Title: "Falsehoods That Will Cloak Me"
Disclaimer: Not mine. As we all know.
Title from the poem, "Aemilianus Monae, Alexandrian, A.D. 628-655," by C. P. Cavafy.
I initially thought this would fit somewhere in "Like A Burning City," but I don't want to put such a drastic shift of style and emphasis right in the middle of it. So I guess it stands alone.
Leliana told her Warden the truth, in the end.
The whole truth, this time.
Well, most of it.
I was still very young (Leliana said) when I came into Marjolaine's keeping. Ten, perhaps. Maybe eleven. We were in the country that winter. Lady Cecile had a chevalier's holding north of Guiscard, very rustic, very... old-fashioned, which she retired to whenever she grew tired of the politics of the capital. Apart from the peasants who worked the land, there was only Cecile, her lady's maid - an elderly woman with a terrible sweet tooth - a cook, a butler, the kitchen maid and a couple of manservants. And me. The nearest town was perhaps more than thirty miles distant, and apart from Cecile, only two persons of any consequence were staying in the district, a local chevalier - I forget his name - and Marjolaine.
Her name was Marjolaine La Fleche, then, though in Val Royeaux I was to know her as Marjolaine Malin, and later, too, as Marjolaine d'Ajonc. She had several names, all of them very carefully separated, so that someone who contacted la Malin the minstrel in search of a 'mutual friend' - there was much business done and denied under the cover of 'mutual friends' - who might smooth a particular problem, or cause one, among the aristocracy, would have no way to connect her with the respectable trader in wines Madame d'Ajonc, who paid her bribes quite promptly to stay a respectable trader, and not an out-of-work smuggler with an ear for a tune. I learned later that she was wintering in the country in order to avoid being implicated in the final stages of one of her more dangerous plots.
The Empress's nephew was exiled that winter. I still do not know for sure if the two things were connected, but I am, shall we say, reasonably convinced?
But I get ahead of myself, do I not? Marjolaine. As Madame La Fleche, she was a chevalier's widow, and she acquired Cecile's confidence over the winter. I played for them - Cecile started me learning harp and flute when I was no more than five, so if I was not yet an accomplished musician, I was more than an amateur - and as the snows closed in she paid me more and more attention. I was a dear little girl. How hard I must work to practice my music! Had I learned my letters? And my arithmetic?
She smelled like sand, dry and almost hot, and though she was far too accomplished a bard to let a preference for any one scent become a mark of her identity, her perfumes were always tasteful and restrained. She had a kind of vibrant energy, an enthusiasm for moving - as La Fleche she waved her hands around, as Malin she played chords in the air, as d'Ajonc she would tap her feet, rat-tat-tat like a dancer, or pace - and a darting, amused intelligence. She never condescended, not to me, though if anyone dared to be stupid or disrespectful in her presence she could be quite cruel.
Cecile was kind, but she was already old. There was no glamour to her, and as the air grew more and more chill, she grew more sickly. Marjolaine - Marjolaine would tell stories of Antiva and the Free Marches, Tevinter, even Rivain. She had travelled.
When Cecile fell into her final illness, Marjolaine stayed with her. There was no surgeon, no healer - Cecile had little prejudice against mages, but she was an old woman, and obstinate, and waited too long to send for help. By the time it came, it was too late.
Marjolaine was gentle to me when I grieved. She offered me a place in her household, an apprenticeship to a minstrel - my fortune and my future, if I could keep her secrets.
In the spring, I went with her to Val Royeaux.
By the time I was sixteen, I was an accomplished liar. And a musician: the two go together, as a bard. The small deceits, the little games, they are part and parcel of life among the nobles of Orlais. If we worked for ourselves, we would have been confidence players, gulling marks for coin. Doing it for politics is just as well paid, but far more dangerous. You must convince your mark to compromise themselves in the appropriate manner, you see, while remaining as outwardly innocent as a child in arms. I learned to forge letters, signatures, seals: to pass as a scullery maid or a whore in the gutter as easily as a minstrel or a chevalier's distant cousin.
A bard is not an assassin, not like our Antivan friend. At least not primarily - though Marjolaine had me taught all the many ways to kill from the shadows, or from a distance. Poisons, knives, bolts, arrows; the garrotte and the dagger in the dark. But it is an unprepared and unwary bard who is drawn by choice into a situation where killing is a necessity: most often, we are intelligencers, despatched to gather information whose owners would prefer it to remain hidden.
Which is not to say I never killed. Sometimes it was necessary. Sometimes it was merely expedient. As it was expedient to compel a confession through torture or the threat of torture, if some hapless messenger fell into our hands. You learn early that pain is useless in acquiring real information, but damning admissions, however false?
An entirely different thing.
Marjolaine made sure I could extract a confession almost as well as I could play the coquette. It was better, she said, to leave such things to the specialists, but sometimes there would be no specialist to hand. And then we must make do, n'est-ce pas?
I say we. You know there are many stories about Orlesian bards. If you believed them all you would think there was one of us hiding behind every arras, peering through every keyhole - but we are not in so great a demand as all that, when a merely average informant might do just as well. Or even better, for being the less suspected. I knew of four, besides Marjolaine. One had been an apprentice to her bard-master: his name was Gwenael le Propret, a tidy baritone with a genius for the horn and a cynic's sense of humour. Two had been her apprentices before me, of whom one left for Tevinter shortly before I turned twenty, and the other answered - perhaps does even yet - to her still, much as I did.
The fourth helped me, once, in a very dark place, and I thank the Maker for that daily. Without him I would have died in that cell.
But I run ahead of myself again. I was saying? Ah, yes. Bards are not as common as the stories would make one think. And any one bard might do work for a score of patrons - or more - in the course of a decade, though only a handful might know the bard's face for certain. The number of times I played for an aristocrat - chevaliers or barons at first, though later I had the honour of a duchesse's acquaintance - and after, they, or their seneschal, or their valet or lady's maid, would take me aside and inquire, oh-so-delicately, about whether I might know a person who could answer their problem -
Who, little old me? But Leliana la Rousse is a simple minstrel, sieur or demoiselle. But sometimes... sometimes it would be useful. Or necessary. And of course I could not help them, but perhaps my friend - my shy, cautious friend - could be of use. If only my lord would hint at his problem? Ah, something could be arranged. My friend would be in touch.
Often it was a friend - Marjolaine, or Simon, her elder apprentice. So too it would be with me, that I would play the 'friend' in their intrigues. Distract the eye, and you can bait-and-switch under someone's very nose, and disguises are not so hard to arrange, no? And then there would be blackmails and extortions and public downfalls - or the very quiet, very permanent removal of a private annoyance.
I was party to things I would be ashamed to tell you.
I do not know whether Marjolaine seduced me, or permitted me to seduce her. My bedroom education had been in the hands of professionals until then, you see: she deemed it only proper that I should know to the fullest how to employ every asset in my possession in our mutual trade. For the most part, it was hardly a hardship to learn, though there are things I did later - ah, do not ask me: I should keep at least a few of my secrets - of which I am not proud.
I loved her then, or thought I did. She was everything to me. I would have crawled naked over broken glass to see her smile.
So it was, for the next several years. What? You think I would tell you how long? But a lady should never reveal her age, you know. There were games and intrigues, betrayals and liaisons, and ah, the fashions! You will think me shallow, I know, but truly, they were beautiful. Frequently ridiculous, but beautiful.
And then... I have told you already what happened. How Marjolaine betrayed me. I trusted her. It hurts, still.
I was asleep in an inn in Val Royeaux when they came for me. A full troop of the guard, led by a chevalier. Sieur Corentin d'Armel. He is one of the Empress's intimates, her faithful hound. They say no one goes to the scaffold for treason but that he has sent them there; an exaggeration, perhaps, but not by much. He is a dark man, cold and hard and damned implacable. I should perhaps be flattered to have been considered worthy of his attention, but all things considered, I do not think I can hold him in any charity.
They took me to one of the old houses in the heart of the city, one of the old mansions that were once noble houses, and now shelter the organs of government which have outgrown the palace. Their cellars are deep, their walls silent; and on the floors above clerks and surveyors and aldermen go peacefully about their business in careful ignorance of what passes below.
I remember how condensation dripped from the stone as they dragged me down the stairs, and how the hot breath of their torches stirred in the draft.
And I remember being afraid. Andraste, I remember being afraid.
I could tell you what they did, to make me talk. I could tell you about violent bodies, and the smell of sweat and mould and semen. I could tell you how the lash looked, supple leather thick with blood in the torchlight, or the stink of a heated brand, glowing like an evil coal, or how the knife feels cold even with your blood trickling down its blade.
I could tell you this, but I think you already know.
I thought I would die there. I wanted to die, almost. The pain was bad enough, but the knowledge that Marjolaine betrayed me, that I was utterly alone...
They said I could save myself, if I named my conspirators. If I gave them proof. They said they would break my hands if I did not. Ruin me utterly before I died. I thought this was pain? They would be happy - eager! - to show me that compared to real pain, this was no more than a lover's caress.
Mere prelude, as it were.
I prayed, in those hours. Prayed as I had not since childhood, prayed that eternity would end and me with it, for deliverance, for I know not what.
He came so quietly I did not hear his footfalls. I do not know his name: he called himself Marron, but "brown" is hardly much of a name. "Marjolaine's girl," he said to me, a quiet breath. "You are Marjolaine's girl, no? Leliana."
"You might rather say I was," I said to him from my bonds, through the bars of my cell. "Am I not no one, now?"
"No one?" He had a very white grin. "Not even still a bard, Leliana? Not even someone who wants to live?"
"What am I to you?"
"Someone Marjolaine would see die," he said, calmly. "And because I owe that garce more ill turns than the world can hold, someone I would see alive and free. For the sheer pleasure of the deed. And, of course, to watch her fret lest you return."
I feared it was a trap, another way to break me, but I could not help but hope. "How do you know Marjolaine cares anything for what I might do?"
"Ah, Leliana." His fingers were nimble on the lock. His hair fell over his forehead, a tangled shadow. "Like la Malin - like you - I, too, am a bard. There are ways and ways of knowing, and you must know better than to expect me to tell you mine on such shallow acquaintance."
I went with him. How not, when he was my best hope for escape? He took me from my cell and up the stairs, past unconscious guards in armour, onto a predawn street. I had been a week in that dungeon, he said. It seemed to me much longer.
He left me outside the eastern gate at sunrise, vanishing like the rising mist. And I took my aching wounds and staggered south, fleeing d'Armel's men's raised alarm.
It took me weeks to reach Ferelden, beyond the reach of Orlais. I fell sick in the hills north of Highever, and a Chantry anchorite took me in. I came to feel closer to the Maker there. I came to feel as though I could make amends.
When I was well enough to travel again, she set me on my way with a letter to the Reverend Mother in Lothering. And so I came to Lothering, and found peace inside the Chantry walls. I thought... I thought I could put my past behind me. I thought I could put Marjolaine behind me.
But I can't, can I? Even now, even here, she reaches out to destroy me. To hurt us.
Forgive me, dear Warden.
Forgive me, if you can.