Anything you recognise is Bioware's. I daresay anything else belongs to them too.
Leliana blinked. "Do you mean," she began before shaking her head. "No, the timing is wrong."
Kathryn grinned at her. "I take it you are referring to de Montfort's ill-fated hunting event? Yes, that particular party took place half a year later. Your dress was very pretty, by the way."
"You were there? Really?"
"No," the mage replied with a smirk.
Leliana scowled. "You do not need to make fun of me."
The elf nudged her friend with her shoulder. "Oh come on, don't be so serious. No, I wasn't personally present at Prosper's end, but I heard all about it from a few different people who were."
Cassandra frowned. "Who?"
"Teagan for one. After the success he and Aedan in Orlais, Alistair made him his go-to man for Orlesian events. And Varric enjoyed relating the tale; getting that dwarf to shut up is a trick. And Tallis gave me some perspective the other two lacked."
"You've met Tallis?" Cassandra and Leliana blurted in unison.
Cassandra shared a glance with Leliana. "Do you know where she is? She has proven elusive, even to us."
Kathryn nodded. "Yes, I left her at Soldier's Peak."
Leliana looked surprised. "Did you recruit her into the Wardens?"
"That's later in my tale. Do you want me to continue?"
Cassandra narrowed her eyes. "In a moment. What cause did she have to visit Soldier's Peak?"
"Her idiotic interpretation of the Qun. She was trying to assassinate one of my Wardens."
Cassandra crossed her arms. "The Sten?"
"You recruited Sten?" Leliana gasped.
"A Sten," Kathryn replied with a shake of her head. "Not our Sten."
Cassandra hadn't moved. "Is 'leaving her there' a euphemism for something more sinister?"
The elf sighed. "You're really no fun any more. Yes, I killed her."
"Of course you did," Cassandra said, rubbing her forehead.
Kathryn poked her tongue out at the Seeker. "Afterwards, I sent an insulting letter to the Arishok for sending her. Can we get back to the party? It's a lot more interesting than an idiotic elf with self-worth issues."
Travelling in a luxurious, Imperial carriage in glorious weather across the almost manicured landscape surrounding Val Royeaux should be one of the more relaxing experiences of your life.
But the chance of being attacked at any moment kept me on edge.
Still, even in the monochromatic vision of a dog, the view was wonderful. If nothing else, the serf class kept the place well-tended. Aedan and Teagan mostly ignored the scenery however, preferring to spend the time discussing the excruciating minutiae of the treaty negotiations. Shadow and I trotted alongside the carriage, our senses alert for any hint of danger. Pickering sat next to the Orlesian driver, trying to learn the art of controlling four horses just by observation.
We had been assigned an honour guard of ten brightly armoured soldiers who all looked impressive on identical horses. Looks were deceiving of course; it would take a stunning lack of observation skills not to notice that they were green recruits fresh from the parade ground.
I wondered how long they'd stick around once blades were drawn. It was an article of faith among the ennobled among us that we'd be ambushed on our return leg. I was the only one who suspected that we might be attacked on our way there. My suspicions turned out to be incorrect.
The soiree was expected to last well into the evening, meaning that the only light on our way back would be from the lanterns attached to the side of the carriage.
They'd serve well as lures after nightfall, I was certain.
Our destination was an impressive building; the summer residence of the Marquise of Salmont. It was a large mansion built upon a gentle rise with marble-sheathed sweeping wings. It overlooked peacock-dotted, manicured lawns larger than many of my arling's farms.
Fereldan castles were, almost exclusively, utilitarian buildings focusing on defence. They were usually oddly shaped due to being designed to take full advantage of the irregular terrain upon which they were built. Salmont's residence was a building whose construction forced the geography around it to conform to its wishes. It was meant to unsubtly shout the owners' wealth and prestige to the world.
As we drew closer we could see cloth pavilions with fluttering pennants dotting the intimately tended lawns. Uniformed servants bustled about, carrying, filling, and apologising. Groups of ladies strolled about the gardens, their lace fans fluttering. Discretely chaperoned couples wandered among the peacocks, sometimes hand-in-hand, sometimes with no contact at all.
Aedan and Teagan were officially welcomed as the coach drew to a halt. Shadow and I were noted in passing, as if the presence of two war hounds was of no import. I suppose that Ferelden barbarians could not ever be seen without our dogs. Such stereotypes suited me.
As a hound, I was under far less scrutiny than the human members of the delegation. I was rather looking forward to wandering around and helping myself to whatever valuables were not nailed down.
This was going to be fun.
Cassandra rolled her eyes. "Fun she says," the Seeker grumbled. "Can we dispense with the tedious justifications for your actions and continue?"
The shameless elf flashed the Seeker an unrepentant grin, but resumed her tale without comment.
The next three hours were filled with intense, concentrated fun. Just after the sun had set, we hurtled away from the mansion, the carriage rocking wildly in our haste. We were on our way back to the capital well ahead of schedule, since our visit had been cut dramatically short.
Aedan and Pickering drove, struggling to keep the carriage on the road. Teagan, Shadow and I braced ourselves within. Shadow in particular had trouble as he slid around on the polished wooden floor to the sound of scraping claws and confused whines.
I pushed my sack of liberated goodies into one corner. "On the positive side," I said aloud, feeling uncomfortably defensive, "we're probably in less danger of being ambushed on our way back now. The early end to the party would probably catch out anyone with orders to attack us at a specific time. And everyone for miles will be coming to watch the show." I winced as we hit a bump and were jolted up off our seats.
The hatch lid on the sideboard flipped open and some bottles clinked. I looked inside, noting that one dark bottle had fractured and was frothing through the crack near the cork.
Teagan took a firm grip of the window frame and bravely stuck his head out of the carriage. He looked back at the enormous mansion – one wing entirely engulfed in flames and hundreds of people panicking, screaming and running about on the lawns. I thought the bright fire illuminated the surrounding lands quite prettily. After a few seconds, he returned to his seat. "I have… no words," he mumbled, shaking his head.
Shadow shuffled forward in the rocking carriage and licked the back of Teagan's hand.
I pulled the almost-open bottle out and wordlessly offered it to him. He gave me a look. I shrugged and pushed the cork out myself. It popped, and fizz overflowed. Shadow looked at the foamy substance curiously as I licked it from my fingers.
"I wouldn't," Teagan warned the mabari.
A thumping on the outside of the carriage drew my attention. "Kathryn!" Aedan called.
I stood a little unsteadily and pushed back the velvet covering of the hole in the roof of the carriage. I stuck my head through and looked at the pair. He and Pickering seemed to have everything under control. At least, as under control as two men could have a team of four horses running at a gallop in twilight along a bumpy road.
"Champagne?" I asked, offering them the foaming bottle.
Pickering snorted into his hand. Aedan glared at me. "We're in the middle of a chase, Kathryn!"
I looked at the bottle. "You're right. Something red."
"Focus Kathryn! We need help, not wine!"
"What help could I possibly give you?" I asked, tossing the probably priceless bottle out into the night.
Pickering cursed inventively as he swerved to avoid a pothole. The gloom and flickering shadows made the path ahead look quite eerie. "Can you magic us some light?" he begged. "Like you did when we left the Circle that time?"
I swallowed at the memory. "Yes, but you didn't have a mage with you when you arrived," I pointed out. "If someone sees us leaving in a cloud of magical sprites, it's probably going to make some people suspicious about the cause of that fire back there."
"I think there's probably going to be some questions asked about it anyway, Kathryn," Aedan snapped, forcibly pulling the reins from Pickering and directing the galloping horses around a curve.
I grunted as I was shoved into the side of the carriage by the sudden change in direction. "They can't prove a mage started the fire. Look, just slow down. No one's chasing us."
"Are you sure?" he demanded. "Because without our honour guard, we're pretty exposed."
"Aedan, those boys were never going to be of any use," I pointed out. "They practically wet themselves when they were ordered to help evacuate the mansion. Anyway, I promise you that if we're attacked, I won't leave witnesses. I promise I won't even leave enough for anyone curious to identify the bodies."
He hissed in frustration, but pulled back on the reins. "Fine. Tell me all this was worth what you found."
"All this was worth what I found," I replied, deadpan.
Pickering gave an aborted snort.
"I wish I could believe that," Aedan muttered, looking down at his clothes. The puffy sleeves were torn, several buttons were missing and I could see the colourful fabric marked with soot even in the dim light.
"Me too," I said. "There was nothing of value I could find."
Both men turned to gape at me. "What?" they blurted in unison.
"I grabbed a bunch of documents, but they were all in Orlesian. I don't read it quickly enough to make out what was important, so I grabbed the lot. It all looked important though."
"Why would you steal documents?" Pickering asked.
"Because they were under more security than Rendon Howe's silver," I retorted. "I figured anything protected by magical barriers, locks and traps was probably worth something, even if it was just reading material."
Aedan glared at me, aghast. "I assumed you invited yourself along because you were going to steal gold or, or, jewels or, or something! Anything that we could turn into the Imperials we need. I even had a speech prepared for when we were searched where I plausibly denied knowing anything about your adventures."
I tried shrugging, but it was hard to do with your hands holding the sides of a hole you were sticking your head through. "That was my intention, yes. But seriously, for all the trappings of wealth in that place, there wasn't a lot in the way of actual valuables. Most of it was around the necks, wrists and fingers of the guests."
Pickering snickered. I noted that his pockets had oddly shaped bulges; they were probably filled with several items skilfully taken from the panicking guests.
"The Marquise of Salmont is one of the wealthiest nobles in Orlais," Aedan insisted.
"Well, either she hides her riches really well, or she's on the verge of bankruptcy."
Aedan looked past me and winced. "Damn it."
I turned my head. Even from this distance I could clearly see that the fire had spread to the other wing of the Marquise's home. "Whoops! I mean, oh dear, what a shame."
Aedan glared at me. "Did you have to set fire to the place?"
"Of course not."
"Then why d-"
"It was entirely voluntary."
"Kathryn," he whined over Pickering's muffled amusement. I wondered just how many ways I could get him to say my name.
"What? Technically it wasn't even me who actually started the fire. Some idiot tried to brain me with a lit torch and hit a tapestry when I dodged."
He half turned and gave me an appraising look. Just like his brother, he proved far too shrewd. "Okay, you didn't start it... Did you have anything to do with how fast it spread?"
I coughed, and decided to try and change the subject. "I didn't realise that tapestries would go up so quickly and anyway, it's not like you or Teagan are going to be blamed. You're a hero. Everyone saw how you saved that Comtesse. She seemed rather pleased with you too."
"Her husband wasn't," Pickering offered over his shoulder with a grin large enough to be visible even in the low light.
"Shush! Stop encouraging her," Aedan snapped at him before turning back to me. "And don't change the subject!"
I grinned at him. "Do you think that the Comte was so grumpy because he was shown to be a coward or because you got the sort of searing kiss from his wife that he hasn't experienced in twenty years?"
Aedan coughed and unconsciously wiped his mouth with a sooty sleeve. "Her emotions got the better of her; that was all."
"If Alfstanna had been there, she'd have gutted her," I teased.
He pointed at me, his hand trembling with righteous indignation. "You will never, ever mention the events of this night to my bride," Aedan snapped. "I mean it."
"Hmm, having blackmail material on a Teyrn sounds profitable," I teased.
He glared at me before turning back to the road ahead. "If you want to do something productive, take Shadow and scout ahead. He doesn't sound as though he's enjoying the ride, and if there is anyone out there, we're terribly exposed."
There were people out there; people with less than savoury motives. Fortunately, the sight of an expensive building merrily burning off in the distance drew a few of the less cautious from their otherwise neat hiding spots. It made spotting them much easier.
Whenever we found a group, I raised my muzzle and howled to warn Pickering to stop. I then made liberal use of the basic Keeper spells Velanna had taught me, turning the flora and fauna against the ambushers without them seeing me. The spell effects were distracting more than deadly, but having the landscape suddenly come writhing to life around you in near darkness was bad for unit discipline and bladder control.
Two howls was the signal that it was safe to continue. It was easier to sneak past confused, panicking and fleeing individuals than a united squad. Shadow seemed a bit disconsolate that he didn't get a chance to chase down the terrorized men as they bolted from the living landscape. We loped a half mile or so ahead of the carriage; still within earshot and close enough that we could return swiftly if needed.
It wasn't needed. We found the danger ourselves.
Our ears and noses detected several individuals lying in a ditch on the side of the road, about twenty yards or so before a blind bend. Around the bend we could hear several voices muttering in Orlesian. I could hear several more on the other side of the road, hidden in the dense foliage.
Shadow looked at me, his hackled raised. His enormous teeth and midnight-black coat gave him a demonic air at night.
I raised my head and howled a warning before lying down on the road. I returned to my elf form still on my stomach. "Go back," I whispered at Shadow.
He growled, deep and low at me, clearly disagreeing.
I rolled my eyes. "Fine. Well then, stay back." I glanced back along the road. We'd just crested and descended a small rise; it was a good site for an ambush. The small hill prevented anyone on the other side from seeing the ambush site until very close. It also covered me from the noble eyes following us. So long as the carriage stayed back there, they wouldn't see me take care of things.
Oghren once told me that the better you get with swinging a hammer, the more every problem starts to look like a nail. I could launch a magical attack that, in all probability, would have destroyed the ambush. But I was not wearing armour, and a stray crossbow bolt had the potential to make my night very, very short.
Or, I could use another ability to smash this nail.
I struggled out of my robe, a difficult chore when lying on your stomach. Once I was naked, I cast the shapeshifting spell.
It was glorious to assume my archdemon form once again. My long serpentine neck was perfect for angling my head to deal a long sustained blast of fire into the middle of the ambusher nests on either side of the road.
The screams did not last long.
They did however last long enough to draw attention from the group around the blind bend. A few dozen men armed with crossbows charged around the corner only to recoil in terror at the sight of a gigantic dragon illuminated by burning foliage on either side.
I charged at them, around the bend.
To my immense amusement, several of the fleeing ambushers got their clothes caught up on the sharpened stakes along the temporary barrier they'd erected across the road. The sprier individuals among them had managed to clear it in a single bound, but even the fleetest were anable to flee a glob of fiery draconic sputum.
With uneven ground to cover and an enemy that looked down on them from thirty feet, not a single man managed to flee the effective range of my breath. After a few moments of scanning the nearby countryside, I concluded that I'd eliminated the entire force. With eyes the size of serving platters, night was like a heavily overcast day to me.
As an afterthought, I backhanded the barrier. The wooden structure, sturdy enough to stop a runaway carriage, scattered under my strike like a flimsy model.
I shimmered back to my elf form, feeling even more diminutive than usual. The cool night air gave my skin goosebumps.
Startled curses from back along the road drew my attention. Fortunately, the carriage was still behind the blind bend – my change of form had not been spotted. Unfortunately, my clothes were back there on the road.
I really needed my archdemon armour back. Without some scales or wing membrane to attach to my clothes, I couldn't wear them and change to my draconic form.
I shimmered back into my mabari form to return to my companions. I loped around the bend, quickly closing the distance between us.
The carriage had reached the bottom of the small hill. Aedan and Pickering jumped down from the driver's seat as I reached my clothes. "Merciful Maker," he wheezed, staring at the stretches of burning foliage on either side of the road.
Shadow slithered back to him, crawling so low his belly was practically dragging along the ground. He whined and shivered.
I shifted back to my elf form and snatched up my clothes. Aedan and Pickering both spun around to face away from me, coughing and apologising profusely.
I started dressing. "You were supposed to wait for two howls before continuing on," I snapped.
"We heard the screams and saw the landscape just light up," Aedan justified, still looking away. "Then the ground started shaking. We thought if you were doing so much magic, we should aid you."
"How insulting. Do you think I want you putting yourself in danger?" I asked, hypocritically feeling rather satisfied that he'd done so. I looked down at his feet. "Shadow wants your attention," I noted.
"What is it, boy?" Aedan asked, suddenly more worried about his hound than the fact that two score of ambushers were merrily burning around him. Shadow yelped and whined, looking as though he was trying to decide if running or staying behind his master would be less terrifying.
"I think I gave him a fright," I said easily. "You can turn around now."
They turned, and breathed a sigh of relief on seeing I was dressed. Teagan staggered out of the carriage, gaping at the fires burning on either side of the road. "Maker's breath! What happened here?" he asked.
"There are – were – ambushers there, and there," I said, gesturing to each side. "From the way they were arrayed I concluded that they were going to let us pass, and then block us from running once we hit the barricade around the corner."
"There's more around the corner?"
I shook my head happily. "Not any more."
"I told you she wasn't exaggerating, my lord," Pickering said to Aedan.
Aedan put a hand to his head. "I need a drink."
"I offered," I reminded him.
The rest of the trip was much less exciting. Shadow wanted nothing to do with me, so I was obliged to scout ahead myself. Still, we made it back to Val Royeaux without having to resort to setting any more of the countryside alight.
It was quite difficult to tell who knew about the ambush. The only surprise the servants showed was that we'd returned so early. A couple of the minor nobles looked a bit put out that we had returned hale and whole, if a bit sooty.
I left Aedan and Teagan to their devices and wandered back to the apartments. William was still up, immaculately dressed and a cup of piping tea in his hand. He delicately placed the china cup back on its saucer, daubed his upper lip and moustache with a napkin, and rose to his feet.
"Your early return is encouraging, Arlessa Kathryn," he said to my doggy form. "I trust all members of the entourage are in a similarly unharmed state."
I shimmered back. "Yes, though Shadow is a bit scared of me now. He watched me turn an ambush of fifty or so soldiers into a pile of cinders and took fright."
William paled slightly. He managed a weak, "I am not surprised."
"Oh, I have something for you." I pulled out the sack I used when transporting things while shifted into another form. It had taken me a few hours to get it clean after carrying three heads in it, but it was now perfectly suitable to carry around several small wooden boxes full of vellum and parchment. "This is everything that was secured in the vault at Salmont's house. As it wasn't gold, I was quite intrigued as to what could be so valuable about it. So here it is."
"The treaty negotiations are my first priority, Arlessa Kathryn."
"They might be delayed somewhat. Until some more people are appointed for you to verbally fence with. Many of your counterparts succumbed to the most incredible bad luck."
"Oh?" he said neutrally.
I nodded mournfully. "Yes. They were all in a room at Salmont's party plotting and scheming when the place broke out in flames and they were overcome by smoke. Someone had incautiously locked the door from the inside, which made rescuing them difficult."
"Ah," he said tactfully. "I take it their misfortune had some assistance?"
"I refuse to answer on the grounds that I can't be bothered to make up a believable lie. While you wait for the Empress to decide who will take over for them, I'd like you to review all this to see what was so damned important."
William sighed as he looked at the scale of the task before him.
"Not to worry," I said. "I've got an assistant for you."
He looked up at me serenely. "Young Master Connor, I take it?"
I wrinkled my nose at him. "You're not as fun as people who are surprised when I spring things on them."
He appeared pleased with that. "Despite my name, Arlessa Kathryn, I have never felt the need to lark about. Life is serious."
"I'll make you smile yet," I said with a grin. "In the meantime, I'll send Connor around to help. He's fluent in Orlesian."
"Thank you, Arlessa Kathryn."
Connor was a little dejected when told that he was going to be spending the foreseeable future going over a pile of documents instead of exploring the palace. He gave me an ungracious look as I put on my fur coat and went to bed in front of the fireplace. It had been a long day.
Connor's mood changed dramatically in the next few hours. I was pulled from my slumber in the early hours of the morning by the breathless teen.
"You're not going to believe this!" he said, his excitement evident even in his husky whisper.
"Probably not," I replied around a yawn. "Try me."
"William thinks that the Orlesians really need to go to war with us."
I rubbed sleep from my eyes. "Need? Or Want?"
"Need. Actually, it's only some of the noble families that need the war. But collectively they have a lot of influence."
I blinked as the import of what he said struck. "What in Andraste's name is in those documents?"
Connor actually rubbed his hands together. "Invoices. Accounts. Contracts. And it's not surprising that there were so many ambushes set for you."
"Lay it out for me," I ordered. "I'm not going to be able to guess."
Lay it out for me he did. The Marquise of Salmont was in trouble. She had wagered heavily on the invasion of Ferelden being successful. A lot of her gold had been put into financing the army, and in return Celene had pledged to her control of quite a lot of Ferelden; most of the Bannorn, and quite a bit of Fergus' teyrnir. Including, most offensively, my entire arling.
But the Marquise was in trouble with what Connor described as 'promises'. Promises to supply things. Not just things for the army, but to merchant organisations in just about every country along the north coast of the Waking Sea.
Some of the promises were made only in her name. However, the sheer scope of the scheme precluded one individual from running it solo. Over two thirds of the agreements were made in conjunction with other Orlesian nobles as co-suppliers.
I never thought I'd even want Woolsey nearby, but she'd be able to make sense of it in a heartbeat. Salmont had 'promised' to supply people and organisations with food for the next several decades at a set price. Food that would have to come from Ferelden. But without the ready gold to secure such lucrative agreements, she had pledged some of her own land assets as collateral should she not make good on the deal.
But from what Connor and William could make out, she and her fellow syndicate members had given the same land as security to many different creditors.
Had the invasion of Ferelden been successful, she and her friends would have been swimming in gold for the next generation or so. She would effectively become part-owner of a good third of Ferelden, without the pesky requirement to spend her money maintaining it. She would have the income of a teryn and no need to pay tax.
The people of Ferelden would be little more than starving wretches. I knew enough about the farming capabilities of my arling to know that in order to fulfil the promises she'd made, the Marquise would need to confiscate at least four-fifths of the output of the land. Probably more.
So she needed the invasion to happen. She needed the negotiations to fail.
She needed Aedan or Teagan to die. Or both.
"This is a big problem," Aedan said as he paced up and down the length of our apartment. "There is no way the Marquise and her syndicate would allow the treaty between Ferelden and Orlais to be signed. No matter what restitution we offered."
I still snarled at the idea that Ferelden needed to pay restitution for being invaded. It was only my sound-cancelling barrier that gave us the freedom to speak about this in such an open way. "Maybe they need to start having accidents."
William winced, and Teagan gasped, but Aedan glared at me. "Any more accidents and even the most naïve would become suspicious of us. Our purpose is to broker a peace agreement, Kathryn, not start butchering Orlesian nobles."
"Would the former not follow the latter?"
"No! It would just plunge us into so much suspicion that we could not function! I told you before we arrived that I would not permit you to do anything that would destabilise these negotiations!"
I frowned. "Exactly what are the negotiations accomplishing at this point? We know now that the restitution demands have been made specifically to prevent an agreement from being reached. You can sit behind your need to perform your duty all you like, but it doesn't change reality."
"If I may," William interjected calmly, "I believe drawing out the negotiations may in fact work in our favour."
I frowned. "What do you mean?"
Aedan gave him a sour look. "He means that the longer we take, the shriller Salmont and her cronies will become. They will fail to supply the first tranche of their promises if Orlais delays too much longer in occupying Ferelden. If the invasion does not happen before winter, it will be months before it could feasibly happen again. They would miss the next season's harvest."
"Wouldn't it also put you in more danger?"
Teagan chuckled. "Quite so. As invigorating as last night's adventures were, I much prefer the comparatively safer environment of a Landsmeet."
"I killed Ser Cauthrien and half a dozen soldiers at my first Landsmeet before I blasted Loghain into submission," I pointed out. "They're not all that safe."
Teagan and Aedan shared a pained look. "Outliers exist, I'll grant you," Aedan said. "But most are not that exciting."
From their expressions, I deduced that this was one of those 'mistakes' that Zevran told me I kept making. The ones that everyone didn't tell me I was wrong.
"In any event, we must decide how to proceed," the voice of reason said.
"What do you suggest, William?" Teagan asked.
The fussy little man tapped one of the piles of document in front of him. "The significant pressure for war can be counterbalanced. Traditionally, this is done by raising the costs of war – both in fiduciary and manpower terms. If Ferelden was to make the cost of the invasion too high for the Empress, no amount of pressure would persuade her to restart the war."
I rubbed my bald head as the men debated the best way forward. Whenever I hear the word 'traditionally', I always went looking for the untraditional. Raising the cost of the invasion was Alistair's job. I'd had a great deal of success during the Blight by taking the resources of others and making them my own.
But it occurred to me that you could indirectly raise the cost of an invasion not just by reducing the ability to pay for it, but by increasing the importance of spending coin elsewhere.
A thought occurred; one that brought a grin to my face. Celene was all about appearances. She needed to show how strong she was. Maintaining her lofty position was more important to her than just about anything. Including enriching her nobles.
"Excuse me, gentlemen," I interrupted, rising to my feet. "Could I borrow Pickering? I'll take him and Connor for a walk while you work out our best strategy."
Both my boys were enthusiastic for my plan, once I'd spelled it out. I glossed over some of the details with Pick; he didn't need to know exactly how deep under the bedrock we'd be going.
Pickering had learned from Zevran well. Dressed in dark greens and greys, the self-proclaimed gutter rat from Tanner's Lane had developed remarkable stealth skills. In the time since I'd spotted him in a Denerim mess hall, he had studied with one of the most skilled killers in Thedas, he'd stalked demons in the Fade, fought assassins and templars both, and he'd moved undetected through Orlesian military camps and assassinated its officers.
He was developing nicely into a very dangerous individual. I was sorely tempted to just recruit him and deal with Alistair's attitude later.
While Connor and I had an unfair advantage over him when it came to stealth, he still drifted past guards as silent as a shadow. In my experience, it was the guards at the front door who were the alert ones. Once you got past that, they tended towards apathy.
Remaining alert while standing guard for twelve hours at night would test even the strong-willed individual. We passed more than one who'd mastered the art of sleeping while standing up, though most of them only managed it by leaning against a handy wall.
With the ability to send two mice ahead to scout, or scurry under doors to unlock from the other side, we were unstoppable on our way down into the bowels of the Imperial Palace. Of course, it helped immeasurably that we were actually inside the palace to begin with.
The secure wing of the Imperial Palace was built deep into bedrock. There was evidence of dwarvern excavation techniques on the walls – polish smooth with waves of different coloured strata.
The guards around the Imperial Treasury were somewhat more alert than usual. While Pick waited back a ways, Connor and I scurried about and observed them for a couple of hours; I planned out the best route to take. Guards with epaulettes patrolled the area at irregular intervals, keeping everyone on their toes.
There was even a pair of mages on duty in the guardroom. They'd need to be neutralised first.
We were systematic about it. We regrouped, and moved with conviction. Connor and I resumed our forms and cast a pair of spells from just outside the door of the guardroom. He cast a spell of sleep, which caught most of the inhabitants. I tossed the mage-killer spell I'd stolen from Irving's study, which caught the two mages.
They didn't even get a chance to scream.
Pickering rushed through first and set about smashing each guard over the head with a rock. Connor joined in, seeming to light up. It was a sight that disturbed me, but not one I could spare the time to deal with.
We wasted no time in moving on. The alarm would be raised soon, no matter how silent we were.
Still, we could delay that by killing each guard we came across. Instead of weapons that left distinctive wounds, we stunned, paralysed or incapacitated and then brained with a rock.
The treasury itself was split into several sections, each designed to securely hold different valuables. One coin vault had relatively light security and was clearly used to store money earmarked for operational expenses, if the log book of visitors and transactions was anything to go by. I didn't get too much blood on the pages, but I nicked it anyway. It might have useful information.
I swept an armful of gold and silver into my bag before shifting back into a mouse and moving on.
While Connor and Pickering pro-actively hunted down the patrolling guards, I squeezed under doors and through cracks into the vaults. There was surprisingly little gold, but there was a lot of artwork was stored here, I pocketed a few of the smaller pieces crafted from precious metals or jewels.
One vault had three guards. I discovered they were unsuccessfully guarding a jewellery box the size of a house. Rings, bracelets, tiaras and necklaces were all laid out in cases of lacquered cherry-wood and mahogany.
An enormous diamond, sapphire and purple velvet crown took centre stage on a silver stand. I couldn't help myself. Despite the iconic crown being embossed upon each and every Orlesian gold Imperial coin in existence, it went into my bag. I snaffled the rest of the set as well; the earrings would suit my colouring nicely. And I could use the sceptre as a mace in a pinch.
Since jewellery was, weight for weight, far more valuable than most things, I spent quite some time picking up the best of the lot. As this was the Imperial treasury, there was a lot of 'best'.
Eventually, some truncated shouts of alarm echoed throughout the passages. Despite not having grabbed even a tenth of the wealth down here, I grabbed my co-conspirators and we scurried away. Both boys fairly clinked as they walked, proving that they had taken the opportunity to inflict some much needed economic warfare of their own upon the Empress.
Once we were at the point where the corridor descended into bedrock, I stopped. With my magic enhanced by staff and spell, I called forth the most powerful earthquake I could muster, centred deep below the vaults we'd just visited. As I told Fergus months back, the spell could bring down walls in a jiffy, but the noise and excitement was just beginning.
"You created the earthquake?" Gaylen blurted.
Kathryn shrugged modestly. "Yep."
Gaylen shook his head. "But… we were commissioned to examine it. It had to be natural."
Kathryn looked blankly at the man. "I'm sorry, you were what?" she snapped.
Gaylen shrank back, glancing at Cassandra for reassurance. At her nod he cleared his throat. "Um, there were some suspicions that the earthquake could have been magical in origin. I was part of a three mage committee from the Val Royeaux Circle that determined that it was far too powerful to have been cast by a mage."
"Really? Wouldn't a real earthquake do a lot more damage over a wider area?"
Gaylen swallowed. "Yes. But as localised as the earthquake was, it was far more powerful than any mage could produce. Any group of mages too."
"I've always had an affinity for the elements. An earthquake spell on open soil makes it difficult for your enemies to keep their feet. The same spell cast on bedrock will bring a building down. Cast that spell well below the bedrock though…"
Gaylen almost quivered. "Just how powerful are you?"
Leliana laughed like a bell. "I have yet to hear a story of her exploits that I did not believe."
Kathryn gave him a smile. "Relax Gaylen. The dwarfs know more about earthquakes than all the Circles put together. Dagna and I were once talking about the difference between a real earthquake and the spell that mimics one. I didn't just cast the spell on top of the bedrock, I targeted an area as deep down into the rock as I could. That makes all the difference."
Cassandra filled her wine glass again. "I had assumed you used your mouse form to scout out and steal the Imperial Coronation Jewels at some time after the earthquake."
The elf snorted. "Nope. Uncountable people scoured the site after we robbed the treasury. More than a hundred were hanged during the efforts to clear the debris for supposedly stealing the valuables beneath the rubble."
"That didn't stop the reckless and desperate from attempting it," Leliana said sadly.
Kathryn shrugged. "True. At any rate, the adventure was a success. The bodies of the guards they pulled out were found without wounds made by weapons, and with all the thieves doing their damnedest to take the score of a lifetime, no one suspected the Ferelden contingent.
Cassandra sighed and sipped her wine. "And then the peace treaty was signed."
The elf gave her a sour look. "It wasn't quite so simple. True, Celene felt that having a partially ruined palace didn't lend her the level of gravitas she had come to expect. And yes, she ordered most of the engineers in the army back to Val Royeaux and diverted funds to repairing the building. But with tons of rubble on top of the gold, many people were nervous that they wouldn't be paid on time. Suddenly, the offer of gold from Aedan looked a lot more attractive."
Teagan absently scratched my ears, and I discovered just why Thunder was so keen for it.
Aedan scratched Shadow's too, nodding in appreciation at the chaos. "Half the Imperial Palace is uninhabitable," he said.
Teagan hummed an agreement. "Mmhmm. I am pleasantly surprised that our apartments were not too badly affected."
That was true. Even in the parts of the palace still standing, many marble statues were lying in boxes, their pieces collected by weeping curators. Portraits had fallen, arimores had tipped, windows had cracked and shattered.
Glaziers throughout Val Royeaux were ebullient in their thanks to the Maker for their luck. I mentally wished them luck, but I really needed to go and visit Oghren.
I got a number of odd looks as I left the Palace compound with a rolled note held in my teeth. A number of the guards appeared to consider the merits of stopping me and examining vellum roll, but a deep growl instilled some caution among those who approached me.
I trotted through Val Royeaux towards the Grey Warden compound. I dodged some persistent tails along the way before arriving at the front gate. The guard on duty noted my presence but didn't move.
I gave a muffled whuff past the note in my mouth.
He ignored me.
I sat down and stared at him.
He shifted a bit.
I didn't move.
He cleared his throat and asked in Orlesian, "Is that letter for the Wardens?"
Remembering Oghren's introduction of me to Stroud, where he said that I didn't understand the local language, I looked pointedly at the door before returning my gaze to him.
He reached down to take the note from my mouth. I growled, deep and long.
He drew back quickly. After a tense moment he pointed at the door and said, "You need to give it to me. I'll take it in."
I stared at him, unmoving.
He scratched at his neck uncertainly, but came to a decision. He rapped a couple of times on the main door. A moment later a slot was pulled back and a pair of eyes glanced out at him.
A quick conversation took place, and the door opened. A female warrior looked me over. "Is your letter for Oghren Kondrat?" she asked in heavily accented Ferelden.
I gave another muffled whuff of agreement and rose to my feet.
She gave a soft chuckle and opened the door. "This is Oghren's hound," she explained in Orlesian to the guard. "She doesn't understand us when we do not speak the Ferelden tongue."
I gave the guard a tail wag before trotting through the door.
"Oghren is this way," the woman said, pointing towards the central square where the Wardens trained.
She led me there. A score or so of onlookers watched as Oghren led half a dozen Wardens in attacking padded wooden dummies with two-handed axes. My friend critiqued their techniques as he went. One chap got it exactly right, and managed to lop off his dummy's head in one swipe, cleaving through eight inches of wood. The assembled crowd cheered. I fought back the urge to join in. It was a very impressive strike.
"Oghren! You have a visitor!"
My friend turned and grinned when he spotted me. "Aye, be right with ya!" He gave his group some last words of encouragement and then strolled over to me.
I wagged my tail and held the letter up.
"Cheers," he said, accepting the rolled vellum. "Wasn't expecting to get called for a while yet." He broke the seal and read the short note. Without changing expression, he said, "Okay, come on. My room is this way."
The woman who'd escorted me frowned. "Is something wrong, Brother?"
Oghren shook his head. "Nope, I just need to get something from my kit."
She accepted that, and we made our way back into the building and towards the barracks.
Oghren had a room to himself rather than a bunk in the barracks, in deference to his Warden rank and accomplishments. Once the door was closed I shimmered back into my elf form and dropped the heavy, bulging sack to the ground. It made a lovely metallic sound.
"Good to see you again, Kat," he said, giving me a rib-crushing hug. "How've you been?"
I returned the embrace. "I've been having fun. In the last few days I've burned down a noble's mansion and destroyed half the Imperial Palace. You?"
He groaned theatrically. "That was you? Ah, I'm an idiot, of course it was you. Sodding elf, I thought I was having a good time here. You really put having fun into perspective."
I grinned at him and opened the sack. "I got you a gift."
"I would have preferred to join in your fun," he complained.
"No doubt. But I haven't had a chance to thank you for your little interruption. It was perfect, by the way, beyond even my expectations."
He grinned. "Heh, heh, thought you'd like it."
"Well, since you went above and beyond, I figured I needed to get you an extra-special gift. Here you go," I said, presenting him with a velvet bundle. "Do you think Felsi will like it?"
He pulled back the velvet covering. His eyes bulged. "Like it? By the stones of my ancestors, she'll never take it off! That's a piece and a half and no mistake!" he said, carefully taking the enormous necklace out from the velvet. "Felsi will tie me to the bed for days when we get back. Where did you find it?"
I gave a shrug. "Oh, just lying around."
"Really?" he asked in a voice oozing disbelief.
"Yup. Honestly. It was just lying around in the Imperial Treasury where anyone could have found it."
Oghren gave a half-cough, half-laugh. "Oh that's brilliant. I'll have to keep it in the bottom of my pack until we get home, but damn me if it's not the most amazing necklace I've ever seen." He replaced it on the velvet and wrapped it again.
I grinned at the dwarvish peccadillo for ostentatious jewellery. "What do you think I should do with this then?" I asked, pulling out the crown.
Since I'd given away the fact I'd browsed the Imperial Treasury, he wasn't surprised at the sight of the crown. "Heh, we're going to have a rough time of it getting out of the country with these things in our packs."
"That and all the rest," I said, showing him the contents of the sack. It was filled almost to bursting with jewellery I'd purloined from the vaults below the palace.
He gave an appreciative whistle. "That's a lot of sparkly stuff. It's all pretty recognisable though. Anyone trying to fence those is going to have a hard time of it."
I nodded. "I know. I was wondering if you knew enough about smithing to pop the stones out and recast the metal into ingots."
He blinked. "Er, I suppose. I know the theory, but I've only ever used a forge to do basic repairs to weapons and armour."
"I just need to know if you can do it."
He shrugged. "I can give it a shot. You'll lose at least half the value though."
I snorted. "They're not worth anything if there are no buyers. And anyone trying to sell this lot will have every guardsman and footpad on his back within a minute. We can sell individual stones for a reasonable amount ere and there, but the metal in bars would be untraceable. I need to be able to change this into coin. Quickly."
He looked at me oddly. "What do you need money for? You could swim in the gold you've got back at Soldier's Peak."
"Oh, yeah, you wouldn't know. The Orlesians are demanding restitution from us."
There was a long silent moment. "Come again?" he said in disbelief.
I made a face. "That was my reaction too. Cutting through the bullshit, the Orlesians don't want a peace treaty. They demanded restitution to make the negotiations fail. If we can get a few thousand Imperials, we can trick them into signing a treaty and not cost Alistair a copper."
"Nice," he said appreciatively.
I grinned at him. "Yeah, well, we need to do something. Celene has given away our arling to the noble whose house I burned down. A lot of nobles want the invasion to go ahead. I had to give her reason to accept an offer in the face of her objecting court, so I visited her treasury and knocked half the palace down.
Oghren looked down at the sack. "So you robbed the Empress to pay her stupid demand? Apart from Chrys calling me 'Da', that is the most beautiful thing I've ever heard."
"I liked it."
He punched my shoulder. "Of course you did. Leave it with me. I'll check out the forge here to see if I can use it."
"Why wouldn't the Wardens let you use it?"
"I don't mean let me use it. I need to see if the forge they have is suitable for casting. I will probably have to go to the market tomorrow and pick up some specialised tools and some casts for the bars, but I can have the gems out of the metal tonight."
"Thanks Oghren. You got everything you need?"
"Aye. Just let me know the next time you're going to have some fun, yeah?"
AN: So sorry for the delay in this chapter. Writing about economic schemes is a difficult balance – too simple and it makes it unbelievable, too complex and the story becomes tedious to read (and write). I've given up and just posting what I had. Hope it's not too bad.
Thanks to all my reviewers. I still get a shiver when I get a review months after the last chapter was posted.