Varric looked up from his ale as Shepard entered his suite, her current guard - the blue-eyed karasten - taking up station just outside the door.
"One more, and we could have a decent hand of Diamondback," he greeted her. "Do you think you could convince your chaperone to play?"
Shepard rolled her eyes. "It's a game, Varric. There's no purpose in it. Qunari don't do things that lack purpose."
"Of course there's a purpose," argued the dwarf persuasively. "Card games are all about strategy and cunning. And emptying your opponent's coin purse."
"Right," Shepard nodded. "And would you really want to teach a man who can maintain a completely expressionless stare for hours on end how to play a game that relies on you being able to read your opponent better than he can read you?"
Hawke laughed and Varric looked sheepish. "I hadn't thought of that," he admitted.
"Didn't think you had." Shepard pulled up a chair. "But Anders should be showing up at some point. I promised to buy him a drink, and I think he'll want to see these," she pulled out the documents she'd taken from Alrik's body.
Varric reached out for them, giving a low whistle as he read over the first one. "Looks like Blondie wasn't paranoid after all," he muttered. "This Alrik really was planning on turning all the mages Tranquil."
"Let me see that," Hawke snatched it from his fingers. "Andraste's asscheeks…"
"Read the other one before you do anything rash, Hawke," Shepard warned. "His plan was shot down."
"By Meredith, no less," commented Varric, raising an eyebrow. "Who, as we all know, is so deep into the crazy she can't touch bottom."
"Apparently," said Shepard dryly, "she can at least still see it."
"And the Divine," noted Hawke, with a soft puff of air. "Thank the Maker."
"This is the proof Anders wanted, but I don't think it's quite what he was looking for," Shepard said quietly, collecting the pages from the others and re-folding them. "He was hoping for something to completely polarize the issue."
Hawke shook her head grimly. "And the fact that the Divine herself declined the proposal makes the whole thing moot." She held up a hand. "Not that I'm complaining. Mother's a bit too old to go on the run if I had to break Bethany out of the Gallows."
Shepard frowned. "Why would your mother have to go on the run? I can see you going with your sister to protect her, but your mother… "
"Meredith has ordered the incarceration of escaped mages' families in the past," Varric answered quietly. "Regardless of whether there was any proof that the family assisted the mage in any way."
Shepard's eyes burned. "That's fucked," she said flatly.
"That's life under the templars," said a ragged voice from the doorway.
Everyone's attention turned to the healer. It was clear Anders was still riding himself hard for his loss of control over Justice, but even that wasn't enough to blunt his hatred of the Chantry's soldiers.
"Pull up a chair, Blondie," said Varric, gesturing with his tankard. "Starkiller has something for you."
As Anders cautiously entered the room, Shepard held up the damaged letters. "Didn't get a chance to give these to you earlier today, with the fuss over the sten." The healer reached out for them with a puzzled crease in his brow and a frown on his lips. "I took them off the templar's body after you… ah, left."
She handed the pages over and gave the mage a wry grin. "I compliment you on your hand-to-hand technique, by the way," she added. "There aren't many people who can knock me on my ass with a single punch."
Anders flushed. "I… I'm sorry," he apologized gruffly. "I was…"
"I know," she interrupted. "And there's no lasting harm, so don't worry about it. Just don't expect to knock me on my ass a second time. I'm onto your wicked right."
But the mage was already reading the documents, his frown deepening.
"Meredith rejected the proposal? And the Divine herself?" he breathed. The hand holding the letters dropped to his side; his other hand came up to rub at his brow. "I… I can't believe… I thought for sure Meredith… She hates mages."
"I'm sorry it isn't what you needed to convince the Grand Cleric to act," Shepard said softly. "But at least you know that the plan died with Alrik."
Anders nodded abstractedly. "I… You're right, of course, but… Perhaps the Chantry isn't beyond reason. I had thought… I had feared it was." He straightened himself. "May I borrow these, Shepard?" he gestured with the documents as he re-folded them. "They may not be what I was expecting, but I think they could still be a means to open a… a dialog, of sorts, with the Grand Cleric."
Shepard waved her hand. "Be my guest. Just… be careful with them. Alrik needed to die, but I doubt the templars will see it that way."
Anders nodded again. "I will, Shepard. And… thank you."
"So," said Varric, "You going to sit down and play? We need four for Diamondback."
"I… Thanks, Varric, but I need to think about this."
"Suit yourself, Blondie. We'll be here if you change your mind."
Shepard woke up slowly. Her eyes felt like they'd been glued shut with concrete, and then the extra concrete poured into her brain via her ears. And she could only hope that nothing had pissed in her mouth, no matter what it tasted like.
I've got to remember to stick to wine if I'm going to drink that much. The beer and whiskey in this place are just foul.
She sat up with a groan and dragged herself out of bed and to the bathroom, where she opened the bottom tap on the boiler and splashed some warm-ish water over her face, scrubbing it roughly until her eyes could blink without the help of heavy equipment.
There was a heavy knock at the door.
Still kneeling by the tub, Shepard briefly considered ignoring it. But the ponderousness and force of the knocking could only mean one thing, and that was a summons from whichever of the unlucky antaam had the early morning shift on Shepard duty.
"Hold on just a second," she called out, levering herself to her feet and padding out to the door via a detour to the kitchen. She stuffed the end of a loaf of bread in her mouth and bit down ravenously before grasping the door handle and pulling it open.
Deep red-orange eyes regarded her sleep-tousled form critically.
"Are you ill, basra?" the ashaad asked.
Shepard took the bread out of her mouth and mumbled around the mouthful, "No, I just woke up." She forced the bread down half-chewed and tipped her head questioningly. "What are you doing here?"
The ashaad thrust a hand at her. Blooms of various sizes and colors sprang haphazardly from his closed fist. Shepard stared at them uncomprehendingly for a moment.
"Uh, Ashaad," she managed, once her brain had been persuaded to join the party, "this is… unexpected."
"It is a customary mating ritual among bas, is it not?"
Shepard's hand halted in midair. "Er… what?"
"It is said that bas males prove worth to their females with flowers and…" he paused, as if uncertain of the word, "choc-o-lot. Is this not true?"
Shepard cleared her throat nervously. "Uh, yeah. That is, some males give females gifts to show, uh… interest. And I guess those gifts are often flowers or chocolate."
Although I always preferred gun mods…
"Good." He gestured slightly with the fistful of flowers. "These are for you."
If I thought my life was complicated before, I think it just got a hell of a lot worse.
"Um, thank you?" Shepard took the blossoms and turned away quickly, biting at her bottom lip to keep from swearing aloud. "I'll just go… put these in water."
"In water?" Ashaad sounded confused. "Their potency is better when dried."
Shepard stopped and looked down at the flowers as if they were an armed grenade. "Potency?"
"Yes. But surely even you bas know this? I have seen medicinal herbs hung to dry by merchants."
"Wait…" Shepard glanced over her shoulder at the ashaad. "These are all medicinal plants?"
"Of course," rumbled the ashaad. "What would be the purpose otherwise?"
"Of course," murmured Shepard weakly, heading for the kitchen.
She placed the flowers on the stone counter and turned around quickly, hoping to nip this in the bud. Er… so to speak.
"Ashaad, look, I appreciate…"
"The Arishok requests that you take a meal with him tonight," he interrupted. His brow wrinkled. "Please." The word was said with something like distaste.
Shepard blinked and looked back at the flowers. "Wait… were the flowers from you, or from the Arishok?"
The ashaad gave her a long-suffering look. "It is as I told you, basra. It is not finished. None would dare interfere. Not even I."
"I… oh. Of course."
"The karasten will bring you at the proper time," Ashaad rumbled, and withdrew with a nod to the same.
Shepard didn't bother to make a snide comment about the assumption of her cooperation. After all, there would be no purpose in it.
She shut the door slowly and leaned against it.
What the hell is the Arishok up to now? Flowers? Dinner?
Isn't it obvious, Shepard? Customary mating rituals among bas… he's courting you.
Her head hit the wood with a thump.
"Sebastian! How's my favorite prince in exile today?"
Sebastian looked up from peeling potatoes. "Hawke?"
"The one and only." The rogue leaned against the soot-blackened wall of the Chantry kitchens and crossed her ankles. "How would you like me to take you away from all this?" She gestured to the dim, cavernous space.
A brief smile curved the prince's lips. "To where, exactly?"
Hawke grinned. "The Bone Pit."
"Is that supposed to be an improvement?"
She laughed. "I never promised it would be someplace nice. Just… away from scullery duty."
"I would, Hawke, but I have a task to finish first," he gestured at the pile of potatoes beside him.
"Really?" Hawke pushed herself off the wall, contriving to look hurt. "You'd rather peel potatoes all day than face excitement and adventure by my side?"
"Unfortunately, potatoes don't peel themselves," Sebastian said with exaggerated ruefulness. "Otherwise, of course I'd be at your side, Hawke."
He hid a smile as Hawke nudged him gently aside to make room for herself at the table, reaching for a potato.
"What?" she said, as she started peeling. "I'm simply expediting the process."
"Of course," he replied, deadpan. Slowly, however, his expression changed.
"You can stop staring, you know. It's not like I've never done this before," Hawke snorted.
Sebastian raised a hand to his mouth and cleared his throat. "It's just… Hawke, you kill things with those daggers."
"Not in the last few hours," she assured him.
"What?" she gave him a defiant look. "Look, they're clean, all right?"
Sebastian shook his head. At least the potatoes were due to be boiled…
Shepard stoked the fire under the boiler and enjoyed the hottest bath she could stand, scrubbing her scalp until her head felt as though it might finally be occupying the same physical dimension as the rest of her. Then, damp hair wrapped snuggly in one of her flimsy excuses for a towel, she crawled back in bed with the book on ancient sites in the Free Marches. Occasionally, her mind would wander to flowers, dinner, or Arishok, and she would be filled with a mild sense of panic.
After about the seventh time this happened, Shepard set down the book and leaned her head back against the headboard.
What the hell is wrong with you, Shepard? You faced down a Reaper armed with only a targeting laser. Tell me how the fuck you could possibly be intimidated by a two and a quarter meter tall humanoid with big horns.
She scowled to herself. Well, for one thing, the Reaper didn't want to have sex with me…
Oh, come on, Shepard. It's not like you're a blushing virgin for fuck's sake! You had quite the reputation in N-school - fight hard, play harder, remember? So what is it about this situation that freaks you out so god damn much? Isabela doesn't freak you out, and she's pursuing you with almost as much single-minded determination as the Arishok.
There was a spate of irritated knocking at the door, and Shepard heaved herself out of bed to answer it, a frown creasing her features. Maybe her neighbors had finally gotten tired of stepping around her living door stop.
Angry hazel eyes greeted her on the far side of the door when she opened it. Without waiting to be invited, Asa crossed the threshold, shutting the door behind him with more force than necessary.
"What do you think you're doing, Shepard?!" he demanded harshly.
"Getting smoked for no reason?" Shepard offered sarcastically.
"I just finished setting the ashaad's arm. The Arishok broke it!"
Shepard held out both hands. "I haven't left the apartment," she said defensively. "Why don't you ask him what he thinks he's doing? He sent the ashaad with flowers for me, and has asked me to dinner." She paused. "Well, the qunari version of asked, anyway. You know, presumptively demanded my presence, but with the addition of please at the end."
Asa set his jaw pugnaciously. "And you said no."
"I didn't say anything," Shepard retorted. "I already knew there wasn't any point in arguing."
That settled the healer's ruffled feathers a bit. His face drew into a frown, accentuating the scar down his cheek. "I don't understand."
"That makes two of us. Why the hell would he break Ashaad's arm?"
"They were sparring," muttered Asa. "It was an accident."
Shepard scowled. "So why come up here and yell at me for it?"
Asa glowered at her. "Because you're one of the only reasons he loses his control like that!"
Shepard folded her arms on her chest. "I don't know what to tell you. It wasn't me this time. I even thanked him for the flowers."
The frown was back on the healer's face, and he began to pace nervously. It was the most out-of-sorts Shepard had ever seen the man. "I don't understand it… Could the ashaad have challenged him over you?"
"No. He wouldn't."
Asa shot her a look. "And you'd know, would you?" he said sarcastically.
"Ashaad's told me on two separate occasions now that nobody else will interfere. Not even him."
The healer's head snapped up. "What do you mean, not even him?"
Shepard shrugged. "I don't know. That's just what he said." Her face softened. "How is he? Was the break a bad one?"
Asa paced some more. "It was clean and easy to set. It should heal fine," he answered absently. He stopped and looked back at Shepard. "You're sure that's what he said?"
"Yeah, that's what he said."
"In what context?" Asa pressed.
"I thought at first the flowers were from him. When he corrected me he reminded me that no one else would interfere, not even him." She shrugged again. "That's all there was."
Asa ran his hands through his hair until it practically stood on end. "Shepard, please. For my sanity, and the safety of everything around us… please consider indulging the Arishok."
"Indulging him! What about me?" Shepard strode toward the healer.
"You don't actually find him unattractive, do you?" Asa asked sharply. "Believe me, I'm good at body language, too."
"That isn't the point!"
"He's not my type!"
"Really?" Asa raised an eyebrow.
Shepard scowled. "I don't want to have sex with him!"
"I just don't."
Asa huffed. "That's not a reason."
"He's an arrogant, stubborn, bull-headed jackass," Shepard retorted. "How's that for a reason?"
The healer held up a finger. "But you find him physically attractive."
"That's all that counts. I've told you - sex is a purely physical exercise for qunari. Affection is not necessary."
"That's not… it doesn't… I don't…"
"Are you trying to tell me you've never had sex for purely physical reasons before?" Asa asked, his voice and expression skeptical.
The healer spread his hands in a so what's the problem gesture. "It's not like I'm asking you to consider marrying him, Shepard."
"Look, just… accept that I don't want to sleep with the Arishok and that I have reasons."
"Maybe I would if you could tell me what they are, apart from your inherent contrariness."
"Because he's not Thane, all right!" Shepard glared at the healer, hands fisted at her side.
Asa looked nonplussed by this. "What?" he asked, uncertainly.
"He's not Thane," Shepard repeated, softly.
Asa frowned. "Who is Thane?"
"The man I cared for more than life itself."
"We weren't… it's… nevermind." Shepard looked away from him.
"A lover," the healer surmised.
"Yes," said Shepard. "He… died a few months ago."
"Ah," said Asa, gently. "A recent loss."
"Yes." Shepard's voice tightened as the lump in her throat grew exponentially.
"I see. Too soon for you to contemplate a future without him."
"I wasn't supposed to have a future!" Shepard snarled. "I'm supposed to be dead!"
The healer cocked his head slightly. "I thought you were against suicide."
"It wasn't suicide. It was being caught inside a giant explosion that hopefully ended a war and saved the galaxy."
Asa stared at her shrewdly.
Shepard expelled a long, loud breath. "There was a weapon. When I activated it, there was an explosion. And then I woke up here in Kirkwall."
"But…" the healer looked baffled, "how?"
"Believe me, I wish I knew."
"Ugh," said Hawke, digging at a crevice in her dagger's hilt. "There's still potato… juice in here."
"It's just starch," soothed Sebastian. "It won't harm the metal."
"I know," admitted the rogue, making a face, "but it's just so… icky."
"Hawke, a little starch is nothing in comparison to some of the things I've seen on your blades."
"You're an archer. You wouldn't understand," Hawke cradled the blade to her bosom before replacing it in the scabbard strapped to her back.
The prince rolled his eyes. "Who else is coming with us?" he asked, to change the subject.
"I thought we'd pick up Fenris."
"Just the three of us?" Sebastian sounded surprised. "The problem must be a fairly minor one, then?"
Hawke nodded. "Just a bunch of walking corpses." She patted her belt pouch. "I had Tomwise make me some oil flasks. We'll just go in and burn them out."
Sebastian gave her a look. "You have an odd definition of the word minor, Hawke. What about Shepard? She doesn't need oil flasks to burn things."
Hawke shrugged. "I don't know what her guard dog would do if she tried to leave the city."
The archer looked puzzled. "What guard dog?"
"You mean you haven't heard? I thought everyone in Kirkwall was talking about it by now."
Sebastian shook his head. "It hasn't made it as far as the Chantry cloisters."
The rogue tipped her head. "Shepard seems to have seriously annoyed the Arishok this time. She's had a qunari guard ever since she left the compound."
"To what purpose?" Sebastian frowned.
"Qunari, Sebastian," Hawke reminded him. "Tall, muscular, and very reticent when it comes to explaining themselves."
"Shepard must not be happy about it."
"Believe me, Sebastian, she's not the only one."
"Hmm. This could be something."
Shepard sat up a little straighter and keyed up her omni-tool, laying the open book on the bed in front of her. "A fortress in the Vimmarks northeast of Cumberland, built into the rock itself. Not much else known due to the ruin's inaccessibility. Didn't show up in the Chantry's library, either."
She tapped in a few notes and then brought up a map to refresh her memory of the area. She groaned.
"Shit. What I wouldn't give for the Mako right now."
Sure, Shepard. And if you're going to wish for impossible things, why not just wish for the whole Normandy? Or, better yet, wish yourself back home…
For the third time that day, there was a knocking at Shepard's door. Her brow furrowed.
"Now who is it?" she muttered, swinging her legs to the floor.
The tapping was hesitant, which ruled out another visit from one of the qunari - human or kossith. It also made it unlikely to be Hawke, Varric or Isabela, who all believed that a good knock should have rhythm, or Sebastian, Anders, or Fenris, who all employed a single business-like rap.
"Merrill," Shepard guessed, as she reached for the doorknob.
But the human on the opposite side was unfamiliar to Shepard. She raised an eyebrow and fixed a politely neutral expression on her face.
"Can I help you?" she asked.
"Messere… Shepard?" the man replied, his eyes skittering nervously to the brooding qunari beside the door.
"That would be me," Shepard confirmed.
Wordlessly, he handed over a folded piece of parchment, sealed with a blob of reddish wax. As Shepard took it from him, he bobbed something that fell between a nod and a bow and withdrew hastily, eyes once again roving to the karasten.
Shepard stared down at the page in her hand. Curiously, she peeled up the wax seal and unfolded it.
Viscount Marlowe Dumar requests your attendance upon the hour. Your cooperation in this matter is appreciated.
Office of the Viscount
Shepard sighed. Still, she supposed it was only a matter of time before she came to the notice of what passed for government here in Kirkwall. Hawke's friend Aveline could only do so much to stonewall the ruler of the city, after all.
She glanced at the karasten, frowning.
"I have to go up to the Keep," she told the giant. "I'm afraid it's non-negotiable."
The karasten merely glanced at her.
"I don't know how long I'll be," she continued, feeling a bit as if she were talking to a piece of furniture. "I may be late for my…" date "…appointment with the Arishok."
The karasten turned his head and gave her his full attention. His blue eyes regarded her appraisingly.
"What?" she said defensively. "It's the damn viscount! I can't just ignore him." She thrust the missive at the soldier. "Read for yourself."
"No," rumbled the giant, making no move to look at the page.
"Look, I can't argue with you over this," Shepard began, but the karasten raised a hand to halt her.
"You will go to the foolish bas who sits on his foolish throne," he said. "This is understood."
Relief flooded Shepard as she realized that the karasten would not interfere. "Good," she said, and added, "Thank you."
The karasten nodded.
Shepard retreated back inside, located a cleaning cloth, and set to polishing her armor.
Fenris was also skeptical of Hawke's idea of a minor problem.
"Walking corpses?" he said slowly. He squinted his eyes at the rogue. "Tell me again why you accepted partial ownership of that accursed place."
Hawke shrugged. "I've never owned a mine before?" she answered flippantly, but they all knew the real reason - the Fereldan miners and their less-than-sympathetic Orlesian boss, Hubert, who would cheerfully work them until they dropped.
"Are you sure the three of us will be sufficient to the task?" Fenris asked.
Hawke sighed. "What's with you two?" she demanded. "It's just a few dead people."
Fenris and Sebastian exchanged a glance. Hawke saw it and rolled her eyes.
"Isabela is off hunting her missing relic. Aveline is tied up with guard business. Shepard is plagued with qunari. Anders is still upset over his little problem with Justice. Merrill is off somewhere in Kirkwall - probably in the Viscount's gardens again, or maybe someone's airing cupboard."
"And Varric?" Sebastian suggested.
"Can't go," Hawke said firmly.
"Merchant's Guild?" murmured Fenris.
"Something like that," replied Hawke evasively. "So it's just the three of us."
"All right, Hawke," said Fenris. "The three of us it is."
Shepard swung her arms and rolled her shoulders to settle her armor. She hadn't combed her hair when it was wet, and it had dried in funny little twists and cowlicks, making it irregularly wavy rather than the smooth dark cap it normally was. It was also getting long - nearly brushing the tops of her shoulders now - and if she didn't find a way off-planet soon, she was going to have to find someone to cut it for her. She'd botched the attempt too many times in the past to consider trying it herself.
She peered at herself in the smoky, polished metal mirror and grimaced.
This is as good as it's going to get, Shepard.
Resolutely, she turned away from the mirror and out through her bedroom, not bothering to retrieve Garrus from the locked chest. Spectres might be allowed to wear their weapons to meetings with heads of state, but her Spectre status meant nothing here, and she remembered all too well the fate of the qunari delegation's weapons - bound into their sheaths. If she went to the Viscount's Office armed, no doubt somebody would try to take her weapon off her, and there would be trouble. Better to leave it at home.
She kept the dagger that Hawke had given her though, and her omni-tool was fastened in place. They might take the dagger from her, but she knew it wouldn't occur to them to remove the 'tool.
She stopped in her tracks, a meter or so from the front door.
When did you start thinking this was going to go south? If the viscount wanted to imprison her, he probably wouldn't have made an appointment to do so. Still, Shepard couldn't shake the unsettled feeling in her gut - the one that told her that things were about to get sideways.
Be charming. Be diplomatic. Do not swear. And be ready to move when the shit hits the fan…
Shepard stepped out into the hallway and locked the door behind her. As the karasten moved away from his post on the wall and settled in behind her left shoulder - Vakarian's spot, always Vakarian's - she stopped and turned to face him.
"I really think it's best if you stay here," she said evenly. "You qunari seem to… upset people."
"They fear us," corrected the karasten.
"That too," Shepard admitted. "So, please, in the interests of not upsetting anyone, could you stay right here?"
The karasten's expression didn't even flicker. "No."
"No," he repeated.
"Pretty please? With sugar on top?"
That caused a wrinkle to appear in the karasten's brow. "No," he said with some finality. "It is my duty to keep you safe, basra."
Shepard folded her arms. "Nervous people do stupid things, Karasten," she said. "You will make people jumpy."
But the karasten wasn't listening. He was staring over her shoulder with narrowed eyes. Shepard's brow rose, and she glanced behind her curiously.
"What is it?" she said, seeing only an empty hallway.
The giant's blue eyes narrowed further. "Your weapon."
"It is missing?"
Shepard tipped her head in the direction of the door. "I left it locked up."
"Why? This is foolish."
"Because they will probably not let me wear it to see the viscount, and I don't want to give people the idea they can take my weapon off me whenever they feel like it," she answered. "It's called avoiding a fight."
He grunted. "This is why you cannot be allowed on your own."
Shepard rolled her eyes. "Diplomacy, Karasten. I know it's not a qunari strong point."
She turned around and led the way out of the building. "You do know they will try to take your weapon from you at the Keep, don't you?"
The qunari made a grumbling assent.
"And I know you won't let them," she went on. "Much as I wouldn't."
This time, the giant remained silent.
"Which puts me in a very difficult position, as you can imagine."
Shepard glanced over her shoulder. "You see, I'm going to have to wade into the middle of the resulting fight and try to stop it. I'm not about to watch you get cut down, but I'm not going to let you cut down some stupid guard who's just trying to do his job, either."
She inhaled sharply, and smiled sadly to herself. "Problematic, as a friend of mine used to say."
They continued across the bazaar. Shepard nodded to a few familiar faces as they passed.
As they started up the main stairway to Hightown, Shepard added in the same even tones, "You're probably going to get me killed."
The silence was deafening. Shepard sighed.
Okay. Sideways it is, then…
"What has you so cheerful, Hawke?" Fenris asked, eyeing the rogue doubtfully as she sauntered along, humming to herself.
"Mother hasn't forced me into a dress in over a week," Hawke told him. "And I haven't had to sit through one of those endless teas, trying to keep from yawning while some noblewoman and her son make idiotic remarks about the weather and the trouble with servants these days."
"Ah, yes. The 'art of conversation' as practiced by the gentry," said Sebastian with a faint smile. "At least it isn't gossip and snide comments about other nobles."
Hawke sighed gustily. "Oh, there's usually some of that as well."
"Dissertations on the latest fashions from Orlais?"
The rogue rolled her eyes. "Thankfully, no. I expect they avoid the topic, given my singular lack of fashion sense."
"I had thought it to be an affectation among the magisters," Fenris admitted. "I see I was mistaken."
Sebastian laughed. "It is an affliction that strikes the wealthy and powerful - or those who wish to be seen as such."
"It's irritating, is what it is," Hawke declared. "Mother seems to forget that I wasn't raised to be idle, vapid-headed marriage bait."
"Charity, Hawke," Sebastian reminded her gently.
Hawke made a face. "Blame it on my peasant upbringing."
"Has your mother given up on your betrothal, then?" Fenris inquired, slapping away a butterfly that fluttered too close.
"I very much doubt it," Hawke sighed. "She's just focusing for the moment on her own prospects," Hawke smiled fondly. "She met a nice man in the market."
"For your sake, Hawke, I shall pray the courtship is an extended one," said Sebastian solemnly.
"State your business."
The guards on the doors to the Keep shifted slightly as she approached, and one of them issued the challenge even before Shepard was within normal conversational distance.
Shepard withdrew the seneschal's note and handed it over, taking care to make her movements slow and non-threatening.
Here it comes…
As one guard frowned over the note while the other watched the karasten suspiciously, Shepard assumed parade rest and addressed them both. "But before I meet with the viscount, I would first like to speak with Guard-Captain Aveline. Please send someone for her."
The guards exchanged glances.
Good. They're uncertain.
"You know the Guard-Captain?" one of them ventured after a pause.
"Of course," Shepard answered with a lift of one eyebrow. "She is another of Hawke's friends. We've met a number of times."
Shepard was not by nature a name-dropper, but she was a tactician. And these names certainly did their jobs. One of the guard stuck his head through the doors and murmured a few words to someone inside.
Tacky, boys. Let's see what you do when I raise the stakes…
"No doubt you wish me to relinquish my weapon," she said calmly, unfastening the sheathed dagger from her belt and handing it to the nearest guard.
He fumbled with it as if it were a lump of hot coal, and the expression on his face said he'd rather have a handful of shit. Hawke always breezed in, fully armed, without so much as a nod to the guards. Clearly, he was thinking that someone might find himself in a spot of difficulty if it appeared he'd overstepped his authority.
It was several minutes before Aveline appeared. Shepard did nothing in the interim but wait, hands clasped loosely behind her back, expression carefully blank. Every marine recruit had done a stint of guard duty at some time or another. If you were good, or simply lucky, you learned to shut everything down until you were nothing more than a breathing statue. A herd of purple elephants could stampede by and, provided they were minding their own business and not presenting a threat, you wouldn't even blink.
These boys hadn't perfected it yet. They kept glancing nervously from Shepard to the karasten and back again. And when Aveline appeared, they stammered over their words and interrupted each other.
Shepard pitched her voice over theirs easily. "Captain," she said, "I appreciate you coming out to see me."
"Shepard?" Aveline was surprised, but she was a professional. There was only a tiny flicker of movement in her eyes.
"I need a favor."
"Oh?" Aveline folded her arms over her breastplate and shifted her weight - not a good sign.
"I can't park my qunari out here. People tend to try and pick fights with him. Could you escort him up to the viscount's office and make sure he doesn't stab anything important while I meet with Dumar?"
"He's an armed qunari," said the guard-captain flatly. "Absolutely not."
"You'd rather a mob form out here, then?" Shepard pressed. "I already had to disperse one down in Darktown."
Aveline scowled. "That was Darktown."
"And the nobles are going to take it any better? You'll be getting complaints for weeks."
By the twitch of the guardswoman's lips, Shepard knew she'd scored.
"Besides," Shepard added, "we're a little too close to the Chantry for comfort. You know what happened the last time qunari came to the Keep."
It was a low blow, but a necessary one. Aveline's scowl deepened. "Will he relinquish his weapon?" she asked.
Shepard gave her a look. "What do you think?" She tipped her head to the guard holding her dagger. "But I gave up mine."
The guard's throat moved as he swallowed hard.
"I see." Aveline fixed Shepard with a measured stare. "Can you tell him to go back to the compound?"
"Why is he here?"
Shepard shrugged. "He thinks he's my babysitter."
"Your what?" Aveline frowned at the term.
"Nanny?" Shepard tried.
The guard-captain blinked. "He's your nanny?" she said incredulously. Her posture stiffened slightly. "Aren't you a little old for a nanny?"
Shepard jerked a thumb over her shoulder. "Tell him that."
Aveline raised a hand to rub her forehead. "And I thought Hawke was bad," she muttered.
She lifted her head and there was a steely glint in her blue-grey eyes. "Guye!" she barked. "Go get the lieutenant and guardsman Brennan."
"Yes, Guard-Captain!" The guard named Guye snapped off a salute and hurried inside.
As soon as he left, Aveline let her eyes rove over the immobile giant. "How in Andraste's name did you wind up with a qunari nanny, Shepard?"
"It's a long and embarrassing story. You probably don't want to hear it," Shepard offered.
Aveline's eyes narrowed. "Shorten it."
Shepard shrugged again. "I argued with the Arishok."
Shepard coughed sheepishly. "I may have, er… broken my hand on his jaw once."
The guard's eyes widened. "You struck the Arishok?! And you're still alive?"
"Dying would have been a lot less complicated, believe me."
Hawke took the time to talk briefly with Jansen, the spokesman and de facto leader of the Fereldan miners. He was wearing a weary expression that said what else can this mine throw at us?
"Corpses," muttered Fenris, not quite under his breath. "Does she have any idea how much I hate corpses?"
"Aye, it is unsettling."
The elf shook his hair out of his eyes. "It's just another reminder of how the magisters will pervert anything to their will. They even make slaves of the dead."
"You believe a mage is behind this, then?" Sebastian asked. "This mine seems cursed enough without adding maleficar."
Fenris shifted uneasily. "My point. Magisters were here once. They may no longer be present, but the evil that they did still lingers in the very stone of this place."
Hawke was returning, her eyes flitting from one of her friends' faces to the other. "Well," she said, dropping her hands to her hips, "don't you two look cheerful."
"Let's get this over with," Fenris growled, stalking off.
Hawke watched him go. "Someone's a bit touchy today, isn't he?"
Sebastian cleared his throat gently. "I don't think he likes this place much."
Hawke snorted. "I don't like this place much, and I own half of it." She loosened her daggers in their sheaths and gestured with her head for the archer to follow her after the elf.
"Jansen says the trouble started after they cleared the rubble from an old, unused shaft at the far western end of the mine camp," Hawke went on, with a shake of her head. "I think I'm going to tell him not to open any new areas until I have a chance to check them out first, and Hubert be damned."
"Not a bad idea," Sebastian agreed. "These things do seem to crop up every time they expand."
They'd caught up to Fenris, who was waiting at the mouth of the mine's main entrance. "We'll clear out the main tunnels first, and then go take a look at this new shaft they uncovered. I'm guessing they disturbed something that didn't want to be bothered."
Fenris grimaced but gave a nod of acknowledgment.
"And remember - I have oil flasks. If you can draw a group of them to you, drop back and let me light them up."
Sebastian smiled briefly. "You know, Hawke… I think Shepard might be rubbing off on you. You used to just charge in, grinning madly, and let the tactics take care of themselves."
Hawke gave him a mad grin as she pushed past to take point.
"Varric always did say she'd be trouble."
"Serah… Shepard, isn't it?" said the elegantly dressed man before her. "I am Viscount Dumar's seneschal. I appreciate your prompt response to his request."
Ah. Hawke's version of Udina. Although at least he doesn't look as though he's suffering from painful hemorrhoids.
Shepard had settled automatically into parade rest, letting her eyes take in whatever they could while the man was speaking. Seneschal Bran was a tall, fit man - Shepard's first surprise - with deep red hair and hooded brown eyes. His features were chiseled and patrician, and his appearance neat, almost to the point of fussiness. Shepard's second surprise was that she couldn't read those eyes, or the expression on the coolly attractive face, beyond a superficial sort of weary disdain.
Watch it, Shepard. This is not Donnel Udina. There is more than just another conniving, scheming politician behind that mask. He's shrewd.
"Of course," Shepard replied politely.
"I am afraid your…" and at this Shepard noted a breath of hesitation, as Bran's eyes flicked over to the elephant in the room, "…friend… will have to remain in the outer offices, however."
Shepard could only pray that the karasten understood the finer points of military discretion as she answered, "That will not be a problem, Seneschal. The karasten is currently employed as my bodyguard."
She did not look back at the qunari as she was ushered forward by a slight wave of the seneschal's hand. Bran opened the door to the viscount's study for Shepard with one hand, and followed closely behind her as she entered.
Shepard remembered the viscount from the mission to rescue the Arishok's missing delegation. The ruler of Kirkwall looked more drawn than she remembered, the gray face more lined and haggard as he turned to look at her.
Uneasy is the head that wears the spiky coronet, eh?
She clasped her hands behind her back and gave the viscount a deep nod. "You wished to see me, Viscount?"
"You are one of Hawke's companions, are you not?" the man asked - rhetorically, Shepard had to assume. "I seem to recall that you were of some assistance in that qunari debacle."
"I wish it could have ended better, but yes, sir," Shepard responded.
Dumar paced a few steps. "You appear to have established ties with the qunari…" He stopped abruptly and turned to face her again. "Let me be blunt, Shepard. Are you a convert to this qun of theirs?"
"No, sir," Shepard said easily. "I'm a soldier, and not psychologically suited to philosophy."
The man's pale blue eyes raked over her. "Yes, but whose soldier?" he muttered sourly, under his breath.
"And why would a soldier need to employ a qunari bodyguard?" Bran's voice interjected from behind her, colored faintly with sarcasm.
Shepard did not bother to turn to look at him. She kept her eyes on the viscount, instead. "I did not say I employed him, merely that he was employed as a bodyguard," she corrected.
The correction clearly did not sit well with the viscount. His expression was one of both surprise and unease. "If you do not employ him," Dumar wondered aloud, "then who has such influence over the qunari?"
There was a soft snort from Bran. "Hawke?" the seneschal suggested.
Shepard smiled grimly. "Not Hawke."
The viscount's unease intensified, and he inhaled sharply. "The Arishok," he said quietly.
Shepard dipped her head in acknowledgment.
"And why would the leader of the qunari assign you a bodyguard?" Bran asked sharply.
Shepard shrugged briefly, hands still clasped behind her back. "He has some kind of interest in me."
"And what would that be?" Shepard could feel the seneschal's eyes boring into her back, but still refused to give the man any sort of validation, apart from answering his questions.
"You'd have to ask him," she said evenly.
Bran snorted again.
Dumar frowned. "That sounds more like a prison guard than a bodyguard," he said slowly, watching Shepard closely.
"Perhaps," Shepard admitted. "But so far, all they do is follow me around and try to kill anyone who attacks me."
"Kill?" Dumar's face blanched.
"Try to kill," Shepard corrected. "I prefer to handle my own problems."
The blue eyes raked her again. "Yes," murmured the viscount thoughtfully.
"But you were a prisoner of the qunari for several days, were you not?" Bran again, damn him.
"I was briefly incapacitated due to dehydration. The Arishok had his healer treat my illness. Evidently, he doesn't think much of the medical professionals in this town." Two could play this game.
"And now you have the qunari at your command."
Shepard smiled again. "Hardly," she said. "As I said, I have a qunari who follows me around and tries to kill people who attack me. My demands are of no consequence."
Dumar raised a hand to rub at his chin. "That is… not a comforting thought," he said.
"It's annoying, is what it is," Shepard informed him.
The viscount sighed. "So you're telling me I have a qunari roaming my streets prepared to offer random violence to my citizens?"
"Not random, no," Shepard replied. "And how is that news? You have an entire enclave of them living within the city's borders."
"You would choose to remind me."
"I'd think it would be hard to forget."
The blue eyes glittered briefly. No, there was no way for this man to forget the potential hostile force occupying his city.
Bran suddenly came into view in the periphery of her left eye. The seneschal was remarkably cat-footed.
"You are not from the Free Marches, I understand," the viscount said.
"From Orlais, or so Hawke would have the Templars believe," replied Bran, folding his arms over his chest.
"Hawke enjoys a joke on occasion," Shepard answered calmly. Now where was this going?
"So you are not from Orlais?" Dumar asked. "Another Fereldan refugee?"
Shepard tried not to shift her weight impatiently. "No."
"Tevinter, perhaps?" suggested Bran thoughtfully.
"No. I'm not from Thedas." Shepard held up one hand to forestall further questioning. "And before you can ask, I'm not sure how I ended up in Kirkwall, but it wasn't by choice." She paused for a moment and then added, "Hawke seems to believe it was some kind of magic." After all, wasn't magic the answer to most things in Thedas?
The viscount and his seneschal exchanged a glance. "Were you familiar with the qunari before you came to Kirkwall?" Bran pressed.
Shepard sighed. She was beginning to get irritated. "No. I'd never seen or heard of them before Hawke brought me with her to speak to the Arishok." She channeled her impatience into a straightening of her back - a sign anyone who knew her would deem a shift in Shepard's personal Defcon rating. "With all due respect, sir… could we please get to the point of this visit?"
Dumar straightened his shoulders as well. "Very well," he said crisply. "The political balance here in Kirkwall is… delicate… at the moment."
"You are doing everything in your power to complicate that," stated Bran, flatly. The viscount shot him a look, and the seneschal subsided.
"The presence of an… unknown quantity… has been cause for some concern," Dumar went on. "I wished to establish for myself where you fit in all this; whose agency you represent."
Shepard met his eyes unflinchingly. "My own."
Dumar nodded. "Your intentions are to return to your own land?"
"As soon as is absolutely possible."
He nodded again. "I suppose I must be satisfied with that," Dumar sighed.
"Yes," agreed Shepard, "you must."
Bran snorted yet again.
"Are we finished here?" Shepard asked. "Sir?"
"Yes, I believe so," Dumar answered. "You may go."
Shepard gave him a nod - shallower by far than her first - and turned to leave, the seneschal once again on her heels.
As they passed out into the outer chamber, Bran spoke.
"Are you always so disrespectful to your betters?"
Shepard thought of the Council. "When they deserve it."
"Really? I'm surprised you haven't been stripped of your rank by now."
Shepard tried not to grind her teeth. "Can't argue with results," she said flatly.
Well, technically, you can argue with results. And ignore results. Dismiss results. Claim results are delusional. Until you need results…
Shepard nodded to Aveline, who waited with the karasten. "Thanks for keeping him from ruining the carpet," she said to the guardswoman. "You," she thrust her chin at the karasten. "Let's go. Politicians give me hives."