Justice in Surrender: Chapter 8

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“Sorry, what?”

Tobias stared groggily at the liveried messenger. The man shifted his weight uncomfortably, and kept glancing over his shoulder as if he expected to be jumped at any minute. It wouldn’t really have been that surprising; people dressed like him didn’t tend to last long in Lowtown. Tobias blinked a bit, but it didn’t make anything any clearer, or get rid of the unpleasant furry sensation on his tongue. He frowned.

“What?” he said again, glaring at the messenger. “Me? Why?”

The man’s wiry legs, encased in pale hose, bobbed a bit as he took a step backwards on Gamlen’s narrow porch. The smell of tar and salt streaked the air, along with the filth of the alleyways, and the messenger looked decidedly unused to such a piquant atmospheric bouquet.

“His lordship, the Viscount Dumar,” he began, flaring his nostrils and then wincing, “has requested your presence specifically, messere. You are the one known as Serah Hawke, are you not?”

Tobias ran a hand through his hair. It had been a late night—a job down by the docks, escorting a dwarven nobleman free of the city, and free of the agents of King Bhelen, who apparently had something of a grudge against his house. Tobias hadn’t asked for details. He didn’t give much of a damn about dwarven politics, though Varric had been quite interested. They’d run into about half a dozen heavily armoured mercenaries, and then another fifteen or so Carta thugs, in on the chance of a profit, before Lord Whatshisface was safely ensconced on the first boat to Rivain. For a while, it had almost felt like old times, but his head was still throbbing this morning, and a long cut marked his left arm. Ruined a perfectly good leather bracer, those bastards had. Tobias had meant to head up to Hightown this morning and find a replacement… only to find himself disturbed by this peculiar summons.

“Well, yes,” he said doubtfully, “but whatever it is, I didn’t do it.”

The messenger stared blankly at him. Tobias sighed, painfully aware of Leandra industriously sweeping out the grate in the room behind him, and absolutely, definitely not trying to listen in.

“Look, is this about the claim to the Amell estate? Because it’s about bloody time something got settled there. Still, I didn’t think they normally sent—”

“I’m here to request your presence, serah,” the messenger said tersely, “and that is all. At your earliest convenience.”

Tobias glanced up at the bright, clear blue sky, and winced.

“Balls. All right, all right… fine.”

“Thank you.”

It didn’t take long to grab a few effects, run a washcloth over his face, and push aside his mother’s twitters of worry with outstretched hands and wide-eyed promises that everything was fine.

Tobias made his way to Viscount’s Keep and, by the time he was jogging up the polished marble steps, his headache had all but worn off, and he managed to dredge up a jaunty tune to whistle in time for his arrival outside Seneschal Bran’s office.

“Morning, Seneschal!” Tobias exclaimed cheerfully, as one of the clerks opened the heavy, iron-bound door and ushered him inside.

Bran glared from behind his desk. “Serah Hawke. You’re very cheerful today.”

Tobias shrugged, hands obstinately rammed into the pockets of his leather breeches. A soft grey linen tunic with gold embroidery at the neck had replaced his usual jerkin, and usefully disguised his wounded arm.

“We-ell,” he said, making a show of studying the coat of arms on the wall opposite, “it’s not every day a man gets personally summoned to see the viscount, is it? I wondered if it was in response to our numerous letters regarding the—”

“There is more in life than that damn estate,” Bran snapped, with uncharacteristic bluntness.

Tobias blinked in surprise and, taking in the fire in the older man’s dark eyes, decided to rein in his urge to bait him further.

“Oh?”

The seneschal rose from his chair and paced around the desk, gesturing to the door at the far end of the office.

“You will recall your former dealings with the qunari,” he said, as he motioned Tobias to walk with him. “And you are… aware of the delicacy of the situation regarding their presence in Kirkwall?”

Tobias nodded slowly as they strode the length of the room. “Ye-es, but I don’t see—”

“That is what Viscount Dumar wishes to discuss with you.”

The seneschal rapped smartly on the large door before them, its rich wood covered with bas-reliefs and intricate heraldic carvings. A muffled voice within barked ‘Come!’, and sudden panic assailed Tobias.

The actual Viscount? Now? Here? Him? What in the Maker’s name was he supposed to say, or do, or… was this some sort of trap?

The door opened, and Tobias followed Bran inside. The viscount’s office was quite possibly the most impressive room he’d ever seen: a vast expanse of thickly carpeted floor, high white walls hung with paintings and draperies, and great, hulking pieces of furniture in carved dark wood. Everything seemed designed to a scale bigger than the normal human frame, as if men of power were truly of greater stature… and yet the figure of the viscount himself, as he stood with his back to them, facing one of the tall window that looked out towards the sea, was rather less imposing than Tobias expected.

Viscount Dumar turned slowly, allowing the fine silks and opulent fastenings of his clothes to catch the light, the slim circlet upon his bald head enclosing the pale skin like thorns around a white-petalled bloom. For a man so curiously devoid of colour—and everything about him did seem to be described in black and white, with only the subtlest shadings of grey—his eyes were startlingly bright. His gaze lit on Tobias, twin points of blue ice in a taut, sharp-featured face.

“Ah. Seneschal. Thank you.”

Bran bowed, and Tobias followed his lead, only for the viscount to wave away the gesture of respect with one narrow hand.

“Please… there is no need to stand on ceremony here. Seneschal Bran has disclosed to you the reason for your presence, Serah Hawke?”

Tobias blinked. “Er, the, um… the qunari, I believe, my lord. But—”

Bran shot him a reproachful look, his barely concealed distaste almost bubbling over.

“Even you must be aware of it, Hawke. There are concerns within the city that the qunari influence is no longer contained.”

“Was it ever?” Viscount Dumar’s voice held a tired melancholy as he cast a lingering glance at the window, and shook his head. “Kirkwall has tension enough between templar and mage, but these qunari…. They sit like gargoyles, waiting for Maker-knows-what, and everyone goes mad around them. Nearly four years I have stood between fanatics. And now this!”

He gestured contemptuously at the desk, and its litter of books and papers, several marked with heavy wax seals and written in an intensely formal hand that Tobias couldn’t even begin to decipher, especially upside down and from more than two feet away. He cocked an eyebrow and cleared his throat.

“Well, your lordship, don’t keep me in suspense.”

The viscount glanced at him with apparent surprise, those icy blue eyes inscrutable. People called Dumar weak-willed, Tobias reflected, but right now, he didn’t look it.

He peered superciliously at Seneschal Bran, and nodded to the door.

“Leave us.”

Tobias stared, half-expecting the seneschal to actually implode on the spot. Bran drew himself up to his full, and not inconsiderable height, and stalked past, his footsteps soft on the thick, opulent rug. He backed out of the room, and the almost soundless way he shut the door behind him seemed far louder than any amount of slamming possibly could. Dumar exhaled wearily.

“You see my dilemma, serah? Meredith at my throat, Orsino at my heels, and a city scared of heretical giants.” He folded his arms and turned back to the window, staring out across the bleached rooftops. The black shape of a gull arced against the sky. “Balance has held because the qunari ask for nothing. Even the space in Lowtown was a ‘gift’ to contain them. But now….”

“Now?” Tobias echoed, curiosity getting the better of him.

“Now,” Dumar continued dryly, “the Arishok has requested you, messere. By name, no less.” He looked over his shoulder, and fixed Tobias with that sharp, clear gaze. “What did you do?”

A tight, prickly silence spun out between the two men. They both knew what the viscount referred to, no matter how he played it for innocence.

Funny, Tobias thought. He’d not been accorded this degree of respect before, and neither had he asked for it. His sole involvement in the ‘qunari situation’, as the viscount’s office seemed determined to call it, had been through the merchant, Javaris, and his clumsy attempt to manipulate the Arishok into parting with that precious explosive… and those few skirmishes along the Wounded Coast, including the embarrassing incident with the viscount’s son. Of course, that had been hushed up, hadn’t it?

As Tobias recalled, all he’d done for Saemus Dumar was drag him home by the hair, kicking and screaming the whole way like the puling little brat he was. It had been another mercenary job, jostling for coin… and it hadn’t mattered any more than that. The viscount had never even met with him personally to say thank you, and he hadn’t expected it.

Perhaps he’d been naïve. He supposed he had, in thinking that the fact the outlanders were qunari didn’t matter. As far as Tobias had been concerned, it wouldn’t have made the slightest difference if it had been dwarves, elves, or moon-men… he was used to just being pointed at the task in hand and told to get on with it, and that wasn’t a problem. Business worked like that.

This, though… this smelled like politics. Tobias shrugged dismissively.

“What can I say? It seems I make an impression, my lord.”

His pulse quickened a little as the viscount’s expression grew dark. This was a dangerous game to dabble in, he knew, and it wouldn’t take much to overplay his hand.

Viscount Dumar arched one sparse grey brow.

“Yes,” he said, in a bone-dry tone. “In any case, Serah Hawke, it appears you are meant to have influence above your station.”

Tobias kept his face carefully blank, as if the insult had simply passed him by.

The viscount moved to his desk and traced his fingers thoughtfully over the edges of a thick parchment.

“You are aware,” he said, glancing up at Tobias, “that a treaty does exist between Kirkwall and the qunari?”

“Yes, my lord.” Tobias permitted himself a small frown; the expression of a soldier not quite ready to question orders, but prepared to pretend he didn’t understand them. “Have they dishonoured it in some way?”

Dumar shook his head. “No. No, they have… well. That’s just it.”

Wide shafts of light poured through the windows, lancing off the viscount’s thin circlet, and touching the sheaf of papers on his desk. He inclined his head, his brows drawn into a frown.

“They claim they’re waiting for a second ship, but it has been three years. They want something else, and I wish I knew what.” He folded his arms across his thin chest, and rolled his eyes towards the ceiling. “Honestly? I don’t think I’ve yet heard two direct words from the Arishok… other than his rather deliberate phrasing of ‘begone’.”

Tobias allowed the corner of his mouth to curl into a smile. He was finding, contrary to his expectations, that he rather liked Viscount Dumar. The smile faded as the older man glared at him, lips tight and thin, and impatience lighting his eyes.

“You are amused, messere? It does not amuse me to find myself playing messenger. Whatever ‘impression’ you made on the Arishok, your duty here is clear. Kirkwall cannot afford these tensions, and I cannot afford to see this city brought to the brink of chaos by these blasted qunari! So, you will speak to the Arishok, Serah Hawke. And you will give him whatever he needs to keep the peace. Can you do that for Kirkwall?”

There was as much desperation as irritation in the viscount’s face. Tobias wasn’t sure whether to be surprised or delighted. Still, the warm glee of having an advantage—and holding it, pressing it close to his chest like a blanket of wonderful security—filled him, and he let his smile return, broadening wolfishly and entirely without subtlety.

“Oh, I’m sure we can come to an arrangement, my lord.” He cleared his throat, summoning every ounce of available nerve. “You, er, may be aware of my family’s petition, regarding the old Amell estate in Hightown?”

It was possible the viscount was actually appalled by his audacity, but he looked rather as if he’d expected it. He gave a resigned, somewhat exasperated sigh.

“Yes, yes… you will have your estate, messere. Seneschal Bran intimated you would bargain in such a manner. The paperwork will be placed directly in your hands, provided the city can count on your support.” Dumar paced a couple of steps towards him, his dark clothes making his skin seem even paler, and those bright eyes bore into Tobias’ gaze. “Do I make myself clear?”

Ah, this was familiar ground. Tobias nodded.

“As crystal, my lord.”

“Good. We have a deal, then, do we? Or do you wish to extort further promises? Gold, perhaps? The hand of some ridiculously wealthy noble heiress?”

Tobias almost winced at that, though he retained control, and kept his face impassive.

“No, my lord. Just the estate, I think.”

Viscount Dumar snorted. “If you’re sure. Now, serah… the Arishok awaits. You will have what you are due once you have proved yourself willing to serve your city.”

Tobias bowed. “My lord.”

It still didn’t feel real when he was summarily dismissed from the viscount’s presence, and had the stones of Hightown’s walkways back under his feet.

Part of him wondered whether the whole thing could have been a set-up, but he chalked that up to spending too much time around Anders. Thoughts of the arrangement to come in just a day’s time—the alleged meeting of the Mage Underground that he was to attend—returned to needle him, and Tobias frowned as he climbed the steps towards Fenris’ door and knocked on the peeling wood.

The elf was at home, as he usually was in the daytime. The door creaked open, and he blinked blearily at Tobias, wincing in the sunlight.

“Hawke? Isn’t it a little early for you?”

“Practically midday,” Tobias said cheerfully, briskly pushing away all physical acknowledgement of how attractive that rough, sleep-sodden voice was, and following the elf inside. “Anyway, I’ve got a job for you.”

Those green eyes narrowed beneath the tousled shock of white hair.

“A job?”

“Mm-hm.” Tobias leaned against the least mouldy-looking piece of wall and smiled as he surveyed Fenris’ rumpled shirt and breeches, so different to the shell of armour he usually hid himself behind. “I need your understanding of the qunari mind. Probably best if you wash up a bit before we leave, though. Don’t worry; I can wait.”

Fenris curled his lip into something very like a snarl. “Now? You presume a great deal.”

Tobias shrugged. “Maybe. I presume you may be interested in why your favourite mage has been personally requested for an audience with the Arishok.”

The elf already had his mouth open—probably to make some comment about the phrase ‘favourite mage’, which Tobias took far too much pleasure in tormenting him with—but it snapped shut again at that, and Fenris looked genuinely surprised.

“And why,” Tobias continued brightly, “this may very well lead to the reclamation of my noble estate and sizeable fortune. So, are you in?”

Fenris eyed him suspiciously, which was no mean feat, when Tobias was of the opinion that the elf took every breath as if he thought it was laced with arsenic. Eventually, he nodded.

“You… are a very surprising man, Hawke.”

Tobias smiled suavely. “I try.”

He thought, as he waited for Fenris to get ready, about swinging by The Hanged Man to pick Varric up, but decided against it. This was probably one exchange that didn’t need chronicling.

So, with Fenris washed and garbed in his dark, sylph-like armour and those fearsome gauntlets, and Tobias as well-dressed as he could afford to be, they set off to meet with the Arishok.

It was not something Tobias did lightly, or enjoyed much. The qunari compound gave him the creeps, and there was truth in what Viscount Dumar had said. The simple fact of their presence in Lowtown made people act strangely. The small yet significant numbers of so-called converts didn’t help, either. The whole thing tasted wrong, Tobias thought, and the way the qunari looked at outsiders made his skin crawl.

Bas. That was their word for ‘thing’, Fenris said. Formless, purposeless… the unimportant mass of existence that fell outside their precious Qun. Tobias wasn’t sure he liked being counted as part of it, but he didn’t put up a fight.

The Arishok, in all his granite-faced, gold-shrouded glory, was just as bubbly and outgoing as Tobias remembered him. The whole meeting was a verbal wrestling match of double meanings, riddles and ambiguities. He was just glad he had Fenris with him; the elf’s experience of life in Tevinter and Seheron had lent him a useful perspective on the qunari and their worldview, and more ability with their language than Tobias possessed. It showed willing, though… respect, and a preparedness to at least appear to be meeting the Arishok on his own terms.

It didn’t make anything much clearer, right up until the words ‘poison gas’.

Oh, balls….

Tobias didn’t understand the qunari. He didn’t understand why anyone would store poison gas in what was ostensibly a civilian compound, much less what the Arishok meant by ‘allowing’ it to be stolen. Allow? What, as some sort of test? He got the distinct feeling the whole thing was some sort of game to the qunari, and he didn’t like it. He didn’t like it all.

But, what were they supposed to do? Ignore the threat and let whoever was responsible blow up half of Lowtown, either through ignorance or malice?

It was an ugly kind of crime, Tobias decided, sleeve wadded up and covering his mouth as he fought his way though the greenish clouds that cloaked the alley. It hadn’t been hard to find. Poison that turned the air to burning acid, clogging and clawing at the eyes, nose and throat… how in the Maker’s name could those qunari bastards just sit there and allow this?

The Arishok had as good as given them directions, practically set them up in the middle of this scene as if they were actors, players in some puppet theatre and—if it hadn’t been for the people who called these streets home—Tobias would have told him to shove it.

As it was, he was sorely tempted. Fenris had latched the last of the three barrels, they’d scouted out the old warehouse behind which the poison had been left, and done their best to calm the hysterical knot of people gathered at the mouth of the street. It wasn’t enough. A couple of guardsmen from the market patrol, alerted by the chaos, had come to investigate and helped push back the rubber-neckers, forming a cordon and talking of evacuating three or four streets around the spillage. Word was being sent to Guard Captain Aveline… which hardly filled Tobias with confidence.

He wiped his streaming eyes, his lungs sore and screaming with every breath, and inwardly swore that—once the estate was seen to, Leandra was comfortable and looked after, and he had the last of the proceeds from the Deep Roads treasure officially signed over to him—he was getting the fuck out of this pisshole of a town.

A woman sat sobbing on the ground, her arm around her young son as he heaved and wheezed.

“You should take him to Darktown,” Tobias said gently, hunkering down beside the woman. “There’s a healer there. He can—”

Her head snapped up and she glared at him with tear-stained, red-rimmed eyes, her fingers clenching protectively on the boy’s skinny shoulder.

“I know exactly who you mean,” she spat. “And we don’t want no bleedin’ Fereldan charity. ’Specially not from the likes of filthy mages! Bloody animals!”

She dragged the child to his feet, the brass symbol of Andraste that hung at her neck swinging against her dark skin, her hand bunching up the back of his shirt.

“Come on, Jorry. We’ll take you home, and Mama shall make you hot sage tea.”

The child’s coarse, phlegmy breathing rattled against Tobias’ ears, and he got slowly to his feet as he watched them go, a frown tightening his brow.

He wasn’t sure if it was worse that the perpetrator was elven.

They found her after the gas cleared. She wasn’t the only casualty—an old man had collapsed at the door of his home, while a woman and her baby had choked in another stairwell—but she alone was obvious for her placement. As if she was a clue, meant to be found. A wretched, sore-riddled creature, ragged and painfully thin, stretched out on the floor at the back of one of the warehouses, blood caked around her nose and mouth and a badly misspelled pamphlet clutched in her hand. She’d probably thought she’d be safe enough from the gas back there… if she’d even meant to avoid it.

Tobias carefully unfolded the paper and skimmed the text. It was pure hyperbole, ranting about the corruption and the filth of the city, and how they would all be cleansed, and how the downtrodden would rise and overthrow their oppressors. Dangerous, he thought… but not as dangerous as the words that had started to fly, even before he and Fenris left to take word to the Arishok, and the viscount.

Bloody elves. You know how many of ’em are turning convert to that sodding qunari cult, don’t you? Yeah… wouldn’t be at all surprised if it was one of them bastards putting ’em up to it. Well, they ain’t got the brains to organise it themselves, have they?

It seemed sensible to get away before Fenris lost his temper and ripped someone’s entrails out.

They didn’t discuss it. There didn’t seem to be a need to… or perhaps the possibilities were just too dark. Uneasiness stalked Tobias’ every step, and the feeling that he was being pulled along on strings someone else was controlling grew ever heavier.

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Chapter 9
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