Moment of Choice pt 4
"Will he live?"
The surgeon nodded, then turned to a spirit healer washing her fingers, an elven mage with a streak of red hair braided down her back and the sides shaved. I couldn't place her, our ranks still swelling even after closing the breach for good. She hovered over Rhodri, her fingers waving a breath above his too pale vallaslin.
His leathers were shredded and scattered to the stone as my people worked tirelessly to revive him. Candlelight sputtered against the limp chest chewing through ragged breaths, crimson flecks of blood cascading like paint off his shoulder. I didn't say a word, watching both human and elf massage powders into his wound to finally stop the blood, slap a hardening poultice across it, and dribble some wine into Rhodri's paling lips. Someone else grabbed up the Crow Varric and I drug, re-knocked unconscious, then deposited at the gate. Leliana and I were going to have words about that.
"He will require rest," the elven mage said, her eyes focusing back upon me from whatever spirit guided her gifts. "But should recover in time."
"This is a mess," I sighed. My Inquisitor stance broke as the problem shifted from possibly losing a member of my clan to now having to deal with one nearly killed on my watch. Cullen touched my arm, trying to offer his support without crossing a line. His armor was soaked with Rhodri's blood, crimson pooling inside the grooves of the rivets and blooming like a vengeful rose on the drapery above his hip.
"Someone should inform his...your...the other elves," Cullen said. He crinkled his nose, the jowls of his cheeks rising in disgust as he staggered around the proper way to describe the clan. I nodded my head, having practiced the lines for how I'd explain this since we left the clearing. So, Eria, Rhodri told me you two were an item and then nearly got himself killed by assassins my people missed. Oops. It was about to go over as well as Sera's chamberpot helmet.
My fingers ran across his chest, smudging up the sticky blood, leaving an imprint of myself in the viscera. "I should speak with Leliana first, and the prisoner."
"Maker," Cullen muttered, massaging the back of his neck, "Crows here? How did we miss that?" I pursed my lips and glanced away, focusing on the pokers still blazing red hot in the fireplace. I had theories burrowing in the back of my mind about that, but he paid me no heed. He was too focused on solving the problem the only way he knew how. "I'll double up patrols cast further off the roads, and we should increase the night shift upon the battlements. They're more likely to notice unexplainable campfires. And perhaps a retinue to follow you when you're passing though..."
"Cullen," I interrupted his stream, "that isn't necessary."
"Assassins got to our door. Near our door. If they'd taken you..."
"They didn't, I'm fine."
His eyes blazed at me, each speck of gold emphasizing the words tumbling behind them. IT'S NOT FINE! But he didn't challenge my authority, not here, though I knew I was certain to get a mindful back in the war room. The thought of him drawing up a plan to barricade our fortress in the mountains while fiddling with his sword like a ten year old child slapping on his father's weapons brought a smile to my lips. Cullen blinked from my change in spirits, confusion crackling into something darker.
I reached to him caressing his face despite the audience a breath away. His eyes rose from the sulk to greet mine. He cupped my hand with his, the smooth leather of the gloves above my fingers contrasting with the prickling scruff on his cheek. "Perhaps I am overstepping my bounds, Inquisitor," he said, the words sliced jagged, "You may not require my services soon." His eyes shut tight with that proclamation, my own heart shattering along with his.
With one hand still pinned to his cheek, I reached my other under his arm, pulling so close his nose bounced against my forehead. The contact drew his attention to me, those amber eyes cracking from more than demons roiling though his memories.
Rising onto my toes, I pressed my forehead into his and whispered, "Ar lath ma."
Cullen shuddered, all our problems wrapped up in that one phrase, but he whispered back, "I love you, too."
"Where is he? You cannot hide one of our own from us?!" My mother's words echoed from the doorway, the teetering wood slammed open with enough force to behead a demon. Cullen's hand dropped away, embarrassment wafting in his wake. Perhaps it was stubbornness or exhaustion, but I clung a moment longer. I didn't want to let go.
"Keeper," I said, alone turning to face my mother. She had a tight grip on Eria, who kept a terrified vigil upon the ceiling as if the rocks were about to crumble on top of her.
My mother paused before me, her staff sparking purple puffs of smoke from the end. It always did that when she was angry. "Word swirls in your hold that something happened out on the snows."
I drew back, exposing Rhodri lying across the bed. "There was an incident," I began, but Eria shrieked and barreled past both of us. For a slip of a thing, she could shatter mountains when having half a mind. Falling to her knees, she picked up Rhodri's slack but very much living hand and covered it in kisses. Cullen inched away from the overt display, shrugging his shoulders in discomfort as emotion warped the air.
My mother gasped at one of her own tattered and broken. She whispered something familiar under her breath, then glared at my shrinking commander, "This is the fault of your Inquisition!"
I intercepted her, "He would not have been involved if you hadn't come here!"
Her sneer barely broke from Cullen but she did shift to me, "This is a discussion for another place, away from the bed of the wounded."
"Fine." It was not an articulate response, but my mother yanked me to the end of my rope and then cut the line. I'd start slamming aravel doors if one was near.
The Keeper pushed me aside with her staff, Cullen gave her a wide berth himself, but I stubbornly remained in place. The bottom of her stick whacked into my shins, reviving a tear of pain I'd forgotten about in the scuffle. I staggered away, blinking from the burn, but she only nodded at me as if I was bowing in deference. Folding her hands, the Keeper edged away both of the healers and placed her own hands across Rhodri's head.
She soothed his forehead while Eria babbled at his hand. The theatrics, while impressive, seemed wasted on the man who nearly got not only himself but the rest of us killed for his own ego. I clicked my fingers against my arm, biting down the accusations rising in my throat. Enumerating them would do nothing, my mother would downplay my words and Eria would blame it on jealousy. Only Cullen caught the sneer curdling my lips, the snap of my unshod toes. He began to reach out to me, but I shook my head no. Turning on my heel, I marched towards the door of our infirmary.
"Where are you going, Inquisitor?" he asked, twisting his head to indicate the dalish problems swarming over the bed.
I pitied the two healers who now had to deal with that mess, but if I didn't get out of that room soon it'd be more than just Rhodri lying across a bed. Cracking open the latch I sneered, "I'm off to see a nightingale about a crow."
Leaning back from the edge of the watery abyss, I eyed up the man piled in a cell. Black and purple bruises burned across his exposed flesh, as if he caught himself in a magical fire. Blood yet dribbled down his nose, a knotted rag stuffed up the nostril to curtail it. He favored his right arm, his wrist dangling in a disturbing angle. And yet, the man was smiling. Bloodied, beaten, and caged, he wore the grin of someone on top of the world. I'd be more enraged if it didn't throw me off kilter every time I spotted it.
Leliana, draped in her shadows, ran a finger down a report. She'd been quietly reading it since I entered, our jailor nowhere to be seen. This was the spymaster's show. The pounding falls of water below thudded with my rising heartbeat as I waited for her to speak. Finally, she looked towards me and said, "He is an assassin."
"So I gathered when he and his friends tried to assassinate me," I said, not hiding the anger in my voice.
She peered up from below her drawn hood, but didn't rise to my emotion, "It is never wise to jump to conclusions. But Varric's assumptions were correct, this man was under contract from the Antivan Crows."
"Is," he interrupted, then spat at the ground, blood curdling the dirt. "Forgive the mess," he apologized, as if a little spittle would bother me more than an attempt on my life.
"Is?" I repeated back, "Someone's rather sure of themselves."
He shrugged, "You've done well, though it doesn't alter the state of the contract."
Moving with a speed that terrified so many Venatori, I slid to the bars to confront the ennui prisoner, yanking him by his filthy grey leathers until his face smashed into iron, but Leliana chuckled. "I'm afraid your information is out of date." She picked up one of the many papers in her watch and passed it over me to the prisoner. He tried to read it with one swollen eye shut, his finger marking the spot.
I flipped around to her, silently asking for an explanation. "We came to an arrangement to remove this contract months ago. Your employer...realized his mistake and paid the renunciation fee."
"Well," the Crow sighed, rolling up the missive and passing it back through the bars, "I fear I have egg on my face." He turned to me and shrugged like this was all some small misunderstanding, "The dangers of working so far from home. They never bother to keep us informed. You know, I nearly missed the last coronation due to clerical error."
"I'm sure that's a real blow," I muttered, the sarcasm thick enough to spackle the walls, but he chuckled.
"It truly is. What's a visit to Antiva City without an opportunity to slide a dagger though a new ruler's kidneys?"
Leliana tipped her head, accepting this madness as commonplace, and bundled up her secret scrolls. I reached out, gripping them and not about to let go. Those blue eyes burned at my insolence. I growled, "You knew assassins were trying to kill me?"
"Of course, I am your spymaster," she said, still holding tight to her letters, not about to let me see her secrets.
"And you did not think to inform me?" anger tinged with a growing headache behind my ears and exhaustion dumped pure rage into my words. A raw state that I shouldn't expose to a dangerous prisoner, but I was tired of playing the game. Tired of pretending to be some mighty power shaking Thedas to its core. Every second was a play, every breath calculated, every decision decided before I dressed for the morning. Was I ever just me anymore? Even as a man I grew up with, cared for, lay bleeding, I still worried how others saw me - kept my mood neutral, and it came as naturally as breathing. Could I even turn it off?
Leliana scoffed at me, her eyes dancing back to the Crow still joyfully listening to us bicker, "We assumed the matter dealt with as soon as it crossed our desk. You were nearing your final attack against Corypheus when we learned of it, and thought to solve it quickly and quietly. Then time slipped away."
"Did you know assassins were on the mountain?" I pressed, a burn growing in my gut.
She squared her shoulders and nodded, "There were a few conflicting reports. Since you were scheduled to visit the chateau with the Commander, I did not think to bother you with them. I am sorry."
"Does, did Cullen know about this?"
"No," Leliana shook her head. A vice grip released from my heart, the burn dissipating and grateful for being wrong. I could stand much, but that level of deceit...and how can I even think him capable of that? It wasn't even his idea in the first place to vacation, but mine. Creators, I'm losing whatever grip I had.
The prisoner rattled his fingers across the bars, drawing my attention, "This Commander, he wouldn't be the man who took me down by any chance?"
"What of it?" I asked, my hackles rising from the inherent threat.
"No harm meant," he said, that cocky smile in place, "just wanted to applaud your taste."
"He nearly killed you. He would have killed you!" I shook my head, exhausted from the lack of sense.
"A strong arm is certainly an asset in these matters," he said.
Despite my anger, I twisted to Leliana and asked, "Are all Crows this mad?"
"Based upon the ones I've met, yes," she chuckled.
"Not to be too much of a bother..." the assassin continued.
"No, I will not introduce you to the Commander," I cut in, my brain reflexing back to numerous trips to Val Royeaux.
"A pity, but that was not to be my question. I am curious what you intend to do with me. For curiosity's sake. I have a small investment in my own future, as it were."
Earlier, I'd have ordered my spymaster to get all the information out of him she could, then finish what Cullen began. But the point seemed futile now. It was all some minor misunderstanding. A misplaced letter, an undotted I. So sorry about that, at least only a few people were killed. In this game of queens and emperors, countries and power, the pawns slipped through the cracks on the board. "I haven't decided," I told him.
"Well, when you do I'd appreciate you telling me. Waiting for death can be rather dull," he quipped.
Waving Leliana to follow, I stepped away from the cell overlooking a cliff dive. On the other side of the massive fall, with the pounding falls drowning our words, it was unlikely for the Crow to overhear us. "That isn't the only contract on my head, is it?"
"Was, Inquisitor. That one was handled."
I glared, "You know what I mean."
She twisted away, her piercing eyes facing the healed sky and not me, "There are others, yes."
"Six? Andruil's bow, and you didn't tell me because..."
Leliana whipped back to me, "I'd thought it would not be an issue. Within the walls of Skyhold, my people could keep watch."
"Except I was nearly killed a hundred feet outside the door," I said, waving my hand towards the uncaring mountain.
"I missed something, I am sorry." For a moment a sweetness shimmered below her impenetrable words, the regret of her failing real. But she snapped it shut, burrowing it in a box. "It may be of no consequence if you intend to leave your position and return with your people. I can offer you advice, but the network would break down that far afield."
The choice dangled above my head, reverberating like a flag caught twisting in the wind. But I was tired of people trying to drag me by the hand. They did it once before, chains shackled to my wrists, then by threats against all of thedas. No more. I would decide of my own volition, no one else's. Gritting my teeth I said, "Those contracts are against the Inquisitor. If I am no longer the Inquisitor, then..."
Leliana shook her head, "Four are, but the last two are against you by name. Most are minor houses, nobles rattling against the choice for Orlais' throne, but one is from an order claiming to be the true Templars of Thedas. They call for your head for not only unleashing mages unimpeded upon the world, but the mark on your hand. It is unlikely they would back down even if you disappeared into the woods."
I sagged from her trump card, stumbling into the bars of the empty cell behind me. She spoke not with joy, but a soft sorrow, as if she didn't like it anymore than I did. Leliana continued, "It is a small order for now, fanatics, but without the pressing breach to keep people loyal to us, it could grow to a danger."
"Stay, or go, either way assassins are coming for me?" I summed up, shaking my head.
Leliana tipped her head, "There are pros and cons to either choice, I'm afraid." I tried to pierce through that cold shell, expecting to find more calculations running under our mistress of birds, but she seemed genuinely upset at this entire ordeal.
"Excuse me!" the Crow's voice echoed through the stone. "Will I be given a meal? I only ask because I fear the best I can handle in this state is soup."
"What should I do with him?" Leliana sighed.
I rose to my feet and moved to wipe my face. My hand hung inches from my eyes as a crimson sheen reflected my own broken face. Rhodri's blood - coating my glove - taunted me. It was my fault, even if it wasn't. I was still Inquisitor, every decision ended with me. "Do whatever you want. Kill him, release him, put him to use. He is beyond my concern," I said, stepping towards the door.
"Inquisitor," Leliana said, bowing her head, her sapphire eyes snapping to him.
I paused at the door and whispered, "For now."