Chapter Sixty-Four

Aveline looked out over the assembled faces of the guard, wondering how in the blazes this could be happening. She knew all of her guard; worked with them, patrolled with them. Surely none of them would be a party to something like this.

Then again, she'd thought the same thing when the qunari delegation had been kidnapped by Petrice's fanatics. Of course, that had been the work of a raw recruit. Aveline just wished she didn't know who was behind it now.

"Two days ago," she said in a ringing voice, "a crime was committed by one of our own. I am asking you all now: does anyone know, or suspect they know, anything about an attack" —Aveline couldn't manage to use the blunter term rape— "on a young elven girl in Lowtown?"

There was a general muttering and looking about among the guard. Aveline let the susurration go on for a few moments before meeting the eyes of two of them in turn. "Guardswoman Brennan. Guardsman Derrick. To me."

Brennan's pinched face was even more so, and her skin was drained of all color. Derrick, on the other hand, was deeply flushed, his eyes betraying his nervousness.

As the two guards came before her, Aveline once again reconsidered her idea of questioning them in front of the whole company. Every part of her said that a serious dressing down such as this should be conducted in private, in her office. And once again, she overruled herself. This was something that needed to be seen, so that it never happened again. Not on her watch.

The guard-captain folded her arms over her chest and fixed the pair with unsympathetic eyes. "Yesterday morning the two of you were on patrol in the plaza. Did you speak to two young elven boys?"

"How was I supposed to know they were telling the truth?" blurted Brennan.

"How did you know they were lying?" Aveline shot back, her anger cracking her composure.

Brennan shook her head. "Come on, Guard-Captain," she protested. "We all know the elves are always looking for a handout." Something in Aveline's expression prompted the guardswoman to add, "And the nobles don't like them hanging around Hightown."

"They told you," Aveline began in a low voice, "that a guard had raped their sister. And you did nothing?"

Brennan threw up her hands quickly. "I didn't know! They were elves! I didn't know!"

"Not good enough!" roared Aveline. "They were elves is not an answer! Neither is they were poor! Or they were accusing a guard! None of those things determine whether or not you do your job." She turned to the other guard. "Guardsman Derrick," she snapped. "Did you think the boys were lying?"

Derrick was caught between a rock and a hard place, and he knew it. If he let Brennan take the blame, he'd be throwing Brennan under the cart. On the other hand, if he admitted to agreeing with Brennan, he'd share the guard-captain's ire. He wracked his mind for some kind of compromise. "I… uh…" he began haltingly, his eyes rolling with the effort of concentration. And then he had it. "I s'pose I didn't want to believe them, Guard-Captain," he said earnestly. "Because that would mean one of us did… somethin' like that."

"Also not good enough!"

Aveline raked angry, uncompromising eyes over the gathered company. "We exist to protect the people of this city; to uphold the law. We aren't here for judgment— that's the job of the magistrates and the viscount. We don't determine who the law does and does not apply to based on race or class or nationality. And that's because the law applies to everybody." She paced restlessly. "Including ourselves."

"Until today, I believed this didn't need saying: I expect you all to watch each other's backs, yes, but that does not mean turning a blind eye! If you hear of or see another guard doing something you'd bring in someone else for, I expect you to do something about it! If you aren't comfortable with taking action yourself, bring it to me. And for Andraste's sake, never turn anyone claiming a crime has occurred away without listening to what they have to say!"

She stopped, and turned back to the two guards she'd singled out. "Guardswoman Brennan, Guardsman Derrick… Your refusal to listen to those boys may have directly led to them committing murder and put the city at risk by forcing a…" she groped for a politically polite term, "…diplomatic incident with the qunari."

Aveline could feel the collected men and women holding their breath, metaphorically waiting for the ax to fall.

Oh, it would fall all right.

"But you aren't the only ones complicit in this affair." Aveline drew a deep breath. "This was a failure by the guard as a whole. Each of us bears responsibility for this… this… mess, and ultimately, the final blame rests with me. I am your captain, and your actions are a reflection of my leadership. That a veteran guard could even think of abusing his position in such a fashion, and with confidence that he would face no repercussions because his victim was an elf… That he could be proved right when not one of you reported his behavior; when two other veterans would turn aside accusations against him…"

Aveline raised a hand to her brow. "I thought I'd trained you all better than that. Knew you all better than that. I was wrong."

With extreme effort, Kirkwall's Guard-Captain pulled herself together. "Beginning tomorrow, I will be conducting personal interviews with each and every one of you under my command. I will get to the bottom of what led to Carlisle's murder and present it to the seneschal. After that, if I still remain guard-captain, all of you will be going back through training."

She paused, running her gaze over the company. Most of the faces held some level of shock or surprise. A few were angry, and Aveline couldn't muster the energy to care whether it was directed at her or at the situation. A handful — a small handful, thank Andraste — appeared resentful. She filed those faces away for special consideration later, when she wasn't feeling so damn empty.

"Am I clear?" she finished, repeating the question more forcefully when the response came back in mumbles and mutters. "Am…I…clear?"

This time, she was rewarded with a strong chorus of, "Yes, ser!" and the thumping of fists against chests.

Her eyes were bleak as she turned away from the men and women she'd once taken such pride in.

"Guard dismissed."

-ooo-

Shepard had a good poker face. She knew it, and everyone who'd ever lost to her at Skillian Five knew it. But it nevertheless took a supreme effort of will not to let anything more than mild surprise show in her expression. Shepard was also as skilled as any commander at adapting to rapidly changing conditions on or off the battlefield; a skill that had been honed beyond razor sharpness by the Reapers. Still, her brain was spinning as she checked both the words she'd prepared to say and the ones that sprung, unbidden, to her lips.

She managed, against all probability and reason, a passably polite, "I'm sorry. I was looking for Viscount Dumar."

The templar knight-commander straightened up and came around the desk. Meredith Stannard was a fairly tall woman, easily on par with Aveline but without the latter's muscle. It was a deceptive slenderness much like her own, Shepard knew; the other woman wore her bulky plate and mail with no more thought to the weight than Shepard gave her own armor, and the hilt of the sword she wore belonged to something considerably heavier than a slim rapier.

The pale blue eyes that regarded Shepard were hard, uncompromising. They never wavered from Shepard's as the knight-commander replied, in a clear voice as cool as her icy blue irises, "Viscount Marlowe Dumar stepped down this morning."

"Oh?" Shepard let just a hint of a challenge creep into the word, and shifted her stance, folding her arms on her chest. "And just what— or who— made him do that?"

"In the interim," Meredith continued, blatantly ignoring Shepard's question, "while the noble families decide on a replacement, I shall manage Kirkwall's affairs."

"Shouldn't that be the seneschal's duty?" Shepard asked sharply. While she personally thought Bran was a weasel, she gave him some credit for his political acumen and low cunning.

"The seneschal's duties remain the same as they have always been: to support the office of the viscount," Meredith answered, and there was more than a hint of steel in her voice now.

"I see," said Shepard, inwardly running through as many curses as she could remember. This was not a complication she needed.

Look on the bright side, Shepard. At least she's military. Bran would dismiss the qunari as insignificant based on how few he believes there are. Meredith's had training. She'll understand that an enemy's strength can't be predicted by numbers alone, right?

Right?

She dropped her arms and settled into a relaxed parade rest. There were shades to a marine's posture; something only good officers learned to recognize. Unless, of course, they'd started at the bottom, as Shepard had done. She'd been an NCO, and if there's one thing an NCO is really skilled at, it's learning how to express their utter disrespect of an officer in something as subtle as a centimeter's slouch.

"Then you should be aware that you've been handed a…" Shepard had been about to say ticking time bomb, and hesitated only a moment before substituting a less problematic metaphor, "… bunch of barrels of oil, and the warehouse is on fire."

One fair eyebrow arched, but instead of asking Shepard to elaborate, Meredith said, "I have heard much about you, serah Shepard. In recent months it seems hardly a day goes by without your name appearing in one of my reports. You and your friend serah Hawke. But Hawke is an open book; her father and sister both apostates. You," Meredith's eyes narrowed slightly, "are more difficult to place."

"I'll make it easy for you," Shepard replied bluntly. "I'm the woman standing between you and a qunari uprising."

Again, the knight-commander's response was baffling to Shepard. "Yes," Meredith said. "Your… relationship… with the heretics is well known."

Your… what?

Resisting the urge to grind her teeth and sternly commanding her body not to flush bright pink with embarrassment, Shepard tilted her head. "Why do I get the feeling that you simply don't care what happens with the qunari?" she asked pointedly.

"I do not," replied Meredith. "They and their heresy are the Chantry's concern."

Shepard's brow furrowed. "Aren't templars part of the Chantry?"

"The order's responsibility is to protect the people of Thedas from the threat of uncontrolled magic," Meredith retorted sharply. "Not to fight a religious war with the ox-men."

"If you aren't interested in war with the qunari," said Shepard, "then listen to me. I will do everything I can to keep the peace, but you have got to get people to quit poking the wasps' nest."

"You speak of keeping the peace," retorted Meredith, "yet you would see all mages free. I wonder if you are really so naive to magic as you would claim? There have been rumors…"

"Mages," growled Shepard in frustration, "are not the issue here!" She swept a hand in the direction of the docks. "You've got a foreign company of soldiers inside your walls and they are waiting, just waiting, for the order to neutralize this city! And their leader is a man who is at the end of his patience, if he had any to begin with! Do you understand? Someone sneezes wrong, and that will be the end of it!"

The knight-commander's gaze measured Shepard, and Shepard felt a few more strands of the tenuous hold she had on her temper snap. It wasn't difficult to give her voice the hard, glass-sharp edge she employed now; it would have been nearly impossible to prevent it.

"Knight-Commander! Do you understand?!"

Meredith's eyes narrowed; her expression, already cool, became icy. "I believe I do, serah Shepard. Knight-Captain Cullen!"

Cullen came through the door flanked by three other templars, his sword drawn. His movements were those of a man anticipating combat.

"Please escort serah Shepard to the Gallows, Knight-Captain," ordered Meredith shortly. "But first…"

Shepard watched in flabbergasted silence while Meredith raised one hand in an almost beseeching gesture and then clenched it sharply, as if snatching something out of the air. She felt something… some tiny tickle behind her eyes, or in her sinuses, or perhaps the back of her neck? It was almost completely unlike the feeling you got before a sneeze, but Shepard could think of nothing else it resembled more. She held her position, waiting for anything further; some pain or a greater intensity to the sensation… or even a mad cackle of laughter from the knight-commander. Then she shook her head darkly.

"You aren't fit to hold the title of commander," Shepard said quietly, turning her back on the other woman and addressing Cullen.

"Captain," she acknowledged with a short nod. "Don't even think of obeying that order. It will only lead to bloodshed. Not just here, in this office, but out in the city as well."

Cullen was uncertain, Shepard could see it in his eyes. His combat training was good, though. Those eyes remained focused on her, and his uncertainty was not reflected in his posture; his body was primed to react to any movement Shepard made.

"Knight-Commander," he said hesitantly, "are you sure this is…"

"I gave you an order, Knight-Captain," snapped Meredith.

Cullen moistened his lips. "With due respect," he said diffidently, "by all accounts messere Shepard is a singularly skilled opponent."

"She is unarmed and drained," retorted Meredith with derision. "Surely you aren't suggesting that four senior ranking templars are insufficient to subdue one Tevinter battlemage?"

Shepard's lips pulled back from her teeth in a feral grin. "Not exactly unarmed," she corrected with dark glee, activating her omni-blade. She raised her left fist slowly, knowing that the orange flicker would be reflected in her eyes. "Listen up, you primitive screwheads.* This is the sharpest blade you can imagine. Sharper, actually, because it's made from materials you haven't even begun to imagine, using technology far beyond anything you could possibly imagine. This," she said, turning the blade slightly as if admiring it, "is flash-forged silicon-carbide, suspended in a mass effect field. It is so thin you can see through it, yet on the Mohs hardness scale, it ranks just below industrial diamond. Within the mass-effect field it burns hotter than the hottest furnace in Thedas. It can cut through steel like a hot knife through butter."**

"Not only that," she continued pleasantly, almost dreamily, "but I can overload my shields and my omni-tool into it, giving it the elemental force of lightning… which makes a bad day for people wearing conductive metals." She lowered her arm and squinted at the templars blocking the doorway. "So I guess it comes down to this, boys and girls… do you feel lucky?***"

Behind her, Shepard heard Meredith draw her sword. "Drain her!" she commanded.

Cullen and one of the other templars both raised their off hands much as Meredith had done earlier. This time the sensation was more of a whole-body prickle, and Shepard felt herself shudder involuntarily. And, at her side, her omni-tool gave a shrill warning tone.

They're… overloading the 'tool? How is that…

The warning tone sounded again, urgently, insistently.

Shepard pivoted on her heel and thrust the blade into the viscount's polished wooden desk and purged the overload. Electricity arced around her fist, leaping to a brass inkwell and causing the ink within to boil over the lip.

"I'm done fucking around with you people," she said flatly. "If you're too stupid or crazy to understand the threat that's right in front of you— no matter how clearly I spell it out— that's your choice. But I'm a god-damned Spectre, and I won't be interfered with. The qunari and their entire compound are now my jurisdiction and are off-limits to everyone— templars, guards, and the god-damned general public— until I say otherwise."

She pulled the omni-blade free and deactivated it with a touch. "I won't bother asking you if you understand, because at this point I frankly don't care if you do."

Meredith's eyes were narrowed, and the knight-commander appeared to making some kind of internal calculations, perhaps the odds of five templars managing to subdue Shepard long enough to make it as far as the Gallows.

The three templars blocking the door certainly seemed to be considering the odds, and not liking their conclusions. There was some uncomfortable shifting among them, and their eyes kept flicking to their captain beseechingly.

Cullen stood his ground as Shepard stalked up to him.

"I have my orders, serah," he warned.

"I've killed a lot of people, Knight-Captain," Shepard replied. "Don't make me add you and your men to that list."

"Nevertheless," said Cullen, tightening his hand on his sword's leather-wrapped grip.

"Stand down, Knight-Captain." Meredith's order was grudging, but clear.

Cullen's light brown eyes remained fixed on Shepard's for a few heartbeats, before he stepped aside with a short nod. The other templars scrambled to do the same as Shepard strode forward, feeling two pair of eyes on her back and wishing the sensation wasn't quite so much like finding herself in an enemy's crosshairs.

-ooo-

Varric's eyes lost none of their suspicion, even in the face of Hawke's most charming— and sincere— smile.

"Would I lie to my trusty dwarf?" she demanded.

Her trusty dwarf's eyes narrowed further, but his lips curled in a lazy grin. "Do you really want me to answer that?"

"Bluff called," murmured Anders.

Hawke scowled, but Varric refused to look away, clearly not taken in by her attempt.

"Fine," she said at last, breaking eye contact with the knowing rogue, her hands gripping the edge of the table until her knuckles went white. She stared fiercely at the items she'd assembled on the table for a time before looking up again, eyes bright with anger and unshed tears. Her voice, when she spoke, was low but as forceful as a shout.

"I will not lose anyone else," she said, and there was some uncertainty as to whether her words were a vow or a declaration of war. "The Maker will take me first."

"Hawke," Anders began hesitantly, but whatever he was going to say was interrupted by Edwina, who looked around the tense room with a lifted brow and an expression that stated that whatever was going on was certainly none of her business and she'd prefer to keep it that way.

"You've a message," she said, handing a small scrap of folded paper to Varric. "And Corff says your friend's only paid half her tab again this week."

Varric sighed as he took the paper. "Thanks, Edwina. Tell Corff I'll take care of it. Again."

Anders' gaze shifted to Varric as the dwarf unfolded the message. "Do you always pay Isabela's bar tab?" he asked dryly.

"Only when she forgets to use mine," Varric replied absently. He gave a low whistle and tossed the torn page onto the table in front of him.

"Put me in a dress and call me a templar," he said incredulously. "This might actually be something. A thief called Wall-Eyed Sam has some kind of deal going with the Tevinters. He's Coterie, so they should know the details… but they don't. And Sam's dropped out of sight."

Anders looked baffled. Hawke merely looked perplexed.

"Your plan, remember?" prompted Varric.

Hawke shook her head. "I know about my plan," she scoffed. "But why do you think this has anything to do with it? What would Tevinter want with a book written by a qunari philosopher?"

"What are you two talking about? What book?" demanded Anders, pointedly. "And what does it have to do with Hawke locking us in her mansion while she skulks off to fight qunari?"

"Not that plan," Hawke told him. "This is another plan."

Varric shrugged. "They're at war."

"It's a book of philosophy, not a list of troop movements," Hawke argued.

"What's this other plan?" Anders asked, his unease growing quickly. "I'm not sure I'm liking the sound of it."

Hawke picked up the scrap of paper in one hand and flapped the other at Anders in a dismissing motion. "It'd take too long to explain," she said, a crease forming on her forehead as she read the brief note.

"If it is as important as everything seems to suggest, maybe the magisters just want it to wave about while they make faces and say things like, 'nyah, nyah, look at what we've got,'" Varric suggested. "It would be a blow to the qunari's pride, if nothing else."

"Hmmm," Hawke murmured thoughtfully. "Let's let Isabela and Shepard know, and see what they think."

Varric shook his head. "That'll take a while, Hawke," he said ruefully. "Starkiller's busy with the ox-men, and Isabela won't show her face here until she's sure her tab's been cleared."

"How much time do you think we have?" Hawke fretted.

"And is it enough to let me know what the blazes is going on?" Anders added.

"I don't know, Hawke," Varric said heavily. "Not much, if the Coterie gets a hold of Sam."

"Or Thaddeus does," Hawke agreed solemnly.

"Is there really any point to me even being here?" Anders said plaintively.

"Isabela will be at the Rose," Varric offered. "You can probably drag her out if you mention I've paid Corff. Starkiller, though…"

Hawke gave him a look.

"Oh, no," the dwarf declared. "I'm not going anywhere near the qunari right now, Hawke. And neither are you," he added firmly.

"Of course not," Hawke said loftily. "You're going to wait for her in the alienage."

"And I'm going to have a drink," muttered Anders to nobody in particular.

"Oh, and Hawke?" Varric added. "Try not to get distracted while you're there."

Hawke grinned. "Who could possibly distract me after…" The rogue barely caught herself in time, amending the end of the sentence to, "…recent events?"

"Maybe two," Anders continued.

Hawke and Varric shifted surprised eyes to the mage, as if only just remembering his presence. "Two?" they chorused.

"I, uh… didn't think Justice let you… er… visit the Rose. In a professional capacity," stammered Hawke. She appeared to have been suddenly distracted by her thoughts. "Or an unprofessional capacity," she amended. "Not as a healer, I mean. You know, for fun."

"Good for you, Blondie," said Varric, grinning. "Ambitious, maybe, given the extent of your Justice-enforced dry spell, but, hey, I'm all for it."

Anders gaped at them for a moment, unable to respond. Then, gathering what dignity he felt left to him, he stalked off without a word.

*Shepard really loves her campy 20th century vids.
**As mentioned by a reviewer
***And movies with lots of shooting and reckless car chases. Explains the way she always drove the Mako.