbow and my wrist protested, and his voice became again very, very cold. “I will not be taken for a fool, boy. I will suffer no rival.”

And I just kind-of flapped my mouth in shock and didn’t say anything at that. And he snarled and moved his hand quickly, just as if I were a fly he was flicking off him, and his strength was illogical, impossible, and our hands came apart. My feet left the ground and I went tumbling through the air – I hit snowy cobblestones and rolled three or four times. Blearily I saw a Templar officer walking quickly up to him, shaking his head as if trying to clear it, kneeling. “My lord,” the Templar said to his toes. “We’ve searched. There was an illusion, for sure. It is shredding apart as I speak, but there’s no sign of them at all. They’ve gone.”

The monstrous man bared his teeth like an elf. “Of course they have.” He nodded towards me as I was lying there groaning, trying to think of more words to keep the magic going. “It’s a ruse. The whole place is nothing but a trap.” Raised his voice slightly. “Were they ever even here, Maxwell, your supposed holy warriors?”

“What do you think, you overgrown, overrated old – nnh -” I ‎managed to struggle to one knee. Had to keep talking. Had to keep the magic going. Had to stall him. “Great battles, noble lords, godlings and grand sacrifices – that sound more like a tavern tale or a true thing, to you?” Sound like someone’s spinning you a line?” I wasn’t really looking at him, leaning on my hands. “Sound like you’re being led for a walk?”

And he shook his head. “Fool me twice, shame on me.” He turned on his heel. “Spread out,” he snapped to his people. “Their trap is not yet sprung-”

Thunder rolled.

And I kicked off from the cobbles and my hands and I ran and I don’t know where I thought I was going. And even as Corypheus turned, even as he raised his hand, the thunder rolled again. And it kept rolling, and it didn’t stop, and neither did I.

It’s disjointed, what happened next.

Corypheus turning to me, raising his hand, a killing light gathering suddenly‎ around him as quick as you’d draw a bow, and just looking around at him in sudden terror and my feet going out from under me and the high splintering smashing sound of stones breaking as the wall behind where I would have been disappeared as if struck by a blow from some giant hand.

Rolling desperately behind the ruin that was left and hearing the thunder grow and build and knowing that there was no way, no way I was getting out of this with my hide intact.

The face of one of the Templars looking around, his eyes widening in the only‎ human emotion I’d seen from this lot, stammering something that was suddenly inaudible beside the thunder.

Getting up and running again, my breath coming quick and hot, expecting any instant the burning lash of magic between my shoulder-blades, and it not coming.‎ Just running empty and mindless away from the thunder.

Putting a foot wrong. Trying to keep my balance and flailing my arms and slipping and falling once again.

Headlong, full-length onto what looked like a wooden cellar door.

Feeling the soggy, rotten wood give way under my weight, as a wall of shadowed white thunder came in down the street like the Maker’s fury –

Falling.

Whiteness.

*

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Fear & Surprise, Chapter Thirteen

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*

What happened to you where were you

A year and a day would fit I lose track in here

You and Dorian disappeared Blackwall died Magister Alexius got him and got away. Felix Alexius captured for bargaining.

Haven attacked by Alexius a hundred warriors and threeish hundred mages three nights later story of battle isnt important. Raven Cullen fell Varric Osprey captured and worse than dead by now. I escaped with Jenny Bull Mynah Solas eighty people mostly soldiers

Alexius and his people tore the sky open they have what I will call an army of demons

Solas did try something Alexius stopped him

Mynah decorating throne room
Bull on display in courtyard
Varric outside my cell
Jenny suicide when we were captured
Solas vanished one day
people lost in dribs and drabs
resistance grinds you away

Dorian you are wrong about who killed the Divine it was the Elder One it was there at Haven at the beginning when it all went mad

I do not KNOW its name I assumed you knew who I mean

is there more than one Eld never mind

it calls itself a god

The magister was given Ferelden — resistance still alive led by Maid and a Chasind witch

I can’t tell you her name can’t write it down
You will know her if she wants you to and not before — she changes her face

Empress Selene assassinated at Halamshiral summit 2mo after Haven Orlais surrendered without a fight after that crown given to Grand Duke Gaspard

Elder one literally cannot die
I was captured learning this
They know all I know of course

Seekers apparently immune to the red lyrium they wish to know how
so far they do not know
clearly not worth asking me

My voice —
because I knew how the game is played they became inventive

emanation is not a word in my
to find a hole in the sky just look up
there is a rift in this castle in the throne room I can show you

can you go back can you make it so this will not happen

[The paper is spotted with water.]

can you take me with you

mysterious scrawlings in blood found in a room in Redcliffe Palace, 10:2 Weeping
attributed to insane outlaw Leliana Rossignol

*

The dead guard’s sword was heavy in my hand, a poorly balanced thing compared to the weapon I’d been swinging for Krem, but the feeling at least wasn’t unfamiliar any more. Leliana had kept every knife and dagger we’d found. She led the way, padding catlike on silent feet. We ran into one patrol – one man fell to Dorian, the other suddenly found Leliana behind him and folded up with her hand over his mouth and a knife in his neck. I’d expected to feel more about killing these men. I found I couldn’t make myself care. It didn’t feel real enough.

Leliana got us into the lord’s solar, behind and above the hall. Stank of wine. Dozen cups and goblets, discarded plates, some with the remains of food. Every servant’s idea of what a rich man’s rooms would be like if we let them. Supposed to be the informal audience chamber, the one for honoured guests. You couldn’t let a guest in here. Shouldn’t let the master in here, come to that. Bah.

Steep stairs down to the lord’s pretty door. Dorian raised a hand to us to stop. “He’s in there. The magister. His amulet will serve us far better than the rift in there, if we can get it.”

“He’s not exactly just going to let us take it.”

Dorian shrugged. “He’s not exactly just going to let us waltz up and work magic on the rift. Hang for the fleece, my friend, hang for the sheep.” He killed his light, just leaving the eerie flicker of my nightlight, and then whispered to himself a tongue-knotting litany of words in what sounded like a mixture of Tevene and elvish, and the sounds were overlapping and tying themselves in loops around him and his last three words pulled them tight, tight, tight, and he grinned and suddenly there was very little in the world but him, larger than life, light and darkness come to coil about him like a snake. “I’ll keep him busy.” And he pushed open the door.

The rift lit up the room like a roaring fire in the grate, but it shed no heat, the whole place chilly and dripping damp. Trestles laid as if for a feast, but no guests and no food; a statue on a plinth at the far end of the room and my breath caught in my throat as I realised who Leliana had said it was, who it had to be. And in the bann’s high-backed chair there was a man sitting, and he looked up dully as we entered, and it was a moment before I recognised this gargoyle as the fat, confident magister I’d seen just that morning. His flesh hung loose on him, like an old dog, like a boy wearing a man’s coat. His piggy eyes had seen too much, his fine robes were spotted and stained, and he leaned on the arm of his chair like an old man as he stood. Some king. Some court.

“The hospitality of your hall is legend, master.” Dorian strode out, a performer taking the stage, and the shadows crawled down from his protective spells and out across the floor and the walls. “Glad to see you’ve kept up the tradition.”

“Oh, Dorian.” The magister’s voice grated and scratched like rough wooden hinges. “I was wondering what it would take to pull you up out of your own arsehole, or if you’d fallen down it forever.” He scowled. “I assume that means you’ve got the supposed chosen one stashed away somewhere, as well.”

“Oh, bollocks.” Dorian patted his pockets theatrically, still approaching at a measured pace. “Don’t tell me I left the Herald of Andraste in my other trousers – is my face red? -”

“You do realise that it’s too late. It’s over.”

“Don’t feel dead,” he said, with an expression and manner so eminently punchable that my own fingers twitched in sympathy. “Do I look dead to you, Gerry? Did I just not get the-”

An instant of flame. It rolled off Dorian like water from a duck’s back and he didn’t break stride. “Oh, please. You taught me that one when I was nine, you indescribably senile old fart.” He stepped between the two long trestles, started to walk down the length of the hall. “Children light their campfires with it in-”

A word that was a thunderclap. Took a moment to clear my head. Dorian just gave an irritating grin. “My, my. Has a power-word ever worked, in the whole history of mages’ duels?”

“Is that what this is?” The magister shook his head. “Why now? The anniversary of the Inquisition’s first sad defeat?” Another clash of energies, and again Dorian stood unharmed. “I’m afraid that was yesterday. This date’s irrelevant. This time’s irrelevant. You’re irrelevant.” He nodded, and lightning crawled in around the edges of the roof, forked down, took one look at Dorian’s sudden gesture of warding and set fire to a tablecloth.  “Look at the sky, Dorian, you’ve lost. If it wasn’t obvious a year and a half ago, surely even you-”

“Why?” Dorian had stopped in the centre of the hall. The rift was to his right hand. “By Andraste’s rosy sphincter, man, why? That was what I could never figure out. Your alliance with the Venatori, the ones you yourself called a bunch of insane dirtgrubbing elf-lovers. What under two skies possessed you?”

The magister looked down. “Felix,” he said quietly, and his voice carried in the silence. “For Felix. You aren’t a father. You don’t-”

“So where is he?” Dorian looked around, still with the theatric air. “Hale and hearty, no doubt? The Elder One’s bounteous generosity-”

The look in Alexius’ eyes was sheer hell distilled. His voice, ragged. “No,” he said. “He was too far gone. He’d shredded his treatment spells one too many times. He’d -”

Dorian spoke a word like an arrow and Alexius’ hands went up like something else was moving them – the floorboards and rugs around the throne were torn up in a neat vee, and the same shape etched itself into the wall behind him with a sound like a wave on a gravel beach, and the older mage hissed.

“Now who’s the incompetent? Shaking my defences by reminding me of your own best friend’s death?”

Fire danced in Dorian’s eyes. More than scorn and mockery in his voice. Deliberately raking over their oldest quarrel. “Go on, Gerry. Say it. Felix was more than a friend to me.”

My son was not a-”

Both of them threw their spells at the same moment and the air between them roared white-hot and furniture scattered and flames licked and guttered. “Not a what, magister? Not a man who liked the taste of a nice hard cock of an evening? Because that’s not the Felix I remember.”

“Side-effect of your thanaturgy, you perverted little shit. Any degenerate will tell you-”

“Oho! You think that out of the two of us, I’m the one more likely to use mind control to get me laid? I tell you, messere, I might have controlled a great deal of him, but one thing I never did grasp was his-” a circle of the floor around Dorian’s feet exploded into a cloud of splinters and he didn’t even flinch – “Do they not say that blood magic is the last refuge of the impotent?”

The magister’s expression twisted with anger and his reply wasn’t intelligible to me. He was three words into his chant before I realised that Dorian’s eyes had gone wide and scared: he’d immediately discarded his pretence of invulnerability and was going after him unspeaking each word as it was spoken, undoing each gesture. The magister started speaking faster; a sweating Dorian redoubled his effort.

And I stepped out from the shadows behind the magister. He was about the height of a practice pell, even if he was a little broader; I’d one hand on the hilt, one on the pommel, and I heard the blade whistle in the air as I swung it, knew that here was a strike that wouldn’t be glancing off or twisting in my hand –

Alexius reached up and literally caught my blade, and he smiled broadly and his words didn’t miss a beat; I saw blood well up around his fingers. I tried to pull the blade back for a slicing draw-cut as I’d been taught, but the simple inhuman grasp of one bleeding hand held it quite still.

Leliana seemed to appear out of nowhere on the other side of him, and, now, this did interrupt him. He spat a word that sounded hideous, dirty, corrupt, and the blood wormed its way out from his hand in a fine mist to force itself into her mouth and her eyes –

It didn’t even slow her down. Her blades flashed and laid his throat open to the spine: they flashed again and opened him up like a gutted hare and he fell silenced.

Dorian walked slowly up to the corpse, just staring at it, watching as the blood flowed and slowed and stopped, shaking his head. He bent down and retrieved the amulet from around the remains of the magister’s neck, heedless of the blood on his hands. “Huh. Wouldn’t have wanted that to be much closer,” he said, and Leliana mimed spitting on the corpse. “Quite.”

“So,” I was in the middle of saying, and I got about as far as opening my mouth for “what now?” when we all heard one of the hall’s side-doors slam open – Dorian swore and Leliana threw us a look that very clearly said to get moving as guards started to pour into the room.

“Right,” he said mostly to himself, wrapping the amulet’s chain around his wrist. “How hard can this…” His eyes unfocused. “Shit.”

“What?” I had my point up. Another door had opened on the other side of the hall. Four guards already here. Leliana held her blades loosely, her stance loose and open, and she cracked her neck and rolled her shoulders and looked at them with a demonic smile.

“This, uh. This thing isn’t what I thought it was, there’s an internal structure, a dozen – it’s like a spell-staff, only -”

“Any time now, Dorian. The rift will do, anyway, won’t it, if you don’t understand the amulet?”

“Sure. Rush me. Suggest things. Always wanted a holiday in Par Vollen, or in the middle of the ocean. Maybe we could go boating.” Dorian held up the amulet in front of him and the world started to go dark around the edges. “Why the bollocks is it labelled in Arlathani? Bride’s sake.”

The first three guards tried their courage. Leliana tangled two of them together, dropped them in a heap with a kick, landed a blade in the third one’s neck. I took a wary step backwards toward the mage.

“Ah! Ha! Aha!” His face – and the room – suddenly lit up green; a shock passed through my arm like I’d stuck it in a rift. “Got it. Now I just need to… be… two people. Uh. Maxwell, can I have a hand?”

Leliana killed another man: he started screaming and wasn’t about to stop. Unthinking, not really listening, I just held out my hand to Dorian, my left, palm up.

“Oh!” I heard him say, dimly. “Or that works. Hold it-”

right-

*

Again, it was a lot like waking up, like clawing my way up out of darkness and back to speech and life. We were on the Redcliffe road, spreading trees wide either side, sun clear overhead, shouting and confusion and chaos and I was astride my mare, my feet in the stirrups – she reared with a shrill noise of protest and I stood up in the stirrups, leaned forward as far as I could, forced myself not to pull on the rein –

what was it Leliana had said –

“Blackwall! Look out!” I cried. I couldn’t see him, but in the same moment I heard the magister’s voice, a word like a clap of thunder that I’d heard only a little while ago, and I heard Blackwall’s blistering oath an instant later – he’d ducked and whatever it was had gone right over him.

Hooves struck the ground again, with me somehow still in the saddle, and I remembered enough to get my mount to turn, stop her doing it again. A moment later I looked up, all prepared to spur after Alexius and give him a piece of my mind or something, but Dorian was already there. His voice lashed like a whip, and the magister’s horse tripped over its hooves and landed in a painful heap on top of the man it was still dragging and both of them screamed. A moment or two later and Cullen was there, dismounting like he could fly, pinning the magister to the floor by his neck, and then it was all over bar the shouting.

*

A dozen potential problems, all at once, and if ever I’d doubted it before, this was where I saw the true strengths of the people who would form the core of the Inquisition, this is where I saw why they had the titles and accolades they had. We’d just attacked and taken the mages’ new foreign ally, and we’d done it in the exact manner and fashion that the templars might, and we’d done it at the behest of a man who we’d taken a snap decision to trust on the flimsiest of pretexts; one misstep, one ill-placed rumour, and this would go wrong faster than you could blink.

The plan had us turn around immediately and enter Redcliffe while everything was still confused, get our troops inside and standing around politely before anybody was really sure who was whose enemy. Go to the market square, stand still and look stern, Cassandra told me, and if anyone noticed that my elvish shadow was in full if patchwork armour and armed to the teeth, nobody said a word.

And the rest of them split up, one purpose, many hands. Cullen had custody of the magister, his son and their five stooges; all of them had been taken alive, and they’d come with us under enough guard that nobody was about to try anything. The Inquisition troops had their own specific orders, and they stuck to them: they were accoutred very much like Redcliffe’s own guards, they were talking and acting Fereldan, they were striking up conversation with the locals, they were so southern they stank of it. Point being, of course, that the black-armoured, olive-skinned Vints stuck out like a sore thumb – the question to their minds really, really had to be that if push came to shove, would the Redcliffe people really side with allies they only met yesterday, whose language they didn’t even really speak?

Vivienne, who spoke Tevene, watched Dorian discreetly as he spoke to the magister’s guards; I caught her hiding a smirk for what it was he was actually saying, and when he’d finished, their officer surprised all hell out of the Inquisition guards by falling suddenly to one knee, hand over his heart, and two heartbeats later the rest of them followed suit. Later, she confided quietly in me: Dorian had explained to them that nobody gave a toss why the magister was dead, but the magister’s heir had turned his coat and so had the key to his strong-boxes, and the only way they could think of to keep all that gold out of Orlesian pockets was to convince us that all Tevene were mercenaries at heart. Then he’d asked all the mercenaries in the audience to bow the knee.

So what of mages, of their own declaration of alliance with the man we’d just very handily arrested? Well, it so happened that Dorian hadn’t been lying about Felix turning his coat, and the key was just to keep moving, as fast as we could. The young man had meekly turned over his staff to the templars when the fight had started, and he and Dorian – suitably escorted – had immediately set about making as if the magister had died of natural causes, to wit, being stabbed half a dozen times in the back while falling down a flight of poisoned stairs, or something equally innocuous. Their message birds flew before lunchtime. And the whole group of us stood up in front of a courtyard full of the mages and their allies in Redcliffe bailey and announced the alliance of House Alexius with the Inquisition against the threat posed by the Breach and those who opened it, and if it looked a lttle bit like sleight of hand, well, then, it looked a little bit like yesterday; and these were insane times.

I never saw Gereon Alexius again, of course. Cassandra raised an eyebrow and asked what I supposed had happened, and that was mostly that. It – I mean, the man had surely earned whatever fate it was, but somehow I’d expected more fuss. He’d been seeking to overthrow us all, he’d been – assuming our vision had been true – trying to bring about the very thing we’d been fighting to prevent all this time, and Cassandra had treated his fate like little more than a common criminal’s.

The other five Tevene mages had jointly announced – not least due to the templars who practically had them by the scruff of the neck – that their loyalties were now firmly with their bonds’ inheritor, Felix Alexius: I guess we’d see on that front. I suppose that Gereon Alexius hadn’t exactly inspired loyalty. Meanwhile, the templars and Vivienne and Grand Enchanter Fiona weren’t exactly a Circle, but they’d all trained in the same pattern and they all had the same rule-book to fall back on – and in a funny sort of a way, it showed our uncertain allies in Ferelden Circle that we were to be trusted, because here we were being trustworthy with a group of suspect mages. The Inquisition’s templars stood polite and sober watch, and the experienced enchanters laid down ground rules, and people were detailed to watch them, and it was all very civilised, and nobody was dead or insane yet.

A little more sleight-of-hand, and Vivienne was suddenly chief healer at the bedside of the Arl of Redcliffe’s son. A few choice Orlesian phrases concerning the care and feeding of idiot Tevene so-called doctors later and he was up and about, and suddenly of course the Inquisition had overthrown the evil magister and broken his spell, and in the grateful arl at last we had the big noble ally that Mynah had needed in order to be listened to in Orlais, and the flock of message-birds grew.

And against this tide of evidence, Grand Enchanter Fiona had little choice. On the conditions that Solas’ method be written up and published – to which the elf later retorted that if they’d pay him for words they could have all that they desired – and that it be made public record that good Chant-singing mages had solved this problem, the Circle agreed first in principle and then in practice to release the truly eye-watering quantity of lyrium that the magical working called for. And having spent so long working towards this, it all seemed quite terrifyingly quick once it was all happening. The stores would be released from Circle Tower that day, to arrive at Haven three days hence under suitably heavy guard, and we rode ahead to prepare for their arrival – after all, a bunch of unfamiliar troops just showing up on our doorstep unannounced wouldn’t exactly be greeted with open arms.

*

“What?” Nightingale looked up from the map where she’d been plotting pins.

I blinked. “Sorry?”

“Usually when a person stares at me so,” she said drily, “that ‘stare’ is rather more appreciative than unsettled, unless I have done a thing to deserve it. I am sure that Cullen would have told me if I were a ghost or a demon; and I have done nothing that could conceivably have offended you. Thus: ‘what?'”

“You.” Cleared my throat. “You, uh, heard about the vision Dorian and I saw.”

She nodded. “It crossed my desk. ‘Elder One,’ ‘Venatori’, terms we’ve seen before. The Venatori Antiquitatis are one of the secret societies beloved of the second-stringer magisters of Tevinter: absent temporal power and resource, they glean for lost magic in the picked-over bones of elvish ruins. Maybe a dozen noble families have links, but they haven’t much in the way of military power; Alexius was one of the greater of them. ‘Elder One’ is a descriptor that they’ve used for some kind of paragon or ideal figure towards whom they aspire. It’s been supposed to be one of the magisters – to be honest, I’ve a report swearing it is Alexius himself. The Venatori attack will not happen without a vengeful Gereon Alexius out to recover his son, and no Templar attack was seen: all in all, a good day’s-”

“I saw – you.”

She looked back to her work. “I am sure I would have recalled.”

“In the, the future. I know what I saw.”

“Indeed?” She glanced up. “It must have made an impression. ‘My’ testimony is in your report also. Concerning the Orlesian politics within, there is something we can use, I think. Gaspard is a troublemaker with a legitimate claim, and a grand duchy didn’t shut the man up; he’s currently leading a very polite little uprising in Dirthavaren and the West Dales, which the Empress is stamping on. If they were to come to terms, the summer palace at Halamshiral is a reasonable place to do it, and if she were to fall and he were to be right there with a promise that appealed?” An Orlesian shrug. “It’s all quite plausible. My agent in the area is redoubling efforts to uncover evidence of collaboration with Tevinter; such would sink his chances at the throne permanently.”

“Nightingale – I -”

“Ah.” She inclined her head. “This is about the manner of the statement. I’m sure ‘my’ condition was quite piteous: jailers are not kind to the supposedly high brought low, for all that my background is more like Harry Osten than Maxwell Trevelyan. Regardless, I read that ‘I’ performed acceptably.”

“If there’s anything I can do…”

“Your compassion does you credit; please imagine platitudes about starving orphans in Dirthavaren.” She turned a page in her notes and selected a green pin from her little box.

“It’s just that, you know. I’d be more than a little unsettled, and nobody needs to suffer in-”

She laid the pin down on the table with a harsh little click and looked down, silent for a moment. “The Chant teaches that the words that fly from our lips are like arrows, and just like arrows they can harm and injure. One might consider that this is more true for the Left Hand of the Divine than most; and while Divine Justinia was not exactly quick to call for such archery, nevertheless it is not unknown.” She put her hands flat on the table, possibly to keep them still. “And to continue my metaphor, I am an excellent shot. I do not have the luxury of being kept up at night by what-might-have-been or what-if-we-fail, my lord Trevelyan, any more than you have the luxury of using the name your mother gave you. The spectres of an already-averted future wish to keep me awake of a night?” She looked me in the eye. “They may get in line. They may wait their turn.”

And my big damned mouth wouldn’t let me leave it there. “I’m sorry,” I said, and for an instant I was talking to the person, and not the position, and she shut her eyes as if some weakness might escape.

Took a deep breath. “Would you rather that the arrows were loosed by someone to whom the consequences of those actions meant little?” The words fell in the silence like drips from melting ice. “Divine Justinia had the whole nest and brood of vipers of Orlais to choose from when she wished to replace her mistress of assassins three years ago. I was selected specifically because I do lose sleep over it.” And she opened her eyes, and I saw there quite the same steel-hard faith I’d seen in Cullen the first time we’d met. “Your compassion does you credit, but as I said. Orphans. Dirthavaren. Some of them my fault, even. But if this is because you consider that for some bizarre reason you owe me?” She tapped the first pin we’d ever put in the map. The one on Haven. “You have one job, Herald. It’s all any of us truly requires of you.”

*

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Fear & Surprise, Chapter Seven

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*

At the word of the Maker’s Bride,
Ten thousand swords r
ang from their sheaths.

At the word of her herald Shartan, the sky
Grew black with arrows.

A great hymn rose over the Valarian Fields gladly proclaiming
That those who had been slaves were slaves no more.

Canticle of Shartan, stanza 10, verses 1-3
Chant of Light, unauthorised version
confiscated from Val Royeaux alienage

*

We didn’t need to ask where Osprey was. Not that I could really understand every word when someone was speaking Orlesian quite so very fast as she was, but I’d had sufficient bollockings in my time to know one when I heard it. From the tone and flow of it, here was a seasoned tongue-lasher, and she’d just about got herself over the opening arguments and was really starting to hit her stride.

The door was another work of art, with a very surprised elf standing outside, his eyes the size of saucers as we walked up; Cassandra knocked, and the torrent of invective came to a sudden halt. And the door slammed itself open quite unattended and the servant winced.

The woman who stood in the room’s centre facing the door, one imperious hand raised – the words her portraitist would probably use would be along the lines of ‘magnificent’ or ‘statuesque’. She’d have been taller than me in bare feet, and she was wearing three-inch heels. Her gown was all strange-angled bands and intersecting stripes of starling’s wing black and mother-of-pearl white, one iridescent black glove and one shimmering white, an elaborate grey and white wig; she had the dark skin of the Orlesian west, and she wore a variegated black-and-white mask a little like the bird she was named for.

And she froze, for just that instant, and the mask hid an expression that I swear was more of a guilty schoolgirl’s than you’d ever expect on a middle-aged lady, and Cassandra just stood there with an eyebrow raised and let the silence go on.

“Leave us,” Osprey said shortly to the half-dozen assorted guards and servants she’d been berating, and they fairly fled – “Raven, my dear. Reports of your incarceration are exaggerated, I suppose?”

“Hardly.” Cassandra stalked at least far enough in that the door could close behind us. “A third party diverted your people and saw to our escape in the same breath; my guess is that they wished to acquire the Inquisition’s gratitude and were unaware that it was my own bloody jail. Casual magic, Osprey?”

“Hardly.” The tall woman mirrored Cassandra’s tone.

Cassandra half-smiled. “Dare I ask?”

“Spreading it around, my dear. All the world knows that you don’t cross Madame de Fer; someone has forgotten, and that means the old reputation needs a new lick of paint; I am sorry that you had to see. This is Lord Trevelyan?”

“It is.” I stepped forward and managed to kiss the hand she offered without looking too much the bumpkin. “My friends, Varric Tethras and the Iron Bull.”

Enchantée. As it were.” She smiled expansively. “My name is Vivienne; yes, I am an enchanter, first among equals at Montsimmard Circle, and as you may gather from my increasingly transparent alias, I was the Divine’s creature back when that was a sought-after honour. Won’t you come in? Have a drink? Make yourselves at home? You must be terribly fatigued from your incarceration.”

“You aren’t as funny as you think you are, but thank you for the thought.” Cassandra shook her head shortly. “We leave tonight. As I said, Eagle’s on the march, and it was too much to expect for him to blab his destination while he was grandstanding – if he is after Haven -”

“My dear, what do you imagine that your own fair visage will do that Nightingale and Cullen cannot? I’m quite certain they can die just as well as you can, as well, if it comes to that.”

“You mean apart from the people who flocked to a banner I raised, who might as well be wheat to a scythe as far as he’s concerned?” She frowned. “The Breach, the thing that killed the Divine – it was not a one-off affair, not some kind of explosion, it is an ongoing effect. We patched it with the aid of one of the apostates, but none of the survivors of the delegation has ever met this before, in the Fade or out. If the templars just barge in there singing, especially if they are dumb enough to slay the man who put it there -”

“At which point?”

Cassandra pursed her lips. “I had never seen the Fade, Vivienne. Not awake. Not until I stood in the ruin of black glass that was once the Sanctuary of the Ashes and looked straight up at a hole in the sky that was tearing wider before my very eyes.” She shuddered. “Not an illusion, not an influence, not a shallowing in the Veil – a physical breach, much as that is nonsensical – you must have read the reports of demons abroad – and it was growing, and all we bought was time.”

“I see.” Osprey tilted her masked head slightly. “But he knows nothing of this, and even if he did, his talk was of the Sanctuary atrocity as a symptom of the Apostasy and of his own desire to make a solution. Alternatively he marches for Lake Calenhad. He has to know the Grand Enchanter is at Ferelden Circle, that they are gathering there; the rhetoric fits better-”

Cassandra frowned. “How?”

“A decisive move. End the war with-”

“No, you misunderstand. It is not a thing within his power. That island is to all intents and purposes impossible to beseige and starve out, and the prospect of an assault is simply ludicrous – we shall warn them, of course, but Lucius would have to be literally insane to try.”

“My dear, these are-”

“Insane times, I know.” Cassandra shook her head. “I have no idea what his game is. He was assigned to the Templars, to advise Master Samson and keep what leash we can; his appearance here suggests only that the leash is the other way around. He is supposed to be in Therinfal.”

“Maybe he will come to his senses and go back there.” Osprey smiled.

“Woe betide he do something I actually want.” Cassandra’s answering smile was wintry at best. “Bah. Nightingale will find him – but regardless, we ride for Haven tonight. I assume your delegation is ready?”

“She can be easily enough, yes.”

Well, that drew a frown. “Let me guess. You asked for volunteers, refused to outright order anyone and got fewer than you would have liked.”

“As a matter of fact, I had a couple of dozen -”

Cassandra glared. “This had better be worth hearing.”

“Allow me, please, to guess a little concerning your ‘hundreds of volunteers’, Cassandra.” Vivienne began to pace. “Were there, perhaps, more than a few tradesmen? Apprentices? Squires? Innkeepers’ daughters. Did you give out a strident call to the faithful only to find it answered largely by the enthusiastic, the fanatical, the foolhardy and the young?”

“I assume you have a point.”

“I do.” She turned to look at Cassandra. “Of those four adjectives, my dear Raven, which would be useful in a mage who you propose to pit against a blasphemy so terrible that the fact of its existence is tearing holes in the Veil for a hundred miles in all directions?” Her voice was still the same sweet Orlesian purr. “The principal mission of the Circle of Magi is to protect its people from the world-”

“Fat lot of good protecting them will do if we can’t stop the Breach.”

“And a fat lot of good twenty enthusiastic volunteers will do if they lose their heads.” She shook her head. “I’m not bringing Tranquil anywhere near that, either – I’m slightly appalled that you left Helisma and the others in that town, given the effects they are experiencing.”

“They volunteered. What was I to do, turn them away?”

“Of course they volunteered: they are Tranquil with a skill to use-”

“And my other options for those skills were a rank apprentice and an elvish apostate who pretty much just walked in out of the woods.”

“And if your own six-year-old child volunteered on the basis that they had a useful skill?”

“Looking at that hole in the sky, Vivienne? Completely honestly?” Cassandra met the mage’s eyes levelly. “I’d have signed them up. At least let them go down fighting.”

She looked away. “Maker defend us from the valor of the knightly; I suppose this is why she made you Hand. Will I need to bring my own staff?”

“Of course. We are likely to need firepower before this is-”

A soft chuckle. “Secretary, groom, maid? I’d say ‘templar’, but there’s a shortage, and I hear you have your own?”

“I doubt that Mynah will turn away qualified people, but I would appreciate it if they knew what they were getting into. This is not some kind of pleasure-jaunt I propose.”

The enchanter sniffed. “I don’t employ cowards – and no, they are neither Tranquil nor mage either. Your equipment and your horses have been very, ah, thoroughly rescued; only give me time to change and say good-bye to our gracious host, and we may be gone.”

*

So we’d found the Chargers all packed up and ready to move, and we’d made a bastard of a miserable few miles of forced march in the rain. Iron Bull’s orders set up the camp well away from everything and warned us that there’d be no fires in the morning, and the only one who wasn’t cold and miserable was Vivienne in a giant fur cloak that fairly radiated warmth. Varric and I had mucked in with the others getting tents up and I’d finally bloody bid him good-night and closed the flap, hauled my armour off –

There was someone sitting on my camp bed, a dark shape in the darkness, and as I started to scrabble away it lunged and I ended up lying on my back with my attacker on top of me and a gloved hand over my mouth, and I swear, my life flashed before my eyes – “Hush, lordship,” whispered a woman’s voice in my ear.

I stopped struggling and she removed her hand, went and sat back down just as fast as she’d jumped on me. Little thing, blonde hair – Jenny. It was Jenny. I sat up. My pulse caught up with me; my hands started shaking. “W-what are you doing here?” I breathed.

“Said I’d see you.” There was a smile to the elf’s whisper. “Safe yet, lordship?”

“Uh. Well, you’re here. Is that safe?”

“Knew you’d get it.” Her voice was very soft, almost not there at all. “I’m good, right, but not alone at it. I can do this, someone else can, thought I’d have a look and see if they’d thought to.” She tilted her head, birdlike. A thought. “The quicks outside. Yours? You here by choice?”

“I am. The men are Iron Bull’s.” Some of that Orlesian paranoia was rubbing off on me, I think. “Cassandra pays him.”

“Figured that last. But Cassandra’s yours, right?”

“Cassandra’s the Maker’s.”

Jenny shook her head, a curiously violent gesture. “Harelda says I. She ever heard him? No, so she says she’s his, she’s hers with a bit of a wish. Anyway. What I came to say. Not long.” She took gently hold of my left hand by the thumb, bent her head down, touched my thumb to the top of her head. “Yours.” She released me and I took my hand back and she looked at me straight. “This world’s going straight to shit, Herald. Lot of people say there’s a Maker who wants it not to. Lot of people say, here’s his man, this one right here, the one who lived for a reason.”

“So, the stories say that Red Jenny-”

“Fucks with the bigjobs when their toes get too big? Tread too heavy and it’s not fun any more?” She nodded. “I’d’ve set the lady straight if she wasn’t on the right. Tell me, though. You seen anything in this world might look like a giant-fuckoff footprint with big ugly toes?”

I smiled. “Got you.”

“Uh-huh. So yeah. That’s me. Here to clip some toes.”

“And keep mine trimmed and all.”

“Psh. Like you’d need it. But you ain’t wrong.”

“I accept your service, Jenny, I, uh.” Really wasn’t sure what to say. What would his nibs say? “I’ll do right by you. A-as long as it’s in my power.”

“And I’ll help you keep that, am I right, the power?”

“Right.” Pause. “So, uh, I was just going to bed?”

“Mm-hmm. Looks like you need it.”

Pause. “Uh. Do you propose to, well. Stay in here?”

“D’you propose for bull-face to sell you in your sleep?”

I blinked. Pinched the bridge of my nose. “For once. Just for once. I’d like someone in this bloody world to have my best interests at heart.”

“Uh-huh. Feel you. Been there. Not there there, but there.” She was silent a few moments. “But now I’m here, and now there are, because me. Not leaving till this is done, right?”

So it’s come to something when the scary little assassin is trying to be reassuring, and it had come to something quite again when it was almost working. I nodded, slowly. “You know there’s, uh. Nowhere for you to-”

“Warmer than a tree and drier than a ditch. Don’t flap.” She got off the bed.

I flapped my mouth a moment in disbelief. “People will, people will talk, you know. You coming out of my tent.”

“Yup.” She stretched. “Look there, they’ll say. There goes a man who’s living a thousand years.”

*

I was woken the next morning by a curse and a thump.

The curse was very clearly in Krem’s accent; the thump was him hitting the floor with Jenny on top of him and a knife a half-inch under his chin.

“No, no, stop!” I catapulted into wakefulness. “Jenny, he’s one of ours!”

“Then he knocks like a good lad,” she hissed. The knife went away. Krem didn’t move.

“Morning, my lord,” he said with far too much cheerfulness for someone lying on the floor with an arm twisted behind his back. “New girlf-”

“Try again.” She tightened her grip and he winced.

“New staff, then? Done some hiring, have we?”

I threw him a helpless look. “Krem, meet Red Jenny, my maid. Jenny, meet Krem, whose job it is to make sure I don’t die of stupid.”

“Hey, is that what I do?” He grinned. “Shit, man, are you ever in trouble. Good morning, Red Jenny; knock-knock.”

She let him up. “There. So hard?”

The grin didn’t waver. “There will be four drawn swords outside this tent right now.” He raised his voice a little. “Put ’em away, boys, we’re good.”

“Right you are,” came a voice from behind me, far side of the tent.

“You staying?” he asked her.

“I stick like his nose does.”

Businesslike unflappable tone. “Okay. We’ll sort you out a bed and a-”

“Got one. Thanks ever.”

Krem looked at her, at me, back at her. “You know what? It’s not worth it. You’re still alive: we can trust her. What I came to say? Breakfast’s up and you aren’t, so, fix that. Princess Sunshine says we’re on our way soonest.”

I smiled despite myself. “Don’t let her hear you call her that.”

“I’m evil, not stupid.” He shot a glance at Jenny. “Your maid can help you with your armour. We’re not saving you any bacon.” He made to leave.

“Ain’t no bacon,” she cast after him reproachfully, and he parried with more of that smile.

“Can’t save him any, then.” He bowed his way out.

*

Quite a party we’d become, now – me and Varric commiserating over our sad lack of centaurhood, Vivienne and her half-dozen status symbols showing me what a real noble looked like – and somehow the templar riding at her side looked more like a companion than a minder. Cassandra’s eyes ever on the road behind, more troubled each day we travelled. Iron Bull and his men in easy camaraderie, hard eyes on watch behind the relaxed attitude. And Jenny only there when I looked for her, just part of the background, just not there when she didn’t need to be.

As it happened, none of the others seemed to bat an eyelid at the elf coming with us. I’d expected to have to defend her, at least to Cassandra, but apparently not; and Bull’s only comment was that tiny knife-eared killers were all the rage in the capital this season, and he was kicking himself for not having picked one up himself. And for the most part, yes, she played the elf. Much as people think it’s so, they aren’t born servants any more than humans are: this wasn’t the first time she’d filled this role, though her bright eyes and pricked ears were looking out for more than just what I’d want next. I suppose she’d grown up with it like most of them do. For my part, I got used remarkably quickly to having her around, strange as it really was to be waited on – it became somewhat of a game for her to try and find me things before I wanted them, and for me to appear not to need waiting on at all. It’s little things that make the world bearable.

There was – I remember it well – one joke around the campfire, one single joke from one of the Chargers about me liking them short. And Jenny turned her head and looked straight at him and asked him if he didn’t find ploughing three furrows a night to be a bit of a strain on campaign, before having an appraising look at a couple of the others of his lance and telling him that she didn’t really share his taste in partners, but she was glad he’d found happiness. And there was a very quiet moment. And then she gave the tiniest bit of a smile, and the men burst out laughing and proclaimed that this elf was all right, and I saw Cassandra visibly relax.

It was a fortnight’s travel back to Haven at a reasonable pace. Everyone we met on the road was going away, not towards, and as we got closer we started finding towns and villages half-deserted. Wasn’t just that malevolent carbuncle of an unnatural cloud that stood over Haven itself, either – Varric stopped to talk to more than a few of them and came back with what sounded like overblown tales of spectres and ghosties and things with more eyes than legs, and Vivienne made a face and said they rang true, naming every single one of the creatures the smallfolk had seen and saying that none of them had any business turning up outside a bad dream. Demons need a body to walk, she said, it’s a rule. And Varric said that someone should go remind the demons of that, and she smiled and said that it was on the list.

We were met by a patrol out of Haven when we were still half a day’s ride from the place – the watchtowers were new, as was the simple black surcoat with a staring white lozenge of an eye, and the slightly wide-eyed riders seemed to have got it into their heads that it’d be disrespectful to look directly at me, so I was just stuck with the mental image that they were talking to my horse. And Cassandra questioned them closely, and they said they’d seen no sign of an army – she left them with the knowledge that they were looking for one, and we rode for Haven.

The village itself – we’d been gone, what, a month – it was unrecognisable. A tall stockade had sprung up around the base of the village, making it almost a bailey, if the solidly built village chantry were a keep; outside, what had been a field had had a veritable battalion of wooden pells and quintains set up, and each one had its associated trainee with a stick. Here a squad trained with spears under the watchful eye of a templar; there, a set of butts was being approximately peppered with arrows; the white eye of the Seekers – and apparently the Inquisition, now, why not – stood upon the black flag that flew from every flagpole.

And the gates stood open, and when I’d ridden out of here I’d done so like a badly stowed sack of grain, and I rode back in like I actually might have some kind of business sitting on a horse. Still just all felt a bit unreal, like I was – well, I suppose I really was – dressing up as someone else, riding his horse like he would, wearing his armour and his colours, living his life.

Cassandra grabbed Iron Bull and peeled unexpectedly off, dismounting as if she was hiding a pair of wings under that cloak and collaring a quickly very worried Cullen; Vivienne was practically ambushed by Nightingale, kissed on both cheeks and submerged in a torrent of questions; and I walked in the front door of the Chantry and very nearly ran straight into a man in a complicated Orlesian mask and bowed by reflex.

The man returned my bow just as deep as I’d given it – his eyes took in the colours I was wearing – “The very man himself!” was his opening gambit, in an Orlesian accent you could cut with a hacksaw.

So of course I replied in Orlesian, polite smile – “Well met: I believe you find me at a disadvantage, my lord…”

“Marquis du Rellion, your worship,” filled in Josephine’s voice from some distance behind him, and I caught a slight air of desperation.

(My what?) “But of course,” I said – Rellion, we’d passed that on the way to Val Royeaux, so that made this man one of our closest neighbours – “I do apologise for not being able to greet you the instant you arrived, ser: I was speaking at the Grand Cathedral. I hope that my people were able to help you?”

He blinked. “The Grand Cathedral.”

“I am afraid so, ser. The demands of Mother Chantry must come first for all of us, I’m sure you’ll agree.”

A slight, defensive huff – “Of course. But now that you are here -”

“Please, tell me.” I smiled an approximation of his nibs’ smile. “What can I do for you that Lady Montilyet cannot?”

His voice was sickly-sweet. “I was told that there were certain – ah – decisions that only the leadership of the organisation should be making – certain things that would require your oversight – certain things that your hand and seal alone could provide?”

I nodded as if I had a clue. “Indeed, ser? I see.” I looked pointedly around at the doorway where we were standing – “Shall we go somewhere more suitable for a discussion of business?”

“Oh, here will do just fine; it shall not take long, and I am sure that all involved shall take your word as good enough.” He smiled a smile that was a little too broad, a little too pleased.

And, well. I knew that expression anywhere, and together with Josephine’s expression – “Ah, yes. What was it that you said that we owed you?”

The smile broadened a little. “Numbers are so tiresome; your lady châtelaine has the details. I believe the balance of your obligation to be somewhere around a thousand imperials?” Or in real money, enough silver to take a bath in? I closed my mouth and attempted to swallow the urge to invent an entirely new type of swearword; he saw my raised eyebrows and got at least the neighbourhood of the right impression. “Ser, much as nobody questions the rightness of your cause, yet a righteous man meets his obligations: I must do my own duty to my own liege, and that money must be found somehow: either I must administer and run my lands myself or I must collect my due from those who do; it is that simple.”

“Your… due. You are telling me that you are the Sanctuary’s landlord?”

“The Chantry, of course, operated here as per a longstanding agreement between the Sunburst Throne and her imperial majesty, but as the Divine has been now a month in the ground, and as you do not propose to be holding these lands as her legal heir…” He shrugged. “Haven and this land have been part of Rellion since time immemorial. We shall permit the Inquisition to use them, of course you may, but as I said…”

“Ser, with the kind of money you suggest, you could buy this village and everyone in it.”

“Ser, I do believe you grasp my point exactly.”

I narrowed my eyes, nodded slowly. I think that Josephine, stood behind him, might actually have been praying at this point. “I do take your meaning concerning your feudal obligation, my lord marquis. It is not right, after all, that you pay tax on land you don’t oversee: all of the burdens of a fief, you could rightly say, and none of the rights.” He nodded firmly, and I went on before he could talk over me. “But clearly -” I patted my pocket with a droll expression – “I am afraid I do not have that sort of a sum on me. What if, instead, I were to represent to the lady arlessa upon your behalf? Ask in the Inquisition’s name for your taxes to be lessened by the amount that you would otherwise be out of pocket?” I gave what I hoped was an ingratiating smile. “Perhaps neglect to mention that the census was before the disaster, rather than after?”

His smile melted like snow in summer and he glared and behind him Josephine’s eyes had gone very wide. Shit. I mean, I’d intended to offer to do him a favour instead of money we clearly weren’t good for – what had I done wrong? What had I accidentally said? I should just have kept my fool mouth shut. There was a long enough pause that I wondered if he was going to walk out silently, then he said tightly, “Don’t put yourself out, herald. I am very sure that I can find my liege-lord all by myself.”

He couldn’t slam the door, not with me standing in it; he settled for stalking out. Josephine was still looking at me with an expression of rank surprise on her lovely face; I met it with a polite smile. “I’m sorry?”

“Just out of, ah. Curiosity more than anything else.” She recovered her composure with a fake little smile. “Did you do that on purpose?”

I winced. “Beginner’s luck? Or lack thereof?”

“If you have any of that ‘luck’ left to spare, I can use all you can sell me!” The smile reached her eyes like the sun coming out. “Through what looked a great deal like force of sheer ignorance, I just saw you demolish his claim to this place, show his words up for the self-serving tosh they were and point out that we are in Ferelden, so if he tries to force the issue then the Empress will make Queen Anora a gift of his head on a plate for daring to disturb the peace, and you did it without destroying the work I’d done in making him think that I was the reasonable one: Cassandra herself could not have done better.” And she met my eyes for a second and made my heart skip a beat – “Keep it up, my lord-”

“Lady Montilyet, it’s not right you calling me that.”

She raised an eyebrow. Maker, that lady was pretty. “You and I have not even broken bread together, ‘Lord Trevelyan’; only be thankful that I am keeping the ecclesiastical titles for best. Now, come: you must tell me all about Val Royeaux, and I have half a dozen things for you to sign, seal or arbitrarily modify.”

I frowned. “But who am I, anyway? Why do I get to sign things? And come to that, what was all that ‘your worship’ about?”

“Oh, we decided the evening before you left. You’re an ignorant, high-handed foreigner who’s used to getting his way: such a useful superior you are.” She took my arm. “I swear, if you didn’t exist, we’d have to invent you. The title I used is the style of the Grand Master of the Templars, which I supposed to be approximately correct for the Inquisition’s leader: congratulations, your worship.”

I stopped dead. “All right, look, that’s enough.” She blinked at me and her dimples got if anything cuter; I carried on regardless. “There’s a young lady who joined our service while we were in Val Royeaux. Jenny, she’s called. She bent the knee to me the moment she saw me because of what people say about me, the Herald thing. Lord Lucius had us locked up; she got us out, regardless that Cassandra’s backup plan would’ve done the same. And when Cassandra made the slightest hint that she had been saying anything that was not the exact truth? She nearly started a fight with three people twice her size and more over that insult alone. Because the Maker made one Truth and she was, she was horrified by the notion that one of the Maker’s servants would be lying.”

She nodded. “It is a common enough way of thinking about that part of the Chant, yes, especially among the elves. Should I walk you through my line of reasoning? I tell you that I do not set out to-”

“Cassandra apologised. And what Jenny said was – it was just words to us, wasn’t it. It was just a – it struck close to home. You know? That words were just noises to make. True or false didn’t matter, it was whether it was useful. Just like it doesn’t matter what my mother called me -”

She turned her eyes on me and I wondered if I could see a trace of mockery in them. “Is that what you believe?”

“There’s only one truth.”

“There is.” She squeezed my arm, gently. “Tell me, Max. Of the things that you have done in the past four weeks, while we have been parted – how many of those things have you done better precisely because you were very conscious of who you were, of the mistakes that you must not make, of what you are putting on, of what you must live up to?”

Taken aback, I stuttered for a moment. “Y-you mean-?”

“I mean that it matters very much what your mother called you.” Her conspiratorial, knowing smile again. “Or at least, it did when you walked in that door just now.”

“You’re doing this on purpose?”

She looked at me straight. “My lord, we are. I don’t apologise. Three days ago we sent two dozen riders to the aid of Fort Connor, where a breach has opened in the courtyard; fourteen returned, and five of those will never fight in the front line again unless Enchanter Vivienne has some way of healing a broken mind. Solas has not left from his work for more than a few minutes in the last eighteen days. Our engagements with embodied demons have gone as well as they have because we have been able to take advantage of magical healing for the more hideous injuries: that healer is seventeen. In the room behind me and to my right are six of the Tranquil whose bodies and minds are slowly being torn apart by the chance contacts they make with images and reflections of the Breach in the process of trying to discover a solution to a problem that as far as we can tell, nobody has considered seriously since the fall of Arlathan. And at some point, I suggest that you find Ser Cullen and discuss quietly with him the side-effects of the sacraments of a templar.”

Stung, I backed up a little. “I was only saying-”

“If you feel that any heartache, risk or inconvenience that you or any of our people suffer are not worth the gains they provide us, then tell me – and sooner, rather than later. But I will not apologise for playing for keeps, and for using every weapon we have.” Her eyes were fierce. “The Maker did not give me Cassandra’s size and strength, or her training and background, or the rank and titles she so readily disdains. He did not give me His Gift as he did to Vivienne, and He did not give me Nightingale’s heart and mind of steel. I believe you could say much the same. But what He did give us, that we shall use: and if it is discovered that we can give more, if it is discovered that there is a thing we can do for the cause and we are not doing it, then we shall give more, do more, and damn the cost. It is not that a holy end justifies all means, Max.” She took my arm again, and her tone softened. “But neither is this a business in which one may tie one’s hands. We should consider ourselves lucky, you and I, that such suffering as we have had has so far been of the infinitely bearable kind. Come; I really do require your seal.”

*

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