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Keeping Secrets

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You look around at the fortress, your new home, with no small amount of awe. No small amount of fear, either. There aren’t a lot of places to run from here. And you’re used to being able to run.

In the end, however, it’s the lesser of a whole lot of evils. Running around during a mage rebellion had made things difficult enough. Then this madness with the rifts started happening, demons fucking everywhere… Now there were red Templars, which were somehow worse than regular Templars, which shouldn’t have even been possible. And the worst of it was this damned Inquisition, which had swooped in and rescued what Templars weren’t corrupted.

But it was the safest shelter in a storm. Even if it was full of Templars. Everywhere else was getting burned to the ground.

You enlist the same way as everyone else, by showing up one day with nothing but the clothes on your back and a sack of food. Someone is going through the new “recruits,” called such only because it sounds nicer than “desperate refugees,” trying to help them figure out where they will be the most useful. And now they’re in front of you, asking what skills you can lend to the Inquisition.

“Um,” you say, shifting your feet awkwardly. A hood covers your pointed ears, but there’s no hiding your larger-than-human eyes. “I was a scribe, before… everything. I can read, I can write, several languages-“

Before you can even finish listing off your skills, the fellow is nodding. “Alright, another elf for the library. Head up into the main hall, first door on your right, up the stairs. Find the other kni… nice elf, he’ll sort you out. Maker knows he could use the help.”

It really shouldn’t be so easy… But you shrug, and take your measly bag up the stairs. And there are a lot of stairs.

Skyhold is huge. Uncomfortably huge. The walls don’t help; they make it feel like the whole place is looming over you. You have a distinct feeling of being watched that leaves your skin crawling. You keep your head down as you slip through what is clearly a training ground, a blonde human shouting orders at men with swords. You glimpse a man in Templar armor and frown inwardly. Dodging Templars has almost become second nature, and being so close to them willingly chafes on you as much as your ill-fitting trousers. Still, you know you need to get used to it. Acting skittish around them is basically turning yourself in.

You take the steps up to the giant building two at a time, eager to get away from the muscle-bound humans. You have to admit, the “Great Hall,” as it seems to be called, is rather impressive. Utilitarian, somehow, but attractive. A bit too much Chantry influence for something that the Chantry had spent a lot of effort decrying, really.

You’re a bit surprised to see a dwarf at a table near the door you supposedly need to go through, rather engrossed in writing something. He glances up, as if sensing your eyes lingering on him. He flashes you a grin.

“Another newbie? We’re getting a lot of you.” His voice is amicable, but you get a feeling he’s a bit sharper than he looks. Better watch yourself.

“Y-yeah,” you stammer. “I’m… supposed to go to the library?” You gesture towards the door, as if you’re already a bit lost.

“Through there, up the stairs. Don’t worry, Stutter, you’ll fit in.”

Great. You have a nickname. Rather than reply, you bow your head slightly in thanks and duck through the door.

You should just go up the stairs. You know that. Lingering has never brought you anything but pain, but the sight of what’s on the other side of that door steals your breath away. A giant, round room, with a half-finished mural ringing it. You step in despite the voice in your head screaming that there would be time to look around later, spinning around as you walk to stare at everything.

Voices are bouncing down from above… The library, most likely; they had said it was upstairs. Were those birds you heard screeching? Still, this mural. Wolves howling at a mysterious figure, beautiful browns and golds. Had it come with the place?

You hear the sound of a clearing throat and go rigid, spinning around towards the source of the sound. There is a man on the scaffolding; in your admiration, you utterly failed to notice him. Stupid. Stupid! He isn’t saying anything, and you begin to worry you walked in on someone particularly important, or into a private area.

“U-u-um, s-sorry,” you stammer, wincing at the nervous tick. “I… I was looking for the library?”

“You were admiring,” the voice short, low and mature, with an accent you didn’t recognize. “The library is up the stairs.”

Was everyone in this damn castle astute? You’d be pegged within the month if this kept up. “Thanks. Sorry. Thank you,” you wince as you make all haste towards where you know the stairs are. No more sightseeing for you!

You all but charge up the stairs, hoping that the librarian is a little bit more normal than the last two. At least he’ll be an elf, apparently. Hopefully he’s one of those kinship-and-togetherness elves, and he’ll cut you some slack.

You come up the top of the stairs, and are immediately absolutely sure that you are, in fact, hearing birds. The cawing and flapping is unmistakable. Was there a rookery in this bizarre tower, as well? For a fortress with so much space, there sure was a lot of things crammed into one place. You pause, catching your bearings. This is obviously the library, but there are quite a few people, and you’re tasked with finding a single elf. You immediately scan the crowd for someone short.

“New?” came a rather cultured voice. It takes a great deal of self-control not to let out a long groan. Is everyone in this stupid Inquisition perceptive? This will be no end of grief. Your eyes focus in on the person talking, a tanned human with an admittedly marvelous moustache.

“I’m looking for the librarian?” is all you say, wondering if any qunari will be shaking you down as well, by the time you find where you’re supposed to be.

“Just over there. Dark hair, mousy, you can’t miss him.” The man looks amused. You don’t care to guess as to why.

“Thank you, ser,” you say politely, and turn to find the librarian before he can question you further. Go figure, the Inquisition is Inquisitive. And clearly, you were a genius for deciding you were a good enough secret-keeper to sit right underneath their noses.

Finally, you do manage to find the librarian, or who you sincerely hope is the librarian. You don’t see any other elves, so… You take a deep breath, then address him.

“Um, hello? My name is Emma.” A lie so practiced it isn’t even a lie anymore. “I was sent up here… to help, ostensibly.”

The man glances up at you, seeming startled by your presence. “Oh… oh! Are you one of the new arrivals?”

“I am, yes,” you say gravely. Thank the Maker, finally someone who isn’t on top of everything.

“And they sent you up here, not to the maid’s quarters? You must be something interesting.”

You frown. “Excuse me?”

“Oh, no offense, they just tend to see pointed ears and automatically assign any kind of servant work they can think of. What did you do to get put up here?”

Great, so much for an Inquisition for everyone. You knew those posters with the elf girl were a load of druffalo shit. You try not to look offended, and probably fail. “I read and write several languages,” you say, managing to hold yourself back from going on a rant listing them. Humility gets you far in a life of keeping secrets.

“That would be why, then. Are you any good at organization? You might be more use upstairs.”

Upstairs again? Maker have mercy. You let out a long sigh. “Honestly, ser, I just want to find a place where I can be of some use. I don’t care if it’s translating ancient Tevinter manuscripts or shoveling horse shit, at this point.”

The elf snorts. “Be careful saying that, or they’ll send you to the stables, and frankly, you’ll be of more use up here. Oh, my name’s Mahvir, by the way. Emma, you said, right? Alright, Emma, for now, I’m going to hand you off to Thea. She can give you a tour and get you settled in. We’ll find some work for you before long, don’t worry.”

And thus, you’re bustled off once again, this time to a redhead of a human who shows you around the library. “It’s not organized in the least, and we’re getting new books in every day,” she comments with a scowl. She also shows you around a few of the important places in Skyhold, like the mess where most of the non-soldier workers eat, the privies, the bar (why Skyhold has a bar, you’re uncertain), and the quarters for general workers. You’re a little impressed despite yourself; the room is tiny, but it is a room, and it apparently all yours, having been set aside for the next library worker. Enough space for a bed, a trunk, and a tiny stand. But it’s a bit of privacy you weren’t expecting.

By the time the two of you circle back to the library, a whole new set of faces is in it. You decide to give up on remembering who’s who unless they’re introduced to you.

“Oh, there you are!” The elf… his name was, what, Mahvir? Mahvir, yeah. “Upstairs wants to know what languages you can read, altogether.”

You hesitate, then stall. “Upstairs? Another wing of the library?”

“Oh, no. Upstairs is where… information is gathered.”

Oh. The spies want to know about you. Grand. This whole day just keeps improving with every step.

“I specialize in ancient Tevene,” you say carefully.

“Look, just give me a list,” he says impatiently. “I don’t know what they’re looking to hear.”

You let out a pained sigh. No point in lying about this. Plenty of people know multiple languages, and you do want to be as much as help as you can be, despite your hesitations about being here. You really don’t want to end up in the maid’s quarters if you could be doing something interesting, instead. “Ancient Tevene and ancient Elvhen, within reason, are the only ones I can imagine being useful, but I’m fluent in Orlesian, Antivan, and Qunlat.”

The man blinked in surprise. “What, Qunlat? Really?”

All of that, and he fixates on fucking Qunlat. You hope you’re stationed with this moron. “You pick these things up,” you say dryly. “Is that any help?”

“Hmm… You might as well go on up. They’ll want you.”

You barely bite back a groan. You should have lied. You’d rather be down here, organizing or translating. But, if they can put you to use, you can just find a niche and stick in it. That’s what you’re good at. With a growing sense of doom, you climb yet another set of stairs.

Well, this was where the bird sounds were coming from.

You’re almost immediately accosted as you come up the stairs. “You the elf? Course you are. Come with me.” The man grips your arm, and you resist the urge to pull yourself away. He half leads, half drags you towards a hooded figure leaning over a desk. “Got the linguist, Spymaster.”

Fucking Spymaster. Of course.

“And? What does she know?” The woman looks irritated at being interrupted. She has a rather thick Orlesian accent, which is a small comfort. Orlesians are notoriously tricky, but they are tricky in a reliable, predictable manner.

“Um…” The man stammers under that glare. You don’t particularly want it turned on you, but you also don’t want her looking any more irritated than she already does.

“Ancient Tevene, ancient elvhen, Orlesian, Antivan, Qunlat,” you say shortly. “Honestly, I’m not sure what use I could possibly-“

“That’s quite a list.” Her eyes fix onto you, and you really wish you had just left the man to flounder uselessly.

“I was a scribe, before,” you say, trying to keep things as simple as possible.

“Mm. Clearly. Well, if you speak Qunlat, we could use you. For now, however… you said ancient Tevene?”

“Ahm… yes, ser?” you say, floundering for a title. What did one call a spymaster?

“Give her the manuscript and set her up at a desk,” she directs this to the man who brought you over. “The Inquisitor has been breathing down my neck about it.”

And then you’re whisked away again, and before you can say cheese, you’re at a desk in a quiet corner of the library, with what appears for all the world to be an ancient Tevinter manuscript on dragons.

“This has been such a weird day,” you mutter to yourself. But translation is something you know how to do. You begin flipping through it, impressed at the quality, when you are interrupted yet again.

“What’s this then? They finally found someone pathetic enough to dig through that thing?”

Your eyes snap up, setting the speaker in an icy glare before you can remember you’re supposed to be acting small here. It’s the human from earlier, the one with the dramatic moustache. He holds up his hands, probably a reaction to the glare, but his face is fixed in a smirk. You force yourself to calm down. It’s been a stressful day, and it will be difficult enough to switch from arrogant to meek without losing your temper.

“Yes, I suppose they did, ser.”

“None of that. My name’s Dorian.”

“Mmm.” You look back down at the manuscript, but a few moments later…

“So you know ancient Tevene?”

You grit your teeth together, but manage to keep yourself composed. “Yes, ser. I didn’t realize literacy was such a marketable skill within the Inquisition.”

The man snorts out a laugh, which surprises you. You were being rude, a little on purpose.

“You, I like. What’s your name, then?”

You shake your head slightly. Weird humans, dwarves, redheaded Orlesian spies… This place was a little odd. “Emma.”

“Well, Emma, the reason I’m so interested is because I am an illustrious Tevinter citizen, and therefore I am aware that there really aren’t that many experts in Ancient Tevene outside the empire. What’s your history?”

Maker’s balls, a Vint, here, really? What is wrong with this godforsaken place? The Chantry’s damnation is making more and more sense. And now you have to explain yourself. Grand.

You clear your throat. “Certainly nothing as dramatic as you imagine, ser. I have simply always had a knack with language.”

“Mmhmm. Sure. Escaped slave, maybe?” He reaches a hand out to clasp your chin, and it takes every ounce of your willpower not to strike him.

“If I was, ser, it would be no one’s business, let alone that of an altus.”

“Oooh, you’re good. You’ve given me chills.”

“My pleasure, ser. May I get back to work?”

“How’d you know?” he demands, and you almost roll your eyes.

“It’s not subtle, ser. You said you were Tevinter. You’re far too attractive and well-groomed to be anything but upper class, but if you were a Magister, you wouldn’t be allowed within twenty miles of this place.”

“Attractive and well-groomed, eh? I think I like you.”

“Glad to be of service, ser.”

“You might as well open up, Emma dearest. If our Leliana’s got our eye on you, she’ll know your history within the week.”

That sends a chill down your back, but you manage to ignore it. There is very little in your history that would cause any raised eyebrows. You have been very careful, for a very long time. “My life’s story is very boring, ser. I suspect it won’t take her even a week.”

The man snorts, but he seems content to let you be. Finally. Perhaps you can actually get some work done on this manuscript. It has been your life’s experience that if you are useful enough, no one really cares where you’re from.

You’ve managed to get a bearing on the book by the time Thea arrives to invite you to the mess with her. You consider declining, but decide that making friends isn’t a terrible idea. It isn’t as though you’re going to be found out by the librarian’s assistant, for pity’s sake.

You’ve arrived at the mess, gotten your food, sat down, and begun eating, when you hear a low voice.

“So, you speak Qunlat, eh?”

You clench your jaw, close your eyes, and take a long, deep breath. This place will be the death of you.

Forcing yourself calm, you turn to reply to the man, but your voice catches in your throat, coming out only as a squeak.

THAT. Is a QUNARI.

A huge one, muscular, shirtless and covered in scars. Your eyes trace up him, as you would have been addressing his stomach. You had not been expecting someone so tall. Or broad. Or horned. One eye and a shit-eating grin gleam down at you. You attempt to speak again, cough, and then clear your throat.

“Uh, yes, ser,” you manage, not having to force a meek sounding voice. Fucking hell, they have a Qunari? Why do they have a Qunari? What is wrong with this place?

“No way, no one calls me ‘ser’,” the giant of a man says, so firmly that you find yourself willing to consider an alternative. “You can call me Iron Bull.” He taps his chin thoughtfully. “Or ‘Boss,’ if you prefer.”

You barely suppress a shudder. The damned size of him… He could snap you in two by flexing. Is he a mercenary? What on earth is he doing here? To your horror, he plops down on the seat across from you. “Qunlat is a hell of a language. Where’d you pick that up?”

“Oh, you know,” you say with a weak smile. “Around.”

The look he gives you makes you seriously regret ever thinking the Inquisition was a good idea. It also makes you seriously regret trying to make a joke.

You clear your throat again, trying to calm yourself. You’ll be no good at lying if you get flustered. “You should ask the Tevinter in the library, I think he’s getting a racket going on my history,” you try again, smiling a bit.

“When I ask a question, kid, I expect an answer.”

You frown. You’d assumed he was a Vashoth, being all the way out here, probably a Sten run away from the rough life, but you’re now quite certain that’s not the case. If he is Tal-Vashoth, he sure as shit was no Sten. They didn’t think this hard.

“Sorry, ser, er, Boss, er, Iron Bull,” you stammer at the look he gives you. “I didn’t realize you were serious. I was a scribe, before. My job was translating texts.”

“Very interesting, but still not quite an answer. You translate Qunari texts?”

You glance over at Thea, desperate for some help from the unexpected interrogation, but she’s looking fixedly at her plate. Damn traitor.

You let out a long sigh. You have a story for this, might as well use it. That damned spymaster will find the trail before long, if she’s worth half a twig.

“Seheron,” you say shortly. The look on his face is a little bit priceless. It clearly was not the answer he was expecting.

“Seheron,” he repeats, slowly. You nod.

“I don’t like thinking about it,” you say, your voice quiet, a little shaky. Years of practice.

Iron Bull is quiet, but eyeing you up and down. You keep yourself small, all but folded into yourself “Well,” he says finally. “That explains why you looked like you were about to shit yourself when I came to say hi.”

“Sorry,” you say with a timid smile. “I wasn’t expecting… well…”

“You don’t look much like a native,” he says pointedly. Apparently the interrogation isn’t over yet. You manage to bite back a sound of frustration.

“No, I was… imported,” you make a face. “Tevinter goods. I guess that altus can win his bet after all.”

He speaks in Qunlat suddenly, a language rough on your ears. It’s been years since you heard it, but you manage to catch on.

“Asit tal-eb. Anaan esaam Qun.” Your pronunciation is likely rusty after so long. You really do mostly translate tomes, after all.

“Shokrakar?” he says, sharply. You shake your head quickly.

“Kabethari. I ran.”

“Not so fast as to avoid learning Qunlat,” he says pointedly.

You groan. “I’m sorry, s… Iron Bull. But I was a slave brought to Seheron, with a knack for languages. I believe you can guess why I know Qunlat, as well as why I was brought to Seheron in the first place.”

He grunts, seemingly satisfied. You let out a breath you didn’t realize you were holding, thinking the nerve-wrecking day finally winding down, when you find your chin caught in another grasp, your head forced up so that you make eye contact with the giant Qunari. Will people forever be grabbing at you? You want to take the stupid Vashoth’s last eye. You hope it doesn’t show in your face.

He stares at you for a moment, then drops your chin, stands up, and walks away without a word. You turn to Thea, only having to pretend a little bit in order to come across as shaken. “What was THAT?” you demand, gesturing in the direction Iron Bull had gone.

“Honestly, I dunno!” she says, seeming just as surprised. “He might be interested in you! He likes redheads, you know,” she adds with a mischievous grin. You eye her own fiery locks, redder by far than yours, and roll your eyes.

“A girl likes flowers, not an interview. Besides, he’d snap me in two like a twig.” Now that, you were certain was true.

“That’s half the fun. So what’s this Seheron you two were talkin’ about?” Thea asks, her mouth half full of stew.

“Mmm… Nasty place,” you say, starting in on your own stew. “The Tevinter Emperium and the Qunari have been fighting over it for ages. It’s in a constant state of chaos.”

“And you were a slave?”

“I’d appreciate if you didn’t go spreading that around,” you sigh.

“Alright, alright, mum’s the word. You don’t have to worry ‘bout that Dorian, though, he’s a nice sort.”

You glance out the door Iron Bull left by. “Right now, Dorian’s the least of my worries.”

-

Amazingly, the rest of the night passes peacefully, or relatively so. It’s become quite clear that you arrived with quite the batch of recruits, so most of the chaos can perhaps be attributed to everyone running around, attempting to get them settled. Despite the noise, you manage to get quite sucked in to your work on the manuscript, which is a VERY nice and VERY valuable ancient piece on dragons, one of the translations to which you will be keeping for personal use. You haven’t even noticed how quiet it’s gotten until a voice snaps you out of your translation fugue.

“Emma? You going to bed?”

You glance up. It’s Thea. You glance around the library, and realize that essentially everyone has left. It had gotten late without you noticing.

“Oh… yes, thank you, Thea. Let me just…” You glance down at the manuscript. You’re certainly not leaving it on a table! These people let anyone walk in out of the snow, and this is valuable. “Let me just take care of this, and I’ll head down.”

“D’you want me to wait for you?”

She’s clearly very tired. You shake your head. “I can find my way, thank you. You go on ahead.”

“Alright,” she says with a yawn, obviously eager to get into bed. “See you in the morning, Emma. Don’t get lost.”

As she leaves, you clean up your assorted papers, organizing them so that they will be easy to find in the morning, then stack them on top of the large manuscript, lift it with a grunt, and begin making your way up the stairs. The spy’s headquarters aren’t a pleasant place to be, but no one will be stealing anything from under their noses.

Voices from the top of the stairs make you pause.

“So, anyone suspicious?” That Orlesian voice could only be the redheaded Spymaster.

“A few obvious spies.” You freeze, blood chilling in your veins like ice. THAT voice belonged to the Qunari, Iron Bull. “In the maids and stablehands.” You relax slightly.

“Did you get a chance to look at that linguist?”

“Mmm, yeah. She’s jumpy.”

“A spy?”

Maker have mercy. You get ready to tiptoe back down the stairs, out the gates, and into the snow. You’d rather risk freezing.

“Not sure. If she’s a liar, she’s a good one. She says she’s a Tevinter slave who was in Seheron. You should see if it checks out.”

“Alright. Thanks, Iron Bull.”

Oh, shit. You quickly dart down the stairs, managing to get to the bottom and turn around just before you see the hulking shadow of Iron Bull dancing down the stairs. You grit your teeth, already regretting what you know is the best course of action, and head up the stairs, flipping through some of your papers.

He stops walking when you’re partway up, but you pretend not to notice until his shadow falls over the paper you’re looking at. You stop, midstep, and look up. You knew what to expect, but you’re still horrified at just how much he looms, looking larger than life in a stairwell clearly built for smaller men. You duck over to the side to allow him to squeeze past, avoiding eye contact. Despite this, when a hand hits the wall near your head, you startle, looking up.

The Qunari is indeed squeezing by, but he’s squeezing a little closer than he absolutely needs to, and he’s looking right at you. The glint in his eyes is challenging, and you stare into them a few heartbeats more than is wise, a fierce desire to answer that challenge rising in you. You force yourself to look down and away, as if flustered, but inside, you’re seething.

He finishes slipping past, and chuckles as he goes down the stairs. You glare after him, deciding that if the time comes that you need to cut and run, you really ought to set him on fire, first. You take a moment to compose yourself, than head back up the stairs.

Unlike the library, the top floor is still a bustle of activity, ravens coming and going. You spot the redheaded Orlesian by a desk, and avoid it to plop your book and papers down elsewhere. You set a nearby paperweight on top of them. Finally, you can head to bed, although with your luck, there will be some curious bastard sitting on it, ready to ask you leading questions about your past.

“Did you make any progress?”

You manage not to spin around, instead merely glancing over your shoulder. You don’t recognize the speaker, a rather average looking human, but assume that if he’s asking, there’s a reason.

“Yes, some.” You slide a piece of paper out from under the paperweight. “It’s quite the find, and certainly the most information on High Dragon biology I’ve ever heard of. Although,” you add with a self-deprecating chuckle. “That’s not really difficult.”

“How soon do you think you can have the whole thing finished?”

“Hmm…” You run a finger down the spine. “I’m not sure. I was told to translate it, and I’m assuming they want a finished tome in the common tongue. A simple translation I could have written in a week, but for a completed tome, I’ll need supplies and time. Is this time sensitive?”

“Well, no, not technically,” the man says with a laugh. “I’ve just got some very interested parties.”

You eye the man curiously. He’s tall, and broad, but speaks in a calm, easy voice. One of the spies, perhaps? He does look remarkably normal; he’d make a decent spy. “I’ll do my best to work swiftly. It’s not as though I’ve anything else to do with my time, and I did come to help.”

“I’m fortunate that so many think as you do. Welcome to the Inquisition, miss. If anyone gives you a hard time,” he taps his ears at this, likely indicating your own pointed ones, “Let Dorian or Solas know. They’ll straighten it out.”

You nod, despite having no idea who ‘Solas’ is. The only person you could possibly qualify as having given you a hard time is Iron Bull, and since he seems to work with the Spymaster, that’s hardly something you can report. The man wanders off to speak with the redheaded Orlesian, and you head back down the stairs.

You manage to get to your quarters unmolested, and there isn’t even anyone in your room. You do wish your door had a lock, but at this point, you’re just glad to have a door. You kick off your shoes and fall into the bed, rather uncomfortable compared to what you’re used to, but a bed is a bed. You’re asleep within minutes.