Chapter Sixty-Seven

To say that Shepard was in a bad mood would be like saying that Sol was hot.

She'd been escorted from the compound with silent, unyielding firmness and deposited on the far side of the gate, which had swing closed behind her with a clatter.

This was not in the plans.

Now what, Shepard?

She hadn't felt this frustrated since Rannoch, when she issued an ultimatum to Han'Garel and prepared herself to walk away and leave the Migrant Fleet to its stubborn fate.

I am done saving you. Keelah selai.

But, much as she really, really wanted to leave Kirkwall to its fate, Shepard had invoked her authority and could hardly let it go undefended. She took a deep breath and exhaled noisily, then marched over to the somewhat dubious shelter where two of Kirkwall's massive sandstone walls met. The corner lay nestled between the compound gate and the main stairs to Lowtown.

Shepard swung her pack from her shoulders and set it carefully on the dusty stone floor.

Here it is. The thin red line.

From this vantage point Shepard could attempt to block the qunari and the city guard from direct confrontation. There were other paths to and from the docks— narrow stairways, the sewers of Darktown— but they were circuitous and difficult for a large force to negotiate. Aveline would hardly have the guard skulk through Darktown if she attempted to take Liam and Vanyellan by force, and Shepard had to hope that the Arishok's arrogance would require him to make a bold statement, or that his anger and frustration would cause him to make tactical mistakes.

Eventually, word would reach Hawke and Varric of Shepard's new position and she could arrange to be better provisioned. But for now…

She laid out her bedroll and established her forward base of operations as best she could, and felt a very uncharitable sense of satisfaction when she caught the topaz-eyed qunari guard watching her closely, knowing that the Arishok would soon be apprised of her whereabouts.

Stick that in your qun, big guy.

-ooo-

Aveline paused at the door to the Seneschal's office. It was not a lengthy pause; perhaps only a slight hesitation. An onlooker might not have even registered it. But it was enough time for Aveline to square her shoulders and lift her chin before she rapped on the wood.

"Enter."

Though only the single word was uttered, Aveline was aware of what was unspoken, but clearly evident in the voice. Whatever you're here to bother me with, it better be good.

Bran was seated behind his desk, which was— by the Seneschal's normal standards— awash in paperwork. Several neat piles were stacked with geometric precision on the polished surface. To the casual observer, the man was as cool and unruffled as ever. But Aveline, who had worked with the Seneschal for the past three years, could see the fine lines at the corners of his eyes and mouth that betrayed stress and tension.

This isn't going to be a help, Aveline thought wryly.

Bran looked up from the document he was reading. "Yes, Guard-Captain?" he said coldly.

Aveline pushed her shoulders back even further and threw her head up unhappilly. "It's about the elven fugitives, Seneschal."

The faint wrinkle of his brow said what fugitives? more clearly than words could have.

"They killed—" Aveline could not, in any fairness, bring herself to use the word murder, "—one of… of the guardsmen." She found she also could not bear to speak the words one of my men; words that would once have been said with pride and a kind of fierce protectiveness.

Bran's brow cleared briefly with recognition, then clouded further. "Is there a problem, Guard-Captain?"

Part of Aveline wanted to laugh wildly. What part of it wasn't a problem?

She settled with, "Yes, ser."

At the Seneschal's lifted eyebrow, she continued, stiffly. "The responsibility for Carlisle's death is mine, ser."

Whatever Bran had expected, it certainly wasn't that. Aveline once again felt the urge to laugh. She'd never seen the Seneschal look dumbfounded before.

A muscle in his cheek twitched as Bran regained control of his jaw. Wearily, he rubbed the corner of his right brow. "It never ends," he muttered sourly.

He grunted, and fixed Aveline with a scowl. "Tell me."

-ooo-

"I thought you were going to stay in the compound," Hawke looked down at Shepard with her hands on her hips.

Shepard shifted slightly, her backplate grating against the stone wall. "Yeah, well… plans change."

"What happened?" the rogue inquired cautiously.

"I'm glad you asked, so I didn't have to," muttered Varric.

Shepard glared at the gate and its guards. "No happened," she said, almost mockingly. "I swear to god, that man is the most infuriating, arrogant son of a bitch that ever lived. Won't listen to reason, won't take help when it's offered… ugh!"

Hawke gave the Spectre a sympathetic shrug. "What can I say? No seems to be their favorite word."

Varric shook his head. "Basra," he disagreed. "Spoken with that mildly sneering inflection that makes it sound like they're referring to nugshit." He glanced at Shepard out of the corner of his eye, hoping to see a smile, a grimace… anything other than the blackly murderous expression she currently wore.

He was disappointed. If anything, her expression darkened further, and her eyes once again shot to the gate.

"Did you get any details on the deal?"

Varric jumped a little, all the more because Shepard's voice was eerily cool and professional, in stark contrast to her mood.

Hawke answered for him. "Not much," she said ruefully. "We have an idea of the where, but not the when."

As Shepard started to open her mouth to reply, Hawke added, "I have Fenris watching the area now."

Now, finally, Shepard's expression eased a little, and she gave a satisfied jerk of her head. "Good."

Varric felt able to speak. "It's a pretty good bet the deal hasn't happened yet," he noted. "Otherwise, there'd be more information. None of the people I pay to watch for magisters have seen anything."

"How would they know?" Shepard demanded. "I mean, really? It's not as if they're horned giants, like the qunari. Put one of them in a sailor's clothes, and nobody would know."

Varric shook his head, a grin forming despite himself. "You obviously don't know the magisters," he said. "The only thing flashier than a magister is an Orlesian dandy. One would never stoop to wearing something so… common."

-ooo-

Bran was silent when Aveline finished speaking. He sat with his eyes closed, forehead resting against his steepled fingers.

"I am fully prepared to resign my commission as Guard-Captain," Aveline said into the ringing silence. The heat of shame and unshed tears suffused her face, and her guts knotted so tightly that she feared for a moment she might be physically ill.

But Bran held up a hand to forestall any further words or actions. "No," he said quite firmly. "Things are bad enough without you martyring yourself over a trivial matter."

"Trivial?" Aveline's voice was sharp, but once again Bran interrupted her.

"Yes, Guard-Captain," he snapped in return. "I already have a sufficiently difficult challenge to face to keep Kirkwall from being absorbed by the Templar Order. I will not allow you to create another power vacuum they can use to solidify their hold on this city."

Aveline blinked. The seneschal must have caught the fleeting expression of surprise on her face, for he gave her a sour look. "You can begin to see why I care so little for a problem that has, in essence, resolved itself." He made a dismissive gesture with one hand, and then snorted softly. "Although it certainly explains why Shepard was even less civilized than usual this morning."

His face screwed itself into an expression of extreme disgust. "It seems I have no choice but to agree with that barbaric woman," he said stiffly. "This matter of the elven fugitives is finished, Guard-Captain. You are not to pursue things any further. Do you understand?"

Numbly, Aveline nodded. "Yes, Seneschal." She shifted slightly. "I hope you understand, however, that I must resolve the issues that led to such a… a…breakdown… of the guard."

Again the dismissive gesture, combined with a long-suffering sigh. "Do as you deem necessary, Guard-Captain, so long as it is a purely internal affair." Bran had already returned his attention to a new document in an unspoken dismissal.

Stony-faced, Aveline jerked her head in the briefest of nods. "Seneschal," she said.

Bran did not look up.

"Guard-Captain."