Chapter Twenty-One

Shepard read the passage again, a faint frown creasing her face and causing the glow of the implants under her skin to become more pronounced.

When the Ashkaari looked upon the destruction wrought by locusts,
He saw at last the order in the world.
A plague must cause suffering for as long as it endures,
Earthquakes must shatter the land.
They are bound by their being.
Asit tal-eb. It is to be.
For the world and the self are one.
Existence is a choice.
A self of suffering, brings only suffering to the world.
It is a choice, and we can refuse it.

She set the slender volume down, chewing on her bottom lip as she thought about the words.

Shepard had been mildly surprised to find that the tenets of the qunari philosophy were couched both elegantly and enigmatically in lines that read more like verse than doctrine. Deciphering the meaning behind the words took thought and introspection.

A fighter by nature and inclination, Shepard found the words both strangely attractive and utterly abhorent. Attractive, for they seemed to hint at a kind of inner knowledge and peace she'd rarely known; abhorent for their terrible fatalism. While it may be true that the earthquake must shatter the land, Shepard refused to accept that there was any reason not to do everything in her power to minimize the damage. And as far as plagues went, Shepard's mind couldn't help conjuring the image of one scientist salarian. Mordin would say you don't endure a plague, you cure it. Possibly studying it closely to assess any potential use in future as a bioweapon, granted, but also with an eye toward vaccinations, treatment plans, and strict containment.

No. Shepard was many things - a realist, she would say, bordering on the cynical; others might call her a pessimist - but a fatalist she was not.

She sighed, and picked up the book once more.

A knock at the door interrupted her before she could delve once again into the pages.

"Shepard?" called a voice.

"Come in, Merrill."

"How do you always know it's me?" the elven mage asked curiously as she entered.

"Magic," replied Shepard.

Merrill frowned. "What kind of magic is that then? I thought you couldn't use mag…" she stopped as she caught sight of Shepard's smile. "Oh. You were being sarcastic, weren't you?"

Shepard's smile widened. "I recognized your voice, Merrill."

"Of course," the elf said with embarrassment. "I should have…" she trailed off. "Hawke wants to see you."

"Let me guess…" Shepard said with wry humor, "she's off on a new adventure that I'm absolutely going to love, right up until the time it gets me killed."

"Really?" Merrill asked, eyes wide. "All she told me was that she had something for you."

Shepard laughed, and got to her feet, smoothing the fabric of her new clothing. It wasn't quite what she was used to, but a far cry closer than Hawke's castoffs, with the added bonus that these were made to fit her taller frame. One thing Shepard's unexpected sojourn in Thedas had given her was an appreciation for bespoke tailoring. She'd never realized what a difference it made to have clothing specifically crafted for you. Even her armor had always been modular, designed to fit a myriad of body shapes within a specific size range.

If I ever get back, I swear I'm going to have all my clothes custom-made - armor too. I think the galaxy owes me that much.

She carried the book into the bedroom, and locked it carefully in the chest with her armor.

Still need to find some more corundum. That chestpiece is going to need it.

Shepard turned away from the chest and its contents and crossed back out to the apartment door.

"Are you coming with me?" she asked Merrill.

The elf shook her head. "No. I have to get back home. I've got… things… to do."

Shepard gave the elf a sharp look at her suddenly evasive tone, but Merrill didn't seem to notice. Mostly because she was doing her best to look anywhere but Shepard.

Whatever she's doing, she doesn't want me to know about it. Me specifically, or anyone in general. And she's a terrible liar.

Shepard studied the elven girl for a moment and then shrugged. "All right."

The locks on the door were crude, even with Isabela and Hawke's upgrades, but they were better than nothing, Shepard supposed. She made sure they were all fastened and latched, and then followed Merrill out to the shady courtyard.

"Dareth shiral, Shepard," said Merrill, with a little wave over her shoulder as she turned toward the building that housed her apartment.

"I'll see you later, Merrill," Shepard replied.

-ooo-

"Good morning, messere," Bodahn greeted Shepard, ushering her into the entry foyer of Hawke's estate. He eyed the gashes on her face with a worried frown. "I hope you were well enough to come?"

Shepard's fingers drifted to the wounds. "I'm fine," she assured the dwarven manservant. "My face… doesn't always heal so well."

Bodahn gave her an if you say so look, and led her in the direction of a door near the stairs. "Messere Hawke is in the library with Guard Captain Aveline," he informed her, waving her through.

"Thanks, Bodahn." Shepard gave him a polite nod.

Aveline appeared to have been pacing, but stopped when she heard the door open.

"Ah," she said, folding her heavily armored arms over her even more impressively armored chest. "If it isn't public enemy number two."

Shepard's eyebrows jumped toward her hairline. "I'm a public enemy now?"

"And right in line behind me," said Hawke with a smile. "I'm so proud I could just burst."

Aveline ignored them both. "I've heard about your little massacre in the alienage," the Guard Captain said. "Would you care to explain?"

Her voice was stern, but Shepard had a lifetime of reading people. She could see a suppressed smile in the way the corners of Aveline's blue-grey eyes turned up.

Shepard decided to play along, mirroring the Guard Captain's pose and schooling her voice into neutrality. "There were hardly enough of them to make it a massacre," she said dryly. "But if you'd like, I could arrange something on a more suitable scale."

Aveline gave a bark of laughter and dropped her hands. "To hear my men tell it, it was forty men and a mabari*."

Shepard shook her head. "There weren't more than a dozen," she disagreed. "And only a couple who could really fight."

"You killed them all anyway," Aveline pointed out.

"All but one of them," Shepard acknowledged.

"Oh?"

"I wanted to be sure that word… got around," Shepard bit out.

The blue-grey eyes studied Shepard quietly for a long moment. "I don't like wholesale slaughter in my city, Shepard," she said, a warning note in her voice.

Maybe your guards ought to do their jobs better then, were the words on the tip of Shepard's tongue. She swallowed them back. Shepard had actually heard mostly good things about Aveline and her guards. It probably wasn't the Guard Captain's fault that, like every law enforcement agency, the Kirkwall guard was understaffed.

"I don't like slavers," Shepard answered simply. "Especially not those who prey on the marginalized."

Aveline's eyes narrowed. "They were slavers? You're sure?"

"They had one of the families that live in the next building in chains," Shepard said. "That doesn't leave much room for interpretation."

When Aveline started to open her mouth, Shepard raised her hand. "And," she added, "none of them were wearing the uniform of the guard, so it wasn't fucking likely that the family was being arrested." She shrugged. "Besides, toddlers aren't generally put in handcuffs even by the most draconic of law enforcement agencies - of which your guard is not one."

Aveline nodded, her eyes thoughtful.

"Officially," she said, "I have to tell you that the Viscount's Office looks down on vigilantism. However, on behalf of the guard," Aveline smiled gratefully, "I will say thank you."

"Oh," pouted Hawke. "Does that mean Shepard has fallen off the public enemy list already?" She sighed theatrically. "Well, it was fun while it lasted."

"Hawke," Aveline shook her head with exasperation.

"Aveline," Hawke perfectly matched the Guard Captain's tones.

Aveline laughed again. "I don't know why I put up with you, Hawke."

"I don't know why, either."

With a roll of her eyes, Aveline made for the door. "I'll see you later, Hawke," she said firmly. "Shepard," she paused as she came abreast of the Spectre, "you should really have Anders take a look at those wounds."

Shepard shrugged. "They're not really wounds any more," she answered. "More like scars. They'll heal eventually… maybe. There's not a lot anyone can do about them."

Aveline voiced the words Bodahn had not. "If you say so, Shepard. Take care of yourself."

They watched the Guard Captain exit through the library door. Bodahn's voice could be heard as he escorted Aveline out of the mansion.

Hawke's eyes snapped back to Shepard, and she gave the Spectre a sudden, crazy grin. "Now that the law has left…" She motioned for Shepard to follow her out into the main hall of the home.

"I'm not sure I like the sound of that…" Shepard muttered.

The redhead just waved a hand at her, leading the way over to a large chest that stood beside Hawke's small secretary desk. Shepard shook her head in mute astonishment when the rogue began picking the lock rather than actually using a key.

"You know, technically, it isn't stealing if it already belongs to you," she said.

"Really?" Hawke asked sarcastically, rolling her eyes. "I had no idea."

She lifted the lid of the chest and dipped her hand inside, withdrawing a large, sueded pouch. "For you," she said solemnly, although her eyes glittered with amusement.

Shepard eyed the rogue as she took the pouch, weighing it in the palm of her hand. Whatever was inside rolled and clicked together with a sound like ivory dice. A terrible suspicion blossomed in Shepard's mind.

"You didn't," she said flatly.

Hawke grinned widely. "Oh, but I did."

Shepard turned to the secretary, loosening the knots on the bag and gently shaking the contents over the polished inlay.

Stones - some nearly as large as a chicken egg - winked up at her, in hues of blue and red and pink and orange and yellow and grey. Most were raw and uncut, smoky or cracked with flaws, but others…

Shepard lifted a perfectly cut ruby larger than her thumbnail, the deep and vibrant red of fresh blood. On the Citadel, a stone like it would easily fetch thousands of credits. More, because it was natural stone, not lab-made.

"Hawke…"

The rogue held up a protesting hand. "No. None of that," she said firmly. "You almost got yourself killed helping me in the Deep Roads. Your armor was damaged. And we picked up absolutely nothing on the trip. This," she gestured at the stones, "is the least I can do to thank you." Hawke's grin was lazy and wicked. "Besides, it was fun."

"Thank you, Hawke," Shepard managed. She could just picture the rogue prowling the homes and shops of Hightown the past few nights, playing jewel thief. Yes, she imagined Hawke had enjoyed herself thoroughly.

"Are there enough, do you think?" Hawke asked, looking down at the impressive display of larceny.

Shepard shrugged. "Hard to say. I don't know how much raw aluminum oxide my omni-tool can get per gram of gemstone. And while I know that aluminum oxide makes a decently hard ceramic, that's about all I do know."

Hawke gave her a tip-tilt look. "How will you be able to make the repairs, then? I doubt the armorers here will be able to help you…"

Shepard laughed shortly and tapped her omni-tool. "I don't need to know, thankfully. The minifabricator will do all the work for me."

Hawke frowned suddenly. "You know, I can't imagine what it's like where you come from," she said slowly. "Ships that go between stars, machines that do thinking for you…"

"Don't forget real indoor plumbing, complete with municipal sewer systems," Shepard added.

"No Circle. No Templars…" Hawke's voice dropped. "I wonder what my family's life would have been like if we'd have lived there instead of here in Thedas."

Shepard shrugged. "Hard telling," she said. "You might have grown up on Earth, in one of the big cities, or in a smaller town in the middle of nowhere. You could have been well-off and lived in a house or a nice apartment, or you could have been poor, like me, and lived in the projects. You could have grown up off-world, on Arcturus station or one of the colony worlds, or even on the Citadel itself." She gave Hawke a shrewd look. "About the only thing for certain is that you wouldn't be who you are today. That person wouldn't exist."

Hawke's brow furrowed and her mouth opened, but Shepard cut her off. "No, hear me out," she said. "It's our past that makes us who we are. Genetics - who your parents are - plays a part, sure, but it's a person's experiences that shapes them into what they will be. Your experiences would not be the same, so you would be someone other than the Hawke we know."

"My father and brother might still be alive, though," replied Hawke tightly.

"Maybe," Shepard agreed. "Or you all could be dead, killed and harvested by the Reapers."

Hawke scowled darkly. "Anyone ever tell you you're a beacon of brightness and hope?"

"Not that I know of."

"How surprising."

-ooo-

Shepard ran her fingers over the chestpiece for the third time. There was a slight difference in the texture where her omni-tool had applied the ceramic patch, but otherwise, the repair looked perfect. She smiled with satisfaction, and turned her attention to the rest of her hardsuit, which was currently laid out on the cot that served as her bed.

There'd been enough aluminum oxide in the gemstones to perform major repairs to all of the ceramic plates, and enough concentrated carbon in the lone diamond to repair some of the carbon nanotubles in the underlying scaffolding. As a result, Shepard figured her armor was stronger than it had been at any time after Hammer's assault. She was a little concerned about some of the seals at this point, but reminded herself that she wasn't going to be facing low atmo or deep vac any time soon.

Good enough for government work, in other words.

Slowly, she began to put the armor on. Technically, she didn't expect to need it for what she planned to do, but she'd picked up on the fact that the Arishok approved of her wearing combat gear, so full kit it would be.

She clipped Garrus in place and headed out, nodding politely to the few elves that were in the courtyard as she passed through. Her cred in the alienage had gone way up as a result of the incident with the slavers. Not all of the alienage's inhabitants were comfortable with Shepard being in their midst, but there seemed to be a certain amount of acknowledgment that she might prove useful to have around.

Shepard had yet to test her newfound freedom in the qunari compound - one of the purposes behind her current mission. The other, of course, being to send a message to the Arishok. About what, exactly, Shepard wasn't entirely clear. Partly to reinforce that she wouldn't simply wait to be summoned, and partly, she supposed, as an earnest of intent - to prove she really did mean to learn all she could from the qunari.

Shepard was just completing the descent into the docks when she caught sight of a familiar figure in full plate mail, wearing the crimson livery of the Templar order. By the slight narrowing of his eyes, Shepard could tell that the Knight-Captain had recognized her as well.

"Ah. If it isn't serah Hawke's Orlesian friend," he said, pointedly emphasizing the word Orlesian. "The one with not a trace of an Orlesian accent."

"Hawke takes too much on herself to keep the peace," Shepard replied, leaning with a battle-hardened nonchalance against the wall of the stairwell.

The Templar's fair eyebrows rose. "Are we speaking of the same Hawke? While I admit to her having… assisted… the Order on occasion, hardly a week goes by in which Hawke is not mentioned in Templar reports as having been involved in some kind of skirmish."

"If you don't believe that Hawke keeps the peace, you're blind as well as stupid."

Muscles in the Templar's jaw bunched as he fought to keep control of his temper. "You are deliberately goading me, serah," he said tightly. "Do not think I will rise to it."

Shepard pushed lightly off the wall and closed the distance between them with even, deliberate steps. "What is your name, slaver?"

"I am Knight-Captain Cullen of the Templar Order, serah, and no slaver - as you well know," Cullen snapped. "Your persistence in calling me such is yet another transparent attempt to bait me."

"You keep people imprisoned against their will. How is that different from slavery?" Shepard demanded.

Cullen folded his arms on his chest. "And is the jailer at the Keep also a slaver?" he questioned sharply.

"Having met Guard-Captain Aveline, I have no doubts that anyone there deserves to be," she retorted. "The only crime your inmates have committed is having been born different than you."

The Knight-Captain's eyes narrowed even further. "The duty of the Tempars is to ensure that mages are kept safely controlled, not enslaved."

"And do you enjoy it?" Shepard asked, her voice dangerously low.

Cullen's lips thinned. "It is necessary," he responded firmly.

"Do you enjoy it?" The Spectre's words were hard; her eyes doubly so.

The Templar's eyes slid away from Shepard's piercing stare. "I… find satisfaction in knowing I am protecting innocents," he replied slowly. His gaze flickered back to Shepard's. "On both sides," he added.

To her everlasting surprise, Shepard found herself backing down. She was no less affronted by the Circle and it's Templars, but Shepard could not bring herself to actually detest the man before her.

He sincerely believes that what he's doing is the right thing in the circumstances. That this is the best solution to a difficult problem.

He's wrong, of course, but he's actually - shit - he's actually trying his best to be a good man, the poor, stupid jackass.

She shook her head. "You honestly believe that, don't you?" Shepard voiced the thought aloud. "You can't think of a better solution, so you try to do your best with the one you've got."

Cullen looked as surprised as Shepard felt by the sudden change in her demeanor. "Can you think of a better way?"

"We have a saying where I come from, one that's been the basis for our judicial system for hundreds of years. Innocent until proven guilty," Shepard said quietly.

She held eye contact for a brief moment as she moved past him. "I trust you'll think about it, Captain."

-ooo-

Unconsciously, Shepard took a deep breath as she mounted the steps to the compound's gate. Part of her fully expected to be turned away unceremoniously.

Despite doing her best to identify the kossith on guard detail, Shepard found herself seeing only a large, perfectly chiseled body and a familiarly rugged, impassive face surmounted by a collar-length mane of white hair and the ubiquitous horns.

She gave him a polite nod. "Karasten?" she said, with just enough of a question to let the soldier know she was taking a guess. For a human, it would also indicate a willingness to be corrected, although given the differences in attitude, Shepard wasn't exactly sure this would translate.

Translate… god, it would be nice if I had a qunari grammar and dictionary to upload.

The soldier's face remained completely impassive, but his eyes - a dark topaz color bordering on orange - flickered briefly with surprise.

"Karasaad," he corrected. "You may pass, basra."

Shepard nodded again, this time with satisfaction. "Karasaad."

"Basra."

As she began to cross the compound in the direction of the library tent, one of the kossith warriors fell in smoothly just behind her left shoulder. He made no move to halt her or impede her progress, and did not speak until she had reached her destination. Once there, he simply extended one arm before her.

"The Arishok cannot see you now, basra," he said quietly. "You will wait here." The soldier paused for a moment. "Please," he added.

Shepard quirked an eyebrow at the afterthought, but nodded her assent, and the soldier slipped away silently.

The library tent appeared to be empty, and Shepard's mind quickly tossed out a memory.

If it is convenient, you will have access to some of the tomes here, under supervision.

She wondered whether the wait reflected a lack of the first, or the second, condition. After a moment, Shepard decided on the second - if her timing had been inconvenient, she suspected she would have been turned away from the tent rather than simply asked to wait.

Her surmise was proven correct a short time later as she spied an incongruously small figure moving through the giants.

"Ah, Shepard," the human greeted her.

"Asa," she returned.

"Please," he swept an arm toward the tent, indicating she was free to enter.

Shepard pushed aside the tent flap and strode easily up to the first of the bookshelves, only to find herself at a loss. Most of the volumes did not bear titles on the spines or on their covers, and none of the scrolls were marked in any way.

Behind her, Asa chuckled dryly. The healer seemed to have completely recovered from whatever discomfiture marred the end of their first meeting.

Shepard shot him an irritated glance over her shoulder.

He brushed by her and regarded the shelves critically. "Sit," he ordered.

Although the healer's attention appeared to be wholly fixed on the shelves before him, he must have been peripherally aware of Shepard's body language as her jaw firmed and her shoulders set squarely. Or perhaps he had garnered enough of a perception of Shepard's personality from their initial meeting to guess at her response to an order. Either way, he softened his voice when he repeated himself.

"Go, sit," he said, gesturing slightly at the massive table. "I will select appropriate materials that you will be able to understand."

Before Shepard to do more than open her mouth to retort, he clarified his last statement. "Unless, of course, you know how to read Qunlat."

Oh, yeah. That.

Sheepishly, Shepard turned her attention to the table. The heavy chair that she'd so often seen occupied by the Arishok beckoned her, but she resolutely pulled out the uncomfortable stool and settled herself at her usual place just opposite.

By the subtle twitch of his eyebrows when Asa turned to face her, a scroll held loosely in his hand, Shepard knew she'd made the right choice.

"Navagational charts," he explained, as he handed over the scroll. "Complied from many sources, so you'll find that not everything is in the common tongue. I can assist you if you require."

Shepard looked at him with surprise. "How many languages do you speak?" she asked.

Asa smiled briefly. "Three," he answered. "But my studies have taught me to read several others."

A sudden curiosity blossomed. "And the Arishok?" Shepard inquired.

"Officially," he said, a slightly mischievous twitch lifting the corner of his mouth, "he speaks two."

Shepard returned the expression. "And unofficially?" she prompted.

The healer lifted his shoulders and let them fall. "Who knows. I suspect he understands far more than he speaks."

"I suspect you're right," she agreed dryly.

Cautiously, for she'd already had a few misadventures with scrolls in the Chantry's library, Shepard began to unroll the document. After a moment, Asa uttered a soft chuckle and halted her with a gesture.

"What?" Shepard demanded defensively. "Look, if you'd people would just hurry up and invent digital documents, this would all be so much easier."

"It would also be easier if you just handled the scroll properly," Asa commented. He took the document from her gently and demonstrated the art of simultaneously rolling one end while unrolling the other. "Like this, see?"

Embarrassed but enlightened by the lesson, Shepard grumbled, "Digital would still be easier."

The healer cocked his head. "Digital being a special kind of codex?"

Unsure of his meaning, Shepard could only shake her head. "Here," she said. "See for yourself."

To keep things simple, Shepard pulled up the Alliance field manual for first aid - a subject she had no doubt the healer would recognize - on her omni-tool and beckoned Asa to her side.

Puzzled and startled by the sight of the active 'tool, the healer hesitated.

"It won't hurt you," Shepard said with exasperation. "And before you ask, no, it isn't magic. It's simply a device."

Frowning slightly, dark eyebrows pulling down and toward his nose, Asa stooped over Shepard's shoulder and peered at the holographic viewscreen.

After a moment, she heard him gasp. "This is… a medical text?"

"Not much of one," she said. "But standard military issue." A grin quirked her lips. "There are running jokes about some of the illustrations, they're so bad."

"Your soldiers are taught medicine?" Asa seemed shocked by the idea.

Shepard made a low humming sound. "Yes and no," she answered, waggling her right hand back and forth. "Every soldier learns basic battlefield first aid. Some soldiers get additional training based on their designation - triage, for example. And some are fully trained field medics, in addition to being soldiers - a tradition that goes back to the old 20th century PJs." She smiled. "There's something of a rivalry between pararescue and special forces as to whose training is more difficult."

Asa's striking hazel eyes regarded Shepard with interest. "And this isn't considered inefficient? To be not fully one thing and not fully another?"

Shepard snorted. "Hell, no," she said vehemently. "I give those guys credit where it's due. They're crack soldiers, and damn fine medics. And trust me, there's nobody you want to see more when you're injured behind lines than pararescue. It generally means your ass has a chance of getting out alive and mostly in one piece."

When the healer failed to look convinced, Shepard tried to explain further. "Rescue jumpers are the elite," she said. "It's not a case of settling for a medic that can sort of shoot a rifle, or making due with a soldier that can kind of patch you up. They really are that damn good."

A flash of loyalty to her own designation surfaced, and she added hastily, "Not special forces good, of course. But good."

"You really believe this?" Asa said skeptically. "That there is no difference between one who has exclusively trained in medicine and one whose training has been split between medicine and combat?"

"God, no," Shepard was quick to disagree. "That's not what I'm saying at all. Rescue jumpers are good medics, but that's all they are. They're not a substitute for a surgeon, for example," she caught Asa's eye and rephrased herself. "That is, someone who has spent their whole life studying and practicing medicine. But they're the ones who will keep you alive until you can get to that person."

"Hmmm," Asa hummed thoughtfully, turning at last from Shepard and directing his attention back to the bookshelves. Shepard could see his eyes occasionally flash back in her direction, though, and he once again had a distant, abstracted air.

Now. Is that a sign that I've offended him, or that I've simply made him think? Last time, it seemed obvious. Now I'm not so sure.

With a little huff of an exhale, Shepard picked up the scroll again, manipulating it the way Asa had shown her. As the healer had indicated, the writing was not uniform. Some, perhaps most, was in a script Shepard couldn't begin to decipher. But there were notes here and there written in what Shepard thought of as English, as well as a few other languages that seemed to have roots common to the so-called Romance languages of Earth.

"I am definitely going to need some translation help," she murmured to the healer. Nonetheless, Shepard brought up the files she'd created from the Chantry's materials and began attempting to cross-reference from one source to the other.

Almost immediately, her head began to hurt.

Shepard had never been much of a scholar. Despite high intelligence and a natural aptitude for learning new skills, Shepard had detested formal education, and was a dropout. She'd completed her equivalency testing as a condition of her enlistment, and, under heavy pressure from a younger, then-Lieutenant David Anderson, submitted to further evaluation testing for officer fast-tracking. Perhaps unsurprisingly, she'd failed the latter - Shepard's promotions had come about solely through her field performance and recommendation from her COs - and set the precedent for what was to become an infamous love-hate relationship with learning. Anyone who'd served with her soon realized that given an interest in a subject, Shepard had a voracious appetite for knowledge, particularly the hands-on sort. On the other hand, even something as simple as a two-day required classroom course was sure to find Shepard among the worst performers.

It had driven the more conservative, by-the-books kind of brass absolutely nuts, and earned her the amusement of the more relaxed thinkers in the Alliance Navy.

It also meant that Shepard - self-taught in so many areas - lacked any idea of how to properly study anything. Her tactic when faced with the prospect was invariably a full frontal assault; total immersion in the subject matter and a reliance on an impressive memory and ability to assimilate information quickly.

The drawbacks to this method were becoming uncomfortably obvious to Shepard as she attempted to get a handle on the larval stage science of astronomy as it existed in Thedas.

After perhaps a half-hour of struggle, while Asa perused the bookshelves and pulled further scrolls and books, piling them neatly on one corner of the table, Shepard gave a growl of frustration and put her head in her hands, massaging her temples.

The healer paused, glancing up from the volume he was leafing through.

"Problem?" he asked.

"This is crazy," Shepard complained. "I think I've got points of overlap, but nothing's consistent!" She glanced down at her omni-tool again, and thumped the table with her free hand. "This is worse than trying to calculate trajectories with nothing but an abacus and slide rule."

Shepard gestured at the scroll angrily. "And it doesn't help that half of this isn't even in an alphabet I recognize! What is this, anyway?"

Asa gave her a sympathetic look. "Qunlat. In it's pure form."

Shepard scowled. "Pure form?" she asked.

Asa nodded, and selected a well-worn book from the shelf, bringing it to Shepard's side. He opened it to a random page.

"Here, on the left, is the pure form," he explained, running a finger along a column of graceful script from right to left. "And, on the right, the vulgar," he added, transferring the finger to the opposite column of more familiarly-shaped letters and tracing from left to right.

"Those born to the qun can read both equally well. Most viddathari, however, only learn vulgar."

Shepard gave a little head tilt. "Viddathari being those who covert later in life?"

Asa gave a short nod.

"So you were taught vulgar, then?" Shepard guessed.

"I chose to learn both," Asa replied. "I could already read and speak both my own tongue and the common one, and I knew that there were some subtleties lost in translation between the two. So I made the effort to learn Qunlat in it's original form."

He gave a slight lift of his shoulders. "It is an elegant language, and pleasing to the eye."

Shepard rested her chin on her palm. "I admit I was surprised to find that your philosophy is couched almost poetically. It reads like verse."

Asa's scarred face looked pleased. "You have read the Qun?"

"Yeah. Although I don't think you really digest it the first time through. You sort of have to go back and read it a bit at a time and think about it."

She looked down at the book Asa still held open in front of her. She touched one of the well-worn pages gently. "It looks like this is a favorite," she noted.

"Prayers for the Dead," Asa murmured.

Shepard's brows rose. "That sounds almost religious."

"Not exactly," Asa answered. "It is… difficult to explain."

Shepard traced a finger over the passage written in vulgar. "What does it say?" She shifted a little, frowning. "I mean, I can at least sort of read the words, but what do they translate to?"

Asa glanced once at the page before quoting softly, his eyes on Shepard's face.

"Struggle is an illusion.

The tide rises, the tide falls, but the sea is changeless.

There is nothing to struggle against.

Victory is in the Qun."

Shepard's nose wrinkled. "You know, the first part of that actually sounds deep and meaningful. And then you come to the end and it suddenly becomes militaristic."

Asa gave her an unreadable look. "Perhaps your perception of the language is colored by your role," he suggested. "You may see things differently, in time."

Shepard rolled her eyes and snorted sharply. "Don't give me that bullshit. I'm not one of your converts, and I have no intention of becoming one."

"Does the thought frighten you that much?"

"Frighten me?" scoffed Shepard.

Asa's face was placid. "Yes. Your aggressive reaction suggests fear."

Shepard opened her mouth to respond, and then closed it thoughtfully.

Maybe now is not the best time to fly off the handle, hmmm, Shepard? Why don't you try thinking instead of reacting?

For a moment, she drummed her fingers on the tabletop while she considered the healer's words.

"I apologize," she said slowly, realizing that this was twice now she'd been backed down in the past few hours. "I suppose I do have a kind of knee-jerk reaction to some things." It was a grudging admission, but an admission nonetheless.

She took a deep breath. "I… take exception to things that deny people the freedom to choose their own path."

Asa raised an eyebrow. "I doubt you truly believe that all should be free to do as they wish. Even bas circumscribe their lives with restrictions - customs, tradition, laws…"

Shepard's eyes rolled again. "Okay, yes. Within reason, I suppose I should have said. Clearly, I'm not going to advocate for someone's right to go around killing indiscriminately, for instance. But people should be able to make choices for themselves; where they live, what they do for a living, who they love, their beliefs… And, as long as it doesn't harm or interfere with anyone else's ability to do so, I think people should be free to pursue their dreams, no matter how impractical or inefficient that dream might be."

"And when the pursuit of a dream leads only to misery or suffering?" Asa retorted, but without heat. "What then?"

Shepard sighed. "Then you get tragedy, I suppose. Life isn't all sunshine and bunnies."

"And as the individual is part of the whole, when there is suffering in the individual, there is weakness in the whole," said the healer, resting his hands on the table and leaning forward, his hazel eyes bright.

Shepard shook her head mutely.

"You don't agree?" Asa asked.

"It isn't… look, I've heard that argument before. Putting the good of the whole before the good of the individual? I get that."

She laughed hollowly. "Hell, Asa, you won't find anyone who gets that better than I do. But there's got to be balance. There's got to be. Otherwise, we might as well all be machines."

The healer looked startled by the tense passion in her voice, and he gave her a very long, very thoughtful look.

"You are a very… interesting… woman, Shepard," he said finally. "I begin to understand the Arishok's… curiosity."

"You make it sound like I've got two heads, or something," Shepard complained.

Asa laughed. "I think he would find that less surprising."

She snorted. "Because I don't fit his expectations of what a woman should be? Because I'm female, and a soldier, and I'm good at it?"

"You perplex him, and he is not a man who is easily perplexed."

"Good for me, then."

Shepard glanced over at the pile the healer had made on the edge of the table. "What are all these?"

Asa followed her gaze and stepped over to the corner. "A few of these are treatises written by bas about us. Not a lot of accuracy, but I thought you might appreciate an unbiased view of the Qun." He shot her a sly glance through dropped eyelids.

She acknowledged the slight barb with a twitch of her lips, and the healer continued. "A few others were penned by viddathari - some of my former countrymen, in fact."

He touched a scroll. "We hardly have the resources of the libraries of Qunandar here. This is the only information the Arishok can offer on the study of the heavens apart from the purely practical navigational charts." Asa gave her an apologetic look.

"To be honest," replied Shepard, "I'm surprised you have any written documents from your homeland at all. I'd heard that your people were shipwrecked here a few years ago, and I can't imagine that books were first into the lifeboats. I'm amazed you were able to salvage anything at all."

Asa gave a slight shake of his head. "We were carrying very little, and of what we carried we saved next to nothing. Most of these," he jerked his chin to indicate the shelves, "have been collected since our arrival."

Shepard thought of the slender volume locked in the chest in her bedroom. "But not all."

"No. Not all."

Abandoning the nav charts for the moment, Shepard reached for the other scroll. As she did so, she became acutely aware of Asa's eyes on her.

"What is it now?" she asked wryly. "Have I started to grow a third head?"

The healer frowned. "No," he replied. "It's… the wounds on your face. What were they caused by?"

Once again, Shepard found her fingers drifting up to touch her cheek. "Varric called it an ogre, I think."

"I haven't seen injuries like them before," he said, curiosity in his voice.

Shepard gave a weary huff. "And you won't," she told him. "They look the way they do because of me, not because of what caused them."

Asa's face creased in a puzzled frown. "I don't understand," he complained.

"I was…" spaced "…very badly injured a few years ago." Damn was she tired of trying to explain the inexplicable to people. "In order to…" bring me back from the dead "…repair the damage, the doctors had to use implants - things made of metal and plastics."

"Like pinning a broken bone?" the healer questioned.

Shepard looked surprised. "Similar, yes," she agreed. "But more advanced."

"Anyway," she went on, "for whatever reason - maybe because the skin on my face is thinner than anywhere else - I tend not to heal facial injuries very well. These," she gestured to her cheek, "will probably be around for a while. What you're seeing is the underlying implants. That's why it looks so odd."

"May I?" Asa inquired politely, holding out one hand.

"Go ahead," Shepard acquiesced with a tired little sigh.

The healer's nimble fingers traced the wounds gently, his eyes peering intently at the gouges as he prodded with a light touch.

While he investigated her face, Shepard closed her eyes and said, "So you use orthopedic implants to repair broken bones? I didn't think anyone had that kind of knowledge here in Thedas. They seem to rely so much on magic…"

Asa made a noise between a grunt and a snort. "It is common practice in Par Vollen and Seheron and Kont-aar. As you say, we don't rely sarebaas the same way the bas do. The danger is too great."

Shepard ground her teeth, causing the healer to jerk his fingers back sharply. "Did I hurt you?"

"No," Shepard grated. "But I think we should probably stop this conversation right here. I'd prefer to keep things civil."

Asa tilted his head to one side. "You really don't fear magic, do you?" he asked.

"Asa," Shepard's voice held a hint of warning. "I said I don't want to get into this with you."

He held up a hand. "I understand," he said, backing off several paces to lean against the bookshelf.

Shepard picked up the new scroll and began unrolling it.

"People in Rivain also see magic differently," Asa said, after a few minutes' silence. "The Rivaini live much closer to magic than the rest of Thedas." His voice was very quiet, so quiet he could be speaking to himself. "I grew up believing that the seers were simply a part of the order of things."

"Maybe you should ask yourself why you changed your mind."

"Perhaps," the healer allowed. "You have an odd way of making one look at things differently, Shepard."

Shepard smiled tightly. "You're welcome."

Asa's face was troubled. "I didn't say it was a good thing."


A/N: This is probably going to be more like a half-chapter, I think. But things have gotten rough the last several days between life, school, and my brain, and so I'm back to my old habits of updating as I can rather than waiting to finish out a chapter. I don't know which is better or worse, to tell you the truth.

In any event, here. Stuff.

*courtesy of Terry Pratchett's The Fifth Elephant.