Back to Justice in Surrender: Contents
Tobias left the Antivan banking house several pounds lighter, and plagued by both a nagging sense of unease and a much more obvious frustration.
The di Bordi had treated him like a refugee, which admittedly he was. His accent marked him out as Fereldan, fair enough, and he knew he didn’t look like most of their upmarket clients, all swathed in velvet and fancy trousers. Well, sod them. Sod the lot of them. They wanted him to be a scummy little dog-lord bastard? He’d be one.
He’d taken undue delight in talking as loudly as possible, putting his feet up on the table, and generally making an arse of himself until the snotty weasel of a man running the front desk had been about ready to have him thrown out… and then he’d dropped a pouch of five hundred sovereigns in front of him, and watched the greasy shit nearly choke on his own tongue.
Tobias had found it almost as gratifying as his performance at the notary’s office, but he was still profoundly irritated, and sick of Kirkwall’s crap.
He knew he ought to head along to the Amell estate, try out the big iron key he’d been given… see if the slavers really had stayed gone. He half-suspected the viscount’s office would have slipped a message to some gang or other and, as soon as he opened the door, he’d be killed where he stood. Then, Dumar would be down one problem, and it could all be chalked up to a terrible accident. The thought made him smile darkly as he walked, and he didn’t really know why he took the turnings he did, or let his feet guide him along Hightown’s western edge, where the merchants who skipped on their market licenses spilled out into the sidestreets, and the nobles walked quickly with their noses in the air, pretending that they were on their way somewhere much more sophisticated.
Tobias glanced up at the narrow strips of sky visible between the towering crags of buildings, the black blots of galleries’ undersides shadowing the street. Not the perilously crowded, heavily leaning slums of Lowtown, but not grand estates with gardens and courtyards, either. The edges of Hightown were not half as salubrious as the central part of the district. Here, the middling sort made their homes: the comparatively cramped merchants’ and master craftsmen’s houses… the people who’d earned their right to the guildhall banquets, but still weren’t top table material, and most likely never would be.
He knew his way from there. When he was working for Athenril, they used to come up in this direction from the old barracks passages, delivering certain goods to certain people. The market—which catered so adeptly to the nice, refined tastes of nice, refined citizens—needed an out-of-sight artery right down to the docks… and that wasn’t all the itches this part of Hightown dealt with, either.
Tobias passed a string of gaudy lanterns hanging from the upstairs balcony of one house, their blatant advertisement winding around the creeping vine that cloaked the walls. Fewer passers-by here, and most of those who were about were trying to make out they were just cutting through. Another few paces—familiar ground, familiar steps—and more lanterns lit his way, shining out like beacons.
As he drew to a halt before the brothel, Tobias told himself there wasn’t any harm in it. He had more money than he’d dared hope the last of the relics would earn… surely there was no harm in spreading the wealth around a little?
The Blooming Rose very rarely slept. Its double doors, set back beneath a shady colonnade, were lit by another lantern, a candle flame dancing within its red-painted shade. Always there when needed, Tobias thought bitterly, as he watched the candle’s blurry shadow leap and jump.
Even in the daylight, when the building’s chipped façade was lousy with cracks and the shadows of damp and rot, the promise of that familiar, plush interior called to him. And, he supposed, a little while wouldn’t hurt.
An elven woman in a dirty dress stood nearby, leaning against one of the scuffed, graffiti-riddled columns with one bony hip cocked.
“Have you got the time, lover?” she called, displaying a gappy rank of yellow teeth.
Not one of Lusine’s girls, Tobias noted. Not in that state… and she’d be missing a damn sight more teeth if the Coterie boys caught her on the Rose’s turf.
He started to make for the doors, but she pushed away from her tired old stance by the column, and lurched towards him.
“I said, ’ave you got the time? Come on… suck it off for half a silver, mister? I won’t rook you like that ol’ cow in there will, neither.”
Tobias grimaced. Maker, she was cheap. He shook his head, not dignifying the poor bitch with a response, but she wasn’t easily dissuaded.
“Now, look… you ain’t gonna get a better deal. Gimme a quarter, then. I’ll show you a nice time, yeah? C’mon you tight sod… I got a baby at home needs feeding.”
She reached out, grasping at Tobias’ arm, and the rolling stench of old sweat and cheap liquor wafted over him.
“I said no,” he snapped, pushing her firmly away. “And if you know what’s good for you, you’ll get out of here before someone sees you. Understand?”
She tottered backwards, though he hadn’t thought he’d pushed her that hard, and clouded, unfocused eyes narrowed to slits as a venomous snarl split her face.
“Pig!” she shouted, and spat at him.
Her aim wasn’t good, and the gob of saliva hit the stones by his boots, one wet, dark little star in the dust and detritus.
Tobias blinked as she turned and, gathering up all the dignity of a ruffled alley cat, stalked away to the far end of the colonnade, where she immediately started accosting another passer-by. He sincerely doubted the part about the baby. Anyway, if she did have one, she wouldn’t for long. Kirkwall had a way of beating the hope and the potential out of anyone too weak, or too unlucky, to thrive in its thrashing, ugly mire. It was just a shame that tendency so often took innocent lives.
He shook the lingering threads of sympathy from his mind, and entered the whorehouse.
Inside, the atmosphere was quietly convivial. Quintus was keeping bar, chatting to the girl Tobias recognised as Sabina—an acid-tongued piece whose bastard brat ran wild all through the building’s lower floors—and there were few clients around, except for three young men he suspected were off-duty templar recruits. They might be able to shed their armour, but there was something about the close-shorn hair and the faint echo of a heel-click every time they moved that marked them out. He looked twice, though he didn’t mean to do so. Another day, and any one of those lads might have been Carver.
Tobias turned away, dipping a hand to his pocket and readying his best suave smile as Madam Lusine hove into view, like a small schooner enveloped in powder and pink-and-purple velvet.
“Well, well,” she said smugly, “look what we’ve got here. ’Aven’t seen you in a while, my dear. Life treating you nice, is it?”
“Can’t complain,” he said, dropping a short stack of sovereigns into the thin, hard palm that immediately opened before him, and wondering if she knew about the estate. Probably, he supposed. That kind of gossip travelled fast, especially in her line of work. “I’d like—”
“I’m afraid we’ve had a change of personnel.” Lusine’s fingers snapped shut over the coins even as the words left her over-painted lips. “Your Antivan friend don’t work here no more. Ungrateful little whelp, I say. I don’t know… you feed ’em, clothe ’em, then they runs off to the first soft bed what opens up in Hightown.”
Tobias blinked. It… didn’t matter, of course. He’d barely been thinking about Esel. A whore was just a whore, and it didn’t make a world of difference when all he wanted was an itch scratched, but he’d been availing himself of the Antivan’s services for months. They’d never, ever talked of anything outside that faded, stuffy little room; they hadn’t truly known each other, or been friends, or anything like that… but he had grown used to the man.
He cleared his throat. “Well… maybe I’ll just have a drink to start with.”
Lusine inclined her head. “As you wish, I’m sure.”
She stepped back, gesturing him into the expanse of the lounge, and he nodded politely before going to settle himself at the bar, and ordering a carafe of wine.
Somewhere, someone was playing a fiddle. The low, inexpert melody threaded its way through the gentle chatter, and the throaty laughter of the two girls who were chatting up the incognito templars. The smell of the rose oil that perfumed everything in the place tickled at Tobias’ nose as Quintus placed the wine in front of him, and he stared morosely into its watery, ruby depths.
It would be a first, he supposed: sitting here on a threadbare velvet stool, drinking sweet wine instead of brandy, and walking out again with his trousers still laced. Proof he didn’t need this, perhaps. Proof there was more to him… more to life than these bursts of calculated hedonism, these tiny cuts in the side of a long, aching balloon of pressure.
Still, the imprints of pleasures past blossomed on Tobias’ skin, the remembered delights he associated with this place—with that smell of musty, faded roses—and he chewed on his bottom lip, thinking ruefully of a pale, pliant body beneath his, and a tail of dirty-blond hair to pull on as he growled his frustrations out at the uncaring walls.
Whatever else he had or hadn’t been, Esel had been a good lay and that, Tobias decided, deserved the sombre memorial of a silent toast. He raised the glass to his lips, drank deeply, and knew he wouldn’t leave without his money’s worth. The question was, who?
He peered into the mirror behind the bar, ignoring the slightly hangdog, guilty-looking man who peered right back at him, and eyed up the available talent. Slim pickings, this time of day. Stupid time to come, he supposed. He didn’t know why he had.
Tobias determined he should probably ask Lusine for an introduction… and that would mean finishing the wine first, so he had time to ball up his courage. He frowned, and turned his attention back to the carafe. It wasn’t strong stuff—thirst-quenching instead of leg-wobble-inducing—and he smiled faintly as he thought of Anders’ admonishments about his drinking… and about that night, after they left The Hanged Man, when he’d been so fucking drunk he’d thought he could force it all just far enough that the momentum of the desire that hung between them would carry everything.
It hadn’t worked then. It might never work, he supposed. It definitely hadn’t washed with Anders.
You’re a pushy bastard when you’re drunk, aren’t you?
His smile widened at the memory of the words… at the memory of brushing his lips against that stubbled cheek, and the terrible, awkward stalemate they’d forged amid the tar-damp alleyways. Tobias tried to tell himself he didn’t mind it, that being Anders’ friend was enough, but that was a paltry, thin lie. All he’d been doing was waiting, and now he was scared he’d forgotten what it was like not to be waiting for Anders… waiting for someone who couldn’t give him what he wanted.
Can’t? Or won’t?
The traitorous thought filtered across Tobias’ mind as he took another swallow of wine. The Underground meeting—Anders’ precious cause, his beloved ideals, which were good and right and important, yes, but weren’t the only thing in life—was too close, too recent. He’d be seeing the healer again tonight, as they’d planned. Giving him the money. It would be more money than he’d promised: a big gesture, Tobias had decided. A grandiloquent expression of his commitment to things… but not just because he wanted Anders’ approval. No. It wasn’t that. It was important. There were lives at stake, and principles, and he did believe in them, and—
—he suddenly felt very small, and selfish, and stupid.
Tobias drained his wine and, without looking, poured a fresh one. The ballet of hands, glass and carafe was easy to remember, easy to fall into again. He tossed the sweet liquid back. Here he was, a rich man, with money in an Antivan bank and the key to a noble estate in his pocket, along with the best part of three hundred sovereigns—Maker only knew when he’d carried that much coin on him before—and the Viscount of Kirkwall knew his name. He’d been in ancient places under the earth and defeated demonic horrors… he’d killed a fucking ogre, hadn’t he? Yes. And here he was, chugging back cheap plonk in a bawdyhouse, feeling vaguely horny because he thought he ought to, and thinking wistfully about a man who’d lecture him six ways from Wintersend if he actually knew he was here.
It made sense, Tobias supposed, in a dark and ironic sort of way. Stuck in a life he hadn’t chosen, in a city he didn’t like and didn’t want to stay in, shackled to his mother’s name and yet manacled to the underworld by the reputation he’d built simply trying to provide for her. Then there was Carver—and his betrayal still stung, however successfully Tobias might have pretended otherwise—and bloody Meredith and her bloody templars….
One more level of frustration really just seemed like poetic justice, didn’t it?
Justice. Oh, bloody bollocks….
Tobias poured himself one more glass of wine. He’d long suspected, if there was a Maker in the way the Chantry described Him, then He had a really vicious, unpleasant sense of humour.
He frowned as he realised he’d already demolished the carafe, and he was about to ask Quintus for another when a voice cut across his thoughts.
“Well, now… what’s a man like you doing in a place like this?”
Tobias blinked at the horrendously awful line, dripping as it was with knowing sarcasm, and turned to find a slightly built elven man leaning on the bar beside him. A cascade of red hair fell to his shoulders, and the biggest pair of deeply, impossibly blue eyes Tobias had ever seen stared out laconically from a keen, narrow face.
As far as he was aware, most elves had pale eyes. He’d seen some in incredible hues—greys so cool as to be icy, or bright golden ambers, and even that pale blue that verged on lavender—though the majority seemed to be green, either in soft, leafy shades like Merrill’s, or with that hard, shimmering quality that Fenris’ had. You saw some that weren’t much to be impressed by, of course, and some that were dark and drab, but he’d never come across a gaze so saturated with a sheer vividness of colour.
Beyond that, the elf wasn’t bad looking. He was a little effete for Tobias’ taste, perhaps, draped in an embroidered tunic with matching breeches, the neckline cut to a deep ‘v’ to show off his delicate bone structure and long, pale neck. Long-fingered hands—equally fine, though tough and lean instead of soft and pampered—peeped from the wide cuffs, and they swished showy arcs through the air as the elf spoke, like white birds in flight.
“I know that’s a frightful thing to say… but Madam said you were, shall we say, at a loose end? Or looking for a loose—”
“Just enjoying a quiet drink,” Tobias said quickly, raising his glass. There were some puns even he wouldn’t stoop to, though he rather liked the way the elf’s face cracked around a filthy grin, in preparation for the crudeness of the joke. “D’you want one?”
That broad, earthy smile settled into an expression of well-practised gracious acceptance, and the elf slipped sinuously onto the stool beside Tobias, just close enough to brush a knee against his thigh.
“Don’t mind if I do. I am on my day of rest, after all.”
Tobias smirked, and waggled his empty carafe at Quintus, who obligingly refilled it and provided an extra glass.
Absolutely. And I’m the Emperor of Orlais.
“Really?” He raised an eyebrow. “Hadn’t got anywhere better to be, then?”
The elf’s smile broadened lazily. “Oh, I have several kettles in the fire, you know. But I always like to keep all my options open.”
Tobias snorted and took a swallow of his wine. “Mm. I bet you do. I bet you’re a very busy boy.”
This was familiar ground, albeit cheap and a little marshy. Still, he thought, as he eyed the elf critically, he could do worse… and he had always wondered whether the things people said about them were true.
That bright, striking gaze lanced him and held him firm, and the elf slowly raised his glass. He took a sip of wine and swallowed deliberately, every flicker of the moment suggestive to the point of indecency, and then he shrugged.
“Well, it’s like I always say: why work if you’re not working hard?”
Despite himself, Tobias chuckled. “Why indeed.”
The elf shuffled closer on his barstool, leaning forwards conspiratorially. As he moved, the smell of rose oil was pricked through with something deeper and heavier, like a perfume of sandalwood and oakmoss, and Tobias found he rather liked it. He rather liked this silly, tacky banter, too: much more fun than the brisk, businesslike exchange of assent and coin.
“So, tell me: are you working hard, serah?”
“I have been,” Tobias said, studying the sharply delicate features, the planes of cheekbones and nose and the swells of a firm-lipped, narrow mouth. Below that, the elf’s long neck segued into a narrow but firm body, hugged pleasingly by the gaudy clothes he wore, and Tobias allowed his gaze to skim over the promises of slim hips and long legs, his attention drawn by the encouraging fullness at their juncture. “In fact, I’ve been so busy, I could probably stand to release some, uh, tension.”
“Really?” The elf’s pink, pointed tongue wet the very centre of his lower lip. “Well, it just so happens I know the perfect cure.”
Tobias grinned. “I thought you might. D’you think you’d let me in on your secret?”
The elf knocked back the rest of his wine, and those stunning eyes glimmered.
“Honey, I’ll let you into anywhere you want to go. Want to go up?”
He did, Tobias realised. More than he’d thought he would. All those notions of sobriety and chastity—lovely though they’d been—were thin and nebulous now, burning away like mist beneath the heat of a new adventure. Besides, he supposed—if he was going to donate so much of this newfound wealth to charitable causes—he might as well enjoy just a bit of it first. Just a little bit. Just… just to take the edge off things.
He drained his glass and set it sharply back on the well-polished bar, pausing only to stifle a belch.
“Yep. Hey… what’s your name?”
Tobias wasn’t sure why he asked, why it suddenly seemed important that he knew before they went upstairs. The elf blinked, and looked faintly surprised.
He didn’t ask Tobias’ name; instead, he slipped sveltely from the stool and flashed a tempting follow-me-fuck-me smile before turning to lead the way up to the first available room.
Tobias eyed the small, neat, tight arse being so provocatively dangled in front of him, and followed obediently.
He’d never been with an elf before. Oh, he’d heard a pile of rumours about them… bendy, randy little buggers with insatiable appetites and huge endowments. Jethann seemed to live up fairly well to the stereotype, too. He stripped them both with tidy, swift efficiency—businesslike, almost—and grinned broadly as he wiped a wet cloth, scented with rose oil, over Tobias’ body in long, sweeping strokes that were just a little too professional to be truly sensuous.
“My, my,” he said, curling his fingers around Tobias’ length as he knelt before him. “Aren’t we a hardened adventurer?”
Tobias smiled mirthlessly. “Anyone ever tell you that you try too hard?”
Jethann peered up at him with those impossible, unreal eyes, like pools of ink laced with pure wickedness.
“Darling, in my line of work, too hard is rarely a problem.”
Tobias snorted, and knotted his fingers into the fall of soft red hair. There was something about watching those eyes stare up at him while Jethann sucked his prick that made him feel powerful… invincible, almost. Daft, he supposed, because he wasn’t the one in charge. That much was evident from the beginning. He was an audience, although a necessary participant in the elf’s performance—not that he was about to complain. For a start, it turned out that quite a lot of those rumours about his kind were true.
Jethann was certainly extremely flexible, extremely enthusiastic, and very highly skilled. He took Tobias’ pleasure effortlessly in hand and carried it with him to the very brink of ecstasy, where he teased and taunted, mouth and hands goading him almost to a peak over and over again, only to coax him back from it with coquettish laughter.
Tobias sat back on the bed, its musty coverlet yielding up that familiar, worn scent of roses, and leaned against the piled-up pillows. For someone who claimed to be on his day of rest, Jethann didn’t seem to mind doing all the work. That blasted oil the house used—smelled of roses, even had roses painted on the damned bottle stopper—duly applied, he climbed aboard cheerfully, and left Tobias his large, beautifully proportioned rod to minister to as he began his leisurely ride. It was no hardship. Tobias watched, entranced, as the glossy head pouted towards him with every stroke, then receded back into the silk-sheathed stiffness that felt so good against his palm.
The elf’s pliant body flexed and tautened, big blue eyes widening as he said the things Tobias was meant to want to hear. He tried not to laugh at ‘Ooh, it’s so big’, but couldn’t quite summon up the effort to tell Jethann to stop. Instead, he let his shoulders sink into the pillows, and rocked his hips, chasing the pleasures the whore offered with lazy hunger.
Of course, the pace didn’t stay slow for long. The rising trot became a gallop—a great, loud, bed-crashing, groin-thrashing, groaning thing—and ended with Tobias sprawled out under him, fully spent, sticky and somewhat shocked, both at how good it had been, and how much he’d needed it.
Jethann stretched his arms luxuriously above his head, gazed down at him, and smiled.
“Well,” he said, peering smugly at Tobias’ chest, “look at the mess I made of you! Even on your chin.” One long finger swiped across his jaw, then went to those grinning, pouting lips. “Mm. And you’re all sweaty. Poor shem. Just one minute, and we’ll clean you right up.”
He patted Tobias’ arm companionably—rather as one might praise a hound or a horse for a job well done—and wriggled his hips a little before, with another of those cheerful smirks, he clambered off the bed.
Tobias winced a little at the sensation of being so suddenly abandoned. His cock wavered uncertainly in the air, which felt oddly cold on slick, sensitive flesh. He opened his mouth, but didn’t see much point in saying anything, so just lay back and watched Jethann’s lithe form skirt the room, gathering bowl and washcloth, and allowed his fingers to briefly skate through the wet trail on his chest.
Funny, he thought, how he didn’t feel anything at all once that brief, searing flash of euphoria was over. Not even shame or embarrassment. Jethann was good like that. No apology, no reticence… all that fierce, feral elven pride—like Fenris had; the determination to snatch life by the balls, the product of too many unremittingly tough, thankless years. Pleasure taken where it was found, and advantages scraped from adversity.
Jethann swayed provocatively back to the bed, carrying a bowl of tepid water that Tobias just knew would smell like greasy roses. The elf smirked languorously at him, batting those colossal blue eyes like a girl who knows she’s pretty enough to get her own way.
“You just sit tight and let me take care of you, hm?”
He set the bowl down and wrung out the cloth, the sweeps it made against Tobias’ skin softer this time, yet still not tender. Tobias looked up at the cracked ceiling, and let his gaze pick out the edges of a bloom of damp on the plaster. Maker take him if that didn’t actually look like a rose, too… although he supposed that, after a while, everything did.
He frowned at the feel of Jethann’s lips on his ribcage. The elf was leaning over him, washcloth still in hand, trailing open-mouthed kisses down towards his belly. It was rather nice, but Tobias nevertheless nudged at the auburn head with an open palm.
“Hey. You don’t have to do that. I’m done.”
He could, he supposed, have gone again. Part of him was curious about Jethann’s heavy girth, and how undoubtedly well he knew how to use it, but taking something like that was an intimidating prospect and, in any case, Tobias wasn’t sure he wanted to lie here any longer. That sense of anti-climactic ennui clung to him like a shroud, not so much a feeling of regret as of boredom.
The elf glanced up and shrugged. “No? As you like… but Madam said to treat you properly. She says you pay well. Quite the valued customer,” he added, fingers toying coquettishly with the trail of hair below Tobias’ navel.
“Oh?” Tobias stifled a snort.
Sure. One of the few idiots to come in here who’s played both sides of the Coterie line. She still thinks, one day, she’ll get some pillow talk worth selling out of me. Huh. The old bag can dream….
“Anyway,” Jethann added, those teasing fingers dancing over Tobias’ belly, “is a man not entitled to enjoy his work?”
Tobias smiled, but not with a great deal of sincerity. “Oh, absolutely. Of course, you, you cheeky little bleeder, are on your ‘day of rest’.”
Jethann sat back on his haunches and laughed—really laughed, a truly delighted sound that bubbled from within him. His eyes sparkled, and his whole face seemed to light up.
“Ah! I like you. Really, I do.”
He patted Tobias’ thigh, then swung his legs off the bed, burrowing his toes into the threadbare rug at the side of it as he leaned his weight back on his hands and regarded his client with a little less circumspection than before.
Tobias watched the way that soft red hair fell against one pale shoulder. It was neatly combed and pinned, so as to set off the long, pointed ears and, despite Jethann’s exertions, there didn’t seem to be a strand out of place. He didn’t sweat much, either. Was that an elven thing? Tobias wondered. He didn’t feel entirely like a human man to the touch… he was smoother, sleeker, and lighter, the way a cat was different to a dog.
“So, tell me,” Tobias said, as nonchalantly as he knew how, with the pangs of recently abated lust still flickering through his body, and warring with that strange, melancholy unease, “uh… what did happen to Esel?”
Jethann widened his incredible eyes. “You didn’t hear? Oh! Quite the coup.”
“Mm.” The elf pursed his lips conspiratorially. “Landed himself some rich merchant. Few tugs and a good, hard screw, and the fool offered him a paying job as valet and companion, I believe they’re calling it. How sweet. Lucky little bitch. I’d scratch his eyes out myself if I got the chance.”
He said it glibly, as if catering to an expectation, and he didn’t look all that jealous. Tobias frowned.
Jethann waved a hand dismissively. “Oh, he got lucky. It does happen. Whether it lasts is another matter. Hope it serves him well, is all I say. Of course, one day I shall have a valet of my own. And a mansion. Orlais, I think. Cultured, sophisticated… it’ll be divine.”
“You will, huh?” Tobias raised an eyebrow.
What is it with everybody wanting mansions and estates? Am I the only one in this city who could quite happily do without one?
Jethann’s eyes glittered with amusement. “No. Of course not. I know my place. But I can still dream, can’t I? Unless there’s a law against that now.”
His hand fell to the bedspread, and traced the faded embroidery, his smile growing small and tucked as he looked away. Tobias wondered if he was Kirkwall born and bred—the alienage, perhaps—or if he came from somewhere else. What kind of life did someone have to have to bring them to a place like this?
He shrugged. “Not that I know of.”
“Well, then.” The elf looked up and grinned suggestively. “Now, how about we unsheath that sword of yours again, hm? I bet I can show you—”
Tobias shook his head. “No. Thanks, but no. I should go. I… have things I should be doing.” He allowed himself a brief, and rather more genuine, smirk. “Boring, mundane, tiresome things. Are you on in the evenings?”
“Half the week,” Jethann said airily. “The rest of it I’m available for… friends, if you know what I mean.”
Tobias did know what that meant: the private gatherings on the house’s uppermost floor, where patrons left a great deal of gold at the door, and very little whisper of what went on inside ever escaped. The few rumours that did make it out made the stories back home—about the perversions of Orlesian nobles during the occupation—seem tame.
He nodded, and pretended to take it all in stride, while privately suspecting that he was probably the most boring fuck Jethann had been forced to endure in months. A small, bitter wave of embarrassment began to gnaw at Tobias’ insides, and he wished he’d not bothered to make small talk, or maybe never even given in to these stupid, selfish urges in the first place.
“Do you ever—?” Jethann began.
“No.” Tobias cleared his throat. “No, I uh… I’m not much of a one for parties.”
Those ridiculously blue eyes deepened a little further, and the elf chuckled.
“That’s a shame. You should try it. We’re deliciously depraved… you might even enjoy being corrupted.”
Tobias wrung a smile from his unwilling lips. “Maybe. Maybe not. Thanks, anyway. I… I should go.”
He eased himself awkwardly off the bed, amazed—given everything they’d just done—at how uncomfortable Jethann’s scrutiny could make him feel as he gathered his clothes from the floor, and surreptitiously checked the weight of his scrip. The money was still there, untouched, just as he’d known it would be. Lusine ran too tight a ship to allow any kind of petty buttock-and-twang stuff to queer her operation.
Jethann still just sat there, naked and uncowed, as Tobias dressed. He tried to avoid eye contact, and muttered a clumsy farewell as he let himself out and hotfooted it down the plushly carpeted stairs.
He managed to dodge Lusine on the way out, thanks to the distraction of one of the drunken incognito templar boys busily throwing up into a potted plant, and took a deep breath as he escaped, blinking in the unexpectedly bright daylight, back into Hightown’s shabby fringes.
Tobias sighed, and rubbed a hand over his forehead.
He should go and see to the estate, he supposed. Couldn’t put it off any longer. He just had to take a look, if nothing else.
Maybe contemplate some curtain measurements.
He wrinkled his nose at the thought as he started to walk. The sun warmed his skin, burning away the whispers of caresses and lip-prints. He felt better for it, he supposed… a few tensions eased, a moment snatched back from the day.
He wondered if Fenris was at home. He usually was, and the mansion wasn’t far. Tobias contemplated dropping by, in case he might be up for a scavenge through the bones of the Amell estate. It would be nice not to have to do it alone… only, no, because the estate had been a slavers’ haunt for years.
Hmm. Perhaps not such a good idea.
He wasn’t sure. On the one hand, he and Fenris would be practically neighbours once Leandra got them moved in. On the other, the elf seemed barely more stable than the first time they’d met—that blood-soaked, vicious night when a simple job had become a complete free-for-all, with Tobias stuck in the middle like a patsy—and he was still too much given to fits of snarling, righteous anger at the mere whiff of Tevinter involvement in anything. Dragging him through the belly of a place that had served as a hub of the Imperium’s abominable trade hardly seemed fair… or sensible, although Tobias reminded himself that the entire sodding city had been a slave port, and even the architecture still screamed it.
No, if Fenris was to leave his slavery behind him, he was in the wrong place. Squatting in his old master’s mansion wasn’t doing him any favours, but it wasn’t just that. It was this place itself… bloody Kirkwall and its vile, insidious grip on people.
Tobias hunched his shoulders as he walked. Fenris should leave. Go somewhere new. Start over. He should leave. He should have been firmer with Leandra, back when they first got off the boat and found the guard had closed the city gates. He’d said then, hadn’t he? Let’s go somewhere else. There’s got to be other cities. Oh, no… she’d had to be determined. Kirkwall was their ancestral home, Kirkwall was where they had family.
The bright, clean streets of central Hightown spilled around Tobias, and he scuffed a boot irritably at the paving stones, through which only a few small weeds dared poke their leaves.
Bloody place. Everything rising up like cliffs, like teeth, like the great white bones of some desiccated creature, and that’s all it was: the stain left by an old and filthy empire, long faded from its power.
He walked, and walked, and didn’t even know why he was heading towards the chantry.
Tobias had never considered himself religious. Not properly so—not the way his mother was, with her pillow book of quotes from the Chant, and bits of inspirational sermons from generations of Divines. She believed. Even if she struggled with the pain and the tumult of the Maker’s so-called plan—the plan that had involved depriving her of her husband, her home, and her daughter, and left her living in a slum with her wastrel brother—she believed in something beyond this world that, in some ineffable way, made sense.
He supposed she took comfort from the litanies and the trappings of religion as much as the belief itself but, whatever the truth of that, it helped. He wished he could do the same.
Tobias knew, as he slipped past the chantry’s gilded doors (standing open at this time of day, to symbolically welcome all comers into the heart of the Maker… or some such crap), that it was stupid. He shouldn’t be here. The whole place was crawling with templars, and he had no business going inside.
It was quiet, though. Only place in Hightown that wasn’t filled with chatter, unless it was just before a service, and the great and the good of the district were milling about in their finery, waiting to see and be seen.
The only sounds of voices were the quiet murmurings of the sisters, and even those were filtered dimly through the dusty, candle-hazy air. Tobias peered up at the enormous statue of Andraste that dominated the chancel, flanked by silken banners emblazoned with her holy symbols, the flawless bronze of her skin looking almost lifelike in the flickering reflections of the eternal flame. The smells of oil and incense coiled through the air, and he glanced nervously at the other statues that lined the nave. There were smaller versions of the prophet, their pedestals crusted with the melted wax of dozens of votary candles, effigies of other figures from her legend, and—somewhat less popular with the penitents—even one of General Maferath. Tobias suppressed a shudder as he thought of the sights those unblinking bronze eyes must have seen. It wasn’t surprising he felt as if they were staring at him.
He stole softly to the rack that held candles and tapers, and pulled a handful of sovereigns from his scrip, keeping them tucked tightly into his palm until he could drop them, hidden, into the donations box. Flamelight flickered over his face as he took one soft, smooth cylinder of wax and, kneeling before the graven prophet, lit it from one of the other candles already burning. He held it as it warmed in his fingers, and stared into the core of the flame, unsure of what he was supposed to feel.
His thoughts trailed back to that night—so long ago, and yet still so very fresh—that he, Varric and Carver had come here with Anders, expecting to find another mage. Tobias resisted the urge to glance up at the gallery where it had happened. He’d been back since, a few times. They’d got the bloodstains out. But, all the same, it was just over there, where Karl had died, and he’d found himself fighting a pack of templars beside a man who was… well, whatever Anders was. It had been the start of everything, hadn’t it? The night he’d realised how deep the cause ran. As if he could have denied, after that, how bad things were in Kirkwall. The mages, the qunari… bloody Meredith, and the Chantry’s strange mix of political tendrils in unexpected places, and yet complete and obstinate neutrality where it counted.
Blue and white spots began to sear Tobias’ vision, and he dripped a little wax onto the pedestal before he set his candle down, fixing it to the stone as one tribute, one plea, among many.
If there was a Maker, and His heavenly bride could entreat Him to turn His face back to the world, then there was only one thing Tobias wanted. He didn’t know how to ask for it, or what you did with it if you had it, but peace seemed like a really nice idea.
He breathed deeply, inhaling the smell of beeswax and wood polish and incense, and felt a flush of warmth ghost over his skin.
There were a few other people around, but just a couple of penitents and lay brothers. Low voices drifted down from the sanctuary, and Tobias heard footsteps creak against the boards. He slipped into one of the pews, absently rubbing his candle-greased fingertips together before he folded his hands and leaned on the dark wood.
He’d never really held onto more than the fragments of the prayers and canticles of his mother’s teachings, and all those primers he’d learned to read from. None of the things he remembered really matched the way he felt, or offered comfort for the worries and fears that plagued him. Instead, Tobias closed his eyes and thought of Bethany, the way he did when the world turned quiet, and of his father, and hoped—somehow, vaguely—that they were both at peace, and knew how much they were missed, and loved.
He wasn’t sure if it was proper praying, doing that, or thinking of his mother, and Carver, and even Gamlen, with the fervent hope that things might all be all right. Only children thought that worked, he supposed: clutching the thoughts of everyone they loved close to them, reaching out for the hope that they would all be happy, and depositing responsibility for that wish in the lap of some distant god, like the figure of the ultimate grown-up.
You never know. Maybe it works.
His lips moved soundlessly over a garbled, misquoted bit of the Canticle of Transfigurations, and Tobias squeezed his eyes tight shut, trying not to hear the piping, pious voice of seven-year-old Bethany as she knelt at the side of her bed.
…and please look after Mother, and Father, and my big brother Tobias, and even Carver, unless he nails my braid to the bed again, and keep us safe and protect us….
If there was a Maker, He was different to the Chantry that purported to act in His name. He had to be. Malcolm had always been clear on that, despite his distaste for the Circle, and the templars, and the things that some corners of the Chantry preached against mages. There was good in them, he’d said. Most of them, anyway, and no one should hate anyone just for what they were, priest or mage. Hate was what made wickedness in the world, as the Chant itself taught.
With passion’d breath does the darkness creep.
It is the whisper in the night, the lie upon your sleep.
Besides, the Fade was real. Spirits and demons walked there, and the darkspawn were certainly real enough, so who was to say there wasn’t truly a god who had wrought the Golden City?
Tobias wasn’t sure whether he wanted to believe it, or even if he wanted any kind of truth. Maybe just hoping was enough. Hope and love: they were two of the only things that mattered, weren’t they?
The last words of Transfigurations fell from his lips, and they stilled as he furrowed his brow, aware that he had more than just his family on his mind. The Underground, and the reasons it existed; the darkness that swathed this city, the filth and corruption and poverty, and all the other things he tried not think about on a daily basis because, if you dwelled on all the injustice in the world, you’d go mad….
Keep him safe. Please.
Tobias opened his eyes, and the stars of candle flames burst before them, dizzying in the thick, stultifying air. The full idiocy of the image struck him then: an apostate, begging for peace, protection, and maybe even forgiveness in the very building that housed those who’d see him locked up.
Stupid, stupid, stupid….
He blinked, aware of footsteps on the stones close by, the sound of armour fitments clinking, and cold terror coursed down his spine. Templar. The thought set off a reaction so instinctive, so impulsive that Tobias could barely clamp down on it before it was too late. Power crackled under his skin, making the air taste metallic and sharp. He wanted to turn, let force and fire burst from his palms and burn a path before him, despite the fact that, his whole life, he’d been taught to keep his magic hidden. He’d grown so used to hiding it he hardly needed to think about it, yet now it took all his strength to stop the beast from tearing out, and—
“Serah Hawke? It is you, isn’t it?”
Tobias’ shoulders stiffened at the curious brogue in the voice, and he quickly unclasped his hands. Not a templar. All the same, bloody typical, he thought. He couldn’t even get a few moments’ peace and privacy here, of all places.
But, nevertheless, him…?
“My lord,” he said, dredging up his best obsequious smile as he turned in the pew, and faced His Royal Highness, Prince Sebastian Vael of Starkhaven… flanked by Grand Cleric Elthina herself, no less, and wearing that incredibly shiny suit of brilliant white armour.
Tobias felt his face set into a rictus, and his stomach clench around a hard knot of wanting to be anywhere else but there.
“What a pleasant surprise,” he managed, rising to his feet and acknowledging the grand cleric with a polite incline of his head. “Your Reverence.”
He’d met the woman once or twice before; she’d had quite a lot of personal involvement with the refugees when they first flooded the city and, of course, she had tried to convince him not to take the bounty on the Flint Company mercenaries offered by the prince-turned-holy-brother standing beside her.
Tobias wasn’t sure if she remembered that. It had been over a year ago, though the woman’s hard-eyed stare suggested she had a long memory.
That the princeling himself should remember Tobias’ name, however… that was odd. It was not at all usual, in his line of work, to find clients of Vael’s sort remembering your name, much less actually approaching you once the work was done. They didn’t like reminders, he’d always supposed; the unpleasant recollection that, when they wanted someone killed, some other bugger had to deal with the mess.
Elthina was watching him steadily, and a flare of worrisome concern burst in Tobias’ chest. This did not bode well. Not at all.
“We were just talking of you,” Sebastian said genially, fixing him with those very striking, piercing blue eyes. “In a roundabout sort of way, at least.”
“Oh?” Tobias blinked, briefly and uncomfortably reminded of the blue eyes that had figured slightly earlier in his day. From whorehouse to chapel, then accosted by priests and royalty… if I’d known, I’d have worn my best shirt. He glanced nervously at the Grand Cleric. “Um. Good things, I hope.”
“I hear a great deal on many subjects,” Elthina said evasively, though a smile touched her lips. “Will you walk with us, Serah Hawke? We were just returning to my chamber.”
She gestured towards one of the upper galleries, and Tobias’ gut clenched.
“I, er… um….”
Set-up. Got to be a set-up. What do they want with me? Not likely to be tea and biscuits and a chat about the floral arrangements. Oh, fuck…. How do you say no to the grand cleric?
“It’s certainly the Maker’s providence to find you here,” Sebastian said, without a trace of irony or sarcasm, as Tobias slipped from the pew. “I was saying to Her Reverence only a moment ago that you performed the task I asked of you admirably.”
“Taking down the Flint Company?” Tobias prompted, not entirely sure whether they were both talking about the same thing.
His Royal Shininess called it a ‘task’; Tobias called it a complicated, messy bounty. He remembered the best part of three weeks spent trailing around the Wounded Coast, rooting out a bunch of thugs and bandits who called themselves mercenaries. All in all, thirty-six men had been killed, including one whose actual liver Fenris had ripped out and shown to him as he died.
Very, very messy.
Tobias had offered to split the proceeds between Fenris, Varric, and Anders, and his quarter of everything they looted from the camps—plus His High-and-Mighty-Princeling’s actual payment—had not really made up for having to endure Fenris and Anders being at each other’s throats the whole time. He recalled realising that he’d underestimated the elf’s hatred for mages in general… and apparently for Anders in particular.
It had been a rather fraught trip around the coastline.
“Yes,” the princeling said gravely as they progressed towards the staircase, his handsome face pinched into a frown. “You destroyed those murderers. You had my gratitude for that… you still do.”
Tobias opened his mouth to say something about fees having been paid and it really not being a problem, but Sebastian evidently hadn’t finished. The wooden treads creaked under his sabaton, and he shook his head wearily.
“I don’t know. I thought it would end there. None of those men remain, yet—now that I know who sent them—it’s harder to see their deaths as justice.”
“Death is never justice,” the grand cleric reproved, though not unkindly.
He blinked. “No. No, of course not, but….”
Tobias frowned. The job was more than a year old, and his memory of the details was sketchy. All the same, despite his temptation to point out that mercenaries were like crabgrass, and rarely eradicated by lopping off the top stems, something prickled at the back of his mind.
“Wait, sorry… you found out who hired them?”
“I did,” the princeling announced bitterly.
He turned at the top of the stairs, the silken banners emblazoned with the symbol of the holy flame giving him the kind of regal backdrop that Tobias suspected he might practice poses for in the mirror.
He didn’t look very happy about it, at any rate. Elthina ushered them into the chamber, and Tobias glanced around at the jewel-like paintings on the walls, the thickly piled rugs and cushions, and the dark wooden furniture whose every ornate curlicue gleamed with polish. A vase of blue flowers stood on the desk, and light streamed in through a stained glass window set high into the cream-coloured stone of the wall.
So much for a pious life of poverty and penance.
“Please, gentlemen.” The grand cleric gestured graciously at the array of seating the room offered. “Sit.”
She lowered herself into the high-backed chair behind her desk, and Sebastian sat in a chair to her right… a position it looked as if he occupied often. Tobias settled tentatively into the chair nearest the door, and suspected he’d been royally ambushed.
When he’d taken the bounty His Royal Piquedness had offered, he’d seen the friction it had caused between Sebastian and Elthina. He’d heard the story of how Starkhaven had fallen into strife and chaos, with some far-flung Vael cousin being deposited on the throne—presumably the worst class of weak-chinned, fluff-brained, dribbling noble idiot—and the last of the legitimate royal line had fetched up back in Kirkwall, where he had been affirmed as a lay brother a decade before, dispossessed and hungry for revenge.
Of course—as he remembered Anders pointing out, halfway up the coast path, while they waited for Varric to disarm some clumsy trap—the flip side of the sovereign was simply that it was politics. Noble families tussled for control all the time, and Sebastian had already relinquished his birthright in favour of his Chantry vows. Words like ‘true heir’ and ‘usurper’ were effectively just a matter of opinion.
Tobias had quirked an eyebrow at that. And that’s Justice, is it?
He recalled Anders shrugging and scuffing a boot in the sand. Justice doesn’t take sides. If the Vaels were really murdered, then no, it’s not right… but d’you think they’ve always been completely fair and honest? Starkhaven’s elite has always been tied to the Chantry by a short tether. I bet they’ve got their own skeletons hidden away.
Now, Tobias considered the man who sat before him. Sebastian’s white armour—liberally emblazoned with heraldic devices and probably about as much use in battle as a sugar sword—definitely indicated he had not put aside the outrage of his family’s destruction and returned to a peaceful life in the Chantry. And yet, here he was, at the grand cleric’s right hand. This union unsettled Tobias immeasurably, despite the fact that, ordinarily, he wouldn’t have given a stuff about the details of the fall-out from the Flint Company’s massacre, or whether Sebastian’s desire for revenge endangered his vows and put his immortal soul into peril… or whatever.
As far as Tobias was concerned, any moral wrangling on a client’s behalf, especially this far after the event, was none of his business—as long as it didn’t affect him being paid, in full and on time. Likewise, he didn’t care to know what had started the antagonism between the two sides. It was usually money, or power, or perhaps some kind of personal grudge. Either way, he dealt with the problem, got his coin, and everyone went on their way. Such was the nasty, mean, brief life on Kirkwall’s meat market of an underworld.
The only times Tobias had been confronted with the kind of rueful, big-eyed face Sebastian was pulling now were the occasions some daft sod had bitten off more than they could chew and wanted something called off because the Coterie, or maybe the Red River boys, had wind of it and were making life unpleasant.
The princeling tipped his chiselled jaw line, those admittedly beautiful blue eyes shaded with regret.
“I… I have learned that the Flint Company were hired by the Harimanns, a noble family of Kirkwall—and firm allies of my parent… or so we thought. It’s hard to believe they could betray us like this.”
Tobias felt his face stiffen, caught between the princeling’s sad, angry expression, and Elthina’s mild, yet unblinking gaze.
Oh, sod. Politics.
He edged his weight back uncomfortably in the hard wooden chair, and wet his lips.
“Hm. I see. So, you know them well?”
Sebastian shook his head. “Not terribly. Lord Harimann used to be a good man, but he became rather strange in his dotage. He died some years back, and his daughter, Lady Johane, took over the running of the family’s estates. Apparently, she’s become quite reclusive of late.”
Tobias nodded slowly, trying to ignore the sinking feeling in the pit of his gut. He didn’t consider himself superstitious, but he could have sworn Andraste herself had guided his steps to the chantry today, purely for the pleasure of having a bloody good laugh at his expense.
“And you think she was behind the coup?”
Sebastian shook his head, and the fitments on his shiny white armour clinked gently. Tobias frowned. Surely someone who wandered around dressed up to the nines like that, while professing to be a pious brother of the chantry, wasn’t simply being pretentious. Perhaps it was more an armour of perception: a shell donned so that the wearer could hide behind its protection, shrinking from too much inquisitive scrutiny.
In that case, I want one.
His Shininess sighed. “I don’t know. I have no idea what makes someone turn to outright murder like that. Money? Power?”
Tobias suppressed a smirk. Yes, those… or a good pair of boots, a meat sandwich, or looking at somebody the wrong way in a crowded tavern. Welcome to the real world, Your Majesty.
“They’re the usual suspects,” he said instead. “And this is why the cycle of violence never gets broken….”
“You jest,” Elthina said mildly, “but it is the truth.” She turned to the princeling, her gaze growing harder. “You see what I meant, Sebastian? Give this up. Dedicate yourself to the Chantry, as you swore, and lay aside your armour again.”
She began to reach out one thin, heavily veined hand, and Tobias’ gaze followed the complex ballet of subtext in the way Sebastian’s head turned slightly away, and the cleric’s fingers curled, then stilled.
A pained frown crossed the princeling’s face. “I… I shall. Nothing would make me happier. But I must see this finished first. I must know what drove Lady Harimann to this madness.”
“It certainly wasn’t very discreet,” Tobias admitted, before he even realised he’d spoken aloud. He blinked, finding that unnerving twinset of blue glares on him again, pinning him to the chair against the room’s scent of beeswax and pious living. “Uh… I mean, it’s odd that she should allow herself to be tied to the Flint Company. If I may ask, how did you discover—?”
The grand cleric’s lips pursed, like the back end of a duck with a lemon up it, and Sebastian’s expression hardened, just for a moment making him look like a man who really did deserve to be wearing all that showy armour.
“It was not easy. It has taken a great deal of time, and coin, and it was not a journey I would care to repeat. The information you brought me from the leader of the Flint Company helped a great deal.”
Tobias winced. All they’d had off the thugs was a few grubby bits of paper and the name of the barker who’d set them up with their most recent job. Only, that meant—
This silly sod’s been buying his information from the Coterie. Oh, bugger… that’s all I need.
“I see,” he said, as calmly as he could manage. “So, now, you intend to do what, exactly?”
Sebastian gave him a surprisingly suave smile, all full mouth and velvety eyes, and Tobias blinked, inwardly cussing the way it made heat pool in his belly. The realisation that had been sneaking up on him ever since the princeling dragged him out of his pew curdled into a sense of totally unsurprised dread.
“Oh. This is why everyone’s looking at me, isn’t it?”
Sebastian’s smile widened. “I had meant to write a letter to you this very evening. The Maker’s grace saw fit to bring you to me instead. Surely, this is a sign.”
Tobias suppressed a grimace. Signs and visions. Oh, good. That’s just peachy….
“Your reputation speaks for itself, serah,” Elthina said, fixing him with a gently disapproving frown. “But, you aided Sebastian once before, and if this allows him to make peace, then it is the Maker’s work. You have, I believe, taken on lesser causes.”
He winced. “Will all due respect, Your Reverence, this isn’t a cause. This is politics.”
“Please,” the princeling broke in, “I have nowhere else to turn.”
Well, I doubt that….
Tobias was about to quip that problem fixers like him were ten a copper in any disreputable Lowtown tavern—and maybe find some way to excuse himself—but Sebastian leaned forwards, looking so terribly earnest.
“Just help me confront Lady Harimann. I cannot go to see her alone. I shall need some… security. Someone whose skills and diplomacy are both well-honed. Of course, I shall see you amply rewarded.”
Tobias’ ears pricked up at the same instant his heart sank.
Still, if he was to be placed over a barrel, he supposed he might as well be getting paid for it. He sucked his teeth thoughtfully.
It was an opportunity he’d be a fool to pass up. On the one hand: noble family, potentially powerful enemies if crossed. On the other: Prince of Starkhaven baying for revenge, distinct possibility of routing said family, no survivors, therefore a certain degree of looting said family’s noble estate could be quite likely.
Who knows? Maybe they’ll have an Antivan walnut dining set they don’t need anymore. Or curtains, or perhaps a nice couple of side tables….
Tobias bit his lip. “We-ell… all right. Flattery does get you everywhere with me. I’m in. But tell me… how low-key do you want to keep this, uh, confrontation?” He glanced between the princeling and the grand cleric, both of them apparently trying to pretend they didn’t know what he meant, and cleared his throat as he leaned forwards, propping his arms on his knees. “By which I mean, how heavily armed would you like to be when we go to see Her Ladyship? Because I know just the people… only they’re not all that subtle.”