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Marceline Benoit

"Speak intelligently, act politely, smile, and hide bared fangs beneath a mask."

888 views · located in Thedas

a character in “The Canticle of Fate”, as played by Talisman

Description

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Full Name: Marceline Élise Benoît (MAR-cell-leen EH-leez ben-WAH)
Titles/Nicknames: Comtesse, Ambassador, Lady Marceline, Marceline will accept any of these, so long as proper respect is paid to her station. Only a select few can escape with calling her Marcy.
Age: 36 (9:42)
Race: Human
Gender: Female
Sexual Orientation: Heterosexual and happily married
Class: Rogue
Specialization: Duelist

Hair Color: Charcoal Black
Eye Color: Ocean Blue
Height: 5'8"
Build: Lithe

Appearance: Nobility seeps into ever fiber of the good Lady Marceline's being, so much so that it shouldn't much more than a brief once over to realize she is a noble birth and upbringing. Standing at just above what's considered the average for a woman, Marceline nevertheless exudes an air that demands respect. She stands straight and with a purpose and does not crane her neck to look at another, either from above or below. She paints a slender figure with an hourglass shape. There is not a lot of muscle on her frame, but enough to not go without. Her build does not scream intimidating in the very least, but instead whispers grace and beauty. She takes her steps with a gentle sway of her hips and a straightened spine-- She does not bow easily.

A mane of immaculate jet black hair frames her face and falls down past her shoulders to taper off near the middle of her back. It possesses a volume to it not unheard of in Orlais, with gentle rolls that bob with each step that she takes. It's very clear that time is spent on her hair, as with her appearance as a whole. It's keeps an ever present sheen, praising the fact that she always keeps it clean, and a vague scent of lavender confirms it. She never attempts to tie it up or somehow make it seem lesser than it is. A pair of ocean sky blue eyes contrasts and complements her look. While her hair eats the light shown on it, her eyes reflect them with a spark. The glasslike orbs sit in wide sockets giving her the notion that she is always watching and that she always knows. You decide what. A beauty mark sits under one of these sockets, further reinforcing nobility.

Her face is a smallish thing, with rounded cheeks. A thin nose with thinner lips give her a petite, ceramic doll quality though she is far more expressive than that would imply. She is... controlled in her expression, much like she is with everything else. She can be found with a small smile one moment, or a thoughtful frown the next. Her eyes can go from accusing, to curiosity, to understanding in a short span of time. Anything that the moment requires. Her skin has a paleness, but not of the sickly quality, but rather that of an individual who was a stranger to constant physical activity. In fact, her skin is of a softer make and is quite silky to the touch.

She strides with a grace given to her by her station. Regal is the keyword when attempting to describe Marceline and it bleeds into everything she is and everything she does.

9:42: Moving from an established endeavor to a fledgling one takes a certain toil, and to Lady Marceline's credit she appears to be handling it very well. She uses enough make-up to cover the crow's feet around her eyes and the wrinkles beginning to form in the corners of her mouth. Otherwise, she appears to take very good care of her body.


“Grace, beauty, and strength in equal measure."


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Apparent Demeanor: Lady Marceline is a woman of many masks, masks that she chooses carefully and deliberately to fit the situation at hand. A player in the Grand Game of Orlais, she has cultivated these masks in order to further her own goals, whatever they may be at the moment. As such, she's become quite adept maneuvering and posturing herself politically. She is exactly what she needs to be in order to satisfy her agenda. Despite these masks, there are a few constants. Marceline is an educated woman. having attended college at Val Royeaux, and she speaks with an intelligent dialect with flourishes one would expect from the nobility. There's also a subtle stubbornness under the veneer of each mask, clearly belonging to a woman who always gets what she wants, sooner or later.

She's pragmatic at heart and will always attempt to take the path of least resistances, which is not to say that she is no stranger to difficulties. However, if the path available is the easiest for all involved, then it is one that she would pursue. She also possesses a tendency to "cut the knot" so to speak, if such an option presents itself. She's also a keen observer, of both body language and the smaller details. She's able to read the average person and savvy enough to use it to her own advantage. She's quick on her feet and with her tongue, and can steer a conversation toward the desired topic if need be. There's also the habit she has to research those she would meet, to know as much about them as possible. In fact, she can be considered predatory in the way she will stalk her target.

These masks can make her seem cold and conniving, and those that would call her that would not be too far off the mark. One must leave emotions at the door when they play the Game. It is dangerous to have tells, to act predictable, and to allow emotions to cloud her mind and to let others see her hand. However. This does not mean she has lost herself. There still lies a woman beneath the masks. Marceline, not the Lady Marceline, not the Comtesse, but Marceline is grounded by her husband and her son who could care less about the masks she wore. To them, she is a kind woman who would put their well-being above power and what reputation she can earn.

To those that can peel the masks back, she is a warm woman who cherishes her friendships and would do anything to see that those she would call her friends remain safe. She can laugh and joke as easily as the next person, but it's tempered. Marceline is not a woman of excess, and she is a difficult woman to anger, instead regarding the attempts with a cold ire. Even-tempered even among friends, it takes a lot for Marceline to break, whether to awkwardness, anger, or joy. She is also a devout Andrastian, though it can be forgiven to not immediately realize this. Pragmatism wins out over her faith, and she will not shove the Maker and Andraste down anyone's throat. In her experiences, debates about religion will always ignite into arguments, and arguing makes everyone look like fool.

9:42: Marceline has painted a somewhat caring figure alongside her business-like demeanor, though it is unclear that if this remains one of her masks or something more genuine. In truth, Marceline is not entirely sure herself, though perhaps it is a bit of both, glances of genuine emotion peaking out from the gaps of her masks. She has relaxed and settled into her new position very nicely, though it would be forgiven to think otherwise, considering how easy her focused demeanor returns to her when necessary. Despite that, she obtained a habit of worrying about the others in the Inquisition, though she tends to be subtle and not at all apparent about it. But she does worry for them.

Hangups/Quirks: Marceline is... Protective of her family to put it lightly. Threats to her personally are brushed off as easily as drops of rain on her shoulder, but threats to either her son or her husband with be met quickly with a cold burning fury, and the intent to see ones who made such threats no longer have the power to enact them. On the other side of the coin, Lady Marceline does not employ assassins or seek to bring physical harm or death upon her enemies. She would much rather see their station ripped out from beneath them than to see death befall them. It is a matter of pride to her, to play the Game cleanly and to keep blood off of her hands. Pride is another quirk. She has an unconscious habit to act elitist around those she would consider lesser, and there are quite a few of those individuals.

9:42: Slowly but surely, that protectiveness is starting to extend to the others in the Inquisition. This is best seen in the way she is reluctant to send the Inquisitors forth without knowing all of the facts of where they will be heading, or at the every least some of them. She is a woman of knowledge, and she does not like the idea of throwing her people into the unknown.

Strengths: Lady Marceline's strength lies in her mind, as she is both an intelligent and cunning creature. Words and information are her weapons of her choice to defeat her enemies. In the years that she has played the Grand Game of Orlais, she has cultivated a number of contacts among the nobility and elsewhere both inside and out of Orlais' courts. These dealings have made her both shrewd and canny, giving her a sort of predatory impression. Lady Marceline is ambitious and she is certain that any deal brokered benefits her or hers in the long run, and she is willing to press the envelop is she believes the reward at the end is worth it.

Make no mistake, the Ambassador is not a noble who is content to do nothing. She is a driven individual with her sights set on the end goal and has few compunctions on how she reaches them. She has a knack for reading people and she is able to be rather emphatic if the situation calls for it. Make no mistake, despite the elitist air Lady Marceline is a people person. If she weren't it would be hard to make and keep the contacts that she does, and she would be shunned at court.

Weaknesses: A chevalier, though trained by them, she is not. She is not the most combative adversary to be found on the battlefield, if she can even be found there in the first place. She is able to fight and defend herself if necessary, but her battles are fought on paper and in the court, not on a field. She is able to take on a few enemies, but she can not slay an entire unit on her own, and she would require aid from other sources to ensure she survives such encounters.

In matters other than martial, Marceline possesses a stubborn streak. When she desires something she will stop short of nothing to attain it-- just ask her husband. Pride also tends to blind her, causing her to underestimate individuals she considers lesser, of which is no small amount. More than that, however, is the disconcerting tendency she has to take on too much work and silently suffer under the weight of all the stress. It causes no small amount of worry to her family, and though the cracks are small, those close enough to her can see them. She will become a old woman long before it is her time.

Fears: Though bottled up, she harbors many fears, most of them centered on her family. She worries for Michaël's wellbeing during his tours as a soldier during the civil war. She worries that she isn't giving Pierre the time that he deserves. She fears losing everything she is and has and pulling her family under with her. Most of all, she's worried about leaving the world without making it a better place for Pierre to live in.


“When one plays the Game, they must don a mask. The mask hides the face, clouds
intentions, and prevents another from reading the next step in the dance.
One must be careful to keep this mask on at all times when playing,
lest one reveal their true self to the enemy.”





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Strength: XXXXXx | ▇▇▇▇▇ | [5/10]

Dexterity:XXXXX | ▇▇▇▇▇▇▇ |[7/10]

Intelligence: XXX | ▇▇▇▇▇▇▇▇ | [8/10]

Cunning: XXXXXX | ▇▇▇▇▇▇▇▇▇ | [9/10]

Wisdom: XXXXXX | ▇▇▇▇▇▇ | [6/10]

Magic: XXXXXXXX | | [0/10]

Willpower: XXXX | ▇▇▇▇▇▇ | [6/10]

Constitution: XXX | ▇▇▇ | [3/10]

Weapon of Choice: The true weapon that Lady Marceline wields is that of words. However, even the sharpest of words will do little to scratch steel plate and there is no compromising with a blade aiming for her heart. Toward that end, the wields a pair of weapons for when words fail. A silverite basket-hilted rapier in one hand and a main-gauche in the other. The weapons a meticulously crafted and honed to a fine edge, and the metal gifts them with an uncommon durability.

Fighting Style/Training: To assume that Lady Marceline is useless in battle due to her station is foolish. Though she attempts to avoid bloodying her hands at all possible, when no other options present themselves she is unafraid to draw her blade. Having been part of a primarily military family, she has learned second-hand from both her father and her husband to be able to stand her ground. Marceline is a duelist through and through and the way she fights is both graceful and fluid, relying on precision and intellect over raw strength. She is patient in a fight willing to allow her foes to make the first step, and thus the first mistake, so that she can assess and react accordingly. She also possesses the tendency to use anything and everything she is able to gain and advantage, including but not limited to taunting foes to grant her a one one one battle or forcing them to lose their composure. While not the most physical combatant, she can hold her own if need be.


“In the right mouth, a tongue can be more dangerous than a sword.
A blade can end a life, yes, but words can end dynasties. Do not underestimate them.”


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Place of Birth: The west banks of Lake Celestine, Val Firmin, Orlias
Social Status/Rank: Comtesse of the West Banks, Owner of Lécuyer Vineyards, and occasional Orlesian ambassador.

History: While not especially prolific, Marceline's past is neither a closely guard secret. Maiden name Lécuyer, Lady Marceline was born to a chevalier by the name of Lucas and Comtesse Gabrielle. She was not born far away from the city of Val Firmin, in the Lécuyer's estate on the west banks of Lake Celestine. Much of their holdings consist of vineyards and winery, and the shrewd woman than her mother was, managed to provide the beverage of choice for many of Orlais's countless salons and soirées. They are particularly known for their wide selections of both ordinary and seasonal wines. It then comes to little surprise that her mother was an apt player of the Game as well. While not particularly famous, the Lécuyer's are known. Her father, however, was a chevalier, through and through, and knew more about how to handle a shield and swing a sword than any sort of politics, so he let his wife handle most of the intricacies, and tried to not earn her scorn by doing something foolish.

Even at a young age Marceline was an intelligent child, the perfect heir to the Lécuyer brand. She attended academy in the nearby Val Firmin and excelled in her studies, though she enjoyed to learn first hand than from musty books. Marcy became better known as Lady Gabrielle's little assist. Her father, on the occasions he was home, saw to it that his little Marcy wouldn't grow up to be defenseless. Though he couldn't imagine life without her now, he was initially disappointed to find that his first and only child was a little girl, rather hoping for a son to carry the family shield. Still, some of Marceline's fondest memories of childhood was the taste of ripened grapes after watching her mother iron out a trade agreement and a mock duel with her father.

Years passed, and Marcelines continued to excel at her studies. Eventually, she decided that the college in Val Royeaux was her next move. It wasn't a parting with her family, not by any means. Her family had an estate in Val Royeaux when business called her mother there, and her father, now a chevalier-commander, had a regiment of his own stationed in the capitol. She stayed at the estate during her studies. It was there she found her other half. A few years in college, her father asked her to accompany him as they watched the men train. That's when she met a chevalier named Michaël Benoît. An incident involving him tripping an entire march because the presence of a certain woman took his eye off the task at hand. Despite the disciplining Lucas gave him, Marceline and Michaël remained in contact through letters... He was not pleased, to say the least.

Still, despite what Lucas thought about the man, Marceline proved too much like her mother and within a few years the pair was wed, Marceline taking his name. She had graduated from the college at this point, and she began to carve out a life of her own. She began as a political attendant to a Duke, where she spent a few years. Afterward she played many roles, she's been a diplomat to Nevarra and various city states of the Free Marches. She'd also given birth to her first son, named Pierre during this period. Her parents had both retired by this point in their lives, and helped take care of the child while both Marceline and Michaël were away. Marceline always made time for her family, and sent constant letter back home when she was away, and even took Pierre with her on occasions when he grew.

Now Marceline has inherited the Lécuyer brand upon her mother's retirement, and even has a stake in the Benoît printing press.





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“Words carry weight, mine moreso.”

So begins...

Marceline Benoit's Story

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Marceline Benoit Character Portrait: Cyrus Avenarius Character Portrait: Leonhardt Albrecht

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It had taken them about a week from the time he’d summoned Estella back to Haven to make the trip out to Val Royeaux. The Inquisition proper was yet without horses, but the Lions were not, and an explanation to her comrades was all that was necessary to secure the required mounts, and so the three of them had managed to cover the ground a great deal more quickly. Cyrus, Estella’s twin and apparently quite the expert in magical matters, was a more experienced traveler than Leon would have guessed, and of course a Seeker and a mercenary were both no stranger to the road, so they made efficient time, more perhaps than they would have with a larger party.

Not, he believed, that this had much to do with the Revered Mother’s reasoning for recommending that the young woman rather than her counterpart take care of this. It was sound argumentation, at any rate, and something that could only help them, even if it was simply by getting more people to talk about them, to see that there was more to them than some set of anonymous shadow heretics.

Anything would help them at this point. Additionally, of course, Val Royeaux was where he was to meet his own contact, someone the Divine had put him in touch with prior to her death, via a circuitous family of connections that began with Rilien’s bardmistress and ended with a well-traveled noblewoman apparently willing to take on the diplomatic endeavors their cause would require. He had only corresponded with the Lady Marceline Benoît via letter thus far, but he had found her to be keen of wit at the very least, and Rilien assured him that they could do much worse, in that odd fashion he had that probably shouldn’t properly count as reassurance but somehow did anyway.

They’d dismounted about ten minutes ago, and left their mounts with a stableman not too far from the gates, which they now approached. As was ordinary in the middle of the day, they were open to entrance, with a couple guards posted mostly for show. It wasn’t like any bandits were just going to march into the heart of the most powerful nation in all of Thedas.

They had taken only the first few steps inside the gate before they were approached. It was a woman, an elf judging by the shape of her ears and the wideness of her eyes. On her face she wore a mask, like most of those that resided in Orlais. It was of fine make, crafted of silverite and studded with sapphires down the right cheek. The mask cut off at the tip of the nose and bottom of the cheek, the nose of the mask curving upward and giving the mask an avian appearance.

As she approached with her hands tucked into her sleeves, it was clear she stood a few inches shorter than Estella. "Ser Albrecht?" she said with beautiful voice, pleasant and soft to the ears, "and Lady Herald, I presume?" She then bowed deeply and rose again. "I am Larissa. Mistress Marceline expected your arrival."

From beside Estella, Cyrus looked ever-so-slightly miffed, probably due to the fact that he’d just been ignored, but the expression was gone so swiftly it might never have been there at all, replaced by a smile that one might best describe as ‘courtly,’ one of those worn by people born to nobility and its subtle trappings as well as the obvious ones. A charmer’s smile, if one would.

“All these years, and I’ve never once been to Val Royeaux. Clearly, this was a grievous error on my part. Perhaps I shall take up ornithology?” There were a lot of things that could have meant, but the best guess was that it was some oblique form of flirtation.

Larissa took the comment in stride and turned to bow to Cyrus as well. "Of course milord, but may I suggest caution? Orlais possesses many dangerous genus of bird. Your studies may prove... detrimental."

Cyrus raised both brows, looking quite unthreatened, for what could easily have been interpreted as a veiled threat. “In that case, I think I shall like it here even more than I expected.” Larissa simply smiled.

Leon resisted the urge to sigh. Deeply. He’d forgotten how young his charges really were. Not that he was an old man, but he’d been a Seeker since these two were just hitting adolescence, and that did make him feel strangely ancient. “Yes, well,” he said, clearing his throat to draw everyone’s attention back to him. “While I’ve no doubt that you both have wit enough to banter for days, we do need to see the Lady Marceline, and if she’s expecting us, I doubt we want to make her wait.”

Estella shot him a look he interpreted much more easily than anything the other two said, and it was gratitude, so at least he wasn’t frightfully boring to everyone, he supposed. Really, the sooner they left, the better; his sensibilities were far from Orlesian in character, and already the city seemed far too… ostentatious, for his liking. It was even in the architechture.

"Of course milord. If you would, please follow me," Larissa said, turning and leading the group into Val Royeaux proper. Their path took them through the city, under brightly colored awnings and immaculately kept buildings. Along the way, they passed many more citizens who donned masks much like Larissa's, but each slightly different. Music seemed to follow them wherever they went, be it from windows of the buildings, or from an adjacent street. The capital of Orlais seemed to earn her reputation.

They reached a long thoroughfare crossing what seemed to be a giant reflecting pool when Larissa spoke. "Mistress Marceline awaits in Le Masque du Lion Café in the Summer Bazaar. Please," She said, leading them over the bridge and into the bazaar. Merchants hawked their wares in the bazaar, and a turn later brought them to the café in question. It was partly open air, giving them a view of those situated with in.

It was here Larissa stopped them. "I apologize. It appears mistress is still in her meeting with Marquis DuRellion. Please be patient until their business is concluded," she told them, turning her head toward a pair of nearby patrons, one male and one female. It seemed that these were the two in question

The woman, apparently the Lady Marceline, wore a fine black dress adorned with purple accents and stitching. Her mask was also made of silverite like Larissa's, but hers was cut in the middle of the cheek. On either side, feathers were worked into the metal and raised, possessing a coat of purple flake paint. The man, DuRellion, also wore a mask, his covering the majority of his face, showing only his mouth and chin, and a mustache was carved under the nose.

Even over the ambient din of the café, their conversation could be heard.

"The Inquisition cannot remain in Haven, Lady Marceline. Not if you can't prove it was founded on Justinia's orders," the man said with his arms crossed and his back straight in the chair that he sat.

"Your Grace, you must understand, now is not the best of times. More and more flock to your town daily," the woman said in a warm and kindly tone.

The man shifted his weight in chair and shook his head, "My house lent the Divine those lands for a pilgrimage. Your Inquisition was not part of the arrangement." His brows furrowed and he raised his hand to point at her. "We were overjoyed and honored to lend Haven to the Divine, she was... A woman of supreme merit. I will not see an upstart Order to remain on her holy grounds."

Lady Marceline's lips formed a straight line, though a hint of sadness remained in them. "I understand your Grace, I truly do. Divine Justinia was a wonderful woman, and she will be dearly missed by all." She paused, seemingly out of respect for the deceased, but then continued. "But it is the Inquisition-- Not the Chantry that shelters the people who come to mourn the passing of the Divine. My Lord DuRellion, the Divine would not wish us to squabble like this, and she would not want her death to divide us."

She then reached out to place a comforting hand on the Marquis's arm, lending him a warm smile. "We face a dark time. Lord DuRellion, she would wish that we band together, forge new alliances, and face this coming storm together, not apart."

The Marquis sighed and shook his head. "I... What you say is true, she would not want us to quarrel. I will think on it, Lady Marceline."

"That is all I ask Lord DuRellion." With that, they began to stand, and that was when she caught the eye of Leon. "Before you take your leave Marquis, if you would allow me, I would to introduce you to the Herald herself," she said, leading him to the group, and Estella specifically.

"Marquis DuRellion, I present to you Lady Estella Avenarius."

Leon couldn’t help but think to himself that he should have warned Estella of this possibility. She probably thought she was coming here to talk to clerics, not nobles, and there was a brief flash of undisguised panic on her face before it swiftly disappeared, forced under what could only be a veneer of calm. Clearing her throat softly, she dropped into a curtsey. As far as Leon could tell, it wasn’t a bad one, either, though the stiffness in her shoulders betrayed her continued discomfort.

“Y-your Grace. It is good to meet you. The Inquisition extends its gratitude for your generosity in this trying time.” She smiled thinly, and Leon’s brows rose just slightly. The correct noble form of address, and more or less what he figured was the right thing to say. That had actually gone much better then expected.

“Please also allow me to present High Seeker Leonhardt Albrecht, and Lord Cyrus Avenarius, my brother.” Well, that explained it. If her brother was a lord, she must have been noble at some point in her life, right? Leon inclined his head by way of greeting, as did Cyrus, though it was hard to mistake that the latter was more interested in his surroundings than the introduction.

Behind the Marquis, what can only be described as a pleased look crept into Marceline's face.

DuRellion bowed in response and spoke, "A pleasure Lady Estella. High Seeker, my Lord," he added, greeting Leon and Cyrus in turn. "I apologize, but I cannot stay. I have matters to attend to, surely you understand. Lady Marceline?" He said, turning to the woman, "We shall speak again, I have no doubt. Until then... The Inquisition may remain."

Marceline curtsied in response and said, "Thank you, your Grace." With that the Marquis took his leave.

Once out of earshot, Marceline turned toward Estella and nodded with a satified look. "Aside from the initial grimace, you handled yourself especially well Lady Estella. Now, as for introductions: My name is Lady Marceline Élise Benoît, Comtesse of the West Banks of Lake Celestine and the owner of the Lécuyer Vineyards brand of wine," she said with another curtsy. "I am told that I am to handle the matters of a diplomatic nature for the Inquisition, correct?"

Estella looked immediately to Leon, and he spared her the necessity of a response. He’d been warned that Lady Marceline was of distinctively Orlesian temperament, so to speak, and he’d dealt with that before. “We have been reliably informed that it is well within your capabilities, milady,” he cut in politely. “And as I’m sure the Marquis has aptly demonstrated, it will be a task of no mean challenge, nor significance. I’ve been handling most of it myself up to this point, but I have an army to provision, and our mutual acquaintance Ser Rilien has… other matters to handle.”

He was conscious of the fact that they were still in a public location, after all, and proclaiming for all listening ears that the Inquisition had spies and a truly impressive, if still nascent, network of information handlers was not the best way to curry favor with the public. Even if it became obvious, it must never be said.

All of it gave him a headache, quite frankly. He’d been glad to be the youngest in his family, so as to never have to deal with this kind of thing, but unfortunately, he’d had more than one encounter with politics since becoming a Seeker, and these days he anticipated many more.

"The Marquis?" she laughed, though it was a mild, even thing. The expressions she had worn with the Marquis were gone, replaced with something far more neutral. "His position is not as certain as he makes it out to be. The DuRellions are Orlesian, and despite their Fereldan relations, if he were to wish to lay claim upon Haven, he would have to petition the Empress to negotiate with Fereldan on his behalf." She frowned at this, and slowly shook her head. "Unfortunately, her Radiance is preoccupied with concerns far more larger than petty land disputes."

She shrugged and spoke again. "However, it is better to allow him to believe that it was his idea to let the Inquisition remain in Haven than to force the matter ourselves. I would far rather have him as a potential ally than an enemy."

“Really?” Cyrus broke back into the conversation, and though he didn’t roll his eyes, the same thing was implied by his tone—bored, skeptical. “With potential allies like that, will we have time to deal with our enemies? Seems better to cut rotting ropes before they snap unexpectedly.”

Marceline smiled, but there was no humor in it. "Perhaps, but there is a difference between idle complaints and a concerted effort to undermine us," the smile then fell out of her lips and something far more solid replaced it. "I will not stand for the latter."

"We would rather build bridges than burn them." It was Larissa who had spoken that time. "Shall I gather the ser and the young lord?" She asked Marceline, whom nodded her approval. With that, Larissa took her leave.

“I for one will be glad to leave the bridge architecture to you,” Leon said wearily. Maybe he’d actually be able to sleep at some point in the future, though he didn’t think it likely, for more than one reason. Well, that could all be dealt with later. Right now, they had one more matter to attend to, and that was taking the Revered Mother’s advice.

“It has been recommended, soundly I think, that we seek out some of the members of the clergy here in Val Royeaux, so as to better acquaint them with our organization and our Herald.” The one that wouldn’t scare them too much, anyway. “I was going to head to the Grand Cathedral, but if you have any more pertinent suggestions, I’d be grateful to know them.”

"It sounds as if we are to build bridges even now," she said, a knowing smile on her face. "Personally, I would suggest we pen a letter first, describing our intentions and to give us time to prepare but..." she said, her ocean blue eyes peering at Estella from behind the silverite mask. "I believe it would serve our purposes better for them to meet the Herald as she is now. We do not wish to manufacture her as something she is not."

"That and I do not believe the Chantry is in the mood to be recieving letters... So then. To the Grand Cathedral. Ser Albrecht?" She asked, gesturing for them to begin and make their way there.

Leon nodded, and turned to lead the way.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Marceline Benoit Character Portrait: Cyrus Avenarius Character Portrait: Leonhardt Albrecht

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They left the café with Leon leading the way, Lady Marceline only a step behind him. To get to the Grand Cathedral, they would have to go back over the Avenue of Reflective Thought over the Miroir de la Mère, the giant reflecting pool that sat under the bridge. It was a beautiful piece of architecture, Lady Marceline had found, and the trek over the bridge was relaxing at worst. Unfortunately, other matters would see that they not reach the bridge. As they made their way across Summer Bazaar, a crowd had gathered.

Lady Marceline had slowed her step to investigate the cause, and stopped outright when she saw the root. The crowd was surrounding a Revered Mother who was flanked by a templar and others of the Chantry cloth. "Ser Albrecht," she said to get his attention, before she pointed toward the head of the crowd. "I believe I have found your clergy." Well, that would make finding them easier, however, she did not particularly enjoy the thought of what the crowd meant.

Crowds could easily turn into mobs, and a mob would not look too fondly upon the Herald of Andraste. Especially if provoked by the Chantry.

Though if she was worried, it did not show on her face. In fact, it was quite even, refusing to betray even the slightest of emotion.

The Revered Mother raised her arms and lifted her voice, carrying it above the murmurs of the gathered people as they wondered what was about to happen. "Good people of Val Royeaux, hear me!" She stepped forward to the edge of the platform she stood upon. It was hastily erected, but effective nonetheless at making the otherwise unimposing woman rise above the crowd.

"Together, we mourn our Divine. Her naïve and beautiful heart silenced by treachery! You wonder what will become of her murderers. Well, wonder no more!" She swept an arm out dramatically, pointing it directly at Estella and narrowing her eyes. "Behold, a so-called Herald of Andraste! Claiming to rise where our beloved fell." She shook her head. "We say this is a false prophet! No servant of anything beyond her selfish greed!" Some of the crowd looked shocked at the strength of the accusation, and all looked to the Herald and her allies to see their response.

The sudden charge, perhaps combined with the vehemence of it, seemed to catch Estella off-guard, and she took half a step backward, raising both of her hands in front of her to the level of her shoulders in a placating gesture. “N-no, please Revered Mother, you misunderstand. I don’t claim to know the will of the Maker or Andraste, only to have the desire to close the Breach. This isn’t—I want nothing else. We have no other aim.” Her tone was earnest, borderline pleading, and she wore openly an expression that conveyed the same.

Lady Marceline allowed Estella to speak without any intervention from her. Estella sounded earnest in her admissions, far more than she could muster and her agreement would more likely harm than help. She wisely chose to let Estella to continue. They needed to see the Herald, not her.

“She speaks truly,” Leonhardt said, his tone carrying about the authority one would expect of a Seeker in such a situation. “The Inquisition’s sole purpose is to close the Breach before it is too late.”

“It is already too late,” the Mother replied, gesturing to her left. Most of the heads in the crowd turned, and their eyes fell on a small group of heavily-armored men and women, most of them recognizably wearing the armor of templars. The man in front, perhaps in his mid-forties, had well-tended grey hair and more elaborate armor than the rest, whereas the woman half a step behind him wasn’t dressed as a templar at all, though the Seeker’s eye was prominent on the half-cloak that was draped from one shoulder. She was tall, taller even than the man in front, probably of a height with Cyrus, her complexion deep and her face dotted with contrasting white paint. Though the others wore swords and shields, she carried no weapons.

“The Templars have returned to the Chantry!” The Revered Mother declared this with triumph, frowning down at Estella and the others. “They will face this Inquisition, and the people will be safe once more!” As she’d spoken, the group of them had started to advance up the stairs to the platform, and the man in the lead passed in front of her as though she weren’t present at all.

The woman behind him wore a scowl, in contrast to his neutral expression, and as she drew even with the Revered Mother, she drew one hand back and delivered an unexpected blow to the cleric’s head, catching her in the other arm as she started to fall forward and tossing her limp form at another one of the assembled Chantry brothers, who caught her with a grunt, falling to his knees to break her fall. The woman’s lip curled slightly, and she shook her head with evident disdain, following the apparent leader as he continued across the stage.

From slightly behind her, Marceline could hear a smothered laugh, which quickly became a cough, and resolved itself as nothing more than a clearing of the throat. It appeared the whole spectacle was amusing at least one of the Avenarius siblings, and it wasn’t Estella. She threw a hard glance behind her before turning her attentions back forward.

The templar that had accompanied the Revered Mother, a striking woman with long, dark hair in elaborate braids, reacted with surprise to the blow struck against the cleric. Clear anger flared in her eyes, but the leader of the group of templars stepped in front of her, grabbing her sword arm quite firmly above the elbow.

"Still yourself, Knight-Captain," he ordered. "She is beneath us." The templar woman's mouth opened as if to protest, but she seemed to think better of it, pressing her lips tightly together instead, and nodding.

"As you say, Lord Seeker." Her disagreement with him was thinly veiled, but she made no further protest.

"How dare you?" Marceline stated. Her tone was not one of anger, but something far more colder. The even, icy tone continued into her next words. "What is the meaning of this? What do you hope to accomplish by striking the Revered Mother?" The only thing she saw accomplished was a degree of blasphemy unheard of, and from a Seeker no less.

The man finally deigned to react to the presence of another, and turned cold eyes towards them. “Her claim to authority is an insult. Much like your own.”

This seemed to stir Leonhardt to action, and he stepped forward, his brow heavily creased. “Lord Seeker, what—”

“You will not address the Lord Seeker.” That came from the tall woman, and she stepped down to block Leonhardt’s path. He looked genuinely surprised at this.

“Ophelia? You endorse this?” His tone was one of obvious incredulity, and he looked at the woman in front of him as though he were seeing her for the first time, which nevertheless he clearly was not.

Her silence was stony, but the Lord Seeker spoke up. “Creating a heretical movement, raising up a puppet as Andrate’s prophet, to say nothing of the other one.” His lip curled, and looked to Estella as though she were something on the bottom of his shoe that smelled foul. She visibly winced. His eyes found Leonhardt again.

“You should be ashamed, for you do shame to us.”

He angled himself to better regard the crowd as a whole, for they were watching with rapt attention. Raising his voice, he continued. “You should all be ashamed! The templars failed no one when they left the Chantry to purge the mages!”

“This is ridiculous—” Leon was clearly not inclined to simply weather the words in silence, but Lucius shouted over him.

“You are the ones who have failed! You who’d leash our righteous swords with doubt and fear!” He scoffed. “If you came to appeal to the Chantry, you are too late. The only destiny here that demands respect is mine.”

“B-but…” That was Estella again, though her tone was much more tentative. It was clear she didn’t take being lambasted very well. “The Breach, it’s so much bigger than this, don’t you see? If we don’t do something, none of the rest of it will matter.” From his former position some distance away, Cyrus approached his sister, moving up behind her and laying a hand on her shoulder. He didn’t physically intercede between her and the Lord Seeker, but his body language was an obvious message nevertheless, and though his expression was still placid, his eyes could have been flecks of stone.

A gust of air slipped past Marceline's lips, sharing what she thought of this Lord Seeker's respect. After her initial indignation, Marceline went flat, unimpressed by this thug in the armor of a Seeker. "Whatever it is you have to say, it will not matter to him," she said to Estella, "He is too blinded by his own percieved destiny to see reason."

The Lord Seeker didn't seem to care what Marceline said, reacting violently instead to Estella's words. "Oh, the Breach is indeed a threat. But you certainly have no power to do anything about it."

The Knight-Captain the Lord Seeker had addressed before stepped forward at his side. She drew the eyes of some of the other templars, but her own were leveled at Estella and her friends. "Do not think you have the authority to dictate the Lord Seeker's path. Or the wisdom to question his judgement." Lucius glanced at her, her words seeming to swell his visible sense of righteousness.

"I will make the Templar Order a power that stands alone against the void," he said. "We deserve recognition. Independence!" He glared again at Estella, as though she had somehow personally wronged him. "You have shown me nothing. Your Inquisition... less than nothing." He turned to his templars at large. "Templars! Val Royeaux is unworthy of our protection! We march!"

He turned, and led the entire group of them away from the gathering, not once looking back. The templar Knight-Captain, while her expression was still quite stony, offered Estella a brief wink on her way out, before she confidently strode after the departing Lord Seeker.

Estella blinked, apparently surprised, and released a long sigh. “I think that actually managed to go worse than I expected it to.”

"You are within the heart of Orlais, it could always go worse. At least this did not end in a death. Only a headache," Marceline said, rubbing her temple behind the mask.

As the crowd was beginning to disperse, so too were Marceline and the others before the sight of some familiar people caught her eyes. She smiled, though this one was genuine and held a sweetness not yet seen within it. She had thought that she'd meet her family at the gate, but it seemed their distraction had held them up enough for her husband, Michaël and her son, Pierre to catch up with them.

The man was thick, nearly as thick as Leon, but far shorter and not as stout. He wore a mask of similar make and style as Marceline's, though its edges were rounded to not become a liability in battle. He wore a varient of the chevalier armor under a purple cloak, and on his back rode a child, barely a teenager, also wearing a mask. Larissa followed behind them, a clipboard under her arm as she stared at the Revered Mother who still laid on the ground.

"Uh... Marcy, did I miss something?" he asked curiously, pointing at the Revered Mother.

"Yes Micky, you did. I will tell you along the way. Come, we have a long journey ahead of us," She said, reaching to lay a kiss on his cheek. "I do hope that you all brought your coats."

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Marceline Benoit Character Portrait: Cyrus Avenarius Character Portrait: Leonhardt Albrecht

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Well, Val Royeaux had been… something, he supposed.

Still, it wasn’t exactly surprising that politics had gotten no less absurd in the years he’d been away from it. All the posturing and the grandstanding far outdid any stage production he'd ever seen. If the Lord Seeker had been a rational man and could hear himself talk, he probably would have been ashamed. The only destiny that demands respect here is mine!

Good. Grief.

It was so dramatic it was funny, but then Cyrus didn’t think it would go over well if he laughed like he felt like doing. Even the one he hadn’t quite been able to clamp down on fast enough had gotten him a rather nasty look from Lady Marceline. If Cyrus had believed in the Maker, he would have thought him either insane or incredibly fond of making other people that way, one of the two. Perhaps both.

He walked close to Estella as they approached the gates back out of the city, Marceline’s family now in tow. Ordinarily, he might have engaged in joking or banter or something of the sort, but even he was not oblivious to her distress, and that mattered more to him than any of the rest of it, which meant that even his good humor about the whole thing was rapidly evaporating, and though in any other circumstance he might have liked to stay and take in the sights, right now he couldn’t put the place behind them fast enough.

Which was perhaps why he didn’t bother to disguise his scowl when someone called out from behind them, accent thick with the distinctive Orlesian lilt. “Wait, please! If I may have a moment of your time?” He turned with the rest of them, hand resting between his sister’s shoulderblades, just at the fingertips, and stared flatly at the stranger. She seemed vaguely familiar, this elf woman. Her hair was short, dark, her robes clearly those of a higher-ranked mage. At a guess, she had some pull in the Circle here.

Fiona, that had to be it. Grand Enchanter of the pitiful little thing Val Royeaux called a Circle, one of those places where Templars had far more say in what went on than blindly-faithful thugs in armor should ever have in anything academic. He was torn, as he usually was, between pity and scorn. “Grand Enchanter.” His tone was cool, bordering on chilly. “Should you not be somewhere else? Perhaps preparing your rebellion to throw themselves on more Chantry swords?” She led it now, as he understood. Even living sometimes literally under a rock, he’d heard that much.

“I heard of this gathering, and I wanted to see this Herald of Andraste with my own eyes.” And indeed, they fixed intently onto Estella, studying her with interest. “If it’s help with the Breach you seek, perhaps my people are a wiser option.”

“Your people? A few smatterings of ill-trained youth and elders, smothered by a lifetime under a templar’s hand? At least the Lord Seeker has power. What do you offer that trumps that?” He needn't have to see them to feel Lady Marceline's eyes try to stare a hole deep in him. He ignored her.

She frowned at him, but as he’d suspected, she didn’t become cross. She cared too much about getting them to agree. “We have lived long under a yoke, it is true, but we hold our own even now. Beyond that, we offer the moral high ground. You saw the High Seeker. You heard him. You think he wouldn’t happily kill the Divine to turn people against us? That he wouldn’t happily do the same to a Herald?”

Cyrus’s eyes narrowed. “Terms?” Their conversation was a staccato, a quick back-and-forth, undiluted by pleasantry. Perhaps a different negotiation tactic than others would take, but one he knew from experience worked.

“We’re willing to discuss this, but not here. Consider this an invitation to Redcliffe: come meet with the mages. An alliance could help us both, after all.” She consciously broke off their exchange, seeming to remember only then that she should probably have been speaking to Estella. “I hope to see you there. Au revoir, my lady Herald.”

She turned, apparently uninterested in giving any further details here, and departed. Cyrus scoffed. “Spineless.” He muttered it under his breath, shaking his head.

“Cyrus.” The voice was Estella’s, but the tone was hard to identify. There was a note of admonishment in it, though. “I appreciate the help, but did you have to be so hard on her? She’s only doing what she thinks is best. At least she didn’t try to set a mob on us…” She snaked an arm around his back and gave him a one-handed hug from the side, but then stepped away, her face pensive.

“Even if the mages don’t have that much power, we still need allies, and… and we should probably try to help them. To stop the killing, if nothing else.”

He sighed through his nose. “I assure you I haven’t ruined your chances to do any of that. The Grand Enchanter, if she’s not a fool, understands how poor her position is. She’s desperate, Estella, and she would put up with far more than some pointed comments to help her people. Did you really wish to hear her try and inflate her position, or advance theories she cannot possibly support about who is responsible for what happened at the Conclave?” He shrugged. “Now she knows: we’re willing to talk about terms, but we won’t be duped into believing she’s in a position to dictate them to us. Someone else can go in and do the gentler part later.”

He might have been upset, but he wasn’t an idiot. Really now.

"At the very least, we will not rule them out as potential allies," Marcy was the one to speak, her arms crossed. Then she tilted her head toward Estella. "But we must first take stock of our resources and count our options. We should not form an alliance solely out of pity. Remember, we must also gain some benefit from the relationship as well."

Marceline then took a few steps toward where Fiona had departed, putting her back to Cyrus and the others. "Your brother does possess a point however, though he does lack a certain tact," she said, glancing back at him. "Her position is indeed perilous, and now she understands that we know it. We will have the upper hand in any future negotiations." She then turned and made her way back to the group, but not before pausing to look at Cyrus again.

"Also, please do remember that it will most likely be me that shall have to, as you say, 'go in and do the gentler part'. I would ask that you not make it unnecessarily difficult for me, if you can help it at all Lord Cyrus." A tempered smile spread across her lips, but humor appeared in the corners of her eyes.

Cyrus switched gears as quickly as he blinked, smiling pleasantly. “Wine is all the sweeter when drunk after something bitter.” But then he sighed theatrically and inclined his head. “I find it difficult to believe anything I could do could put a situation beyond your skill to salvage, milady, but I shall endeavor to remain charming henceforth.” He placed a hand over his heart.

"I will greatly appreciate it Lord Cyrus. It is all I ask for,", she said, continuing to wear the smile.

Leonhardt, who’d been silent up to this point, made a vague gesturing motion with one hand. “While this has given us all a lot to consider, I think it would be best if we made haste back to Haven, no?” His tone suggested that he was eager to depart, and perhaps in the interest of just that, he started forward again, leaving the rest of them to follow.

"Maker yes, lets go." The agreement came from Michaël, who'd watched his wife's politicking with boredom. It was clear that it hadn't been his first time seeing it. He followed Leon shortly after.

Estella did too, though the exchange seemed to have lifted her mood a little, if the lighter expression on her face was anything to go by. She wore the faintest of smiles, and tugged at his sleeve. “Come on then. Everyone else should know what we learned.”

“As you say, Stellulam.” He felt his mood settle back into baseline contentment, and his posture eased considerably. He let her tug him forward, moving compliantly back towards where they’d stabled the horses. Once everyone was mounted and back out on the road, he elected to strike up a proper conversation with Lady Marceline, in part because she seemed more amenable to it at the moment than most of the others did.

“An interesting career move, joining a movement that will take you away from court and your home.” Naturally, there were other reasons to do so, but she didn’t really seem like the kind of person who would do something which presented her with no personal advantage. Her husband, maybe; he had that knightly air about him, honor and so on. But Marceline was different, a bit more like himself, if he was picking up on the what he thought he was.

"Perhaps, but I do not believe I am leaving the court entirely. I will still be required to speak with nobility and conduct business. The only change is that I am now doing so for the Inquisition's best interests." She spoke with a gilded tone and her face betrayed nothing, undoubtly due to years spent cultivating her mannerisms to suit her purposes. It was to be expected of an Orlesian, especially one who seemed as Orlesian as Marceline.

Her head then tilted toward Cyrus and a smile tugged at the corners of her lips. "Interesting was the word I used to describe this opportunity as well," she turned and gestured back toward Val Royeaux as it slipped into the horizon. "You have seen the petty squabbles that threaten to drown us all. The Chantry denounces anything and everything that frightens them, and, my apologies for this High Seeker," she added for Leon's benefit, "but how the Templars' righteous fervor blinds them to the real danger at hand."

Then her gaze shifted from Cyrus to behind him, at the boy that rode beside his father. Her smile then melted away, revealing the worried mother beneath. "I would see that this world still remains so that my son may live his own life within it." She looked back at Cyrus, her face quickly returning to the porcelain mask. "If we are fortunate, then perhaps our service within the Inquisition will see me rise above my current station as well."

Of course. Orlesians, always looking for some way to rise in the ranks of nobility. He didn’t even think there was anything wrong with it, really. Cyrus was fairly sure he’d met fewer than three people over the course of his entire life who would sacrifice power for anything else at all. The number who would sacrifice anything else at all for power was much higher, and that wasn’t nonsensical, since power was the means by which just about anything was achieved. One need only look at history to understand that.

“Many birds for a stone then.” He nodded, as if satisfied, then turned his attention to Leon. “Speaking of the Lord Seeker… has he always been like that?” It was difficult to believe.

“No,” the other man replied immediately. “He has not.” For a moment, that seemed like it was going to be the only thing said on the matter, but then he sighed deeply and continued. “He has always been a zealous man, but not nearly unreasonable—I can’t fathom why he would be acting like this now. Less still can I fathom why Ophelia would allow it without protest.”

“Ophelia? The woman who struck the Revered Mother, perhaps?” He fought to keep his amusement contained, but that had been quite funny, particularly considering what the cleric had been trying to do. He couldn’t pretend he hadn’t been contemplating something similar himself, regardless.

"Senseless," Marceline said, shaking her head.

“Yes.” Leonhardt was quite quiet, for such a large man, and it was difficult to hear him. “She is… she was my mentor, my instructor. She is the reason I am a Seeker at all, and the reason I fight the way I do. But she has never had the ardent fervor of the Lord Seeker—she has always tempered him, in a fashion.” He shook his head.

“I do not understand what has brought this about, but it is not something we will be able to ignore.”

“Yes, that much is apparent.” Cyrus pursed his lips. “Well, you know what they say. When it rains, it pours. Let’s hope no one minds being a little damp.”

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Romulus Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Marceline Benoit Character Portrait: Cyrus Avenarius Character Portrait: Leonhardt Albrecht

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The room in which they’d laid out the table and maps had grown crowded, but as far as he could tell, only maybe two of the people in the room didn’t strictly need to be there, and he wasn’t about to insist that Cyrus and Marceline’s assistant Larissa leave, so they would have to make due.

Leon stood at the center of his side of the table, facing the side with the door. Rilien was to his left and Marceline herself his right, and as before, the other side included both Estella and Romulus, as well as Cyrus, who’d stood slightly off to the right to enable Lia to get through. She had a scout report, and he’d felt it pertinent for the others to hear it as well, thus the assembly.

For a moment, he glanced down at the map. The little bird tokens that indicated the locations of Rilien’s agents were expanding further outward as their network established and solidified, but his own troops, represented by plain shield tokens, were split only between Haven and the Hinterlands, for the moment. Marceline's tokens, identified by a quill, represented the support of the nobility, but these were few and far in between and mostly consisted of minor nobles seeking to gain renown by offering what little aid they could. Fortunately, he now felt they had the numbers and the fundamental training to begin expansion into other territory, which would enable them to begin closing more rifts, and hopefully find some clues as to what had caused the Breach in the first place.

His vision blanked for a moment, and Leon remained perfectly still, not allowing it to show. It had happened before, but it was becoming more frequent, and right on cue, he felt a splitting pain lance his head. It faded as quickly as it had come, and he blinked, raising his eyes to acknowledge Lia. “I understand you’ve been busy, of late. Please, tell us what you’ve discovered.”

Lia looked the slightest bit embarrassed, and it didn't seem to be due the presence of anyone in the room. She glanced sideways at Estella briefly, as though looking for some form of reassurance from her longtime friend. Seemingly unsure of what to do with her hands, she set them upon the tabletop, her fingers lightly brushing the surface.

"Yes, uh... there was a bit of an issue, involving a scouting patrol in the southern Hinterlands. They didn't report back. I searched with a team, and... found an Avvar, instead. He told me they'd taken my scouts hostage, dragged them off to a marsh called the Fallow Mire. I'm sorry, Commander. I should've expected them, made sure the scouts knew to expect trouble..." She looked to be taking the events none too well.

Leon shook his head. “Things of this nature happen. What’s important is that you know where they went, and that means we can get them back.” Another organization probably would have rather left a small scout party to their fate than gone to the effort it would take to recover them. It was war, after all, of a sort. But this was a war that Leon was running, and he didn’t want to do that, so he wouldn’t, and he doubted anyone here would protest the decision.

“A small party would probably work best. Do you know anything else about the area?”

"Yes, actually..." Lia continued, uncertainly. "The Avvar in question was actually quite helpful. His clan has demanded to meet the Herald of Andraste, if we want our scouts back. They... didn't say which one. I didn't ask." She winced. "He had a really big maul. But, I did follow him. I think he knew, but he didn't try to stop us. The Fallow Mire is... probably the worst place I've ever seen. The rain never stopped. The entire region has a bit of an undead problem, and the rifts have just made it worse. The Avvar have control of an old abandoned fortress at the south end of the bog. Didn't see any easy ways to reach it."

She tapped a finger a few times against the table. "There's one other thing. Before we left, I came across an elf. He was... odd. I don't know how to describe him. Sort of... regal? But definitely not, in his mannerisms. He seemed to know a lot about the area, some magical architecture or something. He said it was elven, and old, and that it could help stop the demons and the undead, but he needed a mage to make it work."

Lia shrugged. "I didn't get a reason out of him, but once I mentioned I was Inquisition, he expressed interest in meeting us. Said his name was Vesryn Cormyth, and that he'd wait for us there. Looked like he could handle himself, too." Her expression seemed to imply that this was an understatement. "I came back here right after that."

“Well now.” Cyrus broke into the conversation, his eyes having sparked to life with vivid interest as soon as the words magical architecture appeared. He was regarding Lia with an intent expression, but when no more information was forthcoming, he continued. “If it’s old and magical, I do believe I could stand to take a look at it.” Whether he had any interest in the rest of it was debatable, but at the very least he didn’t seem to mind, and he turned to Leon.

“I volunteer for this assignment, High Seeker. It is, after all, precisely the kind of thing I’m here for.” His tone was light, his face reflecting mirth, but there was an undertone of that same very serious curiosity still threaded under the words.

Leon considered all of that, and nodded. It seemed best to send a group that could handle both things. The Fallow Mire was home to at least a village’s worth of people, and if there were undead in the region that could be stopped, it was the kind of task they should be undertaking. Not only for the support it would lend them, either, though he was comfortable couching it in those terms if that was what it took. And Cyrus was quite correct, even if Leon suspected his priorities were quite misplaced.

“Very well. Since the Avvar have demanded to meet a Herald, we’ll need to send one. Estella, please accompany Cyrus to the Mire. Meet with these Avvar, and this serah Cormyth, and see what you can’t do about our missing scouts and the undead. Lia, I want you to go with them and push our stake in the area out as they advance. With some work, we’ll be able to keep some soldiers there after the two of them leave, in case this solution is only temporary.” He paused a moment, considering. He knew Cyrus was knowledgeable, but he’d never seen the man fight, and Estella was, while a professional, not enough by herself. Best not to rely on the unknown, either, no matter what he looked like.

“I suggest you take Asala with you as well. Her skills will prove useful in a pinch.”

Estella nodded her acquiescence, turning to Lia and speaking quietly, such that he only barely heard. “We’ll get them back.”

At that moment, a knock sounded on the door, and Leon furrowed his brow. “Yes?”

“It’s Reed, ser.” He sounded slightly uncertain, but Leon knew he wouldn’t interrupt unless it was necessary, so he called for the man to enter, which he did, followed by a stranger.

“I’m sorry to interrupt, ser, but we have another visitor. Of sorts. An insistent one.” He shot a look at the person behind him, but at Leon’s nod, stepped aside and allowed the newcomer to enter fully.

“Is there something I can help you with?” His tone suggested that there had better be.

The stranger who followed Reed into the chamber occupied far more room than was expected. He was a burly Qunari, sporting large horns and bulging muscles, arms folding over his chest in a casual stance. His expression, or lack thereof, was set in a permanent state of disinterest. He regarded everyone with a leveled stare, and cleared his throat, “There is. Excuse my interruption. We've heard of the Inquisition. Hard to miss it.”

The tension in his arms loosened, and he took another deep breath before continuing, “This is an opportunity. Captain Zahra Tavish wishes an audience on the Storm Coast. We're a mercenary group with a ship of our own, looking for another staunch contract. And she has valuable information.” He shifted towards Leon, and arched his heavy eyebrows, “From the looks of it, you don't have much in the means of sea-faring allies.”

Rilien stirred as soon as the Storm Coast was mentioned, moving forward to the table proper. “We have other reasons to make a venture to that location as well.” He looked down at the map for a second, his head tilted to the side, and continued in the same tone. “We’ve received news that Grey Wardens are disappearing from Ferelden, and no fewer than three of them were last known to be in that area. It is also presently plagued by a cult group of bandits calling themselves the Blades of Hessarian. I suspect these things are unconnected, but each is a reason for us to extend our presence into the region.”

Well, that was indeed several good reasons. Both this and the matters in the Mire seemed equally time-sensitive, so the logical move was clear: those who weren’t headed for the Mire would go to the Coast.

“Very well. Romulus, if you would lead a second team to the Storm Coast, we can deal with all three matters. Prioritize whatever seems of most immediate concern to you when you get there, but anything we can find on the Wardens will likely be of import. Lady Marceline, if you would be so kind as to accompany him, I believe you will be able to negotiate matters with Captain Tavish. Take Khari and anyone else you think you might need, assuming they aren’t already heading for the Mire.”

Marceline turned toward her assistant, who stood in the corner with a clipboard in hand transcribing what seemed to be notes. "Larissa, will you be able to contend with the paperwork while I am away?" she asked.

The woman looked up from her notes and nodded. "Yes Mistress. You do not have any pressing engagements, and I am able do what remains."

Marceline smiled in response, the appreciation clear in her expression. She smiled and looked toward Leon in order to allow him to continue.

He returned his attention to the Qunari. “Tell your Captain to be expecting us. We will hear what she has to say.”

The Qunari finally uncrossed his arms, and tipped his head, “I'm no good with introductions, but I am Aslan.” He clicked his tongue, “You'd know that soon enough.” He did not bow, nor offer his hand: only nodded as somberly as he'd entered. Like a wayside observer, absorbing whatever information he could. “That I will. I appreciate your audience, and we'll be looking forward to seeing you again.” Rude or no, Aslan made a grumbling sound in his throat and excused himself out of the chamber without Reed's help.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Romulus Character Portrait: Marceline Benoit Character Portrait: Zahra Tavish Character Portrait: Kharisanna Istimaethoriel

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The weather was absolutely dreadful. Once the salt from the coast began to permeate the air, it started to rain and it never stopped. Ugly gray clouds hung high above them and seemed to stretch from eternity in every direction. A dark purple cloak draped over Lady Marceline's shoulders, the hood up so as to not subject her hair to the terrible conditions. Marceline was miserable but she did not allow that to play out on her face. She would not show weakness, not even to those she called allies that rode with her.

She was not unarmed, as only a fool would be when traveling through the country. A thin, silverite basket-hilted rapier tapped against her saddle as she rode, a small main-gauche waiting in the small of her back, currently hidden by her cloak.

She did not lead the procession however. That honor would go to the dalish woman called Khari, and she seemed to take to it with a certain zeal. The woman wore a mask, not unlike her own. However, Marceline was without her mask during this time, having opted to discard it upon leaving Orlais and instead show her face. The masks were an Orlesian tradition, and meant little outside of her homeland. That, and it would be better to allow the people to see her.

They had broken from the road some time ago as they approached the coast, the scent of salt on the air intensifying as they grew closer to their destination. The elements would play havoc on Marceline's hair, she knew it, and she did not know how long their venture to the coast would take them. She, however, said nothing and rode in silence.

If Khari cared a whit about what the elements were doing to her hair, she had a terrible way of showing it. Wisps of it stuck out from underneath her hood, curling into a rather impressive frizz once exposed to the open elements. Her eyes were good-humored from over the top of her half-mask, and she rode as though entirely oblivious to the conditions of the Coast.

At several points, she seemed to turn her attention vaguely southwest, though each time she did, she’d shake her head and return to navigating her horse down the slope shortly afterwards. It was a good half-hour of riding in the rain before anything changed. The Dalish crested a hill first, then shifted in her saddle to call back to the other two.

“Heads-up, you two. I think we found ‘em.”

Romulus put his heels into his horse and rode ahead, to catch up with Khari. His shield found its way onto his arm.

A great flapping flag could be seen in the distance, bright red against the miserable sky. It was attached to an anchored ship dipping and swaying near the rocks, far from the dancing figures on the beach: a battle between two groups, from the looks of it. On the outskirts of it stood a woman holding a bow, foot planted on a boulder. Her fingers smoothly drawing back and loosing arrows into shoulders, bellies, and hips, though if she was bothered by any of it, the sordid weather, the mewling cries as they stumbled onto their arses, she gave no indication. If anything she seemed delighted. Tossing her head back and laughing. She called out encouragements, and pointed a waggling finger at the mismatch of individuals grunting below.

The largest of the group—a Qunari, bashed his forehead into the nearest man's face, then grappled onto his leathers and tossed him aside. Unlike the woman, he was not smiling. There was a fine distinction between the fighters. One group wore unusual plates, garb reminiscent of Tevinter mercenaries: all human. Difficult to tell from the crest, but it was easier to distinguish the motley crew of pirates. Dwarf, Elves, Qunari, and a roaring woman. None of them seemed to notice anyone else happening on their exchange.

Khari fidgeted in her saddle, looking quite a bit as though it was physically difficult for her not to join the fight below, but her eyes were sharp as she surveyed the goings-on, moving from one fighter to the next, and she leaned forward slightly on her red horse, her head tilted to the left.

“They’re pretty good.”

"Mhm," Marceline agreed. "It is a coarse display, but that is not necessarily a terrible quality," she added, watching the battle intently. While she did not command the Inquisition's armies as Ser Leonhardt, she had been around Chevaliers her entire life and could deduce the effectiveness of the fighters. "They would not fit in with Ser Leonhardt's main body, but I am positive that they could prove their usefulness elsewhere." she added, her eyes rising to look out toward their ship. Of course, that's provided the Inquisition signed them on.

While they may have been a decent fighting force with their own ship to boot, that meant nothing if they asked too much from their fledgling organization. A deal had to come at a right price, as it was with most mercenaries, and she was there to ensure that. They would need to see what else they could offer first, and toward that end, Lady Marceline patiently waited for the battle to conclude.

It did so quickly, and none too softly. Blasts of blue shot from an elven lass's hands, sending a man tumbling head over heels. It was the dwarf who ended his cries, smashing her mallet into his skull. Stragglers were being pushed backwards, and cut down against the boulders and the skeletons of old boats littering the coastline. One particular man gurgled for the others to retreat back up the crest, and without helping any of his mates, began scrambling up the hillside himself. He jerked to a halt when he spotted horses pawing at the ground: and riders, simply watching. His mouth gawked open and the only thing that came out was the tip of an arrow, silencing whatever words he'd been trying to say. The man shivered and jerked, tumbling back down the hill.

In the distance, the wild-haired woman lowered her bow and stared up at the riders. She bared her teeth in greeting and put her fingers to her lips, whistling a sharp tone. She made another small movement with her hand, and her crew scattered amongst the remains, picking at discarded weapons. Others slumped down against pieces of driftwood and turned their attention towards the newcomers. Only Aslan walked to the woman's side, exchanging a few words, before her smile cracked into a grin and they both turned to begin their approach.

For someone so small, stature wise, she seemed to encompass a lot of space. She climbed the hillside without much trouble and stopped short of Khari's horse. Aslan rounded up at her side, crossing his arms over his barrel-chest. Although no words were exchanged, and he did little more than survey the new arrivals with narrowed eyes, it appeared as if he was just as much a weapon to her as the bow she'd already begun strapping to her back. The woman rubbed her hands together and arched her back, hands planted on her hips. Several cracks sounded and a long sigh followed, “So, this is the fabled Inquisition. I've heard good things about you, and I hope we haven't disappointed. Either way, I'm glad you could make it.”

She paused and clicked her tongue, “Right on time.” The woman motioned for them to follow her down the ridge, and towards the beach where the others were. Someone had already started dragging the bodies into a pile, pilfering whatever they needed into another one. Those who'd been injured lingered beside a scruffy-looking man, wrapping sopping wet bandages around proffered arms and legs. “I'm assuming you'd like to get straight to business. Serious bunch as you look. I'd like that too, honestly.”

Marceline nodded and swung off of the Orlesian charger's saddle in a single fluid motion. She landed on soft feet, though her black boots sunk into the sand with a squelch. Dreadful, she thought again, but her face betrayed nothing. In fact, her face was unreadable save an easy confidence on her brow. A neutral expression, this Zahra was a business woman, and would not take kindly to any air she may have put on. If she wished to speak business, the Lady Marceline would speak business.

She turned and pointed out her companions as she said their names, "This is Ser Khari, Ser Romulus, and I," She said, turning back to face Zahra, "Am Lady Marceline. And you are the good Captain Zahra Tavish." It was a curt introduction, but they were not in Orlesian courts, but on a beach among fighters and mercenaries. Social graces were unnecessary and the game that was to be played was not the Grand one, though she remained unfailingly polite.

"We were told that you were in search of your latest contract, and that you may possess some piece information that may be of value to the Inquisition," Marceline steepled her fingers and let them rest on her belly, taking on a relaxed posture. "So I shall cut through the pleasantries and get straight to the matter at hand. What is it that you are willing to offer, and, if you will excuse my forwardness, what are your terms?" She asked as a dark brow rose.

The Captain inclined her head to each new person that was introduced. Her eyes lingered on each one, then fell back on Lady Marceline, clearly unaware that her scrutiny might have come off as unsettling. She idly scratched at her chin but listened intently, eyebrows flagging when her name was mentioned. Aslan stared off into the distance, glancing at their horses and adjusting his stance, occasionally stepping out of the sucking sand into more sucking sand. Zahra seemed as comfortable as a cat stretching out across a bed. Even in the Storm Coast's miserable weather, rain pattering down her cheeks, whereas Aslan stood as still and silent as a wall. A formidable one.

“Yes, you're right,” Zahra tossed her head towards the ship, still bobbing up and down in the distance, “And much more besides. You see, we're in the business of information. We've traveled near everywhere, haven't we?” There was a boom of cheers and clattering weapons coming from her crew mates littered about. “That is to say, we hear more than rumors, and secrets are worth their weight in gold. If there are no little birds to whisper in our ears, we compensate in battle. You won't find a tougher crew than us, that's a guarantee. Front line, and fearless. It wouldn't matter where you intended to take us. Once a deal is struck, we're loyal-bound. To hell and back.”

Her mouth curved into a smile, “Did I mention we have a boat?” Pleasantries cast aside, Zahra threw her arms out wide and took another deep breath of the ocean spray, “Our terms are simple. We've both got something to gain. You and I. Strong alliances. What we're asking for is a place to stay. Food, warm beds. Gold, of course. We come at a fair price, but I'm sure the Inquisition can afford us.”

Though she didn't let it show, Marceline's interest was piqued. If her interest bled through, then it may cost them later in the negotiations. It was safer to regard them with a nominally impressed expression. It would be rude to do otherwise. "Your offer is intriguing," she conceded, though she turned quiet afterward. She regarded this Captain, her crew, and even her ship with a critical eye. There was nothing that would refute anything the woman had said, and if what she had said was true to the letter, then it would be unwise to simply let this opportunity sail away.

However, she was not going to simply hire them on the spot. They would need to be gauged first, to ensure what they say and what they offer were up to the standards they desired. "The Inquisition is willing to offer you and your crew a probationary contract," Marceline said, an inviting smile creeping into her lips.

"If what you say is true, and we find your services satisfactory, we will renegotiate the terms of your contract for a longer period of employment, and the pay to reflect the services you provide. Of course, food and board will certainly be provided within the deal as well. The Inquisition is kind to her people," Marceline said with a nod. It was a fair offer, she felt, and there were many potential opportunities to be had with a crew with their own ship.

"Do you find these terms fair, Captain Zahra?" Marceline asked with a raise of her brow.

The woman-Captain took another deep breath and sucked at her gums, glancing over her shoulder at her gathered crew. She was silent for a moment, as if she were considering her options, though the wild brightness in her eyes spoke volumes. And abrupt as any of her movements seemed to be, Zahra whipped back towards Lady Marceline and held her hand out for a sealing handshake, mouth twisted in a toothy grin, “You have a deal, Lady Marceline, and it's not one you'll regret making.”

"I would hope not, Captain Zahra," Marceline replied with a smile of her own, before taking her hand and shaking it.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Romulus Character Portrait: Marceline Benoit Character Portrait: Zahra Tavish Character Portrait: Kharisanna Istimaethoriel

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It wasn’t more than thirty seconds after they shook hands on the deal that they heard a loud screech, almost impossibly loud, and a corresponding rumble. The ground tremored slightly beneath their feet, and from the east, it was possible to see the masked woman, identified previously as Khari, approaching on horseback. She must have left at some point during the negotiations, but her horse trotted back towards them, its rider holding herself high off the saddle, standing in the stirrups.

“There’s a dragon here!” Her tone was excited, almost gleeful. “A really big blue one. It’s fighting a giant over there!” She jabbed a thumb over her shoulder.

With little more than a handshake, the deal was struck and Zahra stood as pleased as a coddled kitten. Albeit sopping wet and forced to keep readjusting her feet in the sucking sands beneath them. She'd much prefer being inside her ship, or else somewhere dry, but by the looks of this Inquisition of theirs, with lady Sunshine bringing up the front, it appeared as if they still had business to do on the Storm Coast. She'd truly meant through hell and back again, so questions were useless. Besides, their group looked just as motley as her own. Her smile did not wane, only bellied the relentless energy swirling in her belly. She didn't doubt that they would be just as interesting.

A shriek cut through their nice little congregation. Loud enough to rattle her skull and make her ears ring. Certainly not a sound she'd ever heard before, and she figured she'd seen many things in her travels. Aslan's meaty fists clamped down across the curved blade hanging at his hip, though Zahra placated him when she placed a hand on his shoulder. The one introduced as Khari rounded up on them. Fiery-haired and pointing off in the distance, rattling on about a dragon and a giant. She'd admit to being just a little bit distracted by her hair, bright as fire. She turned the words over in her head and clicked her tongue again, “Two things I never imagined I'd see in one day.”

It seemed as if staying anchored in these parts would be both unwise, and foolish if there was a dragon circling the coastline, even if it wasn't interested in their ship. From what little she knew of dragons, and their ilk, they were damnably large and capable of felling their mast as if it were a toy. And she'd just commandeered that thing months ago, she meant to keep it in one piece. Her hand slipped away from Aslan's shoulder and she leaned closer to him, hooking her thumb towards her gathered crew mates, already springing up to see what Khari was talking about. “I'll be traveling with these guys for awhile, but I want you to get our girl out of these waters. I'll be damned if it gets torched after coming all this way.”

Aslan nodded. His voice was a gravelly pit when he said, “Where to, Boss?”

She rubbed her knuckles against her nose, and sniffed, “Head back to that little fishing village we passed. Anchor there. Feed the boys and girls. Get some rest while you can. Keep your ears open.”

With that said, Aslan stomped down towards the pirates, and gave rumbling instructions to get their arses in gear as quickly as they could manage. Fantastic crew as they were, she'd rather see them all safe on their ship. Besides, she could prove how useful their company was while they were gone. Zahra joined Marceline at her side, and placed her hands back at her hips, fingers drumming a beat, “Besides my ship and my crew, you're also getting me. I'm a good shot. They say I never miss. Course, you'll see that yourself. A sharp eye, an arrow in the dark—whatever you need of me.”

She didn't wait for her response, only slipped back up where Khari had been stationed. She saw it for herself. Two great beasts, entangled. A giant and a blue dragon as bright as any jewel. Her heart hammered in her throat, and if she didn't have any better sense, she would have crept closer.

“Well, look at that, Ginger's right.”

Marceline noticeably kept her distance with a deep frown marking her face. "If I may make a suggestion," she began with arms crossed. "I suggest we give them both a wide berth and allow them to finish any business they may have with each other." A deafening roar from the dragon caused the air around them to shudder, and Marceline's eyes narrowed. "A very generous berth," she added.

There was a glimmer in the eye of Romulus as he pulled his horse up alongside Khari. The excitement was clear in him, but it was heavily tempered, reduced down to a small upward curl in his lips, and a gaze of wonderment towards the two battling behemoths across the bay.

"Have you ever seen anything like it?" he asked, the question directed at Khari.

“Only once.” Her tone was reverent, her enthusiasm for the experience more than apparent. Her eyes stayed fixed on the spectacle, drinking it in the way other people watched sublime artistic performances, or whatever it was that fascinated them in a similar way. “And not this close.” Her eyes narrowed, clearly from pleasure rather than anger.

“This is absolutely worth it.” What the ‘it’ she referred to was wasn’t clear, but the words seemed to mean something to her, anyway.

From where Zahra was standing their business may last a long time, though it looked as if the giant was faltering against the dragon's advances. Difficult to tell, really. She let her gaze drift away from the carnage below and she turned to consider the two riders at her side with much of the same fascination. She watched their reactions, took note of the small things. An upturned lip. The brightness in Ginger's eyes, leaning forward in her saddle as she was. Minute gestures, like the fluttering of fingers. She didn't think it would be very difficult to convince them that taking up their arms would be the better course of action. Then again. Perhaps, she was wrong and they were looking on in wonder and not with the tickling sense of violence and glory.

“It'd be a shame, just to bypass them,” Zahra shrugged her shoulders, and glanced back to Lady Marceline. The most sensible one, it seemed. Even so, she couldn't help but wonder how much those scales would sell for or what that giant was carrying for that matter. Opportunity could be had if they waited around long enough, but she supposed that Marceline wasn't the patient type. Already seeking out another route. Fighting off a dragon and a giant seemed foolish enough but she'd be hard-pressed to deny that her blood wasn't already boiling. Besides, she wasn't sure who, in fact, was in charge of this expedition. “I'm assuming you have some sort of destination in mind,” Zahra arched her eyebrows, “which isn't over there.”

"A pair," Lady Marceline answered. She returned to her steed and remounted it. She pulled in behind the three of them, still warily gaze out toward the dragon and giant. "Along with you, we were to make contact with a cult that goes by the name 'Blades of Hessarian'. Judging by the name they have given themselves, it is a highly religious organization. Perhaps we can use that to our advantage," Marceline added, her gaze lingering on Romulus for a few moments.

She then shifted attention to the path ahead, "The other destination is far more nebulous. We are to investigate the disappearance of the Grey Wardens. Our source says that they were last known to be in this area." Marceline looked out ahead for a moment before turning to look at the others. "I suggest that we meet with these Blades first, and should they prove amiable, inquire what they know of the Wardens and then proceed from there." With that Marceline nodded as if pleased with the plan of action.

"Agreed?"

“You can ride with me, by the way.” Khari had waited until Marceline had done all the necessary explaining before making her offer, but now she was holding an arm out and downwards, with the clear intention of helping Zahra up behind her. The horse certainly looked strong enough to take two, especially considering that the first was a fairly small person.

A group of religious arseholes, and some Grey Wardens. There it was, an adventure already to be had. She certainly wasn't complaining. Besides, Lady Marceline wasted no time explaining where they were going and that suited her just fine, though she was curious what made her tick. Surely, she wasn't all prim and proper. There must've been some fun buried underneath all of orderly business. “Fine by me,” Zahra bobbed her head. Now that she thought about it, she'd never actually met a Grey Warden before. Sounded like they'd have their pants in twist. She hoped not.

She followed the voice and was pleased to find out that it was Ginger who'd offered her a ride—not that she would have minded any of the others, though Ser Romulus was quiet enough to make her wonder whether or not he'd talk at all. Perhaps, she intimidated him. Wouldn't have been the first time. As for Lady Marceline, she doubted that she'd want to close the distance between them anytime soon. Not before having a few drinks. So, Zahra turned towards Khari and took up her proffered arm, boosting herself over the horses rump and settling in behind her as best as she could manage, “Thanks for the lift.”

“Not a problem.” Khari grinned, then faced forward, urging her horse to begin moving. The others did, too, and the small group was off, turning back towards the north, avoiding the dragon as advised. The slopes were fairly steep, but the horses seemed to be solid, hardy creatures, and not once did any of the legs under Zahra and Khari falter, the elf’s deft hand guiding him to the best places on the narrow, rocky paths.

They’d been riding for another fifteen minutes or so when something resolved ahead of them. It looked to be a small group of people, grouped on one side of the path. From the way they were all looking down towards the approaching Inquisition, it would seem that they awaited their arrival, and Khari slowed the horse down to approach with a little more reserve.

Most of them were armed, but with a few exceptions, they were women, younger teenagers, and older people, and none of them looked particularly well-fed, the hollows of their cheeks perhaps more sunken than was warranted. Still, there wasn’t a one that was bowed over or hunched; each held themselves tall, and tall most of them were, even the children. There were about fifteen, it looked like, though most of them were set back a ways from the road, sitting in a rough circle, but two stood right next to the road. One was a thickset man with meaty arms and a head of wild, copper-colored hair. He held a staff in one hand; it looked to serve as a walking stick more than anything, for his face showed age, especially around the eyes and mouth.

The other was perhaps of an age with Zahra, or thereabouts, and shared the man’s hair color and most of his height. Her armor was mostly leather and fur, and had nothing by way of sleeves, dark blue tattoos encircling her right arm all the way to her neck, the patterns foreign and strange—not Rivaini, not Antivan, and certainly not Dalish. Her skin was dark, much darker than that belonging to any of the others, but it was the way that she stood in the front which perhaps differentiated her the most.

“Hail, Inquisition. If you seek the Blades of Hessarian, you will not make it far.” The words were not a threat; indeed, she spoke them with a hint of amusement underneath the contralto timbre of her voice.

Lady Marceline bowed slightly in her saddle, more out of appreciation it seemed than greeting. "If I may ask then, why is that?" her tone wasn't one of contention, but genuine. Her eyes glanced between the other individuals before returning to the one that had addressed them.

The woman smiled, more with her eyes than her mouth. “They are a strange lot, with many rules that have little purpose.” She shrugged, then raised both of her hands to her neck, tugging until what seemed to be a necklace came free and dangled from one hand. The blue color of the gem in the middle suggested serpentstone, and the rest of it looked to be made of granite and some sort of scaly hide. “Such as this: without one of these in view, your group will be attacked by them on sight, something we discovered the hard way.” There was a thread of malice under her tone, but it seemed to coexist with the same amusement that had accompanied her words thus far, making her feelings on the matter difficult to pin down.

“I, therefore, find myself in a position to make a deal with you, and that is something I would like to do.”

Marceline's head tilted to the side, but likewise she betrayed nothing, making it difficult to feel out her own thoughts. She looked at the amulet for a moment before she spoke. "Hmm," she hummed to herself, as if thinking it over. "We would hear the deal before we are to commit to anything. Know, however, that we wish to negotiate with these people." Her eyes then went to burly man beside her, and then to the rest behind them.

"We will not be able to condone any retribution you may have in mind unless they instigate hostilities themselves," She said, with a sigh and subtle shake of her head. She did not seem overly surprised to hear that the Blades were hostile to strangers, only tired by it.

The woman shook her head. “You misunderstand. Perhaps I should have been clearer.” She lowered the amulet to her side, and then glanced back at the others further away from the road, the gesture inviting them to do the same. “It is partly an insistence on retribution that has whittled us so. That, and famine, and darkspawn, and any number of other disasters over the last dozen years. The gods do not answer, and so it is I who must decide.” The man at her side shifted, but said nothing.

She returned her gaze to them. “I choose to save them, whatever others may say of my honor for it.” She smiled again, sharply, like the edge of a knife. “Retribution is uninteresting to me. My terms are this: you have the amulet, which will enable you to negotiate. You have us, who are capable survivors and hunters, when there is game to be found. You have me, and the weight of my clan’s good name, which is leverage you will not be able to get elsewhere, and will carry much meaning should you have cause to deal with Avvar. We have food, and shelter, your word that we will be tolerated outside your town, protected by your troops. That is the deal.”

"Is this what remains of your clan?" Marceline asked, indicating to the others a ways away from the road.

“It is. Once we were many, and our hold large. But hunger is an enemy that cannot be fought.” Her answer was even, but any trace of humor had vanished from it.

She looked toward them for a moment more, as if internally debating something before turning her gaze toward the woman addressing them. There Marceline seemed to internally gauge her worth. Finally, she spoke. "What is your name?"

The question seemed almost to perplex the woman, as though it seemed irrelevant and she was unsure why it was being asked. “I am Signy Sky-Lance, Thane of the Wyvernhold. This is my father, Svavar Earthspeaker, our shaman.” The older man inclined his head, politely if a bit awkwardly, as though he weren’t used to that form of greeting.

"I expect Ser Leonhardt would benefit from the scouting expertise you and your clan will bring, and the medallion you hold will see to it that our business here goes smoother than without," she said with a nod, before Marceline dismounted her horse and offered this Signy an outstretched hand. "I will have to requisition hardier tents from Ser Leonhardt, but your people will have their shelter and their food. You need not starve any longer."

Signy took the proffered hand, grasping Marceline’s forearm, then nodded and relinquished the medallion. “Then we will make our way to Haven and find this Ser Leonhardt. We will be of little assistance with religious cultists, beyond what we have already provided, and without the crest, we are no longer safe here.” She released Marceline’s arm, then stepped back and whistled sharply. Almost as one, the other members of her band stood, and she gestured them to the right.

“You’ll want to go left from here. And watch out for their leader—he’s unpopular, and for good reason.” With that, she and her father turned to depart, soon disappearing down a different path.

Certainly not what she'd been expecting to see on their travels, though she'd seen enough starving folk in her travels to understand the need for powerful allies. She only shifted sideways, so that she could properly see the unusually tattooed woman at the front. Lady Sunshine was proving be an awfully good conversationalist and so, Zahra offered no words. She hadn't been hired for that anyhow. Shamans, Avvar, Thanes and hollow-cheeked tribesmen already—things she had never encountered before.

A chuckle bubbled from her lips, and she looked much like Khari had observing the dragon and giant, “Worth it.”

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Romulus Character Portrait: Marceline Benoit Character Portrait: Zahra Tavish Character Portrait: Kharisanna Istimaethoriel

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The Blades of Hessarian kept their camp a fair distance inland, nestled into the steep hills and cliffs that zig-zagged along the coast. The people of the region were scarce, only a few outlying fishing villages and mountain communities, tough people that looked on strangers, especially armed ones, with suspicion. While they made their way towards the bandit encampment, or cult, or whatever it was, they preoccupied themselves with following up on some clues as to the Wardens that they sought in the area.

The people of one particular fishing village remembered them, but provided little information, for they only had little to begin with, or so Romulus believed. He was fairly good at spotting lies, and these villagers spoke none, concealed nothing. The Wardens that had passed through were a group, led by an elf, apparently. They were not received with hostility, for the locals were still grateful to them for the speedy end to the Blight, years ago. The group of Wardens inquired after other Wardens, an Orlesian man and an elven woman of the Free Marches, but the villagers could tell them nothing.

Khari led the tracking effort, for the most part. Romulus wasn't too experienced in following signs in the wild. A city would've been preferable, honestly. He was often more successful at prying information from broken fingers than broken twigs. Khari was the one most comfortable with this sort of work, and so she was best suited to find where the Warden group had gone.

It took the better part of a day to find a discarded camp, well nestled between steep rock formations on a secluded hillside. There they found, among few other things, a discarded journal, mostly soaked through, but with a few legible lines through which information could be gleaned. The camp had indeed been made by the Warden group they sought, but there were no names available, either for the searching party, or the two that they pursued. They worried over a whisper in their minds, had difficulty sensing darkspawn, and ultimately determined that their objectives had since departed the region. It could only be assumed that they themselves had left soon after, and there was no indication as to where.

The search for the Wardens having proven fruitless, they were left with one more task on the Storm Coast, dealing with the Blades of Hessarian. The camp was not far now. Romulus occasionally spied shadows moving behind bushes and trees, but none ever approached. Perhaps the openly displayed medallion that the redheaded woman had presented them with was truly enough to keep their arrows and blades at bay.

He studied their new companion, the sea-captain, as they descended down steep terrain. She handled herself well, on and off land, and carried herself with confidence. He didn't doubt she was capable, and a worthwhile addition to the Inquisition, especially considering their lack of influence at sea. What interested him more was her appearance. She shared a similar tone with him, the rather distinct features of one with Rivaini heritage. Given her own profession, and the manner in which Romulus had been told he was first found, he determined her to be worth prying into.

"You are Rivaini, Captain Zahra?" he asked, the answer obvious, the question probably more in what to call her. Titles felt annoyingly necessary when a person such as him ventured to address someone. "May I ask how you acquired a ship and crew?"

Zahra leaned backwards, slightly further from Khari, and tilted her head to examine Romulus. Her mouth curved into a smile. It pulled at the scars banded across her lips, twitching back to bare her teeth, “Perceptive of you.” She readjusted herself across the horse's rump, possibly to keep herself from slipping off as they rode. Her movements were languid, thoughtful. She drew a hand up to her face and traced her fingertips across her cheekbone, trailing it down below her eye, “And so are you. Must've come from a wealthy family with those.” A rhetorical question, it seemed. Or rather, a statement. With her, it seemed difficult to tell the difference.

“Now, that's a tale that I'd gladly share,” she clicked her tongue and raised an eyebrow, watching him as a hawk might, “but I'm not in the habit of giving without taking anything so, if you'll answer a question of mine, I'll answer one of yours. Deal?”

Romulus ignored the comment about his tattoos. He knew not what they signified, or where he had acquired them. If they were some symbol of his belonging to a wealthy lineage, it hardly mattered now. "I'll answer as best I can. Ask."

Zahra made a small noise in her throat and dropped her hand back down to her side, seemingly lost in thought. She rolled her eyes skyward. There was a pause, and only the clopping of hoof beats and rattling weapons filled in the spaces of her silence. It took her a few moments, but her eyes fell back to Romulus and held his gaze, “Alright then. How is it that you came to be with the Inquisition? I'm sure you all have your own stories to tell.”

Romulus was aware that the circumstances regarding his joining were less than ideal for the Inquisition's public image, hence why they'd been largely swept under the rug in favor of Estella's more palatable background. Briefly, he tried to catch the Lady Marceline's eye, to see if he had permission to answer truthfully. Marceline nodded her consent.

"I came from Tevinter, on orders from my domina to spy on the Conclave. Somehow, I was caught in events, I don't remember. The Breach was created by the explosion, I helped stop its spread three days later. The Inquisition requested that my domina allow me to remain and help close the Breach entirely. She agreed." It was delivered without much emotion, despite the enormity of everything that had happened. Perhaps it was because Romulus always seemed uncomfortable discussing the details of his slavery with these southerners. In Minrathous, his position was not something that was looked at twice. Many magisters had favored slaves, and he was fortunate and skilled enough to be one of them. Here, they seemed to think the idea worse than death. He did not know what to make of it.

"My question still stands, if you're satisfied. The short version, maybe. We're getting close." He could see wisps of campfires in the distance. They'd be in sight of the bandit camp soon.

Her eyebrow occasionally shot up when Romulus said certain words, though she did little more than nod her head. As abrasive as she seemed to be, she was a polite listener. Her shoulders straightened when he was finished and she seemed to consider his words. If she had any questions, she thought better of voicing them aloud. It seemed as if she had many of them, tapping at her knee as she was. Her smile simpered into a flat line. For all of her bluster, she hesitated. She followed his gaze and her grin returned, kindled like fire, “So we are.”

“Short version it is. This particular ship was commandeered. Borrowed indefinitely, you might say. If you're all for justice and fairness, you might not want to hear that story. As for my crew, I picked them all up along the way. Like I said, I've been around the world, mostly. Took some of them in. Except for Aslan. He's always been at my side. Hell if I know why,” Zahra used her hands, stroked the air in broad gestures, as if it explained anything at all. She paused and crackled a rough laugh, “But I'm sure you'd be more interested hearing it from them.”

The camp belonging to the Blades of Hessarian actually looked more like a small fort, complete with a large wooden wall, watchtowers, and a gate. Blue flags were unfurled over the towers, and Romulus got the distinct sense they were approaching a military encampment rather than a bandit hideout. Their little formation of horses left them appearing quite exposed, but even when more of the Blades came into sight, they did not attack. Those who manned the gate pushed it open upon seeing the medallion.

"You come to challenge our leader?" One asked, disbelieving. The other shrugged.

"All others have failed, but you're welcome to try."

They rode through the gate, Romulus with his hand ever on the hilt of his dagger, and already with shield in hand. His eyes watched the places an ambusher might hide, but for all their strength, these bandits seemed interested in this approach, which they perhaps saw as more honorable. It would certainly be easier than fighting all of them, he supposed.

There were many tents and little fires scattered throughout the interior of the camp, but some of the structures were actual houses, well-made and seemingly well-lived in. They had been here for some time, unchallenged. It made sense, he supposed. The Blight would have had no cause to travel through this place, and after it the darkspawn would've retreated and remained underground. The region was too far from Highever for Teyrn Cousland to do anything about it, not when darkspawn threatening more populated regions took priority. No, the Blades of Hessarian were masters of this land, and had been for some time. Removing them would not be easy. Controlling them would be more profitable.

"Who among you challenges the Blades of Hessarian?" demanded a man, standing in front of a throne carved from wood and stone. He was a large brute of a man, lightly armored and armed with a hand axe and round shield. His beard and hair were both thick and blond, in all a very Fereldan appearance. At his sides, a pair of mabari hounds clad in spiked plates of armor growled at the approaching strangers.

Marceline had dismounted her horse and stood straight as the man spoke. She was not cowed by the installation the Blades had, nor did she seem fearful standing in front of the man. As she spoke, she kept her head level and her arms crossed. A relaxed stance. "We represent the Inquisition and would ask to parley. We need not resort to violence," she said.

The rest dismounted in turn, and all approached the leader of the Blades on foot. He crossed his arms at Marceline's words, narrowing his eyes at all of them. "You carry the Crest of Mercy. This earns you the right to a challenge, no more. The Blades of Hessarian will not negotiate with outsiders, not under my command." He took a threatening step forward, his two hounds behind him drooling with anticipation. He pointed at Marceline and the others with the spike atop his axe.

"Name your two champions. One for me, and the other for my dogs. That's how this works."

When it seemed like words get them nowhere, Marceline's eyelids dropped and she stared down her nose at him. Instead of addressing the brute anymore she turned and looked toward the others to listen to their comments.

“Me. I volunteer.” It was spoken immediately, probably before anyone else had a chance to get a word in edgewise. From the way Khari sat, though, tense as a bowstring and tall as she could make herself, she’d been anticipating this from the very start. As if to match actions to words, she tossed her leg easily over the side of the horse, hopping to the ground in a fluid motion that left Zahra behind her undisturbed.

“Don’t care what, either. Those dogs look vicious and mean, but the big man looks more vicious and meaner.” Her eyes glittered, and she turned them towards Romulus, perhaps because he was, after all, the Herald here. Or perhaps just because she anticipated him being the other party, it was hard to say for sure. Her hand was already reaching back for the hilt of her sword.

Zahra sucked at her gums, and slid off the horse as well, eying the Blades of Hessarian with little more than a crinkled nose. Her fingers, however, twitched at her sides. One of them lingered slightly behind her back—closest to her bow, fingering the string as if it were a musical instrument to be plucked. Her stance bellied a readiness that was often seen in warriors, and her eyes danced not with the wariness that any of the others might have had, but excitement, “Let them have their way then. I don't doubt any of your abilities.”

Romulus stepped forward beside Khari, drawing his dagger, wordless in his intent. It was obvious what he was planning on doing, and that was volunteering. He was trained for killing important targets, mages or otherwise. Killing this man and his dogs would make killing the rest unnecessary, and would possibly make them pliable to the Inquisition's will. But, it was ultimately Marceline's duty to direct the mission, and so Romulus glanced again to her for her approval.

She looked at the three of them in contemplation before she turned back to the Fereldan and his hounds. She held them in her gaze, sizing them up before she closed her eyes and sighed, apparently having decided on something. Marceline then began to undo the clasp to the cloak around her shoulders. "Khari," she began, "If you would handle the hounds?" Once the cloak was free, she approached Zahra and handed it to her, giving her an appreciative look. Zahra, in turn, folded and tucked the cloak underneath her arm and grinned at the others, obviously pleased by the outcome.

"I shall answer his challenge," she said, reaching into her pocket to produce a length of black fabric. As she used it to tie her hair back into a bun, she looked to Romulus somewhat apologetically. "Your position in the Inquisition is far too important to risk on something I can handle myself, Lord Herald," she explained. By her tone, it was clear that her usage of the title of Herald was not so much meant for him, but for the Blades. Romulus did not move at first, looking briefly at Khari and then back to Marceline. His face was stone, more so than usual, but eventually he sheathed his dagger, and stepped back, deferring to her.

Turning back to the Fereldan, her arms free and her hair out of the way she drew the rapier at her side with one hand, and the main-gauche with the other. She held the rapier horizontally at eye level, while the dagger waited in the shadows.

"Begin."

It was probably only meant to commence the match between Marceline and the leader of the Blades, but it seemed to serve well enough as a signal for Khari, as well. She still wore her cloak, and the steel mask, as well, and the hounds leapt for her as one. She immediately jumped backwards, positioning herself a fair distance behind Marceline, but still at her back, obviously to prevent the mabari from flanking her. One of the dogs landed short, but the other had taken an extra step before jumping at her, and she was forced to block, swinging her fist around to punch it directly in the nose.

That didn’t seem to do much, perhaps due to the armor plating it had, and though it failed to get a good hold on her, it did knock her to the ground. Chances were, it weighed about the same as she did, maybe a little more with the armor, and the ground was muddy and slick. Khari fell, but she did so easily, almost as if she’d been expecting it, and she laughed as she slid backwards on the mud about a foot before coming to a stop, rolling onto her feet quickly and bringing her sword around for the next exchange.

Marceline simply shook her head most likely at what was Khari's laughter. When it was clear that it was not her that going to make the first move, the Fereldan made his own instead. With his first step forward, she took her first backward. Likewise for the second. The slow retreat seemed to have angered the man, because a scowl leapt into his face before he threw himself at Marceline.

Instead of rushing forward to meet him, and instead of retreating backward and risk tripping into the fight Khari was in, she danced to the side and out of the way, carefully watching his weapons with each step. Marceline carried herself with practiced steps and honed grace. It was becoming clear that she was no stranger to a duel. The rapier never dropped below eye level, at least until it bobbed upward, as if to entice him to try again.

Khari, meanwhile, wasn’t particularly graceful at all. She was all motion, a constant back-and-forth, push-and-pull, like the flow of the tides, and the part of the field she and the dogs occupied was swiftly becoming even more of a mud pit than it had been before, as she and her four-legged foes churned it up with the strength of their strides. It seemed to be ankle-deep, in most places, but their vigor had splashed large portions of it onto them, until the dogs were gaining a coat to their chests and Khari was just wearing it everywhere. She repelled their attacks mostly by swatting them away with large, sweeping strokes of her sword, but she never overshot, never left herself open for longer than she could recover.

One of them dove low, going in for her ankle, most likely, but she went low, too, diverting to the side and pivoting, the force of the motion carrying her through the next stroke, which cleanly severed one of its legs, just below where the armor protected. It went down on its side, so she opened up its belly with the subsequent blow, ending its life with celerity.

"It appears as if you overestimated your hounds," Marceline taunted after the hound that Khari dispatched cried aloud. The leader of the blades simply grunted angrily and charged her again. This time, she did not retreat, but she never let her eyes move away from his shield and axe. He came in hard for a horizontal swipe, but Marceline apparently had seen it coming and took a step backward to let it pass harmlessly in front her. She had also seen the backswing coming, and parried it with the main-gauche, pushing it away from her.

A fierce shield block followed, but Marceline easily dipped under it and spun away, coming out unscatched on the other side of him. She put a few steps between instead of pressing an attack, before resetting the positioning of her rapier. "It also appears as if your hounds were much more competent," she taunted again. The mounting frustrations on the Fereldan's face was visible to all, and it was easy to see that his motions were becoming more and more wild with each miss and each taunt.

In the aftermath of the death of its counterpart, the second mabari fought all the harder, seemingly confirming the rumors about their intelligence and loyalty, and it was certainly well-trained for battle. It snarled at Khari, and lunged, this time from too close for her to merely duck away, and they both hit the ground with a wet squelch. It was a bit hard to see exactly what happened after that—a great deal of rolling was involved, as both tried to get the necessary leverage to finish the other off. With a half-yell, half-snarl of her own, though, Khari hauled the dog off her and threw herself onto it, planting a knee in its chest and a hand beneath its jaw, tipping its head back too far to bite her and rendering most of its powerful muscles useless, since it couldn’t get leverage to push her off.

With a grunt, she brought her sword towards her with her second hand, laying the blade over its throat under her first, then leaning into it. Given the lack of armor there, it bit in easily, and the hound went still beneath her. She climbed to her feet, coated almost head to toe in wet earth worn proudly, almost, glancing towards Marceline and her foe, and her teeth flashed at him from under the mask, though it it was a smile, a grimace, or something else wasn’t evident.

“Waste of good dogs, on your pride.” Her tone was clearly derisive, and the jab played off Marceline’s like taunts surprisingly well, for someone who’d been wholeheartedly engaged in her own confrontation.

"She is correct, you know?" Marceline said, with a brow raised. Her answer was immediate, a rage induced yell and the Fereldan threw everything at her in his next flurry. However, even in the mud, Marceline proved quicker, stepping out of the way of errant strikes and batting away the weaker ones with her main-gauche. Despite the ferocity, it was clear that the fight was beginning to strain him. The wide angles, the wild slashes, the ferocity, even in the rain it was easy to tell the Fereldan was laboring.

She backstepped one more time before the man barked at her, taken over by his rage. "Fight Ba--urk," he was never able to finish the sentence. Marceline siezed the opportunity provided by the man opening his mouth to speak to drive the tip of her rapier into his throat. He was choking on his blood before he fell to his knees, his weapons quickly sinking into the muck beside him.

"We could have just spoken," Marceline said, the man tipping over into the mud, lifeless. She sheathed main-gauche and produced a linen hankerchief from a pocket. She then proceeded to wipe the beads of blood from the tip of her rapier, before she sheathed it as well. Turning to face Khari, she looked her up and down before she offered the woman herself the handkerchief.

Khari only laughed, waving the offer away with a good-natured grin. “Gonna take more than that, I think. Rain should do for most of it." They were quite the contrast, one of them as neat as it was likely possible to be out here and the other wearing muck from the crown of her head to the toes of her boots, but they'd both been successful.

It was Zahra who first stepped forward to congratulate them on their victories. Arms held out wide as if she might embrace them, though she did not. Instead she stood in front of Khari and settled her hands on her hips, smiling broadly, “Now that was a damn good fight. I'm glad the brute was stupid enough to challenge you.” Her eyes flicked from Khari's mud-speckled face, to Lady Marceline's sheathed blade and back up to hers, which was noticeabl cleaner, “It might've been easier to talk, but less fun, you must admit.”

Whatever her idea of fun was, it obviously lied in the more violent aspects of their journey. Her expression shifted as she looked between the two, sizing them up before she circled around Khari. Glancing over her shoulder, Zahra looked mildly apologetic as she held out Marceline's cloak, “Forgive me, but I think I'll be riding with her the rest of the way. At least until the rain does its work.” Khari only shrugged.

“Suit yourself."

As Romulus mounted, one of the Blades of Hessarian approached. "You'll be hearing from us, Inquisition," he said, not at all in an unfriendly manner. "You've proven yourselves worthy, and earned the right of command. In the Storm Coast, your will is our own." Romulus pulled his hood up over his head, as the rain began to come down ever harder.

They were not unlike slaves, he thought. Serving without question at the whim of the most dangerous person they could find.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Marceline Benoit Character Portrait: Leonhardt Albrecht Character Portrait: Kharisanna Istimaethoriel

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It felt better than it perhaps should have to be out of the damn office for a while.

Leon was grateful, actually, that his duties included supervising the training of the troops as often as possible. The Lions' lieutenants, and, if he were being honest, even their non-officer members, were exceptionally well-trained even for professionals, and so they could do a lot of the teaching and drilling in his absence, but he refused to shut himself away in a building all day out of the reach of most of his people and pretend like being here, where they could see him, wasn’t important. He much preferred dealing with soldiers to dealing with either diplomats or spies anyway, and that was in part exactly why he had the role within the organization that he did.

Currently, he was only observing drills; he suspected he might be coaxed into some kind of informal spar later, but for the moment, it was more important that he get a better sense of how they were doing. Down in the ranks, Hissrad and Donnelly were shouting drill commands, which the men and women under their supervision followed with varying degrees of competence and accuracy. They were already looking better than they had a month ago, and he told Cor, standing to his left, as much. To his right, Reed nodded an agreement.

“Well… they’ve been working hard,” the young elf replied, shifting his weight slightly from one leg to the other. Another thing that seemed to hold fairly universally of the Lions was that they were quick to give others as much of the credit as they could for anything, be that shifting praise between themselves or putting it at the feet of their trainees. It was an admirable sort of humility, but almost disconcerting to find so universally over what was otherwise a very diverse group of people. He wondered if they’d all picked it up from their own commander or if he’d simply selected them in the first place because they had it. Still, sans Estella, there was a quiet confidence to each of them, a sense that they knew that they were skilled and valuable, but refused to make any noise about it.

It made them incredibly easy to work with.

“They have,” Leon agreed with a smile. It was hard not to, perhaps, when the Breach was still there in the sky and no one else in the world seemed to have half an idea what to do about it. “But they’ve been instructed well, also, else their hard work would not have achieved so much.” Cor pursed his lips, but nodded with what appeared to be some reluctance.

“We’re working hard, too,” he admitted, glancing over and up at Leon. “She’s one of ours, after all; we can’t not help her. Plus, Lia’s with you guys now, and after that whole thing with the scouts...” He grimaced. It was obvious that Cor held a great deal of affection for both of his friends, and the sentiment was more than likely shared by the other two as well.

Leon hummed thoughtfully. “I know our supplies yet leave much to be desired, but is there anything in particular you think you need?”

Cor exhaled through his nose. “Help?” Thinning his mouth, he explained further. “Our squads can help a little, when they see a line-mate doing something wrong, but we don’t want to disrupt your command structure too much by having troops ordering each other around. And if you take our twenty out of the equation, there’s only three of us, some spare people with previous mercenary or military experience, and… well, that’s it. It’s fewer than ten people running drills for what’s eventually going to be an army.”

And that was indeed where the personnel problem was hitting them the hardest: mid-level officers. Leon himself was doing most of what he’d usually have captains and up do, but the burdens of lieutenants fell on the scarce volunteers they had with command experience, and it was bound to wear them as it wore him. Thinking of that brought to the forefront again the massive migraine he could feel building in the back of his head, and he sighed. “You’re right. Start picking out troops with a knack for the drills. I at least need to promote you some sergeants.” He couldn’t ask them to keep doing all this work for the pittance he was currently able to pay them.

Nearby, Leon could hear the telltale clacking of two wooden practice swords bouncing off of each other. Not too far away, but away from the main body of troops, a man was practicing with a boy. The man, Ser Michaël, a Chevalier and Lady Marceline's husband, was sparring with their son, Pierre. Michaël bore his full plate backed by a purple and black cloak that seemed to be the Benoît house colors. He easily held off his son with a single practice sword in one hand, while the boy struggled with two hands.

Michaël had been giving his son encouragement and guidance, but had quieted when Cor spoke. Though his attentions seemed to be held on the conversation they were having, the spar with Pierre continued, though he was still able to effortlessly hold the boy off. At least, until Leon finished his last sentence. A surprised yelp cut the air then, and Pierre's sword was in the snow, with Michaël's own pressed gently against the boy's shoulder. The man gave his son an apologetic look, before he laughed.

"I will make a Chevalier out of you yet. Come," he said, tusseling the boy's hair and shouldering his sword. His hand fell to the boy's shoulder and they finally made their way to Leon.

"Commander Leonhardt?" He asked, "If I may suggest something?"

Leon turned his attention to Michaël in full at that point, rather than half-observing the training as he had been before, and lifted a brow. “Of course, Ser Michaël. You have a recommendation?” While technically speaking, the chevalier was outside the Inquisition’s command structure, Leon had never seen the harm in a second opinion, especially one from someone well-trained in martial matters, as was all of present company, excluding, of course, the lad.

Michaël smiled and nodded before he began "Perhaps I may be able to allievate your problem somewhat. I am a Lieutenant for the Chevaliers, with knowledge of their tactics and training methods. Methods I sometime see the Lions utilize in their own regiments," he said with a warm smile for Cor. Michaël then placed a hand on his hip, and noticably puffed his chest out, though a playfulness remained in his green eyes. "I would offer my services, if you have need of them, Commander."

The boy next to him simply shook his head, and looked to Leon with a wry smile. "Please. Let him help. When father gets bored, he uses me as an excuse to train," Pierre explained. Michaël said nothing in turn, but his chest sagged in response to the comment. The sword on his shoulder then shifted however, and reached across to tap the boy lightly on top of the head, a smile on his lips the whole time.

Leon’s violet eyes picked up a glimmer of amusement at Pierre’s words, and he spoke partly to both of them. “It would seem I have little choice, in that case.” His gaze shifted up to Michaël. “In truth, I would be grateful for the assistance. As, I am sure, would the Lions.”

Cor’s smile was much more obvious evidence of the fact that he was entertained than anything on Leon’s face, and he crossed his arms over his chest. “I don’t know about that. To hear the commander tell it, Ser Michaël, your methods haven’t improved much since your days of tripping in formation when there were pretty girls around.” It was clearly an inside joke of some sort, a reference that Leon didn’t have, but from the sounds of things, the Lions would work quite well with Lord Benoît’s help, which, while it would not alleviate the growing pains the Inquisition experienced, would at least go partway there.

Cor's joke however, took the rest of the air out of Michaël's chest. Instead of puffing himself out, he hid his face with his hand, and rubbed his eyes. He said nothing at first, only muttering, "Lucien," under his breath. Pierre also laughed at the joke, but turned away from his father so that he could not see, no doubt lest he risk another tap to the head.

Michaël waved his hand in the air, and said, "I deny everything."

"You can try, love, but that does not mean it is not true," a voice cooed from behind them. It was Lady Marceline's, who came from the road leading back to Haven proper, with Larissa close beside her. Larissa carried a clipboard in hand, but was currently not writing anything. She was, however, laughing gently. "I apologize," Marceline told Cor as she pulled up beside her husband. "I believe I am cause of that," she added, leaning up against him.

Michaël for his part, said nothing and continued to look out over the horizon, as if trying to pretend nothing was happening.

“No fault of yours, Lady Marceline,” Cor replied easily, with a modest bow. It was clear enough that he and she had met on a previous occasion, probably through the Lions’ commander. “And it does seem to have worked out for the better, no?”

Leon’s attention was temporarily drawn away from the byplay by the approach of another, however, and he found himself straightening a little bit unconsciously. He wondered if she was here to…?

Khari, who’d been marching not unlike a chevalier herself, slowed slightly upon spotting the group, or perhaps the size of it. At one point, she almost stopped, but then seemed to think better of that and soldiered on until she was standing in front of the lot of them. There was a moment where she looked like she was thinking, and then she dipped herself at the waist. “Uh… hey commander… everyone.” She grinned, nodded to Cor and Reed, glanced back and forth between Marceline, Michaël, and Pierre, and then settled her eyes on Leon himself.

“I had a question: does anyone around here have like… glassware and retorts and alembics and stuff? Like for potions? Fancier than the local alchemist, I mean?” She raised a hand to scratch at the back of her head, pulling her red braid over her shoulder on the way back. She was without most of her usual gear at the moment, which made her take up a lot less space than usual, and she seemed conscious of the fact that discounting Pierre, she was by far the shortest person in present company.

Leon wasn’t sure what the purpose behind the question was, but he wasn’t exactly sure he wanted to ask. The smile on Khari’s face always looked like trouble to him, and while he was mostly sure she wouldn’t do anything damaging, there were perhaps things he’d be better off knowing about only in the event he needed to do something about them. “Rilien would have equipment like that, if I’m not mistaken,” he replied. The Tranquil was an alchemist of surpassing talent, among his many other virtues and useful skills.

A thought struck him, then, and he angled himself slightly differently. “Khari, I don’t believe you’ve met the other Benoîts. Lady Marceline you know, but Ser Michaël is a lieutenant with the chevaliers, and Pierre here is their son. Michaël, Pierre, this is Khari. She’s one of our irregulars.” That was what he’d settled on calling the volunteers and recruits who didn’t work inside the usual armed force structure.

At precisely the moment Leon had enunciated the word ‘chevalier,’ Khari had stood ramrod straight, her full attention clearly fixed on the introduction, and if possible, the haphazard grin on her face widened, until she may have been showing a few too many teeth. “Chevalier, huh?” To her credit, she acknowledged Pierre to a greater extent than most would note the presence of a child, but it was clear where the majority of her attention had diverted. “Bear mauls the wolves or tower in a storm? Because if you’re a tower person, we’re gonna have a problem, you and I.” The way she said it gave the lie to the last sentence; she was clearly extremely excited to be talking to a chevalier, apparently to the exclusion of taking to the rest of them.

"Bear mauls the wolves, of course. Shields just get in the way," Michaël said chuckling with a grin of his own. Then he stopped and glanced over to Cor and Leon, his face settling into an awkward look. "Er... Not literally of course. I understand the value of a good shield wall," he explained.

Pierre simply rolled his eyes and huffed, which earned him another tap to the top of the head with the practice sword.

Leon sighed softly, shaking his head and leaving the two of them to their tactical discussions, as it were. He diverted his attention to Marceline, who probably wasn’t out here in the cold to watch the troops practice. “Is there something I can help you with, milady?”

"Yes, Ser Leonhardt," Lady Marceline replied. If she seemed at all perturbed by the tactical discussion being carried on by her husband, she did not show it. In fact, by the way she carried herself, it seemed as if she dealt with it often enough. Glancing first at Khari, and then the rest of the troops, she turned back to Leon. "I would ask for access to detailed personel reports on the individuals serving the Inquisition," she said.

Larissa then went to her clipboard and began to write something, though Leon could not see what. "In return, Larissa and I will pen letters to some of our contacts in order to obtain more experienced soldiers to fill your needs," She said, glancing to the woman beside her, already hard at work.

There were far too many individuals to assemble more than basic dossiers based on the standard forms each volunteer had dictated to Reed or Tanith upon his or her entrance into the Inquisition, with things like next-of-kin information and the like, but he supposed more than that might be in order for the officers and irregulars, at least, so with some reluctance, he inclined his head. It would probably mean even more hours in the office, but the idea had relevance, and they really could use any more people those letters might gain them.

“Very well. I will see what I can assemble in the next few days to that effect. Cor, if you would be so kind as to poll the others and get names for likely sergeants, I’ll try to run a round of minor promotions within a fortnight.” The pressure at the back of his head felt like it was ratcheting up to become a full-blown tension headache, but he ignored it for now. Rilien would have something for that, or else he’d just work through it. He had before.

There just usually wasn’t quite so much at stake.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Marceline Benoit

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Lady Marceline had her hands full, with a bottle of wine in one, and a docket of files in the other. Not only her hands, either. Larissa dutifully kept step behind her, clipboard and another set of files in hers. She had stepped out of the larger office she had initially requisitioned from Ser Leonhardt, who'd relocated into a smaller office of the Chantry. It was required, however, she had to have the space to host visiting dignitaries... Of which there had only been a few. Most had deigned to only speak through letter, or not speak to them at all.

They would come around, however. The letters were being penned, favors were being called, and the appointments were set. The Game was being played, and Marceline did not lose. The Inquisition would have their support in due time, but first, they had to prove they were worthy. It was partly for this reason that Marceline and her assistant left the Chantry, and headed toward the tent of their Spymaster.

She knew Ser Rilien, of course, before he was the Inquisition's Spymaster. Her duties, however, had kept her away from speaking with the man, and even now, it was her duties that took her to see him. From the mouth of the Chantry, she could see his tent with the flaps open and inviting. He was not alone, though, Estella sat nearby, and a tea set spread out in front of them. She glanced back to Larissa, who wore a smile which soon spread to her own lips. "Come," she beckoned the woman and headed toward the tent.

She stood at the entrance and bowed to both Rilien and Estella, and greeted them in turn. "Ser Rilien," she said to the man, "Lady Estella," the woman. Larissa as well bowed to both, but her gaze lingered on Rilien.

"I apologize if I am intruding at all," she said, gesturing to the tea set with the hand that held the bottle of wine, "But there are things I wish to speak to you about," Marceline added for Rilien, motioning to the docket she held.

Estella looked uncomfortable for a fraction of a second, but then she glanced between Marcy, Larissa, and Rilien, frowned slightly, and then shook her head. “Um… if it’s things you don’t mind me hearing about, you could always join us for tea?” It came out more as a question than a statement, and it was obvious why when she turned her glance back to the Tranquil, clearly seeking his confirmation. “But, if it’s too important, I can leave.”

Rilien shook his head. “It is Inquisition business. You are a Herald. In principle, there is nothing that need be kept from you. In practice, we do so only because the details are many and tedious.” He moved his attention to the other two. “You may enter.” The Tranquil paused a moment to pour two extra cups of tea, the seating already being adequate to another pair of guests, before reaching for the docket.

“What was it you wished to discuss, Lady Marceline?” His voice, as ever, indicated no interest, but also no particular lack of it, odd as that was.

Marceline smiled and nodded her agreement. There were so many things that required their attention, that if a Herald were required for each of them, they would need many more than two. Marceline and Larissa entered the tent together, but Marceline was the first to hand him her docket. "The names and information on the nobility, both in Orlais and Ferelden, that support the Inquisition." She frowned however and sighed. "There are not many, I am afraid. Though word of the Inquisition's deeds spreads, we are still largely an unknown entity. An issue I am attempting to solve," she said before turning it over to Larissa.

The woman stepped forward and passed her own set of files off. "These are the names of the nobility that may require watching, now or in the future. Likewise, the names are few, many continue to watch us from a neutral standpoint to see how our actions play out." Larissa took a step back, but still spoke. "We believed as our Spymaster, you would have use of these files, no matter how sparse," she added. Marceline caught a little gleam of amusement in her eyes when she called the man their Spymaster, though she said nothing on the matter.

"And this," she said, holding up the bottle of wine. "Is a gift from my own personal store," she explained gently laying it down on the table. The label held the emblem of a shield surrounded by vines of grapes, the Lécuyer Vineyards crest, her crest. "The market value of which is measured in sovereigns," she said, with a coy smile. It was true, of course, and not just arrogant boasting on her part. The Lécuyer Vineyards were very well respected for their wines, and provided for many of Orlais's salons.

"It has been quite some time since we have last seen each other, has it not Rilien?" she said, slipping out of her usual business demeanor and into something more fitting when speaking to an old acquantance. Even Larissa eased into a more comfortable disposition.

Marceline then took a seat, taking Estella's offer of tea, while Larissa hovered close to the table. "Thank you Lady Estella," she said to the woman before looking back to Rilien. "I apologize that we have not been by, we have been busy, as I am sure you understand," she said, glancing to Larissa, who nodded in agreement. Rilien no doubt had just as much work as she.

“You need not have troubled yourselves.” Before sitting down, Rilien lifted the wine off the table, checked the label, and then nodded almost imperceptibly, putting it away on one of the small, low shelves contained within the tent. “I have been quite occupied myself, and at present, I am catching my apprentice up on some of the lessons she has missed.” It was an obvious reference to Estella’s presence, though he had not mentioned her to be such before.

He took a seat in the remaining empty chair, thumbing through the dockets with a disinterested gaze that was nevertheless keen, sharp. Marceline had known him long enough to understand that he was a perceptive man, and that he missed very little, if anything. It was hardly a wonder that he walked in a prince’s shadow most of the time, and even now, he seemed to have little effort splitting his attention in several directions, however much the others might struggle with it.

“Estella, if you would begin in the minor chord again, please.”

Setting her tea down, Estella picked up the lute that had been leaning against her chair and pulled it back into her lap. Her eyes flickered a trifle uncertainly between the two guests, before she smiled thinly. “Apologies in advance if I assail your ears,” she murmured, but she dutifully arranged her fingers on the instrument, their placements quite precise, likely much to do with the fastidious nature of the person who’d taught her how to do so.

The first note was sweet and clear, and dropped into a trilling cascade of them, immediately recognizable to Marceline as one of the more popular accompaniments to a gaillarde, one of the most athletic but also precise forms of dance found in the Empire. The choice certainly seemed to suit the instructor’s sensibilities, such as they were.

Marceline laughed softly to herself. She hadn't shown surprise when Rilien had said that Estella was his apprentice. In fact, it explained why some of the small things that she did reminded her of him. When she began to play, Marceline closed her eyes and listened intently to the melody, enjoying it. Soon, however, a hum accompanied Estella's playing. Marceline cracked an eyelid and glanced over to her assistant, who gently rocked with the rise and fall of the tune. The hum added to the arrangement beautifully, and Marceline couldn't help but smile at the dulcet duet.

Rilien worked through the files quite briskly, and by the time he looked up about five minutes later, all of them were stacked neatly beside him. “I take it we’ve still not heard anything from the templars.” It wasn’t really a question the way he’d put it, and demanded no answer. “It seems our next logical move is to meet with the mages in Redcliffe, though my agents have reported little out of there.” He paused for a moment. “I know of at least two people there who may prove of aid to our cause, however, and they may be able to inform us of what has occurred since the Grand Enchanter’s proposition.”

Marceline shook her head in the negatory. "We have not unfortunately, and I have written to them on more than one occasion," she revealed. The Templars were frustratingly quiet, and apart from their demonstration in Val Royeaux she had heard nothing from them. "I have been in correspondence with the nobility, and they report the same, I am afraid." From the wording used in their letters, they were as frustrated as she was.

"I agree," she said, "the mages seem far more amiable to any negotiations, and we are able assert our position upon them easier than if we were to negotiate with the Templars." Her lips had formed a thin frown, and she was far more contemplative, the music of Estella and Larissa just a dull memory. However, it did help allieviate the stress. "However, I shall still continue to try and make contact with the Templars and speak to the other nobles on the matter. If at all possible, I would see an alliance with both, instead of just one or the other."

It would also be a catalyst to end the Mage-Templar war. If they could find the peace that Justinia was searching for before her death, it would honor her memory.

“The Templars may actually be more communicative if they believe we have already taken up with the mages.” Rilien sat back slightly, folding his hands together. “They speak the language of power, and such a substantial boost to ours may draw us closer to even with them in their own eyes, which might gain us a place at the negotiating table even with someone as unreasonable as the Lord Seeker.”

“Er…” That was Estella. The music had ended, and the girl looked a little leery of entering the conversation, but she did pipe up. “I mean, that seems very possible, but… aren’t we also risking just making them even angrier with us? The Templars are at war with the mages right now; won’t they see us as just… siding with the enemy?”

"Possibly," Marceline answered, "But it is a risk we must take." She crossed her arms and held the woman in her gaze, her face an even mask. "Before the Breach, the Divine wished to bring peace to both the Mages and the Templars. That was the reason of the Conclave, as you know," she gently reminded her. Estella was there after all, she had to know this. "But more than that, we may need all of their strength to close the Breach."

She sighed and steepled her hands, continuing to look at Estella. "Rilien is correct. They speak power, and if we can gain that power, they will open their doors to speak with us. Whether it is to denounce us or otherwise, the door remains open and that is something we can work with."

“And any opportunity is better than none, which is what we have if we do not act.” Rilien set the dockets aside for the moment and refocused his eyes on Estella. “Now, the ballad of the Ser Aveline, please. Do sing it this time.”

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Romulus Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Marceline Benoit Character Portrait: Cyrus Avenarius

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Cyrus suspected that Redcliffe had seen much better days.

As far as he’d bothered to assess the situation, Arl Teagan wasn’t currently in residence, though much of what remained of the southern mage forces were. At least those organized enough to deserve the title forces, barely though they may have qualified. He’d arrived with the second group of Inquisition people, about an hour or so after Estella and her advance group, and had since been filled in on the situation. By the time they’d gotten to it, he’d not been surprised to hear the name Cassius Viridius come up—he had a feeling he knew exactly what was going on here, though if he was right, then Cassius was in fact a much more desperate man than Cyrus had previously taken him to be. Then again… two years could change a person. They had certainly changed him.

He hadn’t left much choice for anyone when he said he’d be attending the negotiations. When the unilateral pronouncement didn’t seem to be taken especially well, he’d explained as much as he felt he needed to, which was that Cassius was formerly his master, in the tutelage sense of the term, and that he would be considerably more likely to pay attention to what Cyrus had to say than any upstart southern religious movement, which was all true, especially because there was quite a bit he could hold over his former teacher’s head in this situation, with or without revealing it to anyone else.

The inn they were supposed to be meeting him at was near the top of the central hill in the town, though still a tier below the castle and the Chantry, of course. He, Estella, Romulus, and the Lady Marceline were to be the negotiators, though he suspected that the task in question would inevitably fall to him when the good Comtesse’s kid-glove tactics proved utterly fruitless as he knew they would. Magisters didn’t negotiate the same way southern nobility did—at least not when they knew they were winning. But that was a piece of advice he kept to himself right now. It would become evident with due time.

The air still carried a chill, but he found that it didn’t bother him nearly as much as Haven did, of course, and he’d actually swapped out his cloak for a less-warm but much nicer one, in the rich indigo and sable of his house. Details were rarely insignificant when one played this little game, after all. They reached the inn’s entrance with Cyrus in front, and though he might have preferred to enter first, he understood what was necessary here, and so he reached for the handle of the door, turning back over his shoulder to glance at the others, letting his eyes fall last of all on Estella.

“Show no weakness, unless you fancy being devoured.” As if to soften the cryptic ominousness of the words, he flashed a smile, bright and fey, and narrowed his eyes. “Everyone ready?”

Romulus did not appear ready in the slightest. In fact, he looked deeply unsettled, as though he wasn't sure at all what to do with his hands, or his eyes. "Perhaps I shouldn't be here," he said. The suggestion was given to the group at large, as though he didn't want to direct it at anyone in particular.

"You are the Herald. You have every right to be present. Whether you are or you are not is entirely up to you," Lady Marceline answered. Ever since they had found out that the Free Mages were not expecting them in the slightest, Marceline had seemed to be less than happy. She turned back to Cyrus and nodded, a hard line present in her frown.

“I’d, um. I’d feel better if you were,” Estella said, her tone considerably less brusque than Lady Marceline’s. “I’m not sure I want to be the only one of us standing in front of a Magister. The last time I did something like that, the other party was insulted. Er, but… don’t let me make up your mind.” She shook her head, her expression clearly uneasy.

Romulus was at least able to meet Estella's eyes when she spoke, and while he was clearly still in an anxious mood about everything, he managed to nod, and steady himself a bit. "Let's go, then."

Marceline allowed herself a small sigh before collecting herself. The annoyance she'd wore melted away to leave her face completely neutral, and once more made it difficult to see exactly how she was feeling and what she was thinking.

Personally, Cyrus thought it might have been somewhat wiser for Romulus to not be present, because he didn’t know what Cassius knew or didn’t know about that situation, and it was better to enter any negotiation with all the information on one’s own side, but because it was Estella’s suggestion, he offered no protest, only shrugging. “All right then. Stellulam, dear, you and Romulus should enter first. You are, after all, in charge.” His eyes glittered with contained amusement, and he grasped the handle of the door, sweeping it open with an almost-playful flourish and gesturing the others in ahead of him.

The inside of the inn was mostly unoccupied, as promised, but at a table in the back, several people were gathered. Only four, actually, which made their own number a very wise, if coincidental, confluence. Two of the men were guards, that much was obvious from the way they stood flanking the chair that faced the door. The third, also standing in a somewhat deferential position, was the former Grand Enchanter, but Cyrus could muster no pity for her, despite her obvious misery. He’d never been good at pity in general, and tended to find it even more difficult when someone else had backed themselves into such an obvious corner.

The fourth party had a bearing and a face he knew better than his own, which he supposed was the product of years of familiarity. Magister Cassius Viridius was an elderly man who looked like one, his face lined with age, but even in spite of that, he had a certain distinctive vitality about him, one that was evident in the way he moved: assured, confident, smooth and graceful. He was powerful and exceptionally aware of that power, and unafraid of letting it be known to anyone else. As the party entered, he looked up and over towards the door, an eyebrow ascending his forehead, and he reached up, pushing his hood down onto his shoulders, his bald pate catching some of the light. He was, of course, wearing those gods-awful robes that were apparently still the fashion in Tevinter, the ones that practically screamed ‘sinister mage lord.’ Cyrus had always thought they were a bit ridiculous, but everyone had their foibles, he supposed. He’d at least dressed for the occasion, in House Viridius green and gold.

“Well, well, well.” The Magister’s eyes scanned sharply over each of those present, though they lingered not long at all on Marceline. The other three, however, were of paramount interest to him, though of course they would be. “So it’s true what they say: the 'Heralds of Andraste,' one of our own, and one of our own.” His tone changed on the last words, and his eyes narrowed on Romulus.

The Herald froze entirely, as though Cassius had placed a spell on him with the words alone, though of course he needed nothing more to achieve such an effect. His hood was down, features fully exposed, and it was clear to see that he was struggling to determine what to say. Clearly his issue was that Cassius did not seem to know that Romulus remained with the status of Herald only because his daughter commanded it.

"My trusted blade," said a voice from behind them, and Romulus instantly paled even further, turning his head. "Your freedom has made you bold, I see. I will admit, I did not expect this from you." Chryseis Viridius descended the stairs from the inn's second floor, gloved hand trailing lightly atop the railing. She was dressed as her father was, in green and gold, her own robes a bit tighter about her, with clearly some modifications made for stylistic purposes. The neck was cut lower, the skirt asymmetrically shorn, and the metal covering her fingers and belt intricately engraved. Her blonde hair was done up in an elaborate but tightly wound bun. Her lips wore a confident smile.

Romulus had turned fully away from Cassius, lowered his eyes slightly, and was about to speak, when Chryseis cut him off, continuing her approach. "Do not presume to speak. I have asked you no question. I trust you have enjoyed your little escapade. It will not last forever." Romulus forced himself to meet her eyes, and apparently decided it was best to remain silent. The smile disappeared from Chryseis, replaced by a little smirk, her eyes agleam as they found Cyrus instead.

She worked her way around the group to stand at her father's side, her hand lightly touching his upper arm only momentarily before it was removed. "Cyrus. Wonderful to see you again. The runaway's life is treating you well, I hope?"

“Ah, Chryseis. I confess I have missed the rather lovely sight of your face.” Cyrus’s answering smile was every bit as sly, but it was true that her presence didn’t make him uncomfortable in the least, quite unlike poor Romulus. Of course, it was clear to him what game she was playing, with words like that—it would appear she desired her father to believe that her blade did not have her leave to be here, doing as he was doing, when of course they knew differently.

So Cyrus did something he’d always been exceptionally good at doing, and drew the attention away from someone else and onto himself. “But what a surprise, to see that the most illustrious House Viridius has joined us in the south, hm? This really isn’t the season for it, I must admit.” He made eye contact with Cassius, his smile inching wider. “Imagine, if you will, how interested I was to hear that Magister Cassius had managed to indenture most of the mages left in the region in one fell swoop. Truly a master stroke, executed with a most uncanny timing.” The emphasis he gave the last word was so delicate it could easily have been missed, but Cassius clearly did not miss it.

“What can I say? A Magister with no apprentice suddenly finds himself with a great deal of time to think down other avenues.” The old man lifted his shoulders in a shrug. “And what luck, that such avenues might give him opportunity to meet with an Inquisition. I’m curious: what would such an organization wish from me?”

Lady Marceline apparently decided that that was her cue. She laid a hand on Estella's shoulder and gently guided her so that she could step forward, but she never did try to overshadow her. In fact, she stood side-by-side with the woman, a warm and friendly smile on her lips directed toward Chryseis and Cassius. "I will be frank," she began, her voice holding the same warmth her smile held. "The Inquisition did not expect to be speaking to Magisters of such... renown," she said, dipping into a low curtsey.

When she finished, she held her hands on top of each other and her body language shifted in an attempt to entreaty them. "Lord Cassius, Lady Chryseis," she began, glancing at each in turn. "You of course know of the Breach that hangs in the sky above Haven. It is... a danger if it is allowed to continue to exist as such. All the Inquisition asks for is the Free Mages' aid in helping to close it. With your permissions, of course."

She smiled again and tilted her head forward, "No doubt being the man who had helped put Thedas at ease would aid in your politics back home in Minrathous, yes?"

Cyrus suppressed a grimace, because he knew she’d said the wrong thing. Cassius’s smile only confirmed it. It was polite, indifferent, and utterly unmoved. “I fear you understand little of politics in Minrathous, milady. These mages are not free, not in the strict sense, anyway. I am afraid they have promised me their service in return for my protection, and at present, I have decided it is in their best interest to return with me to the Imperium as quickly as possible. There have always been few good places for them in these lands, after all.”

It was almost admirable, how he managed to sound like he actually gave a damn. Cyrus, of course, knew that Cassius was just as full of shit on this count as Marceline was, pretending to be pleased to be speaking to Imperial Magisters. It was almost funny to watch, but then of course he had to go and make it no longer funny at all by shifting his attention to Estella.

“I am sure that is something with which my lady Herald can completely agree, can she not? I’ve heard about Kirkwall; most unfortunate, what Templars in these regions are capable of. Utter madness, really. One could hardly blame a mage for seeking refuge where their abilities, however grand or humble, are celebrated rather than reviled.” Cyrus clenched his teeth.

“I can think of no one who would not celebrate were the Breach closed,” Estella replied, her tone careful, her face smooth and passive. “And I think that if you truly cared how mages were perceived here, you would let mages be the root of the solution.” She lifted her chin slightly, almost as if daring him to contradict her. Marceline simply continued to smile, though this time, it was genuine.

Cyrus did not bother to conceal his own. She was absolutely brilliant, she really was. It was so very perfect, really—no one could have managed to make that sound so genuine except for her, he was certain, and Cassius was left in the rather unenviable position of having to admit he didn’t care about the mages, or that he wanted the Breach to remain open, which was an intriguing possibility that Cyrus filed away for consideration. He suspected both were true. Of course, admitting the first would cost him considerably less, but he’d no longer be able to pretend to the moral high ground. This would be seen for exactly what it was: an opportunistic power-grab.

That appeared to be the route he’d chosen. Cassius’s polite smile vanished, replaced with a stern expression Cyrus knew all too well. It was the expression he’d usually received when his master was about to commence ignoring him until he’d gained command of whatever he was supposed to learn that week, which meant he was extremely displeased. “I’m afraid I’ve little concern for such affairs. I am not the one with an Inquisition, after all. Unless you can offer me something worthwhile in exchange for my loan of my servants, this discussion is quite over. We will be in the castle for a while longer—perhaps you shall devise some new terms in the meantime.” Cassius stood, gesturing to his guards and Fiona, who all fell in step behind him as he made for the exit.

Chryseis remained behind, her back leaned gently against one of the inn's wooden supports. Her expression had not changed as her father's had, instead showing a hint of amusement as her eyes followed Cassius until he was out the door with all of his personal guards. When the door was firmly shut behind him, her eyes fell to Estella, her smile still in place. "Words well chosen. But make no mistake, you are all in great danger by being here. A danger I believe only Cyrus can understand the magnitude of." The smile slowly faded.

She stepped away from the wooden support, coming a little closer to them. "I must remain in my father's presence until night falls, to avoid suspicion. Meet me in the Chantry tonight, if you will, so that we can... catch up." She flashed a smile briefly at Cyrus, before walking around the side of the group and lightly grabbing Romulus by the chin, between her thumb and forefinger. "I know you at least will follow my wish." She released him, and Romulus immediately averted his eyes downwards.

"Domina."

"Until tonight, then," she said, striding towards the door. "Take care, Inquisition."

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Romulus Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Marceline Benoit Character Portrait: Cyrus Avenarius

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As the door closed behind Chryseis after her departure, Marceline's smile left her lips as well. What replaced it was an even line to her lips, though it was clear to the others that she was not enthusiastic about what had transpired. She had felt ill prepared and most of all, foolish. She did not enjoy those feelings, and took any and all precautions to ensure that she never felt them. She could not fault any of them for it, she knew. None of them had expected how this would turn out when they left Haven. Marceline thought that they were to deal with vulnerable mages, not a Tevinter Magister and his daughter.

Before the others attempted to exit the inn, Lady Marceline held up a hand to beckon them to stay. "I would kindly ask that you two please remain for a moment longer. I believe we have things to discuss. Lady Estella, if you would be so kind to join us?" It was a polite way of ordering them to remain. Marceline strode toward a nearby bench and indicated that they should all take a seat.

Cyrus didn’t appear to have any objections, given the way he shrugged indifferently and took a seat on the opposite side of the bench, leaning his back against the wall and crossing his arms over his chest. It was relaxed rather than defensive, though he did cock his head to one side. “I didn’t know they were going to be here, if that’s what you’re wondering.” The table near his elbow contained a few leftover glasses, likely from before the inn had been vacated for the meeting. He brought one to his nose, sniffed, frowned, and set it back down again, further from himself than it had been before. “I hadn’t seen either of them in a couple of years, actually.”

"I didn't expect this either," Romulus said, taking a seat at the far end from Cyrus, leaving a space for Estella in between them. He placed his elbows upon the table, lowering his head into his hands, and rubbing his scalp for a moment. He looked a little less wound up now that Chryseis had left the room, but his anxiety from before was seemingly just replaced with a different variety now. "Even after we learned Cassius was here. My domina... I knew she had an interest in the south, but this is not usual for her. She does not often directly assist her father with anything. I believe we should meet with her in the Chantry, as she said. I, at least, must go."

Marceline shook her head, "No, I am not so unreasonable as to believe either of you would intentionally have kept this from us," she said. She wasn't angry, nor was she even frustrated with them. She was frustrated at the situation, and she would see to it that next time she would not so unprepared. She too reached for a glass, and upon looking into it, turned her nose up and set it to the side, far out of her way. The tastes in this part of the country left much to be desired, she decided.

She then turned to Romulus and nodded in agreement, "And we will, but first, we need to discuss some things." At that, she turned to Estella and wait for the girl to take a seat before she finally seated herself.

Estella did so, though she seemed a bit like she wasn’t sure what she was still doing there. Settling herself between Cyrus on one side and Romulus on the other, she laid her hands flat on the surface of the table. “Uh… what things, exactly?” She actually looked as though she had some guesses, but if so, she kept them to herself.

"Everything that they are able to tell me about both Cassius and Chryseis," she told Estella, before glancing at both Cyrus and Romulus. Had she the time, she would have had Larissa look into the Magisters while she asked around the nobility. But time was not on their side, it seemed. "The next time we speak with them, I will not be caught unawares," she said with a rather firm tone. It would be the only hint at the frustration she felt. With that, Marceline cradled her hands into her lap and looked to Cyrus, her eyes level with his.

"Cyrus, let us start with Cassius. What can you tell me of the man?" she asked. "Aside from the clear fact that he is an opportunist." Marceline would have been impressed that he was able to snatch the support of the Free Mages had she not been personally invested in their wellbeing.

Cyrus blinked, the everything in his expression languid, easy, and entirely missing the urgency that Marceline was expressing. His arms loosened, and he moved one of them to the table, drumming his fingers against it in an absent rhythm. “Lady Marceline, the man was my master—my teacher—for almost ten years, though he’d put the number closer to fifteen.” He fixed her with his eyes, and smiled slightly, arching a brow. “Had I the inclination, I could write you his biography. I’m afraid you’re going to have to be much more specific.”

Marceline accepted the answer and nodded, "Then, would you know why he would press the Free Mages into servitude?" she asked, "What would his plan for them be? He is a powerful man, even without the mages' support, that much is clear. What does he hope to gain by doing this?"

He shrugged, as though it should be obvious. “He wants what everyone wants—more power. House Viridius is very old and very well-respected in the Imperium, but fortunes can change very quickly even for an Altus house. He recently found himself with a collapsed investment, and he needs a way to make up the difference as much as possible, as quickly as possible. Indenturing the remaining southern mages to his servitude is a very good strategy, considering his position. They wouldn’t count for much in Tevinter—their training is obviously inferior, but that can be rectified with time. More importantly, he’ll be the first magister in a very long time to so successfully undercut the southern Chantry, which almost all magisters disdain at the very least, and his cleverness and daring will be the talk of Minrathous.”

Cyrus appeared to consider something for a moment, then added: “And I suppose in another five years or so, he may well have the largest conglomerate of mages over which he commands direct loyalty. Mages can be servants or slaves, in Tevinter, but not so many usually are. There is advantage in that, I’m sure you can see.”

"Am I incorrect in assuming that you were the collapsed investment?" Marceline asked.

“People as capital? My, my, you’re thinking much more like a magister now, Lady Marceline.” Cyrus’s eyes were narrow, though it was impossible to distinguish whether mirth or malice did it. Perhaps both. “But you are correct. An apprenticeship is a significant institution, in the Imperium. It binds two houses together in a way usually only superseded by blood relation or marriage. He instructed me, and I was expected, in turn, to ascend to the Magisterium and act as his stalwart ally, and, if the occasion called for it, an extension of his will. He put a lot of effort into making sure I’d be very good at it.” He smiled without humor.

“You southerners have this quaint idiom for that… something about eggs and baskets?”

Marceline could not help but smile at that. "I shall take it as a comfort to know that Cassius' investment is the Inquisition's gain," with that she nodded, "Thank you Lord Cyrus." The fact that Cassius' former apprentice worked with the Inquisition, or the very least, his sister, should vex the magister, even by a small amount. Marceline could not help be feel a little gladdened by that.

She then went into thought for a moment. It appeared that she had misunderstood Minrathous politics after all, a revelation that came with no little sting. "So he gathers strength and public support with a single act in binding the mages to him. Shrewd," she said, sounding a small bit impressed. It stung, yes, but she could not discount the man's cunning. It would only reinforce the point that she need to be careful in any further dealings with the man.

“He has always been that, yes.”

"Does he have any habits or weaknesses we could exploit? We can not simply allow him to return to Minrathous with the Free Mages," she said.

“Pride, of course, though it’s likely to do you little good.” Cyrus crossed one leg over the other, glancing down past Estella at Romulus. “What should interest you more is that Chryseis has not seen fit to inform him of the fact that she has licensed Romulus to be here. She’s always had her own mind, quite apart from his despite their relation, and here it would seem that she’s being subversive about it. You’ll want to find out why.”

"I intend to," Marceline said, referring to the meeting to be held at the Chantry, but first, she turned to Romulus, "But first, I would like to know more of the woman. Tell me, Romulus, what is she like? Personality wise, of course. If I am correct in my assumption, what we had seen from her initially was a mask. I wish to know of the woman behind the mask," she asked, quite curious to the answer. "Anything you can tell me will be helpful," she added.

Romulus didn't seem prepared to speak about her personality or behavior, his mouth hanging open somewhat foolishly for a moment before he swallowed, sitting up a little straighter. "She is..." He paused, struggling for the correct words. "She's always calculating. Making estimations of people. Learning about them, predicting them. She isn't prideful like her father, but she is idealistic. It was always something that put the two at odds with each other." He scratched his head again, clearly uncomfortable about broaching the subject, but this was nothing new for him.

"We've known each other since adolescence. She has changed since then. Her tutoring from her father, her marriage, her husband's death, her own ideals drawing the ire of others in Minrathous... she's grim under her mask, as you say, but stubborn. She is here to help herself, not her father. If the two were one and the same, she would've told him that I remain loyal."

Marceline brought her hands to her chin, where they rested. She listened to Romulus before she nodded. "That is something we can work with then," Marceline said. If Chryseis was there to subvert her father, then perhaps she would continue to aid the Inquisition in a more direct manner. Though Marceline would not offer the woman her complete trust. It would be foolish to do so, it was as Romulus said. She was there for her. Not them, nor her father.

"Do you know what she would hope to gain here, if she were to aid us?" Marceline asked. She had already helped by allowing Romulus to continue to act as Herald, and if that was any indication, she would continue to aid them. Though at what price she wondered.

"I can't claim to know what she wants," Romulus admitted, shrugging. "But I doubt she would openly aid us, not until it suits her. Maybe this has more to do with her father. They are still family, after all. Cassius is not an easy man to dissuade, especially through peaceful means.” His daughter, as Romulus had described her, was much the same, in her own way.

Marceline went quiet for a bit before she shook her head and began to stand. "There is nothing else we are able to do at this time. We will wait until nightfall and then meet with Chryseis at the chantry. I suggest you all rest and prepare yourselves until then. Romulus, Cyrus? Thank you, this has been most... enlightening," she said with a smile.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Romulus Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Marceline Benoit Character Portrait: Cyrus Avenarius Character Portrait: Kharisanna Istimaethoriel

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Despite all the personal ties to the mission they'd found themselves in, Romulus continuously reminded himself that this wasn't, in fact, personal.

Chryseis was here because her father was, not because he was. That part was merely an uncomfortable coincidence. Regardless of what happened in the aftermath of their trip to Redcliffe, the mission there remained the same: sever the link between Cassius and the Free Mages, and secure their aid for the Inquisition. The rest was of no consequence. He wondered if he could make that true by repeating it enough.

The same group that had attended the initial tavern meeting with Cassius was headed to the Chantry, with the addition of Khari. In truth, Romulus didn't want her to come along, but as usual, he felt he had no place in telling her to stay behind, and hid any form of displeasure behind his stony features when they made their way, armed and armored, for the Chantry. The streets cleared out nicely at night, and there was a sort of tenseness to the chill in the air, as though the village knew that its fate would be decided sooner rather than later.

The way to the Chantry was clear, but as they approached the steps leading to its doors, several clergy members in varying states of undress burst out from within, terrified. From the brief moment the doors had swung open, Romulus could hear the familiar sound of a rift, and see the ominous green light reflecting off of the ceiling. They hurried inside.

The rift had appeared right in the center of the main hall, spewing forth shades and wraiths. A hooded woman in Tevinter robes, clearly Chryseis, was the only one currently battling them. The bottom end of her battle staff was sharply bladed, and she stabbed down into the shoulder of the nearest shade, causing it to roar in pain. Before it could move any more, runes along the handle of the staff glowed a bright, hot red, and suddenly the shade exploded from within in a fiery blast. Chryseis pulled her hood back, and looked to the newcomers.

"I could do this all night," she twisted, leaning back from a slash, and stabbing her staff's blade into the chest of the next shade, "but I'd really rather not!" The runes turned an icy blue, and then a massive chunk of jagged ice burst through the shade's body, shattering against the back wall. It slumped to the ground, with the large hole clean through its chest.

Romulus charged forward without hesitation, his shield and blade immediately in hand. He absorbed a magical projectile from one of the wraiths in the back, the attack bouncing off his shield. His blade was cutting through the offending demon before it could charge up another.

Khari wasn’t far behind him, splitting off from his trajectory near the end of the run to lunge into another shade, her cleaver slamming into the area between its neck and shoulder, the telltale crunch of its bones breaking within the containment of its flesh. One of them, what might have been a clavicle on a human being, punched through the skin, exposed to open air as it fell, and then she was off in pursuit of another, a bloody trail following behind as ichor dripped from the blade of her sword.

The distinctive crackle of lightning was audible even over the din of the rest of the battle, and Cyrus seemed to materialize on the far side of the rift, the glowing blue blade belonging to his spatha erupting from the chest cavity of a shade even as the one immediately to his right went down in a bright conflagration of flames, turning its dark flesh black and filling the air with the stench of burning meat. Ripping his sword out to the left of the first shade, he cast again, lightning arcing from his fingers to lance into one of those at the front, headed for Estella and Marceline.

“Don’t tell me you’re not having at least a little bit of fun, Chryseis!” His reply was lighthearted enough to be at serious odds with the situation, but then again, he seemed not at all perturbed by the enemies present.

One of the shades pushed itself as quickly as it could along the floor towards Chryseis. She lazily flicked a few fingers in its direction, and ice sprang up around it, freezing it solid. "Everything's more fun with you around, Cyrus," she said, with a hint of a smirk. "But you already know that, of course."

The ice at her fingertips suddenly sparked into flame, and she casually tossed an explosive spell beneath the new ice sculpture. It ignited a moment later, sending small fragments of frozen shade body raining down onto the Chantry floor. It appeared to be the last of the demons. Chryseis turned her head towards Romulus, pulling a lock of blonde hair behind her ear. "Go on then, blade. Show me your new power."

He nodded, and lifted his shield arm towards the rift. The arc of green energy snapped into place, building and intensifying until the rift exploded. The air where it had been appeared scarred momentarily, but soon cleared altogether, as though the portal had never been present at all. Chryseis smiled in wonder. "Fascinating. And you do that on instinct, then? Do you command it to close?"

"Maybe, domina," Romulus answered, head bowed. "I don't know if will is a part of it. It closes rifts in proximity, when the demons are dealt with."

"And that alone makes you an immensely valuable asset, my dear. You've no memory of how you acquired it, though?"

He shook his head. "No, domina."

"And the same for you, Estella?" she asked, turning away from Romulus. "Nothing of the Conclave?"

Estella sheathed her sword, which had clearly seen some use, if not perhaps a great deal, and stood a fraction straighter, folding her hands behind her back. “No, milady,” she replied, her tone quiet, but not timid. “I can recall why I was there, but nothing that happened during the Conclave itself.”

"Shame," Chryseis said, frowning, "the knowledge of how to recreate such abilities would be immensely powerful, in the right hands." She held the thought a moment, before shaking her head, and returning her focus to the group at large. "No matter. We're here to stop my father, before he accidentally ends the world. At least, I'm hoping it's accidental. He can't be so power-mad as to intentionally jeopardize the stability of time itself." She seemed to realize the gravity of her last sentence, and glanced up at Cyrus.

"That's how we arrived here so quickly, of course. By distorting time. Makes me glad I didn't often see what the two of you got up to while you were his apprentice."

Lady Marceline simply sighed a short distance away, polishing the last of the ash off her rapier with a handkerchief.

Cyrus’s smile was enigmatic. It didn’t seem to be a particularly pleased expression, but nor did it qualify as sheepish. It was unclear if he were even capable of the latter. “Yes, I rather expect it does.” He looked up at the place where the rift used to be, and his expression became obviously calculating. “I hadn’t thought he’d attempt such a large-scale use of the magic without completed stabilization formulae, but I suppose I hadn’t counted on his desperation reaching quite these heights, either.”

He took a moment to brush off the front of his tunic-styled robe, which had acquired a bit of dust, from the look of it, before he moved forward again, descending the stairs to properly join the group, his hands clasped at the small of his back. “Now. I do believe you expressed an interest in stopping him; have you some specific method in mind?” From the way he asked, it seemed he expected that she did.

"You might first want to know what he's here for," Chryseis said, the first words that left her lips that could be described as uneasy. "I'm afraid it's far more than a powerplay in the Magisterium. He's gotten himself mixed up with a cult. Tevinter supremacists, a group called the Venatori. Sadly, I'm little more than an honorary member at this point, despite my cozying up to them. Father's not so easily swayed by me anymore."

She turned to gaze at Romulus, instantly making him uncomfortable. Conversations between his domina and other Tevinter mages were things he was only ever meant to listen to, not become involved in. "What I do know, is that all of this madness, unraveling time, has been to get to you." He looked up only long enough to know that Chryseis indeed meant him with her words. Her eyes then flicked to Estella. "And you. He's become very interested in both of you, that much is clear."

Estella frowned slightly, reaching up to rub at the back of her neck, and rocked back on her heels. “If the cult and his interest in us are connected, it’s probably a safe guess that what they really care about is the Breach,” she said, her dark brows knitting together. “And since we’re already working to close it, a reasonable guess would be that he—or they, rather—want it to stay open, if he went to so much trouble. Do you know why that might be?”

“Well, if these Venatori are in fact a Tevinter supremacist cult, then they want it to stay open because they believe it serves Tevinter.” There was an obvious thread of disgust in Cyrus’s voice as it lilted over the word cult, one that remained at slightly less emphasis throughout the rest. “I can think of half a dozen reasons they might surmise as much, and in each of them is a motive for wanting the two of you out of the picture…” He seemed to drift out of the present for a moment, as though his thoughts were carrying him elsewhere, but then his eyes cleared and he shook his head.

“But none of them would be enough reason for the Cassius I remember to do something quite this… extreme. Gaining control of the southern mages is one thing. But the use of incomplete time-distortion magic to do it—that suggests something much larger at work.”

"Somehow I doubt the Venatori are the ones behind the rifts, or the Breach. But they're strong, no doubt about that. My father doesn't lead them, but whoever does knows what they're doing." She crossed her arms, brow furrowed in concern. It was not often that Romulus witnessed her displaying concern over another, but he supposed he shouldn't have been surprised. The bonds of family were difficult to break, even in an environment as strange and caustic as the Magisterium.

"Domina, if I may," Romulus said, gently. Pulled from her thoughts, Chryseis met his eyes.

"You have something in mind?"

"Knowing your lord father intends to remove the threat of the Heralds, we can turn his plan against him. Appear to fall into his trap, only to spring one ourselves."

A small gleam of a smile appeared, and she turned to face Romulus in full. "I'm intrigued. Go on."

Romulus folded his hands together before him, lowering his gaze once more. "Magister Cassius has retreated to the castle. Requesting an audience will seemingly place us in his hands. While one party enters the castle directly and absorbs his attention, another infiltrates the fortress and eliminates the danger before it becomes an issue." Chryseis hmmed in thought, before shaking her head.

"And you would lead this infiltration? No. I'm confident you could, but for once your absence would be noted. Father would suspect something, and Estella would be lost before we could reach her."

"I would go with Lady Estella, domina. Both Heralds before your father's eyes. Choose another to lead the attack, and seek information about the castle. A Revered Mother now with the Inquisition, Annika, once served Arl Eamon. She may know of a weakness in the castle." Chryseis studied her slave, her blade, for some time, her smile growing the longer she did so.

"I could see if anything can be done about my father's magical defenses. He has fortified the castle in other ways by now. But this could work." She turned to the others. "Thoughts?"

“Magical defenses, if there are any, won’t be an issue.” Cyrus said as much with obvious confidence, as though it were simple fact, rather than an estimation of how their magic would fare against Cassius’s. “As for who should lead the infiltration party…” He turned to Estella. His eyes narrowed thoughtfully. “Stellulam. That teacher of yours, the Tranquil. He’s quite inclined to moving about unseen, is he not? And perhaps your lovely little scout-captain, as well.”

Estella nodded. “Rilien and Lia are both quite good at that sort of thing, yes. If we wanted to spring a trap within the trap, they could certainly accomplish it.” She didn’t seem to doubt that in the slightest. Her eyes moved to Marceline, though, an obvious question there. “But that’s only if the three of you would commit the resources to this.”

"We have no choice," Marceline relented. She had since sheathed her rapier and had seemingly listened to the conversation being had with Chryseis. Now that she was addressed, she spoke. "I shall have Larissa seek out a weakness in the castle walls for Lord Rilien and Lia to exploit, and I will speak to Mother Annika personally." She paused for a moment and thought pensively before continuing. "I will also speak to Leon about drafting a contingency in case we have need of one."

"Then it's settled," Chryseis said, with no small amount of excitement. "We'll dismantle this madness, and Father will return to his more sensible schemes. Blade, remain for a while. The rest of you had best be off. Much to prepare for, yes? I shall eagerly await your arrival at the castle."

For the first time in the entirely of the conversation, Khari drew attention to herself, though whether it was purposeful or not was hard to tell. She had quite clearly been content up until that moment simply to listen, rather than speaking, but now there was a look of something distinctly disgruntled on her face, and she made eye contact with Romulus, frowning slightly before she shook her head, as if to herself. “See you later, Rom.” She gave half a smile, then turned to exit with the general stream of departure.

Cyrus lingered slightly longer, saving his own departure for after the others had taken theirs. “While I am sure you have machinating of your own to do, and that your father expects you soon, should you find yourself with some spare time, I would very much enjoy catching up, Chryseis.” The slight smirk on his lips and the ambiguous tone of his voice could have meant any number of things. He bowed at the waist, though it was playful rather than truly reverent, and winked as he turned to leave.

"Likewise, Cyrus," Chryseis said, returning the smile in kind. "Minrathous is hardly the same without you." Once all had left save for the magister and her slave, she turned and planted a finger under his chin, her smile carrying some small amount of amusement. "Rom, is it?"

"Merely your blade, domina." The words were delivered with no emotion, something he found especially easy to pull off around her. Her smile faltered for a brief moment, as her eyes fell down to his chest, where she placed her hand.

"Good. You remember." Forcefully, she shoved him towards an open doorway in the back, and Romulus took the hint, leading the way inside.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Romulus Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Marceline Benoit Character Portrait: Cyrus Avenarius Character Portrait: Zahra Tavish Character Portrait: Vesryn Cormyth Character Portrait: Kharisanna Istimaethoriel

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Estella swallowed thickly, pulling in a breath and trying to loosen the constricting feeling winding around her heart like climbing ivy, and push down the rising taste of bile on her tongue. She was nervous, for a lot of reasons. First among them, of course, was the fact that they were planning to spring a trap on a magister, one cunning and powerful enough to have taught her brother, regardless of whatever Cyrus thought of him now. It was a serious risk, and she understood that everyone here was taking it, just by entering this room. But even that wasn’t it—she knew that Rilien and Lia and the others with them, including Zahra, if she understood the plan properly, were capable of doing what they’d decided to do.

She wasn’t even especially concerned that she would fail, exactly, because in the end, her role in this was simply to be present. That, and not give away the plan by revealing what they knew of Magister Cassius’s intentions too soon, or letting herself look at where she knew the ambush party would be. She could do that much, she knew—she’d been hiding her thoughts from people more powerful than she was practically since she had any thoughts worth hiding. But more than any of that, this was making her remember things best left forgotten, and there were parts of it that were strong in her memory, things dredged up in response to who the Magister was, and where she knew he was from.

Part of Estella had never left Tevinter behind, not even after six years of physical distance.

Watching her brace herself was indeed an act of perception: she straightened her spine, eased the expression on her face until it was nearly blank, settled her shoulders back, and tipped her chin up slightly, because it defaulted to let her eye the floor, something she should definitely not be doing as part of the Inquisition in an audience with a Magister. They could smell weakness, and fear, and Estella was both weak and afraid. The trick was pretending she wasn’t well enough to fool him. Glancing to Romulus beside her, she offered a thin smile and nodded, pushing the door to the throne room open, allowing the two of them and their company—Cyrus, Vesryn, Lady Marceline, and Khari—to enter.

A red carpet runner guided a straightforward trajectory to the dais on which the throne sat. The path itself was flanked by columns on either side, and in front of each stood one of the magister’s guards. There were about two dozen in total, which was a large number, but not entirely unexpected. He probably had more troops, hired or brought with him, elsewhere, else he likely would have had difficulty holding the castle for long, magical defenses or not. She was reluctant to put her back to any of them, but that was required to advance far enough for an audience, and so she put her trust in the people behind her and kept moving forward.

The throne itself was occupied, and Magister Cassius looked quite comfortable upon it, one ankle crossed over the other knee, and his jaw leaned on a fist, the corresponding elbow braced on the armrest. If anything, he seemed a bit too put-together for the accouterments of Fereldan nobility, which were generally much more rustic than those one would find in older lands like the Imperium or Orlais. His daughter stood beside him, and it would seem he’d been in conversation with her before the party entered.

When they stopped close enough for an audience, he smiled slightly, the expression deepening the existing lines around his mouth, the whole of his face thrown into sharper relief by the intermittent torchlight of the chamber. It gave him a more hollowed-out aspect, so that for a moment, his face appeared nearly skeletal, until the flames shifted again and he regained the aspect of an older, but still very much living, man. “Inquisition, welcome. I take it from your presence here that you are still inclined to bargain. Perhaps your terms will be more… agreeable, this time.”

Estella knew that all she really had to do here was stall for time, and not give away the fact that she knew this was a trap. She also knew that it was usually true of people in power, people with egos worth talking about, enjoyed hearing the sound of their own voices more than anyone else’s. So ideally, the best way to go about this would be to get him to talk, with as little input from her or anyone else as possible. Suppressing her nervous tendency to chew her lip, she put on a small smile, one that couldn’t have made it even halfway to her eyes, but looked convincing enough for someone in what her position was supposed to be.

“That is my hope, milord,” she lied softly. “I’m afraid that, considering the brevity of our last meeting, there was little opportunity to ascertain which terms you might find agreeable. You know what it is we need—what is it you would want in exchange?” She chose her words carefully, framing him as the one with all the power in the situation, and they as the ones who were in need of something from him. It wasn’t far from the truth, though this was not the method they’d chosen to get it, in the end. With a little luck, she’d stroked his ego and prompted him to speak at some length with a few sentences, but she didn’t trust much to her luck, in truth.

The Magister was intrigued at such an open question, it was clear. He leaned farther forward, his brows arching up towards the edge of his hood and a slight smirk playing at the edges of his mouth. “A question with a great deal of relevance, my dear.” He did indeed appear pleased at the situation, not entirely unlike a cormorant, full-bellied but still hungering voraciously, more out of habit than necessity. “What I propose is simple: I will release the southern mages from their indenture, provided I receive two things in return: firstly, my daughter’s slave returned to her.” He made a careless gesture with his free hand at Romulus. “Hardly asking for much, I should think, considering she owns him already anyway.”

He sat back then, and the smile grew, a deep satisfaction evident. “Secondly, a trade: all the mages now in my service for just one—you.”

It was Marceline's turn to step forward. A far cry from the saccharine smile she wore during their last meeting, Lady Marceline's lips were drawn in a tight line, and her face wholly unreadable. She held her arms crossed and her elbow propped, her hand gingerly rubbing her chin. "A sound trade," Marceline agreed, looking down upon Estella, then glancing back at Romulus for a moment before returning her gaze back to Cassius.

"You are correct, what Lady Chryseis owns is hers. We are more than willing to relinquish him," she said, her head tilting to the side. She spoke it with no emotion, only a matter-of-factly demeanor as one would use during a business discussion. "The Inquisition would also find the trade agreeable, the mages for Lady Estella. However, I would ask what you had in mind for the young woman," Lady Marceline asked, a look of curiosity seeping into her features. "Out of pure curiosity of course," Marceline said, before a smile slipped into her lips and she allowed herself a light laugh.

"It sounds as if we are getting the better deal, after all."

Cassius raised a brow, then shrugged lightly. “Who knows? I’m sure I’ll find some use for her. I’ve had great success with one apprentice from the family; perhaps one who cannot leave will prove even more beneficial.” From the way he said it, his tone light, careless even, it wasn’t entirely clear whether he was being serious, though a fair guess would be that he wasn’t. “There would be much interest in the mark, of course, but once the research possibilities were exhausted, well…” He paused, looking Estella over dispassionately, as a buyer at an open market.

“A face that exquisite will always draw its own brand of interest, no?”

Though she couldn’t say she was unused to being talked about like she wasn’t even there, she had managed to forget exactly what it felt like, for the most part. Estella wound up doing what she’d always done in such situations before—she tried to pretend she was somewhere else, someone else, and did her best to deaden her feelings to what was being said. She couldn’t let herself lose focus entirely, however, and she knew this was actually a good thing. For every moment Magister Cassius availed himself his considerable advantage over them without actually springing his trap, they were a moment closer to being in position to turn the tables.

So really, the implication that she’d be sold into a brothel or private ownership or something wasn’t bothering her as much as it could have. Especially considering that, in the absence of other options, she likely would have agreed to it anyway. She only prayed that Cyrus would be able to hold his temper in check long enough to get through this conversation. She knew her brother, and knew he wasn’t taking any of this conversation very well, though his face didn’t change much.

Marceline's eyes dropped and she sighed heavily. It was as if she expected something of the like, because didn't display a moment of surprise. When she looked back up, her eyelids were at halfmast and any emotion she may have allowed to show were long gone, replaced entirely by her matter-of-factly demeanor. Instead of responding immediately, Marceline's hand fell on Estella's shoulder, and patted it encouragingly, almost like a mother would a child. "Tell me, Lord Cassius, as a man with a family of his own," she began.

Her gaze then went from Estella to Cyrus, the frown tight on her lips. "How do you believe her brother will take this news?" she asked, the curiosity remaining in her voice. "And what do you intend to do about him? she finished, looking back to the Magister.

"Out of curiosity. Of course."

Cyrus was doing a rather impressive job remaining blank-faced, but something in his eyes was very hard, almost crystalline. Cassius laughed. “I know better than any one of you what that boy will do for the sake of his sister. In fact, I’m rather counting on it.” He seemed to shift his demeanor, however, and raised a hand, waving it in a lazy motion. “But enough talking. I grow bored with this charade. I will have the Heralds, and I need not give up anything to obtain them.”

At the signal, the guards posted around the room were immediately at attention, drawing their swords, spears, and axes almost as one unit. “Capture the Heralds, and my wayward apprentice. Kill the rest.”

It would seem that Cyrus could contain himself no longer, and the first thing that happened was a massive bolt of lightning flying from his fingertip, crashing with a thunderous rapport into the shield Cassius had conjured, shattering it, but also expending the spell. He summoned a familiar blue sword to his hand, and ran right for the dais.

“Finally!” That was Khari, who ducked under a horizontal swing from another guard and swung her cleaver, which bounced off his shield with a forceful clang. She pressed forward, however, and her next hit was delivered from inside his guard, punching into a spot beneath his protective chestplate.

Romulus passed by on her left, blade drawn, running right through glowing orange magical glyphs that had been quickly inscribed upon the floor by a white-clad Venatori mage. They were triggered by his step, a burst of fire engulfing Romulus, but he came out the other side unscathed, the flames washing over him like so much wind. His blade found the mage's throat, and painted his white robes a bright shade of red.

Vesryn had his helmet down over his face, the tallhelm giving him the visage of a man made mostly of steel, save for the proud white lion on his back. His tower shield was locked in front of him, and soon a pair of arrows clattered off of it. He lowered his spear and awaited the first attacker to step forward. "Always running off, these people!" he shouted, mostly for Estella and Marceline to hear. "Bloodthirsty and angry. Stay behind me! Watch the flanks."

Estella honestly wasn’t sure any of them had experience fighting as part of a unit. Khari might have, but then, with the way she tended to fight, she probably had to break ranks usually anyway. Cyrus had certainly never been part of an army or anything, and Romulus was, as far as she could tell, a solo agent, so in a way, she understood why they acted as they did. She, however, was quite accustomed to group tactics, and so she took Vesryn’s right flank, the harder one to defend, given the absence of the shield.

Indeed, the majority of those who tried to get at the three of them came for her, at least when they could get around behind the spear-wielding elf, but she had expected that, and to the extent the could be, she was prepared for it. The first two came in as a pair, and there wasn’t really room for any more than that at once, a blessing she noted gratefully. The first swung, and she parried, angling her sword quickly to force his off it. Her mobility was reduced by the tighter quarters, so she’d have to rely a lot on angles and the geometry of a fight, since her ability to dodge was considerably hampered.

Reacting more quickly than her foe coming off the clash of blades, she drove her own forward, seeking and finding his throat, which she sliced across with a neat stroke. The arterial spray that resulted informed her she’d found the mark, and just in time to twist herself away from the incoming axe the second had aimed for her shoulder. It clipped the very edge, biting into her leathers, but tore away without meeting her flesh. She swung low, slashing at his thigh, where another vital blood vessel was located, this one not known to as many people, by any means. That one hit, too, and he collapsed beside the other, still alive, but barely. Estella grimaced, and thrust her sword down, puncturing his windpipe and ending his life quickly.

From over her shoulder behind her, Estella could not see Marceline on Vesryn's left flank. However, every now and then the noble brushed up against her to remind her of her presence. There was the sound of flesh being pierced, and the gurgling of someone getting stabbed in the throat before armor clattered to the ground. Though no warrior, Marceline sounded as if she held her own.

Meanwhile, Chryseis observed the approach Cyrus was making, and immediately readied a swift entropy spell in her hand. Rather than cast it at him, she instead aimed down at her father, immediately to her left, the sleeping spell leaving her fingers even as she drew her bladed staff into her other hand.

The spell was met midair by another, a dispel magic, from the way both fizzled out upon mutual contact. Cassius turned slightly to regard his daughter, an almost sad smile upon his face. “While I can’t say I’m surprised, Chryseis, I am rather disappointed.” The Magister drew his own staff, several of the white-robed Venatori breaking off from the main assault to assist him. “Don’t kill them. Render them unconscious or bloody if necessary, but do not kill them.”

Two of the cultists turned to face Chryseis, while two more and Cassius himself went after Cyrus, attempting to bring him down before he could close to melee distance, which would no doubt provide him with a tremendous advantage. A volley of fireballs flew in his direction, but he pulled himself into the Fade, and they struck only afterimages of where he had been, a trail of them between his former position and halfway up the stairs, where he wound up. Another quick spell from Cassius landed there, but he brought his spatha around, the low thrum of it sounding as he used it to slice clean through the stonefist, the halves of it flying off to either side of him.

And that, as far as Estella could tell, was how the fight generally proceeded. Cyrus and Chryseis put heavy pressure on Cassius and the most elite of his Venatori, while herself, Lady Marceline, and Vesryn weathered the storm at the center. Khari and Romulus ranged more freely around that center, their aggressive styles keeping too much from concentrating on the center. The problem was, there were a lot of Venatori and guards, and probably unless the ambush team arrived very soon or Cyrus somehow managed to get at Cassius himself, they would simply be worn down by sheer numbers.

She’d acquired several wounds by this point, but they were mostly minor, and thankfully her stamina wasn’t failing her just yet, but it was growing tedious, and she knew that this was the part of the fight where she risked serious injury, because if her focus flagged, she might make a mistake. So she did her best not to let that happen, keeping herself aware of Marceline behind her, Vesryn to her side, and as much as possible, the positions of her enemies and other allies.

Her arms were burning with the effort of fending off multiple blows from people of superior strength, but she raised them again for another necessary parry, hoping they would stand up to the force with which the next guard swung his axe.

A bugling roar came from Zahra's mouth. And her hands moved remarkably fast as soon as the ambush began, though it appeared as if she'd been ready the entire time. She plucked arrows from her quiver and loosed them as quickly as she notched them back across her cheek. Several whistles could be heard as the arrows sailed through the air, more so over Estella's shoulders, and bit into their marks.

Her arrows were marked with brightly colored feathers, speckled with blood as the shafts sunk into gawping holes in Venatori faces. She danced around the meaty portions of the ambush, away from clanging swords and flashing fireballs. It appeared as if she were concentrating her attacks on those who were having trouble, causing her own version of chaos by crippling and maiming the opponents her companions faced.

More arrows came from Lia, fearlessly throwing herself into the mix, as the Inquisition scouts and agents flanked the Venatori force on either side, throwing the previously desperate fight's outcome into doubt. Chryseis and Cyrus had nearly broken through to Cassius, when a shield bearing guard surprised Chryseis from the side, slamming her to the ground with the heavy metal plate. From her side she unleashed a blast of arcane energy, sending him staggering back. Romulus appeared behind him, opening his throat and spilling his blood down his front, allowing Chryseis the needed time to get back to her feet.

The scouts freed up Vesryn to make some moves of his own, and began a bit of an advance, burying his spear in the guts of a Venatori mage who had been forced into the center of combat by the pincer attack of the Inquisition. "Push!" he shouted. "We'll have him! Don't let up!"

Recovered from her near-miss, Estella figured Vesryn’s advice was good enough, and pushed. Now that there wasn’t quite the same need to simply weather, her mobility was back to providing the lion’s share of her advantage, and she utilized it, keeping herself light on her feet and darting between opponents in an attempt to reach the front of the room, where the fighting was beginning to concentrate as more and more of the guards and Venatori closed ranks on their leader, in an attempt to shield him from the wrath of his own former apprentice and his child as well. The magic flew thick and heavy through the air, enough so that even Estella tasted it on the back of her tongue, the tips of her fingers tingling with a familiar, but long-suppressed itch to dip into the Fade and claim some of it for herself.

An empty promise, if ever there were one.

She dashed past a guard, flaying into his sword-arm on her way, causing him to drop the weapon he was holding and clutch at his wound, which made him an easy target for those behind her. She wasn’t far from the dais now, and mounted the first step, blocking an overhead strike from one of the guards, nearly brought to her knees with the strength of the blow before she managed to angle it away, forcing another step forward and up and burying her saber in his neck. Blood gushed down the blade to her hands, but she stepped to the side before his body could fall atop her, gaining another two stairs before she was made to halt again, her hip clipped by a fireball that left her armor smoking but her flesh thankfully only mildly burned.

By this point, Cyrus was basically dueling Cassius, though with several bodies in the way, which prevented him from closing range. The magic was especially dense in the air between them, and it seemed almost that each of them was casting several spells simultaneously, to keep the volume of fire and earth and ice so thick, to say nothing of the shields and Fade cloaks and the rest. The spell-volley was interspersed with more raw blasts of force, though those were issuing only from Cyrus, and it was hard to tell if they were intentional or not, as they tended to arc away from their initial trajectory, doing more damage to the throne room's furniture than anything. One of them crashed into the stairs, chipping several large chunks of stone off the dais, a pair of them careening into some nearby Venatori and crunching bones with their momentum.

Cassius was clearly tiring faster, whatever the reason, and when he turned to see the others approaching the dais, abandoning the effort to focus on his apprentice for just a moment, he paid for it, a glistening bolt of raw lightning slamming into his chest. He lurched for a moment, then threw himself into a Fade-step not unlike the ones Cyrus so commonly used, reappearing on the other side of the fight, behind everyone pushing for him, both arms outstretched.

Not far from where Estella, Chryseis, and Romulus fought, an almost deafening ripping sound issued from the air, the ground beneath everyone’s feet trembling as the space over their heads seemed to twist and distort, at first like heat waves and then like a window opening to some other place. The pull towards it was strong, almost like it contained its own gravity, and the three nearest the tear were lifted from their feet, pulled upwards toward it.

“Stellulam!” Cyrus’s shout reached her at about the same time he did, his shoulder slamming into her with almost enough force to break a rib, the space she occupied clearly the end point of his own Fade-step’s trajectory. She was knocked a dozen feet backwards, and out of the range of the tear, which picked him up instead, pulling he, Romulus and Chryseis into it within seconds, before the sound crescendoed to an almost agonizing pitch, then ended abruptly, as the tear closed.

But the three it had taken did not reappear.

Estella hit the ground hard, rolling several times before she came to a stop in just enough time to watch three people disappear into the rend in the air, both like and entirely unlike a rift, and though she was forced to cover her ears, she regained her feet as she did, such that by the time it stopped, she was standing again.

For a moment, there was utter silence, or perhaps she’d simply lost the ability to register sound. In any case, she waited what seemed like an eternity for them to reappear, to drop back from the spot like it was all one of Cyrus’s grand jokes, something they’d laugh about later while she insisted she hadn’t been fooled.

But though she counted her heartbeats, her breath still in her chest, they did not return. “Cyrus…” It was hardly more than a whisper, but time seemed to snap back into place as she said it, and suddenly she could hear again, and the fight was back on. It was extremely difficult to make herself care in just that moment, however.

“Cyrus!” It was a ragged shout that time, raw and agonized, and she was halfway through a step towards the dais when she remembered who was responsible for this. Surely, if Magister Cassius had caused this, he could put it to rights. Estella clenched her jaw, her grip tightening on her saber, and whirled around to face him, lunging into a sprint. She’d have to get all the way back across the room, and through all the fighting, but honestly, the plausibility of that was the furthest thing from her mind right now.

All she knew was that if she could get to that Magister, she could get her brother and the others back. There was no need to think about whether she could. She simply must.

"Estella!" The voice was Vesryn's, from behind Estella, and soon a strong hand had clamped down on her upper arm and wrenched her backwards. Vesryn pulled himself in front of her, another arrow clattering loudly off the face of his shield, the projectile originally aimed for the Herald. The elf's eyes were wild, bewildered, but he seemed focused enough on keeping her close to him.

"We have to get out of here!" he said, trying to hold her back. Perhaps due to the fact that the Venatori were simply more prepared for such a stunning feat of magic than the Inquisition, they had instantly turned the tide again, and several of the flanking force had fallen in pools of their own blood. Lia struggled frantically with a Venatori swordsman on the ground, having abandoned her bow in favor of the knife. Rilien was juggling a trio of opponents, but they were slowly backing him up against a pillar with their shields.

“What? No! We can’t just abandon them!” She referred to her brother and Romulus and even Chryseis, of course, but also to anyone else they’d be leaving behind in such a retreat. Those who couldn’t disengage fast enough, or the injured. She tried to tug her arm free, but his grip was too strong for that. Gritting her teeth, she slashed at a guard who went in low for her unprotected side, kicking him square in the chest where she’d cut him. That would keep him down for a while, at least.

"We have to leave! Else we risk everything!," Marceline barked over the din of battle. Her hair was disheveled, and the fatigue was quickly seeping into her face. Her rapier and main-gauche flashed in her hands as she fended off a Venatori swordsmen, her back pressed up against Khari. "We must get back to Ser Leonhardt!" She called, her rapier biting deep into the shoulder of the Venatori. It stumbled him for a moment, but he replied with a backhand and opened up a cut under her chin. Her rapier went for the killing blow at his neck, but he batted it away and pulled back to drive his sword through her.

Not before she drove her own main-gauche into his belly, disemboweling him. "Now!" she demanded. Vesryn released Estella's arm, out of necessity more than anything, but still stood between her and Cassius.

Not more than a beat of time passed after that before Cassius gathered more magic to him. This time, the spell was a firestorm, recognizable as such only for the faint scent of brimstone on the air before flaming rocks began to crash down upon them from the ceiling. Each landed in an almost-explosive burst, clearly a very advanced and very powerful version of the spell. With almost casual ease, he threw a bolt of lightning right for where Vesryn and Estella stood, summoning a shield in another and then detaching it from his hand, letting it orbit freely around him. It caught half a dozen arrows with precision, and more importantly, left his hands free to hurl spell after spell at them—his ability to do so seemed almost inexhaustible, and his forces were clearly drawing from his apparent superiority and control of the field.

“Escape is beyond you!” He shouted the words over the din, his mouth twisted into a snarl. Help is beyond you! The Elder One rises! Surrender the Herald, and the rest of your Inquisition may yet live to see tomorrow!”

Vesryn locked his shield into the ground, angling it up, and crouching low, so as to get himself somewhat under it. "Get down! Or get out!" he called, as the spells rained down around him. Powerful lightning spells blasted against his shield, little arcs of electricity snapping through the air around his body, until he was shaking violently with the absorption of it. When it became clear he could take no more, he flipped the grip of his spear in his hand, stood, and hurled it at Cassius. One of the shields deflected it aside, and the next bolt of lightning hit the elf square in the chest. He flew back, smashing into Estella along the way and tumbling to the ground face down and unconscious.

Vesryn in full armor was quite a lot of weight, and easily took Estella to the ground as well, where she slid on her back for quite a distance before she ran out of momentum and tried to scramble to her feet, only to be hit by an ice spell, one that pinned one of her legs to the ground. She attempted to lunge out of it, but it held fast, creeping up the length of her leg to her waist, locking her joints. A second one followed, striking her square in the chest, and try as she might, she couldn’t fight free of it.

Within moments afterward, she was surrounded by Cassius’s guards, who leveled weapons at her, one ambitious lance even flirting with the skin of her throat. She couldn’t so much as lean away, able only to glare at the Magister as he advanced towards her. This was it—she was in his custody now, at his mercy, and she knew far better than to expect him to have any of that to spare for her, or her comrades.

If only Cyrus were still here, instead of her, he could have stopped this.

It was the last thought she had before one of the guards cracked the haft of his axe over her head, and she fell into unconsciousness.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Romulus Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Marceline Benoit Character Portrait: Cyrus Avenarius Character Portrait: Zahra Tavish Character Portrait: Vesryn Cormyth Character Portrait: Leonhardt Albrecht Character Portrait: Kharisanna Istimaethoriel

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Estella hit the ground hard, rolling several times before she came to a stop in just enough time to watch three people disappear into the rend in the air, both like and entirely unlike a rift, and though she was forced to cover her ears, she regained her feet as she did, such that by the time it stopped, she was standing again.

For a moment, there was utter silence, or perhaps she’d simply lost the ability to register sound. In any case, she waited what seemed like an eternity for them to reappear, to drop back from the spot like it was all one of Cyrus’s grand jokes, something they’d laugh about later while she insisted she hadn’t been fooled.

But though she counted her heartbeats, her breath still in her chest, they did not return. “Cyrus…” It was hardly more than a whisper, but time seemed to snap back into place as she said it, and suddenly she could hear again, and the fight was back on. It was extremely difficult to make herself care in just that moment, however.

“Cyrus!” It was a ragged shout that time, raw and agonized, and she was halfway through a step towards the dais when someone answered.

“Now, now, Stellulam. No need to shout; I can hear you just fine.” From one of the sides of the room, her brother himself, alongside Romulus and Chryseis, stepped out from behind the line of columns to the right. He wore a broad, almost triumphant smile, and that and the glint in his eyes was rather rare, because it seemed tempered by something, not as haphazard as such expressions had been before. With an almost lazy flick of his fingers, he blasted away the few Venatori standing between themselves and her, and then crossed the intervening distance with a quick Fade-step.

“Cy? What—?” Estella had no idea what had happened, but it would seem that in any case her unvoiced prayers had been answered, and she sent fervent thanks to whoever was listening to begin with. If it hadn't been the middle of an armed confrontation, she’d have hugged him, and she wanted to anyway, but restrained herself for the sake of necessity. She did smile at him, though, shaking her head faintly at his usual lofty mannerisms and his very unusual expression alike.

“Remind me to tell you how I did this, when it’s all over.” His tone was light, but his expression was not, and it was easy enough for her to tell that something was really getting to him. This was clearly neither the time nor the place to discuss it, however, and he turned his eyes towards Cassius, where he stood now near the entrance to the room.

“You’ve failed, old man. I’ve outdone you. Again.” What under other circumstances could have been anything from factual to arrogant to possibly even lighthearted sounded much graver, in the sonorous modulation he used to deliver it, and Cyrus stepped slightly away from Estella, materializing a weapon in his left hand. “Call off your dogs. There need only be one more death here.” It wasn’t hard to guess whose he meant, either.

At the sudden reappearance of those he’d banished but moments before, Cassius seemed to know he was defeated. The strategy had been a good one, unfortunately thwarted by the ill luck of his former pupil being caught up in it instead of the second Herald, but it was clear that he had less left than he needed, that opening the tear had taken a good deal out of him. The Venatori were dying around him anyway—the reappearance of their Herald and his allies had put the wind back in the Inquisition’s sails, and they were rallying, regaining the advantage that had been theirs with the ambush.

And yet despite the obvious disadvantage this had put him at, Cassius was apparently reluctant to surrender. In the end, however, he did. “All right, then. Have it your way, Cyrus. You always did insist upon it. Cease!” The command, he shouted to his men, who were trained and obedient enough to do just that, abruptly stopping and sheathing their weapons, though they were generally prevented from doing much more than that by the equally-trained blades of the Inquisition, which predictably did not see the need to trust the Magister at his word, and reinforced the Venatori submission with edges and points skirting throats, backs, and similarly-vulnerable areas.

It was now, effectively, a hostage situation in addition to a near-rout.

“Give me one reason, Cassius. One reason I shouldn’t kill you where you stand.” Cyrus’s glance shifted to Estella for only a moment, but then he tightened his jaw and moved it back to his teacher.

“Don’t.” The response, swift and sure, came not from Cassius, but Estella, who reached forward and laid her right hand on Cyrus’s left forearm, a gentle and entirely surmountable barrier to him raising his sword. Despite that, she believed he’d stay his hand if she asked him to, assuming she could ask in the right way. He seemed particularly intent on this, and she didn’t know why. “Cyrus, there’s nothing else he can do. You’ve defeated his magic, and the Inquisition has defeated his soldiers. We came here to free the other mages, remember?” She hoped the reference to his own accomplishment would put him in a better frame of mind—for lack of a better phrase, she was playing to her brother’s ego, hoping that he’d take it as enough of a victory that he’d done that much.

She would have thought it’d be unquestionably enough—Cyrus liked to win, of course, but she’d never known him to be a violent person. She could only assume that something was really bothering him, which meant that if he acted from that now, he’d regret it later. Besides, there really wasn’t any reason to kill Cassius, not really. All he’d done was try—unsuccessfully, now—to indenture some people with terms they’d agreed to, and then attacked the Inquisition, which was admittedly part of what the Inquisition had come here prepared to do to him. Looking at it that way, she wasn’t sure he’d done anything wrong, whatever his intentions might have been.

“Please.”

“You haven’t seen what I saw.” His reply was soft, perhaps even hollow. The arm under her hand slowly relaxed though, and he let her guide it back down to his side, the Fade-weapon flickering a few times before it disappeared entirely, leaving him empty-handed. Cyrus shook his head slightly.

“Do what you will, Stellulam, but do not underestimate the danger he still poses you.”

That was well enough for him to say, and she was relieved that he’d apparently abandoned the notion of actually killing Cassius, but what exactly they should do with him instead was still a pressing question, and not one she felt qualified to answer. Instead, she turned to Lady Marceline and Rilien, expecting them to have a better idea than she did of what should be done. Chryseis observed the exchange with obvious interest, from where she stood nearby. She'd visibly relaxed when Cyrus had refused to decide her father's fate himself, but if she had a strong desire to sway the Inquisition's decision, she clearly wasn't acting on it.

Lady Marceline, tucking her bloodied hankerchief back into a pocket, raised a hand and signalled for Lia. When the woman approached, Marceline spoke. "If you would be so kind as to fetch Ser Leon and a contigent of guards, I would see Lord Cassius placed into our custody for the time being." As she spoke, her clean rapier rested on her shoulder, Marceline appearing uncomfortable with the idea of returning it to its sheath. "Agreed, Ser Rilien?"

Rilien, who’d already tucked his knives away at his lower back, nodded in the sanguine fashion typical of him. “For the moment.”

Cassius himself seemed disinclined to resist, perhaps even a little relieved now that his immediate death seemed to have been taken off the table, though there was no mistake that the look he shot Cyrus and Estella was one of calculation. “As you wish, then.” His tone was carefully neutral, almost as bled of emotion as Rilien’s own. Cyrus’s lip curled, but he protested no further.

Chryseis exhaled, stepping over towards Marceline. "I appreciate your ability to remain sensible, Lady Marceline. This is not a decision to be made so close to the heat of battle." She turned, nodding briefly to Estella. "You as well, Estella. Your brother and I went through... a great deal, to return here." Romulus, having finished wiping the blood from his blade, returned to her side. The look in his eyes was enough to confirm her words, if nothing else. It shared the same hollowness that Cyrus carried.

Another reference to the fact that something important had transpired while they were gone. Estella wasn’t sure she could make sense of it—though the moment had seemed to stretch for minutes to her, it hadn’t really been that long. Then again, it was time magic of some kind—she had no idea what might have passed for them while so little did for her. In the end, she only smiled thinly and nodded. “It’s, ah… don’t mention it.” Her mouth thinned, her eyes flickering to Romulus, before a noise from behind drew her attention, and she turned to see Leon entering, with a contingent of Inquisition troops. They must have already been on their way up, to be here now. Perhaps he had anticipated something going wrong, or perhaps they’d simply taken more time than he was comfortable waiting.

Whatever the case was, it didn’t take much more than a few minutes before Cassius was being led away in irons by the troops, with particular attention paid to the bonds so he couldn’t cast, though from the look of him, she wasn’t sure if he had the energy left for that regardless.

Also among those who had entered was Fiona, who looked around at the room full of dead Venatori and blanched slightly. “You’re, um… well, you’re not indentured to Magister Cassius anymore,” Estella explained, though maybe that was already obvious.

Fiona recovered quickly, to her credit, and nodded. “I… yes, thank you. But this does present a new set of problems. I doubt very much the king will allow us to remain in Redcliffe after a Magister chased out the Arl. We cannot stay here, either.” She made careful eye contact with Estella, who sighed under her breath, but inclined her head.

“Well, ah… with regard to that, I believe the Inquisition is in a position to give your people somewhere to stay, if you’re willing to help us close the Breach.” Honestly, she was inclined to offer as much regardless, but she had a feeling that wouldn't go over too well with, say, Lady Marceline.

"It is not as though you possess any other option." Marceline still had not sheathed her rapier, instead she held it point down into the throne room's stone floor, her hands resting on top of the basket. Her facial expression was even and hard, that of a woman who would get what she desired, no matter the cost. She glanced at Estella, whom she held in a gaze for a moment, before returning to Fiona with a hard stare. "The mages will recieve room and board in return for aid in closing the breach, as the Lady Herald said," However, there was an implied but at the end of the statement.

"However, considering the quality of your recent judgements, the Inquisition will take command of the Free Mages. You shall be relegated to an advisory position," Marceline said with authority. Eventually, her stoney exterior cracked a bit with a sigh and a tilt of her head. "I can assure you, the Inquisition is fair in its dealings, and the mages will face no such mistreatment from the rest of our forces. It is a much better option than your previous employer." A polite term for master.

"Agreed?"

“It is as you say,” Fiona replied, heavily. “We have no choice.”

As if the end of the matter were some kind of signal, Cyrus slumped heavily against Estella’s side, a soft groan escaping him as he struggled to keep his feet under him. Whatever had been propelling him up until this point had obviously run out, and now that the immediate danger had passed, he was in clear danger of collapse. His eyelids fluttered, but thankfully, he didn’t quite pass out, having apparently enough strength yet to aid her in supporting his weight.

“Are we done, then?” He muttered it almost incoherently, quietly enough that probably only she could make out the actual words.

Estella immediately pushed back on his weight, solidifying herself under him, maneuvering one of his arms across her shoulders, and wrapping one of her own around his waist. She couldn’t even begin to imagine the amount of magic it had taken to reverse Cassius’s spell, but still his state was alarming to her. She wasn’t sure she’d ever seen him look so utterly spent before, and felt a spike of worry spear its way into her chest. When she spoke, though, she kept her tone gentle, reassuring.

“Yes, Cyrus. We’re done now.”

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Romulus Character Portrait: Marceline Benoit Character Portrait: Leonhardt Albrecht

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Romulus found it difficult to just set foot back in Redcliffe, in the time that he remembered, after seeing what he had, and living in it. It felt not unlike a horrid dream, despite it having been entirely real, and only erased by the skill Cyrus had in magic. The thought that he could've been trapped there haunted him. As did the fact that a similar future could await them still.

His normal stony demeanor was replaced by a bit of a daze as they cleared out from Redcliffe castle, which stood empty awaiting the arrival of the Arl back into his domain. The Inquisition would be clearing out soon, but since they were now directly responsible for the mages taking shelter here, it would take a bit of time to organize. Time that was sorely needed for many of them to rest. And while none needed it more than Cyrus, Romulus was plenty exhausted himself.

He was only allowed a few hours, however, before Leon's man Reed arrived to summon him, letting him know that the commander required him for a debriefing. With Cyrus out of commission, and Chryseis still ultimately remaining a third party, it seemed the duty of relaying what had happened fell to the slave. Ignoring the soreness already setting into his limbs, he forced himself up from his cot.

He was allowed an opportunity to scarf down some food quickly, and fully planned to return for more when this was done. A few of the soldiers looked at him as though he were a ghost, and he wondered if he might actually be. He'd simply been erased from time for some of them, those that had been watching, before he reappeared. Romulus did not claim to understand how magic like that even began to work, but he could at least understand why the others might look at him differently. It was the second time he'd walked out of a place no man had a right to return from.

Reed opened the flap of the command tent for Romulus, and he proceeded inside, finding the Inquisition's military, diplomatic, and espionage leaders all assembled and awaiting him. Folding his hands together behind his back, he bowed his head in greeting, and left his eyes gazing down towards the table. Some things would not be changed, even by time-traveling.

The tent was quite a large one, with space for all three of its occupants to have clear working room of their own, plus a smaller version of Haven’s map table for each of them to use when necessary. Rilien was currently standing at that, quite intently focused on something or another there, while Lady Marceline was at a desk, shuffling through a stack of parchments, a quill and inkwell at the ready beside her. Leon, on the other hand, was sitting in a chair, on one side of low table, which was covered with what looked like some kind of food service for the three of them, it was hard to say exactly. Mostly it was all very mobile pickings, nuts and fruit, that sort of thing. There were a few other spartan chairs arranged around the space, and when Romulus entered, the commander stood, offering him one with a gesture.

“If you wouldn’t mind sitting, Romulus, I’m not sure how long we’re going to be here, and I expect you’re rather tired, if our resident magical expert’s condition is any indication of what you’ve been through. You’re also welcome to eat, if you like.” The Seeker himself resumed his own seat thereafter, ignoring the food in front of him and smiling mildly.

“I do apologize for how soon this is, but I’ve always found that memory is best committed to paper as soon as possible, lest some details get scrambled in the intervening time. If you’re up to it, I would like to hear from you what happened today.” Nothing he said was phrased as a command, nor even delivered with the tone of one.

Romulus sank into the offered chair, his posture perhaps not the best, and despite the rest, he still seemed, and felt, quite tired, the kind of tired that a simple night's sleep would not cure. As for Leon's prompting... he was almost tempted to laugh, as the commander couldn't possibly know what he was asking him to describe. Romulus shifted an elbow onto one of the chair's armrests, propping his head briefly upon his hand, before he seemed to think better of it. He still stared somewhere beneath the table they worked at.

"Cassius aimed a spell for Estella and I, meant to remove us from time. If Lord Cyrus and my domina had not confirmed it as such, I'd have thought I was under the effect of some nightmarish horror spell. We determined ourselves to be roughly one and a half years into the future, at which point the Inquisition had nearly been crushed, by the forces of something the Venatori called the 'Elder One.'" He narrowed his eyes at the thought, half-wishing they'd interrogated those they'd found in the future about the Elder One, to learn more of what exactly that was.

Finally, he looked up at the three before him. "Is there anything in particular you wish to know? We escaped from that future, and now a different one will come to pass instead."

There was a moment of silence at that; perhaps the three others simply needed time to digest the information. It wasn’t exactly the kind of thing one commonly encountered after all. In the end, Rilien spoke first, looking up from what he was doing to meet Romulus’s eyes. “If that is so… were you able to ascertain a narrative of what happened? It is possible that whatever this Elder One accomplished early on in that future is identical with what it plans for ours. Were we to know these things, we would be better prepared to face them.”

Romulus shrugged. "Perhaps." Sitting up a little higher in the chair, he exhaled heavily, raking through his mind for the information they'd picked up. The words were so much less memorable than the images, in all but a few cases. "The Inquisition suffered a crippling loss, with one Herald presumed dead, and the other captured. We acquired no allies, and lost our ability to close Fade rifts. The Venatori revealed their full strength, and allowed the Inquisition no victories. Cassius did not lead them, someone else did. We didn't get a name." It hadn't even occurred to them to care about most of these details that suddenly appeared important. None of it would have mattered if they couldn't get back at all.

His eyes shifted to Marceline, taking notes. "You escaped from the ambush, but were assassinated some time later, along with a great many others from Orlais. The Elder One apparently established a puppet, dethroning the most powerful nation in Thedas without being revealed." He looked to the spymaster next. "Many others were killed or captured in an attempt to rescue Estella from the Venatori. You were among them, Ser Rilien. You... were shot down trying to free Estella from... her pyre." His eyes could no longer remain on them, and fell to the ground again.

"The Inquisition still existed, when we arrived from the spell, but it was little more than a desperate resistance led by Commander Leon. The Breach had split across the sky. There... wasn't much of a world left to save."

Lady Marceline's quill quit its scratching for a moment as she looked up to Romulus. A coy smile then spread across her lips as she shook her head. "Assassinated, you say? I can not say I am terribly surprised. It is suitably... Orlesian, wouldn't you say, Ser Rilien?" She asked, glancing at Rilien.

"Fortunately, we still have you and Lady Estella, and with the mages, we have grown in strength as well," she said, returning to the notes she had been writing. "I shall send letters to prominent Orlesian nobility to warn them of such a possibility, and keep an ear open for any opportunistic occasion for assassins to strike." She then frowned again as she continued to stare at the notes laid out in front of her. "Did you discover which nobles were assassinated in particular? she asked.

"Those of greatest importance to stability," Romulus declared, somewhat simply. They were among the few names of dead people in the future that he had no connection with, but he remembered the titles. "The Lord-General, the Crown Prince, and the Empress herself." He swallowed. "I heard this from Khari, after we freed her. She'd been captured in the attempt to rescue Estella."

Leonhardt folded his hands together underneath his chin, his elbows propped on the armrests of his chair. He regarded Romulus less keenly than the other two did; it was clear they were thinking tactics in this very moment, but it would seem that, beyond the initial summons, he was not especially inclined that way himself. He looked vaguely troubled by what he was hearing, but had thus far been silent, apparently content to let the others do the questioning. Now, though, he did speak up.

“You met some of us, then, in this future. How was it that you were able to return? As I’ve heard it told, barely a minute passed as those in the throne room perceived it.”

How long had it been? An hour, perhaps two? Maybe less, Romulus supposed. Every moment in that hell had been agonizingly drawn out. Marceline seemed to find it amusing, though he could hardly read a woman like her, that she'd been murdered. She and the Tranquil were thinking tactically of this, or coldly, as it felt to Romulus. Leon was the one that Romulus at least felt slightly able to relate to. It was real, what had happened, as difficult as it was to imagine. In fact, what they were experiencing now was probably less real than the things he'd missed... but Romulus had no desire to think on any of that.

"We recovered Vesryn, Khari, Zahra, and Asala from the dungeons of the castle. The Venatori were using it as a base. The others were... tortured. I will not describe the details. They aren't important." Perhaps Vesryn had some secret he was hiding from the group, but Romulus would not be the one to force it out of him. If there was anything he'd demonstrated in that future, it was that he was willing to give his life for their cause. Cyrus could pry answers out of him later if he so chose to.

"Together we reached the throne room, and Cyrus killed Cassius there. He then prepared the spell that would transport us back. It was never certain if we would be able to return. The Elder One arrived with some kind of creature, though we never laid eyes on the threat. Venatori advanced ahead, and since the others could not be allowed to return with us, they held them off to give Cyrus enough time. I watched all of them die." He'd seen, and done, more than his share of terrible things, and many of them refused to leave him, but somehow he suspected visiting that future only briefly would outlast them all.

“I’m sorry,” Leon said quietly, though it didn’t seem to be as much an apology as an expression of honest sympathy. He sighed heavily, leaning back in his chair. “I’m sure the details of the magic involved will go over my head, but I’ll ask Cyrus about it at a later date anyway, to see if it’s anything we still need to be worried about. For now…” He paused, apparently searching for the words he wanted, pursing his lips and shaking his head faintly.

“For now I also wanted to ask something else. I admit I don’t really have a grasp of the details, but… Lady Chryseis is still present, and as I understand it, she was of help in… what happened. We have no cause or grounds to interfere with her if she wishes to leave and return to the Imperium. But from what you have said, it appears painfully obvious to me that the Inquisition needs its Heralds—"

"Both Heralds," Lady Marceline clarified.

“—and that the world needs the Inquisition. What do you want to do from here, Romulus? I want you to know that you have our support, should you be inclined to make use of it for any reason.”

Romulus was silent for a long period after that, threading his fingers together in front of him and placing his chin upon his knuckles. In the end, the immediate course of his life seemed obvious, and when he spoke, it was for once with confidence. "I want to close the Breach. Whatever that takes. I believe, after what we went through, my domina understands the importance of that as well. I believe she will keep our arrangement as is." Despite everything that had happened, nothing had really changed. Chryseis had even admitted she'd come to Redcliffe for her father, to protect the world from him, and perhaps to try to protect him from himself.

"After the Breach is closed... I still intend to do as she commands. If that means returning to Minrathous, and disappearing, so be it. I won't ask you to understand. If that puts the Inquisition at risk... then I'm sorry." His relationship with Chryseis was not something that was at all easy to comprehend. Despite the things he'd done for her, and as a result the things he'd done to himself, he did not, and could not resent her for any of it. For he knew that since her husband had been killed, no other person understood her quite the way he did.

Leon smiled a little wider. “I don’t understand, but it doesn’t matter, if it’s what you want. So long as we close the Breach, I’ll not complain.” He glanced to the other two briefly. “Unless Rilien or Lady Marceline has a further question, I believe we can conclude here. Please, enjoy some well-earned rest.” Rilien shook his head in the negative.

"None," Marceline agreed.

"Thank you," Romulus said, rising from the chair. After nodding briefly, he turned and exited the tent, forcing himself to think only of a large meal, and a long sleep to follow.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Marceline Benoit Character Portrait: Zahra Tavish

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"Ahh, welcome back Chancellor, I do hope your travels found you well," Lady Marceline replied as politely as she could. However, despite whatever message she had written on her face, speaking with Chancellor Roderick would be the furthest thing from enjoyable. As it stood, she had awaited outside the double doors of the Chantry for the arrival of their local corsair, whom she'd sent Larissa to fetch not too long ago. Instead, now she had to deal with Roderick, who'd made it quite clear of what he thought of their Inquisition.

Or rather, heretics in his words. "I'm curious ambassador," he said, pulling up to Marceline and crossing his arms. The appearance of the Chancellor and the way that his voice seemed to carry had drawn the attention of some of the Inquisition's forces, as well as a few of the mages. "As to how the Inquisition and its Heralds will restore the order that you've promised." Marceline's lips remained in a tight, even line that's become her default.

"Of course you are, Lord Chancellor, however I unfortunately find myself asking the same of the Chantry. Tell me, has the Chantry sent you back in an effort to offer aid in closing the breach and recovering the peace we seek, or is it to just denounce us as heretics and heathens," she asked with what sounded like genuine curiosity. She already knew the answer, it was the only thing the Chantry had done since the conclave. The Inquisition seemed to be a unifying force, for both the right and wrong reasons.

Chancellor Roderick guffawed at the notion, "Offer aid to the rebel Inquistion and the murderers you call the Heralds of Andraste? I think not!" There was a grumble among the crowd, and it was not in favor of the Chancellor's viewpoint. The Inquisition had heard about the selflessness of Lady Estella, and they respected Romulus's efforts. To hear their Heralds called murderers did not sit well with them, and Marceline could not blame them.

She narrowed her eyes and her chin lifted as she looked down on the Chancellor. "Those two murderers as you say, have done more to restore order than the Chantry has even attempted," she said coolly.

Roderick returned her stare with one of his own. "Careful ambassador. What you say is blasphemy. Order can never truly be restored so as long as this rebellion is allowed to fester."

Lady Marceline simply allowed herself a tight smile and nodded. "We shall see about that Lord Chancellor. Personally, I am quite fond of our chances," she said, ending with a look at the gathered crowd. There were more grumbles, this time of agreement with Marceline's sentiments. She then tilted her head and curtsied, keeping ever polite. "Now Chancellor, if the Chantry decides to do something other than cry heresy, please. Allow me to be the first to hear." It would be immensely difficult to march upon the Inquisition without soldiers after all.

"As you all were," she called, turning to the crowd that had formed. Eventually they began to disperse as well, leaving only a rather upset looking Roderick glaring a hole into Marceline's forehead.

It was only then when Zahra showed herself. She'd been in the crowd, only revealing the wild-haired captain when they began dispersing back to their duties, or lack thereof, anyhow. Her expression spoke volumes, though it seemed to direct itself at the Chantry's representative. Her eyebrows were pinched together, hooding livid eyes and a bared scowl that could've tickled itself into a grin at a moment's notice. She took a few leveled steps towards him and turned on her heels, perhaps thinking better of it, though she clicked her tongue, in disgust rather than amusement and faced Marceline instead.

“Well. I'd say that went rather well, even without Mr. Dour's cooperation,” her comment might've held a bit of humor, but it was obvious that she held some sort of reservation towards the pious old man. She flagged an eyebrow, and glanced over her shoulder, leveling the Chancellor with a glare of her own, in order to force him to finally look away. A crooked laugh sounded as she placed her hands over her hips, and faced Marceline once more, “Shall we? I'm sure you've called me for a reason, and as much as I'd like to say that we're in good company...”

Larissa stepped out from behind Zahra and gave Marceline a nod before she stood beside her with her hands resting in her sleeves. Just like Marceline, she wore the same impassive face as she watched a vein on Roderick's neck grow in size. "Thank you, Larissa. If you would be so kind as to see to the Chancellor, I shall discuss our business with our good captain here." Larissa looked at Marceline with a slightly raised brow. She'd certainly have to make it up to the woman later, dumping the Chancellor off on her like that, but she doubted he'd approve of the business she was to discuss with Zahra.

Eventually, Larissa nodded and turned to Chancellor, and simply settled in. Marceline allowed an apologetic look to pass over her features before she turned to Zahra. "Come, we can talk in my office," she said and turned to enter the Chantry. They passed through the double doors and passed through the main hall, passing Michaël and Pierre along the way. Pierre sat on one of the benches with a book on Orlesian history in hand, his father watching over his shoulder. As they passed, both men looked up and waved, Marceline smiling at them genuinely and returned the wave.

They took a left and entered the small office that Marceline basically lived out of now. A desk sat in the middle of the room, full of scrolls of parchment and sheafs of paper in varying stages of being written. Marceline offered Zahra a chair that faced the desk as she went to a corner of the room that sat a small table that held a bottle of wine and accompanying glasses. She already began to pour herself a glass before she offered one to Zahra "Can I offer you a glass as well? It is a pinot noir, just arrived from my winery back home."

Zahra followed Marceline, matching her pace, in relative silence. She seemed awfully comfortable in it anyhow. A small smile played on her lips as they walked. Her bright eyes flicked across the main expanse of the building and seemed to be picking apart the tapestries, and the neat line of candles scattered against the walls. While she made no comment, her curiosity was obvious. When Marceline led them both into one of the side chambers, she immediately dropped down in the proffered chair. It was only when there was an offer of wine that her attention perked up once more, drawing her lidded gaze to the bottle she was holding. “You know how to steer your way into my heart. Of course, thank you.”

Marceline smiled and continued to pour the second glass as well, and when both were full, she crossed back over the room to hand Zahra the glass. Instead of moving around her desk to take a seat behind it however, Marceline instead chose to lean gently against the corner. "Forgive me if I do not sit with you, I have sat for far too long and I wish to stretch my back," she said, gesturing to the pile of neatly stacked parchments. "With the support of the free mages, we are starting to be taken seriously, and I find myself fielding inquiries from many inquisitive sources."

At that, Marceline put the glass to her lips and took the first sip of her wine. The taste held a sweet warmth with a tart ending. Upon swallowing, Marceline swished the glass and watched as the liquid spun around the bottom. "But we have come to speak business yes? It is because of the mages that I asked to speak with you today." She halted the spinning of the liquid and cupped the glass with both hands on her lap, straightening her back in the process. The sheaves of paper would make her into a bent old woman long before she got there naturally.

"To close the Breach, we are bound to require a large amount of power. The mages are only but a step in that direction. I have already set up a number of legitimate lyrium supply lines, but I am aware that you are, shall we say, a woman of resources, no? The Inquisition requires every advantage we can afford you understand?" She was dancing around the word smuggling of course. She did not intend to ask Zahra the details of the matter if she was in fact able to procure another source of lyrium.

Zahra accepted the glass gracefully and held it close to her nose, inhaling before taking a sip of her own. From the expression on her face, it certainly was a well-chosen vintage. She swished the contents a couple times, and took a much larger mouthful, closing her eyes for a few moments. When she opened them, she appeared mildly apologetic. “Swimming political currents, and still keeping up with the paperwork,” she noted with a curled lip, eying the piles of parchments tidily stacked across her desk, “I don't envy your duties.”

The captain bobbed her head in a curt nod, indicating that Marceline could continue explaining why she'd been called down here. Her eyes, half-lidded and perpetually amused, drifted away from the rim of her glass, and settled back on Marceline's face. Zahra's countenance changed at the mention of business, taking on an air of earnestness. Like an eel coiling for an opportunity. Her smile simmered down to an inquisitive line, though her eyes lit up with bright-eyed interest. “You've the right of it, Lady Marceline,” her voice had a tickle of laughter in it, though she disclosed no reasons as to why, “Say the word, and your mages will have another lyrium supply in their services.”

She tapped two fingers against her chin and tilted her head to the side, cradling the glass of wine in her lap, “Though I'll have to ask if you've any wagons to spare. And horses to draw them. I'm afraid a boats all I have, and unfortunately it isn't able to sprout legs.” Zahra finished the wine and leaned forward to place it back onto her desk, “That's all I'd require to do as you ask.”

"That is unfortunate," Marceline agreed with a small laugh of her own. Afterward though, her lips set into a thin line and she began to process. "You need not worry about the wagons, they will be supplied. I shall speak to Ser Leonhardt about requisitioning them, and also to Master Dennet to gather the horses to draw them." Marceline paused for a moment before she leaned backward over her desk and plucked a scroll of parchment expertly, bringing it back and depositing it into Zahra's hands.

"It is a map of the land between here and the Waking Sea. If you would indicate the routes you believe to be most efficient, I will send letters to the local Banns to ensure that the roads are safe to travel. I would not put anyone in unnecessary danger if I can help it," she said, though she neglected to reveal that she did not want the supplies to fall into the hands of bandits.

Zahra waggled her eyebrows, and fanned her hands out wide, “With both our efforts, what couldn't we achieve?” Even without the mirthful tilt to her tone, she appeared pleased by the prospects. She lounged back in her seat and crossed a leg over her knee, taking up the scroll of parchment Marceline dropped in her hands and smoothing it across her lap. She hummed a soft tune and traced a finger across various lines, where roads and smaller villages lied. An approving smile crossed her lips, as she looked back to Marceline.

“And I'll have Nuka accompany our little caravan to ensure the supplies reaches its destination all proper-like,” she added as she rolled the piece of parchment back up and tapped her knee with it, “So, this concludes our business. Seems to me, no loose ends that needs tying. Is there anything else you'd like of me?”

Marceline shook her head, "No, I do not believe so. Thank you for assistance Captain," she said with a grateful nod. Before she could stand and see Zahra out, however, the door opened behind them and Larissa stepped inside. The moment she crossed the threshold, the serene and even look she wore broke away into a furrowed brow and scrunched nose. It was clear that her time spent with the Chancellor were not altogether enjoyable. Marceline offered her an apologetic look before the elf spoke first. "I know many songs and stories, and even I was unaware of how many ways it is possible to call someone a heathen," she said. Marceline found it somewhat difficult to stifle a small chuckle.

Quickly, Marceline coughed to cover herself and spoke, "I apologize for putting you through that Larissa. You have the rest of the day to yourself. Mother sent a package from home, you are welcome to it," she said, indicating to the package that rested in the opposite corner of the room. Larissa's eyes alighted on the package and went to it, curiously checking the contents. Eventually, she produced a book, Hard in Hightown written extravagantly on the cover.

"Ah, give Lady Lécuyer my thanks."

Zahra did little in the means of containing her laughter, though she had enough decency to offer her own apologies, “Who else could stave off his insults so easily?” She'd already risen from her chair and lingered closer to the doorway, peering curiously over Larissa's shoulder when she fiddled with the contents of the package. There was a mischievous glint in her eyes when she held the book aloft, and the quirking smile broke into a full-blown grin. “Lovely book, that. Best enjoyed in a quiet space, if you take my meaning.”

"That is the plan, Captain," Larissa answered with a smile.

Lady Marceline sighed, but a smile was on her lips as well. The poor girl deserved it after dealing with the Chancellor.

"Captain," Marceline nodded and stood to see the woman out, before turning to her desk to resume her work

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Marceline Benoit Character Portrait: Leonhardt Albrecht

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Blessed are they who stand before
The corrupt and the wicked and do not falter.
Blessed are the peacekeepers, the champions of the just.

Blessed are the righteous, the lights in the shadow.
In their blood the Maker's will is written.
—Canticle of Benedictions 4:10-11

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Leonhardt leaned back in his chair, setting his knife and fork down on the half-full plate that held his lunch. He was dining today with the Lady Marceline, and though he was expecting the conversation to be exclusively about business, and it mostly had been, it wasn’t quite as bad as he was anticipating, in terms of news. Both of them had made significant strides in terms of pulling their respective sides of the Inquisition together. The military now had low and mid-level officers, mostly those trained up to the point since they’d joined, with input from the Lions, Michaël, and Vesryn on who was likely to handle command well, and who was simply better suited following orders instead of giving them. There was a certain balance to be struck between that and a person’s combative abilities straightforwardly, but he thought between the lot of them, they’d done a fairly good job at it, and the system for bringing newcomers up to speed was much more efficient now than it had been in the beginning, which was fortunate since the volume of volunteers had drastically increased in parallel.

On the diplomatic side of things, they’d received a considerable boost in interest once it was clear that the free mages of the south of Thedas had thrown in with them, as well as a large number of the former rebel forces in the mage-templar war. It meant, in effect, that any mages who had not died or taken to the roads for pure banditry were now quartered with the Inquisition, and, though their numbers were small, they were quite formidable. Doubtless, that had spurred the nobility to take greater interest. Hopefully, it would actually result in some support, both ideological and material. They were short on almost every conceivable sort of supply, though not yet dangerously so. Reed had informed him it would only be a matter of time, though, especially if their forces continued to swell at this rate.

That left the spies, and whatever his reservations about working with someone he had absolutely no read on, Leon could not deny that Rilien was effective at his job. Almost worryingly so, considering what that job was. In any case, their scouts and agents were the most up-to-muster portion of the Inquisition at the moment, perhaps due in part to the fact that they’d been more or less established before the Inquisition itself even began.

“And how is your family finding Haven, Lady Marceline?” Business discussion had been ongoing for the better part of an hour; he shifted the topic largely out of a desire to put it aside for a while. Leon had always much preferred doing to speaking in such matters, even if the latter was necessary. “It’s… quite different from Val Royeaux, obviously, and likely from your holdings as well.” He believed she had ancestral property near the water, on fertile ground, not at all like the snow-battered mountains.

Marceline dabbed at the corners of her mouth with a handkerchief and likewise leaned back in her chair. She did not seem averse to the change of topic, in fact she seemed to welcome it. She ruminated on the question before she nodded. "It is, yes. We do not see much snow on the banks of Lake Celestine," she revealed. "Regardless, Michaël has settled in nicely now that he has something to occupy his time. He tends to grow bored if left to his own devices, and Pierre is usually the one to suffer because of it," She said with a jovial smile.

"Pierre..." she said, thinking about her son for a moment, "I believe snow was novel for him at first, but I believe it has since worn off," she said with a frown, before it quicky turned upward into another smile, "Though Larissa did reveal that she witnessed him and Asala sledding down one of the smaller foothills outside the village recently, so not all is lost," she said with a soft laugh.

She nodded and continued, "The lodgings are smaller than what we are used to, but we have settled in. Larissa, Michaël, and myself have seen to Pierre's studies so he is not missing his education, and my mother and father are running our business back on the West Banks. All is well from what I understand," she said easily. "How about yourself, Leonhardt? I hope Haven finds you well," she asked politely.

He smiled, the expression a tad wry. “As I’m sure you can guess, I’ve lodged in places both better and far, far worse. I expect I’ve seen much of Thedas by now, save the obvious outliers.” Tevinter and Par Vollen, that was. “It’s never places anymore. It’s people, usually, and events, on occasion. What we do is worth doing, and I daresay the rather odd little assortment of misfits we’ve assembled makes it enjoyable at times as well.” When he wasn’t bored near to tears by the drudgery of paperwork, he quite liked being here, serving a worthy cause with worthy and diverse others.

Their meal was interrupted by a knock, and as soon as Marceline had given permission for entry, Reed opened the door and stepped over the threshold. “Sorry to interrupt ser, milady. But… there’s someone here to see you. And I couldn’t exactly tell her to wait.”

Leon’s brows rose, conveying his degree of surprise that his stalwart aide was deferring to status. Their guest’s importance was confirmed when a dark hand found Reed’s shoulder and steered him slightly to the side so that another person could step through. Marceline knew her as the woman who’d been accompanying Lord Seeker Lucius in Val Royeaux, the extremely tall one Leon had called by name. Leon knew her as his teacher, and once, his friend.

Indeed, he stood now, clear surprise etched over his face. “Ophelia?”

Her eyes narrowed, and she nodded once, curtly. “I bring a message, from the templars to Inquisition command.” She produced what must have been the missive in question from somewhere under her cloak, and handed it over to him. Leon took hold of it, but he did not make any attempt to remove it from her hand.

“Ophelia, what is going on? You must—”

She shook her head emphatically. “Do not presume to instruct me, child. I brought this message to you personally. I suggest that you answer it in kind.” She held his eyes for a long moment, then turned from him, nodding once to Lady Marceline, and then taking her leave as abruptly as she’d entered. He was half-tempted to run after her, but if Ophelia had no intentions of telling him more than she had, no amount of persuasion would move her. She was solid and stubborn as granite that way.

Instead, he resumed his seat, looking a bit flabbergasted, and handed the message to Marceline wordlessly.

Marceline was likewise wordless for a time after Ophelia's departure, the message resting limply in her hand. "She is certainly a curt woman, yes? And quick to the point," she finally managed before turning her attention to the letter in her hands. "Regardless, it seems as if we have finally garnered the attention of the Templars." With that, she opened the message and read it, which did not seem to take long.

Marceline spent only a moment reading it before she looked back up to Leon. "I seem to be correct in my initial assessment of our messenger," she added, handing the message back to him. "The Templars are at Therinfal Redoubt. Come prepared," she said, reciting it from memory.

He wasn’t surprised by the brevity of the message, nor its vagueness. Ophelia had always liked making him figure things out for himself. She had guided him only when absolutely necessary, in all things. In retrospect, he knew that this had given him strength to do things he would not otherwise have been able to accomplish, because he had learned how to work with little to achieve much. It would seem to be a skill he’d be needing again now.

“This isn’t official. There’s no seal on it—not from the Lord Seeker, nor from Ophelia. I think this means we should not expect him to expect us. Which means if we want in the door at all, we’re going to need to bring people he can’t simply turn away. Can you find anyone like that who might support us?”

"Several, in fact," Marceline answered simply. She shifted in her chair and opened a drawer in her desk and back to shift through papers. As she was searching, she continued, "There are those in Orlais that see the rise of the Inquisition as an opportunity, and not, as the Chancellor would have them believe, a heretical rebellion. I believe that they think that would win status if they were to ally themselves with us, and we were to succeed."

Marceline paused for a moment and produced a number of papers and piled them to the side on her desk. "The Grand Game, Ser Leonhardt," she said with a coy smile, "I will save you from the majority of the details. I shall speak to Rilien and we will win or convince a number of influential houses to walk with us. I can assure you, the Lord Seeker will not be able to turn us away, lest he risk incurring the wrath of Orlais in the process." A rather devious look seemed to settle into her features, and for a moment, to even become predatory.

Leon knew a fair amount about the Game, actually—one did not become a high-ranking member of the Chantry without at least a bit of exposure. The Seekers were based out of Val Royeaux, after all. Still, he was perfectly happy not knowing or needing to care about the details of it, and so he simply nodded. “We’ll need to send one of the Heralds as well, I’m sure. Probably Estella.” She was the more diplomatically-inclined of the two, though considering Romulus’s disposition, that wasn’t saying much about her, really. Still, if what he’d seen in Val Royeaux was anything to go by, she had a certain earnest forthrightness that would do better than most, though he did worry about her personality being trampled over by people with more domineering disposition.

“If she goes, I suspect Cyrus will want to as well.” Not that he was against it. They couldn’t go with too many fighters, but the other Avenarius twin was easily capable of more destruction than several men, if that proved to be necessary. Ophelia had said to come prepared. He took that to mean prepared for anything. With that in mind, it would make the most sense to pick people who packed as much punch as possible, and limit their number so as not to draw attention to them as anything but an honor guard. Some level of discretion would also be best, which immediately excluded at least one person he could think of.

“And… you, myself, and Vesryn. Any more is a risk, I think.” They had to leave one of the three heads of the organization behind, and Marceline would be better suited for the diplomatic side of things than Rilien would, whose reputation preceded him in a very particular way. “I’ll leave the negotiations to yourself and Estella as much as possible, but with my own connections to these matters, I may have to step on your toes a bit.”

"Completely understandable," Marceline accepted. She seemed to acknowledge his relationship to the Templars and Seekers, but otherwise made no other mention of it. She then steepled her fingers and leaned forward as she thought. Eventually, her eyes tilted toward Leon and she spoke, "About Lady Estella," Marceline began, "What do you know of her experience with nobility?" she asked, before she continued, "On occasion, I have witnessed her handle a few such situations exceptionally. No doubt some of it is due to Lord Rilien's instruction, but otherwise..." she trailed off.

"The nobility we are to encounter will certainly wish to speak with the Herald of Andraste, and I do not wish to simply throw her into a den of lions unprepared..." She said, before closing her eyes and subtly shaking her head, "If you will pardon the expression."

Leon huffed slightly, amused by the turn of phrase, but then gave the question some consideration. “I understand that the Avenarius family is noble in Tevinter, or were, I’m not sure. But I don’t know to what extent either of them were raised with it. I gather she’s attended court at least a few times, either with the Crown Prince or as part of her work with the other kind of Lions. I don’t know any of the details, however. You may wish to inquire of her personally, and address any glaring issues before we expect her to negotiate with the Lord Seeker. He’s… an aggressive man. He was even before all of this.” That said, recent events had likely only made matters worse in that respect as well as many others.

"I remember," Marceline said, obviously referring to their run-in with the man in Val Royeaux. She then straightened in her chair and crossed her arms, nodding. "And I intend to," she said on the matter of Estella. With a subtle tilt of her head and a softening of the lip, the predatory appearance she had moments ago bled away and she appeared to soften when she thought about the girl. "I am positive she will be fine, she is a much stronger woman than she seems," Marceline said before shaking her head.

"We should get to work then, yes?" she said as she stood from her desk. "We should have these lunches more often Ser Leonhardt. I enjoyed it," she said with a genuine smile.

Almost to his surprise, Leon found himself smiling back, and nodding as he stood. “As did I, Lady Marceline.”

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Marceline Benoit

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Marceline sat on the edge of her desk in her office, a folder of papers held by the spine in one hand, and her polished silverite mask hanging limply from the other. The dossier she was currently reading contained reports on all of the noble houses that they were targeting in order to march on the Templars holed up in Therinfal Redoubt. The names that the dossier held were those of Orlais' most influential houses-- Marceline did not intend to give the Lord Seeker the chance to turn them away without causing a major incident. They had already gained the committments of some of the nobility already, but the others required a little more convincing. Favors would needed to be traded, information would have to swap hands, and promises would have to be made, but Lady Marceline did not forsee any complications.

With a flick of the wrist and a twist of the thumb, Marceline moved on to the next page. Not all of the nobility were that difficult, and for that, Lady Marceline was thankful. Some understood the importance of the work that the Inquisition did. Before, they could only offer their vocal support, as it would be foolish to support an unknown entity that had very little to offer but the bare minimum of a plan. Marceline understood, and accepted it then, but now that the Inquisition had demonstrated its ability to stand on its own two feet, that vocal support soon became some more physical.

It had been a great deal off of Marceline's mind now that she had something to work with. Discussions and opportunities were beginning to open themselves up to the Inquisition. Apparently, now that that weight was gone, she'd seemed to relax somewhat, as Larissa herself mentioned it. Marceline glanced upward to the door for a moment before returning to the file in her hand. She'd sent the woman out moments ago in order to fetch Estella. She intended to follow through with the desire to inquire of her experience with nobility, and to prepare her for the negotiations that were to come.

She had faith in the girl, Estella had instilled it in her when she handled herself first with the Marquis DuRellion in Val Royeaux and Cassius in Redcliffe. Still, she did not desire to throw the poor girl at them without at first preparing her. If at all, she'd like to make it as easy on her as possible, though with the label of Herald of Andraste stuck next to her name, things could only go so easily.

Apparently, Larissa had little difficulty locating her, because she returned not more than ten minutes later, Estella in tow. From the way she was dressed, in durable but plain clothes, her hair pulled well away from her face and evidence of recent activity in the flyaways that stood away from her scalp, she’d recently been engaged in some kind of strenuous physical activity, and her breathing was still slightly elevated. Given the time of day, it was likely that she’d been receiving instruction from Rilien.

She made some effort to straighten herself up as she entered, though, smoothing her hair back with her hands as well as she could and pulling her maroon tunic down to tug out the wrinkles and set it straight of any dishevelment. There were a few spots of blood on it, actually, though they were hard to see against the color, and the empty glass vial in one hand still had a few drops of pearlescent red potion at the bottom of it.

“Good afternoon, Lady Marceline,” she said in her usual subdued tone of voice, coming to stand a few feet back from the desk, folding her hands behind her back and standing with her feet shoulder-width apart. She didn’t look to have made any conscious decision to do so; perhaps it was simply an ingrained reflex at this point to stand at attention when in an office of this kind. “Larissa said you had something you wanted to ask me about?”

"Discuss is perhaps the better term," Marceline said with a smile. "If you would like a drink, please help yourself. There is water in the pitcher," she said, indicating with her mask to the small table that held a bottle of wine, the pitcher, and a number of glasses. Meanwhile, Larissa weaved in behind Estella and went around Marceline's desk, taking a seat in her emtpy chair. With a ruffle of paper, she produced a length of parchment and prepared an inkwell and quill. It seemed almost wasteful the amount of paper they went through.

Estella took the opportunity offered, tucking the bottle away in some pocket or another before heading over to the side table and pouring herself a glass of water. She downed half of one before refilling it the rest of the way and returning to her spot, standing in a slightly more relaxed fashion now. “Thank you,” she murmured, half-smiling. “I think Rilien sometimes forgets that not all of us are capable of his level of endurance and focus.” The words, while they could have been interpreted as a criticism, were delivered with an unmistakable affection, and a faint hint of amusement.

“What shall we be discussing, Lady Marceline?”

Marceline gave one last glance to the dossier in her hand before she closed it and placed it down. She then crossed her arms and studied the woman in front of her for a moment before she tilted her head to the side inquisitively. "From what I understand, the Avenarius family name holds some reknown in the Imperium," Marceline began. "Though I do not know if you have been privy to court politics of your homeland," she continued. It was possible, of course, that Marceline could have found the answer on her own by inquiring a few of her contacts in the Imperium, but it felt more of a matter that should be discussed personally, and not behind her back.

"Regardless," Marceline added, "I do understand that you have accompanied both the Crown Prince and Ser Rilien to court on occasion, though you were perhaps not the focal point..." With that, Marceline studied the woman again as she tapped her silverite mask against her arm. She was quite for a moment after, leaving space for Larissa to speak up from her position behind Marceline's desk. "What milady is attempting to figure is your knowledge and experience on dealing with nobility and general negotiation. That is why she called you here today."

Marceline nodded her agreement and passed an appreciative look toward Larissa, who responded with a kind smile. "We are to meet with nobility outside Therinfal Redoubt, where we will then attempt to negotiate with the High Seeker and the templars. Negotiations that will no doubt feature the Herald of Andraste heavily. I simply wish to understand your experience in such matters and prepare you accordingly."

Estella took in a deep, audible breath, and from the way she flinched, just slightly, she wasn’t especially keen on talking about this. Nevertheless, she nodded slightly. “Right, well… as to the matter of House Avenarius, there are two things you’ll want to know. Firstly, they’re noble, but they’re Laetan, which isn’t quite the same as being Altus. It’s a bit like… being a Baron, or a Bann, and one with a small holding at that, or if you’re really lucky, a Comtesse.” She inclined her head, apparently well-aware of Marceline’s own title.

“The second thing is… I might not actually be licensed to use the name. It’s very… complicated.” She grimaced, looking reluctant to speak any further.

The news caused Marceline to tlt her head to the side somewhat and a frown to grace the even line of her lips. "Complicated? How so? If you would be so kind as to explain," she asked.

Estella shifted her weight, taking most of it on her left foot, turning up the right one and drawing a line with the toe of her boot on the rug. She didn’t seem precisely aware that she was doing it. “When Cyrus and I were born, our mother died. We, ah… we’re bastard children, you see—and so there was no saying who our father was. My grandfather took it… badly, and gave us to the Chantry. Cyrus was adopted back several years later, but I never officially was.” She pursed her lips together, her brows furrowing.

“My brother’s head of the house now, and of course he acknowledges me as family, but because of the timing, I’m pretty sure no official paperwork to re-adopt me was ever approved. That’s, well, that’s the basic problem, anyway. I use the name, but I’m not sure it’s legally mine.” It was clear that what bothered her about this wasn’t the technicality of the issue, but she left the details of the rest untouched.

“Needless to say, none of my diplomatic experience—little as it is—came from that.”

Marceline nodded and mentally filed the information away for a later date. "I doubt that you will be required to use the name in any official capacity, fortunately. Your title as Herald is what is important, and what these nobles will rally around," for better or for worse. She did not envy the girl for having the title thrust upon her. She glanced behind her and met Larissa's eyes for a moment, before both wordlessly nodded. "Now, your experiences with the Crown Prince and Ser Rilien," she began, "I do not need a transcript of each step you took with them. Only your thoughts on the matters of court, and please. Be frank." She finished with a comforting smile.

"Oh, Lady Estella? You can take a seat if you wish. This is by no means an official review," Larissa said as Marceline nodded along. "We just simply wish to make the process as painless as possible for you."

Estella sighed, altogether too deeply for the subject matter. “Frankly? My experiences at court were challenging, and difficult, and made me wish I’d never have to go back.” She contemplated a chair for a moment, but in the end, she elected to remain standing. “That’s the predominant impression, anyway. There were parts of it I didn’t mind, people I met that I liked.” She smiled slightly. “The Antivan Ambassador, Lady Costanza, and her husband Sabino were extremely kind. I worked a bodyguard job for them, once. That was probably the most direct interaction I had with court functions proper. Most of the matters I attended to with Commander Lucien were just business things: meeting clients and discussing terms, delivering reports, the occasional social function with people he considers friends.”

She appeared to consider something, then tilted her head to the side. “Ah, Lady Marceline… these nobles, the ones accompanying us to Therinfal. Do you know exactly who they will be, yet?”

"A few, yes. We are in the process of convincing the others, and with the aid of the previously mentioned few, they should come to support us as well, but I will not tire you with those details," Marceline said with a smile. No doubt she did not wish to hear the intiricies of the game they played. "But yes, you are already familiar with one of the houses in question," Marceline said, with a coy smile as she brought her silverite mask to her eyes. The purple flake on the feathers worked into the metal sparkled in the candlelight. "I intend to represent house Lécuyer as well as the Inquisition's ambassador."

"Otherwise," Marceline said, allowed the mask to fall away from her face. "I have also been in contact with Lord Esmeral Abernache. While perhaps a bit long winded, and I would not sign my name to anything that he offers, I believe him to be a man with his heart in the correct place."

"He is also very reliable when it comes to gossip," Larissa noted behind them.

"Mhm," Marceline agreed and continued, "It is he who is aiding us in collecting the support of the other nobility. He will probably wish to speak to you, but I would not worry. He is on our side."

Estella’s posture seemed to ease, though why that was would have been difficult to pinpoint. She smiled when Marcy lifted her mask. “I’ll do the best I can,” she promised, taking a deep swallow from the glass of water in her hand. “I usually know enough not to say anything outright insulting at any rate, and I do have at least a little familiarity with how nobility works. But if there’s anything else specific about any of our supporters I should know, I’d be glad for the help.”

Marceline smiled and nodded before it slipped away into a frown. It was not the nobility that she was concerned with. The nobles would be with them under a single purpose, and she did not see any trouble that would come from them. No, it was not the nobility Marceline was worried about, "The Lord Seeker however, is another matter entirely," she said with a sigh. "I admit, I do not know much of the man himself. You have seen him yourself, in Val Royeaux... I would prepare myself accordingly. Perhaps speak to Ser Leonhardt for advice on the matter."

The young woman nodded thoughtfully. “I’ll do that. I have to say, I’m very glad you’ll both be there.” Her expression was rueful, and she downed the rest of her water, keeping hold of the empty glass. “Thank you, though, for the warning. I’m sure you’ve got a lot to do, so I won’t linger too much. Milady,” she inclined herself slightly at the waist, an informal bow, then straightened, dipping her head to Marceline’s assistant as well. “Larissa.” Estella moved her eyes back to Marceline, clearly awaiting permission to depart.

With that, Marceline pushed herself of the edge of her desk, and Larissa too stood from her chair. "Lady Herald," she said, giving her the permission to take her leave. As the door shut behind her, Marceline turned to face Larissa. "She is correct, there is still much we must do."

Larissa simply smiled and took the seat behind the desk once more, her hand moving toward the quill that rested in an inkwell. "Then perhaps we should begin, yes?" Marceline only smiled in response.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Marceline Benoit Character Portrait: Cyrus Avenarius Character Portrait: Vesryn Cormyth Character Portrait: Leonhardt Albrecht

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The approach to Therinfal Redoubt was a rainy one, and a bit of a slog uphill, once they’d left the horses and the majority of the travel supplies they’d taken down at the bottom. If all went to plan, they’d be housed within the castle itself for the duration of the negotiations, and no doubt the nobility here were expecting that, considering how poorly they’d bothered to provision themselves despite what Leon would consider an overabundance of luggage. Still, the Inquisition’s one cart contained a number of tents, just in case. He wasn’t exactly expecting this to go to plan, after all—in fact, Leon was rather unsure what he was expecting.

Perhaps that was for the best. He’d found that most often a healthy dose of wariness served him well.

Presently, he was just cresting the hill up onto the approach to the fortress, alongside Estella, Lady Marceline, Larissa, Cyrus, and Vesryn. The deliberately-small number of other Inquisition personnel that he’d asked to accompany them had been purposefully left with the supplies; in keeping with his instinct to go with few, but mighty compatriots. The rain was undoubtedly a nuisance, though the hood of his cloak—the black one emblazoned with the emblem of the Seekers of Truth—kept most of it out of his way.

It wasn’t long after they’d set themselves on the road to approach that they were joined by a nobleman, dressed in the fashion that highborn Orlesian men favored lately, he believed. Leon had never really claimed to understand such things, nor their proclivity for hiding their faces, at that. “Ah, the Herald of Andraste!” His voice was elevated over the general volume of the procession, which gave him a sort of unfortunate bombastic aspect that he probably thought lent him some impression of authority. Leon simply wished he’d project instead of shouting.

“Lord Esmeral Abernache,” he introduced himself, the majority of his attention focused on Estella. A steward walked behind him, but said nothing. Abernache folded one hand behind his back at his waist, the other hovering around his sternum. “Honored to participate. It is not unlike the second dispersal of the reclaimed Dales.”

Estella, who’d looked more comfortable than Leon had expected up until that point, paused perhaps a moment too long. She recovered, though, smiling thinly. “If you’ll permit the nuance, milord, I rather hope it will be kinder than that.”

Leon struggled to contain his amusement. Whether because someone had actually understood the obscure historical event to which he was referring or because the Herald had the gumption to gently disagree with him, or perhaps some combination of the two, Abernache looked just a little bit floored, and unsure exactly what to say, which likely didn’t happen to him often. “Ah… yes well. Divinity puts you above such things, I suppose.” Clearing his throat, he returned to the matter at hand.

“The Lord Seeker is willing to hear our petition about closing the Breach. A credit to our alliance with the Inquisition. Care to mark the moment? Ten Orlesian houses walk with you.”

Estella shifted, moving her hands to secure her hood more firmly over her head. “The Inquisition is grateful, Lord Abernache. It is our hope that the templars come to see what the rest of us have already: that the Breach is a danger too great for dwelling on our differences.” Leon nodded, glancing towards the front gate. Honestly, the sooner they got there and took care of this, the more content he’d be. Something sat ill with him—many things, really, but some of them he couldn’t quite identify. He felt… uneasy.

Lord Abernache seemed more or less oblivious. “Oh yes. Ghastly-looking thing. The Lord Seeker can’t think we’re ignoring it.” With that, the procession finally got moving, and though it was still entirely too slow and processional, at least it was movement. “Speaking of which,” Abernache continued, falling into step beside the Herald, “I don’t suppose you’d divulge what finally got their attention? Rumor will, if you won’t.”

Estella’s brows drew together, but it was Leon who replied. “I don’t take your meaning, Lord Abernache.” He had a feeling he wasn’t going to like it much when he did.

“The Lord Seeker won’t meet with us until he greets the Inquisition in person. Quite a surprise after that spat in Val Royeaux.”

"The Inquisition only asks that the Lord Seeker lend his Templars to aid us in the closing the breach," Marceline answered. She wore her silverite mask with a hood drawn over her head to keep the rain away. Her mood had seemed to dip with the weather, and she could be found frowning more often than not. Even under the hood, there was evidence that her hair had been immaculately styled in anticipation of meeting with her countrymen.

She walked behind the Lord, Larissa keeping step beside her, her hands resting in her sleeves. When Marceline spoke the Lord tilted his head and regarded her before his expression broke into a warm smile. "Then it must have already been arranged by your ambassador," he said, turning back to Leon. "Let the diplomats work their magic, if you trust them," he said with wink in Lady Marceline's direction. She simply smiled in returned and inclined her head.

"Between you and I, the Chantry never took advantage of their templars. Wiser heads should steer them."

Leon wasn’t quite sure what he should make of that statement, and apparently Estella was still contemplating it as well, so for the moment, it went unanswered. Thankfully, they reached the bridge immediately in front of the iron gate in short order. Abernache leaned forward, peering to the other side of the structure, and clucked his tongue. “It appears they’ve sent someone to greet you.” As the group moved forward, he spoke—largely, Leon presumed, to everyone who wasn’t Marceline. “Present well. Everyone is a bit… tense, for my liking.”

“The Lord Seeker seems to have changed his mind about us rather quickly,” Estella pointed out, quietly enough that Abernache, walking ahead of them, was unlikely to hear. “I wasn’t under the impression he was known for that.”

“He isn’t,” Leon replied firmly. There was a great deal to be distrusted about all of this, but he had little in the way of concrete evidence to point to in order to back up his suspicions. “Please be careful, all of you. It is no paltry force that quarters here.”

The first iron gate was open to any who wished to proceed inside, allowing them to pass through what in time of war would serve as a gauntlet, that long, thin, empty space between the two outer gates, where the attackers would be showered upon by their enemies with far more than just light rain. Currently, only a few low-ranking templars observed from on high, the rest somewhere deeper in the old fortress. Those that watched looked down upon Therinfal's guests ominously from beneath their full-faced helmets.

At the second gate ahead was one of Abernache's serving men, his herald, currently standing beside a female templar, unhelmeted and looking disgruntled to still be standing beside such a man. Some in the group might potentially recognize her as one of the templars seen in Val Royeaux departing with the Lord Seeker. Her long, dark brown hair was elaborately tied up in braids, clearing away from her face, which was marred by several scars, the most noticeable ones across her lips and one of her eyebrows.

The herald stepped forward to greet his lord and the Inquisition's party. "I present Knight-Templar Ser Séverine Lacan, first daughter of Lord Cédric Lacan of Val Chevin." She seemed irritated by being introduced in so formal a manner, and took an aggressive step forward past the man, just as he was about to introduce his own lord to her.

"For all the good it's done me," she grumbled quietly, but soon stood at attention and offered the Herald of Andraste and her company a respectful, if brief, bow. "I'm glad you came, Inquisition, even if you did it in rather... irksome company. You received my message, then?" The question sought the eyes of Leon.

Leon blinked. He certainly recognized her, but he wasn’t sure exactly to what she referred. “I cannot say we did, Ser Séverine. If you attempted to send a message to the Inquisition, it never reached us.” Although… given just who had reached them, he had a fair guess as to what had happened to it in transit, and his expression set into something even grimmer. “Would you perhaps be so kind as to reiterate its contents now that we’re here anyway?”

"Wait..." Séverine said, struggling with Leon's words. "What? How are you here, then? Who told you where the Lord Seeker had taken us?"

“High Seeker Ophelia did, though with what motive, I cannot discern.” It was possible she was here now, but then, it was also possible that if she were, no one would know. He had no idea what his teacher was driving at with all of this.

"Ophelia? Shit." The curse was hissed quietly, and Séverine exhaled, shaking her head. "Well, you're here now." Abernache, apparently feeling left out of the conversation, crossed his arms and inspecting the Knight-Captain.

"Lacan, was it? Minor holdings, your father has. And you are the second child, are you not?" He scoffed, turning up the bronze, pointy nose of his mask. Séverine narrowed her eyes as though looking at an annoying child who knew not when to close his mouth. Ignoring the masked man, she looked back between Leon, Estella, and Lady Marceline.

"There's something very wrong here. The Lord Seeker has not been himself for some time. He's become obsessed with his status. His ego only grows, even as the Breach lingers. That, and..." she glanced up, to see if anyone was still watching. None were, the few recruits from before having filed off. "There's something going on with the other officers. They've been taking this new kind of lyrium. Even some of the lower ranks have been allowed to ingest it. I fear for the Order's future."

“This lyrium.” The new voice belonged to Cyrus, who continued after a moment. He looked vaguely perturbed by something, and shot a glance further inwards past where they stood before moving his eyes back to the others, Séverine specifically. “It wouldn’t happen to be red, would it?” It was a pertinent question, and if the answer was affirmative, would certainly provide a link between the templars and the events at the Conclave, however tenuous. There had been quite a bit of red lyrium there, too.

"It is, yes. I haven't seen it's like since... well, since Kirkwall." The city's name left her tongue as though the memory tasted somewhat foul.

Leon grimaced; this was shaping up to be worse than he’d thought, which was rather saying something. “The Lord Seeker now says he wishes to meet the Herald personally,” he said, shaking his head. “I suspect we will discover what all of this means in short order.” He was a breath from inviting Séverine to lead the way inside when Abernache spoke up again.

“Don’t keep your betters waiting, Lacan. There’s important work for those born to it.” Leon felt keenly the temptation to remind him just who was actually in charge here, but took a deep breath and refrained.

“We’re grateful for the warning,” he added, keeping his tone mild.

"Think nothing of it. The other officers already hate my guts. But I won't let the templars fall to ruin quietly." She gestured towards the inner gate. "Come. I'll lead you in."

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Marceline Benoit Character Portrait: Cyrus Avenarius Character Portrait: Vesryn Cormyth Character Portrait: Leonhardt Albrecht

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Red lyrium. It did not bode well for whatever was happening among the Templars. Marceline had read the reports from Kirkwall, of Meredith's madness and the presence of a red lyrium idol. Not only that, but the reports from the site of the Conclave likewise spoke of veins of it rising from the ground. Whatever it was, it seemed as if it followed disaster, and the news that it was now among the Templars sat ill with her. Marceline did not let it reveal on her face however, the only hint of her wariness a glance at Larissa. There was an imperceptible nod, and Larissa's eyes tilted upward behind her avian mask to the tops of the fort's walls, keeping an eye out for any unseen danger.

"Lady Herald," Marceline said, signalling that Estella be the first to follow behind Séverine. She nodded, breaking from the roughly even line they’d had before and stepping into place behind their guide.

The templar woman led them inside, the cramped and purposefully uncomfortable space of the path between gates opening up into a much wider courtyard. The rocky paths paved between the structures in the fortress were mostly overgrown by grass and weeds, though a clear training area had been carved out, with practice dummies for archers along the base of the walls, and sparring rings set aside. Currently they saw only light use, as most of the Order were clearly on edge, besieged as they were by an army of frills and fancy masks. As they drew further in, a small group of templar recruits and scribes began to gather, to observe the scene.

"The Lord Seeker has a request, I'm afraid, before you are to meet him," Séverine said, her tone already apologetic. She led the group to a row of three wooden cranks set into the ground, each one placed before large red flags affixed to the inner face of the stone wall. The left flag depicted a sunburst, symbol of the Maker, the center flag a lion, symbol of the people, and the right flag a flaming sword, symbol of the templars. "He would like for the Herald of Andraste to complete the Rite of the Standards. My Lady Herald is to raise the flags, each to a different level, so that the Lord Seeker might know in which order you honor them."

Estella looked immediately uncomfortable, eyeing the standards with apprehension. Her posture seemed to deflate slightly, which was saying something considering how modest it was to begin with. “I’m supposed to… rank them? Will he refuse to see us if the answer is wrong?” Her brows knit over her eyes, her mouth turning down into a pronounced frown.

Séverine shook her head immediately. "There's no wrong answer here. Obviously all three of these are of great importance. Among the templars our choices vary greatly. It simply offers insight into the mind, shows a bit of who you are. Supposedly." By her tone, Séverine did not take the greatest of stock in this Rite. Still, she did not seem disrespectful of it, simply not reverent.

"Do not worry, Lady Herald," Marceline began firmly. "Simply answer as you would ordinarily. The Lord Seeker would dare not turn us away," she said. Though she personally found the rite to be silly, they should not risk offending the Lord Seeker and his Templars by refusing to complete it.

Estella’s lips thinned, but she nodded, returning her attention to the standards themselves. Watching her gather herself was a visual process composed of obvious stages. With a breath inward, she straightened her spine and pulled her shoulders back. When she moved forwards, it was almost assured in appearance, though someone with eyes as practiced as Marcy’s knew false bravado when they saw it, and it was clear that the young woman drew it around herself like her cloak, even as she reached up and pushed the hood of her physical one down.

She paused in front of the cranks, apparently contemplative for all of a moment before she shook her head, dismissing whatever internal suggestion she must have posited to herself. Unerringly, she reached for the center crank, lofting the standard of the people to the highest position. It would seem that no two of them were allowed to remain on the same level, because the one belonging to the Maker slid to the bottom, while the flaming sword of the templars remained in the middle. After a moment, Estella turned back around.

“That’s it. That’s the order I choose.” Her voice was soft, but a thread of firmness kept it from qualifying as meek by any stretch.

Séverine nodded in return, not displaying any obvious judgement of the Herald's decision. "It's tradition for any participant in the Rite to explain their choice to the witnesses. It is, however, a choice and not a requirement."

Estella’s eyes dropped to the ground for a moment, but she forced them back up again. When she spoke, it was loud enough to be heard by those that were paying attention, though no louder than that. “I know only a little of honor,” she said, a faint smile playing at the corner of her mouth, as though she remembered something fondly. “But what I do know is that it is service by those who can do what needs to be done, freely given to those who cannot. It is, I think, the Inquisition’s duty and its honor, then, to act in service, first and foremost of those without our resources and our strength.”

The fleeting smile faded. “And the templars are people, too. Fewer, and perhaps more capable of defending themselves, but people nevertheless. If what we are meant to do is protect and serve those who must be protected, well… I hardly think the Maker should need our help, and whether we honor him or not is nothing I can decide.” The explanation, brief as it was, seemed to exhaust her present reserves of courage, because she ducked her head and returned to the group of the others immediately afterwards.

"The honesty's all well and good," Abernache put forth, his arms crossed, "but no thought given to impressing the Lord Seeker? Why bother at all? We're here to bring these templars to heel, are we not?" Séverine's glare at the man could've cut glass, but thankfully his mask cut off his peripherals enough for him not to notice. Her irritated sigh, however, was quite audible.

"I thank the Maker the Inquisition has a bit more heart than its noble support. I trust the Herald's intent here is more than just rounding up swords for an army." Abernache turned, stepping forward to be face to face with the woman.

"My intent is to deal with people who matter. You armored louts are wasting the Inquisition's time, and mine. Unacceptable!"

Séverine took a carefully controlled breath, obviously reminding herself not to bludgeon the man. "You need not worry about impressing the Lord Seeker, regardless." She stepped around Abernache, carefully, as though she did not desire to accidentally make contact with him, and drew closer to Estella and the others of her party. Though her focus was centered on the Herald alone.

"You should know that the Lord Seeker seems only to want to meet you. Not your Inquisition. You. By name. I know not why, but he's been utterly fixated on you since your lovely horde of nobles arrived."

A soft laugh echoed from under Vesryn's helm, from where he stood at Estella's side like a sentinel, shield and spear in hand. The elf had a proud visage when fully armed and armored, and indeed, it wasn't actually clear at all that he was an elf at the moment. "Seems you've got an admirer." There was an undertone of sarcasm to the words, evidence that he didn't find the development all that amusing, or pleasing to hear.

Estella scoffed softly at that, half-amused, before returning her attention to Séverine, whereupon she shifted awkwardly where she stood, shaking her head. “That… can’t be right. Maybe he’s just surprised we have so much support? I mean, I’m kind of…” she gestured vaguely to herself, then pulled her hood back up over her hair.

“The face of our present effort, yes.” Leon at least seemed to have little trouble deciphering what she meant, and she looked quite grateful for that, nodding. “As skilled as he’s always been at getting to the heart of things, the Lord Seeker would not have failed to notice as much.” He appeared to be thinking quite hard about something, but whatever was going on in his head, he did not share for the moment.

Cyrus had taken up a scowl at some point during this part of the conversation, and wore it openly beneath his own hood. It wasn’t terribly difficult to guess what part of this made him look so, but he kept his thoughts to himself as well, eyeing the path forward and inner parts of the castle with wary disdain. His hands disappeared beneath the folds of his cloak, removing another set of tells as to his intentions.

"Just thought I'd give you fair warning," Séverine said, nodding. "Come on, we've delayed long enough. I'll take you to him now."

Marceline said nothing and kept her own features guarded, though she did offer a smile to Abernache when they met eyes for a moment. He may have been brusque in his approach, but the message he sent was loud and clear. The Inquisition and its allies would not be turned away. However, Marceline still made a mental note to speak with him after all is said and done. She glanced behind her to Larissa who pulled her eyes down from the rampart to give a curt shake of her head.

Soon, Séverine led the small procession into a room with a table, no doubt where the negotiations were to take place. Lady Marceline chose to occupy a spot beside the Lord Abernache in order to better guide his furor. She took the moment to pull the hood away from her head and brush the few drops of rain that remained from her hair.

Estella also pulled her hood back down, though her hair was in nowhere near the neat state Marcy’s was. Clearly, the static and the weather had combined to thwart any attempts at looking especially put-together on her part, because several strands had slipped the grip of her plait, and stuck out in places, especially around her ears. She hesitated before stepping forward so as to be at a level with Lord Abernache and Marceline, appearing reluctant to stand too far in front of the other four and maintaining a distinct five feet from the nobleman. “I’m… not actually going to have to meet with the Lord Seeker by myself, am I?” She grimaced. “I really doubt I’d be able to convince him of anything.” The question seemed to be directed at Marceline.

Marceline shook her head in the negative, "No, we will be with you during the negotiations," she answered. Though how much use they would be remained to be seen. From all that she had heard, the Lord Seeker seemed to be focused solely on the Herald which appeared strange, considering how easily he dismissed them in Val Royeaux. Perhaps their recent alliance with the mages changed his mind on the matter, and their newfound power managed to catch his eyes... Though that did not explain the focus on Estella.

"But you must remain strong, the Lord Seeker will notice if you flag," Marceline gently reminded. A man such as him could smell weakness, and he would not be afraid to press his advantage.

Estella nodded, her face resuming a relatively impassive expression. Before anyone could speak any further, the clank of armored boots followed by the sound of a door opening drew their attention to the left, where a man in armor more ornate than Séverine's, including a prominently-winged helmet, had just entered the room, flanked by two other Templars. “You were expecting the Lord Seeker,” he said without preamble. “He sent me to die for you.” It was a strange turn of phrase, and Leon straightened perceptibly when it was uttered, his eyes narrowing.

"Knight Captain," Abernache said, attempting to approach the man. He only managed a step, however, before a gentle tug on his sleeve from Marceline bade him to keep his place. Like Leon, Marceline did not particularly enjoy how the situation was playing out, and she most definitely did not like the knight captain's body language. "Lord Esmeral Abernache. Honored," he continued with a bow, though at a much safer distance. "It is not unlike the second dispersal of the Reclaimed Dales." Marceline coughed, but said nothing.

"No doubt rank puts you above such things. A pity more people don't understand that," he said with a sharp glance at Séverine. Apparently the Knight Captain's more ornate armor suggested to him that he was of a higher rank than Séverine. Marceline made no move to correct him, and though her face was impassive as always, her hand rested on the hilt of her rapier.

The Knight-Captain chuckled, but the sound carried not even a faint hint of genuine mirth. This is the grand alliance the Inquisition offers?” He turned his eyes from Lord Abernache, clearly uninterested in dealing with him, and swept them over the rest of those assembled. Even behind the helmet, it was easy to tell that his gaze landed heavily on Estella.

There was a slight tic in her jaw, but she looked right into the eyeslit of the helmet. “With respect, Knight-Captain, we understood that we were to be meeting the Lord Seeker.”

“Yes, let me also extend my hand to the Lord Seeker, Knight-Captain.” Though now held back from approach by Marceline, Abernache seemed otherwise oblivious to the tension permeating the room.

Outside of the room, a dull roar started up, one that sounded like the din of an armed clash of some sort. Estella’s eyes went wide, and Leon took a half-step forward before the Knight-Captain raised his voice to be heard over the commotion. “The Lord Seeker had a plan, but the Herald ruined it by arriving with purpose. It sowed too much dissent.” Cyrus stepped in front of his sister, and the telltale flicker of a barrier forming appeared in front of the hand he raised to chest-level.

“What’s going on out there?” Leon completed the motion he’d begun, moving to the side of the table. Perhaps it was only the fact that he drew no weapon that prevented any from being drawn on him.

“They were all supposed to be changed. Now we must purge the questioning knights!” It took no more than that, and Leon surged forward, knocking the Knight-Captain to the ground by slamming an elbow into the space between his helmet and his breastplate. An arrow clanged off his armor, and the archer who had fired it took up the invective.

“The Elder One is coming! No one will leave Therinfal who is not stained red!”

A low ranking templar attempted to run Séverine through from behind, but she had her blade drawn and whirled about in time, blocking the sword aside and grabbing the young man's arm to twist. He shouted, at her mercy despite his flails. "Maker, you can't be serious," she said, looking under the recruit's hood. Red veins criss-crossed over his face, and his eyes were an even darker shade.

"The Elder One will--" His threat was cut off by Séverine's sword slashing across his throat, and he collapsed to the ground. The Knight-Captain readied herself for the next that would attempt to purge her.

"No. The Elder One will not."

The gentle grip on Abernache's sleeve turned firm, and Marceline threw the Lord back and out of the way of an incoming arrow. "Larissa," Marceline called out as she freed her rapier from its sheath. "See to Lord Abernache," and wih that, the woman took a grip on the Lord and backed away from the rapidly ensuing melee.

Marceline for her part slipped in behind Vesryn, and more importantly, his shield. "May I borrow you for a moment?" she asked as she placed a hand on his shoulder and hunkered down behind him as she watched his flanks.

"As long as you need, my lady," the elf answered easily. A templar rebounded off of his shield, the blow met with perfect timing, and Vesryn's spear found the red-lyrium tainted woman's gut in the ensuing opening, dropping her to the ground in a heap.

"My thanks," Marceline said, her rapier slipping under the helmet of a templar who'd tried to approach them from the side.

Leon was surprisingly quick over ground, and had left the dropped Knight-Captain in favor of breaking an archer’s nose over his knee within seconds of the initial attack. The man howled, at least until the Seeker gripped his head in both hands and twisted, silencing him. He was midway through a lunge for the next when Estella called out over the noise. “Commander, behind you!” Apparently following up the warning with action, she drew her sword as she ran, clearing the table with a flying leap and bringing the saber down with both hands.

A ringing sound issued from contact with what had once been the Knight-Captain’s arm, though it was scarcely recognizable as such anymore. The outer half of each forearm was coated in red crystals, faintly glowing, and more jutted out from each elbow, like blades almost. More of it had grown in over parts of his neck, and his breastplate had cracked from the inside, half-useless now but hinting at more of the lyrium underneath. His eyes were a luminous, menacing red, and he backhanded Estella with speed not commonly found in ordinary men, and clearly more strength still, because she went from having rather solid footing to rolling on the ground half a dozen feet away, regaining her feet in a recovery maneuver.

She’d kept him busy long enough for Leon to readjust, however, and he grabbed for one of the Knight-Captain’s hands, twisting him around into what must have been some kind of joint-lock, placing himself behind the man and kicking out his knees from behind, taking him to the floor.

A cluster of the remaining templars to the right lurched under the force of a chain lightning spell, given no time to recover before Cyrus was suddenly right next to them, hacking into weak spots in their armor with a humming blue sword. His first hit nearly took the head right off one of them, but he didn’t bother hacking twice, adjusting his feet fluidly and shoving the blade into the next one’s armpit, the arterial blood making a faint hissing sound as it came in contact with the weapon. The third, recovered perhaps too quickly for the obvious impact of the spell, took a gout of fire to the face before she could prepare her smite, and fell with her compatriots.

“At least we don’t have to wonder when they’re going to try and kill us anymore.” His tone was exceedingly dry.

The sound of a rapid barrage of blows followed, though the table blocked sight of everything in that direction save Leon’s head and shoulders, which moved vigorously enough to suggest that he was the cause. A great deal of cracking followed, and then the Seeker drew back further, his gauntlet speckled in bits of red stone, and slammed a fist down one last time, producing a deeper crunch, before he pushed himself back into a stand. It seemed to take him a moment to regain his bearings, and he shook his head a few times, blinking rapidly before refocusing on the rest of the group. Given that the rest of the templars that had been in the room were dead or close enough, he started picking little shards of red lyrium out of his armor without looking at them.

“We need to find the Lord Seeker. With apologies, Lady Marceline, Lord Abernache, it seems that the diplomatic portion of this venture is over.”

Marceline took a glance at the carnage around around with a distasteful look in her eyes before she shook her head and turned toward her assistant. "Larissa, if you would be so kind as to escort the good Lord Abernache safely away from this place?" With a nod, Larissa took a gentle hold onto Abernache, who still seemed to be in a state of shock, and began to slowly guide him out.

"It does indeed seem that way Ser Leonhardt," Marceline said, her rapier lightly resting against her shoulder. "The Lord Seeker has much to answer for."

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Marceline Benoit Character Portrait: Cyrus Avenarius Character Portrait: Vesryn Cormyth Character Portrait: Leonhardt Albrecht

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It was hardly the first fight in which Estella had been of almost no use at all, but she was keenly reminded of how far she still had to go in moments like this. Frankly, she would have dwelled on it, had it not been for the much more pressing need to continue forward, to find the Lord Seeker and stop all of this, somehow. She hadn’t seen a person afflicted with red lyrium since Kirkwall, and even then, it had only been one. Meredith was fearsome enough, though Estella had not had to confront her directly. She still had nightmares about the events of that day, sometimes—so much death, and such desperate conflict, all in service of something she couldn’t begin to understand, a madness that this substance had brought on.

It made her feel faintly nauseated, though that was more than likely at least partially due to the lyrium itself. She suspected a better mage, like Cyrus, felt it even more keenly than she did. She’d be surprised if the others were oblivious to it, either. Leon may be able to brush it off, but she knew that they really shouldn’t be touching it, if what she’d heard was true.

Not desiring to linger here, she followed the Commander out of the room. They headed deeper into the barracks first, Séverine giving directions whenever they came to a turn or door, since she knew the area by far better than any of the rest of them. The fighting didn’t seem to have made it this far out, and though they occasionally ran into a small pocket of the lyrium-infected templars, none of those groups were even as large as theirs, which meant short work, considering the prowess of the others.

After the first such bout, Estella could swear she heard something. It was perhaps no more than a whisper, but in something close to the Lord Seeker’s voice, as though he were standing right over her shoulder and speaking into her ear. “Come to me, Herald of Andraste.” She shuddered, reaching up with her free hand to touch the nape of her neck, and glanced over her shoulder, but of course all she saw was those of her allies who walked in the rear. Biting her lip, she faced forward again and kept going, reaching the outside—and another fight—with the rest of them.

She was just shaking some of the blood off her sword from her last opponent when the whisper sounded again. “You will be so much more than you are!” It was more emphatic this time, more sudden, and she jumped, dropping the blade in surprise.

“Can… can anyone else hear that?”

Cyrus approached, stooping to retrieve her blade and handing it to her hilt-first. His concern was evident in his eyes, which had always been his tell, if nothing else was. “Hear what, Stellulam?”

"Whispers," Vesryn said, from Estella's side, where he'd situated himself for much of the fighting. "You mean the whispers, right?" He glanced between Estella and Cyrus rapidly.

"I haven't gone mad, I swear."

"We should keep moving," Séverine urged from the front, where she kept watch. The rain continued with no sign of stopping, steadily washing the blood from the fighting into the softening earth.

It was almost a relief to know someone else had heard them. “I… yes. I think… with the Lord Seeker’s voice.” She pursed her lips, but started forward again. Séverine was right—they had to keep going. People’s lives were on the line here, and whatever strange thing might be happening wasn’t worth stopping and trying to figure out.

“Show me what you are.” Estella locked her jaw and increased her pace, though it seemed unlikely she could simply outrun it, whatever it was. She had a feeling they’d know in time, regardless.

“DO NOT IGNORE ME!” This time, it thundered, loud enough for all to hear and then some, a strange multi-tonal cadence to what was clearly still based on the Lord Seeker’s diction. “I WOULD KNOW YOU!”

“So much for whispering.” Cyrus wore a look of open displeasure, his lip faintly curled. “But you’re right; it does sound like the Lord Seeker. One more problem we solve by finding him.” His features shifted, clearly from some internal musings, but he didn’t choose to let the rest of them in on what he was thinking, for the moment.

At Séverine’s direction, they took a turn into what was apparently a guard building, because it contained stairs to the lower wall. There they came upon a few other templars, these ones clearly unaffected by red lyrium, striking down one who clearly was. They turned at the party’s approach, their postures easing when they recognized at least the Knight-Captain, and they both saluted her.

“Knight-Captain! The other officers—they’ve all gone mad.”

“We know,” Leon replied. “We need to reach the Lord Seeker. Any idea where he is?” All three shook their heads, leaving the party to continue in the direction of their best guess. Of course, the fact that the Lord Seeker continued to speak to them—or, well, her at least—was as good an indication as any that they were on the right track. Clearly, he wanted this confrontation just as much as they did.

The lower wall let them out onto a higher level of the castle, which was comparatively empty of occupants, though pitched battles had evidently been fought, with dozens of Templar corpses on the ground—both laced with red lyrium and without, though there were many more of the second. Estella tried not to hurry too much, aware of the need for a degree of caution, but her pace further increased until she was just short of breaking into a jog.

They reached a large staircase, one that led up to what must have been the main door to the redoubt's central building. She couldn't see anyone there; perhaps the man they were looking for had taken up residence within? “Come, Estella Avenarius. Show me what kind of woman you really are.” The voice echoed still, but not as loudly as before.

“All of this, for what?” she muttered, tightening her grip on her sword and mounting the stairs. The rain had grown much heavier, and though it did not yet approach what she’d experienced in the Mire, it was quite close, and very cold.

The whispers returned, this time unintelligible, echoing around the pillars that were lined along the top of the staircase, just before the main doors. Judging by the reactions of the others, all looking about, searching for the source, everyone could hear them. Eventually, a few words could be made out among the slithering noise. Herald. At last. Know you. At last. Learn. At last...

He appeared from behind one of the pillars and rushed at the group with inhuman speed. Lord Seeker Lucius never let his eyes leave Estella, even while Vesryn stood partially between them. He charged them from the right, hands outstretched with no weapons, only grasping fingers. Vesryn's shield hand reached around to grab Estella's shoulder and pull her behind him, but the Lord Seeker's speed was too quick.

He half charged through the elf, seizing Estella by the collar, at which point all three of them began to topple over backwards together. Before her back even hit the ground, Estella's vision filled with a bright light, quickly becoming all consuming, until only the Lord Seeker's piercing whisper could be heard.

"At last..."




She landed in a very different place than she had fallen, or so it seemed to her. Her back hit the ground with a hard thud, knocking the wind out of her, and as her eyes cleared, she could make out a ceiling above her head, a dome lofted high and arranged with gorgeous pieces of colored glass, which filtered the light from above in rich pigments, so that where it struck the dust motes floating through the air, it did so in scattered reds, blues, greens, and purples. There was no sound to be heard, and for a distended moment, she simply stared up at the stained glass dome, running her eyes over the familiar pattern.

There was a kind of loneliness that could only be felt when one was not only utterly devoid of company, but felt it, deep in one’s heart, the aching of an empty space. She wondered, for a moment, if everything had been a dream, after all. Her flight, Kirkwall, the Lions, the Inquisition, all of it. If that was what left her feeling so bereft now—that all of the things she’d built had been torn away, and she was returning to this moment. The thought intensified the ache, and she drew a hissing breath in between her teeth, raising an arm to place a fist over the center of her chest and push down, through the leathers and her light gauntlet.

Furrowing her brow, she drew her eyes down to the spot, realizing that it was a gauntlet, and she was wearing leathers. Moving the hand to her face, she pressed hard on her cheekbone, but felt no pain. In fact, she wasn’t in pain at all. It couldn’t have been a dream.

Sitting up, she looked around, a few discrepancies immediately becoming obvious. The chamber was circular as it should be, the light grey stone tinted in many colors by the filtered light, but it was otherwise empty. No furniture, no decoration, just dust in the air and herself on the floor. She wasn’t wrong about being alone, but she drew comfort from the fact that she might not have to be that way forever. A daring thought, really. Pursing her lips, Estella clambered to her feet, the task more difficult than she would have anticipated. All of her felt slow and sluggish, actually; awkward. She was like that all the time, though, so it was hardly surprising.

Slow. Weak. Graceless, yes. Show me more. The barest whisper of sound reached her in the still air, and she whirled around, seeking for its source, only to find that it seemingly had none.

As this particular room was at the end of a hallway, there was only one doorway out, an open stone arch, and she started towards it. Normally, it would put her into a passage of ordinary size, but when she stepped past the threshold, she found that it was about three times as big as she remembered it, its own ceiling vaulted high. The floor was bare stone, and her boots made too much noise as she walked along the center. Each side of the path was flanked with tall insets, each containing what appeared to be a sculpture or a statue. They were hard to see, but as she continued down the hall, the first one resolved into clarity.

“Cyrus?” Her voice was grating in the echoes, too rough and raspy and hissing, too loud, though she’d meant it to be quiet. There was no music in it.

But the statue, fifteen feet tall and exceptionally well-formed, did depict her brother, in white marble. Somehow, though, the eyes were the right color, as though someone had inlaid a dark sliver of lapis lazuli into the space each of the irises was supposed to be. Something was the faintest degree off about it, and when she leaned to the left, its features seemed to shift, rounding out from the well-defined lines of a man’s face to the soft, less sure ones belonging to a child, and then the emergent, nearly gaunt bone structure she’d known him to have as a teenager.

Yes, yes, excellent. First and last, you say. Always but never. So much to know, always knowing.

The return of the whisper made her jump, and she cursed herself for being so quick to startle, shaking her head. Whatever the meaning of the statue was, she could not decipher it. Her steps carried down the hall and rebounded back to her, emphasizing the inelegant shuffle of her gait by making it a dozen times louder. As though she could forget, and needed reminding.

To her right, something flickered in the corner of her eye, and she turned towards it, sucking in a harsh breath when another statue resolved into her vision. This was an elderly man, his features craggy and weathered and stern, his carriage unmistakably proud. Though the lines near his eyes were deep, they only seemed to lend authority to him, and he peered down at her from a height of no fewer than twenty feet, giving her the distinct impression that she had shrunk somehow. It was difficult to make out his face properly, given that he was carved from obsidian, but she knew its every line quite well, and swallowed thickly, her lower lip trembling.

Not wishing to linger, Estella turned and hurried onwards. More. More. I will know you.

The intervals between statues at first seemed random; it was much longer before she reached the next one, just as tall as the last, but of a younger man, with a clearer expression: one of soft frustration, tinged with affection. She closed her eyes and moved past.

The space between the third and fourth was much longer still, but the fourth and the fifth stood across from each other. One was a dignified man in armor, holding the hilt of a large sword, the tip of the blade resting at his feet. In contrast with the serious line of his mouth, his eyes carried a gentle humor about them. The one across from him wore almost no expression at all, his hands folded into his sleeves. Even the way he’d been carved was somehow enough to convey all the grace and finesse with which he moved in life, and these at least, she smiled to see.

Walking between giants. So much attention. Show me. Who is the you that they see?

Estella shook her head. Whatever this whisper belonged to didn’t understand anything at all, that much was clear. Her step was light and airy as she advanced, and she almost felt as if the hall was not so much longer after all, and wondered what might be behind the next door.

Whatever good mood had begun to lift her spirits was swiftly quashed when she reached the end of the hall and saw the last statue. For a long moment, she stared up at it, trying to quell the return of the bottomless solitude she felt. It reminded her of so many things, and her last treads towards it fell loud and ponderous on the stone.

So many faces. So many changes. What are you? I see what you see, not what you are!

“I’m no one,” she answered in the ugly murmur, and turned her eyes to the floor. The door was just ahead, and she wanted to be through it. Another few long strides did the trick, and she pushed the door open with her palm, stepping through the frame and into what seemed torn from another memory, another almost-death that had not come to pass.

The ground was scorched black, stone flooring ripped up and scattered everywhere, to say nothing of the debris from the rest of what had once been the Temple of Sacred Ashes. All around her, petrified corpses studded the landscape, their faces twisted and frozen in masks of fear, the barest remnants of almost-mummified flesh left to cling to their skeletons, just enough that if she squinted, she could almost imagine the people they had once been. Her squad… they were here somewhere, too, though she knew not where. Her recollection had not granted her even that much.

Her feet dragged as she tried to keep moving forward—it felt like they were weighted down, as if by shackles that made no noise and could not be seen, chained to she knew not what. Every step was a torment, but Estella drove forward all the same, tripping more times than she kept track of, often catching herself on her hands, but sometimes not, an unfortunate lack of reflex that rewarded her duly with several cuts and scrapes on her face, which stung terribly in the grainy wind that whipped the smallest pieces of stone dust and scree directly at her.

She became increasingly aware as well of the cold, seeping into her bones and setting her teeth to a permanent chatter, the clicking sound loud and grating and annoying in her own ears. Still, she staggered forward, though she wasn’t even sure why anymore, because if this place even had an end, she didn’t seem to be getting any closer to reaching it, and even the whispers seemed to have abandoned her for now. A hard stumble brought her to her knees, and for a moment, she remained there, arms wrapped around herself, bowed over, the rasp of her breath sawing in and out of her lungs and the clatter of her teeth the only sounds audible over the driving gale. When had it become a gale? She didn’t recall. It tugged at her cloak, ripping it free of her shoulders before she could hold it in place, and blowing it behind her on the wind.

With a groan, Estella pushed herself to her feet, and kept moving forward.

For all she walked, for all it felt like ages, she never reached what should have been the bounds of the Temple. Nothing seemed to repeat, but at the same time, several times she looked around her and was confronted with the vague sense that she’d made no progress at all. Still the faces of the dead begged her to help them, though they were long past saving. Still the ground wore away at her feet, and the wind and cold at her spirit. Still her chest ached with hollowness. Still she kept walking.

The next time she tripped, her arms gave out from under her when she tried to catch herself, and she felt a sharp stab of pain. Rolling over into her side, she reached down towards her abdomen, where she could see in the dim light that a shard of granite had buried itself in an unlucky joint in her leathers, punching a hole in the left side of her belly. Grimacing, she used trembling fingers to pull it out, trying to summon a rudimentary healing spell in the other hand to stop the bleeding, at least. But of course, she was no mage, not really, and so that was impossible. She almost laughed at herself for trying.

It left her with precious few options, however, and she tried to decide what she needed most. Loosening her jerkin, she tugged it off, rolling another quarter-turn onto her back and taking hold of the hem of her tunic with both hands. She had to tug several times before it tore, but from there she was able to remove enough to tie around the wound as tightly as her numb fingers would let her, and then fold herself back into her armor, which now sat uncomfortably directly against her skin from the end of her ribcage to her waist. But it was better than giving up her boots to take the bandages from her breeches.

It took several deep breaths before she could gather the strength to roll back onto her hands and knees, and quite a few more before she could ease to her feet. For the first time, she looked behind her, but the landscape that way looked just the same as the landscape in front, and she couldn’t see the door she’d come from in any case. Somehow she doubted going backwards would help anyway.

When she returned her attention to the front, she was surprised to see a dim light in the distance, glowing softly blue. It was the first change in scenery since she’d arrived here, and she struck out for it immediately, hoping against hope that what she found there might make a difference.

As she approached, the light took on the shape of a person. A woman, and by the point of her ears, an elf. Her back was turned; her body was entirely unclothed, but her shape was made up of the light, to the point where she was partially transparent. The sapphire glow kept her exact appearance indistinct, as though it deliberately unfocused whenever Estella attempted to see her clearly. It was not difficult to tell, though, that she had a powerful figure, both taller and significantly more muscled than Estella was.

She turned when Estella neared, and even blurred her features were noble, proud. The gale whipped at Estella, but the glowing woman seemed entirely unaffected by it. Her hair, which glowed like the rest of her did, fell neatly to rest upon her shoulders. The source of the light seemed to emanate from her chest. With the severity of the cold around her, it was obvious to Estella that the woman in front of her was radiating warmth into the air.

The figure raised her hand slowly, and a spark of blue light lifted into the air above them. It burst over their heads, and a translucent dome slowly fell around them, until it reached the ground. The wind stopped altogether, and within moments the warmth had filled the entire space.

The woman bowed gracefully in greeting, nodding her head forward.

Estella, battered, chilled, clumsy and no doubt looking like a wreck, blinked slowly. It took her several seconds to even properly comprehend what she was looking at, as though her mind, no longer in the simple state of forward, now again, had to lurch back to a start. The warmth helped, and though the feeling returning to her extremities was quite painful, she was glad it was pain she could feel, because that was much better than the alternative.

Despite that, she managed to dredge up a smile from somewhere, and bowed back as best she could. She wasn’t the kind of mage that frequently conversed with spirits, but she dreamed like anyone did, and occasionally, one of them had a reason to notice her, and so she did generally know what they were like. This one was strange, a little different somehow, like she might have been incomplete, the way her features appeared to shift, losing sharpness when directly focused upon. It was almost easier to see her from the periphery of her vision.

“Thank you,” she rasped, though it might have been more an effect of the dry wind than anything. “You’re… We’ve not met before, have we?” It would be very strange if they had, but stranger still if they had not, considering the location.

The figure smiled, not parting her lips, and then shook her head. A moment later, she waved her hand, and beams of light traveled along the glowing surface of her body, leaving armor in their wake. Were it not transparent, it would look quite heavy, and its design was ornate. In fact, as it completed its formation, it took on a very familiar shape, as did the tower shield that now leaned against her, and the spear she carried in her grasp. She tilted her head, and awaited recognition from Estella.

It was immediate. “Saraya?” Estella’s eyes went wide, and she took a half-step backwards, though it was more that she lost her balance again than anything. This was an alarming development, for more than one reason. Mostly, she was extremely concerned about this because she knew for a fact, or close enough, that she was inside her own consciousness right now—nothing else explained all the phenomena. Which meant that if Saraya was in here with her, then she wasn’t inside Vesryn’s head, and that was very, very bad.

“How did… ah. The Lord Seeker.” Whatever he’d done, she recalled Vesryn had attempted to stop, which might have interfered in part with the magic that had pulled her in here. Estella chewed her lip. “He’s in here somewhere, too. Do you think that if we found him, made him reverse… whatever this is, that you’d get back safely?”

Saraya nodded once, apparently all that she believed was necessary.

Suddenly, a crack of lightning blasted against the dome she had erected, and it split apart in several places, allowing icy wind to cut back through.

Begone, thing! I am learning. You cannot help her...

Saraya gazed up above them, her expression annoyed. Stepping forward, she set down her shield when she was within easy arm's reach of Estella. Slowly, she reached out a glowing hand, and gently placed it upon Estella's forehead. Instantly an intense feeling of envy filled her mind, envy directed at herself. The envy was stemmed by thoughts of freedom, a youthful, strong body, a position of authority, of opportunity. It was powerful in magnitude, but it ended before it could carry on too long, and Saraya took a step back.

She pointed up to the sky.

“Envy…” She knew the feeling, though she wasn’t sure she’d ever felt it so strongly as this. To feel it directed at herself was… uncanny, and very strange. It made no sense, and yet she could only interpret what Saraya imparted upon her as that. “The Lord Seeker is an envy demon?” Or, perhaps more accurately, an envy demon was assuming the form of the Lord Seeker, which meant that they weren’t dealing with the real one at all. Perhaps they never had been. Saraya nodded gravely, confirming her suspicion.

“This shape is significant.” The voice, at once more familiar than her own and somehow distorted, sounded from behind her, and Estella turned, met with the visage of her twin, though he looked ill in the light, wan. The demon didn’t hold the shape like Cyrus held himself, either—she supposed that made sense; envy wasn’t self-assured, rather the opposite. She knew from experience that attempting to falsify confidence could only work so well. “Will it help me know you?”

“You will not tell me about you. All you will think is of others. But I must know you!”

She understood, now, what it meant about learning. It wanted, for some reason, to assume her shape, to imitate her. And in order to do that, it needed to know enough to pass as her. So it had brought her here, to seek the answers it would need to wear her face. Even now, it was trying to understand. Estella’s hand went to the hilt of her sword, but then paused, her fingers still loose around the grip. Everything she did was now another piece of information for it, potentially. And if that was really what it wanted, then she had to avoid giving it that. Knowing how she moved, how she fought, however poorly, was information. She wasn’t even sure she could kill it, here.

No. What she needed to do was make it do all the talking and thinking aloud. She needed to understand it better than it understood her, and use that information to frustrate it to the point of making a mistake. And what she knew about it right now was that it wanted to learn about her. The way it looked at her made a mockery of her brother’s natural inquisitiveness, that fervent curiosity that so often lit his eyes. It looked sick, while the demon wore his face.

Taking a breath, something she tried not to make too obvious, she answered with a question. “Why do you want to know me?” She asked it as neutrally as possible, showing it her best imitation of Rilien’s face. It was almost ironic, that she planned to outdo the demon by being, in some sense, the superior imitator. If she could manage it.

As if in response, its features shifted, until it was wearing the face of her teacher, down to the sunburst on his forehead. “Being you will be so much more interesting than being the Lord Seeker.” In its left hand, the demon toyed with a knife, a replica of one of the Tranquil’s daggers, running a precise finger along the edge. It was also not an excellent likeness, considering the fact that she’d never once known Rilien to fidget or move idly. Hopefully that was a sign that it wasn’t being as careful.

“Do you know what the Inquisition can become? If only I were you…” It lunged at her, and she jumped backward, but no sooner had it completed its forward arc than it burst into smoke and disappeared.

"When I am done, the Elder One will kill you and ascend. Then I will be you.” It was Asala that time, and the voice from the left, where the Qunari woman appeared as well, though envy walked straighter in her skin, assuming a demeanor more like Asala when there was healing to be done than Asala at any other time. Still Estella kept herself mindful—the details were important.

“What is the Elder One?” Short questions, and only questions. It was already talking a great deal more than she was, even if it was deeply unsettling that it used the voices of her friends to do so.

The creature laughed, shifting again so that what began as a feminine sound ended as a masculine one, and it wore the same familiar face as the second statue, draped in dark blue robes and carrying a staff with a scythe-blade on one end, a thick hand with heavy knuckles gripping it with surety. “He is between things. Mortal once, but no longer. Glory is coming, and the Elder One wants you to serve him like everyone else: by dying in the right way.” The corners of his mouth turned up in a twisted caricature of a smile, probably the best envy could manage, and this time, it called lightning to itself, lifting the staff and throwing the spell in a broad arc from the scythe.

Estella stood no chance of getting out of the way in time, she knew, and indeed, her body was extremely slow to react, almost like she was moving through water.

Saraya was not so restrained, and she intervened before the lightning could reach Estella. Planting the glowing shield into the ground before her, the spell crackled and smashed against it, leaving the woman reeling and digging a foot into the ground. The envy demon hissed, infuriated.

"Insolence! This will be my place, not yours! Begone!" He threw a straight bolt of lightning from his hand, a spell which exploded directly against Saraya's shield, and the glowing body burst into a dozen wisps of flickering light. They scattered into the wind.

“Saraya!” Estella didn’t have time to think, only react, and her hand flew to the hilt of her sword, which rang free of the sheath with a hissing rasp. She lunged into the place her ally had been, bringing the saber down on the envy demon, which still wore the face of Tiberius. As soon as her blade made contact, it shrieked and dispersed.

“You cannot stop me! I will have what is yours!” Its voice trailed off with the motes of black dust that seemed to have constituted that particular form, but Estella hardly cared. She fell to the ground, plunging the end of the saber down into it and leaning heavily against the blade, which glimmered brightly in the dark. From her knees, she dragged a hand across the ground, as though hoping to recover some remnant of the remnant, something that would show her that Saraya was still alive, still present. What did it take to kill something in the mind? Cyrus would know. Of course he would. He’d be able to fix this.

But she couldn’t. She couldn’t fix anything. “Why me?” she muttered miserably, losing all will to keep herself upright and remaining so only because she saw no more point in removing her grip from the hilt of her saber than she did in keeping it there. “I don’t matter. I’m nobody.” If the demon had chosen anyone else, this wouldn’t have happened. But it had chosen her—miserable, wretched, worthless Estella—and so everything was going straight to shit, just as she’d always known it would. That she was surrounded by so many talented, impressive people, that Romulus had a mark, too; these things had allowed her to believe that they might succeed, that they might really close the Breach, and that she might be able to go back to being anonymous and unimportant without having ruined anything, save the lives of the families of her squadmates.

Her back bowed further under the pressure of her thoughts, and she fought the bile that rose in her throat. How could she have forgotten? How could she have let herself, for even a single moment, fail to recall her own incompetence, and how dangerous it was, for those around her? How had she let herself believe that she could ever be the kind of person others might be able to lean on? Where had she gained the pretension to suppose that one day, she might be strong, or worthy, or valuable in any way at all? She had no grace, no skill, lackluster intelligence, and a terrible, crippling inability to improve for all the first-class instruction and arduous practice in the world.

How dare she forget. How dare she let other people pay the price for that.

She was pathetic.

And she deserved to suffer for all the things she could not be.

Some combination of the brittle-bone cold, the weight settled over her body like a cloak of lead, and the furious churning of her own thoughts overcame her, and she retched, dry-heaving painfully, folded in on herself and at last relinquishing the grip she held on the sword. Another thing she wasn’t worthy of. Another grace extended to her that she could not hope to repay in kind. Estella fell onto her side, curling into a small ball and pulling her knees against her chest, willing the ordeal to simply end. She’d proven what she knew all along: she was incapable of meeting a challenge of this magnitude. She couldn’t do it alone, and she was toxic to anyone who would be her ally. She squeezed her eyes shut, then opened them again—dry, because even she knew she was wallowing in self-pity and she wasn’t worth crying over—and they found immediately the bright edge of her saber. She stared at it for what seemed the longest time, fascinated by the way the enchantment made it glimmer with a light all its own. Like a little star, right there in the dark.

A bitter smile slashed her face, and she chuckled weakly. “Stellulam…” Cy’s nickname for her was ridiculous. Even he would surely be disappointed in her, if he could see her now. She was disappointed in herself. Then again, she was always that.

Distantly, she knew that she had to stand up. If she did nothing else, she had to make this right again. Her wound twinged—she’d hurt herself by falling over. Of course she had, because actual battle wounds were for people who had a fighting chance. She couldn’t…

“I can’t.” But slowly, she stood anyway, dragging herself to her feet, resting her hand on the saber, which was faintly warm to the touch, and pulling it from the ground. It felt heavy in her hands, unfamiliar, like the first time she’d ever tried to wield it. Listing to the side slightly, she took a step forward, and had to scramble not to fall backwards when the scenery around her abruptly changed, putting her back in Therinfal Redoubt.

It was eerily quiet, compared to what it had been like before, but she remembered the route, and followed it. This version seemed to be what Envy imagined the Inquisition would look like, if it replaced her. She thought it was foolish to believe she had so much power as it seemed to assume, particularly when she walked in on a meeting between herself and the Inquisition’s three advisors. They all stood around the table, though Romulus was a conspicuous absence. "We’re almost there,” Marceline was saying. "Orlais, Ferelden, then Antiva and the Anderfels. Rivain’s surrender is imminent. Fitting that you’ll end where you started, no?”

“Soon enough, my accomplishment will match my ambition,” she heard her own voice reply from the facsimile of her appearance. She couldn’t help but find the words ridiculous. Estella had aspired to little. Though her faults were many, arrogance was not usually one of them. Perhaps even believing she could help close the Breach counted as arrogance enough.

“Do you see? What the Inquisition could be without you? When you are dead, and the Elder One has allowed me to become you?”

Estella walked through the ghostly image, dispersing it, and continued on her way. When she reached the same staircase as before, she spotted herself standing at the bottom of it. Or, well, the envy demon’s version of her, anyway. She took some little bit of succor in the fact that it had clearly glamorized her considerably: she looked as put-together as Marceline, and wore clothes as nice as Rilien’s, her armor polished silverite, chain with a heavy silk sash holding her sword in place, and leathers in lighter places. It still wasn't near to accuracy, really.

“Unfair! You are still whole!” In what seemed an instant, the demon was in front of her, its version of her hand tight around her throat, lifting her from the ground with no more difficulty than the Avvar she’d dueled in the Mire. “Why can’t I have your shape?!”

“Why… would you want it?” She choked out, her hands grabbing pointlessly at the arm holding her. It was uncanny, looking into her own face like that.

“Why would… why would…?” It seemed thrown by the question, but then gritted its teeth, its free hand glowing with sickly green magic, and turned to shove her against the door. “We’ll start again! More pain this time! The Elder One still awakes!”

A rumbling suddenly surrounded the two of them, as a ball of impressively bright blue fire burned through the wall of clouds hanging over them, to Estella's left. The envy demon growled, hurling Estella back with force against the door and turning to face the arriving presence. It smashed into the ground, scattered bits of the stone ground through the air, and from the cloud of dirt re-emerged the glowing form of Saraya, now wielding a greataxe the likes of which Estella had already seen.

She whirled forward through the air, the first blow coming down hard on Envy's sword, as it still attempted to retain Estella's shape. Saraya's offense was swift, precise, and brutal, but the demon was able to parry or repel every blow, even when it appeared to have no chance, as though it wasn’t actually possible for Saraya to land a hit. Eventually they clashed weapons and locked together. Blue sparks flickered through the air from Saraya’s axe, and sickly arcs of familiar green lightning careened away from Envy’s feign of a marked hand. Envy’s face was contorted in a mixture of extreme effort, and overwhelming anger.

“What are you? How can you remain? Die and leave, forever!”

Estella thanked whatever deities were paying attention for Saraya’s intervention, and more importantly, for the fact that she yet lived. While she knew she’d be of little assistance, the elven woman’s spirit had the demon locked in battle, which was opportunity enough for anyone, and so she circled around behind the dark shadow of herself, sheathing the sword quietly and drawing the straight-bladed knife from the small of her back.

Her approach was awkward, and she wound up just running the last half-dozen steps, jumping onto the demon’s back and plunging the blade downwards and slightly diagonally, for her replica’s less well-protected neck. The knife struck, and the envy demon beneath her dissolved again, this time with an inchoate shriek. Her vision filled once more with white, and she fell back into reality.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Marceline Benoit Character Portrait: Cyrus Avenarius Character Portrait: Vesryn Cormyth Character Portrait: Leonhardt Albrecht

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Though three bodies had begun to fall in tandem, only two finished the arcs they should have. While Estella and Vesryn collapsed to the ground, the Lord Seeker was seemingly thrown from them with great force, his shape twisting in midair, limbs elongating and visage twisting. What landed before the door was no man, but rather a demon, lanky and warped. Cyrus recognized it immediately—envy, a rather rare variety, and much subtler than its kin.

It rose into an arch, walking its hands through the gap between its six-foot legs, an eerie contortion of its warped form, and then it shrieked at the lot of them, prompting Cyrus to move in front of Stellulam and Vesryn, putting himself between it and them, but doing so turned out to be, for the moment at least, unnecessary. The demon exploded into a cloud of green mist, flying in through the doors and over the heads of the Templars inside, retreating to some area beyond, and leaving a barrier behind it.

The moment he was sure it was safe to do so, he was kneeling by Estella’s side, a hand at her forehead. “Stellulam, can you hear me?” His tone was low, but unmistakably urgent; worry gripped his heart and furrowed his brow. That the demon had retreated meant something—he only hoped that it wasn’t the worst.

A soft groan was his initial response, but fortunately, Estella’s eyes opened directly afterwards, unfocused and hazy. Her head lolled slightly towards the side Cyrus knelt at, and she blinked slowly a few times. “Cy?” She coughed, the force of it actually bringing her partway off the ground, and she planted one of her hands on the floor, pushing herself into a sitting position. “How long have I been out?”

That was a peculiar question. Cyrus shook his head slightly, using one of his arms to support her back, though she seemed to be sitting all right on her own, for the moment. “Not long. The Lord Seeker attacked you and you fell.” And yet, he could sense a disturbance in the Fade greater than he would have ordinarily considered warranted, as though something or someone had used a considerable amount of magic in that tiny window of time.

“Are you all right? What happened?”

The expression she showed in reaction to his answer was complicated, but confusion seemed to predominate, and her lips parted for a moment, before she hesitated, apparently unsure what to say. “I… the Lord Seeker’s an envy demon. Or well… the person the templars thought was the Lord Seeker is one. It… it wanted my shape, and…” Her eyes went wide suddenly, and she glanced around herself frantically, pausing when she found Vesryn, who was still unmoving.

Shit,” she hissed, half-dragging herself within arm’s reach of the elven warrior and reaching out, laying a hand on his chestplate and shaking him gently. “Vesryn. He—” She cut herself off and looked meaningfully at Cyrus, suggesting that there was something she could not say, before she returned her attention to their fallen ally.

“Oh Maker, please be all right.”

The elven warrior soon stirred, as though coming out of a deep sleep, but when he seemed to remember where he was, he blinked several times in confusion. "Erm... what?" He paused, an awkward, uncomfortable smile coming into place. "I've gone and embarrassed myself, haven't I?"

His eyes then darted between Estella and Cyrus, before settling longer on Estella and looking her over, perhaps to confirm that she was undamaged. Satisfied, he pushed himself up into a sitting position. He removed his helmet briefly, shaking his head. "You haven't been waiting for me to wake up for long, I hope?"

“Not really, no.” Cyrus shrugged, offering a hand to each for assistance in moving from sitting on the ground to standing on it. Estella took his left without hesitation. He frowned a bit, and threw a glance into the now-open doorway. They’d become a minor spectacle for the templars inside, by the looks of things. “But if you’re both quite all right, we’d best continue. I doubt this lot will be very enthused to learn that their illustrious leader was a demon all along.” Not that he planned on dealing with the mess. That could fall to the Knight-Captain or Leon, whichever felt more inclined.

After Vesryn was on his feet as well, the group moved inside, where the remaining uncorrupted templars had assembled in what appeared to be the main hall. The long tables had mostly been cleared off to the side to allow easier room to move about. Above, on the far end of the hall, stairs led up to a balcony or upper courtyard or some such, but the way was blocked by a barrier spell of some kind, shimmering thickly, clearly strong if the templars hadn't immediately been able to dispel it.

Of course, few of them were of any decent rank, and the one Knight-Captain present looked a bit floored by witnessing the transformation of the Lord Seeker into an envy demon. Séverine stood now in the center of the hall. "Never thought I'd have a leader that could outdo Meredith on the bad ideas front. Bloody demon, bloody red lyrium. How many lives, thrown away for this?" She turned, seeking out Leon with her gaze.

"The demon turned our leadership against us first with that red lyrium. I'm lucky I was never forced into taking any. I don't think anyone else of my rank or higher refused the stuff." She shook her head, eyes falling to the floor.

“An obstacle,” Leon agreed heavily, “but not an insurmountable one. By arriving when we did, we forced the demon’s hand. Not all of you have succumbed, and that means we yet have a chance.” He scanned the room, his eyes moving over all the templars present, and landed on what must have been another low-ranking officer. “Knight-Lieutenant,” the Seeker said crisply, drawing the man into a sharp salute. “There are others, still fighting outside?”

The templar nodded beneath his helm. “Yes, sir. Another three Knight-Lieutenants, there should be, and their squads. Or… whatever’s left of them.”

“And you have lyrium, as well? The uncorrupted kind?” Another nod. “Then I’ll need the last locations you knew the lyrium and the soldiers to be at. The Inquisition will bring you the people and the supplies, and then we’re going to take that barrier down, and the demon with it. Clear?” He spoke loud enough to be heard over the relative quiet of the room, and those in attendance drew themselves straighter, responding with a collective yes, sir!

One immediately moved to a table on the right side of the room, and gestured the group over. With a stick of charcoal, she drew three circles on an architectural rendering of the redoubt. “These are the supply rooms, sir. There’ll be a crate’s worth of lyrium in them, at least. Might be you run into some of the others on the way.”

Leon nodded. “Three supply crates should be enough.” He glanced up at the group. “Lady Marceline, Ser Séverine, go to the northern one, please. Take some of the more experienced templars here with you.” He pointed to the closest circle to the building they currently occupied, then moved his attention further down. “Vesryn, Estella, the one to the east, please. Cyrus, you and I will go west.” From the look he gave him, Leon knew well that he likely wouldn’t appreciate being separated from his sister, but was asking him to do so anyway.

“Very well.” Cyrus was indeed not terribly pleased with the suggestion, but he understood why it had been made. There was logic in ensuring that one didn’t send two mages against a lot of templars. He could even overlook the fact that the reasoning employed clearly underestimated him. Briefly, he turned his eyes to Estella and Vesryn. “If… possible, perhaps just once keep the heroics to a minimum?” That was the problem with decent people, really—they tended to take risks that the purely self-interested would avoid.

Estella smiled, but it was thin. “No promises.”

With the strategy set, all that remained was to execute it. One of the Knight-Lieutenants was left to manage the templars that would remain in this room, though the majority of those with much rank would be split up between the three parties. It might have been strictly safer to retrieve the lyrium crates one at a time, but time was important, and that would almost certainly have taken too long. Furthermore, three teams pushing out at once would relieve the burden on the defenders of the main hall itself, which was fortunate since it would also thin their numbers considerably.

Leon led their way out of the main hall, moving down a side passage way to the west, which was both damp and dark, lit only by a few guttering torches. With a few more turns, they came face to face with a door to the outside. “How are you against templars, Cyrus? I understand they don’t use lyrium in Tevinter.”

“Why don’t you open that door and find out, Seeker?” Cyrus let his amusement color his tone, and smiled sharply. It was true that he’d faced few southern templars, and their abilities were not to be dismissed, when properly enhanced by lyrium. But by the same token, no southern templar knew what a northern mage was like, and he did not doubt they would find the difference… perceptible. The very best education in Thedas could do that for a person.

“Fair enough.” Leonhardt didn’t push the door open just yet, though, instead reaching into a belt-pouch and withdrawing a small vial, about the size of one that would hold a lyrium dose, but the liquid inside this was a blackish red, lacking both the glow of red lyrium and the metallic smoothness of that fluid. “I don’t believe we’ve had cause to fight together before. I say this in all seriousness: please keep clear of me.” His voice lacked the usual mildness it carried, edged instead with a harshness that seemed foreign to it.

Tipping back the vial, Leon downed it in one swallow, tucking it back into his belt pouch and throwing the door in front of them open. He didn’t linger on the threshold, charging forward into the fray outside.

It would seem the fighting had drawn very close on this side, and the Red Templars had nearly reached the entrance to the main building. The defenders remaining were few, and consistently moving backwards. That was, until Leon crashed into the front line. His first swing snapped a red templar’s head back so far the crack was audible, and the edge of his helmet clanged against the edge of the armor protecting his back. Before his body could collapse, Leon picked it up in both hands and threw it into a line of advancing red templars, knocking one to the ground and another two off balance. The last dodged, but it didn’t matter, because the Seeker killed him next, taking his helmet in both hands and twisting sharply. His stride didn’t even break as a sword clanged off his armor; he simply turned and caught the blade between his armored palms on its way down the second time, turning his body and disarming the half-crystallized man that held it, tossing the sword away like refuse before pulling the man down by the arm and shoving a knee into his gut, sweeping his legs out from under him with a foot and stomping hard at a less-armored part of his back.

Whatever resulted was effective, because the templar did not stand again, and Leon showed no signs of stopping.

It was quite the brutal display, but its effectiveness could not be denied. Cyrus waded onto the field as well, giving Leon the berth he so desired. Considering that his last lightning spell hadn’t seemed to work too well against these people, he switched tactics, sending a fire rune to land strategically on the ground where a cluster of soldiers tried to flank what few uncorrupted templars were left. It took them all off their feet, and Cyrus pulled himself through the Fade, spatha in hand, and finished them while they were down, quick strokes to throats and any vital artery he could reach. Putting them down fast was the key here, and he was quite good at that when he set his mind to it.

Where Leon charged with pure force and raw speed, Cyrus walked the edges of the field, laying down strategic area spells to control the flow of templars, narrowing their avenues of motion with fire, barriers and harassment tactics. Though he’d have preferred to simply rain fire down from above and jump between them with his blade, as was his wont, it made more sense presently to keep the red ones away from the ordinary templars and funnel them towards Leon in small numbers at a time. It was clear that he could handle three at once without encountering significant issues, which was really quite something for someone who usually looked a bit uncomfortable around other people eating meat.

Between the two and their templar allies, what had once looked dire for the defenders turned around in relatively short order. Cyrus’s effective control of the battlefield essentially fed Leon a line of foes, which he tore through with brutal efficiency, which for all its violence was unerring in its precision. Ten minutes after they had reached the fight, it had ended, and the red templars lay slain.

A general cheer went up from the others, but for several long moments, Leon remained in the middle of the field. It was hard to tell where exactly his eyes were, with the helmet, but his fists remained clenched at his sides, trickles of blood dripping off his knuckles. With what seemed to be one very deep breath and a momentous effort, he relaxed his shoulders backwards and turned to face the templars. “You’ll want to go back inside, reinforce the others. We’ll go get the lyrium and meet you back there.”

The general consensus seemed to be that this was a good idea, and the soldiers turned, some of them supporting each other as they walked, and headed inside. Leon turned his head, clearly looking at Cyrus, and then gestured forward. “The supply storage is this way.”

Cyrus raised an eyebrow, nodding nonchalantly and falling into step beside the Seeker, glancing up at the other man through the corner of his eye, his hands folded casually behind his back even as they picked their way over what had effectively become a killing field, first for the red templars and then for them. “I can see why you prefer your space.” He kept his tone deliberately light. “That tincture you took, before we fought—that does something to you, doesn’t it?”

The color of it looked suspiciously like blood, but it was a bit too dark even for that, suggesting that something else might have been done to it alchemically. Cyrus had a guess about what that might be, but it was merely a guess, and didn’t quite account for all of his observations. He wondered if Leon would simply be willing to explain.

“It does.” It was fairly clear that Leon saw no point in trying to lie about that—probably he had decided Cyrus had only asked in an attempt to get more than a confirmation. That, however, he didn’t give, and after a few more seconds of silence, it became evident that he wasn’t planning on it. Disappointing, but hardly a surprise.

The supply cache was a bit of a ways out, but they ran into only one more red templar on the way, and she was already injured to the point of dying. Leon put her out of her misery, and the two proceeded onwards, until the sounds of more battle could be heard, at which point they picked up the pace, rounding a corner and finding themselves face-to-face with the tail end of a confrontation.

A woman in Seeker’s armor placed a heavy roundhouse kick to the face of a red templar, dropping him with a hard thud. Several more lay in a circle around her, all variously battered and broken to death. Like Leon, she carried no weapons. It was clearly the same woman from Val Royeaux, the one who had stood at the Lord Seeker’s side.

She spotted them from the corner of her eye, and moved to face them. “Good. You’re here.” She spoke rather evidently to Leon rather than Cyrus, and it was he who answered.

“Ophelia. What are you doing here? Did you know about this?” The earlier aggression clearly hadn’t left him, from the gravelly undertones to the words, and he looked about ready to step forward and be her next opponent. Cyrus wasn’t sure he was entirely misguided in his intent, and did not dismiss his conjured blade, though he remained a few paces out to Leon’s left, and watched him for cues as to how they would handle the situation.

That made her smile, just a little one, a turn at the corner of her mouth. “Know the Lord Seeker was an envy demon? No, not until recently. But I suspected. And so I remained at his side.” She crossed muscular arms over her chest, tossing back the thick ebony braid that rested over one shoulder.

“While he had all those templars take red lyrium? You know what it does. You know what happened in Kirkwall.”

She shook her head slowly. “The demon was suspicious of me, at first. Inherited that from Lucius, I expect. I didn’t know what it planned for these templars until it was already happening. After that, the best I could do was try and convince it to delay further action until I could discover whether it was really the Lord Seeker or not. As it happened, I wasn’t the only suspicious one. I intercepted a message, and replaced it with one I knew would reach you, and gain your attention.”

Leon sighed heavily. “How did you figure out that the Lord Seeker was an envy demon?”

She thinned her lips. “There’s something you should see.” Gesturing for them to follow, she led the way into an adjacent building and opened a door on the right side of a hallway. The chamber so demarcated was relatively large, perhaps once an office of some kind, but far enough from the main building that it was doubtful any of those near it were in use.

Of much greater interest, however, was the state of the room. In terms of furniture, it contained only a single desk, which rested right at the center of the rug, covered with papers, candles, and oddly enough, pieces of art. Front and center was what seemed to be a marble bust of Empress Celene, though its face was obscured by parchment. Leaning against that, a hand-sized portrait of the Lord General of Orlais had been slashed once, with a knife, from the look of it, but still remained intact enough to identify his visage. The last item was a humble charcoal sketch, rendered nevertheless in highly-accurate detail, of the crown prince. It lay in two halves atop the desk, and had at some point been further defaced with candle wax.

The dull brown stone of the walls was marred by several drawings of eyes, quite clearly in blood rather than paint, and several stacks of books were strewn carelessly about the room.

“Well this is a rather macabre little shrine, isn’t it?” Cyrus scanned quickly over the walls, and then the spines of the books in the nearest stack, before deciding that clearly, the items of greatest interest were those on the desk. The three most powerful people in Orlais, before the civil war, and possibly still, though it was hard to say. “Targets, perhaps?” It would fit with what he’d seen in the future he went to—he recalled that all three of these people had been assassinated. This could be a clue to how and when that was supposed to happen, if their mysterious perhaps-ally knew more than was obvious.

“This… Elder One. This thing the demon is working for. It wants them dead, as might be obvious.” Ophelia nodded to the ruined artworks on the table. “I don’t know exactly why, but I suspect it’s partly a tactical decision and partly something else. A hatred, perhaps. Orlais has the strongest army in Thedas, and it’s as unstable as it’s been since the reign of the Mad Emperor, with the civil war going on.” She paused, a crease appearing between her brows. “But there are no fewer than four people with enough popularity and sufficient nobility to satisfy the aristocrats and the populace and lead the country. It’s interesting that only three of them appear here, isn’t it?”

“Gaspard de Chalons is missing.” That was Leon, who’d removed his helmet and tucked it under an arm. His free hand held a sheaf of parchments, carefully arranged so as to be smeared minimally with the blood on his gauntlets. “But whether that is because the demon overlooked him or because he’s allied with this Elder One is difficult to say. He doesn’t have quite the same infamous personality as the other three.”

Ophelia nodded deliberately. “That, I have not been able to discover. Envy likely knew relatively little outside of what it was to do here.” There was, after all, a certain sense in playing secrets and strategies as close to the chest as possible, and it would have been careless for the Elder One, who or whatever it was, to simply tell its minion everything it had in mind. Cyrus could understand the limitation of information as an effective command strategy; fewer loose ends when all was said and done, and the more work rumor and speculation could do for you, the better. This Elder One might have done quite well in the Magisterium, had it the inclination.

“This note…” Leon frowned deeply, then handed it to Cyrus. “My Old Tevene isn’t very good, but I believe it says something about the Seekers. Any chance you could translate?”

“Certainly.” Cyrus was not quite the linguist Estella was, in the sense that he spoke fewer of them than she did, but his Old Tevene was rather impeccable, if he did say so himself. Which made sense, since it was a common language for scholars in the Imperium to know. He took the parchment between his thumb and forefinger, as it was relatively worn and probably ought to be handled carefully, then swept his eyes over the words.

“‘Remember, you will be watched constantly. A Seeker is always looked to, when he is seen at all. I had a replica of the armor made—it should serve your purpose in Therinfal.’ Addressed to Envy, no doubt. There’s a little more below it that might interest you.” He paused, possibly just for effect, and then continued. “There is no place for Seekers in the world the Elder One builds. The life of Lucius Corin ends with you. Leave the real one to me.’” He raised a dark brow, glancing at the other two over the edge of the paper.

“Someone was feeling rather dramatic. Though I must say I’ve always loved a good conspiracy. So many skeins to be unraveled…” Cyrus narrowed his eyes, his aspect amused rather than menacing. He didn’t think it was especially amusing for either of them, of course, but still he saw little purpose in being unnecessarily grave. It was what it was, regardless of the attitude anyone took towards it.

“Seems the thing to do would be to find the real Lord Seeker, no? After we’ve dealt with our little demon infestation, that is.”

Leon looked to Ophelia, who shrugged her powerful shoulders. “I do not know where the real Lucius is. I intend to find out, but your friend is right. Horse first, then cart, as they say. You’ll be wanting lyrium. It’s through here.” So saying, she turned and led them out of the room, opening another door at the end of the hallway, remaining outside while Leon went in after the crate, hefting it easily in a single arm, donning his helmet again with the other.

“Let’s get this back to the others.”

They were, as it turned out, the last to arrive back, perhaps due to the pit stop they’d taken. Ophelia’s reception among the templars was mixed; while none were openly hostile, they were wary almost to a one, and stood far aside when she passed. That seemed not to faze her in the slightest—perhaps, as a Seeker, she was accustomed to it.

Cyrus soon found himself caught up in a warm embrace from Estella, who, aside from a cut marring the line of her cheek, appeared intact. She squeezed once before releasing him, her expression clearly relieved. “I was worried when we got back and you weren’t already here,” she admitted softly.

“Worried? About me? What will you think of next?” Really, the idea that she worried about him, while familiar and welcome in a sense, was also a bit unnecessary. If she could stop worrying about him and worry about herself instead, he’d be much more assured. Still, neither that nor the twinge of hurt that remained between them stopped him from returning the hug, a muted exhale the only sign he gave of his own mollification.

He returned his attention to the pair of Seekers and the Knight-Captain afterwards, however. “Now… how about we bring down this barrier?”

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Marceline Benoit Character Portrait: Cyrus Avenarius Character Portrait: Vesryn Cormyth Character Portrait: Leonhardt Albrecht

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Vesryn's pristine armor was spattered with blood at this point, but every drop of it belonged to corrupted templars. Saraya had effectively guided him to dispatch any enemy that had crossed his path, and even many of those that only crossed the others, though of course he hadn't been quick enough to prevent all the injuries in his allies. Even his shield could only be in one place at one time.

Focused as he was on the fight, he'd been especially wary of any signs from Saraya since the ambush from the Lord Seeker, or rather the demon that had formerly worn his shape. He remembered nothing of it, only trying to get in the way of the charge, getting caught up with Estella as they fell, and then... black. Estella's face was the first thing he saw upon waking, the first thing he comprehended. There were far worse things to lay eyes on after being knocked out, of course.

As they'd worked together to bring back more of the low-ranking officers, he'd noted that Saraya looked upon Estella differently. How, he could not say, and there was no time to speculate on it. They had a task to complete here.

The Knight-Captain, Séverine, nodded at Cyrus, and smoothly stepped up on top of one of the tables shoved off to the side, allowing the assembled templars to see her more clearly. She pointed her blade out at the group. "Templars! I ask of you: what is Envy?"

"A wretched thing!" cried one.
"Weakness!"
"A pathetic demon!"
"A coward, Sister!"

"A coward," Séverine repeated, nodding. "In order to study, and worm into our hearts, it must hide. We will drag it into the light!" A first cheer went up among the templars, accompanied by a cacophony of swords bashed against the faces of shields.

Séverine stepped down and began approaching the barrier, while the templars cleared from her path. "Those who have been taken by this demon and its promises of power are corrupt. They have betrayed the Order and all they once stood for. We, the true templars, will show them no mercy." The grimmer nature of the task did not receive a cheer, but instead a hardened rumbling, an anger building to do what needed to be done.

"Join me, Brothers and Sisters, and tear down this barrier. Give Envy no place to hide. And give the Red Templars no reason not to run!" She accepted a chalice of lyrium from a scribe when offered, the draught steaming with a frost-like substance. Séverine drank deeply, and once the scribe retreated from her, she took her sword in both hands, and knelt, placing the point of it into the floor. The other templars followed her lead.

They began to glow with a golden light, some brighter than others, and the sickly green barrier above them began to tremble and waver. Vesryn adjusted his grip on his spear and shield, and moved forward in preparation to advance up the stairs. It was not long before the demon's barrier let out a wretched wail, and then shattered altogether.

From the top of the stairs came the Red Templars, storming in down in a disorganized formation to engage. Séverine looked back at the Inquisition members aiding them. "Cut through, find the demon, and destroy it! We'll deal with these traitors." Their blood worked up for the fight, the templars smashed into the first arriving group of enemies, engaging them with a fearsome fervor.

Vesryn glanced sideways at his allies. "Let's get moving."

“An excellent suggestion.” Cyrus softened up a likely trajectory for them by sending a massive fireball through it, forcing several red templars to throw themselves to the side, some of them landing poorly and falling down the staircase in the process. One didn’t get away in time and took a full blast of flame to the face, collapsing in a cacophony of shrill cries. “How about that way?”

“Good enough,” Leon growled, cracking his neck under his helmet and bursting forward. His momentum seemed little affected by the fact that he was essentially fighting uphill, and he took two stairs at a time as though that were the way they were meant to be used. Considering the objective was only to clear a path, he didn’t linger long on any one red templar—generally speaking, one hit was enough to get any given individual out of the way, and he struck out with elbows, fists, knees, and feet, almost too fluid for a person encased in that much armor. Several of them, he simply gripped by the neck of their armor and pulled, toppling them facefirst down the staircase. Cyrus had driven a wedge into the line, and he was making a full tunnel of it.

Vesryn cleared the way for easy passage behind Leon's destructive force, tossing away any red templars that were fortunate enough to survive the initial encounter. They pushed up the stairs with little difficulty; Vesryn was able to surmise that the Red Templar force engaging them here was not much more than a rear guard, judging by their numbers. Séverine and the templars she led would no doubt be able to handle them given some time.

All of their party through, they took off down the hall towards the outdoors, a sort of grassy overlook of the forested land far below. The sections of walls before them had steadily crumbled from weather much like they were currently experiencing. The rain came down as steady and cold as it had upon entering the hall originally, and the earth beneath Vesryn's boots felt soft, vulnerable to being torn up if too much weight was applied in the wrong way.

"I touched so much of you," the demon said, with a voice from no particular direction, as before, "but you are selfish with your glory. Now I'm no one." Vesryn kept his eyes glued to the sides of the group, not desiring to be taken by surprise again. There was nowhere for the demon to run now, but while it did not prefer to fight directly, he had no doubt that it could if pressed into a corner, as it was.

"Lovely creature, this," Vesryn commented dryly. His spear remained leveled before him, ready to strike.

“And this isn’t the half of it,” Estella replied from beside him, her hands flexing on the grip of her saber. Her eyes were in constant motion over the field, a wariness that turned out to be quite wise. “There!” It did not manifest with the same directness as another demon would have. Pride would have stood before them and demanded acknowledgement. Desire and Rage would have commanded attention just as certainly.

But Envy appeared at their flank, a hideous thing with pale pink flesh, like someone had taken a human body, stretched it impossibly long, torn up the head and sewn it back together again with crude stiches and forgotten anything but the mouth, a thin red slash filled with sharpened, bloodstained teeth. It had a second set of arms beneath the first, shorter, almost humanoid still, a reminder, perhaps, of something it had once been. In all, it had to be nearly ten feet tall, but it was thin, in places little more than skin stretched over bones, too tight to be comfortable. Hardly a wonder it wanted someone else’s form and face, really.

No sooner had it appeared than the sodden ground beneath them began to turn black, in a ring much like that caused by a terror, save that its radius was considerably greater. Estella dashed out of it quickly, but Leon seemed to pay it almost no mind, simply moving himself off the circle in his barreling charge towards the demon itself. It threw something at him, shimmering slightly in the air like heat off the desert—likely a concussion blast of some kind, and the two met at full speed. The Seeker dug his feet in, pushing through and tearing rents in the soft earth beneath him. The hit slowed him considerably, but it did not stop him, and faced with an incoming assault, the demon seemed to open another one of the dark spots on the ground and dove through, reappearing far to the other side of the field and hurling a massive chunk of what had once been masonry with telekinetic force for the group.

A blast of lightning hit the boulder in midair, the resulting explosion breaking apart the stone and raining it down upon them as harmless detritus. Cyrus switched his attention to the demon itself thereafter, hurling a tiny orb of magic from each of the fingers on his left hand at once. They flew swiftly, and when the first hit, it encased the demon’s left leg in ice. The next three seemed to target different joints of its body, one successfully locking up the larger right elbow. The others hit, and spread, but it was able to crack the ice crystals off with movement.

A few seconds later, the mage’s form blurred, then disappeared entirely, reappearing much closer to the demon, which abruptly found itself faced with an opponent quite close. It swung a clawed hand for Cyrus, who ducked under it and retaliated with a horizontal slash, but Envy twisted with inhuman strength and flexibility, and the sword he used met only air.

Limber and quick as it was, it could not dodge two well-placed strikes at once, or at least in extremely quick succession. Vesryn had flanked Envy after Cyrus moved in for his attack, and his spear found the creature's torso, spilling blood and earning an enraged shriek of pain. Vesryn anticipated the counterattack; Saraya was familiar with such an opponent, which did not surprise Vesryn in the slightest. No demon was an unknown entity to her.

He withdrew his spear and properly angled his shield above his upper body to deflect the first slash to the side, and the adjusted to deflect the second slash the opposite way. The third he took head on, jarring his shield arm but stopping the clawed arm of Envy cold and giving him an opening to put his spear right through the thing's elbow joint. Its horrid features, or lack thereof, still twisted in pain from the injury, and it sought to flee, diving into a black pit it opened in the ground beneath it. Vesryn wrenched his spear free and stepped away from the magic beneath him.

"Watch your feet!" he called to the others, certain it would pick a spot to come up again soon, and it never preferred to assault directly.

When it did reemerge, it wasn’t the fleet magician, the precise warrior, or the powerful Seeker it went for. The demon was a coward, and it chose the coward’s target: Estella. She didn’t look all that surprised when it sprang up behind her, and without looking over her shoulder, she rolled herself to the side, its claws digging deep furrows in the fragile earth she’d been standing on seconds before. When she came up out of the roll, she turned herself around to face it, her momentum channeling into a smooth, controlled lash with her saber. The maneuver opened up a bloody line on the arm closest to her, and she stepped in closer, taking on the role of aggressor.

Her feet were light over the ground, her strokes no longer or flashier than they needed to be, and her efficiency was rewarded when two new gashes appeared over the creature’s torso, its gangly limbs less effective when someone had closed to so close a distance. It tried to dive under again, but this time met some trouble when a strong grip closed over the arm Cyrus had previously frozen. Leon’s hand nearly made it all the way around the rangy bicep of the demon, and the blow he delivered to its elbow snapped the limb clean off, made possible by the magical cold that lingered still at the joint.

Envy shrieked, a sonic blast that forced both of them back far enough for it to make its escape. Estella landed hard on her side, sliding another few feet back when her impact tore up the grass and slicked her left half with mud. Leon kept his feet, but lost his grip on the demon, allowing it to retreat once more.

This time, it came up closest to Cyrus, who immediately flung a massive bolt at it, staggering the creature before it had a moment to react. Adjusting his feet, he sped forward again, the hum of his blade followed by a new, smoking furrow dug across the back of its knees. It looked to be about to try and dive again, but with a broad gesture, he cast another spell, and bars of crackling lightning appeared to close it in from all sides, even below. The gaps between were more than adequate for a spear or other weapon with reach, however, and the mage turned, nodding tersely to Vesryn.

The elf nodded back, allowing his shield to fall to the ground, before he flipped his grip around on his spear. "Hold still for me, love." He briefly took aim, before he stepped into a throw and hurled his spear like a javelin right between two of the bars of crackling energy. The weapon punched clean through Envy's chest, rendering it incapable of screaming any further. Instead, it gurgled miserably for a moment, before it slumped sideways to the ground, and stilled.

"Nice throw," Séverine commented, from the top of the short flight of stairs that led back into the main hall. A large number of the templars from inside had followed her out, those that had made it through the fighting without serious injury. The Knight-Captain herself was heavily bloodied, at least over her armor, but most of it appeared to belong to others. "It's over then. For now."

"I expect the other Red Templars won't simply give up," Vesryn speculated, walking to the corpse of Envy and pulling his spear free.

"No, they won't." Séverine looked back at the battered group of men and women she'd come into command of. "The fight won't be truly done with until the last of these traitors have been dealt with. Until the Order's direction has been restored."

“And that will not be a simple process.” Ophelia spoke up then, stepping forward to draw even with Séverine. “The Templars have numbers across Thedas, but their leadership is in ruins. Most either knew not of what was going on, or were complicit in it.” She crossed her arms over her chest, glancing over those assembled. “These are a good lot, though. It would be a waste for them to idle when their skills could be so useful.” Her eyes flickered between Leon, helmed and silent at present, and Estella, who stood straight, but unable to hide the fact that one of her arms was limp at her side, the one she’d landed on earlier.

“All the Inquisition came here to do was ask of them their help. The Breach threatens us all, and they could be instrumental in closing it.” She shook her head, then turned to the body of them as a whole. “If that is something you’d be willing to do, we’d welcome your blades and your stout hearts. We’ve need of both, and it would give you somewhere to be and something to fight for. You know by now that we have allies of all kinds, and you’d be equal among them.” She smiled slightly, though it was tinged a little by the pain she was clearly in, and glanced at Séverine.

"Not how I imagined this turning out," the Knight-Captain admitted, shaking her head with a little smile. "But I think my Commander will understand if I don't return home just yet. The Breach does indeed need closing, and I would be honored to lead these templars in helping you do it, Lady Herald." Her plated, closed fist thumped against her chestplate. "You have our blades."

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Romulus Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Marceline Benoit Character Portrait: Cyrus Avenarius Character Portrait: Zahra Tavish Character Portrait: Vesryn Cormyth Character Portrait: Leonhardt Albrecht Character Portrait: Asala Kaaras Character Portrait: Kharisanna Istimaethoriel

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Then the Maker said:
To you, My second-born, I grant this gift:
In your heart shall burn
An unquenchable flame
All-consuming, and never satisfied.
From the Fade I crafted you,
And to the Fade you shall return
Each night in dreams
That you may always remember Me.
—Canticle of Threnodies 5:7

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The air still smelled like burning flesh.

It was probably a good thing that it was a memory from the Fade, and so the others present would not be able to smell it. Well, the mages might, but not until they’d taken the lyrium, anyway. Between they and the templars and his own estimations, the need had been for an entire cart of it, several crates stacked on top of each other and pulled towards the temple by a draft animal. The templars required it, and it dramatically increased the efficacy of the average mage, to the point that he believed it was actually possible to do what he’d been asked to devise a way of doing.

History, which so dramatized action over thought, was unlikely to remember his contribution to this, but for once, Cyrus couldn’t really say he cared much. Let it be forgotten, so long as it was done.

He stood now on one of the edges of the drop-off that led down to the floor beneath the Breach itself, though even at his height, he was still angled somewhat below it, such that he had to tip his head up to regard the thing. He’d not stood in its presence before, and he had to admit that he felt the keen temptation of allowing it to remain. It was a tear in the Veil of massive proportions, and even standing beside it, he felt like more than he was. When he dreamed, Cyrus could achieve nearly anything his heart desired. The Fade itself bent and twisted to his whim, answering his demands with little more than a thought from him. Here the distinction between the Fade and the mundane world was so blurred it was almost no distinction at all—he was smelling what was in the former while still fully conscious in the latter.

The prospect of being able to shape and mold this world in the same way he could sculpt and define that one was staggering. If he’d only put himself to work figuring out how to expand the Breach instead of how to close it, perhaps he could have had that. But the Breach was sick, ill, distorted—only the darkest reflections of the Fade were nearby it. And it threatened not only to collapse the distinction between worlds, but to utterly destroy this one. And the risks of expanding it without knowing the consequences—even he knew when something was too dire to chance.

But still, gooseflesh prickled along his skin, and he could almost feel the crackling of magic beneath it, yearning, almost, to be loosed, to be put to purpose and change what was into what had been dreamed. He tightened his hands together behind his back, suppressing the strange, giddy mix of nauseous vertigo and the sudden influx of power, squeezing his eyes shut and opening them again. Let it be assumed that he was nervous—that, unlike what he felt in truth, would be acceptable.

The mages fanned out to the left of where he stood and the templars to the right, taking up positions on the mid-level ledge. As he’d requested, Leon stood closest to him on the templar side, and Asala on the mage side. The most necessary individuals of all, Romulus and Estella, were moving into place directly beneath the Breach. A breeze picked up from the north, feathering over his face, and Cyrus let his muscles relax. Several more Inquisition troops began to carry in and distribute the lyrium—scraped together from personal stores, whatever the Riptide’s crew had been able to secure in the last few weeks, and the amount the spymaster had been able to accrue from more land-bound smuggling and trade routes. It was quite a lot, but each mage or templar would still be getting a minimal dose, given how many ways it had to spread. Cyrus himself was abstaining, of course, and as a Seeker, Leon didn’t need any, either, but everyone else would be taking at least some.

He signaled for them to do so, and waved the rest of the Inquisition back, as it was rather difficult to predict just what effect this much concentrated effort would have on the area, and it was better to minimize the risk of unnecessary casualties. Injuries, that was—he didn’t anticipate any deaths unless everything went horribly wrong, but then if that happened the entire world was doomed anyway, so it would hardly matter in the long run.

“Let it never be said that I avoided doing things of consequence.” He murmured the words to himself, a wry twist of his lip and a shake of his head accompanying the statement.

When at last it looked as though everyone were ready, Cyrus inhaled deeply, releasing his hands from behind his back and raising the right one. He held it there until he knew it was seen, then dropped it, the signal for the templars to begin.

“Templars!” The Commander’s voice boomed out over the ranks, and as one, they took a step forward, genuflecting with their armaments in front of them, bowing their helmed visages over the pommels of swords or hafts of axes, or else leaning them against the poles of spears and halberds, lapsing as one into reverent posture and calling to themselves the peculiar lyrium-fed abilities to cleanse a particular area of hostile magic. Where once they would have turned such force against the mages not far from them, now it was directed at the Breach, and the green light in the sky seemed to shudder and dim as each one spent their resources attempting to wrest it under control. Leon alone remained standing, his eyes clearly fixed on the rift itself, imperceptible words forming on his lips, his stare a thousand yards away.

At the conclusion of their efforts, however, it remained perceptibly magical. Clearly, they had weakened it, but the task of closing it was far from over.

Catching Asala’s eye, Cyrus raised his left hand, and then brought that one down as well, in a sharp motion much like the last.

Though she visibly trembled and her knuckles were white from the grip she held on her staff, Asala still raised it high and called out. "M-mages!" The mages stepped forward in a wave, enveloping their staves in a dispelling green glow before slamming them into ground. As more mages added their spells to the whole, the reflections of the Fade felt by Cyrus began to dwindle as magic around it started to ebb away by the mass dispelling. Asala's eyes darted back and forth over the breach and every now and then a blue glint could be seen in the sky, evidence of her effort to concentrate and corral straying spells.

As soon as the last of the dispellings had run its course, Cyrus stepped forward himself, right to the edge of the drop-off. With a deep inhalation, he reached for the magic, easy to his hands even still, even though he could feel the Fade retreating from this place. He reminded himself that it was good, that it was what he wanted. That it was the right thing to do, and they were the only people who could do it. When that wasn’t enough and his willpower faltered, he reminded himself also of all the reasons he had to do the right thing for once in his life. Of all he needed to make up for, all he needed to repent. And then he glanced down, past the ranks of templars and the less-organized throng of mages, to where the Heralds stood, and he thought of her as well, and all together, it was enough to turn aside the lure.

He raised his arms, a white light gathering around them, spreading until it covered the whole of his body, thin like a mist, and then growing denser as more of it billowed outwards, still contained around him, until he almost seemed to be encased in a sphere of roiling fog. Little scattered sparks of electricity jumped around inside the clouds, occasionally lighting them from within. When the mist had thickened to the point of obscuring his view completely, he finally released it, sending it towards the Breach like a slow-rolling ocean wave. Struck by the light as it moved, it threw tiny prisms of refracted light onto the ground below, glinting off templar armor and the polished staves of the mages.

The Breach, which had begun to distort and destabilize at the edges as it fought against the attempts to neutralize it, almost recoiled from the wave, as though it were half-alive itself and sensed danger. But it was, ultimately, immobile, and the spell hit it like a tidal force, the pearlescent cloud clinging to it, dulling the green to a washed-out verdigris hue, and stopping its motion entirely. It simply hung there, pulsing faintly, a tumor in the sky.

“Now!” His shout echoed as it descended towards the Heralds, his eyes flicking between where they stood and where it remained, yet to be defeated.

Romulus nodded, looking to Estella to see if she was ready as well. She appeared to gather herself for another second, then inclined her head.

As one, they stepped forward and thrust their marked hands at the Breach, the left of Romulus beside the right of Estella. Twin arcs of the green lightning-like energy shot forth and connected with the sickly tear above them, which began to pulsate violently. It shook the arms of both Heralds to maintain the connection, and soon a blindingly bright white light began to emanate from within the Breach's center point.

It was enough to force some of the mages and templars to look away, distracting them from their task, and for a brief moment it seemed as though the Breach was strenghtening, fighting back against the forces trying to shut it for good. It swelled and expanded in front of them for an unknown reason, bulging from within while the light grew stronger still. The Heralds did not relent, each knowing that to stop now could spell disaster far beyond the confines of the temple ruins.

The Breach gave out a great moan, twisting and pulsating as it was steadily filled with the energy from the marks, until at last it could hold itself together no longer, and it exploded, the blinding light becoming all-encompassing, forcing any sane person to shut their eyes. A strong wave of force washed out over the temple grounds, throwing anyone not already bracing for it onto their back. The Heralds received the worst of it, the blast enough to throw them several body lengths away, the green crackling energy still pulsating from their palms.

Cyrus, even despite being prepared for backlash, staggered backwards several steps, his eyes shut against the bright light. As soon as it dimmed, though, he opened them again, running to the end of the ledge and dropping down to the next level, then moving through a few dazed-looking mages to do the same thing a second time, putting him on the ground with the Heralds. “Brilliant! Absolutely brilliant, both of you!” He reached down to Estella first, knocked prone by the blast, and offered a hand to Romulus as well once she was back on her feet.

Whoever or whatever the Elder One was, it had to know they weren’t going to take this lying down now. Behind them, once it was confirmed that both Heralds had survived the effort, a cheer began to swell, dozens of voices adding to the exultation, the celebration of what had just been accomplished.

The sky overhead bore a greenish scar, a remnant of what had loomed so dire, but the Breach was closed.

The Inquisition had succeeded.




Needless to say, the tavern in Haven was packed to the rafters that evening. All the tables had been pushed to the side, and it was standing-room only, still incredibly full due to its proximity to the alcohol. He’d initially entered seeking libation, as most of these people had, but the din of all the voices was incredibly loud, and he wasn’t sure how people could even hear themselves think in the space. So once he’d secured his tankard, he headed for the door immediately.

The Captain of the Riptide busied herself at the bar and knocked shoulders with her large, Qunari-companion. She'd chosen lighter garbs, forgoing her restrictive leathers for softer linens. It seemed as if she was always in the tavern, especially if there was cause for celebration. She occasionally drifted away from her stool to twirl around in the middle of the dance floor and always had a tankard held in her hand. Somehow, she managed not to spill a drop. She arched her back and stretched her arms over her head, as content as one could be in good company. She leaned towards Aslan and tossed her head back, laughter crackling from her belly. Though she was obviously amused, Aslan's tight-lipped frown betrayed none.

Most of the people in here were not those he knew to any degree, though one of the Lions he’d met earlier, Donnelly, was leaning heavily against the bar, apparently in less-than-sober conversation with a much more lucid-looking Aurora, the little redhead who led the mages in these parts, or at least the ones that didn’t answer to Fiona. He gestured upwards with his cup at both of them, the mercenary returning it with a broad grin and the same, sloshing a bit of ale over his hand and then eyeing his handiwork with exaggerated trepidation, frowning for all of a moment before he shrugged and grinned again. It would appear that there was little dampening his current mood. The corner of Cyrus’s mouth turned up, and he passed through the exit to the outside without issue.

The rest of the Lions weren’t far away, standing in a cluster not too far from where the bard played and Larissa sang. They looked to be a bit under the influence on average, but none among the three of them seemed especially so, particularly not considering the chaos around them. Completely sober were Estella’s Tranquil teacher, Rilien, and his assistant. Tanith, Cyrus believed her name was—she was speaking to him with an amused look on her face, but he, of course, wore no expression at all, though he was tuning a lute. That was bound to produce an interesting result, in any case.

He spotted Thalia weaving into and out of the crowd, but of course she rarely talked to him when she didn’t have to, and he certainly didn’t expect to see much of her tonight. She’d probably be spending it with some pretty little thing or another, as was her wont.

Most of the rest of Haven and the Inquisition seemed to occupy the area close to a bonfire, which burned high and bright against the night sky, bathing those around it in an orange glow more than sufficient to stave off the chill of the evening. Asala and Meraad danced in the light of the fire, both laughing freely and easily as he spun her in a wide circle. Nearby the Benoît child watched with a light smile and clapped along to the beat. Even the commander seemed to have been persuaded to join in the festivities, admittedly with much less abandon than anyone around him. He was talking to Marceline, who had her arms around the man who’d been introduced as her husband, Michaël. For once, Leon's expression was relaxed; open, even. He appeared to be rather enjoying himself, despite the absence of a drink in his hand. Marceline's hand, however, was not likewise unburdened, but held a goblet of wine, no doubt from the same bottle that hung from Michaël's.

Sparrow herself was lounging on the outskirts, for once. She'd found a barrel to perch on and was idly tapping her fingers across her knee, looking across the tavern. It wasn't immediately apparent what, exactly, she was looking for, but by the expression on her face, she was mildly annoyed.

Estella was nearby the fire, looking a strange mix of happy and uncomfortable. Happy, perhaps, because of the general festivity. The discomfort was likely due to the fact that a new person seemed to crop up to shake her hand or speak to her every few moments. No few of the exchanges were likely either high praise or requests for a dance, from the way she so often looked surprised and then embarrassed in quick succession, a result he suspected both types would have produced. In any case, she tended to smile politely and shake her head a fair amount, which was unsurprising, given what he knew of her tendencies towards reservation and the deflection of compliments.

She met his eyes, shooting him a look that conveyed something between disbelief and panic, as though she weren’t quite sure what to do with herself.

Cyrus merely met her look with a much more mischievous one and shrugged in an exaggerated fashion. Frankly, he thought she should get used to the attention. It wasn’t like she’d be able to avoid it forever, no matter how little she thought of herself. He raised his tankard to his lips, drawing several swallows down in rapid succession. It tasted almost unbearably cheap, but accomplishment had a way of making anything sweeter.

From out of the swirl of dancing people came Vesryn, devoid of most of his armor, though his cloak, a lighter one than the garish white lion, was still tied around his waist, and several of his leg plates were still attached. His tunic was unbuttoned halfway down his chest, as it always seemed to be on the occasions when he got out of his armor. Evidence suggested that the heat of the fire, the warmth of the bodies, and the pace of the movement had warmed him up enough to risk shedding layers, though he'd have to preserve the momentum to stay that way.

Currently he wound his way over to Estella, the latest in her line of visitors, pausing only to take a breath that needed catching. "Might I succeed where the others have failed?" he pondered, offering an upturned hand in her direction, attempting his most charming smile. "My night is not a victory until I have danced with a Herald. The other one has already cruelly spurned me in favor of another." By his delivery, it was entirely true.

Estella was nothing if not consistent, though she looked slightly less surprised this time, something that said perhaps more of Vesryn than it did of her. Her embarrassment, however, was just as evident, though it did seem accompanied by a shade of amusement. “I should hate to hand you a ‘loss’,” she replied, considerably less dramatically, if lightly all the same. “But this particular Herald doesn’t dance, and it really is better that way.” The declination was offered kindly and in good humor, but it was still a refusal, and she smiled apologetically. “I’m sure there is no shortage of people who will gladly take advantage of my lapse in judgement, however.”

"As you wish," Vesryn said, accepting the rejection quite easily. He withdrew the hand into a flourishing bow, and stepped away. "This is not a retreat!" he called, stepping back into the throng of dancers. "Merely a tactical withdrawal!" The swirling bodies consumed him, though it was not long before the telltale sound of his laughter was heard again.

Cyrus didn’t bother suppressing his snicker, but over the noise, it wouldn’t be audible anyway. He was willing to bet that didn’t happen too often to Vesryn, but from Estella, it was entirely predictable. Skirting the edges of the crowd himself, he attempted to find a way to maneuver closer to the fire without getting caught up in the mass of whirling bodies. His path took him by Romulus, and Khari, who was halfway through a tall glass of something golden in color and looking a bit flush in the face because of it, though that might have just been the firelight. He nodded to both as he passed them by, spotting an ideal perch atop a barrel, one that looked to be empty now but had probably contained beer at some point earlier in the evening.

He stationed himself upon it, for the moment, resting his tankard on his knee, his fingers loose about the handle. If he looked up past the fire, he could still see the faint green scar left by the Breach, and try as he might, he couldn’t avoid thinking about it. They celebrated like everything was over, and perhaps for most of them, it would be. But for him at least, he knew things had only begun. There was still the matter of the Elder One, whatever it was, and the magic that had been used to tear open the Veil in the first place. He could recall with unsettling clarity the feeling of power he’d had from just standing close to it, how intoxicating that had been.

Shaking his head and forcing his eyes down, Cyrus lifted his tankard to his lips and downed half of what was left. He should probably make sure he had a few more of these before he slept. For now, though, he tried to let himself get caught up in the merriment of others, washing around him like water around an island. And for a little while at least, it was good enough to be so near to it.

Tomorrow was another day. But tonight didn’t have to be only a prelude to it.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Romulus Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Marceline Benoit Character Portrait: Cyrus Avenarius Character Portrait: Vesryn Cormyth Character Portrait: Leonhardt Albrecht Character Portrait: Asala Kaaras Character Portrait: Kharisanna Istimaethoriel

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Panic set in immediately and clutched Asala's heart. The deafening roar of something terrible doubled her over and forced her hands to her ears to try and drown out the sound. It didn't help, of course, she could feel the ferocity of the cry in her bones, she could feel its hate. Eventually the roar subsided, but the dread she felt did not. Slowly Asala took a step back, but her foot caught something and she was thrown backward. She landed on top of something, and when she turned to see what to what it was, the dead eyes of a Venatori soldier stared back at her. She cried out in surprise and scrambled away from the charred corpse.

She reached the trebuchet and used it to pull herself to her feet. All around her, the scene was the same. Bloodied and charred Ventori, broken and shattered red templars, and even some of the Inquisition soldiers lay dead around them. But all of that only garnered her attention for a moment, as the sound of the massive wing beats drew her eyes upward. A great black dragon with leathery jet wings flew silhouetted against the night stars. Asala's eyes went wide in fear and terror, causing her to slip back down to the ground, her back pressed against the trebuchet and her gaze pinned upward.

She watched it descend and sink its talons into a another trebuchet, wrecking it like it was made of nothing but rotten wood. Panic seeped in again, this time with a shot of adrenaline, and she pushed herself up from the ground and quickly took a few cautionary steps away. Over the din of everything, she could still hear the cries of battle and the ringing of metal against metal. She turned and found Cyrus, her eyes wide and confused. She didn't know what to do any more, and she looked to him for direction.

His attention too was pinned on the dragon, but he wore no expression of fear. Rather, Cyrus seemed to be studying it, a sharp stare following its wheels and turns in the sky carefully. He was mouthing words, though it was impossible to tell what they were, or if they had any volume at all, over the din of battle. When the dragon passed temporarily out of sight, his eyes fell back down, and only then did he seem to observe the chaos around them for the first time, flicking his gaze back and forth between each component of their situation rapidly, absorbing the information and processing it.

A muscle in his jaw jumped, and his scrutiny fell on her briefly, before skittering to Estella and then the rest. He looked like he was about to say something, loud enough for everyone to hear this time, but it was at about that point that a small cluster of other soldiers stumbled upon the site, all in various states of woundedness. “Fall back to the Chantry!” The words were hasty and slurred, but nevertheless effective. “Commander’s orders!”

“You heard him, let’s go.” That seemed to be mostly directed at Estella and Vesryn, but then he glanced to Asala, gesturing up Haven’s hill with a sharp tilt of his head as he turned.

Vesryn withdrew away from the thickest fighting, his spear coated in blood, and much of his armor spattered as well, though he was moving quite efficiently, a sign that he hadn't suffered too much in return as of yet. His axe as well was dripping dark red, and even small bits of red lyrium crystals clung to the blade of the weapon, from where it sat upon his back. He moved back swiftly, always keeping his shield towards the enemy, his helmet darting left and right to watch his path as he moved.

"I'll watch the rear," he stated, leaving no room for argument. A reckless Venatori found himself skewered upon the spear, and Vesryn shoved him off onto his back with a kick from a metal boot. "No time to lose, we can't get cut off." He was clearly referring to the fact that elsewhere the Venatori and Red Templars were finding more success, and starting to break through into Haven, where they could run rampant. It would get very messy soon, unless they could fall back and find a better place to hold them off.

Estella was covered in cuts and scratches—they’d pulled her out of sleep and she hadn’t had time to don much more than a leather cuirass and boots before they were off again, and the lack of protection had hurt. All things considered though, the wounds were light, and it was obvious enough that she’d somehow avoided the worst of all of them. Looking between the others, she nodded, leading the way forward. Their path took them towards the gate first, after which they’d be able to go up the hill, past the tavern again, and then to the Chantry.

The scene that met them upon approaching the gate was not a pretty one. There were fewer corpses here, but the gate itself was clearly but a few blows from caving inward. Spotting Lia and Tanith in the crowd, Estella shouted out. “Fall back to the Chantry, everyone! The Commander’s called a retreat!” As if to punctuate the statement, the heavy wooden gate groaned in protest again as it was struck from the outside—presumably, they were using a battering ram.

Most of the soldiers looked quite glad to be going along with that plan, but Tanith looked at the gate for a long moment before turning back to Estella. “If we don’t hold them here, you won’t have enough time to get out before we’re overrun. Some of us must stay, and I will stay with them.” Quickly, she turned to the soldiers. “Men and women of the Inquisition! Who among you will remain, that your Herald, and your brothers and sisters in arms, might live to fight another day?”

There was a moment of heavy silence, but then a woman stepped forward, her shield to the fore, and saluted Estella with her sword. “For the Inquisition.” Several of those who’d been standing closest to her followed, with various affirmations of for the Inquisition, for the Herald, or even for Thedas. No few of these people had been wearing broad grins earlier in the evening, celebrating with joy and abandon, but there was no trace of that now. In the end, Tanith had two dozen footsoldiers with her, and they all rearranged hurriedly so as to be in front of the gate itself, forming a wall of shields and spears, those in the back line drawing bows and pointing them for the door. In front of the rest, Tanith lit a flame in one hand, a dagger held in a reverse grip in the other, and glanced over her shoulder.

“We’ll hold. The rest of you—get to the Chantry. And tell Rilien I’m sorry, would you?”

Estella’s face twisted into an expression of clear pain, and she looked almost as though she intended to protest, but in the end, something stayed her tongue, and she nodded solemnly to them. “I will. Thank you, all of you. Fight well.” Her voice nearly cracked, but she managed to hold it steady. The need for haste was still apparent, however, and she turned from them then, jogging up the hill with the rest of the group and the remainder of those who had been posted at the gate.

Asala quietly followed, her eyes wide in shock. It was all too difficult to process what was happening, and she didn't truly understand it all. There was smoke and blood in the air, and deeper into the town the crimson of fires burned. She felt empty and numb, her feet moving on their own behind Estella and Cyrus. As they drew closer to the Chantry, the clash of steel reached her ears, and she looked up to see a small cluster of Venatori. They must have found a breach somewhere within the wall. Their armor was covered in scarlet and around their feet lay multiple bodies-- not all of them soldiers of the Inquistion. Amongst the pile, Asala recognized the face of Adan, the alchemist who'd aided her.

Her hand covered her mouth and she choked back a sob. Her legs trembled and threatened to buckle under her own weight. So distraught was she, that she didn't see the Venatori archer draw his bow, his arrow aimed at them.

The arrow flew from the end of the bow, its trajectory straight and unerring, at least until there was another body in front of it, Cyrus leaving afterimages behind as he pulled through the Fade to the spot, the luminous sword in his hand swinging in a controlled arc that snapped the arrow in two, the halves of it flying off in different directions. The bolt of lightning that he shot from his free hand cooked the archer in his armor, and the cultist dropped heavily to the ground.

“Asala! Focus! We’re not done yet!”

She shook her head, hard, and her eyes focused. Closing her eyes she forced everything to the back of her mind and drew her hands up. A Venatori with a large sword rushed them, and in a moment, the fade lit up in her hands. A barrier formed feet in front of him and surged forward. He attempted to hew through the shield, but the sword bounced off and left hairline cracks in it, but it continued to bowl forward regardless. The barrier struck the man at full force, throwing him back first into the ground hard. The wheezing he let out caused Asala to wince, but otherwise she did not back away.

The fight was a short one, in total, and the last Venatori soldier fell before Estella, a saber-stroke opening a broad gash on his neck, gushing arterial blood onto the snow. Her expression was grim, but resolute. “It’s not far now; let’s go.” She took point again, leading them up the last staircase and onto the highest level of the town itself, where they could glimpse ahead of them several others standing by the Chantry doors.

There were a lot of maroon tunics in the mix—it would seem the Lions had made it this far as well, and from the prominent scorch marks on their clothes and the soot-covered civilians that they herded inside the building, their progress here had been no easier than anyone else’s. As the group approached, they drew the attention of the mercenaries, who looked quite relieved to see them.

“Thank the Maker,” Donnelly said as they approached, breathing a heavy exhale. “Commander Leon’s lot are inside already, and we’ve got most of the civilians and remaining troops as well. You should hurry—he’ll want to speak with you.” He gestured for the group to head inside ahead of himself and the other Lions.

The small Chantry was brimming with people, civilians and soldiers alike. There was a loud clamor of multiple voices all speaking at once, and in various states of panic. The unrest felt within the building was palpable, and Asala wanted nothing more than to close her ears and drown it all out. But she didn't. Instead, she threw herself into work. As they approached the leaders of the Inquisition, Asala stopped and began to heal all of those that needed it. The work helped take her mind off of the panic in her heart, and the focus helped drown out the dread.

As she helped a soldier with a large gash in his side, she watched as the others approached the Inquisition's leaders. Marceline stood with her arms crossed and a thin frown on her lips as she spoke to Leon and Rilien. It seemed she had just been roused from bed, as she still wore a black nightgown, though she also wore a thick coat that was far too big for her and a pair of thick leather boots. Nearby, her husband rested heavily against a pillar, a thin line of blood falling from his temple, and a pair of swords hanging limply from his hands. Larissa comforted Pierre with a firm grip on his shoulders and whispering something into his ears. Leon was fully armored now, his arms crossed over his broad chest, but when they entered, his eyes were immediately upon them, and a fraction of the tension left his frame.

Rilien looked the same as he ever did, still unerring in his calm, though not too far away, Khari seemed considerably more agitated, pacing restlessly. She too was fully armored now, and wearing her familiar cleaver-like sword. Her expression brightened for a moment upon seeing them, but then her eyes moved to the cluster of the Inquisition's leaders, as though she were waiting for something.

Leon said something to his fellow Inquisition leaders, too low to hear properly, and then nodded shortly, drawing in what seemed to be a very deep breath indeed, before he gestured to Asala and the rest of the irregulars, both those who’d just entered and the ones who were already there. Once everyone had assembled in a rough circle, he began to speak, his voice low enough not to carry much further than their ring of people.

“There isn’t much time until they reach us, as I’m sure you're aware.” He glanced up, towards the doors, where several Inquisition soldiers were at work fortifying the entrance to the Chantry with whatever was available, setting up an inverted ‘v’ of pews, a traffic control tactic that would likely do no one any good in the end. “I don’t know who this is or where they got a dragon, but we’ve no hope of holding Haven.” He shot a glance to Marceline.

She shook her head and drew the coat tighter over her shoulders. "We have our essential supplies packed into carts and the horses are ready..." She said before she hesitated. She threw a wary glance over her shoulder and toward her son and husband, before she returned it to the group. Marceline sighed heavily before she continued. "But, we have nowhere to escape to. We would not make it out the front gate before we were cut down." Though her face betrayed no emotion, her grip on the coat noticably tightened. "And I do not know of any other way out of Haven."

The group was interrupted at that point by an approaching Reed, who half-carried Chancellor Roderick, one of the clergyman’s arms slung over the corporal’s shoulders. Roderick’s white vestments bore a very obvious red stain, though it would seem he wasn’t currently bleeding. Rather, his face looked wan, bleached of all color, and a healer as experienced as Asala knew he was dying from blood loss.

“He said he had to talk to you, Commander,” Reed offered to Leon, whose brows drew together over his eyes.

Asala quickly moved to Roderick's other side and gestured for Reed to gently lower him into a sitting position on the ground. Once there, Asala's hand lit up in a healing spell and she moved it over the wound. She tilted her head toward Leon and gave him a curt shake of his head. It... did not look good, and she doubted that he was within her power to save, but it would not stop her from trying. She focused in on his wound and began to try and help as much as she could-- at the very least, she could dull the pain.

"Charming girl," he said, having apparently caught the look she gave Leon. Roderick patted her gently on the head before he weakly turned her head toward Leon. "Ser Albrecht," he began, before wincing in pain. "There is a way. You wouldn't know it unless you've taken the summer pilgrimage as I have. The people can escape. She must've shown me," he said weakly, but still tried to reach his feet. A steadying hand from Asala and a constant healing spell at his said, she helped guide him up.

"Andraste must have shown me so I can-can tell you."

“What do you mean, Chancellor?” Leon’s tone seemed to waver between gentle and stern, as though he could not quite resolve the tension between the urgency of their situation and his evident sympathy for the cleric. “Shown you what?”

“It was whim that I walked the path,” he replied, his mind clearly not at its usual alert capacity, which was probably the result of the wound he’d taken earlier. “Now, with so many in the Conclave dead, to be the only one that remembers…” He wheezed, a sound that might have been a rueful laugh, had he the lung capacity for it. “If this simple memory can save us… then this could be more than mere accident.” He turned his head, clearly making an effort to fix his eyes on Romulus and Estella. You could be more…”

“Will it work?” Estella asked urgently, training her gaze on Rilien and Leon. The commander turned to the Tranquil as well, perhaps trusting his instinct in clandestine retreat better than his own.

It did not take him long to consider. “Possibly. If you can show us the way.” His expression remained devoid of any readable traces, until he turned the scant bit needed to move his citrine eyes from Roderick to the others. “But it will take time, and the opposition must be occupied while it occurs.” The gravity of what he was saying was apparent in his pitch, somehow, though he didn’t modulate much at all. He was saying, clearly enough, that some group of people would need to remain behind and distract the encroaching force while the rest escaped. And the prospect of those people escaping was near to nothing.

"So we give them something they’ll be drawn to, as bait,” Romulus cut in, buckling on the second of his bracers. Estella looked as though she’d been about to speak, but yielded the floor when the now battle-geared assassin spoke up instead. His weapons were soon in his hands, making his next words perhaps less surprising. "I’ll go, with a few others maybe. I could try to reach one of the trebuchets, turn it towards the mountains behind us. Hit the right spot, and…” He pushed his hands down, a gesture symbolizing an avalanche as best he could make it.

"Bury them in the village they want to take?” Vesryn said, grinning slightly as he leaned on his spear, though he appeared largely uninjured. "Not a bad plan for our escape, but that doesn’t leave you with much of one.” Romulus had a look of steel in his eyes, and yet at the same time it had softened. Aggression towards the enemy, out of desire to help friends, perhaps.

"I was going to be gone in the morning anyway,” he admitted, glancing at Khari. "But this is a choice I can make. One choice of my own. I want it to be a good one.”

“I’m going with you.” That was Khari, and she said it with iron in her voice, a tone that left no room for protest. It didn’t take long, though, for that impression to almost dissipate, subsumed under her usual carefree demeanor, complete with reckless smile. “Can’t well run away while my friend goes off to fight a dragon and fire a trebuchet at a whole mountain, now can I?” She put one fist in her other palm in front of her chest, cracking her knuckles and shaking her hands out, shifting deliberately from one foot to another, as though to make sure everything was working the way she wanted it to.

Romulus simply nodded, offering no objection, and smiling slightly, as though unsurprised.

Estella glanced back and forth between them, still looking a bit like she’d swallowed something that didn’t agree with her, something tightening around her eyes, but she didn’t say anything. Leonhardt didn’t seem especially pleased, either, but clearly he believed that the suggestion made sense, and he nodded slowly. “Very well,” he said at last. “Give me a moment; I’ll see who among the others would join you—skilled as you are, the distraction needs to last, or it will be for naught.”

He left them there for several minutes, during which he made a short circuit of the room, returning with four Inquisition regulars, looking nervous but resolute, and, surprisingly enough, Grand Enchanter Fiona. She nodded to the group, smiling grimly. “I failed to protect my people once,” she explained, “I will not do so again.”

A pair of horns muscled their way toward the group and Meraad emerged with his arms crossed and his head tilted to the side. After a moment of him glancing between them, he nodded. "I will join you."

"No." The healing spell in Asala's hand cut off abruptedly and caused Roderick to wince as the pain rushed back. She shifted his weight so that Reed was left holding onto him again, and she moved toward Meraad. "No, you will not," she stated firmly as she stood in front of him. The frown she wore was deep and wide and she held his wrists as tight as she dared.

He simply smiled and shook his head. "I am, and I will." A muscle tightened in her jaw and she was about to refuse him again, but he silenced her by pressing his forehead gently against her. "For you, Kadan. I have to make sure you escape safely." With that said, he withdrew and threw a glance back at Romulus and Khari. "Someone has to make sure they come back," he said still smiling. "We will be fine. I promise," he said, kissing her forehead.

She was quiet after that, her mouth open but she didn't know what to say. She stared at him long and hard before she spoke again. "You... promise?" she asked, to which he nodded. Her gaze lingered for a moment longer before she went into the pack at her side. She retrieved a container and pulled the lid off to reveal a white, paint-like substance. She dipped a pair of fingers into it a scooped some out.

Without needing her to ask him, he leaned forward and she drew a pair of lines across his forehead with the vitaar, and another pair down his forehead, across his brow, and all the way to his jaw. He then offered her his arms, and she drew another pair of lines down each of them. When she was done, she replaced the lid, slipped the container back in her pack, and took a step backward. She was on the verge of tears, before she threw herself into his arms.

"Come back, Kadan," and with that, she returned to Roderick's side and resumed the healing spell, throwing herself back into her work.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Marceline Benoit Character Portrait: Cyrus Avenarius Character Portrait: Zahra Tavish Character Portrait: Vesryn Cormyth Character Portrait: Leonhardt Albrecht Character Portrait: Asala Kaaras

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Estella had lost track of how many hours, how many miles, the Inquisition had walked since departing Haven. Their progress was understandably slow, considering the number of wounded. The cavalry’s horses, the ones they’d managed to round up for the retreat, had been given over to the injured, as had any spare space in the two supply carts they’d been able to muster in enough time. It wasn’t a lot, wasn’t near enough, but it was something. She supposed she should feel comforted by that, but she really didn’t.

As it had done so many times before, the necessity of continuing to move forward kept her from collapse, but it was a near thing. She simply led Nox, burdened down with two injured soldiers, along the trail the wagons had forged through the snow, near the back of the procession. The other Lions slogged nearby, she knew, but she hadn’t made eye contact with anyone for most of the time they’d been walking.

Now, they drew to a stop, far enough away for those in charge to feel comfortable making camp, and knowing that they had to, lest the injured become the dead. Handing Nox off to one of the soldiers so he could help the others down, Estella moved forwards into the camp and started to help pitch the tents, few as they were, the largest one devoted to the care of the wounded. Her hands moved mechanically, methodically, without any thought at all, because she was trying very hard not to have any. A few others laid all the blankets and such that they had down on the floors, and she caught sight of Leon and Hissrad assisting with the carrying of the most gravely hurt to the tent, where she expected Asala and Donovan and some of the other mages would soon be hard at work.

It would be nice, to have a use at a time like this. A real one.

When the tents were pitched, Estella helped dig a fire pit, then ventured out into the snowy landscape to find wood to burn in it. At present, no one told her she shouldn’t, because they couldn’t spare anyone the work needed to get the camp set up as soon as possible. Every time her thoughts wandered to the avalanche’s thundering down the mountainside into Haven or the sight of that dragon flying away, she shook her head and refocused, scanning the landscape for another dead tree or brush sticking up from under the snow. Every time she thought of Khari or Romulus or the party who held the gate, or Fiona or Tanith or Asala’s brother Meraad, she threw another branch over her shoulder and trekked it back to the site, not pausing before she struck out again.

Every time she thought of the people who’d died so that she could live, she took a deep, shuddering breath, and another step forward. What else could she do?

Each trip back to the fire pit brought her back to Cyrus, who’d started it with his magic and was now tending it, coaxing it to grow as large and warm as possible, feeding it gradually from the pile of wood she was bringing in so that it would burn long and steady. He’d also altered the shape of the pit, so that the outer perimeter of the fire could be used in several places for heating snow into drinkable water and cooking, things of that kind. He seemed to be doing so now, actually, a large cauldron set near the center of the flames, which licked up its thick, cast-iron sides. Several bags of supplies lay near where he sat, and water was beginning to boil in the cauldron, prompting him to begin adding other things. From what he had, it seemed their meal would be a thick stew of some kind.

Rilien could be seen on another side of the fire, steadily at work brewing potions, from the look of it, though his kit was quite small, probably being the only version of it he’d been able to stow on such short notice as they’d had. Already, though, several glass vessels were full and stoppered, stuck into the snow to cool rapidly for consumption. Larissa worked nearby, aiding him to the best of her abilities. Several other members of the Inquisition were hard at work building up a snow-wall to protect the camp from the worst of the wind, especially considering that there would not be enough tents and blankets for everyone. Out of those helping build the wall stood Sparrow, no worse for wear, possibly sporting a new wound or two, but it seemed as if she'd come out of the battle with all her limbs intact. Through chattering teeth and the occasional colorful cuss, she smoothed her fingers across the impromptu bricks and turned towards the nearest man to settle another brick in place.

Marceline had changed out of her nightgown, and now wore something more appropriate for the environment: a thick black dress and heavy leather boots. She kept Pierre close as they moved through the camp, handing out the water to those who needed it, one of whom was her husband, Michaël. He sat heavily against the cart, another soldier working to patch the cut that opened above his eye. When not watching his family, he seemed to gaze off into the distance, with a glaze to his eyes.

Zahra had positioned herself on the outskirts of their makeshift base camp. Mumbled something about keeping her eyes on the horizon in case any dragons flapped over the mountains, though if that were the case, everyone would know without her say so. In any case, they hadn't directed her anywhere, and allowed her to slink off by herself. She hadn't changed out of her bloody leathers, nor donned any warm cloaks. Hers had burned along with everyone else's belongings back in Haven.

She'd refused treatment from any of the healers, and upon close inspection, there wasn't anything inherently wrong with her. No physical wounds, no new scars, nothing at all. She hunkered herself down in the snow, just outside one of the tents, hands wrapped around her knees. Chin tipped across her knees, lips set into a hard line. The Captain looked less like the intimidating woman who had born down on the Inquisition, lips perpetually drawn into that shit-eating grin of hers and more like a lost little girl, motionless and unusually silent.

Eventually, on one of Estella's trips to retrieve more wood, though they had acquired enough for the fire to last already, she found Vesryn already out there, separated away from the rest of the group as well. There were scouts still about as well, those not too severely injured, but for the most part, they were beyond the earshot of anyone within the camp, especially when speaking softly, gently, as Vesryn did.

"I won't pretend to know what you're going through," he said. He looked uncomfortable himself, obviously unsure how to proceed. His hands rested upon the blade of his axe, his eyes hovering with concern over Estella. Throughout all the fighting, somehow he'd managed to only acquire a single, minor wound, treated by a tight wrap around his left arm near the elbow. "But if there's any way I can help, any way at all, please, tell me."

His words brought her up short, and for a moment, she struggled to understand their meaning. That, after all, required something more than automatic motion. When they finally clicked into place, though, she cleared her throat, shifting uncomfortably where she’d stopped and looking at her feet. “It’s not me,” she murmured softly, and then she forced herself to look up, meeting his eyes and smiling awkwardly. “I’m not the one to worry about right now, I think.” In the end, all she was doing was feeling sorry for herself.

Asala was the one who’d lost a brother. Zahra had lost her most stalwart crewman, a member of her family. Rilien had lost one of his oldest friends. Romulus and Khari… they’d lost their lives, they and so many others. Probably everyone here had lost someone—a compatriot, a friend, a family member or a lover. But now she was thinking about it, and she hadn’t meant to do that. Estella felt a hot sting at the back of her eyes, and dropped them again, gulping in a deep breath, trying to blink away the moisture and failing.

“Sorry, I, um.” She used the heel of her left hand to wipe off her cheeks and exhaled a shaky breath, trying not to let herself get caught up in her emotions. There were certainly a lot of them, dark and churning through her head like a violent tide.

Vesryn was quick to set down his axe against a nearby tree and cross the space between them, such that he was within arm's reach. "Listen." He placed a hand on her shoulder, squeezing slightly, and ducking his head down a little so that they'd be closer to even in height. "There are dozens of reasons why you're worth worrying about right now. And only a few of them have to do with you being a Herald, or important, or anything of the sort." He spoke the title almost dismissively, as though in that particular moment it meant quite little to him indeed.

"Here's a reason for you: you're a good person. A selfless person. I've seen it. And you had to witness people make sacrifices that our blighted circumstances stopped you from helping with, or lessening. To me, that's something far more heavy to endure, and not something Asala can magically make go away." His other hand rose to her other shoulder. "I can't cast any spells, and I don't know any of the others enough to help them. But I hope I can help you. I want to."

She swallowed thickly, trying to fight down the lump that was forming in her throat. Vesryn’s face swam in and out of clarity as more tears gathered, and still she fought them back. What he was describing… all of them had needed to witness that. He’d know—he’d been right there the whole time as well. So why was she the only one who couldn’t seem to handle it right now? How was it that everyone else was still moving, still doing what needed to be done, when what they’d suffered was at least as much as what she had?

How was it that none of them were blaming her for it?

“Don’t die then,” she said, struggling to force the words out in some steady, comprehensible way. “They died because I’m the Herald. Because they believed that this—” she held up her right hand, where the mark glowed even through her glove—“made me worth that sacrifice.” Not all of them, maybe. Certainly not Rom or Khari, but the majority of the Inquisition’s soldiers… “Please.” She met his eyes, blinking to clear hers and make sure she had them, her voice cracking and fading to a whisper. “Promise me you won’t die for me.”

Even to phrase it that way sounded absurd to her own ears, like the height of arrogance. To presume that anyone would bother. But at the same time, she knew that many of them had. For the Herald, they’d said. She couldn’t bear it.

Vesryn actually smiled, exhaling a soft, breathy laugh. Her emotion was obviously proving somewhat infectious, though he managed to keep it within himself much better than she did. "Come here." He pulled her into an embrace, wrapping one arm around her, the other pressed against her dark hair. "I'll have you know I'm very good at not dying. I have plans to grow old and grouchy, entertaining hordes of adorable little children with tales of my heroics." There was a glint of light in his eyes, but whether it was tears or amusement was difficult to say. Likely a bit of both. She huffed weakly, something that might have been a laugh in better circumstances, and tentatively returned the hug, making obvious effort to keep her breathing steady.

"I will not lay down my life for a title anyone has, or a magic ability they wield. I have another life in my head to protect besides, remember? But she gave me the skill to follow in her ideals, and they would have me oppose whatever force tried to obliterate us tonight." He broke the embrace so that he could have her eyes again, swallowing. "And they would have me do everything in my power to help you succeed."

“Okay.” Estella nodded shakily, but she was gradually regaining the feeling of having her feet properly beneath her, of having a way to go forward, and the declaration was as much for herself as for him. She knew from experience that as along as she had a way to go, she could keep going until she was numb and half-dead. She’d done so before, in ways both literal and figurative. What they needed to do now was decide which way forward was. She knew at least one thing that had to happen for that, too. Maybe… maybe he could help with that, as well.

“I-in your travels… have you ever come across anyplace big enough to hold us? Somewhere we could go, without imposing on anyone else?” She knew of a few old mercenary forts that stood empty across the Orlesian countryside, but none of them were large enough. It was possible that he’d once encountered some ruins that were, or perhaps Saraya knew of some. “If we’re to have a hope… we need somewhere to plant ourselves, all of us together.”

Vesryn nodded thoughtfully, but didn't seem surprised by the query. "We've given some thought to this. There is a place that I can show you. It's far from here, to the north. It'll be a hard journey through the mountains, but I can show you." He looked tentative about the next part, taking a step back and letting his hands fall to his sides. "I believe it will serve the Inquisition well... but I don't know how the Inquisition will react, having an elf lead them to a home. I can lead troops in a battle, but I can never be the heart of this Inquisition."

He shrugged. "That, more than ever, needs to be you. I'll be there, step for step, but I think you should lead the way."

“What? No.” There was more than one thing in that to protest, but she felt most strongly about a particular piece of it. “You two are the ones who know where it is—everyone should know that it’s your doing that gets us there.” It was, of course, impossible to explain Saraya to everyone, but Vesryn at least should be acknowledged for what he contributed to the cause. “I’ve no reservations following you if you know where to go, and neither should anyone else.” If the title and everything that came with it were to do any good, at least she should try and lead by example, in this case, the example of accepting help and wise counsel, whether it came from an elf or not.

"Think about this," he urged, still gently. "The Inquisition suffered a blow, a hard one, but one that it can still recover from. But it will never rise like it needs to without a leader. I don't believe you were chosen by Andraste, but I don't need to because I know you. The world must believe it, and they won't if they hear that the lone Herald of Andraste followed an elf every step of the way. The right thing to do here... it has to be giving these people the hope they need. It doesn't matter if Andraste chose you or not. You have the ability, the opportunity, to make their hope real. And I believe you can do it."

Anguish morphed her features. “That’s the same lie that just killed hundreds of people,” she replied, just as gently. “And I have to tell it again?” She shook her head slowly, her brows knitting tightly over her eyes. Even if she wasn’t saying it directly, by not denouncing it, she was allowing it to stand uncontested, which was enough of an endorsement. Deep down, she knew he was right, or at least, she suspected he was. She knew it was the same advice Marceline or Leon or Rilien would give her, but it didn’t make her feel any less like dirt.

She exhaled heavily, her breath clouding in the chill, and felt a new weight settle over her shoulders that had nothing to do with hauling wood. She didn’t know how long she’d be able to do this, to let people believe this, before she cracked under the pressure of it. But if she had to be the bad person here, the liar and the fake… would it be worth it, for what they achieved?

Estella had to believe it would be. Had to believe the lie and the false front would be enough to accomplish what they needed to. She lamented that she wasn’t strong enough to do this as herself, but she couldn't be. To most of them, she would have to be something she wasn’t; she’d have to let them believe it. Just long enough.

“All right,” she said at last. “I’ll… I’ll lead. But you have to be next to me. If I can’t follow you… everyone else can.” She tried for a half-smile, shrugging one shoulder. “The world needs to know that’s possible, too, the sooner the better.”

He smiled, the expression coming more easily to him, as it always did. "I've no problem with that."

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Marceline Benoit Character Portrait: Vesryn Cormyth Character Portrait: Leonhardt Albrecht

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A week of travel had taken its toll.

The Inquisition was drastically undersupplied, even in terms of camp equipment, and on most nights, the vast majority of its people slept outside, under their cloaks with their bundled gear by way of pillows, if they had any. Leon had done his rotations outside with the soldiers, and he knew that Estella and the other officers had done the same. The lack of good rest made the days even more wearying, and the horses and carts necessarily went with priority to the injured, leaving most to trek the snowy miles by foot. A large number of the most gravely wounded had succumbed to their injuries or infection or the cold—there simply weren’t enough potions and healers to go around.

For all that, though, they’d kept going. Part of it was undoubtedly the fact that every time one of the regulars looked up and forward, they could see their Herald at the front of the column, breaking the ground over which they would eventually tread, the other leaders fanned out behind her. Periodically she would consult those nearest her, and she called breaks in trekking regularly, but at the conclusion of every one, she was walking forward again. Even that much was enough to make clear that the Inquisition, like its remaining leadership, yet had purpose, destination, and the will to reach it.

But after a long week slogging through the mountains, even the most faithful believer in the cause grew nearly unbearably weary, and that discontent was beginning to seed in the ranks, many of whom could be heard to wonder aloud why they had not simply turned east, for the Hinterlands they already held, or west, towards potential allies in Orlais. Either would have been far warmer than this, and safer. They’d nearly lost one cart to a narrow and unstable pass already—it would have been a loss they could not sustain.

Fortunately, he had the suspicion that they neared the end of their trek. It was something he read off the way Estella’s tread lightened, the way she’d smiled the last time she’d paused to update directions from Vesryn. Presently, they crested another rise, sundown almost upon them, and Leon halted at the sight below.

Farther down the path before them lay a castle.

Composed of grey granite, it wasn’t enormous by the standards of such constructions, but it wasn’t modest, either. Connected to their present course by a stone bridge over a deep chasm, the castle proper was perched firmly upon the top of another rise, one that stood apart from the mountains to two of its sides, the third side falling off sharply down into a canyon beneath. It was eminently defensible from the ground, the only way in through a system of gates on the bridge, protected by guard towers.

It had roughly eight towers, two in the back considerably larger than the rest, as well as the central building, which was twice as broad again, but perhaps fifty feet shorter, lending it a sense of symmetry. It was hard to make out from this far, but the grounds within looked expansive enough to contain all the things one would expect: bailey, stables, smaller buildings; enough space for a village’s worth of people, at least. Leon noted also that several of the towers looked to be on the verge of collapse, and would need immediate attention from a mason, or rather many of them. Then again… it was probably quite old.

"We certainly have a project ahead of ourselves, yes?" Lady Marceline stated as she pulled up beside him on her black Orlesian Courser. Behind her, Michaël led another, this one bearing a dozing Pierre. Though she spoke the words, she still seemed relieved to have finally reached their destination.

“So it seems,” he agreed pensively.

It was still a relief to see it at last, and as he trailed in the wake of the Herald, he couldn’t help but turn back periodically to assess the reactions of the others. They seemed, for the most part, both impressed and bolstered by the sight of their destination, and that eased his worry a bit. It wasn’t near the end of the work they had to do, but at least things like roofs, beds, and baths were in the foreseeable future, now. He knew from experience that these were the things that beckoned most to soldiers weary from long, hard marching.

They deserved this. To be able to sleep indoors, warm and comfortable. To not have to huddle close in hopes of conserving what warmth was to be had, or rotate with their fellows for the spots closest to the campfire. After what they’d been through, they deserved a fair bit more than that, as well, but Leon knew it was important to focus on one thing at a time for the moment.

The gates themselves proved old, but mostly still in working condition, and they were able to get all three of the ones across the bridge raised, and funnel their people, animals, and supplies through without difficulty. The bridge was missing a few chunks out of the side, which made for more careful going in places, but the underlying structure appeared quite sound.

After the final gate put them in a wide area of shriveled brown grass and weeds, Leon directed the carts be placed under a stone overhead seemingly designed with the purpose in mind, and then they were unloaded, quite quickly considering how little there was to unload. The scouts came back shortly after with an idea of which buildings were immediately accessible, which fortunately included what had to be the barracks, so the regulars had somewhere to set their things, anyway.

While they worked on settling in and getting off their feet for a while, Leon gathered some of the others to himself in hopes of making a more detailed survey of what they were working with. Cyrus and Asala should stay with the healers and continue tending the wounded for the moment, and he didn’t want to disturb Zahra, but himself, Rilien, Marceline, Estella and Vesryn might as well figure out what they now had.

“Might as well start with the main hall, I suppose.”

It was Rilien who tried the door first, and though it stuck initially, it opened when he put his shoulder into it, a cloud of dust billowing about at its motion for the first time in what might well have been centuries. The group stepped inside, to find that the situation with respect to the castle’s condition was even more dire than had been evident from the outside. The chamber they entered had vaulted ceilings as grand as any architecture in Orlais, but that was, for the moment, where the similarity ended.

This room, like the rest of the building, was built primarily from grey stone, likely pulled at some point from the mountain itself, and much, though not all of it, had remained intact. The room was longer away from them than it was wide, and clearly once served as a receiving hall. A dais at the end of it seemed poised to hold a throne, and the depressions along either side would serve well for long tables.

Of course, all of the wood in the space, and much of what must have once been its furnishings and decorations, were in utter ruins. Massive beams of wood lay over the floors, rotted and torn fabric dangling here and there from splinters or else lying strewn over the ground. It was impossible to tell so much as what color they’d once had, so advanced was their decay. The smell was not as bad as it could have been, considering, but the thick layer of choking dust over everything made breathing a labor nevertheless.

Rilien, at least, seemed unperturbed, scanning over the features of the chamber with no detectable feelings on the matter. “We ought not risk moving too much of the debris, but some of these doors are unblocked.” Several flanked each side of the hall, and he was correct that at least half of them looked to be useable without risk of further damage.

Marceline's eyes were turned upward, as though she was worried their intrusion would bring the roof down around their ears. However, a few more steps into the main hall seemed to have settled her as she instead looked toward a door on the left side of the hall. She pointed toward it and turned back to look at the others. "Shall we?" she asked. She then began to pick her way through the debris, careful to not to trip over anything, to reach the door in question. She took its latch in hand gingerly and gave a pull, but it fought against her and refused to swing wide. She huffed a little and pulled again, this time putting more weight into it until something snapped. Instead of swinging open, the door's rusted hinges snapped and tipped forward toward Marceline.

Vesryn found himself in the opportune place and swiftly reached armored hands out to catch the door, subsequently trapping Marceline in a rather small space between the flat surface of the door braced by his palms, and the chest of the elf himself. He laughed a bit uncomfortably, but did not seem displeased by the development. "Fear not, my lady. I will prevent such a low, dastardly foe as this door from marring your beauty." There was at least enough room for her to slip out, if she were willing to duck and squeeze. Which she did.

"That would be a such shame. My thanks, Ser Vesryn," she said with a smile. Grunting, he shifted the door to the side, and set it up against the wall.

With that dealt with, they entered through the now bare door frame and through another door that did not break into a side room. The room itself was of moderate size, with one half built three steps into the floor. The upper part of the floor made a pathway that led to another door at the far end of the room, while the lower part held a grand fireplace built into the wall. Like the main hall, the floor was littered with splinters of wood and torn pieces of fabric. Marceline descended the steps into the lower part of the room and placed a hand on the fireplace. As she ran her hand across the mantle, she looked around studying the room. Once she was done, she turned to face the others.

"If we are to stay here, then I will keep this room in mind for my office, if you all would allow it," she said, allowing her hand to fall from the mantle. The fireplace seemed to have found a way into her heart.

With the room thoroughly inspected, she took the steps onto the upper landing and continued to the doorway at the far end. Once through the portal they were met with a long hallway built onto the contours of the mount they were on, by the way the floor rose upward by a set of two stairs. To the right, windows were built into the wall, but the glass that once filled them were long gone. Near the end of the hall, the wall gave way to crumbling masonry, allowing them a good view of the mountain range to their side. Marceline frowned as she looked at it and shook her head, her displeasure clear.

Estella simply gave it a careful berth, skirting around the structural deficiency and towards the door at the end of the long hallway. She was careful with it, perhaps seeking to avoid a repeat of Marceline’s ill fortune, but she needn’t have worried, for the door opened easily, if with a grating squeak of hinges. She winced, glancing back over her shoulder at the rest of them. “Sorry.”

Leon suspected apologizing was a reflex for her at this point, so he simply shook his head, following her into the room on the other side.

It was quite spacious, semicircular at the far end, and contained a bank of vertical windows on that side, most of them at least partly broken out as well. Here too was the same evidence of former furniture and furnishing, now destroyed, as well as some clear weather-damage, where rain or snow had worn away at things over long decades of no maintenance. What might have once been a massive chandelier was the main piece of debris in the room, broken and scattered in all directions.

“You know, it’s almost like the place was attacked,” Estella mused, stepping carefully over various chunks of debris to the windows. It looked like they faced out to the mountain behind. “Or maybe just… ransacked, after it was left last.” It was hard to imagine bandits all the way out here, but Leon had to agree that it did look like that way. Furniture didn’t rot itself into smashed condition, after all.

“Well, let’s hope it suffers no such ill luck whilst we’re present, shall we?” he replied wryly. The room would do well as a meeting one, though—he’d been able to save most of his maps from Haven, and a new table for them would easily fit in here; there was standing room for as many people as he could imagine needing to address at once, in such a situation. It would seem that, however much work it required beforehand, the castle would at least be able to meet their needs.

“What’s this place called, anyway?” Leon asked, glancing between Estella and Vesryn.

"Tarasyl'an Te'las," Vesryn answered simply, though he seemed well aware that further explanation would be required. "I expect that wouldn't do for a name to spread far and wide, of course, and the fortress itself is Ferelden, not elvish. The words mean 'the place where the sky was held back.' For our purposes... Skyhold, I think will do."

“Skyhold it is, then.” Quite the grandiose name, really, but the that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. Now… they just had to get it in the kind of shape that deserved the designation.

“…we’d better get to work.”

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Marceline Benoit Character Portrait: Cyrus Avenarius Character Portrait: Leonhardt Albrecht

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“My, my. Don’t you look official.”

Cyrus could tell from one look at Estella that she was not at all comfortable in her current raiment. Someone had made her a light shirt of polished, silverite ringmail, which fell almost to her knees. Her trousers were ordinary dark linen, but russet and gold fabric was predominant throughout the rest, with a few touches of red. Her chestpiece was dyed leather, impressed with the Inquisition’s heraldry, the all-seeing eye and the blade of mercy, as well as designs thematic of flames and the sun, which carried through to her pauldrons and the silk sash that took the ringmail in at her waist and held her sword. The part of the shirt from the waist down was layered over with a skirt of sorts, an abstract sunburst in yellow patterned onto darker orange. Her boots were the color of her other leathers, banded in silverite for reinforcement. She’d bound her hair back into an Orlesian-style braid, which trailed down the rather impressive cloak behind her. It was all the sort of thing someone of status would wear to an official function, which was precisely what today was to be. Naturally, his sister likely thought it all beyond what she deserved or was suited to.

Deserving was such a peculiar notion. He couldn’t say he really understood whatever version of it she operated with. At the moment, however, the abstract thought wasn’t the one that occupied him, and he plucked a pin off the table and moved forward to her side, flattening a little flyaway hair down atop her head and using the pin to secure it in place. He was himself back in indigo and black silk, much more at home in such things than she was. He, of course, had to look presentable as well, because he was now the brother of an Inquisitor, something which amused him a great deal more for her obvious apprehension than anything else. Something about Estella’s discomfort with attention had always struck him as slightly absurd, and funny, but he knew it wasn’t so for her.

So when he stepped away from her, he gentled his smile and took her hands, lifting them to press his palms against her own and lace their fingers for a moment. He ducked his head slightly to meet her eyes. “Everything’s going to be fine, Stellulam.” His eyes narrowed, and his tone was lighter when he continued. “They can’t be any more unbearable than me, and you already have that problem well in hand, don’t you?”

She half-smiled in that way she had that wasn’t quite all the way to happy, and shook her head ruefully. “Not everyone out there is my brother, Cyrus. And you’re not unbearable. Just… difficult.” She was joking with him, at least, which was a good sign, perhaps.

Still, it didn’t take long for the sense of unease to return to her, and she sighed shakily, her hands tightening in his. “I don’t suppose you know some back way out of Skyhold, do you? So we can escape if there are riots?” That joke, at least, fell flat, symptomatic of the all-too-serious way in which it was delivered.

Cyrus raised both eyebrows, letting his reply remain ambiguous between jesting and complete seriousness. “Stellulam, the day you genuinely want out of all of this, I will carve you a path out of Skyhold if I have to.” He tilted his head to the side and blinked down at her.

“But today, I think, is not that day, despite its trials.” When she didn’t correct him—of course she wouldn’t—he dropped one of her hands and moved himself sideways, adjusting her other so that it rested on his forearm. “Now. Please allow your first loyal subject to escort you to all your new ones.” Escort was really too formal a term, since all they’d be doing is entering the main hall through one of the side doors, but nevertheless, appearances were important.

She took the opportunity of their positioning to elbow him in the ribs before resettling her hand on his arm. “Don’t even start with that,” she scolded him, though a fair amount of the disapproval in her tone was exaggerated. Estella sucked in a deep breath and straightened her spine, giving him a short nod to indicate that they could proceed.

The door they were behind in the first place led right out into the front part of the hall, which necessitated a bit of a procession forward to the far end with the dais, but then, this had likely been deliberately arranged. The room had been one of the first repaired, and was now decorated in much the same warm palette of colors as Estella was wearing, a dark crimson carpet runner aligned with the path up to the modest throne that now sat atop the dais.

Estella’s step hitched beside him; likely someone had neglected to inform her of this particular detail, though her face didn’t change. Members of the Inquisition were variously standing or seated at the sides of the room, where twin long tables had been set with matching chairs, and new chandeliers hung over each, to complement the light pouring in from the elegant stained-glass windows behind the throne. It would have quite the effect, once someone was seated in the chair itself, which was designed to complement the rest of the décor, hammered metal and a flowing design giving it the gleam and depth of flame, particularly when it reflected light from elsewhere.

Though there was far from enough room to admit the entire Inquisition force in the main hall, there was certainly a large portion of it, including all the officers, most of the irregulars, and all three of the organization’s subdivision leaders, the last of whom stood just beneath the dais.

Cyrus ascended the first few steps with her, shifting effortlessly to take her hand and guide her up the last few to the top without him, smiling up at her with a distinct sense of mischief and winking so only she could see, backing down the stairs to land on a level with the rest, leaving her to stand in front of the throne by herself, facing the crowd.

Lady Marceline was the first to move after that. She took long, deliberate steps to deliver her below Estella and the throne, when she turned to face the gathered Inquisition forces. She wore an immaculate black dress stitched with silver embroidery and the Inquisition Heraldry sewn onto either shoulder. Her hair held gentle curls and seemed to have been groomed especially for this occasion. In fact, she seemed to have prepared for it extensively. Dark eyeliner lined her bright ocean blue eyes, and her lips were painted an intense cherry red. She stood with a regal bearing with her hands folded against her stomach.

The moment was allowed to simmer as she did not immediately begin speaking. Instead, she looked into the throne room, meeting the eyes of many of the individuals that had gathered, a gentle but proud smile on her face. She was silent for a time, but when she began to speak, her words carried all throughout the room. "Those of you who have gathered with us here today," she began her hands motioning along with her words, "We are the Inquisition," she continued, her hand turning to a fist, "Those that would stand before us will soon realize that we will not be defeated so easily, not when our hearts still beat and we still draw breath!" she paused to allow for a swell of voices.

"Haven was a defeat," she said, solemnly, before her voice began to rise again, "But it was not the end! The Inquisition still lives. We will rise from the ashes of Haven, stronger and more determined. We will step forward with a righteous fervor, and continue forward until the enemies that sought to eradicate the us lay behind us! Men and women of the Inquisition, will you follow?" She asked to the agreement of all of those in the throne room.

She smiled against and glanced backward to Estella before she continued. "But we cannot do so without a leader, a shining light to follow in the darkest of days. A light that has already guided us from the ashes and to this place that the Inquisition now calls home. It is her example we should follow, her kindness we should remember. Our Herald. Our Inquisitor," she said, a genuine smile on her cherry lips.

Marceline turned to Leon and accepted a golden sword by the blade. It was ceremonial in nature, its hilt intricately designed to hold the impression of a dragon. Turning back to Estella, Marceline gazed up and held the sword out horizontally for her to take. "Lady Estella Avenarius, will you lead the Inquisition?"

Estella stood tall, holding herself with a poise Cyrus knew she believed to be mere affectation, and when she reached forward to accept the blade offered to her, those closest could see that her hands shook. She took it as it was presented, horizontally, and then stepped back a pace.

“I will,” she replied, her tone velvet-coated iron, heavy with resolve and soft with her natural inclination towards reserve. She shifted her grip on the unwieldy object, tilting the blade down until the tip of it balanced on the floor, putting both hands on the hilt, which rose to the center of her chest.

“Lady Inquisitor Avenarius.” Leon spoke solemnly, projecting to be heard by everyone, and bowed at the waist towards her, holding the position. The rest of the room took its cue from him, one by one inclining themselves or taking a knee where they stood, raising their fists to their hearts. Cyrus himself placed his open hand there, sweeping low. Silence pervaded for several heartbeats, until she spoke again.

“Rise, Inquisition,” she said, and they did, to find that she wore a smile, gentle and mild. “I will lead, but I will not do so alone. Here beside me now stand people who have made all of this, our efforts to close the Breach and now our efforts against the Elder One, possible. Here before me now, and out beyond this room, strive others, without whose support the Inquisition would falter and fade. A leader is nothing and no one without those that follow her, and I’m no different.”

She lifted her chin, to look down towards the end of the hallway. “And with us now are two people whose accomplishments, whose contributions to the cause, deserve great recognition, and more grandiose words than these. Knight-Captain Séverine Lacan and Miss Aurora Rose, please approach.” This part, at least, she seemed more comfortable with. He supposed that was because she'd be able to shift the attention away from herself for a while.

Aurora approached with a smile on her face, not directed to Estella the Inquisitor, but rather, the Estella beneath the title it seemed. They'd known of each other long before the Inquisition was a thought in someone's mind, and even a small bit of pride seemed to be in Aurora's face as she looked up to the new Inquisitor. The woman, while not a circle mage herself, wore the finely made robes of an Enchanter.

Séverine's approach was not as openly friendly as Aurora's, though it was genuinely proud, and tall. Her Knight-Captain's plate was polished to a glimmering shine, robes freshly cleaned and smoothed. Her ebony hair was draped about her in several separate braids, purely for ceremonial purposes. She stopped beside Aurora, gauntleted hands clasped behind her back.

Estella’s smile inched fractionally wider. “Both of you came to the Inquisition as our allies. The leader of the Free Mages of Thedas, and a Knight-Captain of Kirkwall’s Templar Order. And those things you will remain. But… I would like to ask you also to become something else. You’ve both proven your courage and skill beyond the shadow of doubt. If you are willing, I would have each of you take the role of Captain in the Inquisition’s army, so that you might continue to lead your fellows in our name.”

She shifted the ceremonial blade to one side, holding it in her left hand. “Will you swear your loyalty to the Inquisition, to serve the people of Thedas, until such time as the threat it rises to meet has been vanquished and it is dissolved?" She said the words carefully, deliberately, and the silence from all the rest of the gathered was absolute, not so much as a shifting of a chair or a throat clearing to be heard from anyone.

Séverine was the first to take a step forward, and she settled down upon a knee, shifting her hands atop it. "It would be my honor, Inquisitor." The lines of her face were hard, and genuine. A new scar from the battle at Haven rested across the bridge of her nose. "For those that have already sacrificed all, I will continue to serve, until the threat has been destroyed, and the peace restored."

Aurora's acceptance wasn't nearly so grand. She followed Séverine to her knee, her smile slipping away into something far more solemn. "I will," she said simply, but firmly, inclining her head at the words.

Estella inclined her head and raised the blade, touching first each of Séverine’s shoulders, and then each of Aurora’s. “Then I give to each of you the title and rank of Captain, and all the rights and responsibilities it carries with it. Rise, and join your fellows.”

When they had departed to the sides of the room, Estella seemed to hesitate, for just a moment. The plan here had simply been for her to dismiss the assembled, allowing them to go about their business so that she could go about hers, but she did not immediately do so. Instead, her eyes dropped to the floor for a moment before she raised them again and cast them out over the soldiers. “I know that it still seems bleak,” she said, and she swallowed visibly. “What we all saw that day—all those soldiers, and a dragon, and everything else… it’s hard to keep hoping for the best after seeing something like that. After losing your friends, or comrades, or people who were family to you.”

She frowned grimly, and shook her head. “And I know that it took courage, to keep going after that. Any one of you, any one of us, could have chosen to give up then, to let the responsibility for this fall onto the shoulders of others. You could have gone home, to your families and the people you love and the lives you knew, and held all of that close to you, in a way that those we lost can no longer do.” Her grip on the sword tightened until her knuckles were white. “And we’re asking a lot of you. I’m asking a lot of you, when I ask you to take on faith that this can be done, and that we will achieve it.”

She was silent for a moment, then took a deep breath. “I can’t express to you how grateful I am that you’re still here. Still willing to fight for this. Nothing I can say or do will be enough to thank you for the choice you made, the one you make every day you remain. But I… I can make you a promise. I promise you that I’ll never give up, on this or on you. Whatever happens, however grim this gets, whatever becomes of me, I can keep going. Because I know that you’re willing to do the same. This isn’t my Inquisition—it’s yours. And when we defeat the Elder One… that victory will not be mine.

It will be ours.”


Cyrus started the applause, half-smiling and clapping his hands together twice. That was all it took—the rest of the crowd joined him soon afterwards in a generous swell of noise. It would seem something she’d said had resonated with them. Perhaps all of it had. The words weren’t the most elegant or poetic, but they were genuine, and honest, obviously so, and he suspected that was what stirred them most of all.

With the ceremonies having drawn to a close, most of those present were dismissed, and returned to their regular duties. Some remained, for now came the other part of the day’s events: Stellulam was to sit in judgement of the Inquisition’s prisoners, and Cyrus could not claim to be looking forward to the first item on the docket.

For these purposes, less formality was required, and Estella was relieved of the ceremonial sword, though she did have to actually sit on the throne, which provided him with another flicker of amusement. Once everyone was settled, the eyes in the room turned to Marceline, who had the list of matters to be addressed. He knew well what was on it, but there were certain procedures that had to be observed regardless.

Marceline gazed down at the list, which had been delivered to her by Larissa moments ago with a clipboard. "Lady Estella," she began, looking up from the clipboard as she spoke. "You, of course, remember Cassius Viridius of Tevinter, yes?" It was difficult to forget the man. "Ferelden has allowed us to keep him within our custody. The formal charges levied against Lord Viridius are attempted enslavement of the Free Mages of Thedas, as well as attempted assassination against you and others of the Inquisition."

Behind them, the rattling of chains signified the man in question being brought in. "Tevinter has since publicly denounced his actions and stripped him of his rank due to these crimes," she explained though there were a flutter of her eyes. It seemed that she did not put much stock in Tevinter's denouncement.

Estella’s brows visibly furrowed, and she glanced over at Cyrus, concern clear in her eyes, but she turned back directly afterwards, regarding Cassius with an expression best called thoughtfulness. “Have you anything to say on your own behalf, Lord Viridius?”

Time in the Inquisition’s custody had done little to erode Cassius’s natural dignity, and even cuffed in manacles with his feet bound together, he stood tall and commanding. He appeared to regard those around him carefully, but with an ill-concealed disdain. The question brought his attention to Estella herself for perhaps the first time since he’d entered. There was a certain irony in the picture they made: once, Stellulam had stood before the Magister on his throne, and petitioned him for his cooperation. Now, it was he that stood before her, and she that was throned, however uncomfortable Cyrus knew she was there.

He had to admit, he liked this version of the image a great deal more.

When his teacher spoke, it was in a voice raspy from disuse, but still genteel, the Imperial accent clear without being thick. “We all make choices. Sometimes, we choose imprudently. I acted to protect my House and my family, and I do not regret that, nor do I apologize for it. Kill me if you will, but I shan’t confess any wrongdoing.” He seemed resigned at least to the fact that his fate was truly in her hands, but he quite evidently yet retained his pride.

It would be a cold day in a Seheron summer before Cassius ever admitted that anything he did was wrong. That much had never changed. Magisters did not apologize. They did not regret, either—at least not publicly. Sometimes, they chose poorly, but that was always the fault of incomplete information or unpredictable circumstance, never the Magister. To admit error was to admit weakness, and weakness was fatal in the Magisterium and the decadent culture of nobility that surrounded it. Better to risk death at the hand of someone generally benevolent than to expose one’s bleeding wounds to the sharks in Minrathous.

Estella wore an expression that was melancholy, but not surprised. She’d been raised at the very periphery of that world, but no one was truly free of it. Pursing her lips, she moved her eyes from Cassius to Leonhardt, Marceline, and Rilien. “You know as much of his deeds as I do, and he brings nothing further in his defense. What would you do?”

Leon scowled slightly, shaking his head. “Truthfully? I’d let Ferelden have him. He ran the Arl of Redcliffe out of his castle, and they’re not particularly amenable to us right now, either. Handing him over may ease Arl Teagan’s soreness, and he has the ear of the King.” She considered that for a moment, then looked to Lady Marceline, who nodded her agreement.

"It would certainly go towards easing over our relations with Ferelden, and we will need as many allies as possible."

“Kill him.” That was Rilien, blunt and monotone as usual. “Ferelden would do the same, and remanding him to their custody would cause the impression that we either lack the authority or the will to punish him. At this early stage especially, we cannot be believed to be missing either one.”

Cyrus had not moved his stare from Cassius the entire time, and now the old man was looking back at him, too, as though expecting him to agree with the tranquil. And really, perhaps he should. He’d certainly been in that frame of mind when Cassius had first surrendered; only Stellulam had stayed his hand then. He doubted she would want to kill him now, either, and wondered if she would do it. He figured she’d see little distinction between ordering it herself and sending him to Ferelden to receive the same.

That was one very rare way in which they might just be alike. Memory seized him momentarily, and he glanced down at his own hands, at the ghost-image of the blood that would always be upon them, when he looked the right way. There was part of him that hated Cassius, had hated him even before all of this. But he wondered if that was the only part there was. Could even he truly despise someone who’d raised him, more a father than anyone he’d ever known? Which part was more despicable: the part that did, or the part that didn’t?

With a sharp breath, Cyrus snapped himself back to the present, speaking abruptly. “Killing him would be a waste. Letting Ferelden do so would be marginally less of one, but still much less use than he could be.” He let that sink in a second, then continued dispassionately. “That man, for all his many faults, is one of the most brilliant magical minds in Thedas. One of two people to ever succeed in the manipulation of time, and a scholar of towering intellect. He’s not to be trusted, but he can be relied upon to always act in his own interest, and that of his House. He doesn’t care about anything else.” He shrugged, keenly aware that he could just about be describing himself with the same words.

“Make him an offer he can’t refuse, and his work will pay the Inquisition a thousandfold what it takes to keep him imprisoned and fed.”

Estella looked to be deep in thought, glancing from him back to Cassius, then over at the others. Leon lifted a shoulder, conveying clearly enough that it was her decision to make, and she frowned slightly. “I think… that we need what resources we can muster, as you’ve all pointed out, in one way or another.” She shifted her attention to Cassius, and spoke politely, but with a firmness uncommon to her.

“What you’ve done, what you tried to do, cannot go ignored, Lord Viridius. You’ve incurred a debt to the Inquisition, and you’ll have to pay it. Work for us until this is over, spend your nights in a prison cell, and you’ll keep your life. You’ll be supervised at all times by a templar and a mage to guard you, and be given limited access to the materials necessary for your work. If you attempt to escape or circumvent the conditions of this punishment by working sub-standardly or intentionally subverting us, I’m quite certain Cyrus will be able to inform us, and this process will happen again, with no third option. Are the terms of your sentence clear to you?”

Cassius’s jaw was tight, but he nodded, even inclining himself slightly in a bowing motion, though it was clearly difficult for him to do. “You are most merciful, Lady Inquisitor. I shall bear your conditions in mind.”

With that, he was escorted out by the guard, presumably to whatever cell they were keeping him in. Cyrus wasn’t sorry to see him go. He glanced at Marceline. He hadn’t the faintest idea who was next.

Marceline looked at the list in her hand again, but after reading it closed her eyes and began to rub her brow. "This is different," she said, looking back up to Estella. "And strange. A few weeks after we arrived to Skyhold we discovered this man attacking the stronghold. With a goat." Marceline said, delivering the line in a deadpan akin to Rilien's. "Throwing the goat against the castle wall, in fact." She paused to allow that to sink in before the doors to swung open to permit the man to enter. Like Cassius before him, he was clad in shackles and flanked by two Inquisition soldiers, though another woman who did not appear to be a part of the Inquisition's main force also accompanied them.

"Chief Movran the Under, father of the Avvar that you defeated in the Fallow Mire," Marceline frowned at that, still seemingly displeased by what had transpired there. There was an imperceptive shake of her head and she sighed somewhat, still seeming a little confused on why the man would assault their keep with a goat. Though, who could blame her. "I also present to you Signy Sky-Lance, an Avvar chief herself and our resident expert on their culture and customs. She is present to assist you in your judgement," Marceline continued, introducing the woman.

Signy was a tall woman, perhaps six feet in height, with a dark complexion and thick red hair to just beneath her shoulders. Her armor, light and composed primarily of leather and hide, left her upper arms bare, making it obvious that one of them was patterned beautifully with dark blue tattoos which extended up to tease the line of her jaw. She wore an expression that, while subtle, left little doubt as to the fact that she was highly entertained by all of this. That said, she observed what was now customary, and inclined herself politely to Estella.

Cyrus was still trying to comprehend the idea that this man had attacked Skyhold… by throwing a goat at it. He snorted, then smothered a laugh by coughing into his hand, trying to keep a straight face. Just imagining this man, with his ibex-horn helmet and all that apparently-for-intimidation body paint, hurling a goat straight for the castle wall—well, it would take a lot of strength, or a catapult. He wasn’t sure which was funnier. Both were very much so. Estella looked like she was trying not to smile herself.

When the attention settled upon him, Movran spoke, apparently completely unbothered by his circumstances. “You killed my idiot son, and I answered, as is my custom, by smacking your hold with goats’ blood.” He shrugged, almost as if to dismiss the oddity of it.

“The custom does exist.” That was Signy, who had moved to stand to the side of the dais, next to Cyrus. Her arms were crossed beneath her chest, and she held herself with relaxed ease. “Though whole goats are not required. Just the blood.” She raised an eyebrow at Movran, who chuckled softly.

“They bled a little, didn’t they?” Signy smiled a little wider and shrugged. “No foul, Inquisition. My son meant to murder Tevinters, but got feisty with you instead. A redheaded mother guarantees a brat, they say.” Cyrus glanced at Signy, who lifted one shoulder as if to indicate that she couldn’t deny it. It was also unsurprising that these Avvar didn’t like Tevinters. No one ever did. Clearly, Movran had no idea that one of them was sitting on the throne.

“Do as you’ve earned, Inquisitor. My clan yields. My remaining boys have brains still in their heads.” He paused, seeming to study Estella for a moment. “I’d not have thought one of your stature could defeat him, but my clan tells me you did. In honorable combat no less. I’ve no further quarrel with you or yours.”

“I don’t doubt it seems strange to you, but he means it.” Signy spoke again, rocking back idly on her heels. “Honor demands that he answer your deed the way he did, but now that he’s done so, the matter is finished. If his son had been the victim of treachery, that would be a different matter, but your kill was clean, and in the defense of yourself and others. We can respect that, just as we respect your right to answer as your customs would bid you.” Movran inclined his head in agreement.

Estella pursed her lips thoughtfully, and made eye contact with Signy. “I’m not sure I have any customs for what to do when someone throws a goat at my residence,” she replied, clearly exercising great effort to say that with a straight face. Still, she managed. “What do yours generally advise in such a situation?”

“Usually? Nothing.” Signy blinked, almost surprised, it would seem, to be asked how the Avvar would handle the matter. “His actions are a symbolic gesture. I think it clear that there was no love lost between them anyway. Thane Movran fulfilled his familial duties. That is all.” She appeared to be curious now, regarding Estella with a keenness she’d not previously shown.

Estella did smile, then, just slightly. “Well, all right then. Thane Movran, you’re free to return to your people. We’ll keep the goats, though.” A glimmer of amusement entered her expression. “It seems a fair trade for needing to clean the blood off the walls.”

Movran laughed, this time full-bellied and wholly genuine, it would seem. “Then they are my gift to you, Inquisitor. May the Lady guide your hand.” The guards on either side moved to unshackle him, and he was clearly none the worse for wear, giving Estella a slight bow before he turned and exited the main hall, head held high.

“Well.” Cyrus spoke lightly, glancing up at Estella. “That wasn’t so bad, was it?”

She sighed deeply, pushing herself off the throne at first opportunity and descending the stairs. “It… could have been worse, but I can’t say I’m looking forward to the next time I have to do this.”

He supposed that was fair enough.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Romulus Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Marceline Benoit Character Portrait: Leonhardt Albrecht Character Portrait: Kharisanna Istimaethoriel

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It was a few days after Estella sat on Skyhold's throne for the first time. Marceline and the other advisors stood with their Inquisitor around a long table that held maps of both Orlais and Ferelden, as well as many other papers spread across them. A model figurine of the Inquisition's Heraldry stood in a specific place on the map, the location where they resided in Skyhold. Other, smaller figures were spread out across much of the map, each set belonging to a specific advisor. Currently, Marceline found herself in the middle of a strategy meeting with the others. They had established Skyhold as their base of operations and named Estella their Inquisitor. Now was the time to plan the next step.

Marceline stood a step away from the table, a glass of wine in her hand. Unconsciously she swirled the dark purple liquid in her hand as she looked down at the table. They knew very little of their enemy, only someone or something called the Elder One had gathered enough Venatori and Red Templars in order to fashion an army. Other than that, they were reduced to guessing. The location of the Elder One's base was unknown to them, along with the numbers in his army, and other rather necessary items. Marceline simple sighed and took a drink from glass, before going back and swirling the liquid again.

Estella’s eyes were fixed on the map, her expression pensive. “We know a few things they might try to do,” she mused, “surely our best chance is to catch them out in something underhanded. If we can get an agent or two, we might be able to start unraveling the skein.” She bit down on her lower lip and shook her head. She’d been holding up quite well since her official appointment, at least externally. She seemed to be quite against the finer armor and silk, but had consented at least to trade her maroon and silver Lions’ linens in for the russet and gold of the Inquisition. How she was beneath the face she wore was harder to say—she wasn’t entirely ineffective at hiding her feelings, it seemed.

“The common thread, the one that both Cassius’s future contained and Envy’s plans hinted at, was the assassination sequence. Either it’s something they really want to do, and will therefore probably attempt even despite our survival, or… it’s a trap.” He sighed, then glanced across the table to Rilien.

“What does Lord Drakon have to say?”

“We have his support.” The tranquil’s reply was brief, but he elaborated. “He will pay the Lions himself from this point, which allows us to appropriately salary several new officers. He has also officially contracted with us for their services, and given his permission for us to promote them within the hierarchy as we see fit. You have leave to make Corvin a captain, and Lia as well.” He paused a moment, blinking down at the representation of Val Royeaux on the map.

“Ser Lucien has taken our warning seriously, but there is little he can do about it without more concrete information. Nevertheless, he will be in contact with Lady Montblanc, and my agents in the capital, and coordinate a search for such. It will be difficult, with the war, but he reports that the fighting in some regions has begun to abate. The chevaliers are uneasy with how things are changing while they are asked to fight amongst themselves.”

"Correspondance with my father corroborates this. Though he cannot offer his official support due to his standing with the loyalist Chevaliers under Empress Celene, Marshall Lucas Lécuyer wishes us the best and will send us reports on the Orlesian civil war," she said, pausing a moment to take another drink from her glass. Though she didn't display anything outwardly, she was worried for her father, having been drawn out of retirement to fight against their countrymen. The regular correspondance set her heart at ease a little, but the fact remained that her father still fought in a war. They both did, she supposed.

She tilted her head back down to the maps, but shook her head once more. "Even if were were to discover this Elder One's identity, and were able to accurately pin down what it is that he or she plans to do, there lay other issues that will surface in our near future. Issues that are no less important," Marceline said, tapping the stem of her glass. She did not envision it necessary that the Inquisition expand so quickly. "Currently, we operate off of donations from our noble allies-- some of which you may have noticed touring the castle. However, if the Inquisition is to grow in order to combat all threats, then charitable donations will soon not be enough." A thin frown lined her painted cherry lips.

"I fear that we may have to begin taking loans in order to be able to pay for the expenses that arise. My mother, Comtesse Gabrielle, has agreed to one such loan with a very generous interest rate. However, we will need much more if the Inquisition is to survive," she said, solemnly. They can not fight against this Elder One if they did not have the resources necessary.

“When you put it like that… I should write my sister.” Leon had spoken very little of his family, but it was obvious enough that he was from some form of noble stock. He grimaced, though whether at the prospect of this communication or the news itself was hard to say.

Before anyone could contribute anything further, the door burst open, the usually-composed Reed barreling through like demons were chasing him. “Inquisitor, Commander. You’re—that is…” he paused long enough to gulp in a breath, then shook his head, an expression on his face far beyond his usual skeptical assessment of the strange happenings around him. “It’s Romulus. He’s alive, and at the gate.”

Marceline looked about as shocked as her even expression could manage. For a moment, the room was silent from what they had heard. Marceline's own eyes were wide and her head taken on a slight tilt. A beat passed before she looked to the others. "We should go," she understated. Like the others, she had thought Romulus and the others had died in the attack on Haven, having sacrificed himself for the rest of the Inquisition. To hear otherwise, well, it was a surprise to put it mildly. The others began to file out the door behind Reed, while Marceline took a moment to down the rest of her wine, before setting the glass on the table and following.

The news had already reached the rest of the castle, but the sound of the clamor echoing through the halls. Their steps quickened until their path brought them to the double doors that led outside to the front gate. A pair of Inquisition soldiers opened the door for them to pass through and deposited them onto the stairwell that led to the ground below. From their position, they could see a crowd had gathered around the gate, in hopes no doubt to catch a glimpse of the Herald they thought they had lost.

He did not make any attempts at hiding himself, standing unhooded among the center of armed individuals bearing the sunburst brand stitched upon their clothing. His cloak was new, only dusted from light travel it appeared, and Romulus himself looked quite different, in addition to his clothing. His hair was longer atop his head, and a filled-out beard covered the man's jawline and upper lip. There were a great many speaking, trying to get the Herald's attention, or just chattering excitedly to each other, but Romulus appeared to be waiting for the Inquisition's leaders to appear.

He stood alongside the immediately recognizeable visage of Khari, sans mask or hood and grinning broadly. She waved as they approached. Another redheaded woman, this one human, flanked him on the other side, bearing the group's suburst brand and wearing more polished pieces of armor than the rest. She stood proud and tall, hands folded before, though they soon sweeped out, when she noticed the obvious Inquisition leaders, coming down towards the gate.

"Good people of the Inquisition, I give to you your Herald, who survived the events of Haven, despite all the forces of darkness threw at him. He has fought through cold, sickness, and Tevinter pursuit to rejoin you now, and tell you, that he is the blood of Andraste, the first son in the line of endless daughters!" The crowd erupted in murmuring and talk, the utmost amount of mixed reactions, while Romulus turned and whispered something to the woman, obviously displeased with something. Very few knew what to make of the woman's introduction, but plenty just seemed happy to have the second of their Heralds back, especially considering all he reportedly went through just to stand there.

The pronouncement seemed to catch Leon off-guard for a moment, but he recovered swiftly, and as usually happened when he wanted to go somewhere, people got out of his way as he advanced forward. Estella moved in his wake, until they were both directly in front of their returned comrades and the newcomers. It was difficult to tell what the newly-minted Inquisitor was thinking, at least until she smiled.

“Welcome back, both of you. I’m so glad you made it.” And clearly, she was.

Khari didn’t let her get away with just the words, however, and took half a dozen steps forward, more at a run than a walk, to half-tackle her in a tight hug that drove them both backwards several more paces. “What a coincidence! I’m really glad we made it too!” She actually lifted Estella several inches off the ground, apparently having no reservations whatsoever about doing any of this in public with much of the Inquisition hanging around. Estella actually laughed, a bright sound that lacked most of her customary reserve, looking a bit surprised to be so enthusiastically greeted, but not at all unhappy about it. Even after she was put back on the ground, she wore a grin, her eyes a tad wet, though whether that was because she was overwhelmed by the good news or because Khari had hugged her tightly enough to squeeze a few tears out of her was rather unclear.

"It is so very good to see that you both are alive and well," Marceline said, a genuine smile even on her lips. The cheer that had developed over them was infectious and even drew her in. She stood beside Leon, taking the sight of Romulus and Khari backed by an armed escort in. "We had feared the worst," she explained, before her gaze shifted next to him, to the redheaded woman that had announced him. She beheld the woman for a moment, her smile wavering. What she had just announced was best left for a later discussion between all involved, but the mere fact that they had returned safely seemed to have flooded any negative impact such a proclamation could have.

"It seems that there is much to be discussed," she allowed a pause into her words while she returned her attention back to Romulus, "But, that will come in good time. Until then," she said, stepping forward and extending a hand for Romulus to take, "Welcome home, Lord Herald." There was an arch to her brow as she spoke the word, as if asking him if home was, indeed, the correct word to use.

"Thank you," he replied, taking the offered hand, though his eyes and his smile could not help but be directed at the sight of Khari attempting to swallow Estella with her limbs. "I plan to see this through with the Inquisition, to the end."

"That is exceptionally wonderful to hear," Marceline answered, inclining her head in a show of respect. No doubt his presence would help to take some of the weight off of Estella's shoulder, as well as do wonders for the Inquisition's morale. Her smile brightened as she laid a gentle hand on Romulus's shoulder, and gestured toward the castle proper. "Come, the sooner we speak, the better," she said, allowing Leon to lead the way back. Amongst all of the faces cheering for the return of their Herald, Marceline saw the back of only one person's head, a familiar mane of white hair framed by a pair of horns heading away from the crowd.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Romulus Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Marceline Benoit Character Portrait: Cyrus Avenarius Character Portrait: Vesryn Cormyth Character Portrait: Leonhardt Albrecht Character Portrait: Kharisanna Istimaethoriel

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Leon drew a deep breath into his lungs, holding it and counting to five before he let it out again. The large, semicircular chamber they’d chosen for the war room was nearly full to capacity, as he’d been rather liberal with his summonses, unsure what expertise would be necessary and what would not. Besides himself, Estella, Marceline, and Rilien, the room also held Romulus, Khari, Vesryn, and Cyrus. Reed and Larissa were present as well, situated in one corner of the room, both supplied to take notes on anything significant. He suspected they would not stop writing once they began.

The Inquisition’s commander cleared his throat softly, having prioritized the order in which he’d make his queries, doing his best to account for the fact that at least some of the others were bound to interject with queries of their own. He’d decided getting an accounting of events, and any consequent intelligence, was first priority.

He smiled mildly at both Romulus and Khari. It truly was good to see them well, but for the moment, there was too much else to be done to linger on that. He would leave the celebration to the troops outside, who were almost certainly doing so at this moment. “As I’m sure you’ve guessed, we’d thought you both lost after the events at Haven.” They had, essentially, volunteered to give up their lives for the rest. Fortunately, it would seem that at least the two of them had not needed to pay that steep a price after all. Leon folded his hands together behind his back.

“What happened?”

Romulus took a moment to get acclimated to the new meeting room, which was far grander than what they'd been afforded in Haven. It even had windows. And these offered a breathtaking view to the mountains that surrounded Skyhold's position in the Frostbacks. When he was ready, he leaned forward, placing his hands upon the edges of the table.

"We held our position at the trebuchet for as long as we could. Venatori and Red Templars were drawn to it. Eventually, that dragon made a pass, and obliterated a section of the wall. Everyone was thrown back. I was the closest to it, and was severely injured. The dragon circled around to land inside the wall, and the army's leaders came through the flames."

“A bunch of people, actually.” Khari picked up the thread of the explanation there. “The first lot were Venatori, probably the elites. Mages, but ones who moved like… like an army, a real one. Their leader was this man—he seemed to be human, but…” Her brows furrowed for a moment, but then she shook her head. “Anyway. He was tall, definitely a mage, and wore a mask over one side of his face.” She raised a hand to cover the left half of her own.

“He and the Venatori, uh… they seemed like a vanguard or something. The leader, he killed Fiona, like it wasn’t even an effort for him.” Considering who Fiona was, that news boded extremely poorly, to say the least. “Behind them came…” She struggled for the right words for a moment. “It looked like a darkspawn, I guess. But… there were also chunks of that glowy red lyrium on him, and he talked. A lot, actually.” She scratched her head, glancing briefly at Romulus.

“He was really tall, taller than you, Commander. But kinda weirdly spindly, like someone took all his parts and stretched them out. He had magic, too. By that point it was just me, Rom, and Meraad against this guy and his dragon and his army.” Her voice, usually at least slightly good-humored or light, was heavy, thick. “I, uh… charged them. Aimed for the big Darkspawn.” She didn’t make eye contact with anyone, instead fixing her eyes somewhere near Leon’s shoulder. “It—he, I guess… he just kinda gestured, and then this force picked me up and flung me into the trebuchet. Hurt like hell.” Her gaze came back into focus on the last part, at least, and she managed a little smile, more self-effacing than anything.

Romulus nodded somewhat gravely, not refuting anything Khari had said. His own voice had constricted somewhat since he'd last spoke. "They were only interested in me. The bait worked as well as we'd hoped. Meraad tried to stand up to the dragon on his own..." He left unsaid how well the attempt had gone. It was not difficult to imagine.

"The darkspawn Khari described is the Elder One we've been hearing about. His name is Corypheus, and he was responsible for the Breach and the deaths of everyone at the Temple of Sacred Ashes. In fact, he spoke a great deal, believing his victory complete." He shook his head at the thought, either from bewilderment or the darkness of the memory that the particular night in question carried with it.

"He spoke of championing Tevinter, assaulting the heavens. He said we interrupted a ritual," he looked to Estella, "the day we received our marks. He called them Anchors. 'Beg that I succeed, for I have seen the throne of the gods, and it was empty,' he said."

He delivered the line with no attempt at impersonating the Elder One, this Corypheus, though by his tone, he found a great deal of confusion in what the creature spoke of. "He tossed me away like I was nothing, and I hit the side of a well or something. He wanted to remove the mark from my hand with some sort of magical tool, but determined that it couldn't be done. I was to die, but Khari managed to set off the trebuchet, and dragged me into the well before the avalanche crushed the town." He half smiled at her briefly, as though he still couldn't quite believe they lived despite all of that.

"That's what we know of the enemy. The rest of the time was spent just trying not to die, and... discovering some interesting things." He did not actually look eager to enter that particular discussion.

Fortunately for him, he didn’t yet have to. “It called itself Corypheus?” Cyrus spoke with obvious surprise, and more appeared on his face when he glanced about the room only to find that no one else shared his shock. Blinking several times, he decided more explanation was prudent. “Corypheus was the name of the Conductor of the Choir of Silence. He was the Old God Dumat’s high priest at the time all of them entered the Fade physically. It was more than a thousand years ago.” From the sounds of it, he wasn’t sure whether he believed the implication of the darkspawn naming himself such, and he snorted softly.

Elder One, indeed.”

“The Grey Wardens had this creature sealed in the Free Marches, bound by blood magic ritual.” That contribution, perhaps more immediately relevant to their interests, came from Rilien. “Several of those I knew in Kirkwall broke the seal and killed it. Or believed they did. I will contact them immediately—there may be more they can tell us.”

It was almost too much information to process. But Leon knew from experience that when something seemed overwhelming, the best way to handle it was to break it down into its parts. The part about Corypheus’s possible origin, he left aside for the moment, focusing instead on Rilien’s contribution regarding a recent previous encounter. “Please do,” he replied, inclining his head in the Spymaster’s general direction. Anything else they wanted to talk about regarding that should probably wait until they could talk to one of these friends of his, anyway.

That left several other choices: the marks, their enemy’s goals, the other man who’d appeared with him, who was likely a general or right hand of some sort, and then the elephant in the room—what the woman who had appeared with Romulus had said about him. The marks, he thought, were probably a matter for Cyrus and Asala to do some work with, and that would be later than this meeting, anyway. Corypheus’s goals were unclear, beyond what Romulus had already said, and the while they might be able to get somewhere informationally if they knew who his prominent underlings were, the description Khari gave wasn’t enough to work with yet.

That left one more thing they could likely address in this meeting, and Leon turned violet eyes on Romulus. The Herald’s unease hadn’t gone unnoticed, but it was surely an important-enough matter that it bore explanation as soon as possible. “Romulus, the manner of your return did raise a number of questions. Would you please explain to us what it is that you have discovered?”

He grimaced slightly. "I'm sorry about that. It wasn't how I would've made my return, but... there are no subtle ways to enter this place." He half smiled, as much making fun of his own tendency to hide as he was complimenting the Inquisition on the new fortifications. He cleared his throat.

"The woman who spoke is named Anais. She leads a group that operates out of a place called Winterwatch in the Hinterlands. I traveled there with Asala and several of the Lions, and earned their loyalty by closing a rift. Her people rescued Khari and I from a mounted group of Venatori that nearly caught us." That seemed to be the easiest part of the explanation, and Romulus swallowed, taking a moment to formulate what came next in his mind. "Anais had studied under an order that devoted themselves to the history of Andraste, and her bloodline. She'd been researching a theory since Redcliffe."

He placed his palms back upon the table, as though to steady himself. "She believes I am a living descendant of Andraste herself. She introduced me to a man I met in Redcliffe, who turned out to be my father. I don't know if it can be proven, but she claims to be working on a way. From what we have, between Anais and my father... it seems right." He practically shook when he admitted that, effectively giving away that he believed it himself. The idea seemed to scare him more than anything, though there was a glimmer of something in his grey eyes. Hope, perhaps.

Well. That did, in fact, sound even stranger the second time.

Leon’s relationship to his faith had always been a great deal more nuanced and complicated than that of most people he knew. It didn’t bother him to acknowledge the mortality and the humanness of most of the figures involved in the Chant, and he’d never been one to, say, condemn outright the actions even of Maferath or the Archon Hessarian. Those were, naturally, unpopular positions, as was the common Tevinter belief that Andraste was not so much an exalted Bride of the Maker as she was foremost a human woman and a mage. He’d never seen the tension in saying she was both.

So it was perhaps easier to swallow for him than many faithful that her descendants were still very much alive. It wasn’t something everyone believed, nor something everyone liked to think about, but it was well within the realm of possibility, though as far as most knew, the line had disappeared a long time ago. Harder to believe than the fact that her descendants existed was that someone had managed to track them down. But he didn’t know this Anais or what she knew, and so on that, at least, he chose to suspend judgement.

“That, I think, is something best dealt with when she proves it or fails to do so,” he said at last. “In the meantime, I think it may be most prudent to prevent further declarations of the kind that accompanied your arrival.” His lips twitched into a rueful smile. “It’s not impossible that you are who she says you are, and if so, that will have implications. But those implications will go more than one way. Some will react as Anais and her group have. Others will deny it, and hate you for so much as suggesting that it could be true. Everything you’ve done, your entire life, will fall under the kind of scrutiny we have hitherto tried to divert from you. If you choose to make this information public, you will have to be prepared for that—to own your history and everything you do from now on as well. It will not be easy.” He didn’t mean to sound to dire about it, but he spoke the truth as he saw it. Being a public figure, especially one propelled to it with a claim like that, true or not, was very different from being anyone else.

"If I may, Ser Leonhardt?" Marceline interjected. Up to now, she quietly listened and kept her thoughts to herself. Her face was impassive, nearly impossible to glean any information on how she felt about all of this through her body language. Until now, she watched Romulus with a hawklike gaze, at least until her facade broke away with a smile. "Even if what this Anais says was true, and you must understand that by no means am I implying that it is not. There are far too many possibilities to discount it completely. But, the Inquisition cannot officially declare you Andraste's heir."

The smile on her lips remained, though, as she leaned forward, her arms crossed at her chest, "However, rumors have a strange way of propagating. Amongst the crowd that witnessed your speaker's declaration, a number of the nobility were present. Whom no doubt will spread news of what they have heard when they return home," Marceline's head tilted toward Leon, "The Inquisition will neither confirm nor deny these rumors," it was not as if they had many options. Either stance would anger someone. "With luck, those who wish to believe shall, and those who do not, simply will not."

Romulus nodded, taking a moment to absorb their reactions to the news. "Whatever you believe is best. I'm... still not sure what to do with the information myself." He then looked to Estella, and offered a reassuring smile. "But I do know that I'm here to stay, and serve the Inquisition in whatever manner it will have me. That's my choice now."

She looked a bit unsure in response, halfway raising a hand as though to stave off some part of what had been said. Likely the serve part, considering her nature. In the end though, she sighed a little, half-smiling back. “We’re happy to have you, in any case.”

That, really, seemed to be the bottom line here, and Leon nodded. “Exactly so. Thank you—both of you, for the information as well. By all means, get some rest. We’ll sort out what to do about all of this as soon as possible.”

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Marceline Benoit Character Portrait: Cyrus Avenarius Character Portrait: Leonhardt Albrecht

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The view from her balcony was simply brilliant. Marceline had taken it upon herself to occupy the living space atop the main tower, which was connected to the main hall via long staircase and and short hall. A rather large four-poster bed rested against the far wall, its bedding made and tucked into the mattress immaculately. Above that hung a purple banner of Marceline's house heraldry stitched in silver, a shield emblazoned with the image of a raven sitting atop a vine of grapes. On the wall adjacent was a large wardrobe which held a number of her finely tailored dresses. Across from that and pressed into a corner sideways was a desk whose seat would still give her the gorgeous view out of her balcony.

It was certainly the room of a noblewoman, and Lady Marceline was not yet even done decorating to her liking. "My apologies for the bare accomodations, I still have pieces of furniture on its way from home," she explained to her two guests. Leon, Cyrus, and herself had chosen the moment to put aside their duties and to do something other than work. "I am particularly anxious to get in a rug that I had imported from Antiva. The floor is nearly unbearably cold in the morning," she added taking an unsavory glance at the wooden floor beneath their feet.

It was summer, but the mountain mornings still carried a bit of a chill with it, but fortunately it heated up during the afternoon. The weather was nice enough that she had the double doors that led out onto the balcony thrown open. On the balcony itself was a long table, and on the table sat a number of items. Most prominently featured were the selections of bottles that they had all brought, dust still present on the necks of some. Surrounding them were a basket full of various types of bread, a plate of select cheeses, another plate holding different luncheon meats, and finally a dish of crackers.

Marceline allowed herself a mild smile as she looked between both her guests. "I must admit, I have been looking forward to this opportunity for a time now. It is a relief to do something other than try and manage the Inquisition's finances while meeting with the nobility." They were still receiving donations from their allies among the nobility, though fortunately their petitions to take tours of Skyhold had dropped somewhat since they had established themselves. Still, it was not a rare thing to cross the hold's grounds and catch the reflection off of an Orlesian mask.

Cyrus didn’t stand overmuch on the formality, and made himself comfortable in one of the chairs set at the long table, relaxing his usual impeccable posture into the seat back and half-smiling in that curiously-sharp way he had. He looked entirely comfortable, as though he did this sort of thing all the time, and in all fairness, he might once have done. “What's this?” His tone was teasing, but mildly so. “Even the esteemable Lady Marceline grows tired of balancing books and attending to the eccentricities of blue-blooded gawkers? There’s hope for the likes of us yet, Leon.”

Leaning forward, he reached towards one of the bottles on the table, dusting it off slightly with a cloth napkin. Removing what looked to be a foldable corkscrew from a pocket in his tunic, he popped it open with a series of practiced motions, moving forward again to pull three of the glasses towards himself. Into each, he poured a small amount of the dull golden liquid—one of his selections for this particular exchange. He declined to distribute them, however, apparently waiting for the others to get settled.

Leon did so as well, choosing a seat on the near side, so as to look out over the view from where he sat. For someone who left the matters of nobility wholly to Marceline, he didn’t look uncomfortable at a setup like this, either, as though it might not be precisely unfamiliar to him, either, though he lacked Cyrus’s obvious ease and comfort. Then again, that seemed to be true generally. He was smiling though, perhaps from the other man’s jest. “My thanks for the invitation, Lady Marceline.” He nodded amicably to her, then turned his attention with interest to Cyrus’s glasses.

“Ah, I’d heard Imperial brandy was worth writing home about. How did you manage to get it shipped here, though?”

While they spoke, Marceline took a seat on the other side so as to see them both, her back to the open air. “I still know people in the right places.” The reply was a little enigmatic, but Cyrus said no more, simply handing a glass to each of them. They weren’t full of course—this was more a tasting than an effort for any of them to become inebriated. “This one has a bit more honey to it than most do. I like it best with something a bit heavier, but the camembert will do quite well.” He lifted his glass a bit into the air.

“To our mutual culinary edification.”

Marceline raised her glass to clink off the others while allowing herself a smile. Instead of downing the liquid immediately, she gently swirled it in her glass before lifting it to her nose so that she could get the aroma. Once satisfied, she finally allowed herself a sip of the liquid. It rolled smoothly over the tongue, but it was immediately obvious as having a heavier kick than ale, a sort of sharp burn that settled in on the way down. Though made of grapes, like wine, it resembled in taste a strangely-sweet whiskey, and the tart flavor of fruit was blended, indeed, with something like honey, rich and saccharine. Marceline paused to think on the taste for a moment before she spoke. "It certainly has a kick, does it not? But it is not an unpleasant kick. I am rather fond of the aroma as well," she said, swirling the liquid again under her nose. She could find the tart fruitiness in the scent. "Where is this distilled?" She asked. While it was not the type of liquor that Michaël particularly enjoyed, her father did however. A bottle or of something similar would be a wonderful gift to send him.

“This particular one? The river valley just outside Vyrantium. The lowlands there are quite amenable to grapes. I can put you in contact with the distributer, if you’re so inclined. She’d be quite happy to have a client from somewhere outside the Imperium, I’m sure.”

He rolled the stem of his glass between his fingers for a moment, chewing over the cheese he’d taken to accompany the drink, then ventured a different variety of question. “You’re from growing country yourself, aren’t you, Marceline? I understand you’ve inherited a vineyard and production facilities of your own.” He either didn’t notice that he’d dropped her title from her name, or he’d done it on purpose, because he neither made note of it nor corrected himself. Either way, she did not say anything to correct him. Were they in public, she may have, but they were in a social outing and she did not feel the need to point out the faux pas.

"I am and I have," she answered, though a slight frown appeared in her lips. "The Lécuyer Vineyard, and the West Banks as a whole are mine, yes, but my mother is once again in charge of operations. With my obligations and attention focused on the Inquisition, I am unable to run our business efficently. Though fortunately, mother was more than happy to resume her duties as my steward. I do not think she enjoyed retirement as much as she believed she would," Marceline added with a smile.

“Sounds familiar,” Leon put in, his tone somewhere between nostalgic and amused. “There are some people, I think, who really don’t suit a life of inactivity.” He reached across the table next, taking up three new glasses and a bottle, picking up Cyrus’s corkscrew and using it to open a squatter, squarish bottle of liquor, the glass dark and smoky. The label was black, the letters on it silvery, and the glass itself was cut with some eye to aesthetics, though it was a sharp, angular sort.

“This is my contribution. I think my sister was a little too happy to learn that I intended to share with friends, because she sent me the really good stuff.” He smiled wryly. “Anderfels whiskey. You should, ah… drink slowly. It tastes better than Golden Scythe, but it’s almost as potent.” He barely covered the bottoms of their glasses with a thin finger’s width of liquid, the color a reddish amber. Even from as far away as they sat, the smell was sharp and obvious, and he handed the glasses over, raising for another toast.

“To… well, to family, I suppose.” He shrugged, knocking his own glass back with the ease of much practice.

"To family," Marceline repeated, clinking the glasses once more. Like before, she swirled the liquid and lifted it under her nose, though this time it was wholly unnecessary, and in fact came from a habit alone. A habit that burned the inside of her nose, and she noticeably took the glass away from her nose quicker than usual. However, despite the omen, she had her pride as a connoisseur and knocked the shot back much like Leon did. It was probably a mistake. He hadn’t been exaggerating when he called the whiskey potent; the sort they had in Orlais, that she was more familiar with, didn’t have near the bite this did. Though the taste was strong, with a fair number of oak and smoke flavors to it, it was clearly of good make, just… very overpowering.

Marceline stifled a cough and quietly reached for the nearest glass of water, and attempted her best to nonchalantly sip from it. One sip turned into two, and then two turned to half the glass, but she could still feel the burn in her nose and chest. Though she made no vocal complaint, she silently wiped a tear from the corner of her eye and helped herself to a wheat roll. "It certainly is... stout," Marceline admitted, pulling a chunk out of the roll and placing it in her mouth. After she swallowed, she continued, "Michaël would most certainly enjoy this," she said. Her husband was rather fond of strong drink, but she wondered if it was too much for even him.

It was impossible to miss the sound of Cyrus laughing to her left, though he was doing so quietly. “Let no one doubt your talent for diplomacy.” His own glass was empty as well, though she hadn’t seen in what manner he’d consumed it, and he looked relatively unaffected. Perhaps he’d elected to go a bit more slowly. She stared at him with an even frown for a moment before a smile worked its way into her features. It was her fault for letting her pride to get the better of her.

Leon smiled, too, his humor just as evident. “It’s… an acquired taste, I think.” While they waited for her to sufficiently recover and make her own contribution to the exchange, he changed topics slightly. “Are you still planning to send Pierre to live with your mother for a while, Lady Marceline? I think it might be more comfortable for him if he didn’t spend the winter here; I’m still not sure how well the castle’s going to handle the cold.”

"Yes, the weather in Orlais's heartlands is much more favorable than it would be here in the mountains," she explained. While it certainly did grow cooler back home, it would certainly not snow as much as it would in the mountains or as it had in Haven. "He should spend time at home, I would like it if he learned of the business much of the same way I had, and mother is a superb teacher." She then frowned again, sighed, and continued, "I would also like him there to keep mother company. She is a stern woman, yes, she has a soft spot for Pierre. The business slows during the fall and winter months, and she would get lonely with father away due to the civil war. I worry," she said, exchanging glances between Leon and Cyrus.

"What of your family, Leon?" she asked with genuine curiosity.

He lifted a shoulder, leaning back a bit in his seat. The expression on his face was fond, but still very much in the present moment. “My family and I have been separate for most of my life,” he explained. “I was given to the Chantry around the time I turned eleven, and entered templar training not long afterwards. I do visit, though. My mother died when I was quite young, but my father and two older siblings still inhabit our land. Gerwulf is the heir—he’s been married a while now, and I’ve a niece and a nephew. Verena heads the family’s forces, and nags me in letters.” Leon smiled, and moved his eyes to Marceline.

“I think it’s quite remarkable, though. The way you can raise a child in the midst of all of this. I certainly couldn’t.”

“I don’t think I could raise a child ever.” Cyrus said it humorously, but there was nonetheless a detectable thread of sincerity in the words. “Especially not if it was anything like I was.” His eyes glinted with mirth, and he reached for a round portion of bread, manipulating it in his right hand so that it rolled along the length of his forearm to his elbow, where he caught it with his left. “I was terrible, really. Still am, I suppose.” He lofted a brow, as though anticipating confirmation.

“Your Pierre is extremely well-behaved, by comparison."

"He is a young gentleman," Marceline agreed with a proud smile. She saw much of herself in the young man, in his demeanor and personality, but she also saw some of Michaël in him as well. She could tell by the set of his shoulders and the square in his jaw that Pierre would grow tall and strong like his father. "It is our hope that he will grow to be able to do anything he so desires, though it is my hope that he will wish to inherit the family business," she said with a coy smile and a slight laugh. However, the smile was short lived, and it gave way to a frown.

She could not pretend that it was that easy however. "I still worry. Michaël and I both do," she began, her features even set. "With our obligations, we fear that we are not able to be present as much as we would like. I wish I was able to spend more time with him, but I simply cannnot," she said. "I am pleased that he has managed to find a friendship with Asala." Marceline had noticed Pierre spending time with the Qunari woman in Haven, and she could not disapprove. It was clear that Asala was a kind young woman, and was a healthy friend to have.

Cyrus looked thoughtful for a moment, unusually free of the half-mocking demeanor which seemed to characterize him most of the time. “Friends have a way of changing things.” It was unclear if he spoke from personal experience or was merely offering up something he’d heard, but he didn’t exactly seem happy to say it. He shook his head just a little bit, though, and moved away from the subject.

“And what have you brought to our little exchange, Marceline?”

"A Cabernet Sauvignon," she answered, reaching for her bottle. The bottle itself was dark and dusty with the label having browned from age in her cellar. However, the stamp her heraldry of the shield and raven and its vintage was still immediately recognizable with black ink. She took Cyrus's corkscrew in hand and in a practiced sequence had the cork free in moments. She smiled as she began to pour into their glasses. The liquid was a thick, dark purple with a hue of red reflecting off of the edges. She was generous with the pour, but did not overdo it to better let the wine breathe.

She swirled the wine much like she did the other liquors, but she spoke too. "I will spare you from the sales pitch," she said, with a coy smile, "Just know that it is a Lécuyer Special Select, taken from my own personal stores," she explained. Finally she lifted it under her nose and took in the scent. Among the various aromas were an earthy wood, with a strong note of blackcurrants. She took a drink and allowed the flavor to settle over her tongue. It was a heavy drink, with the taste of blackcurrants at the fore, though beneath that were layers of tastes of vanilla and, oddly enough, a hint of green peppers.

“I’m not much of a wine person,” Leon admitted after his first swallow. “But that’s really quite good.” He offered a smile and a shrug, gathering up a few pieces of cheese and some bread to eat with it, presumably, and relaxed further back into his chair. His eyes wandered out over the view, and it was quite spectacular, really.

“I suppose I’ll add it to my list. Things I’d never have experienced but for the Inquisition.” His expression became slightly wry, and his focus momentarily returned to the other two. “At least not everything on it is completely terrible.”

“Commander, I think you may be even more cynical than I am. It’s quite refreshing.” Cyrus looked amused as ever, his smile widening a little to something with a hint of genuine pleasure in it. “I can happily drink to that, though. To things not entirely terrible, enjoyed with people not entirely intolerable.” He raised his glass and tilted it forward.

Marceline simply laughed and raised her glass as well, clinking it together with the others.

"Agreed."

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Marceline Benoit Character Portrait: Kharisanna Istimaethoriel

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Estella was tired.

She couldn’t properly recall the last time she’d had what she would consider a full night of sleep, but she knew she wasn’t alone in this. Leon was busier still, and she had no idea if Rilien slept at all, though if he was missing any, he didn’t show it. Lady Marceline probably didn’t let such nonsense as work get in the way of her health, but even so it was unlikely that she accomplished any less than the rest of them.

The most of it right now was just trying to establish themselves. Before, when the Inquisition had been based at Haven, they hadn’t actually done much to root the organization, so to speak. Everyone had assumed that they were there to close the Breach, and once that was done, so would they be. When that proved so utterly false, they were left with few long-term plans, and the ones they had had needed a great deal of work yet. It turned out that on her part, this mostly involved writing letters to send along with Lady Marceline’s, and doing some of what had been Tanith’s duties, helping Rilien organize intelligence reports until he could find someone he trusted enough with that kind of sensitive information.

And then of course there was answering inquiries directed for her specifically, which she wanted to do as much as possible, and then hearing the various matters that members of the Inquisition wanted brought before her attention. Occasionally there was a dispute, but mostly they just asked her to decide certain things for them, like when the architects had asked her what to do with one of the unused towers they were trying to renovate. Review plans, ask for modifications, try to determine which of many possible purposes would serve the best—it had occurred to her that the things she was to decide might really matter, in a way that her decisions had never mattered before. It was daunting and overwhelming and terrifying, but she did it as well as she could, leaning heavily on the recommendations of others where she was able.

She knew her fatigue was beginning to show, so she’d taken steps to conceal it as well as possible, mostly for the sake of appearances, which she’d been told repeatedly now were often just as important as reality. Estella found it difficult to agree, but… if it would help even a little, it was worth doing, and so every morning now included a few minutes’ worth of work to cover the dark circles beneath her eyes, and she tried to remember to dress a little better, though most of the time, she probably failed. It was hard to justify wearing silk and silverite to herself when she still wasn’t sure where they were going to get the funds to pay for food the next winter, so she generally elected not to bother.

Now though, they were slowly putting down the roots they wanted, and that meant she’d received more than one invitation to meet someone she’d written, usually at a salon or other small, but still relatively public, event. She’d blanched the first time, and asked Lady Marceline what to do. Apparently, the answer was: accept, when she had time. But Estella was not a noblewoman, not really, and integrating well into any group of the landed and titled was not something that came to her instinctively.

And if it didn’t come to her instinctively, she needed to be taught. Repeatedly and at length.

So they’d set something up, and she was apparently going to be getting the right kind of lessons from both Lady Marceline and Rilien, which she appreciated, knowing how busy they were, but also dreaded, for obvious reasons. When she’d expressed her reservations about it all to Khari a few mornings prior, her friend had offered to take the lessons with her, for support if nothing else. Estella wasn’t sure exactly why Khari would want to do something like that, or why she’d need to know any of it, but ultimately she figured it wasn’t about that—it was about helping out a friend, and for that, she was extremely grateful. Somehow, facing this with someone else made it a little more bearable, in theory.

When the two of them entered Lady Marceline’s office, however, she felt herself growing uncomfortable almost immediately. The center of the area had been cleared, and a small table was set to one side, in what looked like utensils for a full Orlesian many-course meal, sans only the food itself. Commander Lucien had never made her go to anything where dinner was involved, and she had to admit it all looked far too complicated already.

As promised, both Rilien and Marceline were present, the former standing beside the room’s desk, a wrapped bundle having replaced most of the paperwork thereupon. Marceline was in one corner, seated, with a full-sized harp set against her shoulder. Estella blinked, and her eyes found the last person in the room: Pierre Benoît, Lady Marceline’s son. He was about fourteen, if she had her guess, dark-haired like both his parents, and clearly much more comfortable here than she was.

Khari stepped into the room behind her, sweeping bright eyes over the whole setup and huffing a soft laugh. “It’s like a dinner party, only without the best part.” She nodded with her chin towards the empty plates. It didn’t seem to bother her much, though; her demeanor remained quite sanguine, lacking any of Estella’s tension at all. The elf hooked arms with her and dragged them both down to the slight recession in which most of the office really lay, bringing them both to stand roughly in the center of the cleared floor.

“All right everyone. Do your worst.” She grinned easily, jostling Estella in a companionable fashion. “You can be the noble lady, and I’ll be your knight in shining armor.”

Estella felt a fraction of her unease abate, a smile creeping up her face. “How chivalrous of you,” she replied dryly.

"Even a knight would know better than to barge toward the table with a lady in arm," Pierre chided Khari. From the corner of the room where Marceline sat, a soft melody began to play from the harp signfying the lesson was beginning. "The chevalier would instead allow the lady to lead them toward the table calmly and politely," he continued, stepping around the table so as to get a better look at them. "Unless, of course, it is crowded. At which point, chivalry dictates that the chevalier would lead her through the crowd," he lectured. It seemed that It wasn't Marceline who was to teach this lesson, but rather, her son.

Now that he was close enough to get a better look at, he was dressed in the colors of his family, black, silver, and with accents of purple. The summer found him in a clothes of lighter make, but still fine. Most apparent, however, was his height. Even at his age, he stood closer to Estella's height, and it was clear he had more yet to grow. In a couple more years, he would most likely stand as tall as his father, who himself stood almost as tall as Lucien. Pierre then gestured toward the pair of spots that had been laid out on the table. Two place cards had been set up, each bearing one of their names written in fine calligraphy. "The chevalier would then kindly pull out the chair for the lady."

Khari blinked at Pierre for a few moments, a poorly-contained snort becoming an exceptionally undignified cluster of boisterous laughter, but she reigned it in more quickly than she usually did, clearly fighting to straighten out her face. “Someone get Pierre a cane, so he can rap our knuckles when we get it wrong.” The laughter remained in her eyes, even despite the fact that she managed to otherwise smooth her expression to a respectable degree, and she cleared her throat, approaching the setting with at least some dignity and pulling the chair out partway for Estella to sit. Estella thought that it was probably better no one did, else they’d both walk out with tender hands.

“Milady Inquisitor.” For a moment, she smiled, and it looked like she might lose the battle with her own sense of humor, but in the end she suppressed it, if only just.

Estella smiled herself, resisting the urge to shake her head at the mannerisms which were quite unlike Khari, and remembered that she should probably return with ones that were quite unlike herself… though maybe by not quite as much. “My thanks, messere.” She slid into the chair as gracefully as she could and let Khari ease it closer to the table for her, keeping her hands in her lap until she knew what to do with them.

"In this case, the correct term to refer to the chevalier would be 'Ser'. Were the individual in a higher social standing than yourself, it would, indeed be Messere, but as the Inquisitor, the chevalier remains in a social standing equal to or lesser than yourself, in which the individual should be refered to as Ser." Pierre leaned slightly against the table as he spoke, his arms crossed over his chest. "Were the chevalier also nobility, milord would also be an acceptable honorific, but in this case..." Pierre continued, trailing off with pursed lips. A quick smile lept into his lips for a moment as he winked at Khari, "Ser will do."

Pierre's gaze fell back down to Estella. "We will create cards bearing the aristocratic titles and their appropriate terms of address for you to memorize later. It is... rather complicated to explain in words," He said apologetically.

Actually… that might not be a terrible idea. Estella was usually pretty decent at remembering things, so memorizing the distinctions instead of just trying to practice them a lot might be of some help. She nodded slightly. “I know some of those already, thankfully. Commander Lucien always said that if I can’t remember exactly what to do, ‘milord’ and ‘milady’ work for everyone who isn’t royalty, so I guess that’s what I’ll do if I forget.” She grimaced a bit, but the expression disappeared shortly thereafter.

Her eyes fell to the place setting in front of her, and it almost returned. “Ah… the only rule I know for this is that utensils are used from the outside in.” She had a feeling it was a great deal more complicated than that.

“Uh…” Beside Estella, Khari had already picked up the innermost set of silverware, and now looked back and forth between the two of them with confusion. “Why wouldn’t you use the ones closest to your plate first? Why are there so many anyway? It’s not like the metal keeps the taste of whatever was on it… unless you suck at eating and don’t use it right.” She eyed the array of forks and knives with suspicion.

“Unless these extras are for throwing at people who say stupid things at dinner, I don’t really get why you need them.”

“That... would be a very different type of Game," Estella replied wryly. Maybe an improvement, in some respects. At least you could duck a flying fork.

"A look will usually do," Pierre replied. Amusingly, Pierre was shooting Khari a very similar look. "Now, if the chevalier would kindly stop handling the utensil like their sword, we can continue." Though he was quick to quash it, Estella still managed to recognize a wisp of a smile. "Moving on. Yes, Lady Estella, that is the general gist. The utensils have very specific purposes, and once done with, the utensils are taken with the plate they were used with so as not to contaminate the next course, and to also keep the table clean."

With that, Pierre pointed to the outer most fork. "This is your salad fork. Often, it will be chilled so as to not warm the salad," Continuing, he began to gesture down the line. "This is your dinner fork, it is the largest one, and over here," he said, gesturing to the other side of the plate, "You have your soup spoon," he said, starting at the utensil furthest away from the plate. "This is your teaspoon, and this," he finished on the largest knife on the table, "is your dinner knife."

Pierre shrugged, and pointed to the pair of utensils above the plate. "This is your dessert spoon, and your cake fork. Your napkin is over here, he added, pointed to the square cloth next to the forks. "And if used, be sure to fold it back in such a way to hide the dirtiness. We are civilized individuals after all," he added with a quick glance at Khari and another contained smile. "Well. Some of us."

Khari’s eyes snapped to Pierre at that, and she grinned savagely, flashing too many teeth. “You can teach a wolf to walk and dress like a sheep, kid, but it’s always gonna be a wolf.” She put her knife back down where it belonged, though, and moved her hand along the table to rest briefly at the end of each item, as though she were committing their names to memory.

“Or perhaps a bear,” Estella rejoined, recalling a story she’d heard about Khari’s favorite chevalier technique. She did much the same as her friend did though, repeating the names of the utensils to herself in her head so as to commit them to memory. Thankfully, she knew how to eat in a way that would count as sufficiently ‘civilized’ for her purposes, so the fact that there was no actual food here wasn’t so bad. Nodding slightly, she glanced back up at Pierre.

“How does one handle conversation at a setting like this? I, um, don’t want to presume that anyone would be interested in talking to me, but… I suspect there might be a few interested in talking to the Inquisitor. I don’t have to stop talking to someone if someone with a better title cuts in, do I?” That sounded unpleasant, but also like it might be a rule.

Pierre shook his head in the negative. "To cut someone off is a serious faux pas no matter the title, not to mention rude. Chances are, those with a higher standing are less likely to cut you off, so as to not appear uncouth." Afterward, Pierre allowed himself a chuckle, "Do not presume, there will always be those who wish to have a conversation with you, for one reason or another." It sounded as if he had experience in the area, as if he had been a part of many of these conversations himself.

“Obviously.” Khari looked sideways at Estella, raising an eyebrow. “I mean, let’s be honest here, Stel, even if you weren’t the Inquisitor, you’d still be awesome. And super nice. And you have a really cool job.” She ticked the items off on her fingers as she went. “And you’re much smarter than most people, and funny. So… really I’d be surprised if you weren’t swarmed.”

Estella cleared her throat, not having expected such a response and finding herself surprisingly embarrassed by the praise. Khari wasn’t the kind of person who’d say things from a desire to flatter, and so she presumed that if the elf had said them, she really meant them. She was quite sure her ears were turning red. “Thank you,” she said, if only quietly. She didn’t believe most of it, exactly, but she believed that Khari believed it, and that was still something important. Though it probably said more about Khari than herself.

In any case, she returned her attention to Pierre and nodded her understanding. “I think that all makes sense,” she told him, somewhat surprised by the result. “Is there anything else we should know?”

"One thing," he said, glancing up and across the room to the corner, where his mother sat style plucking a melody on the harp. "Do not try to put on airs. There are those that do, and while there is no unspoken rule against it, there are those that will respect you more if you simply be yourself," he said, apparently returning a nod to Marceline. Returning to Estella he smiled, "Be polite, be courteous, and be yourself. The nobility adore stories of the kind and humble leader."

“See? Nothing to worry about. They’ll love you!” Khari seemed to be a little less serious this time, perhaps because it was still the court they were talking about. It was at that point that Rilien stepped forward slightly and crooked a finger to summon them both to where he was standing. After a brief lesson on how to exit the table, they approached, to find that he was unwinding the bundle he’d set on the desk, which rolled out to cover the whole length.

It proved to be a soft case for over a dozen knives, needles, and other instruments of death and dismemberment, as it were. Most of them were smaller than the ones he typically used, or anything one would trust to a battle proper. “As distracting as court events can be, you must also always maintain an awareness of your surroundings, and the people around you. That distraction is what makes them opportunities for bards and assassins to ply their trade, and whether you like it or not, you will be a very obvious target.” His eyes moved to Khari.

“As will you, in fact, though not as much so.” He declined to elaborate, but it wasn’t too difficult to guess. Khari had declared her intentions to break into the human-only world of Orlesian knights—even if her claims were found to be absurd, there would still be some who would desire to silence her for having the audacity to make the declaration.

Rilien slid a knife from the cloth, still in its sheath, and handed it to Estella. Studying Khari for a moment, he elected to pass her a small bundle of needles. “Attempt to hide these somewhere on your person. I will not look.” True to his word, he turned around and faced the back wall, hands folded into his sleeves.

Estella examined the knife with some trepidation. It wasn’t very long, maybe four inches or so of blade and another several for the hilt, but it was still a relatively large object. Her clothes were relaxed in their fit; nothing clung to her skin by any means, but she also wasn’t entirely sure that she’d be able to conceal anything in them. Tugging at a few spots on her tunic experimentally, she grimaced and decided her best option was probably behind her, at the small of her back, and she went about trying to arrange that, hoping that her belt would make the concealment slightly less obvious.

“Uh…” Khari seemed even less sure, though her clothing was much looser. After some hesitation, she wound up sliding the needles into her boot, wiggling her foot a couple times in what was surely an attempt to make them sit comfortably. Checking to make sure that Estella was also done, she shrugged. “Ready, I guess.”

Rilien turned around, facing them both with a placid expression. Deliberately, he circled them, only once before he came to a stop. “Lower back.” That was addressed to Estella. “Not a poor selection, but you’ll need to learn to actually conceal it.” Citrine eyes flicked to Khari. “Right boot. Better hidden, but it would have been extremely obvious if you’d had to go for the weapon. If anyone’s carrying something there, it is probably only for defensive purposes. Or they are unskilled at subterfuge. Either or both.”

He paused a moment, his attention diverting temporarily to Marceline, still playing the harp. “Neither Lady Marceline nor Pierre is wearing any, but both have an idea of where they would, if they felt the need. I am wearing five.” There was certainly no evidence of that claim to be seen, but then considering who and what Rilien was, it wasn’t preposterous.

“It is safest to assume that everyone you meet is armed.” Rilien blinked, shrugging one shoulder, and a dim gleam appeared near his hand as he moved a dagger into his grip. “And hostile.” He lunged for Estella.

In that moment, the melody lilting from the harp grew heavy and picked up in tempo as Marceline shifted the tune to better fit in with the sudden fit of activity.

Estella reacted as soon as she saw the glimmer, because it wasn’t entirely out-of-character for Rilien to throw things like this at her. Suddenly, the fact that the floor was cleared made a great deal of sense, and Estella sidestepped the initial swing, twisting around to the side on soft feet, reaching back for the only weapon available to her right now: the knife at her back. For all her agility, however, Rilien had more of it, and more precision as well, and he never overcompensated on a miss, meaning he’d be able to take another strike before she could arm herself, and she readied to get out of its way as well as she could, making sure she had enough room on all sides to maneuver. She was useless in a corner, after all.

He did indeed have plenty of opportunity to slash again, but his attempt to do so was interrupted, as Khari finally gained her bearings and charged at him, lowering her shoulder in an effort to carry him to the floor. Rilien dodged the maneuver like it was inconsequential in its entirety, and on her pass, took hold of her shoulder and swept her feet out from underneath her in a smooth motion, redirecting Khari’s momentum and putting her on the floor of the office, prone and spread-eagled.

The move hadn’t done anything to him, but it had bought Estella a bit more time.

It was enough that she could free the knife, anyway, and Estella readied it before her. The weapon was shorter than she would have preferred, but Rilien hadn’t left her untutored in the use of close weaponry like this, and she knew how to handle it at least. The one thing she could say in her favor was that his blade was also short, and so she wasn’t at a significant reach disadvantage or anything. Also, if she could buy enough time for Khari to get off the floor again, then she’d have an ally.

The next series of exchanges had her hanging on by a thread—Rilien was swift, exact, and utterly relentless, as ever. It was a wonder she ever managed to last more than seconds when they sparred, but of course she suspected that was because he took it easy on her so she could learn instead of just losing. She always did both. Estella dodged where she could, and parried where she could not; he hit more heavily than one might expect of someone who used light blades primarily, but then that was normal to her as well. He was slowly backing her towards a corner, and she trying desperately not to let him, but there was a certain inevitability to it.

Khari came in from behind again, this time diving low from the beginning, and though Rilien moved out of her initial grab range, she managed to get a hand around his ankle, forcing him to abandon his effort to back her up and deal with the immediate problem. Khari hadn’t managed to disrupt his balance enough to take him to the floor with her, and so his retribution was swift: he twisted, stepping on her back with his other foot, and brought the knife down to rest the flat of it against the side of her neck.

“Dead.” The declaration was flat, with no note of triumph, and Khari conceded with a groan, pulling herself back up onto her feet when he stepped off of her. Estella had used the opportunity to move in and go on the offensive, but he bent backwards away from her swipe, taking a few steps back. They were back to being near the center of the room, but Rilien’s tactics shifted, the speed of his movements increasing sharply, and with a heavy strike with the blade’s hilt to her wrist, he disarmed her, then stepped into her guard, wrapping his free hand around her neck without pressure and pressing the blade to her sternum.

“Dead.” He said it more softly the second time, pausing for a moment before he released her and stepped back, as the music from Marceline's harp shifted back to a more gentle melody.

“You forgot you were armed, but your idea wasn’t a bad one. Most dexterous combatants are unprepared for a fight on the ground. Assassins and the like most often rely heavily on the element of surprise and accomplishing what they need to do in as few moves as possible. But this is not true of all of them.” Obviously, it wasn’t true of him, for one.

Then he turned to Estella, regarding her flatly. “You are still your own most dangerous foe.” He didn’t elaborate, only shaking his head slightly.

She sighed. He said that a fair bit, of late, and she thought she understood part of what he was getting at, but it wasn’t so simple as that. With a wan smile, Estella glanced at Khari. “Maybe we should practice with close weapons in the mornings sometimes.”

“Only if we get dramatic harp music." Khari arched a brow in Lady Marceline's general direction.

Marceline simply smiled politely and inclined her head slightly into a bow.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Marceline Benoit Character Portrait: Zahra Tavish Character Portrait: Asala Kaaras

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The leaves were beginning their change.

From green to their orange and red hues, autumn was quickly approaching. The summer's heat, while not still not so hot in the mountains where Skyhold nestled, started to bleed away, and soon a crispness would return to the air. Autumn's arrival also signified Pierre's departure. It was this occasion that had Marceline out of her office this afternoon. A cart and a team of horses to pull it had been requisitioned for their use. Along with Pierre, a few of the Inquisition's soldiers were given leave and were hitching a ride to their homes along the way. They'd hear no objections from Lady Marceline, the more people that traveled with Pierre and his father, the safer they'd be along the roads.

Marceline watched with her arms crossed and a tight frown as Michaël checked the horses and their tetherings. Though both Michaël and she believed it best that their son stayed the autumn and winter at their home on the West Banks, it did not mean she wouldn't miss him. The boy himself was busy nearby, helping the soldiers organize their belongings in the back of the cart. Standing beside the men, Marceline couldn't help but notice how fast her son was growing. It wouldn't be but a few years now that he would be a man himself. An imperceptible wince came with the thought, that she would miss more time with him. She hoped that he wouldn't grow even more while he was away.

Both Larissa and even Asala were present as well, to see Pierre off. Larissa laughed and joked with the soldiers as they packed, but Asala stood quietly further away, almost as silent as Marceline was. Eventually, their work was done, and they climbed in back of the cart themselves, settling themself in for the trip to come. Pierre and Michaël approached Marceline, and she put a practiced smile on her lips. They could see through it, of course. They always could. "That should be it," Michaël said, tossing a glance to the cart behind him. Marceline simply nodded. "Come on, Marcy. We'll be back before you know it," he added with a big, genuine smile.

The plan was, Michaël would travel back home with Pierre, and then a few weeks later return to Skyhold with the other soldiers. Larissa would then travel at the beginning of Spring to fetch Pierre and return to Skyhold. "You both know that is not true. Skyhold will be rather lonely without my men," she said with a gentle laugh. With that, Marceline approached her husband with her arms wide, pulling him into a hug, before he suddenly lifted her up off the ground into a spin. She tried her best, but she couldn't hide the surprised squeak she made. As he set her down, she laughed and turned toward Pierre. "Do not give your father any trouble... And make sure that he and mother play nice," she said, before wrapping him into a hug too. Rather unexpectedly, he too lifted her in the air, though without a spin. When he set her back down, Michaël and him shared a laugh. "You two need to stop," she said firmly through a smile.

"We will be fine, mother. I will write, every chance I get. You know this," he said. Then Pierre turned toward Larissa, "I will miss you too, and I will make sure to send you the newest novels in Val Firmin," he said.

Larissa beamed for a moment before collecting herself bowing. "Thank you Milord. And I will be sure to keep in touch about how Lady Marceline is doing," she added.

With that, Pierre walked past them and to Asala who stood nearby. She recoiled half-a-step before digging her heels in and blushing. It seemed that having his parents eyes on her put her off-balance. "And I'll be sure to keep you in my letters too, Asala."

"Uh... Th-thank you... Oh! I almost forgot. These are for you," Asala said, producing a small package from under her cloak. "They are, uh... Snacks. For your trip," She added with a shaky smile. She then inclined her head and spoke "Pan-panahedan." Asala hesitated for a moment before wrapping him into a quick hug and releasing him just as fast, the blush spreading across her face.

Pierre chuckled and returned to the cart, before hopping into it's seat beside his father. Marceline approached them both and took a hold of Michaël's hand. "You two be careful, and have a safe trip. Please," she asked.

"Of course," Michaël answered, before leaning down to kiss her. "And you try not to work yourself to death. I love you."

And with that, Michaël bade the horses forward through the gate and over the bridge leading out of Skyhold, Marceline waved to them as they departed, and she was aware that Larissa and Asala were doing the same behind her. Slowly they faded from view, and though Larissa took her leave, they watched as they vanished over the horizon, leaving only Marceline and Asala.

A hum sounded above the retreating din of clopping hoof beats and rolling wagon wheels. Accompanying the intrusion were deft fingers plucking at Marceline's sleeve: a pinch of fabric between forefinger and thumb. It wasn't readily apparent just how long she'd been there. Or if she'd simply skulked up on them as they were waving Pierre and Michaël off. Lidded eyes followed theirs into the distance. Zahra watched as the wagon bounced and rolled and ebbed further away. Her expression softened as she released Marceline's sleeve and took a tentative step backwards, “They'll be fine—those two, if they're anything like you, Sunshine.”

The Captain had chosen a mixed fare of clothes for the season. It appeared, in any case, that she was always cold. At least if her colorful mix of words were anything to go by. Cold as tits, she'd say. A light tunic with a leather vest cinched around her waist. Leather trousers and knee-high boots. A decorative sword dangled at her hip. Bright red tassels hung from the pommel. She inclined her head towards Asala and grinned. A form of greeting if it was anything at all. Or else she'd found something else amusing. The distinction was difficult whenever Zahra was involved. She planted her hands on her hips and rolled one of her shoulders, bright eyes moving back to Marceline's face, “I was hoping you had some time to spare.”

Marceline first looked to Asala, who'd been watching the Captain herself. Eventually though, she realized that Marceline was looking at her, and caused her to wince and avert her gaze elsewhere, but not before shrugging. Marceline's breath hitched in humor toward the woman and she smiled as she turned her attention back to Zahra. “I suppose it would all depend,” Marceline answered with a manufactured smile, “with what you intend to do with that time.” Despite the words, there were humor behind them. Larissa could handle what paperwork she had to do, and in fact was probably doing it as they spoke. The meeting she had with various individuals about expanding their trade routes to Skyhold wasn't for some time yet, so it was not as if she was immediately busy.

“But no, there is nothing that requires me as such currently,” she added.

If there was anything awkward about the silence that passed between them, Zahra was nonplussed by it. It didn't seem at all possible that she could be bothered by anything of the sort. She took a step back from Marceline and idled to the side, casually glancing over to where Asala stood. Her fingers tapped against her hips. A tuneless sound beating against her leathers, “Nothing you'd regret.” She let the words hang in the air for a dramatic moment and pursed her lips, “I was hoping you could show me how to use this thing.” She patted the blade swinging at her hip affectionately and toyed with the brightly-colored tassels. Running them through her fingers, “You know I'm good with my bow, but there are times when... something else is needed.” It appeared as if she didn't want to clarify her reasons, or else she thought that it was good enough of one.

She swung her gaze back to Asala and inclined her head. A smile pulled at her mouth and appeared all the more mischievous, “You wouldn't mind if I borrow Lady Benoit, would you? I promise I'll bring her back before nightfall. Captain's honour.” A strange way of asking whether she was interrupting anything, perhaps. However skewed. Asala looked up and shook her head in the negative, throwing her white hair across her face.

“Oh, well, you see... I, uh, I mean, we... weren't...” she tried before unsurprisingly stumbling over her words as usual.

Marceline decided to make it easy for the woman and raised her own hand. Asala drew into silence from the gesture, and let Marceline speak. “We had nothing planned, she just wished to see Pierre off,” she explained, smiling at the young woman. Asala blushed, and her gaze fell, but she said nothing else, nor did she start to leave. No doubt curious, and Marceline couldn't blame her. The Captain was a rather interesting individual. Her gaze fell upon Zahra's sword, and Marceline's smile turned into a thoughtful frown. She looked at it for a moment, before she reached out and held her hand open, gesturing with a wagging finger to let her see the sword for a moment. Still, it was quite strange that Zahra would come to her to ask how to use the blade.

“There are better swordsmen than I present, why is it that you wish to learn from me and not them?” The Lions came to mind, as they were the ones training the Inquisition's soldiers.

Asala's spluttering caused Zahra to laugh. Though it was without malice. Her smile pulled back to reveal teeth and her hands drifted towards the waxen rope binding the scabbard in place. It loosened and fell away as soon as soon as she pulled the knot inwards: an unusual sailor's tangle. She caught the blade before it touched the ground and turned towards Marceline. Offered it in both hands, palms facing upward. From the looks of it... it may have been a decorative piece, or at least meant for extravagance rather than bloodshed. A pretty piece. She took a step forward and dropped it into Marceline's open hand. A softer laugh sifted through her teeth. It sounded somewhat flustered. As if she'd been caught with something she was not supposed to touch.

“You do yourself no credit.” Zahra pulled her now-empty hands back and settled them back at her hips, toeing the rope she'd left at her feet. Her eyes rolled skyward for a moment and resolved themselves back on Marceline's face. As if she were collecting her thoughts. Or deliberating on a reason good enough to serve. “Not all styles would suit my purposes. I'm not like Khari. Or Rom. Brute strength? No. Finesse? Grace? Fluidity? I see no better teacher. I may seem,” she tilted her head and chuckled, “harsh, sometimes. But I'd like to learn from someone who fights to win. Honor be damned.” From her choice of words, it appeared as if her mind had been made up on anyone else in the Inquisition. Lions included.

Marceline's eyes focused on Zahra for a moment. It was a fair assessment, though she still believed that there were others better suited to teaching than her. Marceline knew that she was unsuited to combat, but then again, she did not claim to be a soldier. She was a diplomat, with enough experience to protect herself. However, Zahra was an archer, and few lessons in swordsmanship could only help. Her attention then turned to the sword in her hand, gripping it by the hilt and bringing it closer to inspect. She ran a finger down along the blade and then tapped the point. Nodding to herself, she turned away from Zahra and held it straight up in front of her, perfectly parallel to her body and perpendicular to the ground. Her off hand settled into the small of her back as she thrust the blade forward twice, and slashed on the third.

“The blade should be sharpened, and the weight better distributed. It is very lovely, however, and nothing that cannot be fixed by a quartermaster,” Marceline smiled, before turning the blade over in her hand and offering it back to its owner. “Very well, if you wish for lessons, then I cannot deny you,” she said with a smile, “Though I've never taught this particular subject. Michaël is the one who teaches Pierre self-defense so forgive me if I am not the ideal teacher.”

She then crossed her arms and held Zahra in her eyes for a moment, before she nodded, “Come, we will go to my office. There is enough room to learn the forms there, but,” Marceline said, beckoning with a finger, “understand that the best weapon is not the one in your hands, but the one in your head,” she said with a smile.

Zahra watched as Marceline scrutinized the blade, hands on hips. Her mouth set itself into an expectant smile. If she could've bristled with energy—a desire to get down to all the nitty grit of swordsmanship, she probably would have. Instead, she tipped towards Asala and bumped her shoulder with a blooming grin. As languid and lewd as the Captain could be, there where instants like these where she appeared more childlike and unreasonable. Had Marceline outright said no, the woman certainly looked as if she would not take it as an answer.

She ticked the impressions from her fingers as if she were creating a schedule of chores in her mind. When Marceline back towards her, Zahra waggled her fingers and retrieved the blade from her hands. Settled it back into its scabbard and nearly rocked up on her tiptoes. Green eyes bright against the sun blazing in the background: nearly as wild as Khari. “Just what I wanted to hear!” she butt in, all hurried, before licking her lips and settling back on her feet, “Leading and teaching are one in the same, aren't they?” Not always true, though she appeared as if she had no misgivings on her decision to approach her about the subject.

She nodded her head and fell in beside Marceline. It was clear that her expectations had already run their course. Fancies best left in storybooks. Perhaps, towards something involving clashing swords in the yard or leaping onto tables and skittering parchment paper across the tables. Certainly not what Marceline had in mind.

In reality, what Zahra received was a number of guides written on the matter of fencing, as well as a few hand-written notes of Marceline's own design. They were piled up on a desk that Marceline had placed Zahra at in her office, while Larissa sat at Marceline's own with an amused look. The woman herself stood nearby with a tilt to her head as she looked upon the gathered materials. She did not know how the Captain would take to being issued mostly theory at first, but Marceline would rather Zahra get acquainted with the theoretical aspect before they dove into swinging swords around. Without a good baseline, Marceline surmised that she may hurt herself or someone else in her attempts to learn.

“You may borrow this material, it will give you a good idea of the basics you are to learn.” She then smiled and nodded, “It is dry, I understand, but one must first gather all the information they are able to before they act.”

If Zahra's expression was anything to go by, she certainly hadn't expected being seated at Marceline's desk with a pile of books, dog-eared and well-worn, surrounding her. She pursed her lips and leaned over the assorted papers she'd been instructed to look over. She dragged her fingers across the letters and finally leaned back in her chair. There might have been a sigh poised on her lips, though she made no noise. Glassy eyes rolled towards the ceiling for a moment before she leaned back into her work. Scrawled notes in a small empty book bound with strings. Certainly not something she would have owned. Marceline had instructed her to read through several books and mark down prudent information pertaining to footwork and movements. She paused in her work and smoothed her hands across the loose pieces of parchment.

“I, uh,” she seemed to hesitate before a smile tickled at her mouth and widened, “wasn't exactly expecting this. At all.” Zahra looked up from her work and tapped her fingers against the table, “Is this truly how you were taught all this? For curiosities sake. With the way you move, I thought you'd had a savvy teacher. Leaping and darting and all that.”

Marceline laughed softly to herself. She shook her head gently and began to lean against the desk Zahra sat at. “My studies began the same way when I was a young girl, and Pierre as well. The leaping and darting followed soon after.” The corner of Marceline's lip turned upward and she continued, “Though, I doubt there is much leaping in reality. Lifting your feet off of the ground is not an intelligent maneuver.” There was a tone of gentle chiding mixed in with her amusement but soon she shook her head and tried to give her something Zahra could work with.

“Some of the others, yes, they may start you off with sword in hand immediately, but it was not how I was taught. I would never be as strong, or even as quick any who may would wish me harm, but I could be more intelligent.” Marceline quieted for a moment and reflected. “We will never be able to overpower or outrun everyone, but we can outmaneuver and out-flank, and all that begins inside those pages.” she said, pointed toward the collection of books and papers. “And yes, once you have attained a basic understanding, we will move into the practical application. You can be as intelligent and observation as possible, but it means little if you do not know how to hold a sword correctly,” Marceline added. The smile had returned to her face.

This would prove interesting.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Romulus Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Marceline Benoit Character Portrait: Cyrus Avenarius Character Portrait: Zahra Tavish Character Portrait: Vesryn Cormyth Character Portrait: Leonhardt Albrecht Character Portrait: Asala Kaaras Character Portrait: Kharisanna Istimaethoriel

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The fresh snow crunched underneath their feet as Marceline traveled alongside Leon. Winter was upon them now, with new drifts of snow being supplied to Skyhold's grounds daily. Even then, snowflakes lazily drifted from the sky, and provided a stark contrast for the moment that they lingered in her well-kept mane of black hair. She was dressed for the weather with a thick black coat with silver fur lining the collar. The mountains would only make the winter chill all the more sharp, and they could probably look forward to snow for several more months.

“I do hope you have men keeping the roads clear,” Marceline said with her neck arched upward, studying the falling snowflakes. They would depend on those roads in the following months for supplies like food and clothing. A lot of diplomacy went into securing contracts and trade routes for goods. It would be a shame to see all of her work undone by snow blockages. Her words, however, were merely musings. She had faith that Leon had the soldiers doing whatever was required of them.

Her head fell back down and turned toward Leon, “Speaking of the soldiers, there are some things I wish to discuss.”

“I wished to see how you felt using the army in an attempt to bring in a source of income,” Thus far, the Inquisition had mainly relied on donations and loans from across Thedas, though primarily Orlais and Ferelden. However, donations would soon become scarce as the Inquisition established itself, and there were only so many loans they could take out before the debt crushed them. “If you feel they are ready, of course,” If not, then the whole thing was moot.

Leon, perhaps due to sheer size, didn’t seem much bothered by the cold. His own cloak was comparatively light, made of nothing more than roughspun wool with a deep red linen lining. He crossed his arms upon Marceline’s suggestion, causing the edges of the garment to fall forward. His brows furrowed.

“Bring in income?” he echoed, sounding dubious at best. “It’s not a matter of readiness, Lady Marceline, but a matter of ethics. If you’re suggesting that we hire ourselves out to the highest bidder or take sides in a civil war in hopes of getting paid…” he trailed off, shaking his head. “That’s not really the kind of thing an army like this one should be doing.”

“I did not mean for the suggestion to sound so mercenary, Ser Leon.” Taking a side in the civil war would not only be unethical, but would also lead to a conflict of interest and undeniable bias. Her father fought for the Empress however, and she would not condone placing the Inquisition's army in his way. “You understand as much as I that war brings all sorts out of the woodwork. Bandits, highwaymen, plus we now have the Venatori and the Red Templars to contend with. With the majority of the Chevaliers' attention turned toward the civil war, there are not as many trained soldiers patrolling the roads or keeping the holds safe.”

Marceline shrugged and glanced upward toward Leon's face. “I am simply suggesting we fill that need. Now, do not misunderstand me,” Marceline, her own brows furrowed, “I do not want to initiate a protection racket where safety comes at a price, but... The Inquisition will need income to feed and pay her soldiers.”

Leon seemed somewhat mollified by the clarification, but his frown didn’t disappear. “In principle, that’s not a bad idea, but… the kind of people who would benefit from our protection are not the kind who have much to give in terms of donations. We may end up spending more on transport and supplies than we get back for the effort. Much as I’d like to help, that might be better left to the Lord-General’s chevaliers. Not to mention Orlais is a sovereign nation even despite the civil war. We don’t really have a legal right to—look out!”

Before she could react, whatever it was struck her hard in the face. A freezing cold sensation was immediate as it spread through her face and seeped into her neckline. She halted midstep and gasped, swiping her face and bending over to free the snow stuck in her collar. Snow. It was then she realized that she'd been struck by a snowball. After removing as much of it as she could from her face and clothes, she shot a gaze upward, looking for the most likely culprit. Her brows were furrowed and her eyes narrow, though her face did not hold a look of outright rage instead sitting somewhere at accusing.

The first person she saw was her husband, having himself a hearty laugh. Michaël had returned to Skyhold from their estate on the West Banks a number of weeks back. Once he realized that she was staring at him however, his laughter stopped immediately. An alarmed expression entered his face as he quickly pointed toward the elven woman beside him. “Her,” he hastily accused.

Khari glared at him, but quickly threw up both hands in a placating gesture. One of them still grasped a second snowball. “Uh… sorry, Lady Marceline. I was aiming for Leon, I swear!” Apparently she expected this information to make things less bad.

A loud snort sounded above the pin-drop silence, followed by hoarse, uncontrolled laughter. It carried itself across Skyhold’s grounds and belonged to the resident pirate, Zahra, who appeared to be struggling to keep herself on her feet. She was crooked forward with one hand perched on her wobbly knees, and the other planted firmly on the closest building. A breathy intake of breath later and she was rubbing her hands and knuckles across her eyes. If any attempt was made to stifle her amusement, it was a feeble one. “You should see—I can’t believe,” she sputtered between giggles and snorts, “your faces.”

She appeared to have made some effort when it came to dressing for the weather. No amount of pride could keep the chattering of teeth at bay. She’d chosen simpler clothes, though they still appeared unusual. Dark leathers, bound with soft brown linens. A heavy black cloak rimmed with some sort of animal fur hung over her shaking shoulders. Her hair hung free, in a wild mess, woven with small braids and beads upon closer inspection.

“That’s not helpful, Zee!” Khari threw the other chunk of snow she was holding for the laughing woman. Certainly, her aim could use some work—it barely clipped Zahra before spinning off slightly to the right. Zahra’s laugh only grew louder when the snowball careened off her shoulder. She was already ducking down to gather snow in her own fingerless gloves, wolfish grin wild on her dusky face.

Coming up behind the elf and the chevalier was a bundled up Romulus, heavy cloak draped around him and a hood covering his head. He stepped lightly through the snow, but if he was trying to put his particular skillset to use, he wasn't doing it very well. The dusky-skinned Herald still looked far from home traipsing about through the snow, but he at least looked a little warmer than he had the previous winter.

He was rapidly forming a snowball in his own gloves, packing it into a throwable condition. As soon as he had he aimed it for Khari, and his aim was true; it exploded right against the back of her neck, and Romulus showed a toothy grin as he shrugged. "It's only fair, I think."

She pretended to look offended for all of two seconds before cracking a smile just as wide. “Oh yeah? We'll see what's fair." Apology already forgotten, Khari stooped and drew up a handful of snow.

Across the courtyard where the inn sat, a window on the second level popped open and swung outward. The white-blonde mane of Vesryn appeared, his eyes surveying the sudden snowy conflict. "Are you having fun, Herald?" he asked incredulously. "I didn't think you knew how."

"Why don't you come down, then? I'll show you." Romulus was already working on another snowball, eyes watching all those present, his grin unwavering. Vesryn took the bait, disappearing immediately from the window and closing it behind him.

Next to Marceline, Leon chuckled under his breath. “I do believe we’d best either take cover or arm ourselves,” he said, a smile lingering at the corner of his mouth. “That’s my official advice as commander, by the way.” Leaning forward slightly, he scraped some snow off a banister to his left, exposing the grey stone and compressing the flakes together between his palms. Taking his sound advice, Marceline quietly took a step backward and slipped into the rather large silhouette cast by Leon.

He eyed the entrance to the inn, apparently waiting for Vesryn to emerge before loosing the snowball. Given his strength, it wasn’t an outlandish possibility that he’d be able to hit someone all the way across the courtyard, either.

The elf swiftly moved out of the inn's doorway, like a child in a pretend game of warfare, which for all intents and purposes, this was. He had an actual implement of war, however. His tower shield led the way, and it was this alone that saved him from a snowy smack in the jaw. With snow sliding down the metallic front of the shield, Vesryn advanced, planting the shield into the ground just as another attack came from Romulus. He began working up a snowball of his own, though his efforts were a little hindered from holding up the shield.

"Is that all? My grandmother has a fiercer attack than this lot."

A soft thud accompanied a snowball striking him in the back; the culprit was soon revealed. Estella stepped out from behind a corner of the inn, one hand holding up part of her cloak, which was for the moment a makeshift basket for what looked like several more snowballs. “Surprise?” She half-smiled, darting away to take cover of her own behind a pile of chopped wood, stacked adjacent to the inn’s other side.

She adopted a steady rate of fire—her accuracy was at least better than Khari’s, though perhaps not by much.

She was certainly, however, not responsible for the volley of perhaps a dozen snowballs that arched onto the field from behind her, pelting anyone unfortunate enough to not duck behind cover in time. From her angle, Marceline could easily discern the cause—Cyrus strolled up behind his sister, wearing a broad grin. With a sharp hand gesture, he levitated another five or six chunks of snow into the air and hurled them as well.

“Asala?” The Qunari woman was indeed not far behind. “Have you ever attempted snow-fort architecture?”

“I have never had snow,” Asala answered cheerfully, the majority of her attention diverted instead toward a decently sized bubble levitating nearby. The bubble was completely opaque, having been filled with snow. “Though, Pierre and I did create a... snow man, back in Haven.” She stared at the snow-filled bubble for a moment before staring at Cyrus with a blank expression for another few moments.

She was quiet, before her eyes lit up in understanding. “Oh!” she exclaimed, and brought the bubble around to their front, morphing and shaping the snow in the air. By the time she sat it down, they had a nice, compressed snow wall between them and the rest of the combatants. With that, she beamed proudly. At least, until she was struck by a snowball.

“Cheating! That’s cheating—,” Zahra cried beneath the hail of levitating snowballs, raining down like arrows. A few had certainly struck their mark. Remnants of snow shook from her shoulders, and hair. If she was at all upset at having clumps of snow mussed in her wild mane, she certainly didn’t show it. Instead it appeared as if she was trudging through the snow and behind Asala’s makeshift wall, hidden from view. At least from the snow-ball churning demon grinning beside Estella. A lone snowball veered over their heads, and Zahra appeared a moment later, further to the right. Arms thrown back. Shuffling through the snow as if it were water. She dipped lower and attempted to tackle Cyrus into a nearby snowdrift, laugh already bubbling from her lips.

They went down in a heap; a pause in the constant barrage of snowballs from the south side allowed an opportunity for counterattack.

With a good deal of the attention turned toward the scuffle between Cyrus and Zahra, Marceline finally peeked out from Leon's shadow. She shot a glance around at the rapidly increasing number of individuals embroiled in their little snow battle. In a one fluid movement, she leaned out from behind Leon and loosed the snowball she'd been holding on to toward Khari. There was a little twist to her lips as she slid closer to her Seeker bulwark. Marceline always got her vengeance.

Above the frosty battle, and across the powdered walls, sat a lone figure. A woman perched across the brickwork like one of Rilien’s cackling ravens, though she hadn’t made a sound. She kicked her legs back and forth and absently fluffed snow from her knees, white-haired and dressed in clothes fit for Skyhold’s nippy weather. A soft brown hood was pulled over her head, but upon closer scrutiny, it appeared as if she was smiling. It pulled against the scar on her face.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Romulus Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Marceline Benoit Character Portrait: Zahra Tavish Character Portrait: Leonhardt Albrecht Character Portrait: Kharisanna Istimaethoriel

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Their next journey at sea was mercifully far shorter than the first. Unfortunately the weather seemed to be trying to make up for the lack of distance, and the waters were choppy and rough, causing the Riptide to sway up and down with the waves. The winds were up and the rain came down steadily. No downpour, but enough to dampen all who showed their faces above deck with a constant spray. Rom had placed himself firmly at the bow of the ship for the past few hours, Anais refusing to leave his side. She always seemed to have something she needed to say to him.

The rough weather no doubt kept Zee on deck, near the helm with Nixium the navigator. Leon was there too, though he kept out of the way of the wheel itself. Whatever they were saying wasn't loud enough to make out over everything else, but none of them appeared that concerned with the state of the waters.

Their road had taken them north and just into the Orlesian border, where they boarded their ships at Jader and headed east for a nearby island. This time the Riptide was accompanied by the larger warship belonging to the Herald's father, the Northern Sword. Borja had made some scant attempts at small talk with his son on the one-day journey, but the man seemed always to be more awkward and uncomfortable when speaking of anything personal, and with all of the Herald's Disciples around, they never had a moment to themselves. Now they were a ship apart, with Rom choosing to remain with the other prominent members of the Inquisition, and Borja choosing to captain his own ship.

The Riptide was far more crowded than it had been before, with a large contingent of zealots under the command of Anais crammed aboard to witness the historic event. They were practically bubbling with excitement. Anais's own enthusiasm was tempered compared with the night before, but perhaps that was just because she was in the presence of her followers. Air of authority to maintain, and all that.

Khari had never had authority over anyone but herself. With no appearances to maintain, she had one less worry about planting herself at the ship's rail, crossing her legs around it and leaning her forehead against the smoothly-worn wood. The choppiness of the ocean had only made her stomach churn along with it, and staying below had been no help at all. At least the air was fresh out here.

So Khari concentrated on taking deep, slow breaths, not too bothered one way or another about the rain. Turning her head, she rested her cheek against the rail and distracted herself by counting the number of ropes in the rigging.

"Few know of this place," Anais said, mostly to Rom, though no small number of disciples stood about close by, to listen in. "A place of quiet reflection and worship for Andraste, after her release from slavery at the hands of Tevinter. The journal states quite clearly that the ritual must be done here. I suspect this place to be where the Maker first spoke to her." Rom did not react visibly to most of what she said. The disciples seemed to regard the pair with the utmost reverence, as though they were concerned that the breaths they took might disturb them if they exhaled too loudly.

"And there's a temple here?" Rom asked. Anais looked out into the mists ahead of them.

"The remains of one, yes. My scouts found ruins, and dated them back beyond the Second Blight by our best estimates. It was likely destroyed then, but the power of the place should remain intact. The Maker will recognize you, Your Worship, and make it known. So long as you are willing to recognize yourself." Rom did not respond, and the Riptide moved forward into a cloud of fog. The daylight was fading now, making their way forward somewhat treacherous, and they slowed to be safer.

With the retreat of the sunlight and the constant rain, it was also getting cold. Even if they weren't in the mountains anymore, winter in this part of the world could be pretty brutal. Khari tugged her cloak a little tighter around her shoulders, wrapping her arms around her middle and hugging herself. The steady flow of her breath, chill enough to sting the lungs on the deep inhalations, produced little clouds when she pushed the air back out again.

She was glad she wasn't superstitious. All the fog and the cold and the uncomfortable feeling in her guts could have been foreboding if she were. Fortunately, it was just fog and cold and seasickness. Well... she was pretty sure that was all, anyway.

Quiet footsteps heralded an approach; a moment later, a slight weight settled over Khari's shoulders. A blanket, it seemed, pulled from down below deck. Stel settled next to her, mimicking Khari's posture on the next rail over, and offered a slight smile. “I know you said it's better for your stomach up here, but I thought you might be cold."

Khari blinked stupidly for a second. Huffing a staccato breath, she returned the smile, shrugging the blanket up further around her shoulders. “You're a lifesaver, Stel. Thanks." Shuffling around a little bit, she scooted the blanket around so that all of the excess was on the left side where Stel was, then held it out towards her. “You want some?" Truthfully, she could use the company. Misery loved it, or something.

Stel contemplated that for about a second before she accepted, scooting slightly closer so that their shoulders and hips were firmly in contact. “This isn't bad at all," she remarked. “The cold, I mean. Are you still feeling sick?"

Khari's pride said no, but her guts could only contribute an emphatic yes. She groaned slightly by way of reply and leaned her head forward against the rail again. “I can sit a horse all damn day, but a few hours on a boat and I'm a useless puddle." It was actually pretty humiliating, but she supposed the upside was that she was too busy feeling ill to really wallow in the embarrassment.

Seeking to distract herself, she asked the first question that came to mind. “Are you religious, Stel? What's your take on all this?" Maybe that was a bit too complicated a question for simple distraction. Hopefully she'd actually be able to follow the answer.

One of Stel's arms shifted until it was between Khari's back and the blanket, and she smoothed her hand up and down a few times, a clear attempt to mitigate the discomfort. “Well..." she murmured, shifting slightly and throwing an unreadable look towards the prow of the ship. “I'm honestly not really sure. I used to be religious; I was raised in the Chantry, after all. I thought my whole life would be there. And it's a matter of historical record that Andraste existed and had children, so none of it's impossible."

She sighed. “I'd have protested if I thought it too unlikely that Romulus was indeed part of that family, considering the consequences of being wrong. I'm still... worried, but that's just in my nature, I suppose."

“'S'not in my nature. But I'm still kind of worried." Khari pressed her brow harder into the rail, closing her eyes. She hadn't really planned on admitting that, but there it was. Still, it wasn't like Stel was going to go around repeating that to people. She had way too much integrity for that kind of petty thing. “...mostly about what comes after this." The big fire with the magic and stuff was... well, she didn't really know what to think about that except to hope it worked. But all appearances to the contrary, Khari wasn't stupid. She could guess how the news would go over with the rest of the world. And it wasn't always pretty.

“Yeah, I know what you mean." Stel said nothing further. Maybe she didn't have any better answer for that concern than Khari did. Maybe their answers were the same: maybe just being here was answer enough.

"How did this place remain hidden so long, if it's this significant?" Rom asked Anais, narrowing his eyes and trying to search through the mist for their destination. Behind them, the Northern Sword kept close, just remaining in sight in the reduced visibility.

"It would hardly be the first time something significant to Andraste has vanished for ages," Anais replied. "And unlike certain valuable artifacts, few had cause to search for this place, or knew it existed to begin with. It has no name, nor representation on any maps. On top of that, these mists are a common sight here, and the Frostbacks south of us conceal the island from those inland." She paused, leaning forward slightly. She then quietly gasped, and pointed ahead. "And here we are. The Prophet's Refuge."

It emerged slowly ahead of them, and the two ships were brought to a halt near the shore, at a safe distance to drop anchors. It was a very small island indeed, with a shore that was rocky instead of sandy, with any real vegetation having died off from the winter's cold. There wasn't much of the temple left to find, just the remains of a stone pillar here, the crumbling base of a wall there. It plainly wasn't some simple house, though, judging by the stonework. It had taken many years and probably darkspawn, as Anais suggested, to tear it to the ground.

One thing that did remain intact was a flat and square stone slab in what looked to be the center of the temple. If any statue or artifact had been placed upon it at some point was unclear, but now there was an impressive pyre. A contingent of the Herald's Disciples had traveled ahead of the rest, it seemed, and these had prepared a tall group of wooden pillars, with a single post at its center with footing for Rom to stand upon and presumably burn. The waiting disciples stood in a neat line with their hoods drawn against the rain.

The large shore party loaded into several boats and rowed to shore, with the lead boat carrying the Herald, the Speaker, Khari, Zee, Stel, Leon, and Marceline, who had chosen to observe the event along with the others. When all were ashore, Rom waited somewhat impatiently for instruction from Anais. The redheaded woman drew back her hood and smiled, her expression betraying a bit of nerves despite her obvious excitement.

"We can begin when you are ready, Your Worship. I will prepare the ritual. In the meantime, if you would like to say anything to your companions... I am confident this is not the end, but of course there are dangers involved." She turned to begin her work, and then abruptly stopped. "Oh, and you will want to remove any clothes that you wish to keep."

A single laugh, quiet and uneasy, escaped Rom, and he watched Anais stroll over to the pyre to begin her work. Judging by her concentration as she circled the assembled wood, it was not a simple task, but subtle and complex magic. Rom turned to those that had come along for the ride, but was obviously unsure what to say.

Marceline, wrapped in a thick black cloak, had her arms crossed and glanced at the rest of those assembled. "Tis a poor moment to be at a loss for words," she chided gently before shrugging.

“Sometimes, there aren't any," Leon said, moving his eyes to Rom and nodding solemnly. “Best of luck to you."

“We believe in you," Stel added warmly. Even Marceline nodded in agreement.

Zahra’s expression tempered itself between a grin and a soft smile. She didn’t appear all that concerned of what the outcome might be, but it might’ve been a result of the adamant, sea-roving approach she had to nearly everything: including her companions. She sniffed against her knuckles as she strode up to Rom and paused for a moment before clapping both hands on his shoulders, wild eyes alight.

Her breath still puffed out in white plumes, rising between them. She’d donned a wolf-headed jacket over her shoulders, probably scrapped up from the Riptide’s hold. “Drinks on me after this is all done,” she offered a wayward wink and released his shoulders, stepping back to allow the others to reach him as well, “That’s a promise.”

Khari's own confidence warred with her concern, and as usually seemed to happen to her when she couldn't quite sort out her feelings about something, she reacted physically. In this case, she took a couple steps forward and bear-hugged Rom, squeezing tightly.

“You're gonna be fine." She wasn't entirely sure which of the two of them she was trying to convince, but it probably didn't matter. “A little fire's got nothing on you. So don't go making me a liar."

He smiled and hugged her back, momentarily burying his face in her mass of red hair. As Leon had said, there weren't any words, at least not for her specifically. But certainly something was said with how strongly he embraced her. When he finally broke free of the hug, he looked to be a little choked up, but managed to maintain his composure.

"Thank you," he said, nodding. "All of you." His eyes wandered to the water. All of the boats from the Riptide had come in and were beached on the shore. None had come from the Northern Sword. In the distance, the outline of the bulky Captain Borja could be seen at the bow of his ship, seemingly content to watch his son from afar. Rom's expression was hard to read, but any pain or confusion there was quickly pushed beneath the surface.

He removed his cloak and boots, handing both to a disciple that was perhaps overly eager to receive them. Without looking back, he made his way to the pyre. Anais met him at the base of it, having finished her work. The base of the pyre seemed to be glowing, a barely perceptible white that may not have been noticeable at all if not for the relative darkness around them. The rain was lightening somewhat, but judging by the clouds on the horizon, it was only a pause in the storm, and not the end of it.

Anais pulled a small vial from a pouch on her belt, containing a pale golden liquid. "The last piece, Your Worship, prepared exactly as the journal specified. Have faith, and the Maker will protect you. His Bride will protect you." She handed the vial to him. Rom studied it momentarily, before he pulled the cork and downed it. He seemed to have a lack of reaction to it, not even a shudder at any foul taste. He dropped it once it was done. Anais placed a hand on his arm. "Now, let us begin."

Khari found it difficult to stand still, shuffling her feet slightly in place and drumming her fingers against her thigh, but she didn't get much closer to the pyre. It was like an invisible line had been drawn in the ground, whether for the sake of reverence or just more mundane safety. She didn't cross it, toeing the edge instead. She was good at not thinking about all the ways something risky could go wrong. It was a talent she chose to employ now. Zahra idled just close enough to her side to let her know that she was there. Arms folded neatly over her chest. While her expression has dampened a bit, and the grin had lost its humor, she appeared fairly composed.

One of the disciples aided his ascent onto the platform of the pyre, climbing up after him with a length of rope, which he used to bind Rom's hands around the central pole. The Herald's eyes remained down, almost purposely not seeking out anyone in particular, while the other disciples put some distance between themselves and the pyre, ending up near the assembled group from the Inquisition. Once Rom was properly secured to the pyre, the last disciple scampered away from the site, leaving only Anais behind. She tilted her head back towards the sky.

"The first son in the line of daughters has stepped forward to claim his mantle!" she called, to the Maker or to no one in particular. "He offers up his life as a show of faith in you! Receive him and protect him, Maker!"

With that, she called fire to her hands, and thrust the magic down at the base of the pyre. The white glow brightened and then immediately turned an intense orange as the natural fire seemed to consume it. Anais quickly retreated away from the pyre and came to join the others at a safe distance, a half smile of wonder etched on her face. "I would advise not approaching the pyre until it is done, for your own safety," she warned them.

The fire lingered at the base momentarily while the wood caught it, and for a moment it was only smoke that rose and surrounded Rom. The moment did not last long, though, and soon enough the blaze rose in height, and then with an unnatural speed it reached higher. The tongues of flame licked at his feet and legs, setting his clothes alight, and for a brief moment there was a look of confusion and alarm on Rom's face. Then the fire grew until it was monstrous in size, and the flames swallowed him entirely such that he could no longer even be seen by those witnessing. But he did not cry out in pain. Not a sound came from the blaze save for the roaring of the fire itself.

Khari pulled in a breath and held it. No sound was good, right? She doubted there were many people if any who'd be able to not make a peep if they were actually burning alive. Except the story said Andraste had done that, right? Shit. She crossed her arms in a self-conscious attempt to stop her own fidgeting, grinding the teeth in the back of her mouth and staring into the fire. Beside her, Stel pulled in a deep breath and seemed to hold it. A slender hand came to rest upon Khari's shoulder, though Marceline said nothing of it and only kept her eyes forward on the pyre. Zahra’s arms had dropped to her sides, and she appeared to be leaning slightly forward. Hands bunched into fists, eyes searching through the smog of black smoke licking through the air above and around the pyre. She did not move, though it looked as if she wanted to.

Still the fire grew more and more fierce, the heat of it blasting even those that stood as far away from it as they could, perhaps even reaching those that remained behind on the ships. It swirled in the wind, and even the mist shrouding the island seemed to be giving way, forced back and clearing the air, unable to withstand the intensity. When it finally stopped growing, it held and spun and roared for thirty seconds, a minute, more... any man inside without some kind of protection would have been burnt to their blackened bones by now.

Suddenly, a wave of energy radiated outwards from the pyre, akin to a strong gust of wind, continuing outwards until it had passed beyond the shores of the tiny island and over the pair of ships watching. From the ground up the fire was extinguished, the flames swirling up into the sky above where they eventually vanished. With the sound of the blaze gone, only the continuous pattering of the rain remained.

Romulus remained on the pyre, blackened with ash and soot and entirely naked, but seemingly alive and unhurt. His head lolled forward, but he looked to be barely hanging on to consciousness. The rope restraining his hands had burned away, and soon he toppled over forward towards the ground. The entire pyre collapsed with him in a crash of charred wood, into the rocky surface below. Anais, her face awash with delight, rushed forward with his cloak in hand.

“Dammit." Unable to keep her spot with her best friend on the ground like that, Khari ran forward, too. The Maker better have remembered to insulate against smoke inhalation, because that could knock a person just as dead. Anais had the cloak thing handled, so Khari busied herself pushing aside ash and debris from the pyre, clearing the area a little in hopes of making it a bit easier to breathe.

The rain began to come down harder now, sizzling as it hit the wood pieces and even against Rom's skin. Behind the Speaker and Khari others quickly moved to help as well, some at the orders of Marceline, whether she had command of them or not. Anais was quick to throw the cloak over the Herald's naked body, and together with Leon they were able to pull Rom free from the smoking remains of the pyre. Under the ash his skin was reddened and extremely warm to the touch, but he appeared to be cooling quickly, and there were no visible burns or signs of damage on him. Once he was clear of the smoke he was set down to rest upon his knees. He was still conscious and trying to stay upright, but needed support on either side. For a moment, he seemed delirious.

"Your Worship," Anais said, holding tightly onto his arm. "You've done it. The Maker has safeguarded you. You have proven your status, Blood of Andraste." The disciples around them heard the declaration, many falling to their knees and lowering their heads to the ground. A few openly shed tears. Romulus blinked rapidly, struggling to focus. With a hand he seemed to shove at Anais. She grabbed the hand and squeezed. "It's over, Your Worship. It's over."

"No," he managed, the word barely escaping him. "No." His eyes sought those around him, and found Leon. His other hand latched onto Leon's collar, and he tried to maintain eye contact with him. "Stop her. Stop... no. False... no..." Anais frowned, reaching to place a hand on the side of Rom's face, trying to get him to look at her.

"Your Worship? It's alright, you're safe now, the ritual is complete. You passed the trial, your faith has been rewarded!"

Leon's expression hardened slightly; his eyes narrowed a bit and his lips thinned. “Everyone step away for a moment, please." Though it was phrased politely, it was hard to mistake the fact that it was the High Seeker speaking, and not Leon. He was more than capable of supporting Rom on his own, and he moved to do so, putting a hand on either of his shoulders.

He ducked his head to keep eye contact, speaking quietly, deliberately and clearly—probably in hopes that Rom would be able to understand the words. “Stop whom?"

"He's just been through a great ordeal, High Seeker," Anais said, remaining firmly at Rom's side. "This is hardly the time for questioning him. He needs rest."

Khari frowned. “Whatever he's talking about, it's important enough to him that he's trying to say it now, so we should hear it now." She crossed her arms and took a single step closer. “Surely whatever the Blood of Andraste has to say is important enough to listen to?"

Reluctantly, the Speaker took a single step back away from Rom, who tugged the cloak tighter around his shoulders. He took several deep breaths, each one seeming to bring his strength back bit by bit. Anais's frown grew. Finally, Rom looked at Leon again.

"Anais," he said, as clearly as he could. "The vial... the ritual. Never... any danger." Suddenly he looked as though he was quite sick, and lurched forward, heaving and coughing in a fit that racked his body. He shuddered when it was through, and began shivering from the cold. Anais began to look offended.

"He's not in his right mind, High Seeker. Of course there was never any danger, the Maker protected him! He was chosen by a power greater than any of you to lead us!"

“Then surely you will not mind sharing the journal and the recipe for that concoction with our alchemist when we return to Skyhold," Leon replied evenly. A look of trepidation crossed his face, and he shook his head a little. “Estella? Is there anything you can do for him before we head back?" He must have been talking about healing magic.

“Perhaps," she replied softly. “But I do think it would be best to get him somewhere warm and comfortable first."

Khari shrugged out of her own cloak and added it to Rom's for warmth. “No reason to stay here in any case, is there?"

Suddenly Rom shoved himself up to his feet, with a groan of effort. He nearly fell again, but managed to remain upright and facing Anais. If anything the bout of sickness seemed to have purged him of some of the ill effects, and he was looking significantly more focused now. Anais's eyes widened, and she even took a step back in surprise.

"Your Worship, how... how can you even stand?"

"I could've..." he wiped at his mouth, eyes locked on the Speaker. "I could've made that potion myself. Couldn't... cast the spell, but I know there was nothing divine in that fire, nor in that vial. You build up a... tolerance, with enough use." Her mouth hung open, struggling for a moment to find something to say, but she still seemed stunned to see Rom coherent, let alone on his feet.

"I prepared the ritual exactly as the journal specified, Your Worship. As your ancestors wished, for one of their own to claim their rightful mantle as Blood of Andraste."

"The journal..." he practically scoffed at the mention of it. "The journal you translated. I'm such a fool..." He staggered a step closer to her, and this time she remained firmly rooted to the spot. The disciples around them seemed confused, alarmed, some even distraught at the argument. "What am I, Anais? What am I really?"

"Your Worship—"

"Don't call me that. What am I?"

She seemed threatened, half recoiling away from Rom, though she kept her eyes firmly rooted to his, and spoke slowly and deliberately. "You are the Blood of Andraste, Romulus. You have been given a great opportunity here, to seize the power that your birthright grants you. You must take it."

He held her gaze for a long, uncomfortable moment. "Must I? No. I'm done listening to you. You brought my father to me, and for that I'm thankful, but I won't pretend that any of this was real." He turned to the others. "There's no one holy here. Only frauds."

Marceline strode forward, rubbing her eyes with her fingers. "Ser Leonhardt," she began before opening her eyes, "If you would kindly keep an eye on Anais on the way back to Skyhold, I would very much appreciate it." Shaking her head, she looked up and took a protective step next to Romulus. "And if you would, send a runner to inform Borja as well?" With that, Marceline gently encouraged Romulus that it was time to leave.

"Come... We have a long day of traveling ahead of us."

Leon nodded, pointing to one of the few Inquisition soldiers on the shore. “Run that message for me, Legrand. Everyone else, get back to the boats."

Boom. A powerful blast echoed in the distance, from the ships. Rom immediately turned towards the sound, to see a heavy projectile whistling away from the Northern Sword amidst a cloud of smoke. It smashed into the side of the Riptide, punching straight through and sending a spray of wood splinters into the air. By the looks of it, the shot had been aimed for the ship's main mast, but it remained upright, only slightly damaged, having avoided the worst of it. Shouting erupted from the two ships, and the Northern Sword began to turn, having already hauled up her anchor.

"No!" Anais cried, distraught. "You idiot!" Some of the disciples searched for cover, though there seemed to be no threat to the shore party. Borja's ship was turning to flee, the winds catching her sails and taking her east, towards the storm. The captain could be seen at the helm, not looking back.

Rom stared in utter confusion at the attack, the hurt written plainly across his face. He did not seem to understand what Anais was furious about. But after a few more seconds of disbelief, he seemed to have his mind made up.

"We need to catch him." He looked around at all of his companions, searching for support. "I need to catch him."

“Then let's go!" Khari didn't see any point in arguing about it. Even Marceline should be okay with chasing down someone who'd just fired on the Inquisition's borrowed boat. She was mostly just pissed at Borja though. That slimy little—there had better be a damn good explanation for this.

But of course, there was one person whose permission actually mattered. “Zee?"

Whatever confusion had happened at the pyre had wept from Zahra’s face like the ash and dust sifting from Rom’s flesh. Now, her eyes were trained on the horizon and on Borja’s fleeing vessel. There was a fury twisting her features, drawing her lips back from her teeth, as if she were bristling to throttle someone. In this case, it would’ve been Borja. She exhaled sharply and stomped forward, “Back to the ship. Now.”

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Romulus Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Marceline Benoit Character Portrait: Zahra Tavish Character Portrait: Leonhardt Albrecht Character Portrait: Asala Kaaras Character Portrait: Kharisanna Istimaethoriel

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It was all Zahra could do to contain the tawdry shudder of anger riddling through her bones as she ground out commands through clenched teeth. Why had Borja done this? What kind of fucking rouse had Anais pulled back at the pyre? The connections weren’t lost on her. Nothing made sense anymore. She doubted she’d get any answers until they had Borja here. On his knees, begging for forgiveness. She’d see it. Even if he was Rom’s father. They’d hightailed it back to the ship far quicker than she’d thought possible given Rom’s state, but she figured Leon could’ve practically carried him back without much effort. Her crew was already scrambling across the decks and the anchor had been hauled up as soon as they’d set their feet aboard. Nixium’s face was grimmer than it usually was, though she’d already turned the rudder’s hard to port and without being needed to be told where they needed to be, cut the Riptide towards the Northern Sword.

The Riptide’s sails flapped down like falling curtains and billowed out at the gust of wind as if it were a lover blowing them true. They sliced through the waters at a quickening speed. Fortunately, their ship was much smaller than Borja’s and crafted specifically for this: catching fleeing vessels. However, the damage that had been done to the ship was… concerning. The Northern Sword could be frighteningly destructive if it’s intentions were to send said ship to the bottom of the sea. How many had she seen suffer that fate? Too many. If it hadn’t been for dumb luck, they might not have had any way to leave. He’d missed the mast. Garland had already vaulted down the steps leading into Riptide’s belly, armed with hammer, nails, and boards tucked under his armpits. If his expression was anything to go by… the damage wasn’t good.

But they were afloat. For now.

Seeing as Anais was the only one that might know what was going on here, Zahra stalked up to her with all of her small-sized, pent-up rage. She hadn’t allowed them to lock her in the holds, nor move her out of the cold. Her nostrils flared and her eyes flashed, drawing into mean slits. Whatever remnant of calm had already sizzled out like the flames of the pyre. Her hands, drawn into fists, bloomed opened and closed before she finally reached the woman in question. One hand shot out and grappled onto the scruff of her collar, which she used as leverage to draw her down closer to her face, and her withering stare. She hadn’t reached for blade or arrows, but her posturing was anything but feigned. It spoke of consequences.

“I’ll give you one chance to explain what’s happening here,” she breathed out sharply.

"And if I pass on that chance?" To her credit, Anais did not seem cowed by the captain's display of ferocity and justified anger. She did little to shield herself from the driving rain, which grew ever fiercer the closer they came to the storm's heart. "What will you do? Kill me? I very much doubt it. I could provide some answers for the Herald, but I won't do that here."

Zahra tossed her head back and laughed. She hadn’t released her hold on the back of her neck either, only forced her to reel back with her. There was a glint in her eyes, like two pieces of flint. “Kill you? No. That’d be easy. But I can make you wish for it, little bird.”

Romulus carefully positioned himself partway between them. He was clothed again with a spare change under his armor, which he'd left behind on the ship. It was obvious that he wasn't at full strength and wouldn't be for some time, but he at least seemed alert. "I need her alive," he warned Zahra. "I think there's too much to explain for it to be done here."

Even as Rom repositioned himself so that he stood nearly between them, Zahra’s countenance hadn’t changed. She demanded blood be paid. It was the raider way, even if she’d become less and less of one. For one who’d lived their lives on land instead of the sea, it was difficult to explain just how much a ship meant to its crew. This was no different. It accounted for a life.

"He's right," Anais agreed. "For the moment, I should inform you that Adan Borja will not hesitate to sink this ship if threatened, nor will he think twice about killing every soul aboard. This must be done carefully." That was clear enough. The waves ahead were growing ever larger, and the Northern Sword was showing no signs of changing her course. Romulus glowered at the sight, taking his shield in hand.

"Just get me on that ship."

Zahra’s fingers slowly released their death-grip on her collar and she allowed the fabric to slip away from her hand. Her eyes, however, raked away from Anais’s face, and onto Rom’s. “When this is done, and she sings her last useful words...” her eyes shifted sidelong and her mouth settled into a hard line, “I won’t move on this matter.” For now, as he said, they’d need to catch up to the Northern Sword and board it before he tried to turn around and face them. Being punched with more cannon balls wasn’t an option. She pushed the sopping wet hair from her face and grinned grimly, “Now, that I can do. Make sure everyone’s ready.”

She turned away from them and cried out quick commands over the sound of the storm. Nixium bellowed back from the helm, though her words were muffled from the rain that’d decided to start pelting down from all angles, chilling them to the bone. Riptide quickened its pace, and the Northern Sword began showing discernible details. People shuffling along the decks. If she squinted hard enough she thought she could see Borja leaning over the railings, hands planted… though she couldn’t be sure, and chalked it up to her eager imagination.

On The Riptide's own deck, those few who were neither crew nor cultist prepared for battle. Khari, still with wan and waxy complexion from all the rocking, was nevertheless arranging the straps that held her graceless cleaver to her back. She forewent the metal mask—perhaps air was more important—but pulled her dark hood up around her head, her facial features disappearing from view. Across the deck, Marceline stood with the point of her rapier resting gently in the wood by her feet, flanked by a pair of sturdy Inquisition soldiers and their shields. Meanwhile Estella appeared from below, sword now at her hip, and tossed what looked like a pair of heavy gauntlets to Leon, who caught them in midair. They stayed out of the way of the crew, but their eyes were fixed forward on the retreating boat.

A porthole opened up in the rear of the Northern Sword as the Riptide steadily gained on her. A flash of fire followed, and a boom like thunder rippled through the air. A cannonball from the stolen Qunari weapon hurtled through the air at them, the shot sailing high and splashing down into the tumultuous seas behind them. With the way the waves lifted and dropped the two racing vessels, aiming would be very difficult. But soon there were more projectiles added into the mix.

"Find cover!" Romulus called, as the first arrows whistled down onto the deck, some clattering off into the sea, others thudding into the wood. They were almost impossible to see in the darkened sky, with the driving rain added into the mix. Another shot from the cannon sent a giant plume of water up in front of the ship, the attack falling short this time. Their aim was unreliable at best in the storm, but it wouldn't be long before something found its mark.

Khari didn't need to be told twice. She half-lunged, half-toppled forward, snatching Estella's arm and dragging them both behind a couple of the barrels that had been lashed down to the deck in preparation for the inclement weather. One lucky arrow thudded right into the barrel in front, vibrating for several seconds before it stilled. A semitransparent barrier, more purple than blue, flickered into life over their heads. It was neither very large nor sturdy-looking, but at least one arrow bounced off of it harmlessly.

Taking cover wasn't exactly simple for a man of Leon's proportions; he wound up putting the foremast between himself and the oncoming arrows, occasionally risking a glance out from behind it. At this point, though, their job was pretty much to stay alive until they were close enough to retaliate.

Marceline huddled behind the shield-wall erected by her guard, adding her own weight to theirs to help keep them steady. Slowly they picked their way to a rise in the railing, in an effort to add it to their protection as arrows thumped harmlessly into their shields. Once they reached it, there was nothing more they could do but patiently wait.

While most wouldn’t have counted themselves lucky facing such an unforgiving storm, Zahra was. If only for the fact that Borja couldn’t pelt them with flaming arrows—it was a tactic she was keen to employ whenever she pulled up to other ships. Setting a ship’s sails aflame was a good way to render them useless, and still. She’d donned her own bow in hand and bounded up towards the upper decks as quickly as she could manage, arrows whistling through the air. If they could reach the ship in time, she could sink his hooks into his, and he’d be daft to fire anymore cannonballs.

In any case, they were gaining on him.

Nixium kept her post at the helm. Though she’d conjured some sort of shield to protect herself. A rippling force-field. One of her palms was held up in the air as she grappled with the wheel using her upper body. From the looks of it, the wild waves crashing into the ship’s bow wasn’t being easily managed. Several arrows crashed and splintered against her ward, while some buffered off into the hail. Once Zahra reached her, breathless and sopping wet, she grappled onto the other side of the jerking wheel while Nixium adjusted herself on the opposite end.

“Hooks are ready. Close as we can, now.”

The last attempt from the Qunari cannon was a hit on the Riptide, a ricochet off the starboard side railing that sent splinters raining down on their heads before it careened over the back and into the sea. A lucky result, considering how easily it could've taken a head clean off. They were close enough now to accurately exchange fire, the two crews loosing arrows back and forth in between dives for cover. Romulus pegged a pirate in the chest with his crossbow before he ducked back down to load another bolt. They were numerous, this crew of Borja's, but they had never faced an enemy like this one before.

"We're in range!" Romulus shouted, through the crack of lightning. "Hook them!" The grappling hooks were heaved at the Northern Sword, entangling its masts and railings, binding the ships together and steadily drawing them into each other. "Brace!" A wave pushed the larger ship the rest of the way into the Riptide, scraping the sides of both hulls and inflicting some light damage on the smaller of the two. It was negligible in the grand scheme of things; they had their way across.

They were close enough to make a jump, and Romulus was the first to throw himself across, landing near the Northern Sword's bow. The first pirate to get in his way found a knife digging into his ribs, and he was discarded overboard into the sea. If the effects of being drugged were still wearing on him, he was hiding it quite well. Borja roared at his men from the rear of his ship, compelling them into action, and the melee began in earnest.

Khari, too, leaped from cover, bounding over the deck with surprising surefootedness for someone with such a bad stomach for the ocean. She made the jump further down the ships, landing closer to the mizzenmast than the fore, sword swinging wildly. She looked to be aiming mostly for center mass, and moved on as soon as a foe dropped, rather than pausing to finish any of them off. Jamming an elbow into one pirate's jaw, she pulled him over her hip with one hand, whacking him hard in the head with the flat side of her cleaver. He stilled, and she stepped forward into another.

Estella and Leon took a little longer to board, mostly because Leon paused to boost her across the gap before following himself. The Seeker went to work immediately in that brutal way he had. Grabbing one man by the head, he threw him sideways into the mainmast and kicked hard enough to break ribs, snatching up the pirate's weapons and throwing them into the churning ocean below. The next got his legs swept out from underneath him; his kneecaps broke under Leon's stomping boots.

The hatchet he'd been carrying flew end-over-end, lodging itself in the back of a woman who'd been after Estella. The Inquisitor herself pulled it free, toppling her foe with a hamstring slash and slamming the hatchet down with all her might, pinning the pirate to the deck by the back of her shirt. A few seconds later, the axe was frozen to the wood, and Estella was standing, bringing her saber up to block another assailant.

Marceline was among the last to board the ship with her entourage, probably in an effort to let their main force at least thin the resistance a little. Both soldiers aided her in crossing the gap between the ships. Once their feet were dug into the Northern Sword's deck, they formed into a tight unit, with shields flanking both sides of Marceline. A pirate who perhaps believed that felling the Orlesian ambassador might hurt morale, drove straight for her before he was intercepted by a shield. In the moment that he turned his attention away from her was the moment she chose to strike, the tip of her rapier burying deep into his chest. They'd find the ambassador to be a far more difficult target than that.

Zahra had left Nixium’s side with little more than a nod. As soon as ships kissed sides, there was not much else a navigator could do until the time came to unhook themselves. She, too, jumped onto the railing and used her momentum to leap onto the Northern Sword’s busy decks. She ducked an incoming blade, heard the sweep of air as it sliced above her. As she was coming back up, she swung the sharp end of her bow underneath his chin. There was a spray of blood and a sickly gurgle. A thud sounded behind her, but she was already springing away towards the next foe.

“Borja!” She screamed into the hail. Whether he’d heard him or not didn’t seem to matter. Her eyes trained the decks, absorbing the carnage that was unfurling on both the Riptide, and the Northern Sword. Numb fingers notched an arrow in place and pinned a man’s hand against the wood of the mainmast. Struck clear through the knuckles. His sword, mid-swing, clattered at his feet. His screams couldn’t be heard either, though she did not doubt they’d end soon enough.

Romulus was giving as little thought to the well-being of his enemies as Zahra was, it seemed. Lightly armored pirates dropped in heaps, leaking blood to mix with the rain washing over the ships. He pushed through the melee towards the rear of the ship, towards where the captain was supposed to be fighting alongside his crew, though in the thick of the fighting it was difficult to discern where anyone was. His efforts to search for Borja were continuously interrupted by sword-armed criminals trying to end his life. Frustrated, he bashed one in the throat with the rim of his shield, before reaching forward to violently snap the man's neck, dropping him to the ground.

Before him, a hatch opened leading to the lower decks of the Northern Sword. Romulus had been about to plunge his dagger down into the neck of the first person to appear there, but he managed to stop himself short, recognizing the figure. The lanky and aging smuggler Conrado had his hands free, one of them grasping a long, thin sword which he carried with practiced ease. His head swiveled about, searching for threats, eyeing up the pirates around him as well as those they'd been boarded by.

"Conrado!" Romulus called, demanding the man's attention. "Fight with us!" How he'd gotten free was unclear, but his treatment at Borja's hands had been none too kind. Conrado nodded briefly, then gestured with his head behind Romulus, warning him of an attacker to his rear.

Romulus half-turned his head to react, before a sharp pain immediately bloomed in his torso. He looked down to see Conrado's sword stabbed into his side. Before he could so much as react the thin blade was withdrawn and slashed deep across his lower left thigh. He staggered and nearly fell, but Conrado was quick to complete the move, pulling him forward and throwing him down the hole he'd emerged from, where Romulus crashed against the ladder and disappeared out of sight. The smuggler kicked the hatch closed behind him.

On the upper deck, Borja was nowhere to be seen.

Khari must have either seen or inferred what happened, because she hastily kicked her off-balance opponent over the railing of the ship and threw herself at Conrado, barreling through a couple of occupied pirates on the way. He stepped neatly out of the way of her first blow; the sound of the blade hitting the deck was inaudible over the din, but from the way it jerked through her whole frame, it must have been quite the impact.

Her lips pulled back from her teeth in a snarl, and she wrenched the cleaver out of the floorboards, twisting away from a fencing lunge but unable to completely avoid the follow-up, which caught her in the side. It was hard to tell if she so much as felt it. She attempted to close one gauntlet-protected hand over the blade of the rapier, but Conrado was too fast to allow it. So she followed his retreat instead, clearly trying to pin him down in a corner.

Leon was swiftly clearing out the mid-ship area, but his progress was nowhere near fast enough to get to Romulus's aid anytime soon. Estella branched off in the aft direction, but was immediately waylaid by a trio of Borja's men. Grimly, she leveled her saber and got to work.

With a solid solid foothold behind them, Marceline ventured away from her guard, the rapier flashing in one hand, and the main-gauche in the other. She pressed as hard as she could along with the others, but she was careful that her pace did not leave her vulnerable. Unfortunately, that pace was not quite quick enough.

Zahra battled her way down from the upper decks. Somewhat disgruntled at the fact that she hadn’t found her mark. No sight of Borja anywhere—the damned coward. She did, however, spot Khari grappling with a familiar face on the ground… Conrado. Someone she hadn’t expected to see here. Alive, in any case. She tensed her shoulders and twisted around an incoming man’s fist, leveling her elbow into his nose. It crunched under the blow and she finished it with a dagger pulled from her hip, dipping it between his ribs. She was trying to bully her way through the crowd, but every inch she drew closer was interrupted by another of Borja’s snarling crewmembers.

Over the shoulder of the current layer of pirates blocking her way, she could see Khari still struggling with Conrado. The elf looked the worse for wear; her hood had fallen and she bore a deep cut across her forehead, freely bleeding into one of her eyes. Conrado's agility and skill with that dueling sword was clearly formidable.

Khari's main advantage, however, was sheer dauntlessness. It didn't seem to matter how many times he stuck her with the thing, how many little goading jabs pricked her skin: she just kept going, relentless and aggressive. She didn't try to be a better duelist than he was—instead, she took some of the blows, turned aside the rest, and kept advancing.

She left an opening on her right side; Conrado darted in to take advantage. But her reaction was quicker than it should have been, like she'd bluffed the vulnerability in the first place, and a powerful blow disarmed Conrado, sending the rapier spinning across the deck. Her lips moved, but there was no way to hear what she said. The pommel of her sword smashed into his temple, and Conrado crumpled.

Wiping the blood out of her eye with her cloak, Khari hustled for the hatch, yanking it open and barging in without so much as pausing to assess the landing.

She left a darkened wet streak behind her on the deck.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Romulus Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Marceline Benoit Character Portrait: Zahra Tavish Character Portrait: Vesryn Cormyth Character Portrait: Asala Kaaras Character Portrait: Kharisanna Istimaethoriel

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She should have been with them. That was all Asala thought about ever since Romulus and those who attended his ritual returned. They were in pretty bad shape when they arrived the day before. Asala and most of her staff had spent the entire previous day tending to their injuries, and currently they were all in stable condition. She still preferred it that they did not move for another day or two in fear of tearing or reopening their wounds. Asala was especially firm in Khari's case, fearing the woman would probably try to escape if the opportunity presented itself. Still, they were all alive, and if they took their recovery slow, and she and her assistants did their jobs properly, then there should be no lasting danger either.

She couldn't shake the guilt, and it remained with her even as she measured out a dose of potion into a vial. Donovan stood next to her, carefully folding clean bandages into a tin tray to change out the soiled ones. Asala couldn't help but feel things would've been different had she been there. No, she probably could not have changed the outcome, but she could have at the very least tended to them while their wounds were fresh, if not prevented a number of them to begin with. Asala had not asked for details, and in truth she did not want to hear them. It was clear that whatever they were supposed to prove failed, and she had seen Anais led to the dungeons in chains. She could infer enough from that alone.

With the potion measured, Asala set it on the tray with bandages and took it with her as she went to Romulus's bedside, and sat it down on a small stand beside her. Asala gave him a sweet, if a little sad smile when she handed him the vial before she began to undo the bandages on his thigh. The wound was mostly closed now and beginning to scab over. She was extremely careful as she worked; he had broken a number of bones and was no doubt very sore, if still not a little pain.

In the bed beside them, Bibi purred softly at the foot while Millian worked with Khari, cutting the bandages on her hand and inspecting the wound there. She was efficient, though she lacked Asala's... bedside manner.

Khari didn't seem to care much; she was surprisingly compliant with the tranquil's commands. The only resistance she'd put up so far was insisting that she was well enough to sit up with her back to the wall next to the bed she'd been assigned. Aside from the wound on her hand, most of her abdomen had been bandaged under her shirt due to multiple stab wounds there, and there were more around her head, covering a deep cut over one of her brows.

Indeed, she was uncharacteristically solemn in general, and didn't even keep up much of a running commentary, as she otherwise would surely have done. Instead, she stroked the cat with her free hand, rubbing at his ears.

Where Khari was solemn, Romulus was despondent, and had said almost nothing that wasn't absolutely necessary since his arrival back at Skyhold. His injuries had been extensive, the majority of them consisting of broken bones from being repeatedly struck with blunt force. His right arm was the worst break, requiring him to keep it tied up in a sling despite the best efforts of Asala's considerable healing magic. His jaw had been broken, his cheekbone fractured, even part of his skull had required healing. His ribcage was a mess, which had led to a number of internal injuries varying in severity, and there was the stab wound through his side and the deep slash through the muscles of his left leg to work through.

Despite it all, it was obviously not his physical injuries that troubled him, as he'd been clearly withdrawn inside his own head, where nothing good could be occurring. He slept often, but not well, either the pain of his injuries or his intense dreams waking him repeatedly. He ate only the bare minimum, and if Asala's comforting presence was having any effect on him, he was hiding it well. He did not sit as Khari did, but lay still and stared at the ceiling while she worked.

The door to the infirmary opened, and Vesryn entered, for once seemingly unsure what to do with himself. He closed the door quietly behind him, rubbing his hands together for the warmth. "How are we doing?" he asked, in a carefully casual tone. "On the mend, I hope." When Romulus didn't so much as acknowledge him, he nodded uncomfortably. "Well... is there anything I can get you, Asala? From the Keep, or the tavern maybe? Thought I'd see if I could be of service somehow."

The only one from the Riptide occupying another bed was its small-statured boastwain. Tucked neatly into the corner. Apparently she’d suffered the worst of the Northern Sword’s initial attack. She’d been in the Riptide’s belly when the cannonball crashed into its side, sending a spray of thick splinters through the upper portion of the ship. Her arm had taken the worst of the blows, and it’d needed to come off. Too much damage to salvage. They’d done a good job, though she hadn’t woken up for more than a handful of minutes before drifting off.

Zahra had visited several times throughout the night to check on Rom, Khari and Nuka. Most of the time, she’d just fill in the empty space between them with rambles, trying to cast light in the dark situations they’d tumbled through. Even if it didn’t have any effect… she was relentless. She’d had scrapes and cuts but hadn’t suffered nearly as much as the others had. Bruises would blossom and disappear, but she looked none worse for wear. The upper portion of her arm was neatly bound in fresh bandages where they’d extracted an arrow. Besides that, she’d been lucky.

She, too, filtered through only moments after Vesryn had. There was a bottle tucked under her arm, though it was difficult to tell what it was. She paused at the door before stepping through and shutting it behind her. Her eyes roved across the occupied beds, stopped short when they reached Rom and Khari before they slipped towards the farthest corner of her room. Her mouth formed a line, before it shifted into an easy smile. “How’re the patients, kitten?” Zahra closed the distance and idled beside Vesryn. She fished the bottle from beneath her armpit and prodded him in the shoulder with the corked end, “Just got back from there.”

Asala paused her work for a moment to turn and greet both Vesryn and Zahra. There was nothing really more to do except to keep their injuries clean and supply doses of healing medication until they were well enough to start moving again. It was not the external injuries Asala was most worried about however, but the ones that lingered in their heads. Broken bones and cuts could be mended, but maladies of the mind was something on an entirely different scale. In fact, their company were perhaps the most important thing right now than the things they could get.

She turned, but before she could even ask, Donovan was already to work fetching the chairs. "They are... healing," Asala answered Zahra. Her eyes did linger on the bottle disapprovingly for a moment before she shrugged. "I believe we have what we need but, if you would like, you are more than welcome to stay awhile," she said, though by the way Donovan was bringing chairs, it was more of a request than a suggestion. Their company would perhaps give them something to think about over whatever dark thoughts were swirling around their heads. She sighed again, but offered a smile to Vesryn and Zahra before returning to tend to Romulus. She should've been there, she told herself not for the first time, and certainly not for the last.

Khari roused herself a bit at the presence of company, still leaving her hand within Millian's custody but turning her head so she could smile wanly at the visitors. It was hardly a smile compared to the face-splitting grins she so often wore, but she seemed tired and concerned enough to warrant it. Her eyes frequently flicked across the room to where Romulus was.

“'Fraid we're not at our most entertaining right now, but thanks for dropping in. Don't worry too much though—you should see the other guys."

"Oh, I have," Vesryn assured her. "The ones able to make it into our dungeon here, at least. I suspect they didn't fully understand what they were getting into when they fired on the likes of you. Safe to say they do now." Seeing that Zahra was a step ahead of him on the gift from the tavern, he shuffled his feet a bit awkwardly in place, before smiling and bowing his head a little. "Well, I should be going. I hope your recovery is swift, all of you, and... Saraya expresses her concern as well." He took his leave, shutting the door quietly behind him.

Zahra appeared as if she wanted to call after him… but he’d walked through the door as quickly as he’d come, and she was left standing there, bottle held in both hands. She made a humming noise in her throat before plopping down on one of Donovan’s proffered chairs. She’d caught Asala’s opposing stare, and shrugged her shoulders, “It’s a gift. What can I say? I don’t go back on promises.” She bounced the bottle on her knee and tilted her head to the side, “Well. You’re alive, at least. Counts for something.”

Khari's smile grew, just a bit. “Well, we promised, too, after all. Can't break a promise on breakfast."

At that point, the door outside opened up again with a blast of cold air. It admitted Lady Marceline first, who held a cloth covered parcel close to her chest, and behind her Estella, who was laden with a heavy-looking tray bearing what looked like a couple of decently-sized pots and several empty bowls stacked upside down, along with the glint of tin spoons.

Steam gushed liberally from the top of both pots, and Estella moved with exaggerated care, careful to place each foot before adding weight to it. She made it over to an empty side table, where she gingerly lowered the whole tray, breathing what sounded like a sigh of relief. Turning towards Asala, she gave a small smile, brief enough to be little more than a twitch, and folded her hands in front of her.

“Um... I made soup. That's okay, right? I wasn't sure if anyone had any stomach injuries, so it's not very spicy or anything..."

"Larissa sends her regards," Marceline said after Estella, "Along with these." She then began to pull the cloth away to reveal a set of novels which she turned over to show them. "I find her choices to be... subject, but nonetheless she assured me that you would enjoy them," she said. From the glance Asala took, she read Hard in Hightown on one of the covers before she returned to her task, setting the old bandages back into the tray beside her.

Khari snorted. “I've heard of those. Some guy from Kirkwall wrote them, right?" Admittedly, she seemed more interested in the soup at the moment; as soon as Millian was finished wrapping her hand in fresh bandages, she was pushing herself out of the bed. Apparently the concept of bedrest was a little lost on her. Millian even put a hand on her shoulder to try and dissuade too much movement, though it seemed to be ineffective, and the tranquil did not try to fight her over it.

“Rom, you want to eat something?" She glanced back at him, turning an empty bowl over in her hands quite heedless of the injured one. If she was still in pain, she was remarkably resistant to it.

Romulus blinked, turning his head at the sound of his name and taking in the sight of the soup, Estella, and Marceline. "Uh... yeah." It wasn't the most enthusiastic response, but perhaps the smell of it was enough to convince him to acquiesce. Carefully he worked himself back into a sitting position with Asala's help, though he wasn't able to perform much movement with one of his arms and one of his legs. "Thank you," he said quietly in Estella's direction.

Asala picked the tray with the empty vial and dirty bandages up, handing it to Donovan as he came to retrieve it. She then reached into one of the pockets in her robes to produce a clean rag and wiped down the table she had been using with the intention of using it the hold the soup.

“You're welcome." While Khari was serving herself, Estella started serving bowls for the others in the room, handing the first one to Asala, indicating with a small nod that it was intended for Romulus. Others went to Donovan and Millian to distribute; Estella seemed inclined to stay clear of where the healers were working.

Khari sat back down on her bed, holding her soup steady in her lap with her injured hand and using the other to manipulate the spoon. It was a little awkward, since she'd been stabbed in her dominant hand, but this didn't seem to pose a significant problem. “It's pretty good, Stel. Thanks."

"Will you need help?" Asala asked Romulus softly. While she wanted to, she did not want to make him feel useless by stealing any independence that he could have. If he wished to feed himself, Asala would make sure that he would be able to do it.

"No." Romulus said, somewhat quickly. "Thank you."

With that, she smiled and nodded, pulling the table close enough for him to reach without straining himself and set the bowl down on to it, with another clean rag beside it. She stood and backed away to give him space. The rest of her staff went about distributing the soup, and helping those who needed it with their eating. For a moment, she felt lost for a moment before her eyes hungrily fell onto the bowls of soup and she realized she couldn't remember the last time she had eaten. Asala had spent so much time tending to everyone and making sure that they were comfortable that she had forgotten to eat. Even so, she did not immediately go for the soup, and instead hesitated, looking around in case there was someone else who needed her.

Estella must have noticed, or she looked more tired than she realized. In either case, the Inquisitor handed her the next one, pointing to a chair near the wall with a little half-smile. “I know enough about magic to know it's exhausting," she chided mildly. “You should eat, too."

Asala took the soup with a little surprise and was about to refuse before her stomach betrayed her and grumbled. She could feel the heat of the blush blossom across her face, so she meekly accepted both the bowl and the chair, slinking into it and leaning against the wall. As she began to eat, she couldn't help be begin to feel tired, and before long her eyelids began to droop. Soon after, she slipped off to sleep, with the warm bowl of soup in her lap and spoon still in her hand.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Romulus Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Marceline Benoit Character Portrait: Zahra Tavish Character Portrait: Leonhardt Albrecht

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Leon stared at the map in front of him with a furrowed brow. Rilien was seeding his agents at a remarkable pace; in truth, the rest of the Inquisition needed to shape up to match the spread of their information networks. He turned a wooden shield token over and over between his bare fingers, the smooth varnish slick against his mangled skin. Beside him, Estella sighed softly; he could hear the slight rustle of her fidgeting with her sleeves. Marceline and Rilien were quieter, more accustomed to this sort of waiting.

Leon had sent a message summoning Romulus to the war room, but he expected it to be a few minutes yet before he arrived. There was quite a lot of business to take care of today, but it all had to happen in a certain order.

Shaking his head faintly, Leon dropped the token onto the side. They just didn't have the ability yet to move their soldiers any deeper into either Orlais or Ferelden. The support Romulus would have gained had he been proven blood of Andraste would have likely made the difference, but Leon had never counted on that. He didn't make a habit of relying on miracles, which was usually to his benefit.

When Romulus did arrive, a few minutes late as expected, it was with an uneven and uncomfortable gait, still limping slightly from the damaging wound he'd suffered to his leg. His right arm was still in a sling, cradled near his chest, and he was still plainly fragile from head to toe, but the movement was a good sign that with proper healing from Asala he could eventually make a full recovery.

He hadn't made a habit of being in the war room, despite being a Herald of Andraste. In fact he'd only been inside a few times before, the most notable being the first when he spoke of the enemy encountered at Haven, and Corypheus. He might've entered a bit more confidently now had the events off the coast gone differently, but instead he looked smaller than usual, dwarfed by the scale of the room. "Is this about Anais?" he asked quietly. He'd hardly once raised his voice to normal speaking levels since the return to Skyhold.

“In part." Rilien, as ever, did not spend time on pleasantries. He stood slightly further back from the table, almost in Estella's shadow. It wasn't clear if he'd chosen to do so deliberately or just naturally gravitated there. He unfolded his hands from his sleeves, taking a step forward so as to be more clearly visible. “But first we wish to ask you if you would accept the rank we've granted Estella."

Lady Marceline smiled, most likely from the terseness of the tranquil. Her head tilted slightly to one side and she clarified. "We have discussed the matter at length amongst ourselves and we have decided that you have proven yourself a most valuable part of the Inquisition. We have unanimously determined that you should be offered the rank of Inquisitor in spite of the recent events that have transpired," she said. "Provided that you accept it, of course."

A frown settled onto Romulus's face as soon as Rilien put the offer on the table. His eyes followed from the Tranquil to Marceline, but his confusion only seemed to grow. Silence filled the room for a long moment, while he struggled to think of a response. "You... want to make me an Inquisitor," he repeated, as though the words might make more sense after they left his own mouth. "After everything that happened. Everyone who was hurt because of me." Clearly he didn't think the same way about the idea as they did, but his eyes sought Leon, and then Estella.

"You would trust me with that?"

Leon elected to let Estella speak first. She understood the reasoning, but more importantly, she understood how to say things, for the most part. It would come across better from her than him or one of the others.

She didn't fail to take the opportunity, inclining her head a bit. “Really, we should have done it before," she said. “Maybe as soon as you got back from Haven. But everything was... unclear, then. Too much of—too much of what Anais and the others were saying was muddying the water. But you were right all along: there was no wedge between us, and you never tried to put one there. We're... for better or worse, we're in this together. I'm not above you. I don't want to be."

“You're not the first person ever to be swindled by a clever ploy, Romulus," Leon added. “You won't be the last. It doesn't disqualify you from your place here. You've earned our trust as you are." The emphasis he placed on the last words was delicate, but certain. “We want everyone to know it, but the choice is yours."

"We believe that even the willingness to pursue the chance of your own divinity was done out of service to the Inquisition. Know that everyone here understands your loyalty and the lengths you would go for the cause," Marceline paused a moment a looked at the others, "We wish to recognize that loyalty with our own. Officially."

He visibly wrestled with the words in his mind. "I don't know that it was," he answered Marceline. "In part, maybe, but... I did it because I thought it was what my mother would have wanted. I thought my ancestors had been preparing for that moment, for me to seize it. I would try to use the power for the good of the Inquisition... but what I wanted most was to have a family, or be closer to one. Connection to a history that wasn't in chains." He seemed almost surprised that he'd said so much, and fell silent for a moment.

"I don't know what to say, though. Thank you, I'll—I'll try to earn this. Maybe you all think I already have but I'll try anyway." He paused, before he looked back to the Tranquil. "You said in part. What's to be done with her?"

“That is for you to decide." Rilien blinked in that owlish way of his, folding his arms back into his wide sleeves. “As Inquisitor, it is your right to sit in judgement of our prisoners. Given that it is you who best understands the extent of their crimes, it is only prudent that this round of judgements fall to you." He tilted his head slightly to the side.

“They wait just outside the main hall now."

“We will of course be present to advise, if you are inclined to seek counsel," Leon added. “And to keep the records even if you are not." Marceline picked up a clipboard from the table, as if to confirm.

"Oh... right." He seemed to have forgotten that particular responsibility of the Inquisitor. After mulling it over some more, he nodded, more resolved than he'd appeared since returning. "Good. Let's not delay, then."

Leon nodded, gesturing to the open doorway. The small group proceeded to the main hall, where Reed along with Zahra already waited. The throne stood empty on the dais; the Seeker took up his customary spot to the right, slightly in front and below. Estella elected to stand on the other side, with Rilien, and Marceline took up the officiator's position just to the side of the carpet runner leading up. Romulus looked unsure about taking a seat in the throne itself, as well as uncomfortable once he had, perhaps due to his injuries.

“Reed. We'll take the first, please." His aide nodded and headed down the hall at a swift clip to admit the first prisoner.

Eventually, the clanging of chains echoed throughout the hall as Reed escorted the first prisoner. "Lord Inquisitor," Marceline began, her voice taking in an air of authority as she stated Romulus's new title. "I present to you the accused, Speaker Anais, the leader of the cult known as The Herald's Disciples."

Anais had been stripped of the light armor pieces she wore, perhaps the one article of clothing that wholly separated her from those that had followed her lead. The past few days had obviously not been comfortable for her; her hair and skin was unwashed and dirty from both the journey and then her time in the dungeons, and her robes were in need of a change. All that said, she still appeared to be keeping herself together. Once escorted to the appointed position, the Speaker chose to kneel before the Inquisitor, rather than stand.

"The formal charges levied against her are as follows," Marceline said, looking down to the clipboard in hand. "Fraud, heresy, collusion with the pirate formerly known as Adan Borja, and attempted sedition."

"Lord Inquisitor," Anais greeted, lowering her head in deference. "It seems you don't need me to rise up in rank after all. Though I fear this is as high as you'll ever go." Romulus chose not to answer her opening statement, instead studying her in silence. Looking down at her from his seat, he almost seemed to relax.

"Do you deny any of your charges?" he asked.

"No, Lord Inquisitor," she responded, ready for the question. "Had I succeeded, it would only have strengthened the Inquisition. I acted in service of our shared cause."

"Not all of us would have benefited."

"No, of course not, but few things in the world benefit everyone. I believe a joint leadership, as you have just established, will prove a thorn in the Inquisition's side before long. You may share the same goals as your fellow Inquisitor, as the leaders of your armies and your spies and your diplomats, but all of you have different minds. Our enemy has one mind, one body, and one goal. I sought to give the Inquisition the strongest leadership it could have, to counter that."

Romulus let that sit for a moment, the two just staring at each other unwavering. He shifted in the throne, failing to conceal a wince. "Explain your plan to me. From the beginning. I want to know what you did each step of the way." He paused, watching her think over how to begin. "You don't want to lie to me again, Anais."

His tone was dark, angry, dangerous even. Anais clearly caught wind of it, and for the briefest moment it seemed to strike some fear into her. She swallowed, finally breaking eye contact with him. "I began to make some connections soon after we first met, and you closed that rift with your mark, but the idea didn't truly come to me until my agents reported that Adan Borja had taken an interest in you personally." Her eyes flitted up to him before they fell back down. "He clearly never forgot you, despite only meeting you before when you were very young. I approached him personally, and learned of the history between you two."

"And after learning what he'd done to my parents... you offered him a part to play?" Romulus was unable to hide his disgust. Anais nodded uneasily.

"I did. He was uncertain at first, but I was able to sell the potential of it quite well. I researched how your own history might connect with what I'd learned from the Augustan Order, but it wasn't until Haven fell that the opportunity truly felt within reach. When my scouts reported that the Venatori were hunting for some survivors in the area, I was confident that it was you. That the elf was with you was even more fortunate."

"Khari," Romulus interrupted.

"Yes, of course, forgive me. I had Borja brought in, and we agreed to present the story to you together should you be found alive. You were, and you seemed to believe us, so we were willing to move forward. While you returned to the Inquisition at Skyhold, we had ample time to prepare for a way to see you fully ascend. This gave Borja time to make contact with Conrado, and allowed me to prepare the journal."

"The journal..." Romulus nearly whispered the words, stewing in his seat. "My mother wrote none of it, I'm assuming?"

"Correct," she answered, as though she were now tiptoeing across shards of glass. "I wrote every word. It required... a great deal of time and research. I built a fictional family tree for you. Recorded in every language I'm familiar with, and had several of my trusted agents pen some of the pages, to have messages in different hands." She paused, carefully watching for his reaction. "I can give you their names, if you like. Most of my servants were kept in the dark regarding the plan, and were fed the same story as you, but a few were aware."

Leon glanced at Marceline. She would no doubt be able to take the names down; that was good. He hadn't been looking forward to sorting through which cultists were gullible but innocent and which were complicit. It would have been several days of interrogations, at least.

"I don't care about their names. Later." Romulus waved his hand in dismissal. He was beginning to look quite uncomfortable, perhaps a result of revealing the full extent of the deception against him. "The action in Llomerryn. It was staged?"

"The Qunari were quite real, and unaware. I didn't dream of trying to persuade any of them. But the journal couldn't simply be handed to you for it to be believed. Acquired from someone who knew your mother, though, I believed that would work. And Conrado did know Rosamara Abeita. The Qunari, as it turns out, are easy enough to offend, and they prefer to bring their prisoners back to Par Vollen in most cases. With some well-timed sabotage on the part of my agents and Borja's men, we were able to keep them where we wanted them, and secure Conrado before any real harm could be done to him."

It occurred to Leon that Khari had left Conrado alive; he was actually due in next for judgement. He doubted any answers the man could give would be much in the way of the connection Romulus wanted, but they might be something more than he'd get if the man had been killed. Shifting his weight slightly, Leon clasped his hands at the small of his back, allowing the story to proceed uninhibited. On the other hand, Zahra appeared to be teething at the bit. Mouth pinned into a hard line. Eyes, bereft of sympathy, glued on the kneeling figure in front of Romulus.

Romulus nodded, clearly having come to expect this level of dedication to the lie at this point. "And the rest I think I know well enough. You translated your own journal in front of me, read the details of your own false ritual, and prepared a powerful potion to protect me from even the fiercest flame."

"Yes. We were very close, I think. You will not hear me claim that morally any of this was right, but you must believe that I did this to bring more power to the Inquisition, to help us fight the threat we now face. What is a legend on the level of Andraste born from? Entirely truth? Only a fool would believe so. I'm sure it's heresy to speak this way, but I do not believe this was the first time such a story was attempted. Nor will it be the last."

"You would have had me believe for the rest of my life that the man who brutally murdered my parents was, in fact, my father?" Romulus leaned forward, narrowing his eyes at her.

"To serve the Inquisition, yes. He was not a good man, and likely deserved his fate, but we are in conflict with far greater monsters than he."

The Lord Inquisitor rubbed at his forehead, exhaling a long breath. "What are we to do with you, then?"

"I have no delusions about continuing my plan, or developing a new one," she replied, inching forward slightly on her knees. "The ruse has been sniffed out for good. But I have a great many talents, and a desire to serve the Inquisition. Let me study our enemy, and his forces, and I will prove my worth to you. I will do it in chains, if you like, until some glimmer of trust can be built." Romulus raised his eyebrows at her idea, but did not immediately respond, instead looking to his counsel, to see what they thought.

“She successfully led a cult. That ability is as dangerous inside an organization of this kind as outside. Perhaps moreso. Do not give her anyone else to influence." Rilien spoke first, perhaps already having anticipated some kind of bid to this effect. “Certainly do not trust her. But she is a resource like any other. I could find a use for the talents she claims to have."

Leon frowned. He had a fair point about Anais's potential usefulness to the Inquisition. That said... “We must also consider, however, what message doing that would send. Anais was never quiet in her declarations of your holiness, which is now a lie that is, rightfully or not, likely to be attributed to us as an organization. Nor was she hesitant in her condemnation of our other Inquisitor. It will eventually get out that she swindled us. Allowing her to continue in any capacity will look the height of foolishness—may in fact be the height of foolishness. We have plenty of talented people with ample competency in these matters."

His brow furrowed deeply over his eyes. “She is also responsible, directly or indirectly, for quite a bit of harm. She killed a Qunari sailor who had done us no wrong in her ruse, orchestrated a borderline-heretical scheme that has undoubtedly damaged our reputation already, and brought to our doorstep the man responsible for extensive damage to our allied naval forces, both material and personal." He dipped his head to acknowledge Zahra, but she would likely have much more to say on that matter than he did. “To say nothing of what nearly happened to you and Khari. It would be unfair to blame her for all of Borja's actions. But she is nevertheless the reason any of it occurred in the first place."

Zahra finally broke her silence, incited by Leon’s assessment. It appeared as if hers would not be so repressed. Nor kind. As if she’d made her decision ages ago, or at least before she’d even stepped foot in the large chamber, with its high ceilings and looming windows. Her face was cast in shadows since she’d been standing off to the side, though they melted away when she stepped forward. There was a twitch to her fingers, as if she couldn’t stand to hear anymore warbling. “An execution.”

Clad in leathers and a loose, thick cotton shirt and a variety of bandages, she paused for a moment as she regarded Anais’ crumpled form. Whatever vexation or indecision Romulus felt at appropriating judgment was entirely lacking in her. Conviction read clearly in her movements. Hand planted on her hip. Her mouth was tipped up in disgust. If she was at all swayed by Anais's declaration of betraying them all for the greater good of the Inquisition, she was hiding it well. Or she didn't care. From the looks of it, it didn’t matter what Anais said or what she could offer. It was an obvious decision. To her, at least.

Her tone had taken an iciness that belied no room for leniency, “Imprisonment is too kind for the lives she’s affected. For those who’ve been lost. For those she’s maimed. Borja paid his price. Hers should be just as steep.” Spoken as if she wasn't there at all. There was a short pause before a muscle bunched at her temple, and her voice grew terse, almost desperate, “She hurt my family.”

Anais grimly listened to the advice given regarding her fate. When she looked back up to Romulus, her expression was showing signs of pleading. "I would urge you to remember that I did not choose to attack your ship. You said the words yourself, there was never any danger to you. You cannot treat the captain's actions as my own."

The Lord Inquisitor was not moved. "There was never any danger? You put a murderer at my side, within these walls, endangering all of us. Your scheme threatened everything we've built." He paused, his eyes cold and devoid of any remorse. "No. You'll die for this." He glanced sideways at Rilien and Leon, perhaps to ensure that the judgement was indeed acceptable. "At first light tomorrow. I'll swing the sword myself."

Rilien remained impassive, giving no sign of his thoughts save a tiny nod.

“Very well," Leon said neutrally. He didn't think it was an entirely-unwarranted decision at all. People had been executed for less, and as a matter of practicality, housing and feeding a prisoner was an expensive matter. That said... he was in general not fond of death sentences, and he did wonder if Romulus had insisted upon one in this case for personal reasons, rather than an impartial assessment of the situation. There was a reason the philosophers believed justice should be blind.

But in this case, it served no purpose to argue the point. Far be it from him to undermine the new Inquisitor's authority as soon as he'd exercised it. Equally far to insist on saving the life of someone who had so wronged them all.

It sat more wrongly with Estella than it did with him; that much he could detect. From the corner of his eye, he watched her frown, only for the expression to disappear without a trace a moment later. She did not speak against it, however. That was unsurprising.

"You're making a mistake, Romulus," Anais said urgently, as Reed and another guard hauled her back up to her feet. She offered minimal resistance, only enough to turn her head and shout. "You can't afford to throw away allies! I can help you!" It was the last she was able to get out before she was ushered from the hall.

After a suitable amount of silence had passed, Lady Marceline cleared her throat to bring their attentions back to the matter at hand, and began to read the next item on the agenda. "Lord Inquisitor, I present one Conrado Ruis," she began, as the sound of another set of chains began to fill the air. "The formal charges levied against the accused include: assault on Inquisition forces, collusion, conspiracy, and theft against the Qunari."

Conrado was battered, the result of losing an altercation with Khari, though some of his injuries looked a little fresher than the battle would have suggested. Possibly the other prisoners taken from Borja's ship did not look fondly on him. He remained standing before the Lord Inquisitor, his hands and feet chained, all in all not nearly as steadfast as Anais had been upon her arrival.

"I want to know about my mother, Conrado," Romulus said bluntly. A dark look had fallen across his face since Anais had been escorted from the hall, and it remained in place now. "My father, too, if you can. Tell me something true about them."

Conrado did not appear to have expected such a beginning, but he adapted to it quickly enough. His posture was tense, perhaps afraid of the men standing behind him, or intimidated by the sight of Romulus and the others leaders of the Inquisition above him. "Of-of course. We... well, we didn't carry on together, like I implied. We were friends, I think, but she never really had an interest in me that way. Your father, his name was... Remero. Remero Abeita. I didn't know him very well."

"Borja said they were thieves. Is that true?"

"A-Aye," Conrado nodded. "That was how we crossed paths. We did business together. They were quite good at what they did, and I moved a large amount of goods for them. It's the kind of work that creates enemies, however. They were trying to escape from it once they had you, I think, but that life isn't easy to get away from."

"I understand." Romulus fell silent for a moment, resting his chin against the closed fist of his marked hand. "Tell me what she was like. As a person."

"She was..." His mind worked visibly in front of them, possibly trying to come up with an answer that would please him. "Spirited? Perhaps that's not the right word. They both were. Anything but cautious. Loud, aggressive people. I think they enjoyed their lives quite fully, while they had time."

"Time which you helped cut short." The Lord Inquisitor exhaled slowly, his face largely unreadable. "You'll die with Anais tomorrow, for aiding in her plot."

"What?" Disbelieving, Conrado began to lunge forward as though to rush closer, but he was immediately restrained by the guards, and fell to his knees. "No, you can't, you must understand, I lived in fear of Adan Borja! He was not the kind of man I had the power to betray, to refuse! I had no choice. Not now, and certainly not then." He found no sign of change on the Inquisitor's face, so he immediately sought it out in the others. "Please, spare me! I will not dream of troubling the Inquisition again, I swear it! My part in the plot was not my choice. I was a prisoner of Borja's!"

“Romulus." The interjection was quiet, but there was a sort of firmness to it, one Estella was still learning to wield. “Is this truly necessary? If what he says is true, he was acting under coercion. If his actions were not fully his own, does he truly deserve to suffer the full brunt of their consequences? Borja would have been an easy man to fear, surely." There was a slight change in the cast of her eyes, just enough that Leon caught it.

He suspected she was trying to make Romulus empathize. See a similarity of a certain sort. His eyes moved back to the other Inquisitor, but Estella continued.

“Much is unclear, but is that not reason for caution? Who does it benefit, to kill him?"

"And if he's lying?" Romulus asked. His emotionless mask was beginning to crack. It was impossible to fail to see that extremely personal feelings were motivating his decision. "As he's lied so many times before? Who could it hurt, to let him live?" He glanced down at the cowering smuggler, his disdain for the man plainly apparent. "I can't just let him go. I won't let him avoid this."

“It need not be death or freedom." Rilien's monotone was a stark contrast to the emotion seething just under the surface of the scene. “Punish him for what we know he has certainly done: collusion, assault, theft. Hard labor and prison time are both common for such offenses. The labor, at least, we could use. Alternatively, he is most certainly wanted in Antiva or Rivain. The Inquisition could keep him until such time as a court system with more evidence of his crimes could arrange a transfer."

"We can have the message en route to both nations before the evening is over, Lord Inquisitor," Marceline added.

Romulus was clearly deep in thought on the issue, and most likely not feeling satisfied by any possible outcome. Conrado looked like he wanted to say something, but kept his mouth shut, probably doubting it would help his situation at all. At last, an idea seemed to occur to the Lord Inquisitor.

"Do you deny stealing from the Qunari?"

At once Conrado shook his head. "No, Lord Inquisitor, I admit to it."

Romulus nodded. "Then you'll be delivered back to them, for the theft of their artifact. No one will come for you this time. What they do with you is their concern." Quite clearly he was hoping it would not be pleasant. He looked to his advisors. "If that can be arranged?"

"We do not have very much contact with the Qunari, so it will take some time, but it can be arranged, yes," Marceline stated.

"Good." Romulus seemed to deflate while Conrado was escorted away, the smuggler rather blank faced and struggling with the reality of what was happening to him. The ordeal seemed to have taken quite a bit out of Romulus, who rubbed at a spot on his chest that was clearly paining him. "Are we finished?" he asked Leon.

“We are, for today at least." It was quite the task to undertake on one's first day at the job, to be sure, but both of them had done it now. Their footing was even—that was significant. Allowing his expression to take on a bit of the sympathy he'd been concealing up until that point, Leon nodded towards the door that led out of the main hall and towards the undercroft. “Please, do get some rest. We can handle the rest, for the moment."

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Romulus Character Portrait: Marceline Benoit Character Portrait: Leonhardt Albrecht Character Portrait: Kharisanna Istimaethoriel

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It was snowing again. Skyhold had become a beautiful, still, serene place, ill fit for an execution.

That there was need for one, Romulus was certain. At least, as certain as he could be about anything these days. Estella didn't seem to think so, from what he could tell, but most of the others seemed to be in agreement: Anais was too dangerous to be allowed to operate in any capacity, within or beyond the walls of Skyhold. He supposed there were other people that could carry out the sentence better than he, but Romulus felt that he had no right to condemn her if he was not willing to make an end of it himself.

The sword that Reed handed him was heavier and longer than he was used to, no doubt compounded by the fact that his arm was very much still healing, as was the rest of his body. He'd downed a strong potion just before emerging to dull the pain, and let him move well enough to swing the blade. It dulled his senses enough that he didn't really notice the small crowd of people gathering to witness as he ascended the newly constructed platform. The Inquisition hadn't made a habit of executing people, and so such a location hadn't been required until now. Romulus didn't doubt it would be taken down soon enough, so they didn't develop a reputation for it.

A pair of Inquisition soldiers watched over the Speaker, who knelt with her hands bound behind her, feet tied as well, a solid stone block placed in front of her. She contemplated it calmly, having had a full night to prepare for her death, save for the brief time it took for her to give up the names of a few of her cultists, those that were complicit in her plan. Romulus knew not what would be done with them. Labor probably, to lighten the load on the army.

Romulus paused for a moment atop the platform, briefly surveying those that had chosen to witness the execution. Leon stood among the crowd, most likely in attendance as a matter of formality. He took no official place on the platform, perhaps feeling that the few necessary functions for such an event had already been taken care of by others. Khari stood next to Leon, much less noticeable in the tall man's shadow. Beside Reed, Rilien remained unmoving on the platform, to all appearances still as stone.

On the other side of them, Marceline stood with a scroll in hand. She took one last glance at Romulus before she pulled open the parchment and began to read the sentence. "Speaker Anais, for the crimes of fraud, heresy, collusion, and attempted sedition, which put not only the Inquisition, but her Inquisitors and their people in peril as well, you have been sentenced to death. May the Maker have mercy on your soul." With the grim sentence read aloud, Marceline took a step back and turned to witness the execution.

Romulus approached Anais, the two soldiers placing their hands upon her shoulders. He studied her and she him for a moment, and Romulus could not deny he was disappointed not to see any fear. Some darker part of his past was calling to him, making him keenly aware of all the ways he could drag this out and make her suffer. But this would have to do, this clean death. "Do you have any last words?"

"None capable of staying your blade," she said honestly, though her eyes wandered away from Romulus and over the crowd. "I placed a murderer within your walls. You've now placed a murderer on your throne." She leaned forward without any assistance from the guards, exposing the back of her neck to Romulus. He found himself wishing he hadn't asked her to speak. It was what she'd done throughout her entire life.

He raised the sword in both hands and brought it down with focus. The Speaker's head fell away from her body.

Romulus walked away seething, handing the bloody sword back to Reed and not wanting to look at the mess any longer. Silence fell over the courtyard save for a few quiet murmurs, and the crowd began to disperse. He stopped, a few steps from the stairs to the Keep, realizing that his marked hand was shaking. He grabbed it with his other, ignoring the dull pain in that arm, and forced it to stop.

“You don't look like you feel any better." The words came from just behind him; the voice was easily-recognizable as Khari's. She stopped next to him, her eyes falling to his hand for a moment before they lifted back up towards his face. Her expression was unusually grim, her words factual and without the inflection good humor so often gave them. Then again, most everything had been like that lately.

She heaved a sigh. “Want to take a walk? No one will bother us if we go up the battlements."

He exhaled shakily, and nodded. He didn't feel any better, that was certain. If anything he felt worse. He told himself that the point of ending Anais was not, in fact, to make himself feel better, but rather to end the threat she posed to the Inquisition, and to bring about some kind of justice for what she'd done. He wanted so much to feel better after removing her head. He wondered if he would had he cut off Conrado's as well. Probably not, but he would never get the chance to find out now. He'd had the chance to bring everyone that had brought about his parents' death to justice, and he'd let it go. If it was for the best, it sure didn't feel like it.

They headed down the slope from the courtyard before the Keep to the stairs leading up to the outer walls, silent all the way. He wasn't used to any kind of silence lingering for long when he was with Khari, but then again he wasn't used to any of this. The view from atop the walls was breathtaking as ever, with the army camp below constantly smoking and glowing from the lit flames, and the cold peaks of the snow-covered mountains stretching endlessly in the distance.

"I'm not used to things being personal," he admitted, finally, grimacing from the cold, his injuries, and the uncomfortable acknowledgement. "I didn't handle this well. Any of it. I'm..." His hand curled into a tight fist. "I feel so bloodthirsty. I wanted to hurt her. Make her suffer. I wanted to kill Conrado too, and would have if the others hadn't talked me out of it."

“I've never felt like that." There wasn't any judgement in Khari's tone; if anything, her expression suggested that she was trying her best to understand. This kind of thing didn't often seem to come easily to her—perhaps it was because they were so different from each other, in terms of where they'd come from and how they'd ended up here, with the Inquisition. “But then... I've always known who my parents are, and they're still alive. I think." She shrugged. “And I've definitely never had anyone try to tell me I was the world-changing kind of important and fuck with my head like that."

For a second, her mouth dropped into a scowl, but it eased a few seconds later. “So maybe I've got no room to talk, but I think nobody would have handled it fantastically. You handled it well enough that we're still here. I'm not dead, the Riptide's not sunk, Anais isn't still deluding everyone here and Borja's never gonna murder anyone else's parents. That's all on you as much as the rest of it is." She crossed her arms, shrugging her mottled brown cloak a little further forward against the chill.

"None of it would have happened at all if I wasn't such a fool." He heard what she was saying. Every step of the way he had tried to do what he thought was right, for him, for the Inquisition, for the future, but every step of the way he fell right into their trap, right up until it was almost shut for good, too late to escape. And Borja... just thinking about the time they spent together made him feel ill. Thinking about the way he felt when the man first revealed himself and his supposed relation in the Hinterlands. "I thought he was my father. I was really willing to believe it. It wasn't so hard, in the end. I turned out to be just as much a killer as he was."

It had been so selfish. All of it. He'd allowed himself to have a tiny bit of pride in himself just for a moment, and Anais and Borja together caused it to swell until they could tell him anything, show him anything, and he would believe it. Even if what they told him was ludicrously improbable, to the point of impossibility. "If you had died..." He let the thought trail off, fighting the tightness in his throat. "I don't think I could do this. As is, I don't know if I should. I've never been anything more than someone's tool. Even when I've thought I was in control."

He leaned forward against the wall for support, suddenly feeling the pain in his body more keenly as the potion wore off. "I don't know what I am. Who I am."

“You know I actually went to him and encouraged him to talk to you?" Khari snorted softly, shaking her head vigorously enough that her hood fell to her shoulders. She didn't make any effort to put it back, though. “I thought... I thought he was just being awkward because he didn't know how to approach you. I actually tried to make it easier for him." Taking a couple more steps, she uncrossed her arms and used them to brace herself on the wall next to him, fixing her eyes out on the landscape. “Shoulda been harder for him to fool me. He wasn't giving me any answers I'd been looking for, and I still fell for it."

Her brows furrowed, forming a little line above her nose. “It's awful. You'll never get me to believe otherwise. But... here's what I think: if what's in the past is shitty, focusing on it won't ever make anything better. Maybe you haven't ever been anything else, but that doesn't mean you never will be. The future's wide open, if you're willing to kick the door down. You can decide who you are." She shrugged. “And you know... from where I'm standing, the present's not so bad either. It was a painful hurdle, but you cleared it. And you're here, Lord Inquisitor and everything, and we're gonna save the whole damn world. You're gonna save it. I'd like to see anyone try and call you their puppet then."

Kick the door down. That was her way, wasn't it? Chryseis would've told him to use the window, and then open the door for her from the inside. And Romulus... he didn't know what he'd do, because even still he didn't feel he was making his own decisions. Being a Herald was never his choice, fighting Corypheus wasn't his choice, and his appearance had even made staying with the Inquisition not his choice, not really. He suppose he chose to be Inquisitor, but what was the first thing he did with his power, his freedom to choose? He chose to lop off a woman's head for vengeance, and to try to do the same to a cowardly man who didn't have much more choice than he did.

"I'm going to keep making these mistakes," he said. A moment passed, until he actually laughed darkly. "This must be how Estella felt when they pushed the title on her." But unlike her, he was worried he wouldn't make the mistakes with the best of intentions. She was taught differently than him, she thought differently than him. Romulus was taught to kill, to destroy the enemies of his mistress, and he eagerly did so because he knew it would please her. He was taught to please. Khari didn't know half of the horrible things he'd done, and he didn't know if he would ever have the heart to tell her. Maybe he never would, and maybe that was for the best.

If she was right, it didn't matter. All those years of conditioning didn't matter, if he could just focus on being something else going forward. "You're a good friend, you know that?" He smiled to himself. "Who am I kidding, of course you know. What I mean to say is..." He struggled to find the right words. "You know what I mean. You're... brilliant. One of a kind. Better than I deserve."

Khari laughed at that—not uproariously, just a quiet ha, more expelled air than sound. Gently, probably mindful of his injuries, she knocked her elbow into his arm. “Well, that's the thing, right? It's not like you've suddenly got to figure everything out by yourself. I'm here for you, if you need me. The others, too. You've got friends. And we'll definitely tell you if we think you're doing something dumb."

She flashed a grin, one of her more ragged ones. “And hey, you're a pretty great friend too. Really. You know you're the first person who ever didn't laugh at me when I told you what I was trying to do with my life? Even my teacher thought I was crazy to start with." She paused. “Well, I am, I guess. But you believed me. That means a lot. So don't be too down on yourself. And—ask me to remind you, sometimes, about the good things. I'd be happy to." It was an inverse of the request another version of Khari had once made of him, in a future that would never be.

He wasn't very good at asking. Never had been, likely as part of his conditioning. Figuring things out on his own was also not one of his skills, when he had always been told what to think and feel, and more importantly what to do. He scratched at his beard, still smiling despite the weight still on his shoulders. He really ought to get rid of the beard, once it was a bit warmer. He was done with every thought of being some religious figure, Herald of Andraste or no, and somehow it seemed to be included in that.

"I think you're the perfect kind of crazy, to help someone like me." He really did believe that. He also believed she was quite beautiful, when she grinned like that, when she laughed at the things he said.

Maybe someday he'd find a way to tell her that, too.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Romulus Character Portrait: Marceline Benoit Character Portrait: Leonhardt Albrecht

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Romulus was healing quite quickly.

It was in large part due to Asala that he was recovering from the physical damage so well. His right arm had received the worst of it, and was the last thing remaining to truly trouble him, but it no longer required a sling, only avoidance of overly straining it. As for the mental damage, he had Khari and the rest of his support to thank for his progress there. It would be some time, he expected, before he could really move on from it, but the worst of it, he hoped, was in the past. He was an Inquisitor now. Not a slave and not the heir to Andraste. Somewhere in between.

The stairs up from his quarters no longer troubled his leg, which was good. He regretted not being able to travel with some of the others to the coast to help repair Zahra's ship, but that was a bit much of a trip, and he had no desire to the look upon the sea again so soon. He would have to find another way to thank her later, for the risks she was willing to take on his behalf. It hadn't been entirely for him, of course, but he was the reason any of them had been in danger.

The main hall was largely empty save for a few soldiers and staff taking a late lunch at the long tables. Romulus had not sat in the throne since judging Anais and Conrado, nor did he have any particular wish to. In hindsight the power he'd been suddenly given frightened him. More specifically, the way he'd allowed his judgement to be clouded by his personal desire for revenge. It was something his advisors would continue to temper, he was sure. A runner had come delivering a message requesting him in Lady Marceline's office, for what he did not know.

When he entered, he found the Ambassador along with Leon and Rilien waiting for him. He frowned. "Is something wrong?"

Rilien blinked, tilting his head and speaking first. As usual, he was extremely direct. “That has yet to be determined. We have received a missive bearing the seal of House Viridius. As one of its two members in in our dungeon, it stands to reason that Magister Chryseis wrote the message." His eyes fell pointedly to a letter on Marceline's desk, as yet unopened, which did in fact bear the characteristic seal in green wax.

"We believed it best that since it was addressed to you, that you be the one to open it," Lady Marceline said, "However, considering your new status, we felt it best that we were present as well in case the contents pertained to the matters of the Inquisition as a whole."

Romulus wasn't sure what he'd expected, but communication from Chryseis had not been it. The mere mention of her name sent little pangs of anxiety through him. It was not something he expected he would ever be able to avoid, such was their relationship. Despite having been separated from her for so long, and having been through so much since he had truly been her slave, the thought of her still commanded some sort of power over him. An insistent little voice in his mind that demanded he be meek and subservient. He could declare himself no longer her slave, but actually living that reality was not so easy.

"Thank you," he said, remembering himself and crossing the room to take up the letter. He carefully cracked the seal and withdrew the message inside, moving closer to the fireplace for more light. The handwriting was unmistakably hers. It was neat and delicate, but hearing her voice in his head seemed to change the way it looked. He did not read the message aloud.

To the Lord Inquisitor,

I cannot grant you your freedom. It would seem that such a thing is no longer mine to give. I am no fool. I know that your experiences in the south have changed you, and that you have found a greater purpose there. We accomplished some remarkable things together, but it is plain to me that your work with the Inquisition has taken you to a far greater elevation than I could have imagined or planned for. Nor will you return.

I have no intention of threatening you or harming you back into my service. Your newfound friends and allies have nothing to fear from me. The work of the Inquisition is too important, and you are vital to it. You must defeat the threat that the Venatori pose.

I ask only that you remember me. Know that you have a friend and ally in Minrathous should you ever need one. And know that I stand with you against the Tevinter that the Venatori would create.

-Chryseis Viridius.


Romulus read parts of it twice, to be sure he hadn't missed something. When he was sure he understood her correctly, he looked up from the letter to his advisors, a frown firmly in place. "She released me," he said evenly, setting the letter back down on the desk. "She renounced her ownership of me officially."

Leon arched his brows, folding his hands behind his back. “I confess to not really knowing the proper sentiment for that. Congratulations, perhaps?" A half-smile pulled at his mouth, but faded quickly, perhaps at the expression on Romulus's face. “...unless there is reason to react in some other way?"

There wasn't, not if the letter was taken at face value. It was an admission of defeat of sorts, acknowledging that she did not have the power to truly wrestle him away from the Inquisition anymore, not since he had become so tied to it. But Romulus could not think of her as a friend and ally, not ever, not after what she'd made him into, and she knew that full well. She had to. She didn't need to ask him to remember her. How could he ever forget? It left only one explanation in his mind.

"She thinks she can use me more easily as an ally than as her subject. She's..." He grimaced, not sure how exactly to put it. "Her goals are not evil, I don't think, but she's... twisted. A dark woman. Ruthless, and willing to do anything to get what she wants. She doesn't have friends. Now that her father's lost to her, now that I am as well, she must be feeling pressured." Her family and her blade were her first two lines of defense against those that disagreed with her, those that threatened her. Without them, she was vulnerable, and it wouldn't take the Magisterium all that long to figure that out.

"I think she will request something of us, before long," Romulus concluded. "Of me, most likely. I don't know, perhaps I'm overthinking all of this."

“Perhaps." Rilien sounded exactly as unconcerned as ever. “If she does, we can evaluate whether it is in our interest to meet the request. We are under no obligation. Nor are you." He glanced at the letter on the table for only a moment before lifting his eyes again. “In that sense it is no different from any other halfhearted offer of alliance. We receive requests from people attempting to use us to one end or another almost daily."

Marceline chuckled beside him, "He is certainly not wrong." Romulus couldn't have missed the glance she gave toward a rather intimidating stack of papers on her desk, before she shook her head and looked at him instead. "Regardless, it would serve us well to have information on her affairs. We have agents in Minrathous, yes?" She asked, tilting her head toward Rilien. He nodded tersely.

"They can listen for rumors that may involve any of her machinations."

Romulus had to remind himself just how powerful his allies were. He still wasn't certain they were affording Chryseis the respect he was, but he also wasn't certain she deserved it. Perhaps it was just his warped view from having too much experience of her. What worried him the most was the pull he felt that he should help her, if asked. He was almost more afraid of her being an ally than an enemy. But for the moment she was neither, and he could breathe easily.

"Thank you," he said. "For bringing this to me, and for the help. This is going to take some getting used to."

“That's only to be expected," Leon replied, smiling more fully this time. “This transition wouldn't be easy for anyone, let alone someone for whom the change is so radical. It's part of our jobs to make it a little easier. And I think I speak for all of us when I say we're personally glad to help, as well."

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Marceline Benoit Character Portrait: Leonhardt Albrecht Character Portrait: Kharisanna Istimaethoriel

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Great heroes beyond counting raised
Oak and iron 'gainst chains of north-men
And walked the lonely worm-roads evermore.
Mighty of arm and warmest of heart,
Rendered to dust. Bitter is sorrow,
Ate raw and often, poison that weakens and does not kill.
-Canticle of Andraste 1:2

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There was distinct spring in Khari's step as she entered the castle. Truthfully, she didn't spend much time in Skyhold's main building, other than to go to the undercroft. Stel and she trained together in the mornings, and that was outside; for the most part, the rest of the people she looked in on regularly were posted somewhere else. So maybe she still wasn't quite used to the grandiosity of the fully-decorated main hall, with the banners draped on the walls and the fancy carpet runner on the floor. Whatever she might be one day, she couldn't say she'd been born to things like castles and noble causes. She was just someone who'd decided she was going to end up with more than she started with.

Figuring her best bet was to start with Marcy's office, Khari hung a right midway down the hall, letting the door fall shut quietly behind her. The room was open enough that it wasn't really the kind of place where you knocked; probably Marcy had done that on purpose, or something. She seemed like the type to always be thinking about the little things. It was impressive, in a certain way.

As it turned out, luck was on her side, and Leon was already there, too. Two of the three was probably enough to make a decision, right? Well, she'd float the idea and see what came of it. Clearing her throat to alert the two of them to her presence, she stepped out of the doorway and into the open hallway that ran alongside the recessed office space. “Uh... you two have a few minutes? I had an idea I wanted to ask you about." She shifted her weight from one foot to the other. They didn't exactly intimidate her, but... in this setting, they were definitely part of that world she'd only dipped her toes in yet. It wasn't quite like asking normal people for stuff.

Leon tilted his head a bit, gesturing for Khari to join them in the office proper. “Why don't you have a seat, Khari? If you've a suggestion of some kind, we're happy to hear it." He had stood when she entered, but was previously occupying one of the chairs in front of Marcy's desk, which the woman herself was at. Larissa was at the other end of the room, reading in front of the hearth. “Why don't you go ahead and lay it out for us first?"

Khari nodded, feeling a little of the discomfort leave her. She took the chair next to Leon's, crossing one leg over the other. She didn't sit back, though; she was a bit too on-edge for that. “Sure. Thanks. Er..." Her thoughts had been a lot more organized before this; she tried to pull them back into the right order.

“So basically... I was thinking about our personnel problem. I don't exactly have a bunch of friends hanging around anywhere, like the Lions or anyone. And I'm not going to be able to convince any Dalish to help us, if you were wondering." She grimaced at the mention, unable to quite stop herself from thinking of things she found unpleasant. “But, uh... there is one person I could ask. My teacher, Ser Durand. I might have mentioned him. He's a chevalier-errant. I know he's not the kind of person to get caught up in the civil war when there's more important things to do, so... he might be willing to help, if we can find him."

Marceline sat at her desk with her chin resting on her steepled fingers. She'd watched Khari as she spoke and when she finished, closed her eyes as if to think. Without opening them, she called to her assistant. "Larissa?"

The other woman leaned back on the couch she laid on, her neck arching past the padded armrest. Her eyes fell to the ground as she thought as well, though she eventually ended up shaking her head. "No ma'am, I do not think we know a Ser Durand." After she answered, she continued to watch them from her inverted position, finding them far more curious than whatever she was reading at the moment.

Marceline tsked, but opened her eyes, letting her hands finally rest on the desk. She returned to watching Khari as she spoke again. "Do you know where to begin the search, if we were to look for him?" She asked.

Khari wasn't surprised Marcy had never heard of him. She'd never known him to spend time in Court or near cities, even; the few times he'd spoken of his experiences with other nobles, he hadn't been especially complimentary. Then again, he wasn't especially complimentary in general. “Sure do. He's usually around the Dales. He doesn't actually go on Dalish land unless he has to, but it's not far from the Exalted Plains, either. More specifically, I dunno. He keeps on the move a lot."

It would probably be better for only a small group to go looking. He and the guys he kept with him were extremely mobile, and knew the land as well as anyone. Even if they found his trail, they wouldn't be able to catch up to him unless they were pretty quick themselves.

"I would like to know more of this Ser Durand," Marceline continued, "What type of person he is, and if he is a chevalier-errant, the type of men he leads." She leaned back in her chair and appeared genuinely curious as to his story. "What can you tell me about him?"

“Uh." Khari hadn't really expected the question, but she figured she could probably answer it, at least. Reaching up, she tugged on one of her ears, furrowing her brow and looking for the words she wanted. “Well... he's an older guy, I guess; might be near fifty these days, though I don't know for sure. Never bothered to ask." Even she had a sense for when a question was rude, and she'd been so damn eager to stay in his good graces that she hadn't risked much like that, at first. By the time they were really comfortable with each other, it had seemed too late, for something like that.

She pulled a breath in through her nose, leaning back a little in the chair. “His whole name is Jean-Robert Durand, and his family's from somewhere in Collines Verts." She pronounced the Orlesian words with an elvish lilt, still; it annoyed her, but the accents were more similar than elvish and the trade tongue, so she always backslid. “He graduated the Academie... I guess it must have been almost twenty-five years ago now? He went pretty much straight into being an errant after that; it was what he'd always wanted to do."

She'd listened to everything he told her with rapt attention; in retrospect it was almost a little embarrassing. But she definitely didn't regret it, and it meant the details were pretty easy to her recollection now, though he spoke only seldom of himself. “He's the youngest of like... four kids, so it's not like he has an inheritance to worry about, and he says he likes being on the road more than cooped up in a castle anyway. Uh... what else? Oh. The guys are pretty great; most of them are commoners, you know? People who wouldn't be eligible to be chevaliers themselves. It's him, and the eight of them, and I made ten, when I was there." She smiled fondly at the memory. Being the youngest and newest to the group had meant she was subjected to some pretty gentle hazing, of sorts. Go here, polish this, check the horses for stones, all that sort of thing. All of it turned out to be useful; she figured they'd known it would from the start.

“And you believe he is the sort of person who would aid the Inquisition, given the opportunity?" Leon rubbed absently at some of the stubble coming in on his chin, raising an eyebrow in Khari's direction. His tone didn't sound skeptical, exactly, only curious.

Khari nodded firmly. “I do. I mean, he's... really dedicated to looking after the part of the world he's in. Seemed like all we ever did was deal with bandits and train to deal with more bandits." She snorted; that was a joke, but there was a kernel of truth to it. She'd never met anyone who worked quite as hard as Ser Durand... well, until she met Stel, anyway.

“But I think once I explain to him what's really going on here, he'll help us. His group isn't big, but... he took me from stick-limbed fifteen-year-old barely knowing which end of a sword to hold to, well, me in the span of a few years. Think what someone like that could do if you gave him actual soldiers." She shrugged. Khari knew she wasn't the strongest fighter in the Inquisition or anything, but she also knew that she was pretty damn good. Better than the majority, for sure.

Marceline had resumed leaning forward in her chair again, this time her chin resting on one of her hands as she listened to Khari's explanation. Once she was done, she leveled a quiet stare into Khari's forehead, holding her in her gaze for a few moments before she finally spoke again. "He may prove useful, but..." there was a hard pause and she took the moment to glance at Leon before she continued. "I wish to know, is the reason you bring this name up now truly for the benefit of the Inquisition, or are your reasons of a more personal nature than that?" She asked with an arch to her brow. It was unclear if her tone was that of genuine curiosity, or if it hid a note of skepticism.

Khari frowned; suddenly the ease of the situation vanished, and she was left wishing it hadn't. “What, like... you think I'm just asking you to do this because I want to see him or something?" The frown deepened; her brows knit together. “Look, Lady Marceline, I dunno what kind of person you think I am, but I'm not an idiot. I'm not going to try wasting Inquisition resources on something that doesn't matter. I know how important this is—I'm not sure you got the memo, but my best friend just had to blow up the head of a guy pretending to be his dad." Her fists clenched on her knees.

“Will it be nice to see my teacher again? You're damn right it will. But I wouldn't have brought this up if I thought he had nothing to offer us. If you disagree, fine, but don't insult me."

Marceline frowned, but she did not budge from her position. She stared at Khari a little longer before calling for her assistant. "Larissa, if you would be so kind as to remind me to pen a letter to the Marquis of Collines Verts, I wish to see what information Lord Ambroise has on the Durand family," she said, though her eyes never left Khari.

"As for you, realize that I meant no insult, but regardless, I would have you understand," she said, clearly speaking to Khari this time, "That we did not set off with the intention of battling with the crew of the Northern Sword either. I apologize if you feel my caution is warrant for insult, but I only wish to avoid any future incidents if I am able.

With that, Marceline finally leaned back in her seat, her arms crossed over her chest. Her lips were still set in an even line, and it was difficult to get a feel of her from her expressions. "It matters little," she said, with a slight sigh, "I feel that either Romulus or Estella, if not both, will accompany you while you undertake this task. That is... the type of person they are, as well as their relationship to you, so my opinions on the matter are moot. They are the Inquisitors, while we are their advisors."

She glanced at Leon before nodding, "Still, a chevalier-errant will be useful to the Inquisition as you said," she stated. "However, I feel the need to reiterate my apology, but understand that it is our duty to think of the Inquisition as a whole. No one person is bigger than what we stand for." she said, her eyes alighting on Khari once more.

Khari sighed. “Yeah, sorry. I didn't mean to get mad at you, exactly. I get why you have to think about things this way. I've known Ser Durand since I was a girl, though. I know he's what he says he is." She was sure whoever Marcy was writing to would confirm it, anyway. “And uh... yeah. I would like to take them both, but if you think bringing both the Inquisitors is a bad idea, I could figure something else out. I was also thinking of asking Zee and maybe Asala to come along?" She glanced between them.

“They don't really have anything else in particular to do at the moment," Leon pointed out. “While it might not be ideal for both of them to accompany you, I think you should ask them, and decide based on what they think. We can adjust accordingly; it isn't as though we never planned for them both to be out in the field at the same time." He shrugged his massive shoulders.

"Though I do very much agree in taking Asala. Just in case," she added, a pleased look finally creeping into her once impassive face.

“Sure. I can do that. I'll ask them and get back to you guys soon then." Khari couldn't deny a bit of relief at the prospect. Doing things was invariably easier than talking about doing them, for her. She stood, nodding to the both of them. “And thanks. For letting me chase down the idea. You won't regret it."

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Romulus Character Portrait: Estella Avenarius Character Portrait: Marceline Benoit Character Portrait: Leonhardt Albrecht Character Portrait: Kharisanna Istimaethoriel

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Romulus honestly hadn't planned on making any more judgements on the throne so soon. And yet here he sat.

To be fair, he didn't feel his opinion would matter all that much, just his words. For some reason he wanted to be the one to say them, and Estella had easily given up the responsibility. He had no intention of blindly sentencing Ser Durand to die, but whatever he'd done had deeply affected Khari, and thus he felt it keenly too. She was his closest, most important friend, and his deception had shaken the foundation of what she was, or what she'd thought she was. What she wanted to be. He wasn't sure what learning the truth of the matter would do. It might bring answers, but would those answers even help?

A good number of Skyhold's more important individuals were present for the judgement. Lady Marceline of course was present, and none too pleased as far as Romulus could tell. It was hard to blame her, after yet another supposed ally proved false. Estella was also beside him, for which Romulus was grateful. She would keep a level head in all of this, he knew. Leon stood beside the Ambassador, as did Rilien. He hoped their confidence in him was not shaken by his uninspiring performance on the throne the last time around. And of course Khari would hear Durand as well. Romulus would not dream of sentencing the man to anything without hearing her thoughts on everything, and there was nothing preventing her from speaking them.

He looked to Leon, nodding to signal that he was ready to begin.

At the Commander's signal, Reed and another guard led in Ser Durand. He wore his shackles quietly and without protest; at a full head taller than either of his minders, that was probably a good thing. He didn't seem to have borne imprisonment poorly—he was clean still, and about as groomed as he'd been on the road. But the lines around his eyes appeared deeper, and he hunched his shoulders forward, walking at a bit more of a shuffle than he had prior. When they drew him to a stop, he glanced once at Romulus on the throne before fixing his eyes on the carpet runner in front of him.

Next to Estella, Khari's hands clenched, but she didn't say anything. Not yet.

Marceline inhaled sharply, perhaps the only indication of the mood she was in, considering her face was still as impassive as ever. "Lord Inquisitor," she began in her business-like manner. "I present to you the accused, Ser Jean-Robert Durand, chevalier-errant of the House of Durand of Collines Verts." Apparently, Lady Marceline had recently received correspondence from the Marquis of Collines Verts reaffirming his title. "Though, this title is subject to change depending on today's ruling." she added.

She looked down at the clipboard in hand and began to read. "The formal charges levied against Ser Durand are as follows: aiding and abetting the criminal formerly known as Halfhand and her illicit organization, the Reapers; we also have evidence to support the kidnapping of a number of chevaliers and accessory to the murder of Ser Liliane Routhier." Behind both Estella and Khari, Michäel loomed with his arms crossed and his face twisted into a scowl. At the mention of Liliane's name, he audibly grunted and his scowl grew worse. It seemed that they knew each other, once upon a time.

"Now would be the time to explain your actions," Romulus said, staring down at him. He felt he could cut the tension in the room with his knife, but acknowledged that whatever the man in front of him said could actually make it worse instead of better.

"It would be." Durand acknowledged that easily enough, sighing ponderously. "If there was anything to explain." His eyes remained where they were; he seemed quite resigned to the worst.

Khari, on the other hand, obviously was not. “What do you mean, if? B—" She stuttered over what was obviously the beginning of the familiar nickname, then corrected herself. “Ser Durand, how could you? How could you? How long were you working with those bandits? Why?" She seemed to have more questions than wherewithal to get them out; she'd made it halfway between where she'd been and where he was before she came to an awkward halt, obviously unsure what to do.

He turned his head slightly away from her. "Stop it, Little Bear." He didn't appear entirely free of conflicting emotions himself, from the slight tremor in his voice. He was otherwise quite stoic in his delivery. "You don't want to know the answers to those questions. It's enough that I've done what I'm accused of. I'm the villain here—let me be that."

“Ser Durand." The new voice was Estella's, clear and soft. “Please think about how this will look for your men. You seemed quite concerned for them before; you asked us to keep in mind that