Hawke’s Flight, Chapter Seventeen

by artrald

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*

Varric

I wouldn’t like to call it an obsession. I mean, as I’ve said before, I did a hell of a lot of work that had nothing to do with finding Bartrand. You know, really a great deal. Helped a lot of people. Made money, but not in usurious quantities. Enlarged the whole pie rather than grabbing a bigger slice. Enjoyed myself on occasion. Hung around with Tobias and his self-styled pirate queen. Kept a beady eye on the lyrium markets.

Noted that the Chantry’s order was significantly down. Their templars consume the stuff, actually imbibe it with their sacramental wine, albeit in trace amounts – it’s not like it’s a secret, it’s the source of their power – so I was more than a little surprised at the dip in demand from my captive market. The Templars must have bought really a hell of a lot of lyrium from somewhere that wasn’t me, so, either another one of King Bhelen’s side deals or somebody’s stockpile opening, either way, not something to glibly ignore.

So I chased that one. Who was buying, who was selling, and all that. Well, the buyer wasn’t a surprise. With the sad demise of Knight-Captain Kaercher – remember him? – turned out there had been a hole in the Templars, a high-ranking position to be filled. And the most promising candidate had been one Meredith Stannard, who apparently distinguished herself finding a mage among the Fereldan immigrants when they first turned up, or something like that; except that when given her head she’d turned even more ambitious and outspoken. Competent, wih it. Poked her nose into everything she had oversight on. And upon noticing that the Chantry paid more for the Templars’ sacraments than the price of black-market lyrium, she ordered therefore her quartermaster literally to go to the criminals.

The Carta, specifically. Dwarf-run, but in Kirkwall their resident people were all humans: like any organisation with half a brain, they used locals to handle their affairs everywhere they weren’t prepared to become locals. And I decided to pay these criminals a visit, myself – after all, they had to have got their lyrium from somewhere, and there aren’t a vast number of sources. And it might just have been – yes, much of what I just said, it’s justification – their source might have been my brother.

They might have been hard to track down if you were incompetent, I suppose or if you stank of some kind of setup. I exchanged name, clothes and trade with one of my assistants for the day; I’m told he had a complete ball; meanwhile I had a perfect disguise.

You people can’t tell two dwarves apart half the time, and that’s before judicious cosmetics and a good close shave. If after all I’ve said about my kind, you still think that we fetishise our facial foliage? I’ve got a bridge to sell you down in Tethras Thaig. All I needed to do was flash too much cash about, as if I had ill-gotten funds and some kind of implicit deadline, and it’s my experience that once you get two or three layers of middlemen away, the strictest trembling secrecy of the original deal has become lost in the general morass of dishonesty. Little bit of your ingrained racism – knowing my lyrium doesn’t make me a lyrium merchant, why would it, everyone knows that all my kind are born knowing this shit, certainly every dwarf they’ve ever met knew everything about it – and they produced a sample of the stuff for me to examine.

Tiny shaving of the stuff, dense. Right colour superficially. Looked like it’d been physically flaked: bad practice, you make dust that way, and you don’t want lyrium dust around if you can help it. Thick gloves and tongs, they were using to handle it: at least that was sensible. I weighed the chance of them knowing that a dwarvish assayer would usually use neither, against the chance that it was Bartrand’s lyrium and like hell was I touching that with my skin; screw it. I wore the damn things and they didn’t blink at me.

And I was right to. Refined lyrium gets a coloured sheen to it, like a beetle’s wing-case, when wet. The lyrium Tethras and Sons shipped in those days was in two grades of purity, Aeducan gold for consumption grade and Harrowmont blue-green for enchantment. This stuff he described as Aeducan grade, and I guess from a certain point of view it was – after all, Aeducan colours are red as well as gold.

Orzammar doesn’t sell the red grade of lyrium. Anyone in the trade knows that. But only a dwarfish expert would know for sure that that’s because it doesn’t exist. It’d make sense to anyone else who knew our ways that we sold golden lyrium straight-faced as the Aeducan grade, pointed to the gold on the royal colours, and laughed behind our hands. Truth is, I knew of no process that could – I’m sorry, am I boring you? Back then, of course, there was nobody alive who knew what red lyrium meant. And of course, this meant that this was a local operation – they’d sourced this locally – they hadn’t seen fit to let their superiors in on it – they were blowing smoke, and I was a gamble on their part to see if a real expert would give them the lie. My eyebrows went all the way up as I saw the iridescent colour, and the seller’s expression became conspiratorial; I turned the little shaving in the tongs; I put it carefully down as fast as I reasonably could and quickly turned it into a haggle.

Soured it. Deliberately. Walked away rather than buy that. Gave them the impression that I was a talented idiot with no idea of the value of anything, the kind my people do occasionally turn out. I didn’t care: I didn’t want to own it, not even arms length. Swapped back to my own clothes and reputation. Went pretty much straight to the street, to my people, and started tracking. Couldn’t keep the stress from showing, so I left everyone with the impression that I was on the hook for a shipment of substandard goods and planning to take it out on whoever won this round of pass-the-parcel; as a subterfuge it worked just fine. Apparently association with Tobias and Anders had done wonders for the degree to which my ire was to be avoided: useful.

And the trail didn’t even lead out of the damn city. He was hiding out in Hightown of all places. Right under my damn nose. Well, strictly right under Tobias’ nose; Hightown was far more the human’s turf than my own. My brother had blown a vast stack of cash on the rent of some citizen’s currently unoccupied townhouse; he’d blown some more on a damn fine standard of privacy; as far as anyone knew the whole operation was a closed book. The guards didn’t even know the trade the house was in.

I’d have vastly preferred to go in alone, but I’m not an idiot. If we hadn’t had mages with us in the nameless thaig, we’d never have come home; and if you think I was trusting Anders and his little friend with this, you’ve got another think coming. I brought the elf in on it. Merrill. The only one who hadn’t lost her head down there. The only one who’d have a snowball’s chance of getting us out of a bad situation while retaining any control over how that situation was going down. I outright required her help, not as a person, not as a friend, as a mage, and I expected that to be an issue. I expected to have to ask her twice and more than twice. I’d brought half a dozen arguments and I was prepared to swallow really quite a lot of pride. And in the event, all that happened was I asked her the once, and she looked me in the eye and nodded, and said when were we going?

*

I had the door open almost as fast as turning a key. Three of the morning, it was. Graveyard shift. Bartrand sleeps early and deeply, or did when I knew him; there should’ve been maybe one, sleepy guard.

There were five. They’d clearly been briefed. If I didn’t know better I’d have said they knew I was coming. Not even a chance at conversation. Not even one instant to try and trade words. Just moved straight to the attempted murder, and thus followed a shockingly rapid sequence of violence that I’m a little ashamed to have had an audience for.

I think that the elf’s opinion of me had been a little unjustifiably high, before: she’d seen me being friendly and generous and smart and so on, and only ever really saw me fighting under conditions that had been entirely morally above-board: here I was breaking into someone’s house in Hightown on the off-chance it contained my brother, and while she’d melted silently into the shadows of the street and made ready to flee when the guards loudly announced their presence, I’d matched violence with violence and ruined and broke five people because they were in my way, and in not much longer than it takes to tell.

It was like some kind of dam had burst, somewhere in the foothills of my memory, not far from where I kept what my brother meant to me. This wasn’t a case of letting them run; this wasn’t a case of accepting surrender. Intellectually I knew they’d done no more than take his money. One tried to flee. I shot him in the back, and I put a steel toecap into his face as I passed, and I don’t know if he survived, and the elf looked away.

But her opinion wasn’t done falling just yet.

My brother was up those stairs. I couldn’t ask her not to follow. This was what she was there for. I brought her and not Anders because I wanted to remember this. To know that it was me doing it. I went first, of course a bolt to my string. Could smell the brazier my brother was using. Lyrium won’t cut nicely, it splinters, but a red-hot wire will slice it like a sharp blade on bare flesh. Looked to the elf and she frowned, then whispered a couple of dozen words that rhymed in three places; she leaned over and at arm’s length on a fingertip she picked up a dot of blood from where I split my eyebrow headbutting that one guy; she pulled her finger back like she was pulling out a string, moved her hands like she was tying a knot. I felt nothing. She nodded to me. I knew that nod. I’d given it before. It’s the nod the safecracker gives the large dangerous people, the one that knows exactly where the exit is and isn’t counting on anyone else to help it get there.

And of course my brother knew I was there. The floorboard creaked under my feet, if nothing else. He opened the door.

I shot him in the gut.

Right there and then. Easy as it was to say, and twice as quick. Standard broadhead bolt. Went in up to the flights and stuck. Two inches left of the navel. Long enough to talk, he’d have. The elf bit her lip and said no word.

“Hello, Bartrand.” White bloodless little smile, the murdered corpse of politeness turned into a mask for my hate. “How’ve you been?”

He put his hand down to where I’d feathered him. It wasn’t disbelief. It was resignation. Hadn’t made a noise. Closed his eyes, screwed them shut. Gritted teeth. “You didn’t have to do that.”

“Quicker than what was left for us,” I said, quietly. There wasn’t any point yelling. No point raising my voice.

“No choice. You or me.” His voice wasn’t more than a growl. “I’d say you’d do the same, Varric. But that would be.” He plucked pointlessly at the bolt in his gut. “Superfluous.”

“You’re telling me the statues made you do it.” I swallowed. Hard. “That you couldn’t have said no.”

He shook his head. “No.” Ghost-pale. He was starting to shiver. “I came to, halfway home. Alone with the map. No idea how much time had passed. What was I going to do? Come back?”

“That’s it?” I curled my lip. “That’s all? You decided you couldn’t face us, so you left us to-”

“No. No, don’t think that. I had to do something.” He nodded twice. “So I burned their faces. All their faces, every one. Heated a blade in the fire and melted them off. Put out their eyes. Sold the bits for scrap. Show them who’s boss. But it wasn’t their faces.”

“It was what they were made of.”

A jerky nod. “Red. The Carta paid me twice what it was worth. I bought more. Enchantment grade. Blood spreads. Put the two in the crucible and zero plus one is two. Sold more. Bought more.” His eyes bored into mine. “I had to. Do you – do you know what it is to dream, Varric? Ever closed your eyes and truly seen, brother? Ever looked up at the paradise that is the Fade and wept for the desert that is real? I have. I have.”

“You’re insane.”

You’re insane!” Flying spittle landed on my coat. “You’re all insane! Ask the surfacers, ask their mages! A dwarf doesn’t leave a ghost, doesn’t cast a spell, their art is a mirror, their pain is a shadow, their love is a lie, their idea of a dream is a profitable plan! We have no souls!” A stab of agony twisted his face and stole his voice. “You shot your own damn brother in the gut-”

“Yeah?” I swung Bianca back up to my shoulder, practically into his face, worked the enchantments to cock her all the way. That bolt would go all the way through his skull if I loosed. “Shut the fuck up, or I’ll shoot him again.”

“What’re you going to do? Kill me worse?” I could see white all round his eyes. “You cannot touch me, brother. You cannot kill me. You’re dead. I’m alive. I’m going home, is all.”

“Oh, for the love of -” Focus. “Who did you sell your poisoned lyrium to? Just the Carta? Anyone else?”

He shook his head. “It doesn’t matter. Didn’t even keep count. Too far, now. Too wide to stop.” He swayed on his feet. “The rest is yours now, Varric. Take it. All yours. Couple of – thousand -”

“Don’t you zone out on me, Bartrand, don’t you even – fucking -” I caught him as he crumpled and was rewarded by him coughing a little bit of blood in my face. “Dammit!” I practically dropped him against the wall. “Who else has it? Who’d you-”

That wasn’t a laugh that was at home to sanity. “You don’t get it, brother!” He grabbed me by the lapel. “I could care less! Your problem, now! Who has it? Who sold it? Who bought it? Who’s getting inspired? Who’s getting a real soul, a whole one all of their own?”

I broke his grip and his head hit the wall. Stared into his eyes, and I’d love to say I couldn’t see my brother there, but that wasn’t true.  “Merrill,” I said, without looking around. “Tell me. Tell me there’s a demon riding him.”

“No.” Her voice was a whisper. “No, there’s no kind of spirit here. I’m sorry, Varric.”

So whatever he’d seen, whatever the contamination was, whatever it had shown him – this was still him. He’d had a choice. Bad information, weird spells, whatever. He’d deliberately decided to do it. Ever since he woke from the trance that had him shut the thaig on us. He’d left us to die in the dark. He’d sold the stuff that did this to him, he’d tried to spread it too wide for me to catch, and he’d done it on purpose with his eyes open. I closed my eyes. “Thank you. I’d like you to go, now.”

“You what?”

“As you said, there’s no magical danger. I can take it from here.”

“Not happening.” She flicked her eyes to me, back to Bartrand. “Sorry.”

I ground my teeth. I think Bartrand was trying to grin. His head slumped back against the wall. His eyes focused on nothing at all. “You don’t have to see this.”

“Must be I misheard you this evening. You didn’t come and ask me to do what you said. You asked me to come and help you. It’s not the same.”

“And somehow I am helped by having someone stand there judging me for beating seven shades of shit out of my own dying brother until he tells me-”

“Lies, Varric.” Her voice was gentle. “You’ll get lies. You know a great deal better than I do-”

“Yeah?” I growled. “You got another plan, cupcake?”

“Let him go. Make it painless. You can. You should.”

“And what exactly will that help?”

“You?” I didn’t look around. I didn’t want to see her expression. Dammit. “Him? Me? You said you wanted to control what happened here. Here’s your chance. Let him go.”

So I committed murder, then, and that was how, and that was why, and that made six.

*

Some people might think it ghoulish. Some people might think dimly of it. Some people might wonder, that I left my brother dead right there so I could dig through his little workshop, through the room he’d been living in little better than a rat in a hole – some people –

Sod it. Lyrium melts under a little less heat than lead does. We found the contaminated stuff easy enough; I chucked it all in the crucible and asked Merrill if she could do anything fancy to get rid of it, and she shuddered and said bury it. So I cast it up using the same mould he’d been using, scored each crude little ingot with the rune for poison. Scared up a little wooden box, bunch of sealing-candles, sealed the lyrium in wax to stop it jostling and shedding dust, packed everything else that had touched the stuff into the box, including the tongs and gloves I’d been using, sealed it airtight with lead.

And it was having had to do that that made my skin crawl as I went through the rest of Bartrand’s stuff, and nothing else:  certainly no kind of sentiment, and that’s the story I’m sticking to. The papers I kept; the money and the uncontaminated lyrium went into a second box, to deal with after; the personal effects I piled around him, and I asked Merrill to light it, because Bartrand deserved better than my pathetic attempt at a pyre.

She had me stand further back than I’d have thought – as in, running distance of the door – she whispered a prayer, and the extreme care with which she flipped his brazier onto the pyre was almost comical. Until the flames licked out as if the whole thing had been soaked in boiling hot pitch, and then went hard-edged and bright white, and I could feel the heat on my face as she backed off sharpish. The house would burn to a shell, she said, and I thanked her.

We buried the poisoned lyrium, and I won’t say how we made sure nobody will find it, but trust me. Easier to go get it from the bloody crypt it came from.

And you might think it’s odd to bang on about what happened to the uncontaminated stuff, but it’s important. Because Merrill had it. And it wasn’t a little. I asked her if her people were going into the trade or something, and she laughed and said would I like to see, and so she showed me.

*

Merrill

I was a fool in my youth, and my foolishness was big and physical and obvious, a real thing, to show to friends perhaps, and I showed it to Varric. I thought at the time maybe he was needing a distraction right then – I thought maybe he’d be interested for the same reason I was, because the folly I’m prone to is a self-centred kind of folly – and I didn’t think at all that he was trying to get into my bed, which along with every other person who I showed he probably was: he certainly never managed it.

The keeper wasn’t home; the sheer impropriety of his First inviting a man up to her rooms alone was somewhat lessened by the fact that everyone and their sister knew I didn’t have the taste, for dwarves or men. And of course when I took the cover off it the half-finished enchantment just looked like a silver mirror faced with lyrium and runed about in white gold, and Varric raised his eyebrows at my fine-detail work and said that if I wanted to turn professional I’d have to –

I physically had to grab hold of him to stop him from touching it. It’d have had his hand off. And I said this, and he looked at it with new eyes and asked what the hell I was making, and so – well.

I say in hushed tones that it’s an elu’vi’an, and you don’t understand. I say it’s a magic mirror, and you wonder why I’ve spent a good couple of years’ work and more than the value of the whole alienage on making a mirror, maybe make a joke about the fairest of them all? I say it’s the only one of its kind in the world, that each city of my kind had one, and you begin to get an idea maybe. I say that they were strategic resources, the keystone of our war against the humans, maybe you get that expression like you think you might understand why I’m doing this – you don’t – I say that it’ll be a stable window into the dream-world, and your eyes go wide. I say that I saw it in a dream, and you do the other kind of not understanding, the kind with the scowl – I say you don’t understand, that the Dalish don’t deal the same with spirits as the Circles, and you give me that look that says you aren’t so sure I’m all there.

But you don’t tell anyone else, do you, Varric. Not right then. You don’t act on your worries. Because you killed your own brother, and I saw, and right now my lips are sealed.

And I already said I was a fool, didn’t I?

*

 Varric

Ever get one of those days? So what I did after my little visit with Merrill was, I marched almost straight down to Gallows Isle, not in the best of frames of mind as you can probably imagine, and I asked to see someone senior.

A loud voice got me an ear; a well-known face got me a receptive one, but it wasn’t for honesty that I was known. Coin got me in the door, to at least talk to a templar officer – I mean, don’t be so shocked, it’s not like I could be a mage or a dangerous heretic. And that’s about where unspecified dire warnings start to gain traction, and that got me up a layer, and more specific warnings got me an audience with the Knight-Commander.

Concerns? From a rival supplier? Who charges what for Aeducan-grade lyrium? And I claim contamination, saying it’ll drive them mad?

She bloody laughed in my face.

And I may have seen red. Those bloody people. Incompetents playing with fire and they had the gall to patronise me about it. Knowless idiots. Going to die screaming names of dead gods that weren’t even theirs. And yelling at Knight-Commander Meredith bloody Stannard never did help, not then, not later. The woman called me a heathen, she shouted me down and told me I was lucky she didn’t arrest me for profiteering – when I’d lost out on how much profit by being honest when the Great Storm hit? – and eventually she actually had to have me physically tossed out on my diminutive arse.

And you know what?

Fuck ’em.

I made sure that Aveline knew – and the city’s honest watchmen kept a weather eye out for templars acting out. I told Anders – and he nodded shortly and it seemed that he changed nothing about his behaviour. I tried to get it into Tobias’ head – and I got a promise of his support if I could work out how that was useful, and he returned to whatever it was that he and that bloody Antivan gold-digger were up to next. I sent the information back up the grapevine to Orzammar – and got nothing, of course, not even an empty parcel of thanks.

But, dammit, it wasn’t enough. It couldn’t be enough. The world was going to go mad, and I knew, and I couldn’t stop it. Best I could do was start battening down hatches. If you’re looking for a reason for what happened in Kirkwall, for all that came after – you’ve found one. The first red lyrium, and how it got to the Templars, in one. Right here. The Tethras expedition. The sin of the elder brother. And the failure of the younger.

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