Justice in Surrender: Chapter 23

The aftermath of the Bone Pit raises both personal and political tensions.

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Back to Justice in Surrender: Contents
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It took a long while to get back out of the mine. There was the matter of healing the injured, scouting out the rest of the tunnels and ensuring everything was clear… and then looting everything worth taking from the lyrium smugglers’ den, and the corpse of the beast itself.

Varric swore he knew a guy who could see it dealt with properly—naturally, the guy knew a guy who knew a smith who said he could work dragonbone, dragonscale, and all the rest of it—so they spent an age wrenching as much as could physically be butchered from the dragon. Tobias found it odd, and maybe a little unnatural, to watch the thing being stripped down to its component parts. It smelled terrible, too.

Anders commented quietly that it was the sulphur; something to do with the fumes dragons could produce inside their bodies, and then ignite and expel as fire. Somehow, Tobias wasn’t remotely surprised to find he knew that.

“Did a lot dragon-slaying when you were with the Wardens, then, did you?” he asked, mainly to take his mind off the fact Anders was touching him; those cool, impersonal hands running over his arm, healing up the scratches and abrasions that, somehow, were the worst he’d managed to walk away with.

“No. I read it somewhere,” Anders said distantly, as his healing magic flowed between them.

From one body to another, Tobias thought, trying to pretend that the smell of warm copper enveloping him and the soothing tingle of power under his skin were just business, and not the potent and symbolic intimacies they felt like. He does this for everyone. Don’t be stupid.

He does it for the whores, and the beggars, and… and even Isabela, whenever she catches something nasty.

He blinked and swallowed heavily, trying hard not to think of that fleeting, broken-off story about a Fereldan brothel and a chance encounter. A runaway mage… a different man. Dark limbs wound around pale skin, and the crackling bloom of electricity between them. Was it stupid to feel so envious of her?

“I did a lot of reading when I was at the Vigil,” Anders added thoughtfully, the flare of pale energy that reflected back across his skin making his cheeks seem gaunt and his mouth look thin, until the hollow shadows around his eyes were the darkest, widest point of his face. “There was a huge library. About half as big as the Circle Tower’s, probably… but with more variety.”

“Hm.” Tobias winced a little, first at the feeling of his skin knitting, and then at the sensation of Anders wiping the remnants of blood away with a cloth. “Somehow, I thought what you lot did was more about thrashing darkspawn than curling up with a good book.”

“You’d be surprised,” the healer said mildly. “I suppose Commander Caron just preferred to keep me where he could see me.”

Tobias opened his mouth to prompt further, intrigued by this rare mention of Anders’ former life—and the Orlesian commandant he’d clearly disliked so intensely—but, as if he’d realised that he’d accidentally let something slip, Anders smiled weakly and dusted his palms together.

“There,” he said, with the air of a man drawing in on himself, and drawing a line beneath the subject. “All done. We can get out of here now, right?”

“Best idea I’ve heard all day,” Tobias agreed. “Soon as we’ve finished getting all the gear back up top. Um… maybe you could go on ahead? Check it onto the cart for me? I’ll follow on from back here.”

Anders looked at him thoughtfully for a moment, shadows of fatigue etched around his eyes, and then he nodded.

“If that’s what you want.”

“I’d appreciate it,” Tobias assured him. “Got to make sure these crooked bastards don’t try to skim on me, haven’t I?”

A faint smile tugged at the corner of Anders’ mouth. It was plain that he knew what Tobias was doing but, despite that, he seemed to appreciate the gesture… and he took the opportunity to leave the mine’s stifling, muggy darkness behind him with such alacrity that Tobias was almost surprised not to see him break into a run.

Then again, by the time the jobs were done, Tobias was feeling pretty much the same way himself. The awareness of ton upon ton of rock over his head made his back itch and his head feel light, and a constant sweaty dampness marked his palms. All in all, it took hours just to haul everything back up to the surface and get the cart packed and, by the time they were ready to start heading back into the city, the sun had already half set.

The air was cold—laced with a hint of heavy frost—but Tobias still drank it in like it was nectar. He loitered at the mine’s entrance, waiting to see everyone was out safely, and then fell with relief into line at the back of the group, just behind a very morose, very tight-lipped Fenris.

Anders was sitting on the back of the cart, his head bowed and his feet swinging as the oxen lumbered into motion. The reddish cast of the dying sunlight touched his hair gently, while the breeze ruffled his coat.

Tobias watched him until he raised his head again, turning his face to the last of the light.

Maker’s breath… would I stop feeling like this if I could? I know I’m tired—we’re all tired, and battle-sore, and there was a fucking dragon, which you don’t see every day and I am not telling Mother about—but… but it’s more than that.

It’s more than anything. 

He let out a deep breath, forcing the air from his lungs, and grew suddenly aware of Fenris, still padding stiffly beside him, and still scowling.

“How d’you feel?” Tobias asked, entertaining a mischievous streak of cruelty. “That was a nasty blow you took. Cracked a few ribs all right, not to mention your head. Lucky we had a good healer on hand, wasn’t it?”

The elf glared at him, his pale green eyes darkened by the sunset, and his white hair flaming to gold.

“I have withstood worse pain. My life with Danarius saw to that.”

Oh, of course. If in doubt, play the slavery card. Trumps everything, every time.

Ahead, the cart’s wheels sang with creaky regularity, and several pairs of feet crunched in mismatched rhythm along the gritty path.

“Yes,” Tobias said, with implacable cheerfulness, “but, this way, you don’t have to waste time recovering from it. That’s useful, isn’t it?”

Fenris growled softly; a grumble of frustration and annoyance that he barely bothered to hide before the wind snatched it away.

“If you expect me to prostrate myself with gratitude before the abomination, Hawke, you will have a long wait.”

Tobias shrugged, unable to entirely stifle his smile. “Oh, I wouldn’t dream of it. I was just saying, that’s all. Just… thinking aloud. Really, though,” he added, glancing at the elf and his blood-spattered armour, “really seriously… I wanted to know you were all right.”

Fenris snorted, but his rigidity seemed to ease just a little. “I will be sore for a while,” he said, glancing gracelessly in Anders’ direction. “But I am alive.”

“Well,” Tobias began, “that’s—”

Next time you chose to embark upon some reckless folly,” he added sharply, “I will be doubling my rate of pay.”

Tobias grinned. “Oh, Fenris… really? And here I was, thinking you just tagged along because you liked me.”

The elf scowled at him and, ahead of them, the cart driver tickled his whip across his team’s shoulders.

~o~O~o~

The walk back to the city was long and painful, and it wasn’t even over once they had Lowtown’s worn, familiar streets under their feet. The cart had to be taken to Varric’s warehouse, the goods unloaded, everything tallied and counted, then shares worked out and profits calculated.

Tobias shifted his fair share of heavy sacks, crates, and barrels, then slumped against the rough wooden wall, his eyes half-narrowed, and let the dwarf get on with business. It was funny, he thought: the place was little more than a barn, right on the edge of the foundry district—tucked between two manufactories, and almost impossible to notice from the outside, like a narrow and unimportant splinter wedged in amongst the smoke and grime—and yet Varric had never had an ounce of trouble with thieves or vandals.

He watched his friend bustling about the place like a beringed, hairy mother hen—a hand on a shoulder here, a pat on the back and a quiet word there—and watched the assorted lackeys and employees dancing attendance. Most of the people who worked with Varric were Lowtown rats; many were either ex- or almost-ex-Carta (Kirkwall, as a port city in the wake of King Bhelen’s reforms, seemed to be a good place for those escaping Orzammar politics and, by extension, the long fingers of the crime cartels), small-time smugglers, or alienage elves with quick hands and knife scars. And then there was Varric himself at the centre of it all: the spider in the web, the puppet-master, with his quill and parchment and his mind like a steel abacus.

Tobias folded his arms across his chest, rolled his neck and winced at the sore and cracking muscles, and glanced along the wall. They were all just waiting now. Isabela’s lunks were sitting on upturned crates and looking gormless while she cleaned her fingernails with a wickedly curved dagger; Anders was leaning against a wooden column near the door, his face turned wistfully to the thin falls of light that ventured through the high, small windows… and Fenris was keenly watching Varric. The elf’s green eyes were narrowed, his upper lip slightly pinched, and dried bloodstains still marked his face and armour.

In a funny sort of way, Tobias wanted to smile. It gave them a strange solidarity, this waiting. Lining up, sore and beaten, waiting to be paid… it was like the end of a long day of farm labour back in Lothering, and he remembered standing in line with Carver, the back of his neck hot and itchy with the day’s sun on it, sweat drying on his shirt as they all waited for their pay. It had been a sort of rite of passage, he supposed: you did the work, got your coin, and spent most of it on ale with the same mouthy, ribald bunch of morons you’d been working alongside all day.

Of course, back on old man Barlin’s farm, no one had ever died. Not like the dwarven woman whose bloody, two-piece corpse still kept flashing behind Tobias’ eyes. They had just left her in the end; there wasn’t much else they could do. He’d been surprised at how little she looked like a real person any more: just two lumps of scorched armour with meaty, fleshy parts poking out.

The other dwarf, Leske, seemed to have taken it far too well, like maybe he was used to not feeling anything, and accepting death and horror with simple, mechanical compliance. Tobias supposed that meant that at least some of the things he’d heard about life in Orzammar for the casteless were actually true. Either way, Leske was the first to get a big bag of coins as Varric started divvying up the payroll, and those of the rest of them still hanging around straightened up like dogs awaiting meat.

“All right,” Varric said, checking off a last note in his ledger. “So, that’s expenses settled… less forty-five silvers cart rental, plus the driver’s tip…. Good thing we pulled in a nice haul, otherwise cutting this five ways instead of four would’ve hurt.”

Isabela smiled. “I just knew you liked having me around, Varric.”

“You’re the sunlight in my noon, Rivaini,” he replied, not looking up from the parchment. “Rance? Pay the lady.”

A dwarf with sandy red hair and slightly runny blue eyes shambled nervously up to Isabela, and presented her with a large coin pouch that jangled encouragingly. She grinned as she weighed it in her hands.

“Ooh! Can I have that knife we found on that dead smuggler, too? Well, what was left of him. You know. The one with the red stone in the hilt?”

Fenris made a small, irritable noise in the back of his throat, and Isabela wrinkled her nose at him.

“What? It was pretty.”

Yeah, pretty…. Tobias smirked. Isabela knew a good deal when she saw one—and a rare stone. The dagger she referred to had been pretty much all that was left on one particular pile of smoked meat, but it was very likely an old Tevinter piece: runed hilt, black leather sheath, and a perfect ruby set into the pommel. If it hadn’t been so impractical for actually stabbing people with, he’d have nicked it for himself.

Varric winced and shot him a quick glance. Tobias shrugged.

“Why not?” he said, ignoring the pull in his aching shoulders. “There’s plenty of goodies to go around, and that’s not touching on the lyrium, or what we make off the dragonbone. Anyone else want anything specific?” he added, turning to look at the others.

Fenris snorted. “Just the coin. I have no use for the rest of it.”

“Fine. Anders?”

The healer blinked and looked up guiltily, then shook his head. “What? No. No….” He frowned. “What are you doing with the lyrium? I mean—”

“It’s not going to the Chantry,” Tobias said decisively, aware of the prickly silence that settled after those words left him, and the various odd looks he received from the assorted faces that turned towards him. “And not to the bloody dust-sniffers, either. That’s final.”

A few of the assorted mercs and lackeys shifted nervously, glancing at Varric. The dwarf’s face had ‘Really, Hawke?’ etched into every feature, but he said nothing.

Tobias knew it was a ridiculous proclamation to make. The idiocy of it—squandering profits that were potentially enormous, just for the sake of an ideological point—hung heavily in the air, but he refused to back down.

The truth was, there probably wasn’t a smuggler in Kirkwall who would have batted an eyelid at selling lyrium to the Chantry’s back-room dealers. Everyone knew there were well-established routes in stolen and illegal imports; that was how Orzammar stayed wealthy. Oh, fine, so officially the Divine did deals with legitimate suppliers, and there were notable and very lucrative trade treaties drawn up that carried vast political weight. It was all perfectly above-board, and the Chantry took in pure supplies, and held to its position that—via whatever religious codswallop they pedalled to convince themselves of their own superiority—the lyrium became the clean, sanctioned, blessed waters of the Fade.

That way, it kept things nice. It kept the templars doped and under control, and it gave them the edge on mage-hunting. And you had to be a fool to think that system worked across the whole of Thedas, without a single corrupt Knight-Captain, quartermaster, or merchant.

Anders had told him what it was like in the Fereldan tower. If you knew who to talk to, you could get lyrium—potions or raw dust. Some mages who’d studied in big cities struck up contacts and managed to sneak small quantities in; some templars played fast and loose with their supplies, or were happy to dabble in their own shifty deals. And, of course, if anyone was ever caught, it was all blamed on the mages, because they lusted after the power lyrium could provide… instant evidence of rebellion and insurrection, Anders had said. He’d heard rumours of people being made Tranquil over it, though he hadn’t shared details, and Tobias hadn’t pressed for them.

In Kirkwall, he doubted that the mages had that kind of freedom. However, The Gallows was full of traders, full of quiet corners to whisper in… if you had the stones to do it in front of so many templars. No, here it was about the templars themselves: the corrupt ones inside the Order, and the ones who’d either left or been thrown out. They always ended up drifting between Lowtown, Darktown, and the docks, scratching a living like roaches and prepared to do anything for the fixes of dust they needed. Usually, they didn’t last long without the Order to keep them patched up. The addiction that the Chantry had inculcated in them took hold and tore them apart from the inside and, if they knifed some poor sod in the street, or robbed some unlucky merchant’s stall, well, that was merely a demonstration of their failure to meet the Order’s standards of moral rectitude.

The thing was, they—and the trade in black-market lyrium that they kept so very buoyant—meant easy gold. And no one in their right mind walked away from that.

Tobias blinked and glanced at the assembled faces. Leske was looking at him liked he’d just fallen off the boat from Stupid Town, and Varric had assumed an expression of polite, studied blankness which meant that, while he disagreed, he knew better than to actually argue.

“It’s not going to the templars,” Tobias repeated, eyeing both dwarves steadily. “Not on the books, and not off them.”

Varric sighed, and made another mark on his list. “Fine….”

“Then what do you intend to do with it?” Fenris enquired, his voice a low drawl coloured with a slight hint of disapproval. “There are crates of those potions, Hawke. A great deal of power. If you mean to supply the Ma—”

“I’m sure Hawke knows exactly what he intends to do,” Anders said sharply, and Tobias had to bite back his surprise.

He rather liked the feeling of Anders jumping to his defence, but the shimmer of pleasure faded fast as the healer and the elf both proceeded to glare violently at each other, and then turned, as one, to look expectantly at him.

Huh. Nothing I can say here that isn’t going to piss someone off, is there?

True, he supposed that the Underground could get a lot of use out of that much lyrium… although Tobias wasn’t entirely sure what they’d do with it. The idea of gifting the potions to Anders for use at the clinic had seemed both honourable and logical, although he said he preferred to avoid the use of lyrium unless it was absolutely necessary, on account of the things it did to Justice. Tobias wasn’t sure he wanted to know the details, but he supposed that, if he gave the stuff to the Underground instead, he would probably end up being responsible for more than a Fade spirit copping an attitude.

Not that I mind the idea of helping bust a few mages out of the Gallows. That’s fine. Of course, no one’s ever told me how they actually do it. Do they kill templars? It’s easy betting Elias Creer doesn’t mind cracking a few skulls to get what he wants….

The silence stretched into awkwardness, and Tobias’ head filled with rampant, incongruous, piecemeal thoughts of the shadowy meetings he’d attended with Anders; all those people, brought together at such risk and united by such terrible conviction. The crates of lyrium could serve a bigger purpose, couldn’t they? And he could make it happen.

They’d have to start taking me seriously then. No more errand boy. No more guilting Anders’ little pet out of some handy coin. Maybe somebody would actually start telling me what’s going on. I mean, it’s not like it’s easy to be part of something so secret that you don’t even find out about half the meetings until they’re over.

He gritted his teeth, ever so slightly aware—as he had been since they carted the bloody crates out of the mine—of the lyrium’s soft, semi-distant hum.

“I said,” Tobias repeated carefully, “that it’s not going to the Chantry, or the dust-sniffers. All right? We have to arrange the sale of the rest of this stuff, too, so can we just get the coin dealt with first? You’ll all get your cuts on the rest of the merchandise when Varric and I do, like always.” He spread his hands wide, forcing a nonchalant smile, and turned to the rest of the group. “What? You don’t trust me? Come on….”

Varric snorted. “Of course we do, Hawke. Pure as the driven mud, that’s you.”

~o~O~o~

They left the warehouse, each weighed down with their own bag of payment. Isabela was the first to peel off, heading towards the docks with a hearty goodbye and a promise to come by The Hanged Man soon.

“I’d come have a drink with you now,” she told Varric regretfully, jerking a thumb over her shoulder at the tired, sore-looking lunks, “but I told these idiots they could drink The Dog and Dagger dry if we came back in one piece, and I’d like to be there for the fight they’ll probably start.”

The dwarf chuckled. “Heh… Last time you and your boys went on a bender in Lowtown, I heard it took Aveline three weeks to clean up the mess.”

Isabela wrinkled her nose. “That’s an exaggeration. Anyway, that part of the market was ancient. Positive tinderbox. Could have gone up at any time.”

Varric shook his head. “Don’t ever change, Rivaini.”

“I’ll do my best,” she promised, bending to give him a playful kiss on the top of the head that, just for a moment, rendered him both blind and deaf.

Tobias was rather glad that the rest of them got away with a simple wave and a few blown kisses.

“She never does come near here, does she?” he remarked, as they went on their way, passing by the very tall, very tightly locked gates of the qunari compound.

“Can you blame her?” Anders muttered, squinting at the large, broad, grey-skinned qunari who stood by the barred portal.

The creature—because, in all honesty, they looked so far removed from human that Tobias struggled to think of them as men—was evidently aware of them, but he didn’t acknowledge their presence. He stood with his massive arms folded across his bare chest, his monolithic face set into a blank scowl directed at the wall opposite his post, and he never seemed to blink. The heavy, curling horns, the tilted, pointed ears, and the wide swatches of bright red war paint—or whatever they called it; it probably had some word with too many consonants in to describe it, Tobias thought—smeared across his back and shoulders really didn’t do much to dispel the notion of a threatening, foreign being… although he had to admit that Isabela wasn’t the type to get jittery around the strange.

If anything, he was mildly surprised that he’d never heard her crack a joke about what screwing one of them would be like, but saying so right now somehow didn’t seem like a good idea.

Anders frowned as he gazed towards the compound, his face sallow and washed-out, and words still tumbling from him as if he wasn’t thinking about them.

“…really even doubt they’re here for why they say they are. And the way they convert people. That’s creepy, isn’t it? Suck them in and never let them go. And it’s always the weak and the vulnerable. People from the alienage, from Darktown… the ones who haven’t got any further to fall.”

Fenris grunted dismissively. “The Qun gives purpose. Those who are dispossessed and alone can find a great deal of comfort in being given a new role. A sense of belonging.”

Anders visibly flinched, as if someone had passed a rotten fish under his nose. “That’s what the Circle does. Takes children away from their parents and tries to remould them. Tells you all you are is ‘mage’… holds that frame up to you, then chops off all the bits that don’t fit in. That’s not belonging.”

“Perhaps some benefit from it,” Fenris said tartly. “Besides, the Qun does not seek to impose a single form. The tamassran allocates to each kossith the role that fits them best, and encourages them to embrace it. Is it any wonder many choose that over the privations Kirkwall offers them?”

“Bullshit,” Anders spat. “When someone breaks a leg, you splint it while it’s healing. Then you take the bandages off and let them walk on their own.”

Fenris shot the healer a narrow-eyed look. “The qunari would say that demonstrates the arrogance of basra. To so value independence, and ignore inefficiency.”

“You were a slave!” Anders protested, his voice rising in pitch as he stopped walking, his boots scuffing to a standstill in the dusty alleyway. “How can you pretend you wouldn’t mind having your every action dictated by the bloody Qun?”

Fenris kept going, and kept staring straight ahead, affecting complete indifference to Anders’ outrage.

Yeah, because it’s not as if you wind him up deliberately, is it, you bastard?

Tobias shook his head. “Not every convert is from the slums,” he said conversationally, drawing to a halt by Anders’ side, and ignoring the warning look that Varric threw him. “Look at Viscount Dumar’s son. He was well in with the qunari.”

And he kicked and screamed all the way home… I still have a scar on my leg where the little sod bit me.

Anders puffed out an indignant breath, his eyes clouded with something that looked more than a little bit like the tumult of Justice shifting behind them.

“It’s not… no,” he muttered, his frown deepening as he tried to collect his words and push them out in the right order. “That’s the same, though. Not dispossessed, but just as much a prisoner. He wanted a new life, and that’s what the qunari give their converts, but it’s just exchanging one prison for another. They don’t let you think… find your own answers. That’s wrong.”

He blinked rapidly, and Tobias started to extend a hand to usher him back into the idea of movement, but Anders looked at the gesture like it was a weapon, and so he let his fingers curl on the air, and waited until it seemed natural for them both to start walking again.

Varric and Fenris were waiting at the mouth of the alley, the compound and the tar-bitter smell of the docks receding away behind them, although the elf didn’t seem keen to let go of his entertainment.

“Have you truly examined the Qun?”

“Have you?” Anders snapped.

“Yes. Much of it might surprise you.”

Tobias caught Varric’s theatrical eye-roll, and suppressed a snigger. Predictably, Anders didn’t find any of it funny.

“Surprise me? Really? Which bits, exactly? The parts where they force submission out of people with qamek, or the parts where they neuter mages and keep them in pens?”

A rising thread of hysteria had begun to colour his tone, while a sardonic, bitter sneer had crept onto Fenris’ face. Beyond the alley’s mouth and the dry, pitted walls off which the encroaching argument was bouncing, the evening had grown dark. Workers were heading home, wrapped up against the cold air, and a night breeze snaked across Lowtown’s narrow squares and streets, rifling the inexpertly copied posters tacked to the sides of buildings.

“Have you seen what they do?” Anders demanded, squaring off to the elf, his eyes no longer distant, but fully and sharply focused. “Really seen?”

Fenris lofted his brows, meeting the mage inch-for-inch until it felt as if the sliver of air between them had swelled up, tense and distended like a pocket of highly flammable marsh gas.

And, any minute, we’re going to have flames and people screaming….

Tobias cleared his throat, but neither of them were listening to him. Varric sighed gently and peered against the wall behind his shoulder, checking it for anything unduly grubby before he leaned against it. He shot Tobias an “I told you this would happen” look, and crossed his arms.

“Yes,” Fenris said, a harsh burr to his voice as he drew out the word, glaring at Anders. “They cut out their tongues. One wonders why, doesn’t one?”

Anders positively quivered with outrage. “I’ve seen them with their mouths sewn shut! Collars, leashes, blinkers… it’s revolting. They’re treated like beasts, kept chained up, they don’t even—”

“They have no control,” Fenris growled, his stare unwavering, even as Anders faltered on his words, and clenched his hands into fists, as if to disguise the pale shimmer of blue that flickered quickly across his knuckles. “And they acknowledge this.”

Tobias coughed loudly, anxious to break the pair of them up before either actually exploded. “All right, fine, the qunari aren’t exactly broad-minded. But, y’know, they stay in their compound, and—”

“Many saarebas would choose no other way,” Fenris said quietly, glancing briefly at Tobias. “They would die if they were to be turned loose.”

The air in the alleyway suddenly seemed to feel heavy as lead and colder than a midnight privy, and Tobias struggled to swallow past the lump in his throat.

He doesn’t know about that. Don’t tell him about that! Maker’s breath, just don’t….

It had been more than two years ago. One of Varric’s eavesdroppers had passed along the information that a Chantry sister wanted something discreetly delivered, and Tobias had thought it would be letters, or lyrium, or… well, anything except a bloody qunari mage. He’d led the… the whatever you called it out through the sewers and into the mountains, only for a bunch of qunari trackers to show up, whereupon unpleasantness had occurred, and he, Varric, and Fenris had been forced to kill the lot of them. Tobias suspected the Arishok knew, just as he suspected that the bitch who’d planned it all had known exactly what would happen. Naturally, she’d disappeared not long after, and all he could get out of the Chantry was some rubbish about her being on a sabbatical of reflection somewhere in the northerly Marches.

The thing was, he wouldn’t have minded if, at the end of it, the qunari mage had taken off his collar and his shackles and shambled off into the proverbial sunset, free to make a new life for himself somewhere… wherever giant ox-men with no tongues could do so, presumably.

But he hadn’t. He’d knelt down in the sand, next to the bodies of those who’d chained and abused him, and he’d burned himself to death with his own fire magic. And it hadn’t been because he couldn’t control it, or because he was a tainted demon-puppet, or any of the other things the qunari bastards had accused Hawke himself of before they attacked.

The saarebas had calmly, rationally chosen to set himself alight, and Tobias had woken in a cold sweat from nightmares about it for months afterwards.

He swallowed again, hard, as he looked from Fenris to Anders.

Don’t tell him. I can’t let him think I did that. It wasn’t my fault. I thought he’d run, I swear….

“Look,” Varric said genially, breaking his silence, “I bet we’re all hungry. Why don’t—”

Anders’ mouth twitched, a stream of half-shaped mutterings pouring from him, caught under his breath like covert expletives.

“…barely any better than blood magic. S’mind control. Sick. It’s sick… and every last one of you is responsible. Oppressors….

“Anders,” Tobias warned, eyeing Fenris’ tensing shoulders and stony expression. “Come on. Varric’s right. Why don’t we all just head to the Hanged Man, eh?”

“Have you even heard a word I’ve been saying?” Anders demanded. “Did you listen to—”

“Yeah.” Tobias dredged up a conciliatory smile. “But the entire world isn’t out to get you specifically, y’know.”

The healer grimaced, his expression twisted into a sly, scowling thing that distorted his whole face, and he gave Tobias a withering glare.

“Of course not. Why would I think that? Oh, right… only the number of times they’ve caught me. The times they took me back. Only the religious zealots in the middle of town who cut mages’ tongues out and sew their lips shut, and the lynch mobs, and the men in metal suits with the swords—and the insane bitch in charge of them, who wants every last one of us dead or chained up. That. Yes. I thought we all remembered that.”

Fenris growled with ill-suppressed frustration. “Huh. Here it comes: the litany of mages’ suffering….”

“If you’re sick of the repetition, maybe you should do something about it,” Anders retorted. “Problems don’t just go away because you’re fed up of hearing about them!”

The elf’s lip rose in a half-snarl, the hint of teeth and vitriol buried behind a breath that Tobias cut across before it could even be fully drawn.

“Enough! Maker’s cock… can we just go for a drink? Anders,” he added, as guilt twinged lightly at him, “no one’s saying that things aren’t wrong. It’s just that… you don’t have to take everything so personally.”

The air seemed to groan under the weight of the atmosphere that so quickly formed, and Tobias cringed inwardly.

Oh, sod. I didn’t mean it like that. I didn’t mean—

It would have been hard to try and phrase it more stupidly. He knew that from the first thick boiling of anger in Anders’ face, though the rage was just a whisper behind his eyes; a flicker quietly drawn behind a veil as the curtains came down and that scowling, impudent expression was replaced with a flat mask of sullen ire.

“Indeed,” Anders said dryly. “Well, I shall just try to keep my delusions of persecution to myself, in that case.”

Tobias winced. “I wouldn’t call it that, but—”

“I would,” Fenris said abruptly, scowling out over the dusk-laden buildings. “If the boot fits….”

“The only boot here,” Anders muttered, “is the one that I’m going to ram into your—”

“Children, please.” Varric put a gloved hand to his forehead and affected a wearily pained expression. “Please… enough. Papa has a headache.”

With equally poor grace, Fenris and Anders both shut up, and the four of them managed an awkward walk towards The Hanged Man. Anders excused himself before they got there, mumbling something about being tired and being bad company, and Tobias desperately wanted to grab his sleeve and make him stay, but he wouldn’t even make eye contact and—without so much as a parting shot—he retreated into the night.

Bugger. Shit, fuck, bugger, damn.

Tobias supposed he could have gone after him. He wanted to. He wanted to do pretty much anything except what he ended up doing, which was slumping in Varric’s suite with a large mug of grog, ignoring the hubbub from the bar, and realising—for the first time since he’d come up from the mine—just how much every single part of his anatomy hurt.

“You should go easier on him,” he told Fenris, as they both sat on opposite sides of Varric’s table, watching the dwarf mingle and, no doubt, starting to put together the first version of the ‘Hawke killed a dragon today’ story.

The elf frowned, and raised his tankard to his lips. “The abomination?”

“Don’t call him that,” Tobias said, almost reflexively. “Yes. He saved your life in the mine, didn’t he?”

Fenris snorted. “That is an exaggeration. My wounds were not that severe. Besides, he did it because you required him to. Not because he is a good man.”

Across the suite, Varric was grinning broadly and talking to a woman in a green dress, his hand on the curve of her waist as she bent low to reach his level. Tobias swilled the rest of his drink around his mouth and swallowed it in a single gulp that he almost immediately regretted.

“And are you a judge of good men now, Fenris? Because I seem to recall having to explain the concept of friendship to you. Remember? That whole idea about trusting people, and accepting that they don’t always want to—”

“You cannot trust him,” Fenris said, his words laced with an uncharacteristic urgency.

Tobias glanced up in surprise. The elf looked slightly drunk, as he often did by this point in the evening; his eyes were dazzling, of course, but less hard, less intense, and the curl of his mouth had softened.

“No?”

“No,” Fenris repeated, leaning forwards earnestly. “The people he associates with… they are dangerous.”

Tobias lofted an eyebrow. “‘Dangerous’? Coming from you? Mr. ‘Claws on my Gauntlets, Kill Seventeen Mercenaries Before Breakfast’? Really?”

The elf exhaled softly as he sat back in his chair, his expression partway between resignation and bitterness.

“We do not always choose what we are,” he murmured. “But we should be able to control what we become.”

Tobias stared at him for a moment. To his left, the woman Varric had been talking to let out a high-pitched peal of laughter.

“That’s… profound, Fenris,” he announced. “I don’t know if I’m drunk enough for profound.”

Fenris grunted from inside his tankard, the metal muffling his breath. “Knowing you, Hawke, it won’t take long.”

Tobias grinned, strangely comforted by the jibe, and reached for the bottle in the middle of the table… with only the briefest passing recollection of Anders’ admonishments about his drinking.

~o~O~o~

The first thing he did in the morning—after dodging Leandra’s concerned pestering with a few mumbled lies about a “spot of bother on a job for a merchant”, and an assurance that the blood on the clothes he’d left out for laundry wasn’t his—was head down to the market.

Hubert was easy to find: manning his stall with his customary façade of false opulence and cheer, and groping the backside of the elven girl he employed when she had her hands full and couldn’t fight him off. He saw Tobias coming, and broke out a wide, greasy smile.

“Ah, messere! So, I hear already from my foreman that you did the job. Indeed, your dwarven friend sent over the account not an hour ago,” he added, indicating with a wave of one hand a sheaf of papers tucked under the strongbox, a freshly broken wax seal on their edge. “No trouble, I take it?”

Tobias glanced across the market at the sea of other traders just beginning to bark their wares. It was chilly, and the crisp air made the colours of cloths and banners stand out brightly against Kirkwall’s muted stonework. The sky was a sharp blue, and thin wisps of cloud chased across it like stained rags.

“There was a dragon down there,” he said bluntly, meeting the merchant’s glassy, insincere gaze. “A large, very angry dragon. There’d been some smugglers, too… my guess is they woke it up. But that’s the monster your workers were scared of—and with bloody good reason.”

Hubert’s mouth grew slack, his lips moving soundlessly as his eyes widened.

“A… a dragon?” he managed at last, grimacing and putting a hand to his forehead, hunching in on himself as if he wanted to keep this news from the rest of the district. “Sacré coeur d’Andraste! What did I do to deserve this, eh? Where did it come from? It’s not true what they say, is it?”

Tobias narrowed his eyes. “What who says?”

Hubert looked up at him with a fleeting flicker of guilt, quickly masked by glibness. “What? No, nothing. Not… not anything at all, really—”

Tobias leaned heavily on his hands, allowing the breadth of his shoulders to cast a shadow over the merchant’s table. Hubert’s redheaded girl glanced over at them, looking fleetingly worried before she went back to serving a customer.

“Do not try to screw with me,” Tobias said darkly. “D’you understand? We had one death down there, and it could easily have been worse. If I find out you knew what was in that mine and didn’t tell me, so help me I will rip your sodding arms off and make you eat them.”

The merchant’s jowls wobbled desperately. “I didn’t know!” he protested, raising his hands. “I swear! I mean, you hear stories, maybe… I figured it was smugglers using the tunnels, putting the word about to stop people poking around!”

Tobias exhaled slowly and straightened up. Hubert was Orlesian, and a bloody snake, but somehow he couldn’t raise the impetus to argue any more. He scowled wearily at the man.

“I want my fucking money. And I want twenty percent on the top of it, and that agreement we talked about, all drawn up nice and tight and clear.”

Hubert’s cheeks shrank, and he winced in exactly the same way he might have when telling a customer he simply couldn’t knock any more off the price he was asking. “Now, messere… I am but a small trader….”

“Bollocks,” Tobias said flatly, shifting his weight from one foot to the other, so that the dagger sheathed at his hip was angled ever so slightly towards the merchant. “We had a deal. The deal did not include dragons.”

Hubert’s mouth turned down at the corners, and he wrinkled his nose. “Oui, but— I mean, I have the paperwork, and everything is agreed, but I cannot just—”

“Twenty percent on the top. Or,” Tobias continued nonchalantly, “I will go and tell every cheap Fereldan worker in this city that there is a nest of dragons down there and, because they are all a superstitious bunch of dog-lord bastards, you won’t get a single one to work for you, and you’ll have to pay two-thirds over your usual rate to get local labour. Does that sound fair?”

Hubert’s dark gaze congealed into a look of cold hatred. “You drive a hard bargain, Serah Hawke.”

Tobias smiled thinly. “Oh, I’m just getting started, my friend. Like I said, there were smugglers down there at one point. I’m sure Knight-Commander Meredith would be fascinated to know who owned the spot where they were keeping their contraband lyrium.”

Maudit enfant de chienne….” Hubert grumbled, and spat on the ground, scuffing his boot irritably at the stones.

“Twenty percent?”

“Ten!”

Tobias grinned crookedly. “Eighteen.”

“Twelve percent,” Hubert growled. “And I’ll up your stake in the mine to forty. Take that, or I’ll report you to the Chantry.”

The grin began to solidify on Tobias’ face, though he masked it well.

Shit… didn’t think that one through, did I? He can’t know. Practically nobody knows about me, except people I’ve— Isabela’s boys wouldn’t have said anything, would they?

Mind you, I guess it depends how much coin you throw around. No one has secrets forever in a town like this….

Hubert folded his arms, tipping his head back so he could manage to look down his nose at Tobias.

“I’m sure the Knight-Commander would rather take the word of a respectable merchant over a petit escroc like you. Besides, everybody knows you associate with that Fereldan hedgemage in Darktown. Your kind always stick together, no?”

Tobias stared levelly at the man. “Hmm. If you know that, I bet you also know how many other friends I’ve got in this city. You really think you can threaten me like some scared little boy just in from the pumpkin farms?”

It wasn’t an entirely idle boast. If the merchant tried anything, they both knew he’d have to be sure the templars would roll out before Tobias—or any of Varric’s elusive little helpers—could get to him… and that was probably pretty good motivation to keep anyone on the straight and narrow.

All the same, Tobias’ pulse beat a quiet tattoo of anxiety at the base of his throat as he stared Hubert down, counting in his head how long it took before the man finally gave up and, exasperated, threw his hands into the air.

“All right, all right… fifteen percent. Merdique con!

“Oh, good. We have a deal.”

Tobias smiled and held out his hand, which Hubert shook bitterly. He stood over the man and watched him sign and date the paperwork, and count out the coins and, finally, Tobias walked away from the market with a goodly weight of gold in his pockets, and the promise of some kind of regular income from the mine in future. Admittedly, it also landed him with the headaches of keeping the place going—and Hubert had made it abundantly clear that he would also get the responsibility of keeping the workers in line—but it wasn’t a bad pay-off. It eased some of Tobias’ worries about the estate, which still loomed large ahead of him, and the myriad of bills, cleanings, refurbishings, and running costs that the bloody place was going to incur.

Still, he felt positively cheerful as he crossed Lowtown. By mid-morning the sky was so bright that it made his eyes water if he looked at it for too long, and yet Tobias couldn’t quite resist the temptation. Standing on top of the old crenellated wall that marked the top of the dockyard district, he could see all the way across the harbour to the Twins, and their dull bronze patina—he’d always wondered whether it was maintained by magic, or by teams of really unfortunate workers—glimmered in the sunshine. Ships moved in slow diagonal patterns, working through the business of docking, unloading, or departing, and he breathed in deeply as wistful thoughts tugged at him once more.

You can go anywhere from a busy port. Sail to Antiva, Rivain… go so far north there’s nothing but sweltering jungles, or blistering deserts. Do they have those up there? I bet they do.

…I don’t like the heat much.

Could go back south. Back to Ferelden. Not Lothering, maybe, but somewhere else. Somewhere not far from Denerim; some little village, some patch of muddy fields where there’s a good tavern and…

…and what? Farm labour? A living to be made fleecing wealthy travellers who pass through, or pinching stuff off mail coaches?

Tobias sighed, feeling the edges of the fantasy fade. There was no life for him there; not the way it had been. That had all gone when Malcolm died. And what would he do in a city? Probably little different to what he did in Kirkwall, he supposed. After all, most places weren’t that dissimilar. There’d still be guards, and templars, and priests: the Chantry, and its laws. And there’d still be smugglers, thieves, and mercenaries… and it wasn’t as if he had experience at doing anything else. At the end of the day, he was little more than a petit escroc, just like Hubert said… if that meant what Tobias thought it did.

Import-export, he thought ruefully, letting the salt-and-tar smell seep into his lungs. That’s me. All I’m good for; moving things around and knocking out the competition.

It wouldn’t change, that was the thing. He couldn’t believe that it would, anyway. Not yet… maybe not for a long time. Even there, on top of the docks, with the whole open blue-grey of the sea stretching off past Kirkwall’s dark, bleak cliffs, to where a fine white mist coated the horizon… even there, it was as if he could see no further than the city, and he hated every grubby brick of it.

Because if I want another life, I’ve got to make it for myself, haven’t I? Anyone who’s like me; we have to take the risk. Do it, and damn the consequences… as long as we stay ready to run.

Funny, really. So many people talk about being scared of mages, but I don’t think they ever know how frightened we are every bloody day.

Tobias blinked, reluctantly letting go of the tails of a familiar dream—a piece of escapism, nothing more—and hopped down, heading towards a quiet and shadowy crossing at the edge of Lowtown’s dockside quadrant.

He found what he was looking for two sidestreets down from one of the cheaper-looking warehouses; little more than a nook of an alley, carved into Lowtown’s yellowed architecture, and from which every track and pathway through the surrounding buildings was visible. From the warehouse doors that opened further along the street, men came and went, carrying crates and sacks that bore both Kirkwall import marks, and the stamp of an Antivan trading company. The smell of lanolin, dust, and grease overlaid the sharpness in the air, and no one even spared him a second glance as he sidled up to a small door and knocked gently upon its peeling wood.

The bolt scraped, a key rattled, and the door opened a few inches, affording no view of what was inside, save for shadows and a vague shape within them.

“Yes?” asked a female voice, apparently irritated by the intrusion.

Tobias smiled cheerfully. “Morning, Mistress. I’d like a word, if you’ve got time.”

The door opened further, and Selby scowled at him.

“Serah Hawke. Here’s a surprise. What d’you want?”

He let the smile stay fixed on his face, and tried not to think of how much she reminded him of a bitterer, more angular version of his mother.

“Wanted to have a word with a friend of yours,” he said, as she crossed her arms over the front of her high-necked, dark blue dress. “I have something I think you’ll all be interested in.”

Selby’s lips thinned, and she glanced past him to the alleyways beyond. “Anders not with you?”

“Uh… no.”

She frowned, and Tobias did his best not to be unsettled by the assumption that they were always together; especially not after the way they’d parted last night.

I should have gone to see him first. Maker, I hope he’s all right.

Selby sighed tersely and stepped back, beckoning him hastily inside.

Yep, nothing like keeping your underground resistance and its safe houses nice and inconspicuous. And this is nothing like it….

The house was narrow, but clearly extended up over at least one more floor. Tobias found himself in a small, dim room, with table, chairs, and a large wooden dresser taking up much of the space, and a stove burning at the back, with a kettle on top of it. To one side, a slim staircase hugged the whitewashed wall, and a pile of darning—shirts and child-sized socks, by the looks of it—sat discarded on the table. The room smelled damp, but it was warm, and a few bunches of dried herbs hung from the ceiling, along with a thick braid of garlic. Four pairs of boots—at least two of them men’s—had been kicked into a pile by the door, partially obscured by a heavy cloak hanging from a hook on the wall.

“Was you followed?” she demanded, her deep blue eyes narrowed to slits. “It’s careless, just marching down here like this. We don’t usually—”

“No, I know,” Tobias said calmly. “But I seem to keep missing the party invites. Funny, that.”

She shut her mouth abruptly, chewing on the inside of her bottom lip as she looked him up and down.

“Where’s Anders?”

Tobias shrugged, and attempted to mask his growing level of concern. “Clinic, probably. He mentioned where to find you once before, but he doesn’t know I’m here. I think he thinks you’re all suspicious of me,” he added sweetly, as the woman’s frown began to slowly lessen.

“Hmph. I haven’t seen him in a few days. Not since the last meeting. It was… awkward. Is he all right?”

Tobias watched her carefully. The few times he’d met her, Mistress Selby had seemed such a stern disciplinarian, and yet he had a strong sense of how close she and Anders evidently were. It didn’t seem like him to go to ground so completely, hiding even from her.

“He… he’s had a rough few days,” Tobias admitted. “I think. One of the girls at The Blooming Rose was in trouble, and he wouldn’t see to her. I hear Madam got quite cross. And, yesterday, we were up at the mines outside of town. It was… busy.”

Selby scoffed. “Yes, I’d heard that.”

Oh, great. The stories begin. I’m going to kill that dwarf….

“Is it true?” she asked, after a moment. “The dragon?”

He nodded, and she sucked her teeth.

“Huh. I’ve heard they’ve been seen in Ferelden. Maybe it’s the Blight what brought ’em back.”

Tobias shrugged. “Dunno. The one we met’s pretty thoroughly dead, anyway.”

Selby regarded him thoughtfully, and the small kettle that stood on the stove began to whistle.

“Tea?” she asked, with a lift of her thin, grey brows.

“Please.”

“Sit down. We can talk.”

~o~O~o~

They sat at Selby’s table, beside the pile of darning, drinking watery tea while Tobias recounted the occurrences at the Bone Pit, and the dead smugglers, and the manner by which he’d come into possession of a large quantity of lyrium. Slowly, she seemed to lose the worst of her distrust, and to recover from the fact he’d simply turned up at her door.

“You want to just hand it over?”

Tobias lifted one shoulder in an uncertain kind of semi-shrug, and traced his fingers over the handle of the sturdy earthenware cup she’d given him. “Well… yeah. There’s crates of the stuff. I don’t use it. Anders says he doesn’t touch lyrium if he can avoid it, because of— well, y’know.”

He took a mouthful of his tea, and watched the cool, even way that Selby regarded him. He wasn’t sure what she thought about his awareness of Justice. How much did she know? He wondered whether Anders had told her about the Vigil, and Warden-Commander Caron, and maybe the story of how he’d come to merge with the spirit in the first place.

All those things he won’t tell me.

Jealousy prickled a little at Tobias as he considered it. Sitting here, drinking tea with this woman who was just enough like Leandra to unnerve him, he couldn’t help feeling faced with the fact that she—and probably a lot of other people—had known Anders longer than he had, and no doubt knew him better. They were people the healer trusted, people he’d shared secrets with that Tobias wasn’t privy to… people he might well have talked to about all manner of things.

Tobias shifted slightly in his chair, resisting the urge to ask whether Anders had said anything about him. He cleared his throat.

“Look… I know you’ve only got his word that I’m worth trusting. But I haven’t done anything wrong so far, have I?”

Selby said nothing, and lifted her tea to her lips, which only made Tobias redouble his efforts.

“I’ve shown I’m willing. Gold, time, muscle… whatever you need. We all want the same thing, don’t we? A better lot for mages? So let me help. Properly. Let me in… let me be a part of it.”

He could hear the burgeoning reek of desperation in his voice. Selby just sat quietly, her cup balanced delicately in her hands as she chewed her lower lip.

“A lot of Kirkwall knows who you are, you know,” she said eventually. “And plenty of people wouldn’t be surprised to learn what you are, either. You’re known for what you did for that Dalish boy… and what you and that dwarf friend of yours do for Anders. We both know the Coterie would have dunned him and left him dead in the sewers by now if he hadn’t got protection.”

She took another slow sip of her tea, and Tobias smiled mirthlessly.

“Varric can be very, uh, persuasive.”

“Oh, I’m sure. ’Course… you’ve spent a lot of time at the viscount’s office, ain’t you? And you got that fancy estate as a reward.”

Tobias’ eyes widened. “What? Oh, come on…. That bloody place was my mother’s family home. Her wastrel brother gambled it out from under her. It’s been a derelict wreck for years!”

Selby pursed her lips. “Well, you can see how it looks, can’t you? We have to be careful.”

Tobias tightened his grip on his cup, pressing his palms to its warm sides and trying to quell the rising tide of frustration.

If this is how the bloody Underground treats everyone who wants to help, then mages are totally sodding shafted!

“I thought,” he said slowly, with careful and exaggerated calmness, “that you lot wanted to make things change in this city. I thought you got mages out. Out of The Gallows, out from under Meredith’s boots. Now, if that’s not true, or if you don’t want my help—”

“Your brother’s a templar, isn’t he?” Selby asked nonchalantly.

“Not yet.” Tobias winced. “He’s training, though. Yes. We… we don’t talk anymore. He writes sometimes. Says things are difficult inside the Order. Plenty of them don’t agree with what Meredith’s been doing… and some think she’s not doing enough.”

Her deep blue gaze drifted slowly over his face, examining every flicker of discomfort he was sure he clearly registered. Maker, just thinking about Carver was uncomfortable, let alone actually talking about the fragmentation of their family.

“And which side’s your brother on, hm?” Selby enquired. “Does he pity you, or think you’re a monster from the Void?”

Ouch….

Tobias tried to hide the fact she’d made him flinch, but he suspected he wasn’t very successful.

“Bit of both, I think,” he mumbled. “He resented us. Me, our sister, and our father. All mages. He was always left out… and he hated that I made a life for us here. Not a good life, maybe, but… I did something. Don’t think he’s ever forgiven me. Not for any of it.”

The heat of embarrassment began to warm his cheeks, and he buried his gaze in the last of his tea, listening to Selby set her cup down in its saucer.

“With what we do… you know what happens to templars who get in the way, don’t you?”

Tobias blinked, unwilling to look up. “Mm-hm.”

“Well? You know—if you want to throw in with us—you have to understand that what we do ain’t pretty. It’s bad business, Hawke. Ugly, messy business.”

He curled his lip bitterly. How long had he been in Kirkwall now? How long since the first night following in Athenril’s footsteps across a shadow-shrouded dock, waiting to lift the cargo off a boat that shouldn’t have been there? How long since the first theft, the first shake-down, the first street thug he’d killed in a fight?

“I know a bit about that,” he said, raising his eyes to hers.

She nodded gravely. “Aye, I know you do. That’s what makes you hard to trust, boy. Hard to watch Anders trust you, and all… but he does. And you’ve done your part well so far, I’ll grant you. But—”

“But?”

Selby sighed and shook her head. “Things is changing,” she muttered. “I don’t know if— oh, never mind. You’ve got determination,” she added, giving him a dubious look. “I’ll give you that. Look… be at Hamren Osgood’s warehouse tonight. Look for the candle. Elias’ll be there. Bring a sample of the stuff, and have the rest ready to move out.”

Tobias smiled, mildly appalled at the degree of relief that washed through him. Should he be so invested in her approval?

“All right. What—”

“Don’t ask questions,” Selby snapped. “The less you know, the better. That’s the first thing you gotta understand, my lad. You don’t want to know. All right? All of us… we’re just pieces of the puzzle. We do our bit, and we don’t ask for more than that. It’s enough. That’s how things get done, and how people stay alive.”

He drained the rest of his tea and stayed quiet. They talked a little more—Tobias learned virtually nothing from it—and then Selby sent him on his way, and he found himself halfway to Darktown before he thought how odd it was that the Mage Underground should be so like the bloody Qun.

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Chapter 24
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