Hawke’s Flight, Chapter Fifteen
Okay, look. One thing you’re going to have to realise, right, is that if I tell you everything that was up, this won’t be much of a story, more like a confession, and I swore off priestesses after the last one. So what I’m going to do is, I’ll tell it like I’d have told it at the time, and that means a little white lie. Or two. Well, more than two. And not so white. Fine. Most of what I’m about to tell you is a complete and utter bloody fabrication, all right? But if you’d asked the man of the hour, he’d have sworn on his mother’s putative grave that it was the Maker’s very own truth, right? So that’s what you’re getting? Good? Right. On we go.
So the bastard I was talking to the beautiful man about was named Hayder, and that name meant something back then. He worked for Castillon of the Flotilla; a landsman, a factor he was, and last time we’d met I’d sworn certain things that hadn’t quite come true because of the man’s own poor relationship with the truth, so after that I’d kept my shapely arse out of Kirkwall, but the storm hadn’t put me here by choice. Upshot? We took a bit of mutual offence, arranged a perfectly civilised duel, and he attempted to escalate in a way that I find personally offensive and insulting.
So we went round his place. Knew where it was, of course. I’d been there a couple of times before – strictly business, the man had a face like a manatee. Spiked the back door, kicked down the front one. Unsurprised, was Hayder, and prepared; five of them there were, and it was a hell of a confined space for eight; bastard actually tried something other than a violent solution.
And dammit, somebody ought to have warned me about Tobias and his sharp ears. It should be plastered on the bloody city gates. You want posters up on the docks warning beautiful, exotic pirate captains to take care with their stories when the city’s bravoes are around in case one of them is him. Anyway, Hayder opened by asking me for his property, which I suppose should have been predictable, and of course I told him the truth, which was that I didn’t have it. So he got a little stroppy, asked me for a couple of predictably uncreative things I might do as a down-payment, and I responded quite naturally “me cago en la madre que te parió” – there’s no language in the world to beat Antivan for insulting a man’s mother – and that got the right kind of rise out of the fellow.
So once the fight was over – I took Hayder apart personally in a fashion permanent enough to get Tobias warning me that the watch in Lowtown wasn’t actually a joke any more, and so the rest of them got away with a beating – I got to have a little conversation with the sharp-eared Tobias that began with him asking me about the root of my little quarrel with the Flotilla.
“Couldn’t help but notice,” he said smiling, “that he didn’t so much mention a failure to deliver a service, as more of a… what’s the word. Taking without consent?”
“Pirates say a lot of things.” I cut the dead man’s purse.
“They do, yes.” Tobias raised his eyebrows. “But your words and his, and the way those boys back at the tavern started with their fists rather than a knife, like they needed you able to talk? You’ve tangled me in something larger than you’ve said, my lady.”
I fell back on the old standby while I tried to work out what he’d swallow. “No lady I.”
“Then you should sue that bodice for slander. Feel like answering my question?”
“Feel like paying me?”
“For lies?” He scoffed. “The other one’s got bells on, sera. Your quarrel with the Flotilla’s old, fair enough, but this round of quarrel’s quite new. You’re not here by choice, that I’ll believe – I’m guessing that what had you out with a storm like this coming was desperation, given you just cut a dead man’s purse like you cared what was in it, and either way you were working for this bastard. I’m going to add two and two: you stole something, small enough to hide, small enough that he genuinely could’ve expected you’d brought it with. So we’re talking-”
I held up my hand to forestall any more of that. “An artifact. Which was to have come here by courier in a couple of weeks. And the bastard heard I was in town because of that bloody storm, and he thinks he’ll save himself a couple of weeks and me the price of a courier.”
“And…?” Tobias made circling motions with his hand.
“And –” I gave the corpse a savage vicious kick, as the softest thing around – “I don’t have it.” Truth always makes me sound bitter. “Happy? All this trouble, all these leagues, all this blood and I don’t even have the bloody thing left over to sell.” I bit my tongue in case any more came out; luckily he had something else on his mind.
“Doesn’t matter to the price of bread. Whose artifact? Who’s after you for this?”
Bitter little fake smile. “Denerius of Tevinter. Magister and all-round arsehole. Assuming he’s not still fighting the fire I started.” Believable story. “He’s also half a thousand leagues away and he’s on the outs right now, as well as being out-of-pocket to the tune of a chest or two of gold.” He was also dead as a doornail and unlikely to give my story the lie. “The problem’s the customer, not the mark. You afraid of the Flotilla?”
He snorted, gestured to the wreckage of the room. “Behold my trembling fear.”
The dwarf cleared his throat meaningfully. “Not meaning to interrupt, you two, but are we done? Anything significant you’re searching for?”
I cast my eye over the rest of the house. “He won’t have kept all his working capital on him; you want to let that go to waste?”
“Chickenfeed,” he said with a disparaging glance. “Tobias?”
…chickenfeed? I’m something of a conousseur of falsehood, you know, and that didn’t sound like any flavour of it that I’d met. Who had I found?
He nodded. “Concur. Aveline finds us dealing in murder or organised crime again and we’ll get more than a little sarcasm.”
First-name terms with the captain of the guard? I regarded the man appraisingly. “Just to warn you: you make me leave money behind, you’re buying my drinks.” I held the door for him.
“And not at all because Varric just let slip that we’re the kind of friends a pirate queen would love to have, namely, the kind who can afford to say yes to that without blinking.” He sketched me a little bow in the street, for which he got a smile in trade. “C’mon. This evening started in the Hanged Man: might as well end there.”
And then, pretty much, it was the hour of the wolf. Did you know that my new friend could out-drink a dwarf? Well, I guess you’d need to pick your dwarf carefully, but this dwarf was not only clean-shaven but somewhat of a hilarious lightweight. And, well, then it was somewhere past midnight and as you do with your new temporary best friends in the middle of the night we began to talk about our various woes and problems –
And it turned out that yes, both of us were pretending to be drunker than we were in hope of hearing something we shouldn’t, and after a good long peal of laughter we decided to engage in commerce of things that were none of each other’s business, because did I mention we were off our faces and it was the middle of the night, and despite what you’ve heard about me I do know that some men are good for more than one thing.
So I told him that when I said I wasn’t here by choice, it was because my beautiful lady, my first love – or at least, my best love – had suffered terribly in the storm, had just about got us to Kirkwall, but she – are you a sailor? Look, she was all but sprung, and I’d had a frapping passed fore and aft before I’d leave her; we’d lost a good few spars and ripped the maincourse clew to cleat by the time the port shrouds gave up the ghost in a bastard of a gust; the master was down with a broken arm at the time, but three of us on the wheel got her over onto the starboard gybe quicker than you can say ‘dismasted’, and when I say that we were limping her in on a trysail abaft the mizzen with a good four feet in the well, d’you think we were doing that for fun – oh, suddenly you’re not a sailor? My ship was broken.
And most landsmen you told this to would look at the sheer piteous horror of that statement and tell me to, I don’t know, get another one, perhaps? Fix it? Make the best of life ashore? But Tobias seemed to understand that it was like a bird complaining of a broken wing, and that the correct answer was probably somewhere in that butt of ale.
And he told me about his father – about growing up under the constant shadow that nothing that they ever did, nothing that they ever were would matter if one thing were known, that any house they built was built on sand, because the templars could come and take everything away. And he told me about his sister and how she was taken for a mage by the bloody idiots in red, and he wasn’t even there to complain. And one word from her and he’d have been sunk and his little dog too, but she kept her mouth shut and now she’d be a prisoner for the rest of her life (if she was lucky, he muttered darkly, and I kept my trap shut on that score).
My turn, and given that he’d talked about where he came from I’d a choice word or two about where I did. Antiva to start with, and a good marriage, they call it: a dowry that should’ve come with a bill of sale, a husband who principally wanted a pretty little ornament to replace the last one, and required only that I play songbird, ornament his arm and his house and pretend to love my cage. I’d relieved the unutterable drabness of life by dalliance with one of the staff, a fine fellow who it turned out was there to kill the idiot – a match made, if not in heaven, then somewhere pretty damned fine at the least. But the Crows don’t take applicants as old as seventeen, and they don’t give charity, and of the next set of available options the sea seemed the least dull. Learned to fight from a crow, learned to sail from an Antivan merchant, and when we were overhauled by a lovely vessel out for our cargo I took the opportunity for the obvious change of career.
No, really. By the time I’d had a finger off the first couple of sets of unwanted hands, I had their respect; by the time I’d had the balls off the first one who found where I slept, I had their attention. By the time I ran that ship, I’d killed ten of them in five years and the rest of them would follow me into hell and high water – or that was what I thought; apparently my first mate couldn’t be trusted with the very definitely not priceless artifact. Was I looking for him? I shrugged in a transparent attempt at diffidence and went looking for the bottom of the tankard. Depends if I could catch him, really. Ever see a cat try for a mouse and fail? No. You saw it doing something else, something it meant to. Mouse? What mouse.
And so somehow this led on to how Tobias ended up in the city, and he told me about arriving expecting to be a wealthy man (or at least, a man with a wealthy uncle) and the uncle in question being a spendthrift, a gambler, an alcoholic who’d had to trade a favour to a madam of his acquaintance to have her pay to bring them in, on condition they work for her (but not like that). A man with the gall to charge rent to his own damned family. And Tobias had to wear the bloody man’s name to get any business done in this town at all. Had to walk every day past the home that should by all rights have been his, watch a succession of foreign arseholes (slavers this month, he spat) run the place into the ground, and it was all because his grandfather hated his mother for marrying the man she loved, and wrote her out of a will she’d never even seen anyway.
And I kind of blinked, and asked him if he’d seen it, and he said of course not. Trustworthy sort, then, this uncle of his? Well, no, clearly. And I just looked at him flatly and asked him if he was really trying to tell me that here he was sitting telling a practical stranger about all this and he hadn’t figured out the shape of this one by himself?
So all right, says he. No time like the present, says he. Middle of the night? No obstacle. The original of that will would be long gone, but there would be a copy in the archives of the palace, and could I pick a lock? And I laughed, and demanded payment – and for an answer, from nowhere, he produced a pair of golden crowns and laid them in the hand I’d opened to mock him, head to tail. Eyes very serious.
So that’s why I went along, really, for all I told myself at the time that money was money, and a handsome face an added bonus. It was the fascination, the spontaneity. I mean, that’s the thing you’ve got to understand about this man Tobias. It wasn’t just that being around him was never dull. It was the way it wasn’t ever his fault exactly, the way that he grabbed other people’s fate and dragged it along with him, twisted it all into one like he was spinning thread. And then when it was good and twisted, he had this habit of pulling.
Having failed to bring her down through more obvious forms of malice, Aveline’s enemies, by which one might mean superiors, had decided to promote her into obscurity. She was Fereldan, they reasoned, with the careful handwriting of a woman schooled alongside farmers’ daughters in a rural chantry: they inferred that this was an indication of uncertain literacy, and concluded that she’d be at best an indifferent scribe, and so (as the logic went) promoting an excellent beat officer and leader into the logistics office at the Palace would turn her into an incompetent to be legitimately removed.
Idiots. Aveline was thoroughly and practicedly literate, as her enemies would have known had they seen her at Chantry, standing up and taking her turn at the lectern alongside everyone else who knew their duty. Missive after missive sent to be rubber-stamped went back with corrections on it in red ink. Apparently the post’s holders had seen it as either dead end or sinecure for a good dozen years before she’d had it; apparently nobody knew quite what to do with someone who realised that the position granted her wide-reaching authority to funnel power and resources from people who wanted them to the people who needed them, and the kneejerk response to try and bury her in work had just resulted in making her pull – well – nearly the same hours that she’d done on the streets.
And so it was that Lieutenant Aveline was knuckling the dust from her eyes and promising herself vainly that one evening soon she’d take some time to herself and see her friends, cursing once more that she’d just pulled another double shift by accident and it was basically her and the nightwatchman in these halls, when she saw the glimmer of a lightstone and remembered that only yesterday she’d signed off on oil for the watchmen’s lanterns –
Walking noiselessly on marble floors was a skill she’d made a point of picking up; the intruders never saw her coming.
Uniform code said she’d only a blade: apparently it was more important that officers cut a fine figure and still be equipped to duel one another than that they go ready to enforce the law – time later to grumble. But as it was, she’d no acceptable option involving quick and stealthy violence, and thus she opted to walk quietly behind the two intruders for a moment before politely and accusingly clearing her throat.
And it was fascinating. The two of them reacted almost identically. Never in her life before had Aveline seen anyone other than the boy Tobias who reacted to a sudden threat with smiles and merriment, but here one was: tall, dark, good-looking, the hand on her blade quickly turning into a hand on her hip when her companion hadn’t drawn.
Also, drunk. Both of them were. “Good morning!” Tobias slurred, with a big stupid smile. “Aveline Vallenn, meet Isabela; Isabela, Aveline.” The grin continued. “Friend of mine. Honestest lady in Kirkwall.”
He was hiding something behind his back. “Tobias. It’s the middle of the night and here you are sneaking around the palace. I’m going to vainly hope that you were here to impress this good lady with your talents?”
“Nah.” The good lady’s teeth shone. “He gave up on that a while ago, and now we’re into the nothing-to-prove stage. I’m here to watch his… back.” She raised an eyebrow. “That normally your job, petal?”
“I’ve got a perfectly good job right here – not to mention that he’d snap like a twig.” Aveline twitched her drawn sword meaningfully. “Speaking of which?” Her expression hardened. “Give.”
“Mine!” Tobias’ tone reminded Aveline of a child with a new toy.
“What, thought you’d make your own contribution to the cause of probity among the city’s bureaucracy by saving yourself half a crown’s bribe?”
“‘S worth more than that.” Forgetting that he was hiding the scroll behind his back, he waved it. “It’s someone’s inheritance, good name, and patrimony – grandpatrimony -”
The blade moved nearly too fast to see until Aveline’s point just rested lightly against the tip of Tobias’ nose. “Trespass, Tobias. Theft.”
“Piracy,” added the smiling Isabela helpfully.
“If you insist. Are you trying to break your mother’s heart?”
“Too late for that one.” He pushed the tip of her sword away, slowly, with a finger. “Follow, if you will. Leandra Amell marries Jacen Hawke, kicked out by her father, goes to Ferelden. Her mother goes to her grave believing Leandra hated them. Father falls ill, allegedly nursed in his illness by her brother Gamlen: dies. Will read privately; Gamlen’s copy lost or destroyed, Viscount’s copy sealed behind a seal speaking of plague contamination, but the date is wrong for any recorded plague. Gamlen squanders family money, influence and estate.” Tobias’ voice was quick, quiet, and surprisingly steady. “We arrive back, Gamlen sells us into debt-slavery and charges Mother rent for a bedroom smaller than the one his girlfriends use as a dressing-room. I fuck off to seek my fortune just in time for Bethany to fling herself into the Chantry’s arms; I find my fortune, Gamlen demands half, and when I won’t give it to him he turns me out of the place under the threat of kicking Mum out and all, and she won’t meet me because she blames me for Bethany and I wasn’t even in the city at the time.” He waved the document. The seal dangled broken. “So, no. A little indiscretion can’t break what’s already broken.”
“Your latest spat with your mother notwithstanding.” Aveline recovered her sword to a level guard. “That is the city’s. And you’re stealing it.”
He scowled. “It’s evidence, and I’m rescuing it. You’d prefer I bought it, so you didn’t need to watch? Went to the nightwatchman and paid him one of the bribes you claim to-”
“For your information,” said Aveline coldly, “the nightwatchman knows damned well that if he wants the city to provide him with boots, lantern oil and fresh livery then your money stays in your pocket.”
“For your information,” Tobias retorted a little too loudly, “I am holding in my hot little hand right now evidence that my uncle thieved, from my parents and my two-year-old self, a sum of money and property that you and I have only seen the like of before because we went seeking my fortune. And he has got away with it for a decade and three-quarters. So forgive me, sera, but if you give one little pebble-crap about justice, about what that shield of yours ought to mean rather than what it probably does, you will let us go.”
There was a moment of silence. For a good long moment they glared at one another. Then Aveline repeated herself, coldly. “Give me the will-”
“Do you want me to go and get Anders?” Even stone cold sober this man did not back down, and alcohol was hardly aiding in that. Tobias’ voice was rising. “Is that what you want, sera-”
“I wasn’t finished.” Aveline’s voice didn’t rise, it just sharpened. “Give me the will. And in the morning you’ll come to me and we’ll see justice done. Properly. In the light.”
“Or we’ll see injustice done. Again. And you know? There comes a point when I’ll turn around and ask whose job it is to make things right and-”
“Oh, grow up, Tobias. If I let you walk off with that thing,” she growled, “for friendship’s sake, I’m no better than the bottom-feeders who befriend the scum of the streets and won’t bring ’em to justice. If I do it for justice’s sake, I’m no better than the fools who take their idea of justice into their own hands, who’d have blood in the gutters and fighting in the streets rather than the Viscount’s law.”
“And if you fail tomorrow, you’re no better than the sinecured idiots who let this whole stinking-”
“Tell me a thing I don’t know.” She held out her hand. There was a long pause. Then he handed the thing over. “Now scat.”
Family spats. Not my favourite. Given my history, you’d wonder why I stuck. Whether I was really so shallow as to have my head turned by a chiseled jaw and a golden purse. Or whether it was a considered investment, a sunk cost, and only likely to pay itself off before I inevitably moved on if I put a little more in right then? Pfeh. Judge for yourself.
Regardless, when Tobias went up to the law’s long arm and played the important and aggrieved citizen, I played the arm-candy. And when the trail of things was revealed that the man’s uncle had done that he shouldn’t ought to have – I swear, the man should’ve been in my profession. I, too, once sold a house I didn’t own: but unlike the uncle, I then did what you do next if you’ve done that and sailed on. I, too, once gambled and drank an admittedly somewhat smaller fortune away: but unlike the uncle, I’d a reasonable prospect of another one.
The law, of course, was more concerned with the property than the people – or, rather, they were going to give all the people concerned time and more to come up with a convincing-looking bribe, and chasing after a potentially-aggrieved landlord who (once, at least) had deep enough pockets to buy a Hightown estate might be lucrative indeed. Meanwhile, of course, Tobias was still on a warpath.
Walked up and into his uncle’s house like he owned the place, opened the door peaceably, greeted his mother Leandra politely, introduced me (and she’d the measure of me in one jaundiced glance – not a family to take lightly, this) and asked in a voice that seemed polite where his uncle was. Her attempt at remonstrance was cut off: he just walked straight past her when she started doing anything other than tell him where he was, and I kind of gave her a mendacious attempt at a helpless look as he swept past –
He found Gamlen in the living-room, and his white-hot fury was spectacularly instant. Grabbed the old man by the lapels, pulled him out of his chair and pushed him hard enough into the wall to shake it. “I, Emrys Amell, do leave to my rogue of a son Gamlen precisely and only that which he has already succeeded in misappropriating,” he said, and his voice shook. “All those worldly goods of mine that can be found or recovered shall be held in trust until such time as the return of my daughter Leandra Hawke from Ferelden may be effected, reverting entirely to her own stewardship and that of the family Hawke.” He stared at the man, their faces inches apart, and by my side his mother’s hands had gone slowly to her mouth. “Bell, Gamlen? Ring one?”
He’d gone white. “You’re delusional.”
“You know where I grew up, uncle?” Tobias’ voice had edges like broken glass. “Where my mother spent eighteen years she didn’t fucking have to?” Gamlen was attempting a who-is-this-crazy expression, but was making it about as far as guilty-as-sin. “Believing she’d been written out of an inheritance big enough to beat whales to death by parents who hated her, when in fact she’d been simply cheated by her rat of a brother?” The young man’s eyes were blazing. “You know that for most of her life my sister had to get up in the morning and shovel actual shit, when she should’ve been breaking hearts from here to-”
“I was devoted to that old bastard!” Gamlen shoved back, broke Tobias’ grip on his dingy tunic. “You have no bloody clue, boy. You weren’t there, don’t know what it’s like to see someone waste away in front of your eyes, see a towering intellect turned by bits and inches into a slavering madman. Yes, he always had a poor opinion of me. Good judge of character. Two of you’d’ve got on famously, that or fought like cats. Then he got sick. Went downhill like a man falling off a cliff. The good days got fewer and fewer. And towards the end all he’d talk about was Leandra, apple of his eye, why wasn’t she there, why hadn’t I gone and fetched her yet, why wasn’t I more like her.” He curled his lip. “And he cursed me all the way to the grave and I drank myself into a hole. Did a bit of thinking down there. Next day the will had a little accident. And I’ve never lied to you about what happened next, boy.”
Tobias’ eyes flickered to his mother. Yes, I know. Get her out of here, because he was about to stick his boot so far up Gamlen’s arse – but there was no way I could help. “My sister,” he said quietly. “They took her away. The Templars caught my sister in a net cast for someone else. Caught her because she -”
“Could have happened anywhere-”
“It didn’t.” Tobias took a long, slow breath. “It happened at the place that she was forced to work, because you, ser Amell, spent her birthright. On drink. On gambling. On whores. You call me ‘son’ and you call me ‘boy’, but you never aged a day beyond seventeen. This morning, some slave-trading fuck woke up in my bed. In my room. In Mother’s house. Because of you.”
“Oh, grow up, Tobias. It’s gone. There is no Amell house, there is no Amell influence, there is no Amell money, and all the rhetoric in the world won’t change that. You want to hate me? Go ahead. But what are you going to do?”
Between one instant and the next I had Tobias’ right elbow. I had his elbow because – uh – look. I had his elbow because he had his stilletto most of the way out of its sheath and he’d wound completely up and that was a thrust that would’ve had his uncle’s heart out. And I cared because clearly the way to get some of Tobias’ actual cash spent on me was to have him feeling he owed me, and what better way than to stop him doing this stupid thing. And clearly not out of any kind of sentiment. Anyway, I had his elbow and Gamlen saw the steel and Leandra didn’t thanks to me, and I made like the two of us knew one another a great deal better than we did and purred “He isn’t worth it.”
And there was a very quiet very still little moment where I wondered whether I’d got the measure of this man very wrong – and then a kind of tension went out of him and the blade went back away, and he nodded slowly (and I kept his arm, because the person I was playing would), and Gamlen went entirely bloodlessly white.
“No.” Tobias’ eyes didn’t leave his uncle’s. “No, you’re right. And I know exactly what I’m going to do now. Which is what he’s worth.” He inclined his head mock-politely. “My indenture, Gamlen, your favour to me, it’s repaid. I no longer live under your roof, and all that I owe you is paid in full. And your name, ser. I’ve borne it for nigh-on a couple of years, now, and I don’t think you’ll find that I’ll have got it any dirtier than you have. Tobias Amell.” He spat that last word, almost literally, like he was getting rid of something foul he’d swallowed. “And that is the last time I’ll answer to it. Paid off. Balanced. Done. No more. Thrice I say: we are done. My grandfather had no son. Yes?”
And the old man nodded, eyes narrowed, his lips a thin line, his teeth gritted. “Get off my property.”
“One moment.” He turned to Leandra, still standing there staring helplessly, fists clenched at her sides. “This is what I’ve done, Mother. My people in the Palace have been made aware of the will. The money – we’ve our own. The influence – we’ve our own. The house – well.” His eyes flicked to Gamlen a moment. “It shall be settled before it comes to court, because there isn’t a judicial champion in the city I couldn’t take in a heartbeat and there is no way the Viscount would rule against the evidence we have. The matter will be settled, and soon. And when it is? The Hawke family shall have their home.”