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Varric beamed cheerfully at him, arms outstretched, though he didn’t bother to get up from his chair.
Actually, Tobias decided, it was more of a throne. Gaudy and lavish, like his whole suite—which it was a pleasant relief to see The Hanged Man’s management hadn’t touched, despite the unexpected length of Varric’s absence, and Bartrand’s exaggerated reports of his demise. Now, it looked like the dwarf had never left: the merchant prince, holding court at the centre of his own little world, bathed in lamplight and with the invisible threads of a hundred puppets tied to his spread fingers.
“I was beginning to think you weren’t coming.”
Tobias shrugged and mumbled something non-committal. There was a festival air to the suite tonight, with people crowded in and a constant buzz of chatter and clinking mugs making the space feel small and cramped.
“He has family in the city,” said a familiar, deep voice, like the light of a warm dusk poured over dark blue velvet. “He is the only one of us who does, aside from you. Why would he not spend time with them?”
Fenris was seated to Varric’s left, draped over one of the carved chairs around the table with that customary artful elegance of his. Like some kind of otherworldly creature, Tobias thought, eyeing the shock of white hair, the arm propped casually over his bent knee… that body whose sinuous, exotic lines belied its hard, often brutal strength. The elf lifted his chin, fixed Tobias with the sharp sliver of an icy green stare, and nodded.
“Fenris,” he returned. “Good to see you.”
“Family,” Varric announced, mouth curled into a moue of distaste as he poured red wine into a fresh goblet and pushed it towards Tobias, “is not the first word I’d use to describe Bartrand right now.”
A girl in a tight blue dress edged past between him and the table, her perfume a strong wisp of flowers in the sultry, beery warmth. Tobias stepped aside, gave Varric a knowing grin, and slipped into one of the empty chairs.
“You wouldn’t use any of the others in polite company, though, right?”
The dwarf smiled mirthlessly and raised his cup to Tobias, as if in a toast.
“Of course. Good thing it’s just us, isn’t it? Two-faced, back-stabbing son of a— you know he’s skipped town?”
Tobias took a sip of the wine, raising his eyebrows in approval. Deep, rich, fruity… it looked as if Varric was already spending his share of the proceeds. He swallowed, mildly annoyed at the fact unpleasant memories of Bartrand’s betrayal cloyed the taste on his tongue.
“Can’t say I’m shocked to hear it.”
“Huh. Neither was I.” Varric’s lip curled slightly. “Still, first I hear of him, I’ll let you know. He can’t have gone to ground completely. I’ll find him… and when I find him—”
“We,” Tobias corrected. “You better not think of cutting me out of this one.”
Varric nodded solemnly, the gleam of an utterly cold, ruthless hatred in his eyes. It was a bargain sealed, an accord struck, but then—as the candles at the centre of the table flickered—the lamplight seemed warmer, the dwarf smiled expansively, and he was the charming, jovial raconteur once more. A gesture here, a word there… everyone was having a good time, and everyone would leave the tavern knowing Varric Tethras was back in town—and back on top.
Tobias glanced across the table, catching Fenris’ eye. That the elf still had anything to do with him surprised Tobias slightly. After his circumstantial, rather chaotic introduction to the Hawke brand of Kirkwall underworld, Tobias had imagined he would leave, perhaps never to be seen or heard of again, except in whispered rumours. A tattooed ghost who could move like a shadow and tear the living heart from a man before he realised he was even in danger… well, such an individual might command ridiculous fees as a mercenary or assassin. Tobias could think of no end of sensible applications for someone with Fenris’ talents—and yet the elf seemed quite happy squatting in his old master’s mansion and surviving on whatever scraps of work he bothered to take. Well… inasmuch as Fenris ever seemed happy about anything, of course.
It seemed strange to Tobias, but he had trouble enough with Fenris’ prickly, offish manner that he didn’t want to question. The night they’d first encountered him—saved his life, as a matter of fact—he’d spewed vituperative bile at Tobias for being a mage instead of actually thanking him. He’d made his opinions perfectly clear, and Tobias supposed he had no choice but to respect them.
He drifted in and out of the conversation, picking up loose ends about this or that, such-and-such who’d left town or been knocked out by a rival since he’d been… away. Kirkwall was constantly changing, its underbelly a roiling pit of vipers all thrashing against each other, seeking a way out of the tunnels and into the sun. The few months he and Varric had been gone had been a lifetime for some people—albeit a short one with a particularly messy ending. Tobias listened, nodded, filed away mental notes concerning shifts in power between the Coterie and some of the other, smaller guilds.
There were rumours—because there always were, when you sat at Varric’s table—that tensions with the qunari were running high again. All that business with the explosive powder, whatever it was they called it…. Grutlock? Gratling? Tobias couldn’t remember, and he frowned as he stifled a whiskey-flavoured belch and swilled more of Varric’s good wine. The… stuff, anyway. The fact the bastards had it was common knowledge now, thanks to Javaris. Whispers were running through the alienage like wildfire, saying how the grey-skinned devils wanted to blow up half of Lowtown, and how the elves would be the first to suffer, like they always were. There had been some minor unrest, apparently. Nothing the guard hadn’t been able to clamp down on with arguably undue force, naturally.
Varric pulled a face. “Oh, tell me Daisy didn’t—”
“I doubt Merrill even noticed the guards,” Fenris said dryly. “She is possibly the least observant person I have ever met. I have not seen much of her. She appears to spend all her time with… books.”
The word seemed to carry a slightly disparaging flavour for him, but then the elf shrugged and shook his head. Tobias watched the fall of white hair move with the gesture, candlelight dancing on it in soft reflections.
“Your Guard-Captain has kept a close eye on her in your absence.” Fenris glanced at Tobias, eyes glittering in the warm light. “As she has many things.”
Tobias snorted. “Aveline’s hardly my captain,” he protested. “She refused point blank to overlook certain… trade routes… when I asked her.”
As a matter of fact, it had been a blazing row. Tobias had rather thought the woman owed him for her new-found position, and he would have made a damn sight more coin a damn sight more quickly if she’d swallowed her bloody principles and just done what he’d asked. A certain section of the coast, left unpatrolled on a particular night. Not hard, but no. Obviously far too much of a boon for the mighty Aveline to even consider granting.
Well, bugger her. He didn’t need her now. Didn’t need anyone. He was… made. Yes.
Tobias upended the goblet and drained it, peering at Fenris and Varric, and their worn, slightly blurry profiles. They were discussing other news now. Names, places… things that had happened without him. The exiled whatsit was still in town, apparently, despite certain persons having usefully abetted his revenge upon a certain mercenary company. His Highness, the holy-brother-turned-prince… thing. Sebastian. Tobias squinted, recalling ridiculously shiny white armour, perfect hair, and a big, fat… coin purse.
There was talk of envoys from Starkhaven, Fenris said, though he had either had no opportunity or no inclination to learn more of the political complexities. Tobias didn’t really mind. It was very easy to lose himself to simply ogling Fenris when he was drunk. All the interesting questions, such as how far down those curious tattoos extended, and exactly what sorts of noises that rich, gravelly voice made at the point of crisis, became less coloured over with the fact of what an arrogant prick he could be.
“What about Blondie?” Varric asked eventually, topping up the goblets. “Still fighting the good fight? My sources tell me the templars haven’t caught up with him yet.”
Fenris curled his lip. “I am sure it is not for want of trying… or for want of Anders giving them cause.”
Tobias’ goblet stopped en route to his mouth. There were still people everywhere, raised voices and extravagant good cheer as the drink and the coin and the gossip flowed. His gut roiled, and he swallowed heavily.
Fenris shot him a guarded look, head very slightly inclined. “I… heard about Carver joining. For what it is worth, I’m sorry. I imagine it must be a difficult position to be in.”
What, that my own brother thinks I’m aberration of nature and should be caged like an animal? That he’d turn his back on everything our family gave up—just so Father could spare Bethany and I that fate—and claim that he’s doing it for some sense of the greater good, instead of just admitting that he’s reacting like the spoilt little brat he is?
Tobias didn’t say it. He allowed his mouth to twist into a curl of uncertain regret, and nodded.
“Thank you, Fenris. I, uh… imagine Carver believes he’s acting for the best. And there are good people in the Order. Perhaps a few more like my brother will help turn the tide.”
That one was met with deathly silence. Tobias swigged his wine, and wished they were talking about something else. He was getting over-warm, too; the sickly smell of rose oil seemed to rise off his skin, and he wasn’t sure whether he was the only one who could smell it.
He made his excuses not long after, as the crowds began to thin out and Varric started asking questions about what he planned to do now.
They’d talked about it a little before, down in the dark. The three of them. Isabela wanted a new ship, naturally. Tobias wasn’t sure whether she’d keep chasing Castillon’s relic if she got one, or whether she’d simply point the prow at the horizon and be nothing but a speck on the waves before the people she owed even knew she was gone. He suspected the latter and, all things considered, hoped she got her wish. She probably deserved it, one way or another.
Varric had been cagey. He meant to buy out this damn bar, Tobias guessed, and spend the rest of his life sitting back telling stories, and paying off the representatives from the Merchants’ Guild. Good luck to him… even if he had laughed at the mention of Tobias intending to reclaim the old Amell estate.
You, Hawke? Nobility? Hah!
Tobias supposed it was a ridiculous notion. But, if it gave Leandra some peace, it was worth it. Anyway, after coming on to two years in the Maker-forsaken pit of Lowtown’s slums, he found he was rather intrigued by the idea of a mansion… not that what he’d seen of its filthy, ugly belly—full of slavers and the detritus of years of misuse—had been all that enticing.
It didn’t matter.
Tobias told himself that, as he made his way back to Gamlen’s. The rough walls of buildings wobbled a little under his skating fingertips, and his loose strides flowed through the soft darkness.
And it was dark… but that didn’t matter either. Overhead, visible through the crowded, leaning shapes of tenements and sloping roofs—a collage of silhouettes that dented the sky—there hung a waxy, pitted disc. An almost full moon, flanked by the points of stars that glimmered between the clouds.
Tobias stopped and gazed upwards, grinning madly at the sight, and aware of every breath of breeze, every tang and pinch of tar and salt and filth on the night air. The bare skin of his arms rose to goosebumps, and then the hair on the back of his neck began to rise, too.
Tar, and salt, and filth… and some bunch of clever buggers who just won’t bloody learn….
He turned, ready to confront the figure that appeared at the cross-section of two alleyways, about eight feet in front of him. Thin, not terribly tall, swaddled from tip to toe in dark clothes, head and face covered by a cloth mask… could have been human or elf, male or female. Didn’t matter; Tobias’ gaze took in the narrow blades, one in each hand, like twin shreds of moonlight. He’d already snatched out the dagger he wore at his belt—a weapon he was familiar enough with, even if it wasn’t the most powerful at his command.
If Tobias’ father had taught him anything, it was the value of secrecy. All the years they’d spent moving from village to village (and, oh, how ironic that Lothering was supposed to have been the last place they would ever call home….), shifting on every time suspicious tongues began to wag, so that they stayed forever ahead of the threat of discovery. Every time, Tobias and Bethany would have Malcom’s litany drilled into them: do nothing unless you have to. Magic is a tool, not a yoke. Don’t be ashamed that you have a gift, but be wary of those who lack it.
At the time, most of the words seemed stupid. Where Bethany had wished for nothing more than to be normal—or at least treated as if she was—Tobias had been arrogant. He’d wanted to believe the rules didn’t apply to him, that they were proof of nothing more than his father’s weakness… right up until the day, when he was thirteen years old, that Malcolm lost his temper and, to teach him a lesson, bested his son with the most ferocious blast of magic Tobias had ever seen. He’d learned what it was to be caught in a vice of pure energy, to feel his body tear and rend from the inside out, and he had seen the fury in his father’s face—motivated by a dark, blind weight of terror—and only then had he understood: it is better this than nothing. Better hiding than being caught, better freedom than submission… better together than alone.
Right now, Tobias could have wished he wasn’t alone. Or drunk. Or both. Or—
“Oh, balls,” he murmured, as another four attackers emerged from the sidestreet opposite.
All part of the same gang, no doubt. Maybe they were hungry. Maybe they were all refugees. Maybe they just thought they were tough, and all had matching tattoos somewhere under the heavy folds of clothes.
He didn’t know but, when the tension finally broke and they rushed him, Tobias ducked, dived, and jabbed his blade at the first available set of ribs. Two of the gang were next to useless fighters, adding weight to the hungry refugee theory. He kicked one in the groin, the crumpling and pathetic mewling suggesting it was in fact a man, and elbowed another in the face. Pivoting on one foot, Tobias landed a fresh punch to the assailant’s stomach and disarmed the figure while it was still doubled over and retching. Pain seared his knuckles, but he gripped the extra blade tight and shoved it forwards, into the next body charging towards him. He kicked out, smashing the sole of his boot flat across a kneecap, twisting away from the glimmer of steel and the threat of blood.
Something—someone, maybe—hit him across the shoulders, and he stumbled, spinning out of the press of bodies shortly before a fist connected with his mouth. Tobias shook his head, spat, tasted blood… and gasped at the cold feel of metal in his flesh.
Malcolm had possessed a staff. For as long as Tobias could remember, it had stayed locked away in a trunk—and not just because it had a naked woman carved into the neck, although that particular decoration had caused no small amount of furtive giggling when he was young. It raised all sorts of questions about his father’s past—a past which, aside from the briefest mentions of the Circle Tower, and how it was no place for any normal human being—Malcolm had never been eager to discuss.
The staff, though… apart from the nude lady, it was nothing more than a carved bit of wood, like something a goatherd might carry. On closer inspection, there were runes and sigils etched into its surface: wards of protection and blessing. Malcolm rarely used it. After all, nothing would scream ‘apostate’ quite so much as running around with a bloody great stave strapped across one’s back.
They were useful, he’d said. Tools for the channelling and concentration of a mage’s power, and concentration—as Malcolm Hawke had so often told his children—was important. Their wits were their greatest defence against the dangers of the Fade, and against the things to which they must never give in.
Never give in….
Tobias pressed a hand to his side, blood welling stickily between his fingers. His vision blurred, and it was hard to count who was down and who wasn’t. He flung out his palm, feeling the energy flow even before he was ready for it, and it burst from him. Searing, bright, hot… and the other things came with it.
Even as the bolt of light left his hand—a jagged thing that shot through the nearest body, singeing flesh and scattering the rest of them in shock and fear—Tobias could feel the interest snaking through him. Metallic whispers… voices he usually only heard when he was asleep. His hand burned with the uncomfortable heat of the spell, and the blood beneath his other palm sang to him with all kinds of hidden dangers.
Think how Merrill did it, up on Sundermount. One cut, and the power was there for the taking. You could use it… you don’t even need to learn how. You already know, really, don’t you? You’ll know. You will. You’ll feel it, and it’ll feel so right….
He’d never been sure whether they were the voices of his own temptation, or truly the whispers of demons. Malcolm had died too damn young, leaving as many unasked questions as he had unanswered ones.
At least one of them was dead. A raw-edged, bloody hole through his—or her, or whatever—stomach. A hot, meaty smell hung in the air, and Tobias raised his hand again, fingers half-curled, as if to fling a fireball at the nearest chancer. Somebody muttered ‘fuck this’, and the whole pack of them ran, splintering away into the shadows.
He straightened up a bit, wincing at the blazing rod of agony lancing his side, and allowed himself a triumphant grin.
“Yeah… better fuckin’ run,” Tobias muttered, shortly before the one masked figure he’d missed punched him in the kidneys.
He wheezed, doubled over, and felt the next blow land on the back of his head. Lashing out, dagger in hand, his blade caught at a sleeve, ripping cloth and tearing at the resistance of skin. His palm crackled as he began to summon another blast of power, but he was groggy, unsteady… afraid. The feel of something blunt and heavy—a jemmy, maybe, or a handy bit of wood—swung and cracked at the backs of his knees, wiping them out from under him, and Tobias fell.
His head hit the ground with a hard thud, and then through the stars swimming across his vision there was blood… so much blood, whirling like raindrops. He could taste its oily, bitter power, which was odd, because he was almost certain it wasn’t him doing that.
There was a horrible noise, and someone screamed.
“Ooh, will you look at that!” cried a familiar voice, light and breathy and full of excitement. “Look, I got one! That’s right… you leave him alone, you!”
Tobias tried to sit up, but the world had other ideas. His body seemed weak and empty, cold and full of nothing but pain and slippery voids of uselessness where he was accustomed to finding muscles. He groaned, and let his head drop back against the stone with a small thump.
A shadow fell over him, and he peered up, wincing. If there was a Maker, Tobias decided, He had a very odd sense of humour.
The elf looked down at him, her face that peculiar mixture of innocence and wildness: huge eyes, green as leaves and phenomenally expressive, and peachy skin criss-crossed by those strange, arcane tattoos that apparently had meaning for the Dalish.
A thin, clammy hand patted his cheek as she frowned at him in concern.
“Hawke? Hawke, you’re not dead, are you? Please don’t be dead. It’d be really inconvenient if you were dead, and I’d probably get into horrible trouble….”
Andraste’s bosom band, did she have to talk so much? He groaned again, aware of the light-headedness brought on by loss of blood, and unable to resist the soft, fluffy clouds of soothing, dark warmth that wanted to fold over him.
Just a minute to close his eyes, that was all. Just to catch his breath.
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