Hawke’s Flight, Chapter Twenty-Six

by artrald

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*

Kirkwall, sunset of 18th Ferventis, the thirty-seventh year of the ninth Divine

My dear Mynah,

The delegation arrived in Kirkwall on the 14th, and if the Knight-Commander had had her way we would never have left Gallows Isle. I would like to add the caveat ‘save to return whence we came’, I truly would, but as the Maker’s Bride hears my case, I do not know if we would have come out of there if we had not had the loan of Knight-Captain Varault. We were verified against illusion and counterfeit before being allowed a single step off the boat – a step taken onto what had quite clearly once been a commercial area and was now entirely taken over by the templars’ own operations. We passed another couple of such checkpoints – visual inspection of each member of the party by a separate novice, verification by a scrawny young harassed-looking mage – before passing even into the courtyard, and had we not had communicant templars to give in secret the signs of their Order I suspect that we would have failed just on the grounds of suspicious amounts of innocence. There were nearly enough people in the inbound security alone to run a whole Circle – I counted, and Varault verified, forty-seven Templars (communicants all, notes Varault, down as far as even the novices).

In short – yes, we may quite believe their assessment of what Gallows Circle costs to run, and it is perfectly possible that they are the only people in the whole city who are not cooking their books. We were to be housed in quarters meant for visiting nobility – apparently they literally had no cells left in their barracks – our protests that this left the Cleric’s attendants nothing to sleep on without violating the Rule fell on unsympathetic ears, and thus painted into a corner by my adopted superiors I write this after several nights lying on a hard and uneven floor, staring at the feather-bed I could have been resting upon had I come as an unvowed tertiary rather than a novice-attendant and longing for my days of sleeping rough.

I was not allowed inside the Circle proper. Security was tight – apparently there had recently been some kind of break – and I decided not to bear the attendant risk of verifying the claims of safety. All I will say is that if they were running their Circle according to Rule, then they also had three-fourths of the Circle’s Tranquil playing servant. I saw none in that place that were not mage, Templar or Tranquil, save for my own adopted brothers and sisters. We had the unnerving experience of being literally waited on at table by Tranquil – the templars would not allow me and the other lesser ranks to serve our superiors as one ought. This is nowhere in the Rule.

The morning after our arrival we expected the tour of the city: that was, I suspect, the first taste of suspicion for the rest of the embassy. Anybody that we wished to see would be brought here upon transparent pretext, and we could thus meet under conditions of safety: the reason given for such measures was that walls in Kirkwall had ears, along with a pack of arrant drivel concerning potential maleficence. My adopted superiors made the requisite fuss – noting that they gave Varault a chance to give the signs of the Templars in privacy, and could this not be reciprocated – and the answer was that the templars here could vouch for the complete absence of illusion, and thus clearly such measures would not be required!

Honestly at that point I could not decide what was true. Whether the templars were in matter of actual fact under continuous and malicious infiltration by a group of puissant and subtle mages with power beyond that of any Circle-trained caster, and their frankly paranoid rhetoric was justifiable – or whether one of the largest confidence tricks that I had ever seen was being played out right before my eyes. The problem with the latter hypothesis was the old one: cui bono. To whose benefit was the trick?

Most Circles, as you may or may not be aware, are sought-after postings among the Templar Order. Duties are, for the most part, light, easy and pleasant. The orders of almost every templar, even in most emergencies, are to maintain calm and keep themselves and their charges as far away from any kind of worry or strife as they possibly can – the accommodations are generally very good – compared to the stresses and strains of life as a mage-hunter, a Circle Templar is supposed to have it very easy. But these Templars behaved as if they believed their own scaremongering. They looked genuinely harried. They were clearly getting only barely sufficient sleep. Their barracks were overcrowded, even with a new chapter-house in the city proper. Even Knight-Commander Stannard looked haggard and underfed, not bothering to conceal the deep circles under her eyes. Their words were what you’d expect from a city in open revolt – the same words that had officially had the special embassy extended in the first place – in their eyes I could see that same look of those who believe in their hearts that they will not outlive this war – and yet the absence of casualty figures seemed to belie this. Whoever was winning this, the templars clearly did not believe it to be themselves.

That afternoon, then, I left Gallows Isle and headed into the city proper. Blood was notably absent from the streets; no dragon or sorcerer-king that I noticed sent me demands; the wolf and the lamb appeared to lie down separately if at all; the sermon of the chantry had been given the eighth chapter of Threnodies to preach on, and although I strongly suspect that the Maid of Ferelden would have strung the preacher up by her ankles for the account of the Fifth Blight that resulted, it was nothing but orthodox. No matter how I strained my ears for the sound of horrors and evil, all I heard was the life of a city. And there were elves perfectly unconcerned on the streets – and while various people would have my ears for this comparison, there is a proverb about the behaviour of rats aboard sinking vessels.

I visited upon Grand Cleric Elthina that evening, being another perfectly sensible suspect for the potential fraudster; roughly speaking, I deem it unlikely. She is reminiscent of the more successful of the senior clerics of Orlais: that is, she has the intelligence not to remain truly aloof from politics and the wisdom not to interfere in the issues of the day. Her concern for the effect of ongoing moral panic upon her congregations was real enough, and her conception of the distinct lack of emergency in Kirkwall matched with my observations upon the same.  She appeared to be neither the target of the scam or its originator – but there was one thing, one thing further which she said which I was not expecting. She said that a local worthy, the hero of the Invasion, a man by the name of Tobias Hawke, had been to see her only the other day upon some very similar issues, and there was something he had said that had stuck in the mind. He was trying to acquire a gift for his lady fair, who reading of the civilised delights of Orlais had demanded no less than a nightingale – and perhaps the Chantry could source one, where he had failed?

I meet with Hawke in two hours: this man might well be that which we seek, and thus the delay while I found out more about him. I have set to paper my useful observations so far, in case I do not return. I knew a Hawke family in Ferelden – a Kirkwall heiress who’d run away from her name to marry a footloose bard and ended up putting down roots in Lothering, three children of whom I am almost certain the younger boy was a troublemaker named Tobias – but they are believed to have died in the Blight; if they had not, then we are looking at a man of great resourcefulness from the youngest age. He would have been about seventeen when the Blight ended in 9:32.  First attestations I can find to him in Kirkwall are in the year 9:33 as a Hightown bravo, a confederate of the dwarvish merchant-adventurer Varric Tethras, likewise a self-made man who was more than happy to confess to the profits he has been making out of the Templars’ expansion under the guise of negotiating a potentially exclusive supply arrangement.

A mysterious windfall of capital attributed to a number of things, but most likely simple profiteering from the Great Storm in the month of Parvulis 9:35, catapulted Hawke to a position among the city’s movers and shakers, an advisor to the Viscount upon the qunari, and then the spearhead of the city’s defence against the same – although a cynic might comment that it was not until the city’s position had become truly desperate that he moved in to save the day, and note further that eyewitness accounts of the man’s duel with a qunari leader mention what looks a very great deal like a subtle abjuration of entropy placing a thumb upon those scales, despite the official templar account not containing anything of the kind.

He has the form to be our fraudster. I cannot prove a thing. His public face is exactly and only that which he controls. His reputation is impeccable, but not in the sense of being righteous: a better description would be that those who speak poorly of him tend also to be quickly uncovered as criminals of some kind with unimpeachable cases against them, making wholly disingenuous allegations against Hawke in the hope of cowing him into silence – or so the record states. It is telling that nearly a full third of the people indicted under the Templars’ most recent crackdowns in Kirkwall have been his personal enemies. He is reported to have the influence and the charm – despite his tender years – to have whipped up this kind of a public frenzy, and his alleged taste for and success with powerful women is such that although I see no evidence of an affair with Knight-Commander Meredith I cannot rule one out.

He is known to have trained under the Rivaini duelist and thief Naïsha of Llomeryn, a woman of no little fame and one not to be trusted; her preferred alias ‘Isabela, Pirate Queen of Antiva’ may or may not be the same woman described to me as Hawke’s mistress. He is known to have worked repeatedly and readily with Kirkwall’s captain of the guard, of whom it has been said that if only she had the desire, she could name her price as an instructor at any royal court in the Marches. And magic or no magic, if the eyewitness accounts I have heard of this man’s duel with the Arishok of the Qun are even close to true, then he is a holy terror with a blade – and roughly speaking, an edge like that requires to be whetted daily.

I go now to acquire eyewitness testimony of my own. Maker guide these words to those with eyes to seek the truth.

Nightingale

*

 Neutral ground had been chosen. An eating-house in Hightown, not overly exclusive, but with a cerrtain amount of privacy available at least. I was in the guise of an out-of-town mercenary, deliberately slightly out-of-place in ill-fitting citywoman’s skirts, and he’d be able to see I was well enough armed underneath. The first impression of this man was attractive, wealthy and dangerous, in that order. In Ferelden he would have been had up for wearing that sword-belt of his, and he knew it; the man positively stank of his adopted homeland’s customs. The accent as he greeted me was too local. “Good evening, m’sera. Would you by any chance be the one who could source me a discreet nightingale or two?

I responded with a Orlesian accent and a smile, mostly to see if I could get him to play – “I can trade you one for a Hawke?”

He had a politician’s expansive, confidential laugh. “We’ll see. Can we negotiate here?”

“Well, now.” I didn’t take my eyes off his. “That depends on whether your mistress is indeed Antivan.”

He raised an eyebrow. “Because an Antivan doesn’t care what she overhears?”

The lady in question was sitting directly behind me, disguised as a shopkeeper; to one not paying sufficient attention she’d appear to be eating like a starving woman. “Because an Antivan would get mad at you, and not at me; I value my skin, ser.”

“Antivan enough.” He chuckled. “I was told you were a man.”

“La! Surely I must ‘ave my couturier poisoned.” A fox’s smile. “I’d a mind to meet with you even before I ‘eard of your interest: I am not fond of mysteries upon which I cannot lay a finger. But come: you asked for me, by my reckoning, and not the other way around. For what reason might a powerful man such as yourself be interested in some songbird of the night?”

“For once?” He sat back. “Much as I’d love to say it wasn’t business, it absolutely is. I’m to play performer tonight, my lady, rather than audience; it isn’t that I’ve a song to listen to, as that I’ve one to teach.”

“I do so adore the songs of Kirkwall. Please, messere. If you feel you can speak ‘ere, my time it is yours.”

He nodded shortly. “I’d say I’ve been getting disturbing rumours, except that you’ve heard them, I’m guessing, a dozen and a half times since you woke today. You’re aware I do a variety of my work pro bono publico, so to speak -”

“-And roughly what you mean by that work, yes. You ‘ave a knack for making enemies of the most terrible of criminals, messere.”

“What can I say?” He spread his hands. The tales that he learned his trade alongside a dwarven merchant are almost certainly true. “I’d normally just tell you that I’m a good judge of character. Truth is, milady-” aha: a Fereldan upbringing, common as muck under it all – “Where are you from? Because if I say these words to someone local-”

“I seek the truth, Hawke. It’s what I’m for.” In his eyes I saw that he needed more. This was a moment for trust, and he’d used a password we’d given to the right people – “In this world I answer only to the Lord Seeker and to Divine Justinia, ser.”

He blinked. “My people said you’d be worth speaking to, but-”

“How’d you say? The Divine may give the impression of aloof serenity, ser, but she did not reach that office by fucking about. Speak.”

“All right.” He pinched the bridge of his nose. “Look. You’d better be who you say you are, because these words are enough to dig your grave if you aren’t.”

“Go on, ser.”

Sigh. “You say I have a lot of terrible criminals for enemies. Truth is, there’s just a lot of scum that’s floated to the top of Kirkwall – and a whole lot of mud flying – and if the mud and the crime don’t match, the criminal is one and the same. I didn’t start this storm. But yes, I’m riding it out. D’you get me?”

I raised my eyebrows right on cue. “An awful thing to accuse your own self of.”

“These are awful times.”

“But the accusations that ‘ave seen a half-dozen of your foes into death or exile and penury, you will admit that they are not founded?”

He grimaced. “Milady, you’ve read ’em. More likely that this city is truly full of blood mages, abominations and demons? Sat on top of an ancient elvish burying-ground and a nexus and confluence of all that’s foul, despite having the biggest assembly of Templars this side of Orlais?”

I looked at him flatly. Time to play another card. “The Arlathani halaman you speak of is up Sundermount a way, but it’s quite real – did you think that the magisters of old chiseled cities out of mountains merely to show that they could? Any mage would tell you demons are as common as bad dreams, and of course a big city is a confluence of both; there are likely one or two incidents of maleficence a year in any Circle’s sphere of influence, and I’d be outright surprised if there ‘ad never been someone from Gallows Circle possessed in the time you’ve been a citizen of Kirkwall; but do go on.”

He winced. “Well, that little lot does more to verify your credentials than a dozen passwords and codewords. I’m inferring you’re here because you saw a plume of smoke and came looking for fire?”

“In a manner of speaking. I am ‘ere for a number of reasons, ser. But one of them is surely that there seemed to be a discrepancy between the reports we were receiving from different sources, and that is a fire of quite another sort.”

“I can imagine.” He inclined his head. “But concerning what I’d have called ‘templars’ work’ before seeing what that means to the templars of Kirkwall, let me set your mind at ease. Much of this ‘smoke’ is nothing but the daily background noise of Kirkwall, which-”

Haleine d’Auteur, you call this the background noise?” My reaction was not entirely feigned. “A Chapter Tribunal two times in one year is reason enough for a crackdown, and there was one last week and nobody batted their eyes! In Val Royeaux I ‘ave ‘eard sane people discussing seriously what it would take to bring a legion ‘ere! And we go to the Circle and find there ‘as recently been a violent escape, of all things – and find that their roll of charges ‘as not increased in number for the past five years, despite the usual rate of discovery of new mages – that there ‘ave been no transfers out – that there are more Tranquil than there should be – that the Templars are patrolling on the very corners of the streets?”

His lips moved soundlessly. “Meredith.” Then more normally, “I see what you see.  And I’m telling you that this is what has become normal, here. The Templars stepped in to fill a power vacuum after the death of the old Viscount – no heir, no clear succession, and nobody with enough might to make right of a power-grab. There were noises about the legality of all of it – people quoting their Rule at them, and suchlike – and from there to here is a straight line.”

“That the city’s apparent maleficar problem is entirely manufactured, a justification for the Templars to remain in power? That truly speaking, there are no kind of flames ‘ere?”

“And the establishment is quite literally blowing smoke. Yes.”

“And you are, what? Simply profiteering? Riding out the storm? Making the best you can of it?”

“It’s drown or don’t.” He frowned. “They’re going to string somebody up, milady. It might as well be somebody who needs stringing up.”

“And you’re telling me? Just – admitting to it? Just like that?”

“I know, right?” There was something behind his smile, just right then. Something a little bit brittle. “Look, milady. A man who threw away his career, his brotherhood and maybe his life to get us this chance to meet, told me that you were the prayer I had of bringing this down.” He leaned forward, put his elbows on the table. “This is a boil. A pustule full of pus and lies. And speaking as somebody neck-deep in this, I’m telling you that the secular authorities don’t have a prayer of lancing it. The Grand Cleric -” he shook his head – “She has the authority, but neither the will nor the certainty that she’d be obeyed. The Templars are already turning on one another, but – but I know where that will lead.”

I caught his eyes and held them. “Enlighten me.”

“It’s like a village in a dragon’s shadow. We out here can keep our heads down, occasionally leave someone out on the old sacrificing rock, and I’m just stocking that rock up with people who deserve it rather than innocent high-born maidens. And one day that dragon will get bored and go away, or go mad and die. But – The mages. The Circle. They can’t keep their heads down. They live with that dragon.  They did nothing to deserve it and they’re going to be caught in the middle. And a lot of bad things – worse things, I should say – will happen to a lot of innocent people. And I can’t stop that.”

“And you think I can.”

“You wouldn’t be here if you couldn’t, milady.”

Wheels were turning behind my eyes. The Circle meant something to him. The rest could have been lies. But the Circle connection was the only reason for him to involve me, knowing it would implicate him, hoping I wouldn’t care, but hope is a poor way to run a career. “I’ll want evidence,” I said. “Testimonies, if you can manage them. Examples. And genuine cases against the people you brought down.”

“You’ll have it tonight.”

“Then my bird shall be gone for Orlais with the sunrise; I know that the Divine’s attention is upon this matter, and my missive will come to her own sight.” I bit my lip. “I cannot truthfully offer you more, ser.”

The frustration was evident. “Fabulous. Another strongly worded letter. The hand of the Divine is rightly to be-”

I frowned. “The hand of the Divine must be very careful what it touches, ser. Yes. I could indeed provoke an instant reaction, should I choose.” My gaze was cold. “Do you know what is meant by an Exalted March?”

That sat him up straight. “You’re joking.”

“As I said. From what we could hear from a thousand miles away? A solution both quick, conclusive and decisive, and one that was on the table when I left. The compromise solution was to distrust the reports of the Templars and to send the Seekers of Truth to investigate personally.” Narrowed my eyes. “Now, would you like me to precipitate that holy war? Perhaps I should set fire also to your house?” I sat back. “Or would you maybe like the right thing to happen instead?”

Deep breath. “Evidence, sera. To your hand. An hour.”

*

Kirkwall, dawn of 19th Ferventis, the thirty-seventh year of the ninth Divine

My dear Mynah,

The City of Chains is in a deeply troubling situation. M’s reports, where true, are so only by accident, but this is not entirely the poor woman’s fault – all and through her organisation I find wound a frankly baffling thread of lies that I cannot unpick. See enclosed my initial thoughts, including an account of our arrival – the institutional paranoia defies simple belief. Missives coming down the chain of command treat largely in euphemisms and absolutes and legal terms usually the province of the more abstruse of textbooks of canon law, and only replies in similar manner are accepted. Our templars have partaken in rites here and found them wholly orthodox, though, so the unthinkable cannot have happened; what we have here is simple abuse of temporal authority rather than anything more sinister. But that abuse is on an institutional scale. Can an organisation itself go mad?

The root of all of this is quite likely the lack of temporal leadership for them to push against: they have been asked to step up into a role they are only supposed to fill in emergencies, and they have therefore stepped up under emergency measures. They are not, in fact, breaking their Rule, however much they are bending it: they are sticking scrupulously to rules which are supposed to be in force for weeks at most, and in wartime at that.

Speaking to the temporal authorities, though, is an exercise in frustration. The state of emergency creates a climate of fear in which anything that the Templars says goes; in sucn an environment, who would stand up and be counted? The most likely leader to emerge is the twenty-one-year-old Tobias Hawke (interview attached), for whom the ancient post of Marcher Champion has been dusted off: the man’s official political role is to represent the city’s interests to the other cities of the Free Marches, chiefly in a tradition of trial by combat that has not been invoked since the tenure of the Fourth Divine. But the man himself would not accept a puppet role, and the city’s Assembly would not accept anyone so young as anything else – no coalition has yet emerged with a broad enough base of support to provide a weak Viscount, and all other potential candidates for a strong Viscount died in the qunari invasion.

I have been unable to find a clear beneficiary of the power vacuum: despite the expansion of the templars here, they do not appear to be benefiting from success and are giving off more of a siege mentality than an air of the court of a tyrant. Hawke and his business partners are doing well for themselves, admittedly, but my interview with Hawke – an excellent actor, and a contact to develop – leads me to believe that if it is him then he has created a beast he cannot control or put down. More likely, Hawke is struggling to control a thing of someone else’s making; nonetheless, though wildly popular among the people of the city and personally rich and successful, he gives off a precarious air. He has an interest that he will not disclose – perhaps a close friend – within Gallows Circle, and his apparent cooperation with me was largely secured because he was (wished to appear) out of options in defusing an increasingly poisonous situation.

The accusations against the last eleven people arraigned by Chapter Tribunal in Kirkwall are groundless, but nevertheless the city may be transiently better off for this injustice: please find their true crimes attached, credo Hawke. If the city’s guard-captain is ever at a loose end, Raven will want her, although she is too old to become a Seeker proper.

Concerning the Templars’ business dealings, Hawke’s partners were unable to supply me with more than a specious accusation of the use of substandard black market lyrium, couched (as was everything in that city that anyone wished anyone else to take seriously) in suitably overblown terms. Hyperbole is in fashion here, it seems, even among the lay-folk and merchants. Nevertheless, you may wish to put out feelers concerning lyrium that produces a reddish lustre when wet, not blue or metallic; the source here swore upon his father’s grave that that was a sign of contamination and demanded vehemently that nobody should consume a red lyrium decoction on pain of consequences that he was not capable of conveying intelligibly. Perhaps the library at White Spire will have more to say.

Despite the reports, despite the panic, despite the plausibility of the rise of a powerful, intelligent and subtle abomination (of which I have seen no sign) and the very real fact that the city is dry tinder awaiting a match, despite all of this: the answer is to be found in reining in the Knight-Commander and installing a real authority. The delegation leaves today, bearing a report written in M’s presence and rune-sealed under her gaze: the report recommends assistance and reinforcements. Send it. Immediately. Send it in the hands of Raven, Kingfisher and half a legion. Make landing in peace if possible – the old Tevinter harbour is not something I would wish to try to assault – and act with certainty and purpose and swiftness thereafter. Show up prepared to invade, and you will not have to: the templars are feared, not loved, and that fear is part of the problem. Send any surviving recusants to Therinfal to await the Lord Seeker’s pleasure. Install Hawke as viscount pro tempore if no other candidate emerges; with one of us at his shoulder to balance him, at least initially, let him temper or burn.The Game was once played little differently in Kirkwall than in Orlais; Kingfisher should be right at home.

But regardless of how the aftermath is handled, my dear, the recommendation for the Divine is at heart simple. Intervene. Decapitate. Restore. Soon.

Nightingale

*

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