Hawke’s Flight, Chapter Five

by artrald

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*

Varric

When I first met Tobias Amell, as he called himself back then – well. It’s hard to believe it today, but back then, I didn’t even register that I’d met him. It was at the Blooming Rose, a perfectly nice little establishment in Hightown, the kind of establishment where a man of the world who’s rich in cash and poor in time trades a fistful of his hard-earned for the kind of friends whose time is a different kind of expensive, and I believe that the first time that ever I met him, he took my coat and gave me a drink. If you –

No, it wasn’t a knocking-shop. It was a club. An exclusive club. With membership fees. For gentlemen and ladies of taste and sophistication. And yes, there were dancers, and yes, not all the dancing was done on stage, but I don’t want you thinking of the great Varric Tethras as the kind of man who couldn’t get attention any way but that way.

I was just… cash rich. And time poor. And between you and me, it works out cheaper.

Anyway, for once, it’s not about me. But my first proper encounter with Tobias Hawke was in the Blooming Rose. There was a big bald ill-favoured human leaning on the bar and he happened to be beside me: he’d clearly had one (or more than one) too many, and the fair flower they had serving the drinks was refusing to serve him another.

And he grabbed her wrist and repeated himself, and she shot him a chilling look and told him to mind his manners. And he pulled on her wrist until she was leaning on the bar and his face wasn’t two inches from hers, and he called her a name you don’t use in an establishment like this and he told her again exactly what he wanted, with a few things he hadn’t mentioned before, and again she said quite calmly that she didn’t particularly like repeating herself.

So naturally enough I told him that what the lady meant was that he should take his hands off of her, and he told me I was a nameless interfering dwarf who could go bugger a toadstool. But before I could do more than ball my manly fists, a bearded young human said “Excuse me,” and stepped round me like a dancer.

Speaking as a professional here – it was, it is and it always has been a pleasure to see that man at work. He took the man’s wrist, the arm that was holding onto the barmaid, and as she pulled suddenly away he got right in the sot’s face, almost like they’d choreographed it. One moment a beautiful raven-haired young lady: the next a smiling black-bearded young man, and he put his hand flat on the drunken man’s chest and he said “I do like a man with spirits. Shall we go somewhere less awkward?”

And the barmaid had her hand back and returned merrily to serving drinks, and –

And if I hadn’t been literally right there three feet away, I’d have sworn that what happened next is that the drunkard fell over and the young noble caught him on the way to the ground – but that isn’t true. What’s true is that he tried for a headbutt – and Tobias Amell turned that violent motion into the sweetest, smoothest shoulder throw you have ever seen and came down with his whole weight on the pressure-point you humans have just under the ribcage, the one that makes it feel like you’re about to suffocate.

“Oops,” he said as he lifted the stunned and confused man from the floor, “I think Cator here’s had one too many. Excuse me,” and he half-carried, half-frogmarched the guy outside in a way that made it look very much like he was supporting the man and trying to get him to the privy before he threw up.

Intrigued – I mean, the Rose employs good people, I just didn’t know that included a bravo as good as this – I followed. He kept up the pace all the way to the back door – a man who’s struggling to keep his feet isn’t a man who’s punching you in the kidneys – he elbowed the door expertly open and gave the fellow just enough of a shove to send him into the alley on his face. “Thank you for your custom, Cator Oerlan,” he said, still as polite as anything. Big smile. “If you’d like to come here again, the lady to apologise to is Madam Lusine. By letter, if you would: I’m afraid she’s a little too busy to be at home to people who’ve no idea how to treat a lady.”

The man looked like he was reaching for a knife – a smiling Tobias was the picture of disinterest. “I should carve your guts out for-”

“Sera,” he said, “I’ve been pleasant. I’ve saved you a broken wrist and quite a bit of face. You can even come back next time, provided you give that apology. But draw that weapon on me and I’ll be delivering what’s left of you to your good lady wife, in person. Mayhap your neighbours might hear that. Mayhap I’ll tell my friends, dine out for a week or so on how I gave Cator Oerlan the best Lowtown hangover of his life.” He straightened up with a click of his heels and bowed slightly. “Do have yourself the Maker’s own.” And when the man started to peel himself off the flagstones and limp off, Tobias shut the door with the air of another job well done.

“Nice,” I commented, as he turned: the smile was too quick and ready to be genuine, but I suppose it was mostly his job to smile. “You for hire?”

He chuckled. “Sorry, m’ser. I promised my mother.”

I raised my eyebrows. “Not what I-”

But his eyes were dancing: that humour was infectious. “Yes, I know, I’m a bit too dark of hair, much too tall, and nowhere near busty enough – but I’m not a mercenary, I’m staff.”

“You’re wasted, that’s what you are.” I treated him to my best smile. “You want to be in service all your life?”

His eyes twinkled. “I’m but an apprentice yet – and forgive me for stereotyping, but isn’t a caravan guard just another kind of service, no matter the coin?”

“It is, you’re not wrong – but a mere guard isn’t what I’m talking. Son, let me tell you a story-”

Very white teeth showed in a broad grin. “Ser, I’ll tell you plain. I’m signed on here for another nine weeks, by my given word, and I keep my promises. Tell me your story now, and I swear I’ll have forgotten it  by the time I’m a free man to act on it. But I tell you what, Varric Tethras of Tethras and Sons. I don’t know what it is exactly, couldn’t put a finger to it, but you’ve caught my interest. And in nine weeks and a day, just as the shadows in Lowtown are starting to lengthen with evening, you can buy me a drink in the Hanged Man and you can explain to me what’s so much more fun than playing knight in shining armour for a house-full of beauties.”

And yes. He’d met me maybe five or six times in his life, each time just long enough to take my coat and get me a drink, and the man knew my name, my business, my tastes and quite possibly where I lived. I decided right then that I was right – that I’d found what I was after – that Tobias Amell was exactly the man I needed.

*

And so it was that nine weeks and one day later, I was sitting in the Hanged Man at my favourite table for doing business, and who should walk through the door but that young bravo Tobias. Average height for a human, neat black beard that he was halfway through growing into, well enough dressed for Lowtown in soft fawn doublet and leaf-green hose, bare-headed as was fashionable that year, and he was wearing a sword, a light duelling blade in Tevinter style.

And he had a young woman on his arm, dark hair plaited and coiled like a noble’s daughter, dressed in a loose unflattering mid-blue tunic that did a great deal to conceal her shapely good looks; it was a good long moment before I placed her as the barmaid from the Blooming Rose, the pretty one with the, uh, excellent portfolio.

What? You know how few dwarf girls there are in this town? Then and now, if I didn’t feast my eyes where I could, I swear they’d shrivel up and drop off. My eyes, that is. Look, point is, that lady was, is and ever shall be a beauty, much as she never did dress for it outside of work.

And they sat at my table and I got the round in, and the introductions were made – noting that that beauty was his sister, I reined in my eyes – and I picked right up where I left off. “You two,” I said, “I said it then and I’ll say it today, you’re undervalued where you are. I’ve had my eye on you.”

“I’ll bet,” said the lady, whose name was Bethany, and she raised an eyebrow, and I chuckled.

“But it’s not just about looking the part.” I caught first Tobias’ eyes, then Bethany’s. “Call it intelligence, call it moxie, call it a gift.” And the reaction was tiny, but it was there. Whatever I said, I’d struck a nerve I hadn’t intended; well, I didn’t intend to look a gift horse in the mouth. “Call it what you want, I know it when I see it, and I’ve seen it on the both of you. You two are people with the seeds of true greatness, and here you are spending your evenings fending off grabby drunkards and making nice with the great and the disgraceful in an upmarket bawdy-house.” I took a pull from my tankard. “And I’d like to see you change all of that.”

“So begins the patter.” Bethany traded a look with her brother. “Maybe we like the Rose. It is a very upmarket bawdy-house.”

“And maybe I’m the long-lost great-grandson of the Maker’s Bride, and this whole dwarf thing is just a phase.” I grinned. “You’re intrigued, or you wouldn’t be here.”

“And you’re selling something,” said Tobias languidly, “or you wouldn’t be.”

“Let me tell you a story,” I said, and I saw the blinkers get ready to drop down behind their eyes, just like anyone who ever heard a bit of patter and knew it for what it was. This was where I won them or lost them. “There was a young fellow whose blood was so blue it coloured the silver spoon he was born with. Down in the old country, his parents were somebody, his name meant something – but one day, for reasons a fourteen-year-old would never understand, they were out of there without so much as a by-your-leave. And there are places in this world that are eddies in the tides of fortune, places where you’re drawn, places where if you aren’t careful you’ll turn around and find yourself almost without warning. And Kirkwall? Is one.”

They met one another’s eyes, they nodded. Nice to see I hadn’t lost my touch. “So that family,” I said, “they turned up right on their uppers, without much more to their name than a set of clothes. And to support themselves they took employment, right enough, they worked for other people. And they chose their employers well, and their work wasn’t too bad, and it was as it was, a decent enough living. But it was a borrowed one. Time and again, their skills and talents were put to uses they wouldn’t have picked for themselves; time and again,  their employers – perfectly nice people, for all that their trade was sometimes a little grubby – walked off with the lion’s share of the profit, quite disproportionate to all the relative effort involved.” I spread my hands. “And then, what do I call it. Opportunity came knocking. A big score, some capital, and they took the opportunity to strike out on their own. They’d grown as much as they could in the shadow of others. And Rivar Tethras and his sons went from a bunch of nobodies with nothing but a lot of talent and a bit of name recognition, to being entrepreneurs in their own right. And today, if you’re handling Orzammar goods in Kirkwall, there’s a good chance that you’ve got me or my brother to thank for that opportunity.”

“So, what?” Tobias spread his hands wide. “You brought us all this way to try and persuade me to go freelance? Give up a secure and regular income for the prospect of being my own master?”

I nodded. “Not quite. See, I’ve just come into a very valuable opportunity. Very valuable. Potentially the most lucrative thing I have ever seen, and that’s not something I’m used to saying lightly. Literally a once-in-a-lifetime affair. And it needs a number of things – it’ll take some doing – and frankly, I’m looking to spread the load, spread the risk, spread the reward. My brother, he’s lining up employees. Me, I think we need something more. I want to offer the two of you the chance to contribute.”

Bethany smiled crookedly. Her Fereldan accent was getting a little plainer. “Ser, d’you think I’d be spending my time fending off drunken lords for my daily crust if we could afford that kind of money?”

“Ah – but that’s where you’re wrong.” I sat forward in my chair. “When you say you have no capital, you deceive yourself and the truth is not in you. What you have is no capital without risk.”

The lady made a face. “People like me might have money, ser, we might eventually attain wealth – but capital – you are talking a whole other order of magnitude, and of risk. You’re surely not thinking that the family still-“

“No, no, I know Gamlen Amell well enough to discount that kind of possibility. Though I’d be more than interested in verifying some of his sad, sad story if I were you – his father loathed the very sight of him. And then there’s your name, which isn’t worth nothing by itself-“

“It’s worth my pride, ser.” Colour rose in Bethany’s cheeks. “My uncle has already explained to me how I could trade that pride in for a husband who’d lift us all out of Lowtown: if I wouldn’t do it for security, d’you think I’d do it for capital?”

I shook my head. “You misunderstand. There are people who say that talent skips a generation – there are those who remember your grandfather as the grand old man of the Assembly, the kind of businessman who’d smilingly charge you for the privilege of giving him your money and you’d pay. Give them half a chance to believe it and your name will open doors I’m just simply too short to go through. I’m talking about building a reputation. And yes – there’s an element where I think that some judicious freelancing wouldn’t be a terrible thing for that reputation. But it’s not about the money. It’s about the relationship.”

“You want a business partner.” Tobias put his elbows on the table. “Specifically, Varric, you want a business partner who can get in doors you can’t. Who can pass for human nobility. Who can sell your ideas – your merchandise, come to that – in places where Tethras and Sons means a pack of dwarfish merchants and probable smugglers who only ever made a fair deal by accident. And who, speaking perfectly frankly here, is your friend and barely knows your brother.” He grinned like a wolf. “You need me because I give you all kinds of excuses. A tie-breaker, a wild-card. A precedent for bringing in other investors, even if my ‘investment’ is, let’s be frank here, nothing of the sort. And a human.”

“In one, messere Amell.” I kept the smile. “And?”

“It’s not what you’ve said.” He put his chin on his hands and looked me in the eye with the steady eye and honest gaze of the natural-born confidence trickster. “It’s who you are. It’s – I can’t put a finger on it. I’ve got no reason to. But I believe you. Tell me about that opportunity.”

*

So it’s like this.

I’m a dwarf: you may have noticed. I was born in Orzammar Thaig; a vastly distant ancestor of mine is alleged to have invented the lightstone or something. The Deep Roads and their treasures are my cultural heritage the way this city is yours – and yes, I am aware you’re only from here in the most technical sense. I just mention all this to say that when I talk about the Deep Roads, I’m not doing so from a position of ignorance, if you know what I mean.

Thing about the Roads, though. When the ancestors pulled back to the thaigs, pulled back to the strongpoints, retreated to the defensive points, ran to Orzammar, they didn’t always have time to pack. The Deep Roads are absolutely packed full of two things: number one, all the stuff we had to leave behind; number two, the bastard things that drove us out. Don’t know if you know this, but you do actually get them on the surface, too: up here, they’re called the Darkspawn of the Blight.

Okay, so far, so what. Right. So what isn’t so well known about a Blight, or at least not on the surface, is what happens when it ends. All you see is that the bastards tuck their tails between their legs and run like hell. But what you don’t see – what my contacts downstairs tell me is happening right now, started when the King of Ferelden killed that dragon – is that the darkspawn are highly territorial. And when they dive back down their holes they realise they aren’t in their own territory any longer. So, roughly speaking? They fight. All of ’em. Fight one another. Every monster for itself. And for a few brief glorious years – history isn’t so clear on how many – the siege of Orzammar is lifted and the ancient halls of the dwarves aren’t full of darkspawn, and the deeper the halls, the fewer spawn found their way back home.

So if we knew how to get in? If we knew where to look? Then the treasures of the ancient dwarves – lyrium, magic, gold – would be ours for the taking, and the older we’re talking, the deeper we can go, the better our chances. And so, back from the first we ever heard rumours of a Blight, we started keeping our ears out.

Now there’s a new king, in Orzammar. Bhelen Aeducan. Real piece of work. Reformer, he calls himself. Ascended the throne on the back of a dead father and two dead brothers, and apparently that was just a warmup. Let’s just say that if I lived in Orzammar I wouldn’t be saying this – not publicly, not privately, not to myself, nor even dare to think it too loud. And some of the people who decided that they’d rather exile than death – well, it turns out that quite a few of them were pretty big news in Orzammar. We offered shelter to one of them: a Shaper of Memory, that is, a historian, a tale-keeper. And it turned out that she brought some of that history with her when she left, and it further turned out that she left with the key to the front door of one of the truly ancient thaigs. Old as they come; deep as you like. Locked up tight, and a hell of a long way from Orzammar, so you can bet your last bent copper that nobody else has had the idea for this one.

And so the plan, it’s real simple. We get us into the Deep Roads and it’s a ten-day trip to the thaig. We use the key; we take what we can shift; we lock the door after ourselves; we make our way back; we make our fortune.

My brother is handling the ‘there and back’ part. He’s solid, dependable, sure, and he can add up a column of figures at a glance and get the same answer twice in a row – but he wouldn’t know one end of a weapon from another and he’s never picked a lock in his life. Me, I’m handling the ‘tomb raiding’ part. And yes, you’re going to be a part of that – but there’s another job for you.

Truth is, my brother’s resources are not infinite. I know exactly where he’s going to be getting the extra budget that we need, and I don’t like those people. That’s where the human nobility comes in: frankly, I’d rather be on the hook to Kirkwall nobles than to organised crime. And in addition to that, the one thing in particular that we absolutely need, cannot be bought. Look, do you want me to say it out loud?

Fine.

I want mages. Everything, absolutely everything under the earth is skittish around them at worst, terrified at best. And the dwarves never had the Maker’s Gift – I don’t even know if the builders of the thaig we’re after knew that magic existed, and they certainly didn’t take precautions against it. I don’t care how confident the Shaper is that she can open that door, I don’t want to risk the whole expedition for the sake of one key. But I don’t want to share the profit in the proportions that the Chantry would ask for. D’you get what I –

*

My back hit the wall almost before I’d finished my sentence. I mean, I’m not exactly frail or weedy, and I’m not used to being weaker than any given human, but Tobias was just too fast, his hand grabbing my collar, his forearm across my throat, his elbow against my shoulder and his whole weight pressing me into the wall, the other hand holding a dagger which had come out of nowhere.

The insouciant air had gone. Absolutely no lightness to him, now: the smiling rogue had become a lean, dangerous apparition. That blade he had in his hand was less hard than his expression and more human. His voice had dropped to a nearly unrecognisable hiss. “Your information.” The dagger’s point sat just shy of making a hole in my doublet. “From where.”

Calm. Calm in these situations is crucial. If I’d demurred – especially because ‘I have no idea what you are talking about’ was just about true – Tethras and Sons would very quickly have contained one less Son. So what I did was I looked him in the eye and I lied plainly, “You twitched. Before, when I said the word gift. You think I’m dumb enough to try to blackmail you?”

He looked me in the eye one long moment. And then and now, I know damn well I don’t have a physical tell. I also know that I’m a dwarf, and there’s enough lyrium in these bones to seriously futz with any magic that might be going on (not that I’d even be able to tell, if it was). I just hoped like hell that he knew all that, too.

“Damn well hope you aren’t,” he grated. And whatever he was looking for in my eyes, his point wavered and I relaxed just about enough to breathe.

And to give him a crooked smile as I went for one of the oldest tricks. “Look down, ser,” I said, and he didn’t. He looked me in the eye, and in one of those snap decisions that I came to realise was the man’s trademark, he made himself give a snort of laughter as if I’d said something funny. And I followed suit, and as I slid my dagger back into its sheath he lowered his own with a hand that shook only slightly.

“There are three things a man in my position can do,” he said, and the smile was crawling back onto his face. “He can fight – and we’ve established that that would be bad for both of us. He can run – and by the Maker’s Bride I swear, I’m done running. Or he can roll with it. Varric, there are a dozen reasons I shouldn’t do this, and very few that I should, but damn, they’re good reasons.” And he held out his hand, and now it was perfectly steady, and you’d never know he’d been working himself up to kill me not a moment before. And I took it. “I’m sure your brother will want a contract. I’m also sure that it’s in your best interests to write me a sweetheart deal. Just to be clear, my sister is no part of that deal. I dragged her here in the first place, and she’s neither a warrior nor an investor, neither a dungeon-delver nor a lockpick, and since very shortly after the start of our little conversation she’s been telling me that you’re full of shit.” The lady, who hadn’t moved or blinked since her brother had pulled me out of my chair, gave a slight smile, and her brother’s grin lost the last traces of fakeness. “But me? I’m not so sure. And wherever this goes? I’m in.”

*

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