Justice in Surrender: Chapter 14

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Anders left soon after. Tobias wasn’t sure whether it was anger, embarrassment, or just the irritation of the whole mess. He wanted to find out, but the healer had been so quick to get away that following him just felt wrong. He wanted Anders to confide in him by choice, damn itto trust him and, yes, want him, as a friend and so much more—instead of trying to tear the answers out of him. Only, he had so many doubts… so many sudden, painful uncertainties.

Anders had taken the money happily enough, hadn’t he? Somehow, at the back of his mind, Tobias felt worried by that. He’d taken the money and slid off early, back out into the darkness, and to the life he evidently had out there. And, oh, yes, quite a life, wasn’t it? All those people in the Underground whom he called friends, and with whom he shared things like nameday celebrations, and the secrets of saving lives and raising rebellion.

Uh-huh. Quite clearly it’s him that has the jealousy issues, and not you.

Tobias rubbed a weary hand over his eyes, and tried to believe it was merely the exertions of the past few days taking their toll. He made his excuses to Varric and His Royal Shininesswho was apparently making a very passable attempt at drinking the dwarf under the tableand headed home, telling himself that this leaden fatigue was the result of using so much magic. He wasn’t accustomed to it, or to being the centre of so much obvious attention.

It had, he supposed, been a crazy week. First, the qunari and their deadly gas not so much the theft itself, or the lunatic who had appeared so neatly to be responsible, or even the idiocy of the qunari in setting a trap with that kind of bait in the first place, but the fact it was all so clearly part of something else. The dead elf in the warehouse, and Javaris’ sudden departure smacked of something too easy, too convenient to be true, though Tobias had, oddly enough, believed the little snake when he’d sworn he had nothing to do with it. He probably hadn’t. It probably was just a disaffected elven fanatic and there were enough of the little buggers running around both Lowtown and the qunari compound for it to have been possible. That was what he’d reported back to the viscount’s office, anyway, and they’d seemed happy enough. He’d got his payment, which was the main thing, and the immediate threat of Lowtown imploding had been quelled. That should be enough. It usually was.

Tobias hadn’t mentioned Javaris, or the mercenaries he and Fenris had killed to get to the dwarf, out there on the coast road. No point, really.

Fenris, though. He’d be the one to find out about things, wouldn’t he? If there was truly something in all this elven fanaticism and rebellion stuff.

As he meandered thoughtfully through the grimy, moon-stained streets, Tobias considered that. He made a mental note to find a way to put the questions to the elf; preferably one that wouldn’t involve Fenris deciding to take offence and potentially either calling in his gambling debts, or ripping his liver out.

Then, of course, there was the Underground itself. Tobias had been so caught up in being invited to attend the meeting that he’d not given as much thought to the qunari debacle as he should have done, and now he wondered if he’d missed something. They’d all known about it, hadn’t they? What had Elias Creer said… something about ‘nasty vapours’ on the air?

Tobias hadn’t trusted the Rivaini. He didn’t know much about the Fraternities of Enchanters, at least not the way Anders did, and he’d had even less interest in reading about the so-called secession of the Resolutionists from the Libertarians, or any other off-shoot of politics. Nevertheless, it all seemed to fit too closely together, and he didn’t like knowing that the Underground regarded him with such suspicion.

He wondered if that would still be true after his sizeable donation, and how long it might be until Anders would invite him to attend another such gathering… if he did.

Tobias bit his lip and aimed a kick at a lump of loose mortar on the ground of the alleyway he was currently cutting through. It scudded off into the shadows, and the cool air felt smooth and bright on his bare arms.

They probably all knew about Sebastian and the Harimanns by now… the Underground. Word travelled fast in Kirkwall, especially on wings of blood.

He frowned as he wondered just how many members of that shadowy clique had darker associations. Some of those people he’d met there, they weren’t all desperate and powerless, or motivated purely by the kind of righteousness that Anders was. No group of people ever had such simple motives, and Tobias found himself thinking of Gethyn, the dark-eyed little firebrand who reeked of nervous exasperation and, as he paused at the end of one darkened cross-street, Tobias paused to absent-mindedly scratch and rearrange his crotch. He’d been itching for a while, and there was no one around now, not even a mugger or idle street gang.

He decided he didn’t want to think about the Underground. He didn’t want to think about the Harimanns and the desire demon, either, but those thoughts kept on slinking back too, just the same. He wasn’t drunk enough, he decided, vaguely regretting the feeling he got ever since Anders had admonished him about his drinking: that actually getting properly hammered was somehow letting the healer down.

He quickened his pace as he got nearer to home, and grimaced at the sight of a familiar figure skulking along the outer row of the houses, near the tenement block on the corner.

Bloody man breathes like he’s stealing the air…. Don’t know how he does it.

Gamlen looked up at his nephew’s approach and gave him a smile that was half a sneer and half pure resentment.

Oh. It’s you.” He started up the first couple of steps towards the hovel, wringing the advantage of height from the movement so he could peer down superciliously at Tobias. “Out on the piss again, were you?”

Tobias glanced at the coin purse Gamlen was making a poor job of hiding inside his coat. The smell of cheap ale rolled off him, and those weaselly, blood-shot little eyes did nothing to dispel Tobias’ mental image of his uncle as some kind of surly mongoose.

Little bit. You won tonight, then, did you?” He nodded at the ill-disguised purse. “Can’t have been cards, in that case. Cock fight? Or boxing? I suppose it’s good you can’t stand the sight of blood. If you ever stood near enough the front to get spattered, Mother would know where you’d been.”

Gamlen scowled. “I don’t have to take this from you, you little—”

What?” Tobias asked wearily, mounting the steps in two easy strides that not only brought them level, but made his physicality painfully obvious against the older man’s thin build. “Go on, Uncle. What?”

Gamlen glanced nervously over his shoulder, towards the darkened house and its closed shutters. “You’ll wake your mother. Got your key?”

Tobias sighed and brushed past him to unlock the door.

If civility had not been becoming quite so much of a problem, the two of them might have shared a moment’s camaraderie, sneaking in like rebellious boys beneath a watchful matron’s roof.

The fire was already out, Leandra evidently having gone to bed some time ago, and everything seemed dark and still.

The two men parted company and shuffled to their respective rooms, and Tobias stifled a deep sigh as he shut the door, not bothering to light a candle. He waved his fingers and, with the briefest flicker of concentration, a small orb of light winked into existence, piercing the room’s dimness with a thin, bluish glow.

Tobias watched a timber beetle scurrying busily across the wall as he pissed, then toed the chamber pot back under the bed with a wince. Peeing didn’t normally sting.

He supposed he’d have to track His Royal Shininess down in the morning, too… see if Sebastian had been serious about hanging around. He doubted it—probably just the drink and the adrenaline talking—but it could prove interesting, all the same.

Oh, yes, absolutely. A fitting companion, now I’m on first-name terms with the viscount.

Andraste’s tits, how did it all come to this?

Tobias smirked to himself as he stripped to his smallclothes. Definitely a crazy week. The craziest. Still, they had the estate deed now. That was what his mother had wanted, and if it made her happy it was worth it.

As for Prince Charming and his ridiculously shiny armour… well, he could probably be gently dissuaded, though Tobias wasn’t sure whether he actually wanted rid of Sebastian that much. After all, he thought, as he slipped under the covers and allowed the ball of light still hovering in the air to blink out, if his presence drove Anders so far up the wall he was tap-dancing on the ceiling, he’d get down on bended knee and beg the man to stay himself. 

Tobias smiled happily into the darkness, but the smile didn’t linger. It was too easy to relive that lovely little moment of glee in the tavern when he’d believed—even if it was just for a while—that Anders had shaved and dressed up for him. The fragility of a hope that could be so eagerly crushed was too painful, and yet he couldn’t leave it alone.

It wasn’t a good thing. He knew that, and yet he kept coming back to it, playing the scene over and over in his head as punched his pillow into shape and lay awake in the quiet of his bunk. Gamlen was already snoring and snorting on the other side of the wall, and Tobias found himself taking refuge in the memory of Anders’ delicious display of territorial anger.

He’d found it profoundly exciting, because it proved—it had to prove—that there was something there and, however strenuously they were both trying to be good, the cracks in the façade were widening. Anders had to admit that much, surely, and maybe from there it wouldn’t be such a big leap to start breaking down his whole defence of lonely martyrdom.

It was good fantasy material, anyway. Tobias could easily picture being in The Hanged Man of an evening, chatting amiably in Varric’s suite… maybe Sebastian was there and, contrary to his apparent proclivities, being a bit flirtatious. Maybe it was Jethann, from the whorehouse. Didn’t matter; they both had similarly incredible eyes although, in the private space of Tobias’ head, Sebastian had a better body. No daft armour, just a slim cut tunic and breeches, showing off all the best bits.

Anyhow, there’d be some ribald banter, some casual touching, a few lingering looks, and then Anders would roll in, stone-faced and thin-lipped, those dark eyes flashing with fury. There’d be angry words, punches thrown, and then it was all too easy to picture Anders in that charged, livid state of jealousy, the power crackling off him like it did when they fought side by side, up on the coast road or something… that faintly metallic taste, and the heat that always lingered in Tobias’ mouth long after the scrap was over.

Maker, yes….

His hand slid beneath the thin woollen blanket as he recalled every detail, wiped it clean and pressed it to the fantasy, making something new from those cast off moments. How it would feel to have Anders slam him against the wall, kissing him with a breathless, passionate anger, goading his body with ruthless caresses…. No, actually: both their bodies, sweat-slicked and desperate, working towards the same cathartic elation in some anonymous imaginary bedroom. Anders touching him, fucking him, whispering perfect endearments into the nape of his neck, all hot breath and rough hands, pinning and biting—and where had that come from?

Fervid fantasies and surprising yearnings aside, it was easy for Tobias to hoard those scraps of enjoyment, to hold in the ragged breathing and the small whimpers, and muffle his pleasure against the pillow as he handled himself to a rough and uncompromising peak.

Nevertheless, once he was done, he felt inevitably hollow and faintly grubby, and all the warm thoughts leaked away, leaving him only with empty, absent places.

Besides, if anything ever did happen between them, it shouldn’t be immediate. It couldn’t be, he supposed, despite the intense agony of frustration. The kind of walls Anders had put around himself needed time to be disassembled—brick by brick, if necessary. Tobias just wished there was an easier way to make the stubborn bastard believe he wanted to be there for that; to get Anders to really, truly trust him, and perhaps even realise he didn’t need protecting.

That was what he was doing. Tobias was sure of it. His mind raced, trying to fill in all the gaps, pushing sleep right back to margins of possibility, even as tiredness seeped into the core of his enervated flesh. Anders was trying to protect him from the complications of it all: from Justice, and from the Underground, and from all the mess and the thankless bitterness.

It had to be that, because otherwise it meant the healer didn’t trust him or, worse, didn’t want him… and that wasn’t allowed to be true.

Of course, his continued resistance might not be a lack of trust, Tobias supposed, or even a conscious intention to keep him held at arm’s length. It could just have been a shred of sanity. Anders knew himself—knew Justice—better than he did. Perhaps he also knew that wanting something didn’t make having it a good idea… and that led to all those very quickly quashed thoughts about abominations and possession, which Tobias vigorously dismissed.

It wasn’t like that. He wasn’t like that.

It could happen. They could make it happen… make it work.

Anyway, all the received wisdom about spirits and demons came from the Circle, and therefore the Chantry. It stood to reason they would try to paint everything in shades of horror and demonic chaos; it made an excellent excuse for their attempts to maintain a stranglehold on power, and on mages.

Tobias was aware he was consciously rationalising. Yes, there were dangers… mages could be dangerous. Anders was dangerous—as the smoking stumps of several bandits on the Wounded Coast, not to mention numerous street gangs, outcast qunari who’d remained annoyingly uncooperative, and a handful of assorted petty thugs and Carta employees could have testified to, had they still had the ability.

And yet, mages were people, not mere vessels, or weapons.

Sometimes, he thought of Bethany, and the way she’d tried to fight the darkspawn as they fled from Lothering. They weren’t memories Tobias liked to linger amidst. Maker knew it had taken long enough for the bloody nightmares to stop.

Still, it mattered. They’d fought, all of them—Carver, fresh from Ostagar, knackered and already wounded, Bethany with her eyes wide as saucers and her hands clenched around flames, and him, half-blind with terror and fury and flinging lightning at the kind of monsters he’d never believed existed outside of bad dreams or bedtime stories. She had been so brave, and yet she hadn’t stood a chance. Malcolm had never taught them to fight with magic, never taught them to defend themselves in any real way except by running, and she’d paid for that.

It had been a horrific, impossible ordeal… and yet, had either of them turned to demons? Had Bethany reared up against that ogre, the wrath of blood magic rising from her in vile, terrible flails? Tobias winced from even imagining it.

Maybe she’d have survived if she had.

He turned over, the thin mattress creaking beneath him and Gamlen’s reedy snores echoing through the wall by his head. On nights like this, it was too easy to see the wet blood glistening blackly on the parched earth, too easy to hear the screams of those not as quick or as lucky as they had been… too easy to see his sister’s body thrown at his feet, torn and broken and lifeless.

She had deserved so much more. Not a captive half-life, a prisoner or a templar slave, the way Anders spoke of, but as a person—a woman in her own right.

He wanted to talk about that, Tobias realised. He wanted to tell people. He wanted to talk about mages, and politics, and power… and he wanted to be a part of changing it all.

With that in mind, he wanted to go and see Anders—and yet he didn’t quite dare to think of it. Not just marching down there, demanding to sign up for the revolution. Not like that… though that’s what it was, wasn’t it? That was what would happen, eventually. If people like Creer were involved, if the only way to challenge the templars was to disobey… well, the Chantry itself would ensure that all-out war was the only option.

Maker… why is it all such a mess?

Tobias stifled a groan and flung an arm over his head, then burrowed down beneath the stale-smelling blanket. The trouble was, he’d rather thought that, when he turned over all that coin, Anders would have at least mentioned inviting him to another meeting of the Underground. He’d said nothing about it, however, and Tobias couldn’t help taking that personally.

He was being an idiot, he told himself. If he thought about it from Anders’ perspective, he knew bringing someone like him into that close-knit, dangerous world was difficult. It would have been like him turning up to meet one of his old Coterie contacts with His Royal Shininess—or, Andraste’s tits, even Aveline—in tow. When people operated outside the law, they needed to know they could count on those they were asked to deal with… and he had yet to earn that trust from the Underground.

If he really thought about it, Tobias supposed he should have been grateful for Anders showing as much faith in him as he already had, but that only led to a night of vacillating, worrisome thoughts, and fears that he’d somehow done something wrong.

He wanted the Underground’s acceptance desperately, he realised and not just because it was probably almost the same as gaining Anders’ acceptance, though perhaps that was part of it. Or, all right, most of it. However, nonetheless, the things they did, the lives they saved: Tobias believed in that.

He believed in the need to change the way people saw mages, and to quench that tendency of the Chantry’s to brand them all as dangerous, or cursed. Magic wasn’t a curse, no matter how many times he’d thought so as a boy; it was a gift. Admittedly, a gift he’d most likely have chosen to be rid of if he could—especially when Kirkwall was so full of unpleasant prejudices—but a gift, all the same. Surely, no one who’d been healed down in Anders’ clinic could argue with that, and if the templars, or that mad cow Meredith, could only actually see that….

But, dreams like that were a long way off, weren’t they?

Changing the world never happened overnight, anyway. Whatever great upheavals and violent revolutions occurred, people were people, and they trickled back into their old, familiar ruts soon enough.

Look at the elves, for instance. One great moment of glory, rising up beside Andraste’s rebellion, then smacked back down into the dirt.

Nothing ever changes that much.

No. Things didn’t change, and the time just creaked slowly by.

Finally, Tobias fell asleep on that thought, and tumbled through worrisome, unsettling dreams, perfumed with the memories of demons and the possibilities of so much more.

He pushed through the next few days in a tangle of apprehension and faint discomfort—as much mental as physical.

Fenris was as good as his word regarding dealing with the estate and examining the state the slavers had left it in… which was pretty much as appalling as Tobias expected.

The place was a desecrated ruin. It was huge, yes, but almost everything above the ground floor had been left to rot, while the slavers had kept their base of operations in the cellars. There were a handful of tunnels, too—storage, he supposed, given that most of them were filled with crates and mouldy old sacks—although Fenris didn’t seem so sure.

You are aware that there could be secret passageways here, are you not?” the elf asked, prowling through the mess with his shoulders hunched and his eyes narrowed.

He never did stand up straight, Tobias noticed. Always bowed over a bit, like he was waiting for someone to try and hit him. He wasn’t sure whether it was even something Fenris realised he was doing—a last vestige of Danarius’ abuse, perhaps—or maybe it was a physical thing, and beneath that protective shell of armour there lay terrible scars, along with the lyrium brands.

No idea. Can’t help wondering how far down those brands go, though….

Tobias grimaced. “Please don’t say that. I don’t think I can cope with any more surprises.”

Fenris made a small noise in the back of his throat that was almost like a chuckle, and the dusty, dirty shafts of light thrown by the high widows glinted on his pale hair as they made their way back up to the main floor.

There was, of course, no Antivan walnut dining set. There was little furniture left to speak of, except the hulking, worm-ridden chifferobes and chests in which he and Carver had first found evidence of Gamlen’s fraud.

Ah, yes. That time we went breaking and entering together. Happy days. Where does it all go?

Tobias eyed the rotten fringes of tapestry still clinging to the cobweb-cloaked walls, and thought wistfully of his brother. Carver ought to be here for this. He should be part of it, not cooped up in The Gallows, not being one of them.

There wouldn’t be any going back, though. And that hurt. It hurt to know Carver had chosen a path so diametrically opposed to everything Tobias was, everything he stood for… and that, so far, he hadn’t regretted it.

There had been another letter. Leandra cooed over them all, and didn’t seem to notice the edge on the words that Carver directed at him.

It’s nice to find my place, to be part of something bigger than me… bigger than you, even, brother.

Tobias had never meant to occlude him. He hadn’t even known Carv felt like that until it was too late—and how thick did that make him?

You will probably not be able to clean that,” Fenris observed, peering down at a particularly bloodstained rug. “I think perhaps gutting everything and starting afresh is the best idea.”

Tobias nodded dully. Varric had been right; there were a couple of rotted corpses still left down in the undercroft. Not much of them left after the rats had been at work all this time, but still… he’d have to see about getting that dealt with.

Yeah,” he said absently, squinting up into the wide, high mezzanine of the main hall.

The estate was certainly a big chunk of stone. There was an enormous, sweeping staircase that, properly refurbished, would look fantastic, not to mention impressive marble fireplaces, a wealth of bedchambers, a library, dining chamber, kitchens that looked like they could butcher and cook a dozen oxen at a time….

I don’t want this.

Varric said he had a recommendation for a steward for you,” Fenris said, apparently feeling far more talkative than he usually did.

Tobias wished he could return the favour.

I don’t want any of it. It’s too big. Too much. I… I think I just want to go home.

Mm.”

I only wish I knew where it was.

They poked through the rest of the rooms in a cursory kind of way, picking up anything looked saleable and closing doors on the worst damaged chambers. By mid-afternoon, the smell of damp plaster and mould had worked its way so deep into Tobias’ throat that it was the second most uncomfortable sensation he was experiencing.

Fenris shot him a suspicious look as he tried to surreptitiously scratch himself, and pretended not to notice. They had just finished making a brief examination of the small courtyard garden at the back of the house—little to it except weeds and overgrown vines, although there was a pleasant cupola and what looked like a fountain, somewhere under the rampant greenery—and Tobias was sweating lightly from the effort of scrambling through briars and over masonry.

That, he told himself, was why he itched. No other reason.

Later, after he’d left Fenris in Hightown and returned home to obediently report every infinitesimal detail of the excursion to Leandra, Tobias started to suppose that—just maybe—there might be a problem.

All the usual squabbles aside, the climate of the city was still pretty nasty. Lowtown in particular had an atmosphere of consistent spite, and every spoiled pail of milk or overturned cart seemed blamed on either mages or the qunari. Tobias supposed it was sensible for the Underground to be keeping a low profile… and maybe Anders just thought he was better off out of it.

Five days after the night at the tavern, Tobias was still stewing quietly in doubt and discontent, not quite prepared to venture down to Anders’ clinic.

One very good reason for that—besides his unease at the thought of talking to the healer about the Underground—was the itching, which was now accompanied by an eye-watering stinging every time he pissed, and a rather alarming discharge.

He was, Tobias realised, going to have to get it seen to.

Naturally, there was no question of taking it to Darktown. This was no quiet, discreet, trousers-buttoned request for redblossom ointment. It needed proper healing… and proper examination.

I am not dropping my keks in front of Anders for a full inspection. I’d rather die of it.

Um… can you die of the clap?

There were probably other healers in town, anyway. Paying Circle fees—though more affordable for Tobias than it had once been—was not an option. He wasn’t going anywhere near The Gallows; it was crawling with templars. Still, he was certain there must be somewhere else to go. He just wasn’t sure where, or how you asked without potentially putting yourself at the notice of the templars, and then it would probably all get back to Anders through the Underground’s grapevine anyway, and… shit, it was embarrassing.

Tobias ended up slinking back to the Rose, full of the intention to bluster and complain and demand not only a healer, but also his money back.

What actually happened involved having his privates thoroughly inspected by Madam Lusine and—when a woman like her, with a face like that, was peering at his tackle with her shrivelled up pout and narrowed, shrewd little eyes—well, Tobias quickly became convinced that death would probably have been preferable.

He stood, breeches and smallclothes around his knees, in the warmth and comfortable opulence of her private chamber. It was set back on the Rose’s first floor, a quiet space amid the house’s rowdy chatter… although Tobias wasn’t sure that the bookcases and ostentatious paintings lining the walls didn’t have peepholes cut into them. He wouldn’t have been remotely surprised if that had proved to be true.

A hearty fire blazed in the marble fireplace, its dancing light catching on the velvet-upholstered armchairs that stood opposite Lusine’s large, dark wood desk and yet—despite its heat—Tobias felt distinctly chilly.

In a strange and spurious way, the room reminded him of the grand cleric’s chamber in the chantry, and he fought the urge to laugh at that, aware it was a bad idea when the madam of the house was at eye level with his… pikestaff.

Lusine sucked her teeth thoughtfully as she straightened up.

Ooh, that does look nasty, my dear.”

His fingers curled defensively on the edge of the ornately carved wooden table behind him. A bowl of strongly scented roses with deep red, dusky flowers sat in the centre of it, and they yielded up a heady, musk-threaded perfume, while the smooth bevel of the table’s pie-crust corner dug into the back of his thighs.

Yes, well, I—” Tobias coughed, and started again. “I mean, I… haven’t been anywhere else, so—”

No, quite.”

She tipped her head to the side, her mouth wrinkled tersely like a stewed prune. He could positively feel himself shrivelling under her gaze, and then she nodded, having had a moment of apparent consideration.

Well, seeing as it’s you, Serah Hawke, I think I can help you out. I don’t want you telling tales, mind. Don’t want every grousy beggar coming in ’ere thinking they’ve a right to what they ain’t.”

Tobias bristled. “I wasn’t concerned about that, so much as—”

I’ll clap it for you. Deep breath, now,” she said crisply, and he didn’t know why, but he found himself obeying anyway.

Lusine rolled back the fripperous sleeves of her pink-and-purple frock and crossed to the other side of the table. He turned to follow her with his gaze, and she smiled wolfishly as she patted the polished surface. The waft of her thick, heavy perfume and the scent of the roses enveloped him, and Tobias winced as he realised what she wanted.

Come on. Sooner it’s dealt with, the better, don’t you think, my dear? Pop him just here.”

She turned to the bookcase, and her bony fingers moved briskly over the leather-bound volumes, selecting a tome apparently at random. Tobias stared as she clasped it to her bodice, then pointed sharply at the table.

Come along! Quicker it’s done, quicker it’s over.”

The book was large, and rather thick, bound in dark, mottled leather with gold lettering on the spine. Tobias couldn’t make out what it said, but he doubted it was full of civilised aphorisms and quotes from the Chant.

Uh, I don’t know about—”

Nonsense,” she said briskly. “Now, don’t be such a baby.”

I can’t believe I’m doing this….

Tobias sighed, and moved to position his length on the table. He flinched as Lusine made a small censorious noise, then picked up the bowl of roses, pulled the lacy cloth out from underneath it, and slipped the fabric under his cock. It lay on the neat little protector, looking rather red and fat, the tip weeping with thick, noisome fluid that capped something slightly green and definitely unpleasant, and it itched like hell. He gritted his teeth, wincing at the combination of her scrutiny, the symptoms themselves, and the bite of the air on his abused flesh.

There,” she said, apparently satisfied. “You can hold on if you want.”

He gripped the edge of the table, the smoothly curved wood feeling warm and cool at the same time as the world started to pitch and lurch around him. This hadn’t been a good idea. He should have just swallowed his embarrassment and gone to Darktown.

At least I’d have got Anders in my pants once before I died.

Tobias squinted, unable to watch and yet afraid of closing his eyes completely. There was a look of terrible calm on Lusine’s face, all businesslike efficiency as she tilted her head to the side, pursed her lips, then lifted the book and slapped it down, hard, flat across his penis.

It was the single most painful experience of his life. Even the cusses he bellowed didn’t come out as whole words, just raw, garbled wails of pain.

He bowed double, sweating and fighting retches, as everything south of his waist appeared to melt into flames. Tears squeezed from the corners of his eyes and gouged trails down his cheeks as bile rose in his throat. He barely even noticed Lusine drop the book to the table, cross to the door and then slip out for a few moments.

Tobias spent the fleeting seconds of privacy giving vent to a loud sob. He wasn’t sure he dared peer down at his privates. Judging by the pain, he was convinced he’d find them mashed beyond recognition.

Lusine returned before he’d fully investigated the damage. She had a small, pale elven girl scurrying obediently at her heels: a tart, judging by the gaudy pink frock and the long, glossy blonde ringlets. She had pale amber eyes and a very pretty face, not yet ruined by life and, for one fleeting moment, Tobias almost succumbed to an unbearable swell of embarrassment at her walking in on him like this—weeping, with his cock out, and that hardly being at its most attractive. Pus had splattered across the lace cloth protecting the table, discharge daubing the wood and also the book Lusine had used to clap him with. Fair enough, it had removed the blockage that had been making it so difficult to pee, but he could have wished there were easier, less agonising ways of doing it.

Shame and humiliation welled up in him, and Tobias rubbed the back of his wrist brusquely over his face and tried to breathe.

Wh—?”

Lusine waved a hand, gesturing to the girl to approach him. “Gabrielle? See to our gentleman, would you? He’s been clapped. Full works, and don’t spare nothing. He’s a dear friend to this house.”

The girl nodded, and came towards Tobias like he was some kind of raging beast. She spread her small, delicate hands, and fixed him with that soft, sweet amber gaze. She couldn’t have been working here long, he supposed; she’d be far too popular.

It is all right, messere,” she said quietly, her words rich with a pronounced Orlesian accent. “It’s all right. I am going to heal you. Deep inside, where the infection is, so he doesn’t come back anymore, yes? Potions and salves, they will only take away the burning. You need this to be completely cured.”

As she spoke, she flexed her slim fingers, and a gentle shimmer of light enveloped them. Tobias’ eyes widened, and a sudden ache of fear burst high and tight in his throat.

Y-You’re a mage?”

He tried to make his surprise sound real. Well, it was, but not for the reason it should have been. Maker, did they know? Did Lusine know? He’d always been so careful… virtually no one in the city was aware of his secret, except for those he considered friends, and maybe a total of eight people whom he’d worked with during the time he’d spent in Athenril’s employ.

Quickly, he snatched at the moment of terror and brought his reactions as far under control as he could when it still felt like his tackle was about to drop off. He had to shield himself, he knew… hide his own power from her, pull it all in like his body was a shell, his soul caught behind its brittle walls, and no sniff of the Fade on his flesh.

Tobias swiped his tongue across dry, clumsy lips. “Well, I-I suppose it’s all right. Magical healing… it’s the best you can get, isn’t it?”

That it is.” Lusine nodded. “Come along, now. You come and sit by the fire, Gabrielle will heal you, and then we’ll all have a nice little drink.”

Well, drink sounded like a good idea, at least.

Tobias nodded tentatively, still leaning heavily on the table, and very unsure as to whether he could actually walk.

He hobbled over to the armchair Lusine patted, and winced as she spread a blanket out on it.

Andraste forbid I should make a mess on the upholstery.

The elven mage-child took his arm and helped him while he waddled, breeches around his knees, and every breath of movement was blinding agony.

All your own bloody fault, isn’t it? Stupid sod… couldn’t keep it in your pants, could you? Couldn’t leave well enough alone. Whores and cheap booze, and where does it get you? Shouldn’t have happened, not with the amount I paid….

The litany of reproach and regret pounded inside his throbbing head, and above it all hung the memory of Anders’ admonishments, which had never before rung with such bitterness in Tobias’ mind. He was sure, if he even survived the death of his crotch and all the attendant agony it was bringing, he’d never be able to look Anders in the face again.

He’ll know. They’ll gossip… he’s going to hear all about this, and he’s going to know just what a dirty little sod you are. Of course he wouldn’t touch you. Why would he? You spend all your time getting bladdered and fucking whores. Why would he want you?

Fresh tears prickled at Tobias’ eyes as he lowered himself into the scratchy, velvet-upholstered chair, the soft blanket bunching up beneath him. The fire’s warmth bathed his legs, washing up to his hot, burning thighs, and he stifled a whimper as Gabrielle touched his arm.

He was fairly sure she hadn’t recognised him for what he was. He could barely feel her, which meant she wasn’t that powerful. And she wasn’t expecting him to be a mage, which definitely helped.

He glanced up as she leant over him, her pretty face locked into a well-trained expression of neutrality. If he disgusted her, she wasn’t showing it.

Gabrielle smiled encouragingly. “It won’t hurt, I promise.”

She lied. It did.

Every pulse and spark of her magic hurt—a ruthless, sharp feeling deep inside him—and what hurt worse than the magic was the holding back, the effort of trying to shield himself from her.

Tobias wasn’t sure whether it worked. He saw no sudden flinch in the elf, no moment of realisation as she looked up and nodded to Lusine.

He peered from watering eyes at the madam, and then squinted at Gabrielle.

Is it…?”

All done. There, now,” Lusine said warmly, as the mage retreated behind Tobias’ chair, wiping her hands against her frock. “Isn’t that much better?”

He took a breath. The burning was gone, and the itching, and even most of the pain of the clapping itself… so, yes, it all probably was better. So much better, in fact, that he was able to think clearly, and to realise just how vulnerable a position he’d put himself in.

You stupid sod….

Lusine gave him a tiger-sharp smile. “You’ll join me in a drink, of course, Serah Hawke?”

She gestured to a decanter of brandy and two glasses that stood on a small sideboard near one of the bookcases. Tobias frowned. He hadn’t noticed them there before… how many people had been in while he was sitting here with his tackle out?

I, er—”

Good.” Lusine glanced up at the mage, who was still hovering near the back of the chair. “That’ll be all, Gabrielle. You run along now, there’s a good girl.”

The elf bobbed a curtsey, pausing for a brief moment by the door as she looked back at Tobias. A look of mild, fleeting confusion darted over her face and, one hand on the door, she hesitated, seeming to consider saying something before she blinked and, silently, slipped from the room.

Tobias rose enough from his chair to pull his smallclothes and breeches up and, feeling a little more secure once he’d tucked himself away, watched Lusine pouring them both a glass of brandy. The smarting and the throbbing had begun to wear off, and the warmth of Gabrielle’s healing was still sluicing beneath his skin, crackling in his joints and nerves.

I am sorry, of course,” Lusine said, eyeing him levelly over the glass she passed him. “Naturally, it happens from time to time. Jethann works a lot of our… exclusive evenings. Wealthy clients, with sophisticated tastes and, uh, few inhibitions.”

Tobias nodded bitterly. He’d heard all about the private parties on the house’s uppermost floor. They didn’t interest him. At that moment, he’d gone off sex in pretty much all its forms.

Oh, good,” he said darkly. “I caught noble clap. Well, I suppose that’s something.”

She chuckled, and folded into the chair opposite his, her drink clasped protectively in one thin hand. “I’ve always admired your sense of perspective, my dear. Stay a little while, hmm? Have a nice long bath. Soothe yourself. I’ll send someone up, gratis, if you like.”

Tobias curled his lip. He wanted to refuse outright, but the Rose had much better plumbing than Gamlen’s place, and the prospect of a long soak in a hot, stone tub, instead of a scrub down in lukewarm water in front of the fire did have its advantages.

All right.”

She smiled. “Good. You know… I’ve always thought you and I understand each other very well.”

Tobias sighed. He should have known, he supposed. Lusine never did anyone favours unless she thought it would get her something in return. She’d been trying this kind of crap on him since the first time he met her… and yet he owed the bitch now, didn’t he?

He knocked back a mouthful of the brandy, and scowled at the fire. “You know I only ever give you crumbs, Madam.”

I’m a beggar at your banquet, my dear.”

Huh.” Tobias doubted that sincerely. “Fine. All right, let’s see….”

He frowned, thinking back over the past month’s crop of rumours, whispers, and general snippets of information. The Rose was a Coterie operation, though the house was strictly neutral turf, and Lusine herself kept up a pretence of non-involvement that was extremely strict.

Still… everyone needed to catch a break now and then.

Tobias took another swig of the brandy, its honeyed roughness a welcome heat on his tongue. “There’s a ship due to dock in Kirkwall at the end of the month. Rivaini vessel called the Mauraya. She’s meant to be carrying silk and tea, but the captain’s into running stolen jewels, and he’s bringing them to someone in Hightown. Don’t ask who,” he added, glaring at her. “I don’t know, but I think it’s someone in the Keep. A clerk, maybe… maybe one of Dumar’s advisors. Someone with a leg-up in the administration, anyway, which is why the Coterie doesn’t know about it.”

Lusine swirled her brandy glass, and the golden liquid danced in it, catching hold of the firelight and letting it burn, deep at its tawny heart. “And you do?”

Tobias shrugged. Drinking with Isabela had its advantages… especially when he was able to match the information to things he overheard from Aveline’s office.

I have my sources.”

Go on,” she said, completely still but for the movement of her fingers on the glass, and those sharp eyes that followed Tobias’ every breath.

He bit his lip. “Thing is… the guard does know. The Guard-Captain’s planning on arresting the Rivaini captain and his contact when the exchange is made. If someone was to, y’know, just… happen upon the merchandise before then—”

They might make off with some pretty rocks and a smuggler captain’s loyalty?” Lusine enquired delicately, arching one thin, grey brow. “How’d you come by that, then? Your old acquaintance with Guard-Captain Aveline?”

Tobias tapped his fingers against the side of his glass, staring nonchalantly into the brandy’s amber depths. “I see her from time to time. I hear things. She’s a friend of my mother’s… and we left Ferelden together.”

Lusine wrinkled her nose. “Oh, I’ve heard the stories, my dear. Makes me wonder if your loyalties aren’t… divided?”

Not really.” Tobias snorted. “I’ve got bugger all to be grateful to her for, and she’s never made allowances for me. But, if that doesn’t meet with Madam’s approval, how about the whereabouts of Javaris Tintop?”

She looked sharply at him, her façade of dispassion slipping for a moment. “You know where that two-faced little bastard went? We heard he was dead.”

He leaned back a little in the chair, the brandy beginning to take the edge off the remaining pain, and allowed himself a smug smile. “Yeah, I know. Headed up out of Smuggler’s Cut, making for the road to Tantervale. Had it in mind to become a used boot salesman, as I recall… if you know what I mean.”

Lusine’s thin lips pursed into a sneer. “You killed his men? All of them?”

Well….” Tobias flexed a shoulder. “I was a bit ticked off. And they did start it. Plus, I had help.”

Ah, don’t you always, though, my dear?” She fixed him with an odd, unpleasantly searching look. “Quite the little coterie of your own you’ve got, isn’t it? One wonders why you didn’t go to that healer of yours to get this nasty problem fixed.”

Tobias tensed, though he did his best to disguise it. Lusine jutted out her chin as she made a show of inspecting her brandy glass.

He’s very good, from what I hear. A lot of my girls have been, from time to time. For… you know… or if they get themselves in trouble. Very clean work, I must say. We haven’t had one die yet. He does better than that old hag in the alienage, I’ll give him that.”

Tobias said nothing, and just clenched his jaw. The fire popped and crackled to itself, and he felt mildly sick. He wasn’t sure if it was the brandy on top of pain and an empty stomach, or the thought of Anders hunched over a succession of whores’ cunnies, treating diseases and hauling out brats before they had a chance to be full-grown.

Figured you’d want to know,” he said, staring fixedly at the flames. “That, and I’m too good a friend to add to his woes.”

She laughed softly, but it was a rough, sharp sound and, as Tobias glanced up at her, he had the horrible feeling that she knew. She knew everything, he felt sure… knew his hopes and dreams, his fears and deepest desires.

Of course she did. The Rose was her house, and everything got back to Madam sooner or later. His mind fled guiltily to all those months of paying for the company of the Antivan with the blond hair and the pale skin… Esel, who had been so terribly accommodating, and still so very far from enough.

I’m sure you are,” Lusine said dryly, her gaze fixed on him like a snake. “So… you’ve no interest in Javaris, then?”

Tobias shook his head. “No. I dealt with the qunari. They don’t want him, and I don’t want him. The guard does, and I’m sure the Coterie does, as do his many creditors. He’ll be a good way away now, but easy enough to find, I bet. Do what you like. Turn him in to one or the other, or make money of ’em both, Madam. I don’t care. I just don’t like being manipulated… as I’m sure you recall.”

Lusine’s expression shifted almost imperceptibly, and she inclined her head. “No. Of course you don’t, serah.”

So? Are we even now?”

She smiled, and drained her glass, licking her lips as she swallowed. “Oh, my dear Serah Hawke… I do so enjoy our little chats. Don’t you?”

Tobias nodded grimly. He took the offer of the bath, though, and allowed himself to be sent up to a small but pleasant chamber, which held a large tub of steaming water, already drawn and—obviously—scented with the cloying stickiness of rose oil.

There was a whore, too: a stocky man with close-cropped dark hair and a lop-sided smile. Tobias gave him five silvers Lusine didn’t need to know about and sent him out, then relaxed into the warmth water and stared at the cracked ceiling.

It was a pleasant chamber, although the carpets and drapes were still, like most of the Rose, a little musty. Like most of his life, he supposed.

He dressed slowly afterwards, handling his privates with a degree of careful tenderness. His cock looked almost normal—testament to the usefulness of healing magic—though it was still sore, and the echoes of the elven apostate’s work still hummed under his skin, like an uneasy remnant of a foreign taste or smell.

Tobias left the brothel and cut through towards Hightown’s market, where he spent an hour trying to locate the merchant whose name Varric had given him. It seemed like a good idea at the time. If he was going to feel this horrible, he might as well take some of it out on somebody else.

Finally, he found the man: an Orlesian with plump jowls and hooded eyes, who seemed less concerned by whatever his workers had found up at the old Bone Pit mine than the fact they’d downed tools and refused to go back in.

You can expect nothing else, I suppose,” Hubert said, turning his head and spitting onto the flagstones. “Putain refugees. I mean, they’re cheap to employ, no? But you pay for it every other way.”

Tobias folded his arms and stared at the man. They were standing in the shadow of the red awning above his stall. Boxes and trunks were piled high, goods spread out on the table that stood beside them, and Hubert’s girl—an elven wench with a low-cut blouse and curly red hair of a rather attractive auburn hue—was doing her best to sell a piece of Orlesian silk to a haughty-looking woman in a green dress.

The buzz of chatter and the cries of stallholders—though refined, compared to the sprawling chaos of Lowtown’s bazaar—filtered through the air and coloured the world. Scents of tea and spices mingled with the smell of dust and grit and stone, and the sunlight caught at the bright colours of the merchants’ banners as they flapped against the crisp strands of sky.

So, what do you say, hm?” Hubert wheedled. “You do a little deal for me? I’ll make it plenty worth your while.”

Tobias sniffed. “What if I want more than a one-off fee? Does this place turn over a decent revenue?”

The Orlesian shrugged. “Ah, who’s to say, when the workers won’t go in? I tell you, messere, the burdens I have to contend with—”

Tobias scowled, his patience wearing thin. “Look, it’s been a long day. I’m tired, my temper is short, and it burns when I pee. Don’t test me.”

The man stared but, to his credit, recovered quickly. “Well, I suppose—”

Tobias leaned forwards, his arms still folded, aware of the presence of his physicality… and with absolutely no compunction over using it like a weapon.

Way I see it, right,” he said, his tone low and even, and injected with a thoroughly false cheerfulness, “there’s a lot than go wrong with an operation like yours.”

The merchant’s eyes narrowed suspiciously. “Now, look—”

No, I mean it. Lyrium smugglers, the Carta and the Coterie both sticking their nose in where you don’t want it….” Tobias sucked his teeth thoughtfully. “That’s not even mentioning the other two-bit operations in this town, or whatever else you’ve got roaming those tunnels. Might be that what you need is a partner, not a fixer.”

Hubert sighed wearily and held up his hands. “All right, all right. Fine. You clear the place and get those lazy swine back to work, we’ll make a deal.”

Close.” Tobias grinned cheerfully. “But I’ll take, let’s see… thirty sovereigns down payment on the job, too.”

What? You’re crazy!”

Just protecting my interests, my friend. You pay up front and, if everything goes to plan, you’ll get twenty pieces back once I have the deed in my hand and my first month’s profits in my pocket.”

The Orlesian glared violently at him, fat fingers almost skirting towards the concealed blade he undoubtedly kept at his belt. “This is extortion!”

No,” Tobias said patiently, flexing his shoulders ever so slightly. “Extortion would be if I told you I wanted a hundred gold up front, plus a majority share in the mine, then—in my capacity as a fellow Fereldan refugee—convinced your workers not to go back on the job until I’d been paid. But I can see how you’d be confused.”

Hubert scowled and muttered something that sounded very much like ‘dog-lord bastard’.

Tobias just smiled sweetly and waited for the money.

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Chapter 15
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