Hawke’s Flight, Chapter Twenty-Five

by artrald

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*

Anders

Divination. As I might have hinted, you-know, occasionally, once or twice, a week, for years – it’s my actual talent. Staring into abysses and seeing the real. That kind of thing. Although, of course, you end up either sleep-deprived or borderline narcoleptic if you want to know what people are up to in the daytime – and let me tell you, while everyone says wouldn’t it be great to know what everyone does behind closed doors in the watches of the night, the truth is frankly pretty dull, awkward, repetitive and drab, as truths usually are when they aren’t being sources of terrifying distress.

And right there and right then, it meant that I was keeping the hours of some kind of owl. I’d wake in the evenings, run my clinic till about midnight, join Tobias and Isabela for a debrief the end of their evening’s drinks, wave them off and then collate my notes and meet my other contacts and generally make like one of those terrifying apostate spies that the templars kept maintaining the city was up to its eyeballs in.

And during the day, I’d sleep. I’d took another drop of blood from each agent of mine each week we were to be working together – and I could live with the rumours that I was a vampire, because those in the know knew that blood loses its potency after a while, and the lyrium to preserve all those samples would’ve beggared a merchant house, let alone a man who lived in a basement in Darktown. And everyone who knew me knew that I’d die before I became a blood mage.

And whose eaves was I dropping? Well, roughly, who else. Hawke hadn’t taken much persuading that it would be long-term useful to get a little bit involved in the Enemy’s politics, or at least learn the board and the pieces and the moves, the various factions and their various memberships among Meredith’s watchdogs and bloodhounds in the city as well as her guard dogs in Gallows Circle. And while I sold him on the usefulness of having friends, and I sold Isabela on the real and sure and certain need to avoid having a repeat of the Invasion with the Enemy in the giants’ role, there was a single particular thing that I was looking for, one singular thing for which I was searching, and its absence pricked at me like a sore.

No way that Tobias was a potential ally of the people I was trying to find. He was the Adversary’s man, you see. Faced with the option of a faction’s beliefs to espouse in the very vaguest sense, of course, he’d chosen the one he thought would be the most useful – that would be the one in charge, then – and he’d done a good enough job that my other agents reported to me more than once that I was going to have to do something about the Champion. While, yes, he never actually produced any results for her that someone else couldn’t have done, save that his work was cleaner and politer and without collateral damage – to hear him talk, to see him act, was to see someone who the Adversary could (if the foul creature had ever trusted anybody) quite happily trust with keys, front doors, valuables, secrets, you name it.

But, well, with him and my other agents shining like a beacon to me through the Fade, I could – carefully – explore. Reach out. The mages of the Circle were keeping sensible people’s hours, so it’s not like I was in danger of actual discovery, and the people in charge of the tower’s wards were using time-tested spells that every boy over the age of fourteen in any Circle I’ve ever heard of has learned all the holes in. And I was looking for templars, anyway.

Because, you know. Whatever excuse had allowed a spell-staff out of the Circle’s armouries, it sure as all hell wouldn’t have allowed it to get out in a mage’s hands. There was an insider. A turncoat. A Templar who’d, you know. Gone to chantry and paid a little more attention to the stuff about the Maker’s children and a little less to the stuff about his Gift.

But the real bastard thing was, I didn’t find them. This was what I practiced professionally, this was what I’d trained for, I was practiced and I was powerful and I was trying neither to drag my feet nor to uncover anything that should’ve been hidden from such as me, and I didn’t find them no matter how I looked. I found their footprints, right enough. I found the internal investigation, and the scapegoat the Adversary had strung up by the heels – an individual so thoroughly unpleasant that it was absolutely no surprise why he’d taken the fall. I found altered rosters and duty logs that in isolation would’ve looked no more than a little slipshod. I stretched my own limits to search for them after hours and outside the Circle. I eventually concluded that they had to be conducting their meetings in broad daylight at mealtimes, in some kind of code I couldn’t detect, right under my nose. Because no matter where I looked, there they weren’t.

Until something happened. Until I realised. Because it was percectly simple, and I swear this is the entire truth.

My own agents were in on it. They knew when I wouldn’t be looking. Because they knew when I would be meeting them.

And so it is that I genuinely was not involved when it was that they decided to do something about the Champion.

*

Isabela

Where there’s smoke, they say, there’s fire. Everyone knows it. And as bloody usual, ‘everyone’ is wrong. That one phrase has done more damage than a legion of chevaliers. ‘Where there’s smoke, someone cares’ is about as far as it goes for me, and that grudgingly. Because usually the one who cares is rich or powerful or both, and they’ve got something they plan on gaining out of the smoke. Cui bono, as they say in Tevinter – yes, well, that autumn Kirkwall was wreathed in great stinking clouds of smoke and the ones blowing it were the Templars.

I mean, seriously. Read most of the histories of the time and you’re hearing tales of the glorious Champion and his beautiful companion – and occasionally their plucky dwarf friend – battling through hordes of spectres and embodied demons and the walking dead. Seemed like it wasn’t fashionable to be a regular criminal any more – everyone was a blood-mage or a summoner of demons, a maleficar in every shadow, a sinister purpose to every common cutpurse.

Wasn’t enough to denounce from pulpits, now, either. In fact, the chanters and the priestesses weren’t frothing any harder than usual, on average – no. No, it was actually our self-appointed guardians the templars, them and their damned stooges, whether in Chantry or Assembly or wherever else. Not content with their hysterical recounting of encroaching swarms of apostates, now they were gaily moving on to the mages of the Circles – alleging great conspiracies, secret meetings, a growing “Resolutionist” movement alleging abuses in the Circles and planning revolution, they said.

And roughly speaking, cui bono – and if you’re thinking ‘permission to make it worse for Gallows Circle while doubling the price of enchantment and bilking out of the Assembly what’s more like a fifth than a tithe’, then, well, good for you. Terrified by speech after inflammatory speech, blinded if you like by smoke, the City of Coin turned out to be surprisingly terrible at following the numbers, and even people like Varric started moving things off the books. And I swear, I might’ve been a pirate, but by the time it all added up, Maker’s Breath, I was in the wrong business.

So Tobias and I, we were doing what we could – working out acceptable non-solutions to hysterical non-problems, keeping down the worst excesses of the rhetoric, sticking to the art of the possible – Bride, I sound like such a politician – and if we had to, making a plausible scapegoat of someone that we wanted rid of, to fit up for a non-crime rather than have the templars run some kind of circus act of an investigation and haul some poor bloody unfortunate in off the streets at random.

And I pretty much mean that. Aveline was at her wits’ end, keeping law and order in unpopular places at unpopular times, in places the templars didn’t bother muddying their shiny boots on the beat – and then the machinery of justice was so overloaded with accusations of ‘orrible crimes that she’d reluctantly got us to force through permission for her people to dole out summary justice to common footpads and burglars. And at the other end, any Assembly type with a brain in Kirkwall was using accusations of this kind of thing to bring down their opponents – which wasn’t what we were doing, which was taking the hideous Templar conspiracy theories that we couldn’t kill and using them as comeuppance for pieces of shit who the law couldn’t normally touch. In short, as I said, there was a vast amount of smoke in Kirkwall in those days, and the only coals we were finding were fake ones.

So the incident that set the next set of balls rolling, as it were – it didn’t exactly start any different and it didn’t exactly come as a surprise. A Knight-Captain vanished? A group of Resolutionist traitors, you say? Accused of plotting against the Order itself, you say? Rabbited just before their calumnies could be uncovered? Why, yes, my lady. Right as rain. We’ll get the whoresons for you, sera, dead or alive. And we swung into action without the shadow of a smirk. Didn’t think for an instant that what was going on was actually anything like what had been reported. Tobias reckoned it was insubordination, a discipline issue; I reckoned it was more likely just good old-fashioned fornication; and by the time we went round the likely places and got our people asking the right questions we were good-naturedly arguing over whether the vanished Knight-Captain had been screwing his boss or his brothers or both or neither.

So, roughly speaking, imagine my surprise to come back to Tobias’ after a couple of days’ worth of putting together a case against a templar on our shit-list and discover an envelope pinned to our front door with a knife. Don’t tell me we’d actually gone and uncovered a genuine conspiracy. The two of us kind of looked at the note and at one another, and he swore eloquently and creatively and I must admit that I didn’t have anything to do but laugh. Had to, really.

The envelope came with a scrawled note. I started reading aloud – some bollocks about how we needed to tread carefully or something we didn’t like would happen, an invitation to come and negotiate, not to come in strength or we’d find nothing, and so on and so forth – and I suppose that now was his turn to laugh, and he took it gladly. The buggers had actually threatened us. Same sort of language as the rhetoric coming out of Gallows Circle, pretty much. Worst thing was, of course, that someone threatening us for investigating this preposterous conspiracy was probably a friend. Or at the very least, someone we needed to tell in no uncertain terms to stop helping – I mean, Maker’s breath. Death threats against a man who’d called out the arishok of the Qun in a duel? Some people you want inside pissing out, rather than outside pissing in – I think we’d managed to find a group of people who pissed inwards.

*

And I hardly even want to tell you where they’d decided to make themselves a hideout. I mean, spread out, right? Low-key and quiet, heads down, hardly knowing one another by face, let alone name? Meeting only when they absolutely had to? Findable only by taking that note of theirs to Anders and having him dissect it with magic and will over a good couple of days to find every pair of hands that had touched it, every mind that had known of it? Yeah. Bollocks. Until we’d started looking for them, and I’m not making this up, they were meeting in a derelict building in Darktown. Men and women whose day jobs were – allegedly – to hunt down and capture dangerous conspirators, were literally leaving their barracks in disguise, coming furtively halfway across Kirkwall and conspiring – the lot of them – in person, together, regularly, in a building that pretty much had ‘secret nefarious hideout’ carved inch-deep into the walls. The wonder wasn’t that we’d nearly stumbled across them by accident – the wonder was that they hadn’t been found by Anders or uncovered by the city guard in the course of their natural duties.

And  then after they threatened us, they moved. That was sensible. If, you know, they’d split up and gone to ground. But not a bit of it. They’d simply moved their suspicious hideout to a camp halfway up a little-used trail on the lower slopes of Sundermount. You could literally see them from the road. I mean, they’d laid their camp out pretty well, militarily speaking. Lookouts, both obvious and not; snares and tripwires on major approaches; more than one concealed bolthole; clever use of natural choke-points; well-situated archers; the whole lot. I mean, if we’d been a small army then they could’ve held us off no problem. If we’d been a cavalry charge, we’d have been pretty much buggered.

Mostly, though, we simply walked up. Walked. On our feet. Asked to see the leader, asked to negotiate. Whose behalf? And Tobias just kind of looked at them and in we went. And I think that they might well have been a little bit put out by that, a little bit confused, because we pretty much walked straight into the middle of their camp, with their permission and everything. Stupidity on top of idiocy on top of arrogance on top of sheer bloody incompetence – I’m not really sure. I mean, I counted them on the way in. Little over a dozen of them, including the immediately recognisable Knight-Captain Thrask. Tall, broad, heavily muscled, neat little red beard; there aren’t two people like him in the whole Templar Order: by this point I was expecting to act like we didn’t recognise him because he was out of uniform.

And it’s supposed to be difficult to spot someone with the Maker’s Gift. It’s supposed to be this whole big thing, certainly it’s always in the rhetoric. You can’t tell whether somebody’s a mage or not, not unless you’re a templar or a mage yourself. They could be anyone. They could be your neighbour, plotting against you, seeing your secrets, after your blood, all that bollocks. But, you see, I looked around the gathering and I made this educated little guess. Just this habit I have. No, not a mage myself. Just, you know. The people wearing full armour, even if they weren’t actually wearing the habit? I think that they were probably templars. And the people off-duty, in gambeson and tunic and other such things that you wear under armour if you’re in the habit of wearing full case? They might well have been templars as well. I mean, they weren’t sharing a templar sacrament right that very instant, but it was just this feeling I had. Meanwhile, the three of them who were wearing slightly impractical ankle-length belted hooded robes, two of whom had staves and the third of whom had an entirely shaven scalp? You know what? I just went ahead and made the assumption that this little group had three mages in it.

Tobias spread open and unarmed hands in a respectful and fashionable bow. “Evening, Knight-Commander. I believe I received an invitation? Do hope I didn’t overstep by bringing a friend.”

“Funny.” Thrask wasn’t smiling. “D’you know how much difficulty you and your little investigation have been causing me and my people, Champion?”

Shrug. “Straight to business, then: we can do that. So I’m going to get the stupid question out of the way first, and don’t hit me – this is just something that I need to know before we go much further.” And Tobias glanced around at the mages. “Are you people genuinely serious?”

“Told you.” The mage without the staff, a woman, was practically dripping scorn. “Too close. Blinded by the Adversary. We’ll have nothing productive out of this.”

I’m afraid that I wasn’t helping. I was actually losing the battle to keep my face straight. I mean, this really was going past ridiculous. It looked exactly like something out of one of Meredith’s more excitable rants. I bit the inside of my cheek and started to make a list of all the ways that this could go lethally wrong in an attempt to fight off the incipient giggles.

Thrask glowered. “Funny, is it? Would you like me to enumerate the lives you’re endangering? The harm you’re doing on a scale that goes far beyond this one city?”

Bemused, Tobias stopped himself just before he uttered another sarcastic remark. “Let’s assume for a moment that I’m genuinely here to negotiate and you’re genuine dissidents. Scale, ser? This little club of yours genuinely goes further than the people I see here?”

Sigh. “If you’re not dissembling, then you’re woefully underinformed.” He shook his head. “Look. If you aren’t playing us straight, you’ll never leave here alive. If I’m not playing you straight, I’m perfectly aware that even if you do go down, you can probably make sure that I go with you.  I’ve read your history, Hawke. We all have. You’re no more a natural ally of Meredith Stannard’s than, than our mages here. So, yes. Let’s all do each another the courtesy of taking everyone seriously. I assume you’re not actually here to negotiate on behalf of the Knight-Commander for our safe and unmolested return?”

“I work for myself, Knight-Captain. I’m not wearing anyone else’s hat today.”

He nodded. “Very well. As an opening gambit, then, I’ll have an undertaking from you to back off your investigations. And I don’t mean another scapegoat. I don’t deny that the Knight-Commander will see an excuse to wind the Assembly up even tighter while getting rid of one of the people she never should have hired and not  look a gift horse in the mouth – but our purposes can do without the impression that there’s more to the scandal than Meredith’s saying. She’ll just manufacture something else.”

“It’s within my power, but that capital goes away, and quickly, if spent.” He met Thrask’s eyes. “Give me a reason.”

This whole thing was just so precious. I kept my face straight. “The growing rift between Circles and their guardians, ser. The issue of the hour, especially here. What other reason could there possibly be? I mean, it can’t exactly have been going unnoticed.”

“Rift?” Tobias raised an eyebrow. “Prisoners and their guards relatively rarely get on well.”

“That’s a gross misrepresentation.”

“Truly?” Tobias’ delivery fell flat. “Doesn’t look that way from the streets of Kirkwall, ser, let me tell you.”

The templar’s frown got deeper. “You’re woefully underinformed. The Rule of the Circles clearly guarantees the welfare of our charges, their rights, limited self-determination, a share of the proceeds from the work of their hands, a number of other things. The only other place where Circles are remotely like this is Rivain.”

Blink. “And so your reaction to gross breaches of your high principles is to club together, sleep rough and threaten arbitrarily selected local worthies?”

“My reaction-” He bit down on an angry retort. “We all swear to fight evil, lad. To sing the Chant isn’t enough: we are those who heard it and listened, took it to heart rather than treating it as a nice set of noises to make, and we shed our blood and use our strength and spend our lives in the cause that the Chant outlines. And nearly every novice we ever get needs teaching, early, that if they wanted a physical fight against an evil with an actual body that they can go and kick, then they should’ve joined the Wardens. Real evil isn’t out there.” He tapped his temple with a finger. “It’s in here. You can’t measure it with a ruler or find it on a map. And the reason for the Circles is that a mage can break that rule. A mage can take imaginary evil and make it real, or take real evil out of people’s heads and onto the streets. A maleficar is a failure, yes. Not of theirs, but of ours. Of the templars’. And you don’t make up for that by spewing bile and turning a Circle into a damned prison.”

“Nice speech.” Tobias looked around at the assembled. “Apologies for being a little bit slow to follow, ser, I don’t have your specialised training. What part of that leads to dire if non-specific threats, inept conspiracy and camping?”

The shaven-headed mage spoke up. “Got your attention. Did its job.” She was staring at him. “People disappear, in Gallows Circle. The unpopular, the ugly, the intransigent. Every month or so there’s a new regulation, another hoop to jump through in order to be allowed to live. My fake-pretend busywork job in the Circle was academic study, of a discipline they just outright banned out of the blue one day – caught me bitching in the common room, had my head shaved as a punishment – you wonder that I ran before they banned me and all?” Her eyes were piercing. I don’t believe she’d blinked. “Desperate people do desperate things. The templars you see around you, they aren’t the only people in the Gallows with a conscience. They’re just the ones who were seen showing one.”

One of the other templars, a tall thin young man, spoke up. “There are more of us than you think. D’you reckon the Knight-Commander would bring an outsider in if she’d control of the situation? It’s slipping through her fingers, Champion.”

Tobias shot a disparaging glance around at the campsite. “Meanwhile, you’re camping in the very lap of luxury, enjoying everything going your way – why, you hardly look like a pack of common brigands at all. Your next words were going to be ‘join us’, weren’t they?”

“For crying out loud, boy.” Thrask glowered. “It’s like trying to deal with some kind of Fereldan jester. In small words, for the hard of thinking? Your little parade of lies trades a little reputation for a lot of fear. And not just here. People are watching. Both sides. And there you are, deliberately muddying the waters-” and seeing Tobias open his mouth again, “Let me finish. You’ll back off, or everything gets worse, but that’s not why I brought you here.”

“No? You wanted to display some competence, perhaps?”

“Enough,” he growled. “As I said, people are watching, not least of those the Chantry. Meredith’s measures and her rhetoric match, for sure – but I know for certain that one of my own reports made it out, because my presence here is directly linked to my esteemed commander intercepting my response. You know who I was conspiring with, guilty-as-charged?” A bitter little twist to his mouth. “My superiors, Hawke. Val Royeaux. And they are sending a delegation.”

“A strongly worded letter and a courtesy junket?” Tobias raised his eyebrows. “Truly, the justice of the Maker is a thing to-”

“Have a care, lad. The Chantry hasn’t stood as long as it has by being fools. One of the delegation at least – more than one, if we’re lucky – will be more than he appears. We won’t be able to get within spitting distance, but you – it’d be an insult to the whole city if you weren’t invited. Find him, Hawke. Before you go stirring up any more rubbish. Find him. And for the love of the Maker, tell him the truth.”

“Whose?”

“Only one truth, Champion. And if you don’t understand that, then I’m not changing your mind in ten minutes.” Deep breath. “And here is where I give you enough rope to hang us all. The one you’re looking for, the password is ‘nightingale’.”

Tobias looked at the templar for a moment. Perhaps it was only that I knew the man well, but he was pretty clearly fighting down another bit of sarcasm at the incompetent ass. Then he nodded. “Nightingale. Is there a counter-sign?”

*

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