Chapter Fifty-Eight

"My son," said the viscount, staring around the nave of the cathedral. "Attacked in the heart of the Chantry by those who held a sacred trust!" He took a deep, ragged breath. "What hope for this city, when we fail our own so completely?"

"It could have been worse, Excellency," Hawke said. "Seamus would certainly be dead if it were not for Shepard's intervention."

"Worse? My son, lost to the qun! Forgive me if I find little solace in his survival." The viscount's voice broke. "I cannot thank you for this, Hawke. Nor can I thank your friend Shepard."

Hawke shrugged, though Dumar was not looking in her direction. "I doubt Shepard would expect your thanks," she said truthfully. "As I understand it, she was acting in your son's interests, not yours."

"In the qunari's interests, you mean," snorted Dumar, turning to face her.

"Looking back on this later," said Hawke with uncharacteristic frost, "I think you'll find that Shepard was the best friend you could have had in these times." She shook her head. "If you think to doubt my words, I will remind you that it is Shepard who is, right now, smoothing things over with the Arishok."

I hope, she added to herself.

"Of… of course," said Dumar, giving himself a shake.

He looked so very alone, lost and broken among the bodies of those who would have killed his son.

"This is not over," Hawke said as gently as she could. "The city needs its leader."

"It does," said the viscount, on a sigh. "And I am no longer that person. I have already failed where it mattered most."

-ooo-

Shepard caught up to Ashaad and Seamus quickly, muttering krogan invective under her breath. The scout did nothing to acknowledge her presence, but Seamus glanced over his shoulder at her and offered a wan smile.

"Thank you, serah Shepard," he said. "You put yourself at great risk of harm to protect me."

Shepard shrugged. "Job hazard," she said dismissively. "I'm just glad I was there to help." She sent a glare at the back of the ashaad's armored head.

"As am I," Seamus said with sincerity. His brow furrowed. "I would reward you suitably, but I fear I no longer have the means to do so."

"That isn't necessary," Shepard demurred.

Seamus frowned. "I would not like you to think me ungrateful…"

"I don't," Shepard said, smiling. "You already said thank you, which is more than I've gotten from many." She glared again at the oblivious scout, and scowled briefly. "I suspect it's more than I'm going to get from His Exalted Qunness, the Arishok."

The boy's frown deepened. "I have never heard him called such before, serah Shepard. The qunari don't go in much for titles."

"Or names. I hope you're not too attached to yours. And that you get used to turning around to look whenever anyone says viddathari."

The frown broke into a smile. "I shall answer to it joyfully."

Shepard shrugged. "Whatever floats your boat, I guess."

The young man looked slightly puzzled. "I… have not heard such an idiom before, serah," he said cautiously. "Where is it you hail from? Ferelden?"

"A very long way away," Shepard answered. "The name would mean nothing to you."

"I see," said Seamus solemnly. "I have oftimes wondered, if one went far enough, if there would be a place with no wars, no petty squabbling for position or power, no prejudice…"

"Yeah, well," Shepard snorted. "You'd have to go a lot further than I have."

"Then again," mused Seamus, as if he hadn't heard her, "perhaps it is right here in front of us, in the qun."

"I thought the qunari had been at war with the mages for hundreds of years," Shepard pointed out. "And didn't I read that they occupied Kirkwall for a while?"

Seamus frowned. "You are correct, of course, serah," he sighed. "Perhaps if everyone accepted the ideals of the qun… but they do not."

Suddenly, Shepard wanted to shake the boy. Conformity and obedience as the means to end war? Well, yes That's how empires existed. But they didn't come about without conflict, and, inevitably, they seemed to end with conflict as well.

"I think I"ll go on ahead," she managed to say instead. "No sense in postponing the Arishok's temper tantrum any longer than necessary."

Shepard pushed into a jog and soon left the ashaad and his charge behind.

-ooo-

"Well," said Varric, when they were once again outside the Chantry walls, "that could have gone better."

"There is a bright side," Hawke replied.

"To that mess?" scoffed Varric.

"Yes," said Hawke, with a slightly manic grin. "I didn't have to talk to Seamus."

"He left with the qunari, Hawke," protested Varric. "You've only postponed it."

"Balls," said a crestfallen Hawke. "You're right."

"Perhaps it would have been better if the viscount's son had been killed," suggested Fenris dryly.

"Bite your tongue, Fenris," chided Hawke.

"Well?" said the elf. "If he were dead, the prospect of verturing in to the qunari compound to un-convert one of their viddathari would no longer hang over you like a sharpened blade."

Hawke turned to give Fenris a look. "Thank you for that delightful summation, Fenris," she said wryly. "But if Seamus had been killed and Petrice managed to put the blame on Shepard and the qunari, just imagine what trouble we'd be in now."

Varric shook his head. "We really need for the Arishok to find his stolen sweet roll and go home."

"Does anyone know what was stolen from the qunari?" Hawke asked. "I don't recall him saying anything about a sweet roll*, Varric."

"Whatever," said the dwarf. "It's been years, but maybe I could get something out of the Coterie or the Carta… If I knew what to ask about."

Hawke stopped dead, her eyes wide. "Andraste's tits, Varric! Why haven't we thought of that before?"

"Because the qunari would never share that information," said Fenris flatly.

"Oh." Hawke's face fell. Then her eyes narrowed. "Shepard," she said firmly. "If anyone can weasel the information out of the Arishok, it'd be Shepard."

Varric looked skeptical. "What? You think the Arishok will murmur it into Starkiller's ear as pillow talk?"

Fenris made a sound between a grunt and a snort. "I don't think the qunari engage in pillow talk."

Hawke shook her head stubbornly. "Shepard's our best chance. I'll talk to her."

"As soon as she comes back from her happy little meeting with the big ox-man?" Varric lifted an eyebrow. "You… I don't know… might want to pick your timing, Hawke."

"Excellent suggestion, my dear dwarf," noted Hawke. "I'll give her some time to swear and set things on fire a bit when she gets back, then I'll ask her."

Fenris shook his head darkly.

"If she comes back."

-ooo-

Shepard steeled herself as she entered the compound. She had no illusions that the Arishok would be pleased to find she'd meddled after he had expressly forbidden her interference, but she hoped that he would at least show a little gratitude for saving his high-profile convert.

Yeah, right. Because if there's one thing people can't wait to show you, it's gratitude, Shepard.

The Arishok was brooding on the edge of the sparring ring when Shepard arrived. Based on the fact that he didn't immediately roar at her or begin issuing demands, she felt certain the news had yet to reach his ears.

"Arishok, could we talk for a moment?" she asked him. "Privately," she added, glancing around at the soldiers around them.

"No."

"Please?" Shepard touched his elbow cautiously. "It's about Seamus - the viscount's son."

The Arishok turned to face her fully, folding his arms on his chest and looking down his nose at her.

Expectantly.

Shepard swallowed and glanced around again at the gathered antaam. "The message was a trap," she said. "But not one set by the viscount. It was…"

"The one called Petrice," finished the Arishok. "This is known to me."

Shepard's brow furrowed. "Then you know that she planned to pin the boy's death on you. Why didn't you have Ashaad stop them?"

The giant's expression remained the same, but there was something… some flicker in his eyes, that made Shepard think he was surprised.

Before she could say more, Ashaad himself arrived, gave Shepard a sharp look, and spoke quietly to his commander.

Now the impassive face changed. Not much, it was true, but Shepard had been around the Arishok enough to read the tiny change.

He was furious.

"Come," he snapped to Shepard, turning on his heel and stalking away.

"Great," Shepard muttered. She shot an unfriendly look at Ashaad. "Now you've pissed him off."

"You must learn your place, kadan," said the scout, stiffly.

"I know my place," Shepard replied. "I think it's time he learned my place, too."

-ooo-

"Aveline, we need to talk."

Hawke's voice was uncharacteristically serious as she entered the Guard-Captain's office in the Keep. Aveline looked up from her desk with surprise.

"What is it, Hawke?"

"Have you heard about the attack?" Hawke asked.

Aveline looked resigned. "Again? You'd think people would have learned by now to leave you well enough alone."

Hawke shook her head. "Not me. Seamus Dumar."

Aveline stood up so quickly she overturned an inkwell. She and Hawke both scrambled to rescue the desktop's contents before they were awash. A few didn't make it.

"Maker's balls," sighed Aveline, and then fixed Hawke with a steely stare. "You. Out with it."

Hawke shrugged. "It was Petrice again. She lured Seamus to the Chantry and set her followers to kill him."

"Kill him?" gasped Aveline. "Of all the daft…"

"She was planning on blaming the qunari for it," Hawke added.

Aveline's face paled. "Andraste's grace! Tell me she didn't succeed."

Hawke grinned. "Shepard was with him."

Aveline let out a breath. "Thank the Maker for that," she said grimly. "Although I don't think I want to know how Shepard was involved in all this. As if I didn't have enough to worry about with you running around loose in the city."

"Aveline!" cried Hawke with an expression of completely feigned hurt.

"It's true, and you know it."

Hawke shook her head she leaned one shoulder against the wall and gave her friend a worryingly intent stare. "There's a storm coming, Aveline. This is just the opening move in a very dangerous game."

"You're mixing metaphors again, Hawke," cautioned Varric.

"She knows what I mean," Hawke insisted.

Aveline nodded. "I know what she means," she sighed. "I wish they'd just go back to Par Vollen, or Seheron, or wherever."

"Actually," said Hawke slowly, "Varric had an idea along those lines."

"Well?" asked Aveline impatiently.

"The Arishok won't leave until he finds whatever this thing is that was stolen from them. We just figure out what it is and help him find it. Simple."

"Simple," echoed Aveline with a look of incredulity.

"I haven't worked out the fine detail yet," Hawke admitted. "But you're Captain of the Guard, Varric's got more connections than a tree has roots, and Isabela's good at thinking like a thief… How hard can it be?"

"Somehow, I don't think the Arishok is going to welcome your offer of help, Hawke," said Aveline dryly.

"I wasn't proposing to tell him, exactly," Hawke replied loftily.

Aveline folded her arms on her breastplate. "Oh? So how do you expect to find out what we're all looking for?"

Hawke smiled with satisfaction. "Shepard," she said smugly.

"Guard-Captain," said a voice from the doorway, a moment before Bran, the seneschal, strode in. He checked himself when he saw the rogue.

"You," he said with distaste. "What are you doing here?"

"Visiting a friend," said Hawke lightly. "And while I was here I thought I'd let her know that Shepard and the qunari have spared Kirkwall the price of a rope."

"I shouldn't be surprised," said Bran sourly. "And yet I am."

The seneschal glared at Hawke and folded his arms on his chest. "Whenever there is a threat to the stability of this office, you, serah Hawke, are somehow involved."

Hawke raised her shoulders and spread her hands wide. "I do so like to be involved in things," she said, but there was an edge to her voice that the seneschal would have no trouble deciphering. "But this time, I got an invitation. The viscount asked me to speak to Seamus. To try to convince him to return to the Keep."

Bran shook his head, his features drawing into a deep frown. "This is a disaster!" he exclaimed.

"But at least the boy is safe, for now," Hawke reminded him.

Bran snorted. "If ever I needed proof of your political naivete, serah Hawke, you have certainly provided it." His expression suggested he'd just bitten into a lemon. "Dead, I could salvage something of this situation. Rally the nobles to support the viscount in his grief and righteous anger.. Alive, the boy is nothing but a liability."

"But, on the other hand," said Hawke brightly, "he is alive." She cast a look at the guard-captain. "We'll talk later, Aveline." Her gaze slipped back to the seneschal.

"I still need to talk to the viscount's liability... Or was it his son? The two are so easy to confuse."

-ooo-

By the time they reached the library tent, the Arishok was making the deep rumbling growl that turned Shepard's insides to liquid fire. He whirled on her as soon as the tent flap had fallen shut behind her.

"Once again," he growled, "you have seen fit to involve yourself in matters of the qun. I am rapidly losing patience."

"You are?" Shepard retorted. "I lost mine a long time ago." She pointed in the direction of the tent flap. "Without my involvement," she continued, "Seamus Dumar would be dead. Is that what you wanted?"

"The viddathari is not your concern!" he roared.

"Like hell!" she roared back. "Part of my job is to protect people!"

"Your role is to learn and to submit, like all kabethari!"

"I am not one of your converts!"

The Arishok's eyes glittered. "You are kabethari, uncertain of your path. That will change."

"No. It won't," said Shepard firmly. "And we aren't talking about me. We're talking about Seamus Dumar."

One huge hand reached out and grasped her wrist. "You are wrong. On both counts."

Shepard broke his grip. "So what was your plan?" she asked, her voice bitter. "What political machinations would the kid's death serve?" She took a step forward and poked him in the chest. "What were you trying to prove?"

"I?" The broad brow furrowed beneath the sweeping horns. "I sought to prove nothing. Asit tal eb. What happened was simply a result of the foulness, the decay of this city." His eyes bored into hers, and he caught her wrist again. "Can you not see it yourself?"

An image of Omega arose in Shepard's mind. "I've seen worse," she retorted.

"When a wound festers, it matters little that another was worse. What matters is that the wound be treated; the rot removed. I can no longer ignore what is all around me." His fingers felt like the shackles she'd worn when the Alliance took her into custody the day she'd surrendered herself on Earth. She tried to break his grip a second time.

"An infection means nothing when you're bleeding out," she said from between her teeth. "If you take the city, many people— innocent people— will die."

There was a moment of gut-knotting tension. Shepard stopped struggling, and held the burning yellow stare heartbeat for heartbeat.

The Arishok released her.

"Go," he said. "Make certain the bas know I will no longer tolerate threats to the qun."

He turned his back to her, crossing the tent to the heavy chair behind the table. He looked up as he seated himself.

"The demand of the qun," he said ominously, "has changed."


A/N: *Can you tell I've been playing Skyrim a bit too much?