Hawke’s Flight, Chapter Sixteen

by artrald

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Many apologies for the lack of updates in recent weeks. Two larp events coincided with a terrible, terrible case of writer’s block. I hope the resulting pile of crap isn’t too bad, because I’m not changing it now. :[

*

Aveline

One would not wish to misrepresent: Aveline did have allies in Kirkwall politics. Mostly those who were supposed to hold the power rather than those who did, for the means that she was using to acquire favour were the ones that one was supposed to use rather than the ones that worked: but nevertheless, she had allies. The manner in which they worked was a traditional one, as well: putting her forward for difficult tasks and ensuring that they were not thankless, was the most likely one. And so it was that when she was called vaguely unexpectedly to court, she was expecting what was there, namely a relatively private audience in the palace’s sumptuous if tasteless Red Room; she wasn’t necessarily expecting it to be with the Viscount; she wasn’t necessarily expecting the other person so invited – though on reflection, if it was going to be anybody asked to solve a problem quietly and off the books, Tobias Hawke wouldn’t in fact be so bad a name.

The problem, then. Yes, indeed, said the Viscount in that quiet rich voice of his, not much more than a murmur. The problem was that a member of court had been abducted, means unknown; the story would be noised about that they had fallen ill, the persons here present would quietly find the person and return them with a minimum of noise and fuss, and the matter would be quietly closed. Was this the sort of thing that these people felt that they could do?

And one does not say no to the Viscount, of course. The thin, bald, angular old man’s moustache seemed to harrumph quite by itself. The person, you see, the person in question was his son.

Shamis, his name: his mother a high-ranking sister of the Chantry, quite aloof from secular politics, the boy raised by his father as is the custom for the sons of priestesses. But where the father was astute and hard-dealing, the boy was a deep thinker whose eyes were most naturally on the clouds when he wasn’t ruining them with books; surely it was the Maker’s own joke on Chantry and City both that He’d taken a mind that could have been the greatest Revered Mother of a generation and given it to a boy destined to rule a fractious and cosmopolitan port-city.

Nevertheless, for an heir, one supposes the Viscount could have done a great deal worse. Shamis was good-looking, or so the city’s portraitists and marriageable ladies alleged; he was intelligent – keenly so – and as well-educated as that implies in a rich young man; he was devout, clean-living, provident, idealistic and honest, or at least as approximately so as any twenty-year-old; he was at the very least not incompetent at the management of the small concerns his father had given him from which to learn; he’d no obvious deficiencies in hawking or hunting, dancing or swordplay, despite his lack of interest in such material things; in short, he was, or at least various interests were vested in making him appear to be, the approximate model of a Marcher prince’s son.

And as for enemies? The thought was faintly laughable. The Assembly were practically salivating for the day when he took the chair, because they reckoned they would eat him for breakfast. No brothers; no scandals; no lovers that anyone had been able to find; no long-lost cadet branch that didn’t have its own lands to keep; the lad was, at least as far as his father was willing to tell, a carefully trained nonentity – a puppet only awaiting strings – and only a fool would have wanted to abduct him and earn the ire of the entire ruling class of the city.

His last whereabouts? Well. Harrumph. This, in fact, was the point: this was the rub. This was why instead of Captain Orvhail and a detachment of the city’s finest there was a clandestine meeting and a couple of individuals of good reputation but not great fame; individuals, in short, upon whom it was sufficiently unlikely for the Viscount to call that any failure of theirs would be theirs alone. You see, the crown prince had taken it into his head to visit the giants, and – well – he had not come back.

So quite simply, they were to find him. Unofficially. To bring him back without any taking of no for an answer; and to do all of this without giving the city’s word (which they could not give) or opening the city’s purse (which they did not have). The question of reward was raised neither by the Viscount nor by either of his agents; Aveline, of course, was in the man’s employ already, and Tobias appeared to feel that he owed the man for a finger on the scales concerning some kind of land deal.

And the walnut-paneled door closed behind the two of them as they left, and Tobias at his most innocently conversational asked if Aveline knew the first thing about the bloody giants, and received a snort for an answer.

*

Aveline vetoed Tobias’ suggestion of bringing the disreputable vigilante Anders, and Tobias vetoed Aveline’s suggestion of bringing the other mage they knew; both of them vetoed Varric Tethras on the basis that he’d only treat the situation as a chance to profit, and Tobias’ new friend Isabela had backed out on grounds of pirates and pirate-hunters not getting along overly. So, given that they couldn’t exactly veto one another, the delegation to the giants’ – the qunari – compound consisted of the pair of them alone. Down from the gaily painted statues and fountains of Hightown to the shadowed terraces of Lowtown and their carvings and murals of submission and slavery and ancient shame, down all those bloody steps to the docks and the warehouses and the ancient and still unmisakable Tevinter slave-yards that the Viscount had rented to the qunari.

The giants had made themselves their own gate, painstakingly shaped and pioneered out of scrap timber, and it was solidly if simply closed and guarded. They’d strung up criscrossing lines across the yards and hung great drapes of cloth on them to give tentlike privacy and shelter; thin columns of smoke said that they were maintaining cookfires somehow. The qunari on the gate both bore the bars and chevrons of a sten: Tobias and Aveline politely announced their arrival and stated their business in general terms, to which the stens listened gravely and conducted them inside with a minimum of fuss.

And about the plinth of the focal statue of the old slave-pen they’d assembled their drapes to suggest a focal point, a place for a leader and his court. Atop the statue, seated across the back of the kowtowing manacled marble slave as if completely unaware of the symbolism of such a throne, there was a broad-shouldered straight-horned slate-skinned giant with a set of highly ornate barred and angular tattoos in browns and blues and reds, robed simply in brown; and it was before this weathered creature that Tobias and Aveline had been near-wordlessly brought.

All males, they were, or the difference was too slight to see. This one did not stand as the humans approached, barely in fact acknowledged their presence; seated as he was, his head and Tobias’ were on a level. His ears twitched as they arrived; his eyes focused upon them and a flick of his finger dismissed the sten who had led them in. All told, an impressive display of impassive authority for a shipwrecked mariner. At length he spoke, his voice masculine, heavy, resonant, yet surprisingly mellow. “Basr: here I am arishok. I can listen to you.”

Tobias got there first. “Good day, ser; I can be called Hawke, and this is Aveline. I bring you greetings from-”

The arishok‘s heavy brow lowered. “Do you have something to say, rather than noises to make?”

Tobias blinked. “All right,” he said, clearly in that moment abandoning any previous strategy completely. “I’m here to find my friend the crown prince. Have you seen him?”

The arishok made an unimpressed, noncommital noise. “Why.”

Tobias shrugged. “Because if we ask, and find something we shouldn’t, if question or answer becomes inconvenient, we can be discarded, sidelined, controlled, ignored or downright murdered.” Aveline shooting him a look of rank surprise, he continued. “If the prince’s relatives or retainers were to do the same – well – they couldn’t.” Raised eyebrows. “Your people are eay to fear, arishok.”

“We mean to be.” The great creature’s expression was matter-of-fact. “Seek your friend elsewhere.”

“Will I find him?”

“Are you competent?”

Tobias’ teeth gleamed. “When I need to be. D’you mean to say he never reached you, or that he left hale and whole? Or perhaps that I should go away and stop bothering you?”

The arishok inclined his head slightly. “If I had, I should have so spoken. You people have names like the sky has stars and you spread them like corn before poultry; should I recognise one bas over another from a name presented to me without its shell, on a pin like a whelk?”

“Perhaps not.” Tobias spread his hands. “After all, with the vast gawking crowds that pour daily through your wide-open doors, how are you to pick one from another?”

The arishok‘s ears twitched, a disturbingly animal mannerism from the great manlike creature, and his face remained impassive. “If your people should fall so in love with our ways that they must bombard us ceaselessly with requests to feed us, clothe us, adopt us and house us, asking nothing of us save our jolly countenances, it were hardly a matter for an arishok to know which individuals have been fended off with pointed sticks, and where.” His delivery was absolutely deadpan.

“And presumably the people with the sticks don’t speak our language, for me to ask.”

Still dead straight-faced. “They barely speak their own language, bas. What’s he to you personally?”

“His father is one whose friend it is valuable to be.” Tobias seemed to have got the pulse of the way the arishok wanted to talk. “And thus every creature in this city is the man’s friend, and he is lost, so as a friend I seek him.”

The arishok pursed his lips. “Hmm. Your timing is explained, at least. And this knowledge, you value it, and yet you ask for it for free when all know nothing is free in this city: or certainly the basr are very fond of our coin when the time comes for them to be the sellers. Is this some sort of test?”

Tobias shook his head. “Apparently, ser, it’s entertainment: for someone at least.”

“I see.” The arishok nodded gravely. “What does ‘ser’ mean?”

“One for whom I am supposed to have respect.”

Again the arishok‘s ears twitched. “‘Bas’ means a thing for which I am supposed to have none. You offer, then, to pay for the information you are after using simple respect as your coin?”

“It’s a currency I can offer, and I can’t see that the information is worth more.”

The arishok nodded fractionally. “Everything has some worth; but that is not what you are buying.” He leaned forwards on his throne, fixed the two humans with his beetling gaze. “I have been minded to do this man’s father a favour ever since I discovered his visits here. Of course, if I do so now, I have done you a favour also; that is a thing I think would cost more than the respect of a pair of basr. Do you believe you can afford this?”

Tobias gave a little half-bow. “You are not dealing with incompetents, ser, or imbeciles. A favour for a favour is traditional, is it not?”

“But we are hardly going to be here long enough for such a thing to appreciate in value.” The giant looked around at the temporary encampment. “We are shipwrecked mariners, hardly planning to set up housekeeping.”

“All right; I’ll bite.” His tone, that of the businessman. “Your people buy food and fuel from the locals, at the least, and likely other things as well. It’s almost certain that they are overcharging significantly: for the one thing, you are outsiders, and for the other, supply is short and likely to remain so until the autumn. I have a friend who is likely to be happy to undercut the people who are ripping you off, who will likely have dealt with your quartermasters only at arms’ length and individually. I’ll make an introduction.”

“Hmm. And your friend?”

Aveline cut over any attempt of Tobias’ to talk over her. “The traditional favour the city guard trade – leniency – isn’t one I allow for-”

“Good.” The qunari‘s voice took on a deeper rumbling note, a thing to raise the hairs on the back of the neck. “Our current standing orders are that should we receive injustice that requires response, we shall mete it ourselves, for this city’s approach to justice seems to be unfit.”

“Unacceptable.” Aveline met his stare with one of her own.

“You think you can do better?”

“Of course.” Her expression was implacable. “I can cut orders. Make sure this area is being patrolled by people who will do their jobs the right way.”

A raised eyebrow. “And you consider this a favour, rather than the natural performance of your duties?”

“My duties do not involve this area at all. I would be simply applying pressure to one idiot rather than another: that would seem to me to be a favour.”

The arishok nodded at once, more in acknowledgement of a failure to fall at a simple hurdle than in any kind of respect. “Very well, basr. Standing orders shall make you responsible for justice where my people are involved; if you wish to act through another, you will arrange this with the guards on my gate. The steni shall expect to see your contact’s people within two days; I promise nothing for the favourable nature of the deal struck. And as for what you want?” He sat back on his statue-throne. “The crown prince left here yesterday of his own accord, heading for a lodge on Sundermount that is owned by his family; but that is not the favour.” His dark eyes fixed the two of them. “The favour that I grant is the information that no qunari went with him. He was not here to visit my people; he spoke with no qunari while he was here, and with no qunari did he leave. That is it; I have spoken; that is all I know of this.” His ears twitched very slightly. “Now leave.”

*

Authority was reluctantly sought and gained to arrest the prince and bring him back by less than polite means if that was the only recourse available; discretion in Aveline’s case and overwhelming self-confidence in Tobias’ meant that the two of them went unaccompanied – though one thing about Tobias that had never been in doubt, not from the first day that Aveline had met him, was his competence. Aveline had taken herself somewhat self-consciously out of uniform for their trip outside the city: she had very little attire that wasn’t uniform, old clothes or Chantry best, but her expression told Tobias that if he had any opinions about shabbily respectable widow’s black, he could keep them to his damned self. The young man, of course, was dressed off the edge of fashion, jewel-colours on a doublet that looked almost like a jester’s motley, an ironic statement on what they were wearing in Orlais this year, most like. An odd pair they made, but it was what it was.

And yet of course the two of them were somewhat exercised concerning what the arishok had said: Aveline opined that this was a puzzle to which they were missing an important piece, and Tobias made the obvious and traditional joke about the arishok knowing a mushroom when he saw one (fit only to be kept in the dark annd fed bullshit). The viscount’s people, beyond giving the location of the place, had said very little and none of it helpful. The place itself was not difficult to find, once they knew what they were looking for: ‘cozy little thing’ by the standards of the rich and palatial by those of the people, a day’s ride up in the hills. The sort of thing that had seen much use in the Viscount’s youth, but these days the old man was too fragile to hunt and there wasn’t even a permanent staff. This would not be the prince’s first retreat there, but he hadn’t told the people who were supposed to accompany and safeguard him and provide the luxury to which he was accustomed; as far as could be determined, he had headed there alone.

The lodge and its stables were laid out around three sides of a courtyard; the place would happily have housed a dozen people or served as a perfectly functional manor-house, but right now the stables were empty for all that the courtyard gate was open; the shutters were closed up tight, but a thin curl of smoke from a chimney proclaimed that someone at least was in residence. Though one would have expected there to be a fire going in the servants’ wing or at least the kitchens, as well as what was probably the great hall. Aveline once again had to turn a blind eye as Tobias displayed a proficiency with a roll of lockpicks that wouldn’t have disgraced a cat-burglar – either that or he did indeed have the key and was playing the bloody fool again, equally likely – and they went in, quiet, careful, blades sheathed but close to hand and mind.

The inside of the place was well enough appointed, but half-deserted: there were dust-sheets on the furniture, and neither lamp lit nor lightstone uncovered. They followed the soft sound of voices – two of them, both male, one deep and grating, the other a clear pleasant tenor – to the place’s common room; you’d have thought that they’d put an ear to the door before opening, but Tobias had the lead and the door came open with a solid heavy clunk.

The sight that greeted them was more incongruous than alarming: the room’s two largest, solidest chairs pulled so as to face the hearth and one another, their occupants as mismatched as one could hope to see. On the right a small young man, dark-haired, untidy but not ill-favoured, dressed informally in little more than a tight pair of brown hose and a loose jacket, and he surged to his feet as the newcomers arrived. On the left and regarding them with placid equanimity as he sat like an adult invited to a child’s tea party, was what was unmistakably a giant. Robed in simple brown, he was, his horns long and a little crooked, a surprising noble fineness to that great craggy face, and it was he that spoke first.

“Told you,” he rumbled, raising a laconic eyebrow to his partner in a very human expression. “D’you yet believe in that freedom you were bandying?”

The human – the prince, one supposed, unless his mother were the world’s greatest liar – looked from Tobias to Aveline to his giant and back and blinked a few times. “Whose – whose are you? Who sent you?”

Aveline watched them both; Tobias spoke. “I’m my own, ser, and it was rather you who brought us here than your lord father who sent.”

A tinge of a hunted expression. “Nobody knows I’m here.”

“Then that must be who told me: Tobias Hawke and Aveline Vallenn at a somewhat narrow definition of your service.” Tobias looked meaningfully at the giant.

“This is Ben-Hassrath. I suppose that you’d need more than that?”

The giant inclined his head. “Be fair, Shamis. You are borrowing my very words to you upon our introduction.”

Tobias smiled a blank smile. “It’s a qunari title, and not a menial one, but I’d be at a loss to draw much more inference than any other bas might. How about you help me out before I flounder entirely and give offence?”

The prince nodded, a quick nervous motion. He must have been of an age with Tobias, but anybody watching would have thought him much younger. “Ben-Hassrath is a philosopher, a teacher-”

“A ben-hassrath is a very specific kind of ‘teacher’.” The giant’s voice cut effortlessly over the prince’s. “You have them yourselves, though your culture fails to recognise the categories into which our field’s work can fall and therefore you are forced to assign the task to females where we can use males for much of it. I do not develop ideas – I sow them and I weed them.” He made a sound that might have been a chuckle. “I do suppose that Aveline and her representative are here for much the same sort of task.”

“Just right at the moment, actually, it’s more confused that we are than zealous.” Tobias’ smile was recognisable as the one he used for taking care of business. “You sneak out of your big fancy house – and this isn’t the first time, either – but rather than visit the Dawning Rose or the Hanged Man like a proper loose scion, you’re doing it because you’ve got a hankering to go play philosopher-prince. You sneak all the way out of the city, and up here – did you know I was recruited on the understanding that you had been kidnapped? – and I find you on what if I didn’t know better I’d call an assignation.”

“You don’t,” said the giant, deadpan; the prince coloured slightly and Aveline’s face assumed a very straight expression.

“Nor I do, no matter how I wish I – seriously? – Beside the point. Which is this. Before doing anything else; before asking whether you’re coming home or having you explain yourself or anything; I’d have you tell me this.” Tobias spread his hands. “Why the arsebollocks are you doing this in secret?”

The prince blinked. “You’re not serious.”

“Never more. Look. You’re one of the richest men our age in the city. But more than that, you’d not even have to open that purse. Your father’s name is good for basically anything from anyone, and your own name’s not cheap, so it’s not like you can’t do this with a bit more competence. It’s not about your parents: you’ve no siblings, so you’re the only game there is. You can’t be worried about a scandal damaging your alliance prospects – the crown prince of Kirkwall could be a shapeless lump with a face like the rump of a syphilitic stallion and the richest ladies in the city would still be queuing up for their turn. I don’t get it.”

The prince looked from his friend -whose ears were pricked in the giants’ equivalent of a smirk – to Tobias and back. “It’s not the – bloody – look. We came here in secret for reasons of our own, and I’d thank you to do as you just said anybody sane would and leave it there.”

Tobias’ eyebrows went right up. “Be that way, then. Feel like talking business instead, perhaps?”

“Here we go,” said the giant, his manner faintly mocking. “Behold freedom.”

Shamis shot his companion a look. “Amell, or whatever it is you’re calling yourself, you and I have no business. You can tell my father that I’m not coming.”

“Oh, that issue?” Tobias shrugged. “A decision’s already been taken. Don’t particularly care if you’re interested in appealing it. That thing where you say you’ll do a thing and then don’t: I’m not a great believer. It doesn’t tend to pay.”

“See?” The ben-hassrath sat forwards. “If the ariqun of my people wished a thing done, those she sent would be similarly immovable. Your vaunted prize on others’ lips, Shamis, is just a pretty word.”

Tobias snorted. “I see they didn’t pick you for your intellect.”

The giant raised an eyebrow. “Excuse me?”

“You’re confusing honour and self-interest, friend. The fact that I lose out personally from doing the wrong thing is irrelevant: that’s called ‘risk’ where I come from. I’m a free agent. You can come with, if you want.”

He shook his head. “I can’t.”

“No, see, you mustn’t. This is different. We’re not in Par Vollen here: there isn’t a sten or whatever on every street corner telling you to shut your great grey trap and play along.”

“No, indeed, there is a ben-hassrath to do that.” The qunari smiled with its eyes alone. “Seems to be one wherever I go. So, Shamis. Show me how this one thing you have that I don’t, makes your life better.”

“I can refuse this man.” The prince threw Tobias a scowl. “And will. You knew I’d refuse you, Amell, or whatever it is you’re calling yourself: now you’ve got it in words. Hell knows why you wanted it. Lay one hand on me and you’ll eat everything you just told me I could throw at a problem I needed rid of. I’m not going home.”

Tobias looked around meaningfully. “You’re woefully underprepared for going anywhere else.”

“You have no conception of what’s going on here. You don’t understand-”

“Make me.”

Shamis scowled. “This is not some kind of game -”

“It’s not complicated,” rumbled the giant. “He finds my company too stimulating to risk its loss and the reverse inference is not without merit. There’s more to the discussion, but at heart he wishes me to abandon my godless heathen ways and live a righteous life as a tal-vashoth, someone who has left the Qun; while I of course wish him to abandon the joyless and counterproductive wandering of his existence and become a happy and fulfilled qunari.” He smiled with his eyes. “There is still everything to play for.”

“I thought qunari was your word for your people.”

“It is.”

“But he’s not a-”

The giant flicked his ears. “Are all your people such bigots, my friend?”

“No.” The prince looked from Tobias to Aveline. “They understand. They know that the star of the qunari is rising. That soon, every human in this world will need to know how to deal with your kind. That if we will not understand one another, we will destroy one another. I’m not asking you to give up the Qun. I’m asking you to come with me and-”

“Oh, this is ridiculous.” Aveline’s scorn could have stripped paint. “What are you, fourteen? Running off playing come-into-my-castle with the friend daddy doesn’t approve of?” Shamis started to open his mouth and she cut him off. “You’re the heir to the richest city of the Marches, you stupid boy – act like it. D’you know what your disappearance would do to the Assembly?”

“Do I look like I care?”

Her hand moved quickly, and it’s a good thing she wasn’t wearing gauntlets; the idiot staggered at the impact, putting a shocked hand to his face. A blur in her peripheral vision was Tobias’ blade leaping into his hand, the tip stopping in the air a few inches from the giant’s throat as he made to surge to his feet. Her voice iced over. “Ser, you’ll remember your honour and you’ll come with us, or you’ll get the humiliation of your life.”

“This is supposed to be an inducement for me to stay in Kirkwall?”

“Your royal highness, ser. With the greatest of respect. Shut your mouth or I’ll hit you a second time and you’ll wake up in Kirkwall.”

Tobias smiled politely. “The arishok was very clear. There are no qunari here. Aveline, you’ve the prisoner. I’ll not turn my back, if it’s all the same.”

The prince attempted to force the issue.

They carried him home across Tobias’ saddle.

*

And the ben-hassrath showed up in Lowtown the next morning. Cradled in the arms of a statue as if it was weeping for him. His throat had been cut from ear to ear and his body entirely drained of its blood. And most of the people of the city wrote it off as the insanity of the giants. And Tobias stood before the dead body for a good long few minutes, staring, thinking, and just about when Aveline and her people were finished getting the body down and she was wondering whether he actually needed snapping out of it, he turned on his heel and went and briefed the Viscount. And from that day onwards Tobias was the Viscount’s expert upon the qunari; and if the reader is confused as to why this story is part of this anthology at all, they should look no further than that last fact.

*

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