Hawke’s Flight, Chapter Eighteen

by artrald

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Isabela

Finally. Bloody finally.

Not that it hadn’t been fun, living the high life in the Kirkwall mansion of a man both richly fascinating and fascinatingly rich – but as I’ve hinted already, ‘other half’ is a title I’m not over keen on on the best of days, and without more excuses for why I wasn’t even talking to moneylenders about getting my ship back into shape and winkling out a crew and a new first mate, I was beginning to feel an awful lot like one. Swap the society balls for derring-do and clandestine hijinks, true, but if push came to shove I’d be forced to admit they were mostly just to keep my hand in.

So when Tobias was summoned to lead the Kirkwall half of an operation to recover a particular package – a package that the qunari had politely but pointedly volunteered a sten and his squad of unpronounceable goons to help him return safely, a package that nobody would tell anybody else of its contents – and I’d a decent idea what those were – and well, talk about a stroke of fortune. The main issue, as it turned out, was joining in without piquing Tobias’ sense for the unusual – why was I suddenly interested, when I’d avoided the qunari like the plague up until now?

Prudence, I settled on. Insurance. Trust the qunari suddenly, do we? Valuable, this package, right? My blackened blades and my soft shoes and I were there against the entirely reasonable circumstance that the qunari would take the package into charge and it would disappear without a trace. And I sold it like a champion.

The current custodian of the package was a Darktown scale, a man known to Tobias, not one I’d met; a man on the outs with sufficiently much of the city’s organised crime that get-rich-quick schemes and single big scores were looking attractive. Probably thought he’d acquired the clearly-valuable package for a song; clearly misled as to how hot the thing was, he acquired a buyer who would rather collect his bounty than buy his package; this sad little story clearly ends with said package being forcibly recovered by a beautiful, free-spirited pirate queen, so let’s cut to the chase.

This was the worst part of Darktown, that he was in; under the Tevinters it had been the city’s storehouses and granaries, and the great enchantments that had once kept the great dark monolithic barns free from rats and mould now simply attracted terrifying dreams and the occasional psychotic hallucination. Sleep here long enough and the desperation that brought you here would be the least of your worries; do business here and you’d best be bloody sure of your ability to defend it.

Our target’s place of business was clearly located in what he thought was a comparatively safe place – once a warehouse, this echoing hall had little in the way of cover or hiding places beyond the pillars that held the roof up, and three spare exits. He was expecting a face-to-face meet; masquerading as one of his own guards, he’d direct negotiations by sign-language while being close enough to an exit that he could bolt if things went down; you could see why the amateur wasn’t doing so well.

And of course, not only did his precautions mean his business was done extremely crudely, they didn’t even save him. Anders had smilingly handed us a map of the place that morning; qunari warriors stationed at the exits would handle runners. I got there before the principal himself, slipping in at shift-change and taking advantage of the abundant cover afforded by the rafters, and I had a good enough description of the fellow that his disguise didn’t fool me for an instant; Tobias and Anders and Aveline went in the front door.

And between the three of them, they were recognised by every single one of the lowlifes – overcome as much by reputation as by speed and skill at arms, they put up as much resistance as might a stiff breeze, perhaps a gaily painted sign forbidding entry, maybe a sternly worded letter. Those that fought were summarily and none too gently taken out. Those that ran, mostly ran right into fists the size of hams – the giants might not be known for their agility, but there’s nothing wrong with their reflexes, and nobody who’s seen one fight would call them slow.

The man who was dressed up and playing the part of the scale, Tobias had against a pillar at his sword’s point; clearly he meant to tell Tobias a pretty flavour of nothing, but changed his tune immediately the giants showed. Gave up the whole ruse immediately, folded at no bigger threat than the sten picking his nails with a knife – honestly. Bloody shower of lubbers, the lot of ’em.

Though I may have, uh, in that little tale I might have omitted the part where I had our actual target out the back of the warehouse through the exit we didn’t tell the qunari about, the instant Tobias came in the front. He came willingly at first, reckoning that I was the buyer he’d been led to expect – if he hadn’t got greedy, asked to see some silver before we got there, the whole thing would’ve gone perfect, clean and fair as anything. As it was, I had to take a bit stronger stance than I’d wanted. And so when the fake target was blubbering that his employer wasn’t in the room at all, one of the qunari trackers found just a few spots of fresh blood at the back of the place, and who knew that a qunari scout will track like a bloodhound?

Arse.

So I’d found the man’s stash in the second floor of some nondescript Darktown slum house, verified that our package was inside, fastened his ankles to his wrists with his belt like a trussed pig, and was in the process of dumping him out into the street when Tobias pulled the door open.

By his expression and body-language he was about ten feet in front of a qunari: words weren’t sufficiently quick or quiet. I exchanged a nod and a wink with him in the half-light, dropped our principal on the floor, swung the package up onto my shoulder and trusted in the goodness of the human spirit and the power of love to save my arse as I did a bunk out the window and left him to face the music.

*

So I can guess how it went from there. Forgive my imagination.

Exit the beautiful ISABELA, through a window.

TOBIAS, calling to offstage:
Dear friends, good ser, we’ve caught him! Search no more!
That knavish Scale lies trussed upon this floor!

Enter the STEN.

STEN:
The bas I see. Do you untie his gag:
I’m much agog to hear this knavish tale
That’s worth the nails and kneecaps of a Scale.

TOBIAS:
There is no need. I’ll give it to thee straight.

STEN:
Go on then.

TOBIAS:
An’ thou wilst. This is his Stash:
Thou find’st here all his Loot, his Books, his Cash.
Our Package too, the prize we’ve hunted for –

STEN:
Where is the thing?

TOBIAS:
It’s safe, and lost no more.

STEN:
Give it to me. My patience isn’t thick.

TOBIAS:
Unlike thy head. It’s off to th’ Viscount gone,
thou fool, then on his word and his alone
shall it unto thy master gifted be.

STEN:
O bugger that, thou scion of a flea.
Thou hast the book? Then grant thou it to me.

TOBIAS:
I have it not. Thou durst to call me short?

STEN:
Shut up. Where is the Tome?

TOBIAS:
What tome?

STEN:
‘What tome?’
Thou idiotic lad, what thinkest thou
had stirred me and my lads to be here now?
Some trinket fine? Pursuit of princely profit?
You know us better. We’re not dwarves. Come off it.

Look. My story, my rules. You want to ask the sten? He’s dead. Settle for what I heard through the roof.

TOBIAS:
I tell thee, ser, I know not what it is.

STEN:
Then canst thou clear of heart give it to us.

TOBIAS:
Tell me.

STEN:
It is not truly mine to say.
But we have no ben-hashrath, so I must.
The holy item that we seek this day’s
The holy Tome of Koslun, sacred trust.
It’s bad enough it’s touched by human hand:
To keep it? O, for that we will not stand.

TOBIAS:
I see. I’ll tell milord the Viscount so.
I’m sure his Eminence’s mind shall likewise shew
The wisdom of releasing it to ye.
But in that moment it shall granted be
And not before!

STEN:
Hmph. It had better be.

*

And if that had ever been part of the plan, then that would’ve been fair and excellent. But, well. I had my own plans for the Tome. You see, that scale had picked it up off a man he met in a pub, an out-of-work sailor looking to fence something he stole, too cautious to hit up the usual suspects because they’d have done exactly what you just saw done there. And he was out of work for a reason, because guess where he’d got the tome – and I’d stolen it to order, for a reason – and I had absolutely no plans to bloody hand it back to the very lot I nicked it from.

Shipwrecked mariners, my shapely arse. I happen to speak a little qunlat, and I happen to have been paying attention when Tobias talked about the giants and their different titles. And let’s put it this way. Three sorts of qunari, there are. Qun, which I’ll translate as ‘priests’ although they’re quite firm that they have no truck with gods; gena, who make and trade; and shok, who enforce the people’s will, whether in the fields or on the streets or on the battlefield. Then ari translates as ‘person’. And so the Ariqun, the Arigena and the Arishok are the priest-person, the merchant-person and the warrior-person: the high priest, the lord chancellor and the field-marshal. And as far as I have ever been able to tell, they’re serious when they mean that there’s only one of them at a time ever. So when Tobias said that the name of the qunari captain was Arishok – yeah. The commander-in-chief, the capo di tutti capi of the qunari army, and the hard core of his praetorian guard had come to Kirkwall on a transparent pretext, and whether they knew it or no, they were here hunting little old me.

And safe away, the reassuring weight of the Tome in the satchel over my shoulder, I laughed for the sheer joy of it. I’d just bested them all, for the second time running. And yes. If you must know, I did spare the odd thought for the handsome fascinating good-hearted man of mine that I’d just dropped so deep in the shit that the moment he looked up he’d wonder if daylight had always been that funny brown colour. But you know what? He’d’ve done the same to me, and no matter how much anyone might want the answer to be something other, that’s just the way the world is. It was just a matter of time. And I got there first. And if you want to find someone to blame for what happened next, well, it wasn’t what I did just there. If anything, it was the way Tobias handled it. My buyer. My idiot first mate. The storm. The Arishok. Sheer bloody chance. Shit. You know what I mean.

What happened next was not my fault.

And I kept up that line to myself for nearly the next thirty-six hours.

*

Varric

So where was I, that next day? World about to go to rack and ruin, you say? Done all I can, you say? Not enough? Nothing to do about it? Where the fuck do you think I might possibly be?

Damn straight. I chose the Hanged Man, because I technically owned a suite there, and the barman knew which side his bread was buttered in terms of when to shut up and keep the alcohol flowing. That morning, the morning of the day that everything happened, I had been there since the previous evening, and I’d sunk enough pints to reach the stage where pretty much everything else had dissolved except the growing conviction that not only was everybody irredeemably fucked but I was quite literally the only one who knew or cared. Drink away your troubles, you say? Pah. In my experience, you drink away everything but. When the landlord had wanted to close up for the evening, I wordlessly and lucidly stacked up a pile of coins to more than twice the value of that next butt of cider, and waved him good-night, and there was a hole in my tankard, the one at the top, and the cider kept escaping, so I kept having to refill it.

So there I was the next morning, doing a pretty good impression of an oak-apple – shrivelled, vaguely apple-like and bitter enough to etch iron nails – and in stormed Tobias. Wasn’t often I saw the man dressed like that – armed and armoured like he was off to some sort of war – without knowing what it was for, so I looked up. Bags under his eyes, he had, and his normally neat hair and beard were nothing of the sort – funny what you notice, when you’re stumbling drunk – and he practically pulled me off my seat by the shoulders, turned me to face him by main force and what-felt-like yelled into my face from a distance of about ten inches.

“Where is it?” he cried, and I must say, as opening gambits go it left a little to be desired. I burbled something that must have indicated my confusion, because he changed his tune – “She must have come here. She always comes here. Were you here? Were you here all night?”

I blinked slowly. “Where th’fuck else would-”

“What did she say? Is she-”

“‘She’s‘ the horse’s daughter; who’d y’mean, boy?”

He practically hissed with exasperation. “Who’d you think, lackwit? Isabela. I know you don’t like her, but she’d not have come through and not left a message, what did she-”

“You want t’ get a civil tongue in y’r head, ‘fore I pull out the one y’ve got ‘n go get y’ a new one?” I shook his hands off my shoulders, swaying a little on my feet. “F’r your information, there’s been no Isabela through here all evenin’, ‘n nobody who could’ve been her in disguise. Paint y’r face and dye y’r hair all you like, but an ass like that never lies.”

“Fuck.” He turned away violently with that one explosive swearword. “Wasn’t where I expected her. Turned up nothing myself. Her contacts, nothing. Aveline’s got nothing. Anders has nothing. We’d know if she’d fallen foul of any of the underworld players. This was the last of her usual haunts.” He pinched his brow.

“What? Y’r girl’s done that runner I always said she w’s gonna do?” I swayed. “Lemme play you the world’s saddest tune on the world’s-”

And in that moment he practically drew on me. Lucky thing the wall was there or I’d’ve fallen over backwards. Slammed me hard into the wall, hand in the middle of my chest, staring a little wild-eyed down at me. “Yeah? Not your problem, you’d say. Warned me, you’d say. Fine. Fucking fine. Take all the piss you want, Varric. Later. You know what she’s done, if she has run off, huh?”

“Cut y’r purse, huh?”

Fuck my purse. Varric, she’s run off with – she’s fucking absconded with the qunari equivalent of – uh. How to put this. It’s like she stole the original copy of the Chant of Light in the handwriting of Andraste herself.” He stared into my unsteady gaze. The room had gone quiet. He hadn’t noticed. “And if you hadn’t fucking noticed, my friend, then less than a thousand yards from here there’s an army. Of giants. Who want their book back. By noon. Today.”

I blinked at him stupidly. “Or what?”

“They will come and get it. Except they won’t get it. Because we don’t have it. They will come to collect on promises I made them. That I now can’t keep.”

“Well, that was dumb.”

“D’you think?” His hand slammed into the wall just beside my head. “Varric. I need you. Everything is about to go-”

“To hell. In a handbasket.” I took his hand off me and pushed him back, a comparatively gentle shove that sent him a good couple paces back. Stared at him obstinately. “And this is somehow different from last week, when I came to you and said everything was about to go to hell, and you told me that was all very nice but you had a prior appointment with a lady into whose bed you were keen on getting. Well, seeing as she ain’t here any longer, m’friend, I feel that I’m more’n justified in saying that right now you should go and fuck yourself.”

He stood there a moment. Shock, I guess, more than anything else. Looked me in the eye. Deep breath.

And then he left.

*

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