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Wager of a Man

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The woman in scarlet leathers jammed her fingers into the crumbling mortar joining the limestone bricks and did not look down. She knew all too well what she’d see if she did: a frozen expanse dusted over with a thousand glittering motes of light. The valley was occupied by the Inquisition forces but the only sign of them in the darkness were their distant cook fires glimmering in the night like stars cast down by the Maker. 

It would be an impressive sight, if she had the concentration to spare for it. She didn’t. Her arms ached with the strain of her slow ascent, which had begun hours before at the snow-covered boulders nestled against Skyhold’s walls far below, and despite the lanolin she’d rubbed into her fine wool tunic, sweat had seeped into the fibers and froze them solid against her skin. At least she’d been able to rest on the roof of the gatehouse tower and rub the numb out of her muscles before starting on the last leg of her climb.  

Skyhold was a formidable fortress befitting a formidable military power and for an opposing army, the stone walls perched high above the icy valley were nigh impregnable. But for a lone woman armed with nothing but rope, a grappling chain, and climbing spikes, breaching the castle was more a matter of endurance than anything. From what she knew of the Inquisition’s Commander, that fact galled him immeasurably.

He’d ordered soldiers to patrol the ramparts--many more than usual-- but tonight they weren’t patrolling so much as huddling in the scant warmth provided by the torches. Judging from all the grumbling, they were miserable. Unfortunately, misery did not make their eyesight any worse, forcing her to scale the outer facing wall of the tower, hidden from torchlight and shivering soldiers alike. While she couldn’t see them, she could still hear them, especially now that her progress had taken her just a few feet above the stone crenelations of the rampart.   

“Don’t see what all the fuss is about anyway. Just a few lousy trinkets and a bit of canvas. I could be in the tavern with mead warming my belly ‘stead of up here freezing my bits off.”

“Please shut up. I’m starving and your blathering on is just making it worse.”

“Not my fault is it? I’m not the one sent us up here.”

“The Commander--”

“The Commander can kiss my frozen arse.”

The soldier had several other choice suggestions for the Commander’s lips and while he was busy running his mouth, the woman in dragonling scale took the opportunity to wedge another metal spike into a massive stone seam. The moment she finished, an unyielding voice cut through the grousing.

“I’ll be sure to take that under advisement.”

She froze and judging by the mortified silence from the soldiers, she wasn’t the only one.  

“This isn’t about what was stolen,” the Commander said. Somewhere hidden beneath the sternness of his reprimand, the thief detected a hint of amusement over what must have been a comical array of terrified expressions. She risked leaning over to peer around the corner and sure enough, a twitch of smothered laughter lingered around his scarred lip. Torchlight wavered and then it was gone, tucked back beneath the intimidating mask of authority where it couldn’t undermine him.

“The Inquisitor’s safety is in question. I’ll brook no more complaining over the additional watches.”

Wincing, she turned back to her work while the soldiers chorused ‘Understood sir, yes sir’. It wasn’t as if she’d left a dagger on the pillow with a threatening note. There were no threats, no ghoulish tokens left in the tower room. It was just a painting,  just a bit of canvas cut from it’s frame--a frame that happened to be locked in Skyhold’s impenetrable vault, which happened to have only one key that happened to be hidden in the Inquisitor’s room at the time. But by stealing the painting of the Comtesse...and a few additional decorative trinkets laying around the vault, she’d unwittingly exposed a chink in Skyhold’s armor. To a man like the Commander, such a thing was as good as an open declaration of malign intent. He would stop at nothing until he addressed it. 

But nevermind that distraction, if she spent any longer eavesdropping, she’d freeze to the tower and the Commander would have to chisel her off the bricks before he tried to throw her in the dungeon. Flexing her fingertips against the stone, she continued her slow path up the tower. From the ramparts, the voices resumed--this time in cautious whispers.

“We better capture this blighted Scarlet Shadow before I get another extra watch for insubordination.”

Above them and around the side of the tower, the Scarlet Shadow smiled beneath her mask, despite herself.

The moon had emerged high from the clouds wreathing the Frostbacks by the time she pulled herself up over the crenellations to collapse clumsily to the roof of the tower. For a long moment, the thief could only lie on the flagstones, chest heaving, and watch moonlight dip the mountains and their wispy laurel crowns in silver.

“This is becoming a worse idea by the hour,” she said to herself. But she hoped that it was the last stupid idea to be strung into her rather impressive necklace of bad decisions. 

Compliments of the tower roof’s disrepair, slipping into the Commander’s room was just a matter of gripping a splintered beam and lowering herself in through the gaping hole in the stonework. Floorboards creaked beneath her as she dropped down, dust billowing up from the ancient wood to swirl around her soft-soled climbing boots. 

She cast a critical eye around the empty room, seizing up all the little details that said much more than they intended to: a silver hairbrush carelessly left behind, black strands still caught in the boar bristles; books stacked to the side of the bed with titles like ‘Ferelden Horse Breeds: A Compendium’; an empty teacup saucer once sprinkled with tea-sodden crumbs-- already picked clean by the crows judging from an inky feather see-sawing on the floorboards. Most tellingly of all were the two twill-woven pillows slumped against the bed’s wooden headboard, both bearing indentations at their centers. 

The thief rocked back on her heels, improbable hesitancy taking her by surprise. She felt like an intruder--worse than that; she felt like a pillager come to desecrate a sacred altar. This room was nothing like the Inquisitor’s impressive chambers. It was loved in and lived in. Echoes of late mornings fluttered in circles like moths through the light of the tallow candle; stolen kisses, loving looks, legs rubbing together under the covers. Laughter and whispered sentiment had already seeped into the stones, marbling through them like veins of glittering quartz.

Well, no honor amongst thieves. Squaring her shoulders, the Scarlet Shadow shook away her daze and began searching for her prize.

It wasn’t in the featherbed or in the rushes, it wasn’t beneath any of the loose floorboards (notably absent of mouse droppings compliments of the crows lured in from the hole in the roof by pastry crumbs), or pressed between the pages of the deadly dull military tomes turned sleep aides piled by the side of the bed closest to the candle. It wasn’t sewn into the lining of the goose down pillows or the counterpane that smelled like lichen covered trees and sun-soaked citrus groves. 

Pressing her fist into the pillow to replicate the indentation that had been there before she’d flattened it between her fingers in search of a thin piece of molded iron, the thief sighed loudly. In truth, she’d expected as much. The key must be in the desk.

Time was on her side. The Inquisitor’s traveling party was still leagues away, on their way back from sorting out some trouble in the Dales and the Commander was undoubtedly deep into his cups--of Rivaini spice tea brewed strong enough to keep a druffalo up and pacing the battlements until dawn. She felt a stab of guilt at that but shook it out of her head as she silently descended the wooden ladder propped against the hole in the bedroom floor. It was too late for guilt.

The desk hulked in a pool of guttering candlelight, a behemoth of hewn blond wood littered with all variety of paper--missives, ferried on crow’s legs, still curling in on themselves like pale pill bugs, leather-bound tomes filled with the uniform precision of the printing press, ancient scrolls of thick parchment that felt like fabric and thirstily soaked up ink. Smears of scarlet peeked up from the white drifts like a trail of blood left in snow. Red ink. Picking up a note, the Scarlet Shadow winced behind the cool bisque porcelain of her mask.

‘If you will allow me the pleasure
Of monopolizing this dear lady’s ample treasures
Please express my condolences to her former beau,
The naked Comtesse has run off with the Scarlet Shadow’

Well, poetry was never one of her strengths. 

The rest of the notes were copycats, many with better lines of verse than the one she’d cobbled together. She had known the visiting nobility would adore the Scarlet Shadow persona, relied on it, in fact. 

But she had not accounted for their propensity to embellish, twisting her ruse to play an advantage against the Inquisition in their games. 

Crumpling the note in her glove and letting it fall to the floor, the thief ran her fingers over the sides of the desk, feeling for hairline seams. She found one, cleverly disguised by the decorative wood inlay. Sliding the triangular slat up, she exposed a keyhole while drawing out two thin metal hooks from the leather roll at her belt. A practiced twist of her wrist searched out the musical chime of delicate metal tumblers sliding into place behind the wood veneer. She could feel it in the fine bones of her fingertips, the resonant tremble that told her she had it, and the compartment, once flush with the wood, popped open.

Smiling, the thief pulled the drawer as far out as it would go, expecting the wink of iron and seeing nothing but a coin, a chipped seashell, a poorly carved seabird and yet more paper. Dismay was a visceral lump bobbing in her throat, but something about the paper tugged at her curiosity. More missives...but these lay flat and obviously hadn’t graced the leg of a crow for some time. She took one out to examine it and found that the paper was worn thin and soft, creases bisecting it from countless foldings and refoldings. Sweeping letters loped across, graceful black figures dancing over the yellowed parchment, spelling out utter nonsense. Beneath it, in a hasty scrawl that did not match the beautiful handwriting, was the word ‘elfroot’. The cipher’s keyword. Mentally, she did her best to decode the first line--something about a Horsemaster.

“I’d expected you sooner,” said a voice at her ear and she gasped, spinning and reaching for her belt only to hear the whisk of air parting around forge-wrought steel and feel lightness at her waist where the leather belt used to press. The hidden dagger sheaths sewn into her sleeves were empty, their silverite companions left behind with her pack at the foot of the castle walls. She had counted on evading, not fighting. Pouches of sleeping powder rolled around her feet, blessedly still intact, and she didn’t bother an attempt to retrieve them. Disarmed, she raised her hands in surrender. 

“I always prefer to arrive fashionably late, “ she said, her voice muffled by her mask and her face concealed as she eyed the Commander carefully. He wasn’t wearing his armor, just a linen undershirt and breeches; which explained how he’d managed to sneak up on her without setting up a metallic clamour. He must’ve been waiting in the tower for her the whole time and she’d been fool enough not to notice--too focused on the desk and, she had thought, imminent success. Some ‘master thief’ she was.

His daggerpoint caught the candlelight, transforming the hazy flicker into a brilliant but deadly flare between them. 

“You’re here for this I take it?” he asked, producing the key with the hand not pointing a dagger at her. 

“Yes, but if I could have a moment to explain.” She edged back but the lip of the desk was already pressing into her spine. Panic unfurled, jittery tension blooming up in the pit of her stomach and sending tendrils coiling through her limbs. Beneath her bisque mask, her skin grew clammy. She needed to get out. Immediately. He wouldn’t cut her down where she stood, she wasn’t worried about that . She was worried that any minute, he would call his soldiers in to escort her to a cell. Extricating herself from that predicament would be...difficult. 

“Oh?” He raised a deliberate eyebrow, lips compressing down into a tight smile that lacked real mirth. The dagger did not waver. 

“The rumors of my exploits have been highly exaggerated, let me assure you,”

she said, hands drifting lower to grip the edge of the desk jamming into her vertebrae. 

“You’ve come to address your injured reputation then?” he asked, the tension in his jaw dissolving into a baffled huff that managed to be indignant and amused all at once. “Half the guests of Skyhold are claiming missing baubles and trinkets. You must hold the Inquisitor’s clemency in high regard. And mine, not to mention.”

‘Guests’ was a charitable term . She personally thought of them as gossipmongering vipers in silks. She venomously wished them all dropped into the nearest icy ravine. 

“Your guests would have you think I am the most prolific thief in the whole of Thedas when I’m afraid my exploits pale in comparison to their own.”

A sharp, involuntary bark of a laugh escaped him. It was clear the Commander held no love for the Inquisition’s patrons. But why would he? The dance between the nobility and the Inquisition was as intricate and pre-determined as anything that would grace the ballrooms of the Winter Palace. Mutual benefit calculated on ever-shifting scales. Noble landowners and merchant princes did not profit off the corpses of dead farmers, but furnishing their own military might to fight demons, templars and rogue mages was a prohibitively expensive endeavor. Outsourcing the task was the palatable solution for many, but with Corypheus dead and the rifts gone, many were beginning to lose their taste for Chantry piety, eager to return to supping on the blood and sweat of their tenants and townsfolk.

Beneath the mask, she grimaced at that particularly vivid image. ‘Supping on blood’ was a bit much, maybe. She was becoming too cynical--cynical and jaded, which made her angry and impotent and reckless to the point of stupid. The Inquisition saved Thedas from destruction. The Inquisitor herself delivered the final blow against it’s architect, the Magister Corypheus. And then...sat idly by while her noble patrons resumed their subtle, inexorable oppression in his stead. She’d collected their golden bows strung with useless crystal threads, their pretty ornamental crowns and diadems and broaches and gilt scepters. Gifts-- bribes --that must be displayed prominently or shut away in a vault for future display. Such treasures could never be sold off or smelted down to aid those still recovering from the horrors of the near-end of the world. The sheer offense of the prospect was unthinkable. The gifts were priceless and worthless at the same time. 

And hadn’t the common folk received enough charity? Hadn’t they had enough time? Indolence should not be rewarded, after all. The thief clenched her hands tight, the leather creaking.

“In truth, I probably don’t deserve her clemency or yours. I don’t at all regret putting your treasury to better use— clothes and food and medicine,” she said, seething and furious and already regretting it but unable to stop herself, “I’d wager a set of recently acquired pearl-encrusted oyster forks that you’re the type of man who would agree with me on that point.”

The knife leveraged at her forgotten, an afterthought, he stepped forward even closer, a muscle leaping in his tightening jaw. “Are you asking for my counsel , Scarlet Shadow? My endorsement for your scheme? The request might be better received under other circumstances, but perhaps you might spare some regret for the men and women standing watch on the ramparts. Or some concern for those who are emboldened by any hint of weakness in this castle’s defenses?”

It was if he’d slid the blade between her ribs. The air in her lungs slipped from her lips all at once in a pained breath that puffed against her porcelain mask, barely audible. He heard it anyway, his anger faltering just as she levered herself back against his desk and kicked his wrist, sending his dagger skittering into the shadowed recesses of the room. Momentum rocked her back, flat onto the desk and she rolled to the side, paper crumpling beneath her.

His fingertips skimmed over her arm as she twisted away, sliding off the desktop in a hail of loose paper and landing in a crouch before he could grab her. She sprang back on her heels, a thrill tugging a grin at the corners of her lips as she danced away on light feet even as angry, shameful tears stung the corners of her eyes. 

“Perhaps I already have,” she bit out. Paper missives were still fluttering to the ground in lazy spirals at her feet. With her back to the wall and the Commander blocking all routes of escape, she stood and met his measured stare. By the time she did, the surprise was almost entirely gone from it. Something else lingered too, flickering heat in amber like a banked coal. 

“So do I have your endorsement, Commander, or no?” She didn’t ask so much as hurl the request, chin raised and unrepentant, her breath coming heavy. His heated look darkened and a shiver furrowed down her spine--not an unpleasant feeling, just an ill-timed one. She tightened her jaw, steeling herself against it. He was breathing heavy too, his linen undershirt straining, the laces loosened in the scuffle to reveal a glimpse of bare chest. His lips parted, once, then closed to form a compressed line before at last saying, “To what purpose? You’ve come this far without it.”

Frustration churned in her gut. With herself. With this whole fiasco. With him, even though she had no right to the cooperation of the Inquisition’s Commander after being the bane of his professional career for the better part of a fortnight.

A pouch of sleeping powder rested against her boot. It would be a fight then, which was bad news. She wasn’t exceptionally skilled in close-quarters situations. Most of her experience in combat was obtained with the advantage of a bow and higher ground. She was faster but exhausted and despite his broad shoulders and height, he was deceptively quick on his feet. Her sparring instructor would no doubt advise against what she was planning.

The thief nodded her jutted chin towards the hand still clutching the key. “Not far enough.”

She dashed towards him. He expected it, moving rapidly in kind, but he didn’t expect her to kick up the pouch of sleeping powder towards his face. Knowing better than to try to block and risk splitting the delicate bundle, he was forced to throw himself back so that it missed entirely to burst harmlessly against the wall far behind him. Taking advantage of his awkward dodge, she rushed towards him, ready to catch him low and knock him onto his back. He recovered quicker than she liked, moving with the startling speed of a seasoned swordsman to grasp her firmly beneath the shoulder. The elbow she jabbed into his side did nothing to loosen his grip. Instead, he spun her back to pin her against the wall lest she try again. 

For a breathless second, their eyes met. His gaze, limned bronze by the candlelight, traversed a path down her mask to trace the outline of the slit where her panting lips pressed. She could feel it like a fingertip of glowing metal, paring through the porcelain. Heat radiated off him, forge-hot, buffeting warm air over her exposed skin like a caress. 

Hands, calloused from years of holding weapons, and large enough to engulf two of her own, flexed against her wrists. Not enough pressure to hurt, just enough to keep her pinned. He hadn’t enough time to slip the key away, she could feel the firm outline of warmed metal press against the line of bare skin above her gloves. When he spoke, his voice was rough and low, a half-rumble in his chest. 

“Maker’s breath, Thaliana, you’ve put me in a difficult position.”