Chapter Sixty-Six

"Basra."

The guard on the gate acknowledged her with a short nod, but made no move to allow Shepard to pass. She shifted her pack and bedroll a little to free up her shoulder, and rubbed wearily at her face. "You're going to tell me I can't come in, aren't you?"

"Things have changed, basra," rumbled the guard. He was a topaz eyed qunari; Shepard recognized him but couldn't remember his title. Or at least she thought she did. The way the day had gone, it would be her luck if there were two of the antaam with the exact same eyecolor, and she confused them in such a way as to cause a major offense.

Shepard pursued the wiser course of action and refrained from using any title at all. Things have changed

"And not in a good way," she sighed. "Look, you know who I am. You know that the Arishok and I have an…" she ground her teeth for a moment, "…an arrangement. I would like to see him. I know the shit's really hit the fan, so I understand the lockdown, but would you please send a runner to him to let him know I'm here?"

Shepard could see the guard's eyes take in the pack and bedroll. His brow lifted.

She swallowed, ground her teeth again, and added, "To stay. Temporarily."

The topaz-eyed guard murmured something to his fellows on the opposite side of the gate, and they both turned to regard Shepard critically.

More murmuring, although Shepard couldn't make out any of the words, try as she might.

The guards inside the gate returned to their positions, but a karasten leaning casually against the wall some distance inside the gate straightened himself and moved off into the compound.

Shepard stared at the lintel above the gateway while she waited, her gaze so intent upon the yellow-orange block that she could make out the individual grains in the sedimentary stone.

Who was it that said God is a comedian playing to an audience too afraid to laugh? Ash would have known, Shepard was sure. Although she herself sure as hell didn't believe in any gods, Shepard thought she understood the sentiment. This morning she'd come here to try to tame the tiger, and tonight she'd be sleeping in its den.

Not literally, she hastily added to herself. But still… fate was a dirty bastard with an endless supply of tricks up its sleeve. She'd laugh if only the stakes weren't so high.

The anger, the fire that had driven and consumed her up until now had ebbed away, leaving only the sense of duty Shepard had never been able to ignore. It was what had powered her in those last moments on the Citadel. It had forced her to her knees as she lay bleeding beside the still form of David Anderson; sent her crawling, fumbling at a terminal as Hackett, his voice harsh and brittle with desperation, urged her to do something, anything, to make the Crucible fire. It had forced her to get up, dying on her feet in the heart of the Catalyst, as the holographic boy offered her a choice. It was what forced her forward, pistol trembling in her hand, as she made that choice.

Bleakness overtook her.

She was supposed to be dead. Why couldn't she be dead?

"Death is easy," she remembered Thane saying to her as they sat opposite each other in the little room that housed the Normandy's life support generators. They hadn't been lovers— that would come later— but even then there had been a bond between them, and Thane confided in her how his life had become an inconvenience to him. He'd fought through the early symptoms of Kepral's in order to avenge Irikah's death, but once his vengeance was complete, he'd had no wish to go on. He'd planned to die in the Dantius Towers; a plan that Shepard herself had unwittingly thwarted."Death is easy. Sometimes it is living that is the more difficult."

Dead wouldn't help Lynna or her brothers. Dead wouldn't have saved Seamus Dumar from Petrice's desire to wage holy war. And dead certainly wouldn't keep the qunari from sacking Kirkwall. She was supposed to be dead many times over, and yet she was not. She was alive and she was here and she was N-fucking-7 and there was a job to do.

There's not a single N7 who hasn't sacrificed, either themselves or their soldiers, at some point.

A truth she'd offered James once. At the time she'd been referring to what everyone thought of as the ultimate sacrifice— to be killed in action— but it would be a good thing to remember that sacrifice came in many forms, and death was many times not the greatest of them.

"Basra," rumbled a deep voice, recalling Shepard to the present and her gaze to her old friend the blue-eyed karasten, who stood just inside the now-open gates. "The Arishok will see you," he said, inclining his head slightly.

Shepard gave him a short nod, squared her shoulders, and entered.

-ooo-

Isabela was nearly frantic by the time she left the Hanged Man. She did, in fact, go straight to the docks to look for Tevene ships and to casually drop a few hints to the harbormaster that she'd heard a particularly rich cargo was expected from Tevinter. That would slow down any blasted magisters who might arrive in the next few days. The harbormaster was a greedy bastard who was always looking to line his pockets with unofficial "tariffs" and "docking fees".

Not that it would help if they'd already been and gone, taking the relic— and Isabela's salvation— with them…

Isabela was an easy woman to underestimate, particularly by those who looked no further than her decolletage. In Kirkwall, those who knew nothing of her reputation as an accomplished duelist tended to think of her as a lazy hedonist, with her permanent spot at the Hanged Man's bar and her legendary tab at the Blooming Rose. They never guessed the truth; the Rivaini was a survivor, and, like many survivors, she had learned early on in life to take what pleasure she could, when she could, knowing that tomorrow was never assured. It would therefore surprise all but her closest friends in Kirkwall— and indeed, possibly even them— how quickly and efficiently Isabela moved through the docks, winnowing through details of the comings and goings of ships through the seaport's busy harbor. Hawke and her friends all knew Varric had eyes in many places, but Isabela had more than a few of her own, and they largely existed in the dwarf's blind spots. She kept entirely clear of the Carta and Coterie, but little happened in the dockside slums that the pirate didn't know about. And as far as bolt holes were concerned, well, she'd probably found every one on the waterside, and most of the ones to be found in Lowtown.

But Darktown… Darktown was pretty much all bolt holes. Isabela doubted that even the combined knowledge of the Carta and Coterie would be sufficient to map a quarter of the dirty warren.

Varric was right. If Wall-Eyed Sam was hiding in the sewers and the Coterie couldn't find him, what chance did she have?

She swore, as only a pirate could swear, saving a special oath for the ox-men and their damned persistence.

-ooo-

"Where do you go, basra?"

The karasten halted abruptly as Shepard peeled off toward the infirmary rather than following the blue-eyed giant to his golden-eyed boss.

"I'm going to see Asa," she answered.

The karasten caught up to her in two strides, one big hand encircling her arm, but gingerly, as if handling a dangerous material. "You are injured?" he inquired, his voice what Shepard could only call perplexed. "You have learned to hide this better than when I first saw you."

Shepard shook off the karasten's arm gently. "I'm not injured. I want to check on Lynna and her brothers."

The impassive face creased into a frown. "The viddathari are not your concern, basra."

Shepard didn't see fit to answer this, and simply started off for the infirmary once more. The karasten made a hesitant move as if to capture her arm again, and seemed to think better of it. He settled for a meaningfully loud exhale that stopped just short of being either a sigh or a snort.

Asa displayed no surprise when Shepard strode into the room she herself had occupied not so long ago. "Ah, Shepard," he said. "Charging in like a chevalier. Minus the horse with big hairy hooves, of course."

"Where's Lynna?" she demanded.

"She is safe, Shepard," Asa assured her. "She wished to bathe, and a warm soak will help some of her bruises."

"You didn't go with her?"

"No. She would not be comfortable with my presence. Her brothers are with her, and can help her if she requires."

Shepard grumbled under her breath for a moment. "If I had known, I could have taken her to my place. I doubt she's going to feel comfortable bathing with anyone around, let alone a bunch of horned giants."

Asa tipped his head to the side slightly. "I arranged for privacy," he said, with a just a hint of superiority in his voice.

"Well… good," Shepard approved grudgingly.

"You do not yet fully understand the qun," Asa stated gently, "so you suspect that words like duty and purpose and, yes, certainty, mean that we treat viddathari - and perhaps each other - with less… consideration… than you basra would."

Shepard had the grace to feel sheepish. "I..."

"Under the qun, every individual is important, Shepard," said Asa sententiously. "The well-being of one is the well-being of… What is that?!"

Shepard looked around quickly, but could see nothing but an impatient karasten behind her. "What?"

Asa's eyes were narrowed. "On your back, Shepard," he said pointedly. "It looks like a bedroll."

"Congratulations on your observational skills," she said sarcastically. "Give the man a prize!"

"What game are you playing, Shepard?" Asa cautioned. "This is really not the time…"

Shepard growled and ground her teeth. "It's not a game, Asa," she snapped. "Shit has just gone seriously south. The viscount has abdicated and there's a magic-obsessed nutjob ruling the city; the police are potentially about to cause what even the politicians would refer to as a shitstorm by trying to take Vanyellan and Liam into custody when they've been essentially offered asylum by a foreign power; and the Arishok is on the edge of a meltdown. I have no choice. I have to be here."

Asa gaped at her for a very long moment before giving himself a kind of shake. His lips thinned sourly.

"Well," he said crisply, "and please believe me when I say I don't use this term lightly…"

"Fuck."

-ooo-

The Arishok sat on his red-draped bench wearing a darkly brooding expression; one that did not improve upon Shepard's arrival at the foot of the stairs leading to his throne.

"Shanedan, Arishok," Shepard said with a very formal dip of her head. "I request permission to stay here for the duration of the current…" Shepard searched for a word less fraught than her emotional state, "…difficulties… between the city and the qunari."

The giant didn't even pause.

"No."

Shepard blinked. "Why the f…" she caught herself, straightened her spine, and re-worded her response. "May I ask the reason for your refusal?"

Expecting one of the standard Arishok responses of, it is not your concern, or I do not need to explain myself to you, or even the old favorite, no, Shepard was mildly surprised when instead of answering, the giant rose slowly and stood before his bench with his eyes hard and unreadable.

His movements seemed unusually stiff as he descended the steps. There was tension in every line of his body when he stopped a mere arm's length away from her.

"Do you finally seek that which has eluded you?" he asked her, his voice unusually soft, in direct contradiction to the hardness of his eyes.

"Arishok…" Shepard began.

He turned away. "Leave."

"Wait!" Shepard reached out to catch his wrist.

The Arishok spun on her, teeth bared. "No," he growled. "You will leave. Now. If you seek to return, you will truly be treated as kabethari."

He pulled free of her grasp and mounted the stairs once again.

"You have a choice to make, Shepard," he stated ominously. "As do I."