title: "The Affair of the Stolen Dagger, Part 6."

characters: Soris, f!Tabris

rating/warnings: public corporal punishment

summary: The end of our tale.

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8

Thomas Howe had a curious demeanour, a brittle sort of self-possession. A corpse lay on the floor behind him, the bowel-stink of death already beginning to waft from his clothes. The Tevinter, Soris guessed, not daring to take his eyes from the dagger in Howe's hand. Fear chilled him all the way to the bone. Couldry's men were outside, but if Howe were here...

"Well," the young shem noble said again, drawing out the single syllable. His eyebrows lifted in exaggerated disgust. A muscle jumped in his cheek, like a bowstring drawn and quivering. "An elf?"

Stay calm, Soris, he told himself. What would Kallian do?

Kallian would be bold. Kallian would be brazen. As though she stood behind his shoulder, close enough to blow hot breath on the nape of his neck, he heard her wry, mocking voice. You can only die once, Cuz, and there's enough right here to send you to the hangman. What else are you afraid of?

"I suppose," Soris said, making his words come careful and precise, calm despite the nerves that wanted to jitter his spine, "you're here for the same thing that the Tevinter wanted." He swallowed around the knot in his throat, deliberately relaxing the muscles of his shoulders, and raised his chin to meet the nobleman's eyes. "The price is the same." A measured pause. "My lord."

Soris had heard that the eldest Howe scion was a sot, twenty years old and intent on drinking himself into a grave before he was thirty, but he looked sober enough here and now. A stupid nobleman - or one very sure of himself - to kill a man in broad daylight, in an inn where his presence would surely be marked. He supposed Couldry couldn't have been expected to be able to stop an arl's son from going wherever he liked - always assuming Couldry hadn't been the one to tell Howe where he could find the dagger in the first place.

"Price?" Howe snorted. "I should have you thrashed for insolence. Give me the dagger, boy, or I'll see to it you hang for sure."

The arl's son was the kind who'd see him hang anyway, out of spite. Soris tried not to think too hard about that. He bared his teeth, slipping his right hand behind his back like a man reaching for his knife. "They can only hang me once." Play the role, Soris, he told himself, and forced himself to continue: "What's to stop me killing you, my lord, and taking my pay from your corpse?" Be cold. You're somebody dangerous, and you know you can take him. "I don't know why you want this little dagger, but I know you want it. Five sovereigns, my lord, and we both walk out of here happy."

A suspicious pallor was spreading into Thomas Howe's cheeks. "Four sovereigns," the young man said, the faintest of wavers in the last syllable.

Young Lord Tom doesn't want to die either. A flicker of satisfaction flared in his breast. He might get away with this after all. "Five," Soris said firmly. "I'm not here to haggle." At least, he hoped he wasn't. Every instant he remained here - standing, not running - made him want to scream with fear and tension. A half-familiar sound tugged at the edges of his awareness, distant, like rain on a tin roof, but it made his guts turn over like the memory of a nightmare.

"Five, then, damn you for a knife-eared usurer!" Howe fumbled a purse from his belt and emptied the contents onto the tabletop. Soris caught the glitter of gold. "Now give it here!"

By his expression, Howe had to be nearly as nervous as Soris. Keeping his eyes on the shem, Soris closed his palm around the coins and drew the package from under his shirt. The sound was closer now. Abruptly he remembered where he'd heard it before. He flung the string-wrapped package at Howe's head - "All yours, my lord!" - and bolted for the door. He had a brief glimpse of the shem's features, distorted in outrage, and then the door swung shut behind him.

Let Lord Thomas explain himself to the templars, if he wished. Soris had no intentions of being anywhere in the vicinity when the source of that sound - marching feet and the distant jingle of chainmail - arrived.

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8

He never found out what happened to the dagger, or why Howe had wanted it so badly. The young lord must have avoided the templars, because there wasn't the slightest whisper of a scandal... and after a couple of weeks, the Chantry called off the search, content to pressure the Crown for higher tariffs and tighter scrutiny of Tevinter merchants trading in Denerim. Two Circle mages died in suspicious circumstances when called to the court to attend the Queen for an illness, but that on its own could hardly be accounted proof of anything in particular: mages weren't quite as despised as elves, but they were feared. More than enough people, as Kallian said to him weeks later, upon hearing the gossip, would stick a knife in their backs just on general principle. Lucky them, huh? Then she shrugged and flinched where the motion pulled the still-healing scars across her shoulders.

Kallian...

I owe Herrian, she'd said, that night in the dark. Whatever debt or bargain ran between them must go both ways, for the big sergeant sought Soris out to tell him when the magistrate passed sentence upon his cousin. "If you have some silver," he said, soft - looming like a threatening stormcloud in the shadow of the alienage gate, hard of mien and with a brutal grip on Soris's shoulder for the benefit of passers-by - "I can slip it to Deke and get him to go easy with the cat."

"Not much." Soris swallowed, thinking of the four sovereigns left after Couldry took his cut, hidden - without his knowledge - under Cyrion Tabris' hearthstone. He'd found another two sovereigns' worth of assorted small coin there, undoubtedly fruit of Kallian's dangerous audacity. Money that would have to last while she healed. "I can raise a little."

Sunlight washed the colours of the tattered embroidery device on the sergeant's tabard, showing up pale stains that cleaning couldn't shift. Soris looked up at the big shem, a little surprised to find himself unafraid for his own safety. Wary, perhaps: always that. But not afraid.

Not for himself.

"Your cousin's tough, lad," the sergeant said, when he hesitated. "She'll come through. And," a narrow, crooked quirk about the mouth, "I'll make sure they don't cripple her."

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He was in the market crowd, Shianni pale - and for once, silent - at his side, when the guards brought her out of the gaol, stripped the shirt from her back, and bound her hands to the tailgate of a one-mule cart. An overcast morning, a grey sun lurking behind the low haze of cloud: the leanness of hunger made her looked frail and slender despite the ridged muscle of her shoulders and the white lines of old scars that criss-crossed her arms and marked her naked flanks. She held herself with a quiet, unflinching kind of courage, painfully upright. He saw her exchange words with the guardsman detailed to lead the cart, lips quirked into a wry half-grin. Then the shem slapped the mule on its haunches and the cart squealed, juddering, into motion.

He was glad Cyrion hadn't come. The old man had elected to stay home, unable to face the sight of his only daughter being whipped at the cart's tail. It hurt Soris's heart to witness, but if Kallian could endure it, then he would not look away.

The crowd that had turned out to see a flogging - not, of course, as entertaining as a hanging, despite the presence of the public executioner, but worth watching nonetheless - shoved and jostled, laying bets on whether his cousin would last to the alienage gate without fainting and being dragged through the muck, as knotted nine-tailed rope slapped into Kallian's back again and again, and blood ran from lacerated flesh to drip into the mud. Through it all, she did not cry out, only the tightening lines around her eyes and the occasional stagger when the cart lurched over a pothole revealing that she felt any pain at all. The mule, inured to its role in the proceedings, barely flapped an ear.

The public executioner was responsible for public whippings, a weather-beaten human man in his late middle-age. He drew out the process with all the brutal theatricality of his trade. By the time the cart reached the alienage gate, more than half an hour had passed, and the crowd - all but the gamblers - had begun to drift away.

There were very few elves around. Humans were dangerous around the sight of blood. But Pol was waiting at the gate, and Tam, and a handful of the older, harder men of the alienage - the kind of men who set upon unwary shems in alleyways in the dark of night to relieve them of their coin, and left no witnesses behind.

The cart shuddered to a halt. The public executioner tossed the cat in the cartbed and cut Kallian loose. She braced herself on her hands, head bowed, against the cart's boards for a moment. Only a moment: only the space of a long inhaled breath. Then she lifted her head and met Soris's gaze through the ring of guardsmen that surrounded her; straightened, with stark, agonising dignity, to cross the ten yards that separated them.

Soris caught her as she staggered, careful of her injuries. Blood dripped hot and sticky from her shoulders onto his shirt. "Cousin..."

"Don't let the bastards see me fall," Kallian Tabris gritted through clenched teeth, grim eyes watching the crowd and the mule cart now creaking back towards the prison. "I don't want to give them the satisfaction."

The other elves closed in around them, blocking them from the shems' view. Shianni, unwontedly subdued, slid under Kallian's other arm. Soris supported his cousin with gentle arms, and met Shianni's hot, angry stare across the red ruin of Kallian's back. The flies were already buzzing. "Easy," he said, soft. "We'll get you home."

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Years later, in cold and desperate places, he would hold to the memory of her stark determination. It would give him the strength to find courage and endurance of his own.

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Her wounds healed, though the scars remained. She paid a journeyman carpenter to take him on and teach him the skills of the trade - half the dagger's value for his education, though as an elf he'd never be a guild apprentice. Cyrion watched her with worry and not a little disappointment, and Soris could not bring himself to think well of his uncle for his wordless reproach.

Shianni, she paid a dressmaker to take into trade, over his younger cousin's protests that she could - and would - find her own way: not the first time he'd seen Kallian quietly, irresistibly persuasive, but the first time he understood the contrast between it and the terrible capacity for violence that waited behind her patient eyes.

It unsettled him.

Kallian would seek him out from time to time, in the red glow of sunset or the pale light of dawn, battered and bruised, reeking of blood or sweat, with a cold bleakness in her gaze. He never asked what she'd been doing. Sometimes she told him. More often she didn't, and they would sit in silence, shoulders touching; or he would talk of small things, of painless gossip or the grain of wood, while she watched him, dark and coiled and patient.

Sometimes he dreamed of the apostate woman's dying, blood on his hands and the stench of bowels voiding in death. That, he did not speak of, and in time the dreams came less often.

When Valendrian announced her engagement to a boy of good family from the Highever alienage, Soris saw his hard-eyed, feral cousin smile politely in public, and in private come home bleeding. Those wounds she would not speak of, except to ask his help in binding, and he watched the darkness in her eyes grow in line with the scars on her skin. Like a rat in a trap, gnawing at its own limbs.

But there was no way out. Not for her, not for him, not for any of them. The world was what it was, and always would be.

All they can do is endure.

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Where they died, there the road ended
and ends still and when I take down
the map of this island, it is never so…

...the line which says woodland and cries hunger
and gives out among sweet pine and cypress,
and finds no horizon

will not be there.

-Eavan Boland, "That The Science of Cartography Is Limited"

Fin.


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AN: For those interested, to be "whipped at the cart's tail" was a common punishment for vagrancy and petty theft in the middle ages, and remained in use for other crimes (including "interfering with a young woman") right up until the end of the nineteenth century in Europe and the Americas. It was usually, though not always, carried out by the hangman. This is a depiction of one instance involving petty theft from the eighteenth century (sorry for the long link):

.org/collectionimages/AN00279/AN00279197_001_

(In England in 1530, Henry VIII legislated that vagrants be whipped naked; Elizabeth I amended this so that they were only stripped to the waist. The history of punishment is really rather sickening, if you look at it.)

Anyway, this is it for "The Affair of the Stolen Dagger," and - alas! - I'll probably go back to being Not Here in the forthcoming months. Let me know if you had fun reading.