At least they’d left the bread behind.
The bread and a dozen people dead for sure, and how many hurt, and for what? Exhaustion be damned, we pitched in as we can, though it’s not like there was much that any of us could do. Not even clean cloth for bandages. I was expecting Tobias to start going on about why are we here, exactly, but he didn’t: I guess that he was worried about getting an answer he didn’t like.
But about that damned bread. There was a group of about half a dozen men who’d moved quicker than most of the rest, while we were seeing to the injured around where we were. None of us in that square were exactly well-dressed, but they were better off than some, and by the fact that they were all roughly wearing the same, something in my head said ‘deserters’ about the time that they started towards the food as a clump. And Aveline made a face; she stood up and started picking her own way over, and I was starting to recognise that hard look in her eyes.
Most people were still terrified on the floor, or hurt, or helping those who were. I had a clear view of it. She didn’t slow down, walking up to the shattered crates and the broken trestle table. Nodded easily to the man clearly in charge of the deserters as if they’d just met on guard duty; spun on her heel and raised her voice.
“All right, listen up!” Her eyes swept the crowd and completely avoided the deserters. “Anyone who ever marched to a banner, congratulations! We get to serve our neighbours.” Her voice echoed on the hard stone. “On your feet, make a line. They gave us this bread, and we’re going to show the Maker we’re not a bunch of animals. Looks to me like there’s enough for everyone, so you’ll all get your share: children, the old and other civilians get theirs first.”
The man at the head of the deserters traded her an unimpressed stare. “And who died and put you in charge?”
She turned slowly to face him and raised her eyebrows. Didn’t even lay a hand on the sword she was wearing. “You have so little pride you’d do this over a loaf of bread?”
He scowled. “Done taking orders, friend-”
She moved like a blur, one continuous flowing motion. I don’t know where she hit him with her knee or if that elbow even connected, but then he was on the floor retching. “You want to desert a second time, friend, feel free. I won’t pull my punches twice.” She looked around his men. “Any questions?” Silence. “Move it.”
So after that little demonstration of authority, it went surprisingly smoothly. Aveline looked the other way when the men fed their own families first, but not a one of them tried to take bread for themselves before the people who couldn’t walk were fed. And there was enough for everybody. Somehow that made it all worse, that they could literally have tossed it from the walls and we’d have had enough. That the whole thing hadn’t needed to happen. The bread was good, too, maybe a day old, no grit in it, and as Tobias pointed out when he finally came back with his, what kind of a city can afford to feed the poor and dispossessed like this? On the other hand, as Aveline noted, what kind of a city didn’t know enough about a crowd of starving people to feed them without starting a riot?
The sun crawled grudgingly down under the horizon. The courtyard was lit by one single cold lightstone, on the brow of the nymph of the fountain, and just looking at it I could feel the age of the thing, casting the whole place in a kind of shivering sourceless imaginary twilight where it had been built to leave the slave-pens in permanent unnatural burning daylight. I shivered. At least I wouldn’t be in the dark.
And it was some time after the sky had become one great arch of stars and the air had become far too cold for anyone’s comfort, that the sound of the great gate cracking open echoed through the square. These people weren’t taking any chances. A solid wall of shields, city guard rather than templars; bright lightstones behind them. Most people would have been dazzled, most people wouldn’t be able to tell their numbers. A dozen armoured guards in two ranks right there in that narrow gap, probably the same again behind the gate.
Without ceremony a loud voice called from behind the wall of shields. “The Viscount of Kirkwall sees your plight and is not blind! Though you are not citizens of Kirkwall, by his benevolence you shall be fed while you remain here!” Muttering in the crowd at that, of course, but nothing more. “Furthermore! Representation has been made to His Excellence that there are indeed citizens of Kirkwall here present! Would any who bear that title please come forward in good order!”
We were not the only people to approach the gates, half a thousand jealous eyes on our backs, but I wasn’t really paying much attention to the others. Light was over there, and an escape from all this. Mum leaned on my arm all the way there, released it to stand tall and proud as we stood before the guardsmen; she gave her name and ours, omitting our surnames, and the wall of shields parted in front of us and through we went.
To be grabbed by strong hands before we’d gone five steps. I heard Aveline’s hiss of pain behind me: they had her by her wrist. Tobias, at the back, moved quickly and I heard someone curse, and then they had him on the floor on his face with a burly man holding each arm. Mum and I went quietly, but the guards weren’t interested in being gentle, and they wanted us to move so fast that I was nearly pulled from my feet. We were taken another dozen yards into the avenue the far side of the gate, we were turned roughly to face the wall, and we were forced roughly to our knees, all in just as little time as it takes to tell, and may I say that I was shivering like a leaf for reasons completely unrelated to the cold.
Because the woman who had grabbed me was a Templar. She wasn’t dressed as one – she was in a guard’s plain armour – I realised that I didn’t know how I knew, in the sense that you don’t know how you learned your own name, but she was a Templar. I screwed my eyes shut and tried to breathe evenly and it wasn’t working. They can’t tell a mage who doesn’t do magic, everyone knows that – but what if everyone were wrong? What about learning that that woman was a Templar? Was that magic? Can you do magic by accident?
“What is the meaning of this?” Mum’s voice was thick with outrage. “I am a citizen of Kirkwall-”
“And I am Knight-Captain Meredith Stannard of Gallows Circle.” The cold voice came from behind us; it was that same Templar whose words had started the stampede earlier. “In the matter of maleficars, apostates and other such foulness, it is the Chant of Light that rules here, not some civil law. There was a maleficar in that square earlier today; I could sense its foulness like a stinking black tide.” I felt sick. Physically sick. Couldn’t stop myself shivering. “Therefore we sought and received permission, that any who enter the city from this place are to be examined to determine their degree of guilt.”
“I’m perfectly aware of my rights, Knight-Captain, and yours.” My mother was using the flat unimpressed voice I knew best from implacable arguments concerning freshly baked cakes and thieving hands. “And rest assured that Gamlen Amell shall remember the Chantry’s polite and gentle treatment of his nephew and niece when the time comes for the Assembly to discuss the assessment of tithes. Do please get on with whatever it is that the Chant demands of us today: I am already tardy for an appointment at my brother’s estate.”
The feeling from behind us was one of the temperature dropping still further. “Get her up,” the templar ordered, and Mum was practically dragged to her feet when she didn’t stand quickly enough. “Come.” And they marched her off and left the three of us shivering there on the flagstones.
It didn’t take long for them to come back, but it was at least long enough for Tobias’ usual cheeky defiance to return. “All people are the Work of our Maker’s Hands, from the lowest slaves to the highest kings,” he quoted in a sing-song voice. “Those who bring harm without provocation to the least of His children, they are hated and they are accursed.”
“Shut up.” A templar leaned over him with a scowl.
“But, sera. Is not the Chant our comfort and shield in times of -?”
This time it was a blow, not a word, quickly and from behind, but all he did was let out a grunt as the air was knocked out of him.
He was just opening his mouth for a retort when “Next,” said the knight-commander’s voice, and they dragged my brother to his feet and frog-marched him away.
Then they took Aveline. They deliberately grabbed her by her injured wrist and hauled, and she bit her lip so they wouldn’t get the satisfaction of hearing her scream.
And then it was my turn, still shivering, breathing hard, knowing that the armoured hands that held me tight belonged to two templars who were keeping themselves behind me so I’d have trouble casting on them if I wanted to. They brought me to a brightly lit place and physically pushed me into a chair, facing another such chair, and on it was sat a neat little man with a thin little beard and a long dull muddy-green tunic, neatly groomed, with polite grey eyes. The image of a mage, I suppose you’ll say, except that my idea of a Circle mage, especially back then, wore richer colours than nettle-green.
It might surprise you, but this is the first proper Circle spell I ever saw and knew for what it was. The man looked at me, looked me in the eyes, and spoke a few nonsense words that were nothing but a mnemonic, like a reference to a piece of art he’d seen and loved long ago or a song he just couldn’t quite get out of his head. And he saw right through me. I mean, he couldn’t not have. It was inescapable and natural. I was caught. My eyes flooded and I very nearly broke down right there.
And then he looked away. “Done, sera,” he said. “It’s none of these.” I bit my lip and looked down and tried very hard not to let the shock and shaking relief show on my face: luckily for me, the knight-commander was now far more interested in him than me. “Templar’s blood on the mother and the bodyguard, yes, but if they’d killed him it would be on the bodyguard’s weapons somewhere. A refugee doesn’t throw away a sword on the off-chance they’ll meet a suspicious mage. Darkspawn blood on the bodyguard and the son, but they’re clear of ingestion or infection. This one has burns consistent with being caught inside a burning building, but not a sniff of maleficence on any of them.”
The templar shot me a sidelong glance. “Very well,” she growled. “I suppose it was too much to hope for.” She straightened up. “We’re done here. Release them.”
Can I say that my first impression of Gamlen Amell was not exactly the most favourable?
I mean, you have a certain idea of what a noble looks like. Curiously attractive, slightest suggestion of a weak chin, clear skin, well groomed, well fed – bit of a gut perhaps – wearing either knightly armour or a dozen yards of taffeta and brocade and lace in colours so rich they’re held to be immoral in three countries? Perhaps with a companion half their age hanging on their arm, perhaps with a pair of bully-boys at their shoulder instead? I’m sorry. I suppose it’s more from a tavern tale than from life. But all that Uncle Gamlen shared with that image was the weak chin and the paunch.
He embraced my mother with only the tiniest shred of awkwardness, and kissed me on the cheek in a fashion that made me want to wash it. And if there was one word I’d have used to describe anything about my uncle, it was the word ‘cheap’. Yes, his doublet was brocade, and yes, I suppose the colour was rich, but it was a deep, uneven and frankly queasy brown. And either his hose had originally been that dingy uneven grey or they were so old as to have faded that way, and his broad leather belt was ancient and cracked, and everything just gave off the impression of having remarkably little money for a rich man.
“So,” he said in a voice full of the short, sharp Kirkwall accent, “to business, as it were. As my sister, you’re a citizen: now that they’ve given that the true and honest, you’re as free to take that ferry as I am. Now, when it comes to your kids-”
My mother interrupted him. “Surely the record-keepers could correct an error like that. Or are your own flesh and blood not worth opening your purse? Was something not clear about ‘my children and my bodyguard and I’?”
He coloured slightly. “D’you realise what the record-keepers are asking to do their jobs these days, sister mine?”
Mum frowned. “For a handful of crowns, Gamlen-“
“Leandra.” My uncle folded his arms. “A ‘handful of crowns’ would cover all my outgoings for a month and more, even after clearing every debt I had. We just don’t have that kind of money.”
Mum stared at him dead for a moment in shock. “We – what happened? We had two seats on the Council – we owned -“
“I’ve got a very good idea what happened,” said Aveline softly, and Gamlen glared.
“Life happened,” said Gamlen, and in that moment I could see that Aveline was quite right about how much of that money must have been drunk or gambled. “Life. What happens to the one left behind when you take your disinherited behind off to the middle of nowhere with your true and dearest. The Amells live in Lowtown, today.” His expression softened. “Look, dove, you’ve been through hell and you’re overwrought. I said I’ll help, didn’t I, and look, I will. I have.”
“Aveline saved all our lives.” Mum sniffed. “And I’ll not leave the children -“
He spread his hands. “You won’t need to. I spoke to a friend of mine before I came out – the ferryman expects me and four people. I’ve even found the twins a place to stay, and an offer of honest work.”
“Honest work.” Tobias raised an eyebrow, and Gamlen traded him a dirty look. “How… optional is this offer of work?”
My uncle grimaced. “Unless you’ve got a bag of crowns hidden behind your back. Look, there were two options, and I went for the one that didn’t leave you on the hook to the dwarves – I might not be rolling in coin, but I’m not friendless. It’s a year’s apprenticeship, and it’s nothing you can’t do, and they’ll handle your board and lodging. Do we have a problem?”
My brother bit his lip a moment, then shook his head; I followed his lead. “I’ve made worse trades, uncle. I’ll not make you a swindler.”
Gamlen chuckled at that one. “You’ll all stay with me tonight, of course, and in the morning I’ll take you two to meet your prospective employer.”
“And me?” Aveline said, neutrally.
“You’ve my very own right and proper for bringing my sister here safe and sound, m’sera.” Unable to decide between kissing her hand and shaking it, he ended up giving her a limp handshake indeed. “I’ve paid your passage on the ferry in thanks, and I’ll open my doors to you tonight without question, and there’s always work for a mercenary in Kirkwall.”
“Is that what I am?” She quirked the corner of her mouth. “Thank you, ser: you’ve been more than generous.”
And I’m sure that I was the only one of the four of us to catch Gamlen’s mutter of “I’m glad someone noticed that,” as he turned away to lead us smiling to the ferry.
You know what ‘our prospective employer’ turned out to be?
No, you know what? I’ll describe how that meeting went.
Gamlen’s place in Lowtown was half the size of our house in Lothering, not counting the outbuildings and so on, and he lived there alone, and that first night there weren’t beds for us, but it was just so good to be somewhere warm and to make a start on getting clean. Public baths there are in Kirkwall, Tevinter style, though at least the men and the women don’t have to bathe together. Somehow Gamlen had some clothes that nearly fit me, though they felt like they’d been made for a woman with a little less, well, a little less everything, and I could feel people staring. Tobias was wearing a borrowed tunic of Gamlen’s, a little longer than fashionable and a little tight over the shoulders, but it’d do. I had no idea how a maiden is supposed to have her hair in Kirkwall, so I took a sneaky straw-poll of the younger women I saw leaving the bath-house, opted for a pair of plaits and hoped I hadn’t accidentally proclaimed myself something I wasn’t.
We met the employer in a tavern called the Hanged Man, the sign outside depicting a man with a carefree expression swinging from the noose by one foot. Gamlen introduced us, his best company manners on; the employer was a pretty lady my mother’s age, somewhat too well-dressed for this place, her face expertly made-up, glamorous and alluring, and her name was Lusine.
A sweep of her dark eyes over each of us, and she nodded with an air of a calculation completed. “Excellent. You are recently arrived in the city, yes?”
Tobias speaks for us. “Indeed – you paid our passage, I believe, m’sera?”
She smiled, and nobody has teeth that white without some significant effort. “I did, rather. But you are citizens of Kirkwall, nonetheless?”
“Our mother is Leandra Amell.” My brother mirrored her expression. “Sorry about my Fereldan accent, but I’ll have that done and dealt with in just a few days. What is it that we’re to be doing for you?”
“I own and run a respectable establishment in Hightown; a problem that I’ve had for many years now is finding the right calibre of staff. A place like this -” she looked around the room with a disparaging air – “can afford to employ the Maker’s own ragged and unwashed, because the expectations of the clientele are low; the Blooming Rose cannot, for our standards are a thing of which we are rightly proud. Of course, it is beneath the alleged dignity of most of those of gentle birth to take employment in such fashion, and therefore my pool of recruits is thin. Also -” she laid a hand lightly on Gamlen’s arm with a familiar air – “it cuts to my heart to see the family of a good friend brought to such straits, and as I’ve said, we can help one another.”
And Tobias put his elbows on the table and steepled his fingers in a way that I recognised: colour him unimpressed, though his smile didn’t waver. “Apprenticeship. Employment. Paid passage.” His voice was becoming slowly more un-amused. “Must be a citizen. ‘Respectable’ establishment with a suggestive name. Exclusive clientele, high standards. Difficulty not in recruiting, but in recruiting and retaining the right sort. Beneath their dignity to take this kind of work.” And he slammed both hands down on the table with a noise that made Gamlen jump and flinch, for all that neither I nor our prospective employer moved a muscle. “Madam Lucine, that is the politest way that I think anyone has ever suggested that my sister was a harlot.”
I do believe that I turned a funny colour. Gamlen’s expression was one of the man who has worked out where the exits are and realised he won’t get there in time. And the madam threw back her head and let out a peal of sweet laughter, leaned forward and covered her hand with his, eyes dancing. “Dear boy, you’re exactly what I’m after! In three months’ time all the ladies of the city will be asking where I could have found you.” She included me in her expansive mirth – and look you, I’m not sure that I’d yet found any sort of funny side in the slightest. “I’m not here looking for a manly young swain or a pretty young maid – much as I’ve found them. My girls and boys are professionals – and let me tell you, use that word you trotted out just now and you’ll get worse than a drink in your face – but there are things they can’t, won’t or shouldn’t do. D’you know we’ve sometimes got half a dozen girls dressed as housemaids and not one of them can be trusted to sweep a floor?”
“You’re not telling me you’ve nobody who’s good with their hands, rather than, uh, ‘good’ with their ‘hands’, surely.”
“You’d be bloody surprised.” She gave a shrug that abundantly displayed just how well-fitted her expensive gown was. “My last bartender ran off with a young charmer who’d decided the Chantry was not for him, his replacement gets a little drunker every time I turn my back, and while the bouncer that I have at the moment is perfectly competent, I’d love someone who knew the meaning of ‘de-escalate’. So there’s what I want out of you.” She spread her hands. “While it is a year’s indenture under law, I’ll have you know I won’t have a person in the Rose who doesn’t want to be there: if you’re truly unwilling, I’m sure-”
“No.” I raised my hand to forestall her, shot Tobias a glance to tell him not to give this one the lie. “No, it’s all right. Like you said, it’s nothing either of us won’t or can’t do – we’re neither of us afraid of hard work, for all that my brother will swear blind it makes his skin break out – and we’d be living in a better place in the city than we’d ever be able to afford on our own.” And after all, what sort of templar patrols the bawdy-houses?
She nodded. “Young man?”
He looked at me, took a deep breath, in and out, met Lusine’s eyes. “This whole meeting is a sop to our self-respect, to make us feel like we had a choice here, and that’s not nothing to me, but this deal was done before I even set foot here. I’ll not make my uncle a liar. I’ll be your good and loyal watchdog. But speaking as a man raised on a Fereldan farm, Madam? I know a thing or two about dogs.” And his smile went away in the blink of an eye. “And any creature worth your trouble as a watchdog, is a creature you make damned sure to treat right. If we’re clear?”
“We are.” She offered him a surprisingly strong handshake. “Welcome to my employ, Tobias Amell.”