Hawke’s Flight, Chapter Thirty

by artrald

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*

Varric

Never, ever, ever should anybody sane think to make an assault upon Gallows Isle if it’s being defended. It’s nigh on impregnable. The harbour makes a fantastic moat;  by the time we were taking our boat across, some sorcery had perfectly logically lowered the water level around the island by ten feet, very simply making the dock itself into a curtain wall. At least, as Cullen said in an undertone, they hadn’t bloody frozen it.

And in the next couple of minutes the Knight-Captain taught us exactly what templars were for – because if we hadn’t had him, we’d have been flotsam and cinders. From up the top of the tower there was a flash of orange, and a bead of light the size of my fist flashed down – and it was only the templar’s bone-deep self-belief that made the fire that it burst into no warmer than a warm bath. Tobias was yelling that the mages were stupid bastards, that we were here to help – the fireballs did stop, after the third one, but I’m going to blame the fact that they blatantly weren’t working rather than anything that he’d said. But roughly speaking, the rest of Aveline’s people, you could not have got them into those boats for love nor money.

We had neither ladders nor grapnels nor tons of rope with us, and it was fourteen feet up the dock rather than a manageable four – Isabela matter-of-factly tied a loop one-handed in the boat’s painter and had it over a bollard in a single cast. Practically ran up the thing, then spent a few precious and (to her) humorous moments teaching a templar how to loft a rope far enough for her to catch it. And can I just say that watching a man in full armour climb a slippery wall with a wet rope never, ever gets old.

It’s just bloody lucky that the templar guards recognised Tobias and (when he’d finally been hauled over the edge) Cullen – one good charge and we’d have been driven straight back into the water. Still, their relief curdled a little when they realised who we’d brought – clearly they were expecting twenty fresh and unbloodied templars, and what we had was five – and when the Head Enchanter and the two he had with him pulled themselves up, we found ourselves at the centre of an actual ring of swords.

The Head Enchanter, ironically enough, was the one to defuse that – he saw them draw, fell immediately to one knee, laid his staff on the ground and took his hand off it. That at least got them to lower their blades enough for Cullen to explain, and in pretty short order that got us into Meredith’s command post in an old overseer’s building by the foot of the tower – although they didn’t give the Enchanter his staff back, and a templar kept an ungentle grip around the wrist of each mage.

And, well. You know how today had seemed like such a nice, quiet day until now?

The first that the Templars outside had known that something else was wrong was when none of the guards inside had reported back. Someone had gone to throw open the doors between the templars’ barrack and the Circle proper – he’d ducked back as fast as he could, still lost two fingers and all the skin that had touched the handle – a wall of ice stood there now. The front gate had woven itself together and into the walls and floor. The window-slits were iced over. The place had been built as the abode of magisters in the days when this had been a slave-city – was there any surprise that it was easy to secure with magic?

So they were planning their way in when we arrived. Meredith’s staring sunken eyes lit on the Head Enchanter immediately; she stepped the four paces over to him and nobody gainsaid her and she just picked him up by the throat with one hand, physically lifted him off the ground like he weighed no more than a feather – well, I was impressed. I couldn’t have done that. Anders, poor bastard, he might’ve been able to. No other human I’d ever seen.

“It was you,” she hissed. “You warned them. You blew up-”

“He didn’t.” Cullen spoke up. “Commander, he saved our lives. The perpetrator was on site, showed himself nearly the moment you turned your back. I arrested him; he resisted, was about to have a damn good go at blowing me away. Orsino took him down.”

She let the struggling elf back down onto his feet, and none too gently. “Convenient.”

“Indeed. If he – or I, for that matter – had been planning that one, don’t you think we’d have planned a little better?” Tobias took the Enchanter’s side. “I knew the perpetrator. He was a-” brief pause, a stutter of thought – “A drinking crony of mine. Last person you’d suspect. He betrayed me, and us all. And he’s dead. He confessed. Described how he did it and why, not that the why made any more sense than anything else around here. And given your habit of arraigning anybody who bears a passing resemblance to a purported criminal? I’m at least an associate of his.” He looked across at the warded gate of the Circle. “But he did all his work outside the Circle, for all he thought he was trying to help them. Leave the innocent out of this.”

“Clever boy.” Her eyes narrowed. “So plausible. I knew you and yours were profiting from the conspiracy’s… depredations. I knew you were up to something. But I also know your relationship with the truth, when the chips are down – and much as I’d love to believe you, your timing is off.” A too-wide smile. “The apostates had sealed their gate before we even arrived, Hawke; I turned up here to find a Circle locked up tight with all its remaining guardians on the outside. So either they were warned by Orsino or one of the mages with him – or they knew this was going to happen, from your agent inside the Circle.” She raised her eyebrows, as if presenting the discovery of an inescapable, hidden truth. “Which is it?”

“Well – neither! Of course!” Tobias took half a step back from Meredith. “See it from their side, my lady. For months now you’ve been overreacting to every tiny slight and provocation and jumping at shadows. Suddenly something genuinely bad happens. What the hell are they supposed to do?”

“Those with nothing to hide -”

“End up first against the bloody wall! Do you know nothing?” Aveline practically exploded in the Knight-Commander’s face. “Look. I have kept my place and I’ve held my tongue and I haven’t said anything and I haven’t rocked the boat, and everyone from the Viscount down assured me that you knew what you were doing – and you know what? Here we bloody are.” The sweep of her arm took in the Circle and the island and everyone on it. “Yes. There was a crime this morning. An actual, real atrocity, one like you’d have us believe happens every other week. And I got to see – first-hand for once – how you go about investigating. And you know what? All the nonsense that Tobias keeps feeding me about how you don’t give a little pebble-crap about who actually did what? I’m afraid to say, my lady, that it looks about bloody accurate.”

Meredith inclined her head. “Are you finished, citizen?”

“Fuck you.” Step forward took her right into Meredith’s face. The two of them were of a height. “Knight-Lieutenant Wesley Vallenn, Ferelden Circle, seconded royal army, was my husband for seven years; don’t tell me I know nothing. I know people like you. We had them in the army; we get them in the guard. Truth is whatever you say it is. Justice is whatever you happen to want today. Fairness is when you get your way. Order is when people do what you say. Honour is when your superiors give you the orders you want, and when they don’t then they can go and fuck themselves. And you want precisely one thing.” She poked the templar in the middle of her breastplate. “To feel big. To feel important. To feel like you are queen unquestioned of your own little island. Now, me? I sack these people. I kick their arse and bust them to private and set them to cleaning the privies until they quit or they change. But you? Some brain-trust put you in charge.” She snorted. “You’re there to police the mages. Make it so the rest of us can trust them? Now don’t you tell me that in all your years of training, nobody told you that you can’t police people who don’t want you to. For sure, that’s not how to run a prison. But you know the thing about a prison? The really basic thing? Everyone inside wants out. And with people who can make their dreams into reality? People who can call down the lightning and part the actual sea with but a word? You know what you really don’t want to do?”

Meredith’s arm blurred, but Aveline saw it coming. Moved quickly and in a clatter the Templar was on the ground with her arm twisted painfully up in Aveline’s grasp. “Oh, I’m sorry, my lady. Was that supposed to be a challenge? Think this is Ferelden, do we, or Orlais?”

The scrape, then, of half a dozen swords coming out. Tobias and Isabela had drawn. I had my hands out of sight in my coat, and who could tell what I was holding. Half the templars were staring at us, hard flat cold focused eyes, bared steel. Cullen hadn’t drawn.

And Meredith, of course, said the worst thing she possibly could. “Unhand me, commoner bitch.”

So Aveline looked Cullen straight in the eye. And then put her whole armoured weight into a savage twist and everyone there heard Meredith’s elbow splinter, and the Templar bit her tongue and went completely white and didn’t scream. “Captain Cullen, your Knight-Commander seems to have been injured resisting arrest.” she said. Still holding Meredith’s wrist. “I’ll offer you the chance to take command of this situation. Or if you prefer, we can take it from here.”

*

So it was crazy. Absolutely crazy. The Templars took Cullen’s orders (just about) and backed down (just about) – possibly mostly because it possibly looked like we knew what we were doing, while Meredith was on the floor on her face and had been talking about breaking down gates that could have held off any ram that you could physically land on Gallows Isle even before you accounted for the magic. But it was fragile, it was tenuous, it was a truce and not any kind of peace between us and the templars – and of course, it was time to charge on to the next thing. Keep them off-balance, keep them stunned by your audacity and they’re too busy finding their feet to harass you – a Hawke plan through and through.

So Tobias and the Head Enchanter and the Knight-Captain just walked out onto the plaza before the Circle’s gate, completely in the open, weapons sheathed, no staff, no shield; just walked up until they were in easy earshot of the gate. Didn’t have an olive branch or anything big and white, so they settled for spread open hands. I just about caught the Head Enchanter whispering to them that if the mages that he could sense behind those windows decided that the three of them didn’t deserve to live, then they were dead.

“Parley!” Tobias’ voice echoed dully off the Circle’s wards. Surely at least the mages on the walls could hear him. “Knight-Commander Meredith has been removed from command and placed under arrest. On behalf of the Assembly of Kirkwall I’m here with Knight-Captain Cullen to negotiate an end to this madness.” He looked from window-slit to window-slit, trying to see any proof that he wasn’t talking to thin air.

Nothing.

“A siege and a standoff help nobody!”

No response.

“Maker’s sake. I know who destroyed the chapter-house, and I know they aren’t in the Circle!”

A long silence. He turned to the Enchanter. “I’m being heard?”

The elf shrugged. “Unless they’re specifically trying not to listen. I know you’re being seen.”

“They may just be content to wait,” rumbled Cullen. “Our mages are almost completely unused to the unexpected in life, Champion, or to the real world much at all. They’re not expecting a parlay, so they may just simply have ignored you. In much of what they do, if something you didn’t expect happens, the sanest response is to hide-”

A splintering sound from the door, and a grinding of stone on stone. Slowly the massive black timbers unwove themselves from the ground and one another. Slowly the hinges protested and groaned, and one leaf of the door cracked open.

So the mages had decided to send out to us rather than let any of us inside. Five of them, there were: two men and two women and an elf boy, dressed in uniform gear, silverite mail over deep crimson leathers, most reminiscent of the garb Anders would wear for the serious stuff; three of them carried staves, and – and the one bringing up the rear burst into a run the moment she’d got out the gate.

I had her in my sights across the court by the time Cullen had drawn, by the time the other four mages had bunched together like this was the trap they were expecting – and Tobias and Aveline and I all cried to hold at precisely that moment, and the running woman skidded to a halt pretty much halfway between the two parties and blushed scarlet –

And Tobias met her and threw his arms around her shoulders and normally when I’m telling this I’ll make some sort of metaphor of it.

Because it was Bethany Hawke, of course. A few hairs gone untimely grey and a good few pounds lost, and damn, that girl looked good in tight leather and bright mail. But that was Bethany. And she was holding on to her brother like she was worried he’d turn out to be a dream.

So the Hawke twins looked at one another another good long while and took as much of the spotlight as Hawke could gather; he turned to Cullen and Enchanter Orsino and made introductions, and she laughingly noted that he’d just introduced her to her own superior; the weight on him, it was starting to look like it was lifting. We’d successfully made contact with the mages without being set on fire; Meredith was under arrest, the Templars safely under the command of the respectable Cullen; the four of them turned to the Circle’s delegation, ready to –

A sword’s point made itself known at the side of my neck.

Sidelong look identified a woman holding that sword – templar, she was, all dressed up, hard flat fanatic’s expression. Finger expressively to her lips. Shit.

Not a signal, not a sound. Three of them burst into action as if choreographed, falling on Aveline as she held Meredith’s bonds. Hand over her mouth, one to each arm, forcing her to her knees; Meredith flexed her muscles and – yeah, I thought she had a broken arm there too – the rawhide ties snapped like so many blades of grass. Isabela had simply disappeared, like she’d never been there.

And that was why no alarm had been raised when a semicircle of armoured templars stepped out of outbuildings and walkways and places you wouldn’t believe you could hide a templar, and the plaza before the Circle was suddenly ringed in the bastards.

Bethany reacted first, dropped her brother’s shoulder and took a hasty step back, and in that instant light gathered to her like a star had come down to roost. The others in quick succession, turning, drawing weapons. One of the mage delegation crying “We’re betrayed!” and Tobias responding with “So are we!”

Cullen stepping forward and demanding to know what the hell was going on. And a crossbow-bolt lofting out of almost nowhere and piercing his breastplate. Not, I hasten to add, mine.

Tobias yelling to the mages to get inside. Bethany saying calmly, “Like hell,” and a wall of blazing white heat half a dozen feet high springing up between them and the Templars.

And at some unspoken signal the templars charged straight through it.

World compressed to the immediate as the woman threatening me resolved to kill me. I saw her do it. She wasn’t an experienced killer. She took a deep breath before moving her blade and in the same instant I spun backward, got me this scar right here. Dropped to a knee, avoided her hacking cut and gave her a bolt through the heart.

Meredith gave the restrained Aveline a final kick in the belly with a sound like a hammer on iron and left the guardswoman doubled up on the floor; she spat on her, spun on her heel and left toward the Circle. Picked up the pace, started running; hit the wall of fire like it wasn’t even there. Two of the templars who’d had Aveline by the arms, turned in my direction; Bianca’s enchantments had another bolt ready, so I raised her stock to my shoulder and asked them if they felt lucky.

*

Isabela

Normally, telling this story, people make out like I went off in a huff because Tobias was paying attention to someone who wasn’t me. Like I couldn’t recognise that family resemblance soon as look at them. Just goes to show that people are idiots. Nah – it was just, you know, I didn’t trust Cullen one inch, let alone the rest of his little lot. While everyone had an eye on the front door, I’d seen a back door on the map. So I went.

And I was right. And I was too bloody late. Blame the concussion. Still had a nosebleed. But I got there just about in time to hear the door splinter, start to hear the sound of templars doing what they trained for. Magic, right? Whether it’s Anders and his complete batshittery or Merrill and the ancient lore that took everything she had and wanted more, right down to some poor bastard who just wanted to be a greengrocer and suddenly found he could shoot lightning out his arse, the single common theme to all magic is that it takes a bad situation and it makes it worse.

And Tobias’ plan – assuming that it wasn’t just all bullshit in the first place, just an excuse to save his sister’s hide – was to stop people fighting and make them talk. Didn’t matter who was fighting and didn’t really matter why. That could be sorted. Just stop the people who were really, really good at spreading a bad day around from being given the worst day of their lives. Oh – and live through this. That was always the plan.

So I made a hard decision. I made a decision that killed a few people, maybe. Maybe it saved more than that. Depends how you’re counting.

Because what I did was, I cut off the way behind the first squad of templars to go through into the Circle. Moment they went past I got in that doorway. Drawn sword, hand on hip, big unimpressed smile. Stared down the squad of templars who knew exactly who I was in Kirkwall. Invited them to come and have a go if they thought they were hard enough. Made it their fault, made it into a conscious decision to attack me when I wouldn’t get out of the doorway. It wouldn’t work forever. It didn’t work beyond the next officer to arrive, and I had to drop back to the backup, which was actually using that blade.

Thing is, right, most Templars aren’t really trained to use that sword they all carry, not properly. What they’re trained to do is intimidate and threaten, to deal quickly and summarily with terrifying conditions under bloodcurdling threats, to resort to the sword only if their words and the power of their sacraments isn’t enough – but frankly, their day could have done with half an hour less on their knees and half an hour more putting wasters to pells – their bladework was crap. I mean, all of them had that funny curved shield that a Templar carries – but they were using them like nobody had ever taught them how, pretty much hiding behind them, no aggression to them at all. They were all mailed and armoured, while I was still dressed up for a civic event – still had makeup and jewels on, for Bride’s sake – they could’ve rushed me, they should’ve closed. But what they did was, they tried to bloody fence. The first one to try, I disarmed him in two passes and a kick in the fork.

And I tried not to listen to the sounds coming from behind me. Dozen templars had gone past me. Whatever happened in there would be bad. But it’d be worse if I let anyone else through. I pointed my blade at the next likely-looking lad and my smile asked him if he thought he could do any better than his fellows.

*

Bethany

The fighting in that courtyard, I remember nothing more than disjointed flashes. Tobias yelling for me to get back and my swearing at him. The templars crossing my wall of fire like it was a cooling breeze – but I knew they’d be doing that, I did it because I was scared of the archers, wanted to throw their aim. Iocasta picking Cullen up under his arms and trying to drag him back inside, making terribly slow going because his aura stopped her even strengthening her own arms.

I do remember that Felicia took an arrow – it just clipped her, but there was so much blood, and it just seemed so unfair because she was wearing armour, and wasn’t that the point of armour, that this didn’t happen? I remember that I threw a bolt of force at a templar and his eyes were so afraid – he was younger than me – sharp splinters from his shield and his breastplate scythed into his fellows, their defences worth nothing against simple concussion. I remember the first templar to reach us, almost throwing himself onto my brother’s sword-blade. I think it was one of the ones who saved my life the day I was caught. Damn them. All of them. This didn’t have to happen.

The people on the walls made that courtyard into hell itself. Fire and air and earth and water and rot and illusion and terror and confusing angled planes of sheer force. Most of the spells were people’s basic defences, the ones you use against bad dreams – never intended for use awake – but the Resolutionists, the ones who’d started this, they’d studied. They were ready. They were using Tevinter spells crafted to fight templars – don’t care how much you don’t believe in magic, you can still fall in a hole, you can still drown.

Somehow we made the gateway. Iocasta dragging Cullen inside, Felicia leaning heavily on the elf Almaxi, Orsino staggering, Ethan unable to get himself inside quick enough, already starting the spell-invocation to seal the gate as he turned. Me and Tobias there, him with blade drawn and bright, me with both hands full of white-hot flame.  The feeling of something coming, an aura that was not like the others, a – we both yelled at each other to get inside – I was first. And we slammed the gate and dropped the bar.

And a dozen heartbeats later a fist literally punched through it. Grabbed the bar And bloody tore it open by main strength.

Knight-Commander Meredith stood there like a reality check to the face. Where her eyes lit, our focus withered. Her aura – she wasn’t just communicant. She was so full of lyrium she should’ve crackled when she moved. I swear her eyes were glowing, a dull red. And – somehow – she’d torn open a gate both spell-sealed and mundanely wrought, snapped the bar and splintered the hinges and left the ward in ruins completely. With one hand.

Tobias was on her before any of us could really react. Why didn’t matter any more. There was just him, and me, and something that wanted to hurt us. Her expression was demonic as she struck for him, her sword almost like part of her arm – he wasn’t there, and she didn’t even bother dodging his reprise, it just stuck into her side. Reached down unconcerned, grasped the sword by the blade – he whipped it back towards him, she twisted her hand and he lost four inches off the end of the blade.

He went for her again, going for her face. She’d have let him, too – if he’d been willing to trade for a sword in the gut. So it went – they danced – it had been years since I’d seen my brother use a blade, and he hadn’t been idle. Meredith wasn’t fighting like she was human at all, hardly bothering to defend herself, even, and her blade was swift and terrible. But Tobias fought like a shadow with sharp pointed edges; it didn’t matter that her blows were the edge of an instant from cutting him, it might have been a hundred miles. Every pass, it seemed like, he struck her. If she was human, she’d be streaming blood in a dozen places. But it was looking more and more like she wasn’t.

She glanced him. Once. Just glanced, but it hit him like a sledgehammer. He fell sprawling and there was this terrible realisation that there was nobody else in the hall who knew more than the very basics of which end to hold a sword, and even looking in her direction made all of magic feel like a game for idiot children. Tobias rolled, leaving a dirty stain of blood on the floor, and drew a stilletto and stood between her and me.

Another flashing pass, and another. Blades crossed, sparks flew, and it was clear, just so terribly clear that she was stronger than him. And she was in full armour, even if it was impractical showy ceremonial kit, and he was in the torn and battered remains of something that was probably fashionable this morning. And he was sweating, and bleeding, and breathing hard, and she was moving like a demon, a picture of a person, correct in only the details that were useful to her. You can’t fight that with a stilletto and a broken rapier, not even if you’re a shadow. It doesn’t work.

He danced away from her an instant, skipped around to one side, still light on his feet. I had a clear line. I had a trick left. I stopped playing with the little vial I had in my hand and reminded myself this was not the first time that a Hawke had done something that didn’t work.

And I said the name of the brother who brought me home safe every night, the one who’d always looked out for me whether I will or no. The one who’d tried to stick behind so that Dad could’ve got away from Lothering with us. The one who handed his quiver off so that he’d be the one getting all covered in poisoned blood. The one who died for me. Carver, I whispered, and I felt the spell catch, and the lyrium ignited the instant it hit my tongue.

Soft feeling for an instant, like the world stretched and snapped back into place. Blue fire. The sound hit me like I’d run into a solid wall. The wave of heat was enough to burn my outstretched nails to the quick and set my sleeve on fire, to turn half of the whole world into after-image. Vaguely noted Tobias diving backward, tearing off a shirt suddenly on fire. This was a whole ounce of lyrium, more than I’d ever handled in my life, and – think of having one blow, one single strike of the hammer to make your work just right, and all in the time it takes a hammer to fall – and it struck home. The ruins of the gate were incinerated. Stone shattered and wood disintegrated. The ceiling would need putting out before it caught properly. The flash would’ve half blinded anyone who hadn’t seen what I was doing and shaded their eyes. The gout of fire spread into the courtyard and what happened there I don’t know.

And Meredith stood there in the middle of it with a patronising smile and her armour didn’t even warm up. And her voice cut the roar of the flames and the sound of the chaos outside like a knife. “For she who trusts in the Maker, fire is her water,” she said, raising her blade before her. “As the moth sees light and goes toward flame? She should see fire and go towards Light.” And she took a slow, measured pace forward as we scrambled back, getting away from the heat, getting away from her –

But I hadn’t been aiming for her at all.

I had been aiming at the floor under her feet.

And calf-deep molten rock doesn’t give a damn if you trust in the Maker.

Knight-Commander Meredith made it two steps.

*

Aveline

It was much later. The fighting would continue for some days yet – though all of the templars who had broken through into the Circle itself had been put down or out at bloody cost, it would be several hours until the bloodshed upon Gallows Isle had ceased and some days until the Templars in the city proper offered formal surrender.

The Hawke twins were playing fetch-and-carry for the field hospital. The aftermath is always longer and dirtier than the fight, and if the tireless strength in the two of them was more likely due to magic than their own fitness, such was understandable. They were keeping themselves busy for as long as there was work to do: if it appears unbelievable that Hawke would be anywhere other than the front lines during such fighting, the reader is invited to remember that his sister had had excuse to drag both of them for treatment for burns and other assorted injuries.

Upon being pronounced good to walk by her own healer and seeing the Champion, Aveline practically grabbed the man and took him aside. His sister came with him like his shadow – Isabela turned out to be standing exactly where they ended up – Aveline had intended for this to be a private conversation – she sighed and got on with it. “Hawke, ser – a moment of your time, if you’d be so good.”

“Since when d’you need honorifics for me?”

“Since I need the Champion, not Leandra’s boy.” Aveline kept her eyes on his. “Tobias, everything is about two hours from going to hell.”

“Nope. Impossible.” He stared right back. “Already gone, my friend. Didn’t you notice, with all that murder, brother against brother, the-”

“Oh, give it a rest,” she growled. “Look. Right now, what remains of the citizenry and those of the guard who aren’t out there trying to arrest templars have their eyes fixed on Gallows. Let alone everyone else. And what they know is that you and I and Meredith came here and then the Circle basically exploded. We have a very short window in which to stop this turning into-”

“‘We’.” He looked at her flatly.

“Yes, Champion.” She made a quick abbreviated gesture towards the rest of the hospital. “Meredith and her inner circle are dead. Cullen’s the only living Knight-Captain, and he might not even be that tomorrow with that wound. Half the Assembly are decorating a pile of rubble in Hightown. I am the officer commanding the only remaining viable force of any kind in Kirkwall. There was a magical disaster, people are terrified, the Circle streamed magic in all directions and unless we do something, and soon, we are going to have a public order disaster to go with all the other disasters today.”

“So what are you sitting talking to me, for?”

Exasperation. “Tobias, you are surely not that dense. This city needs a Viscount. It needs a leader. Tomorrow, yes, we need to know what happens with the Circle. Next week, we need to deal with the response of the Chantry. But today, right now, within the next couple of hours, we need someone standing up and telling them that the shops can open tomorrow free from the fear that their customers will be abominations and heretics and looters.”

“You said.” He nodded to her. “Good luck.”

“For the Maker’s -” she clenched her fists – “This is the time, Tobias. This is where you show them you’re a hero, and not just some fellow who happens to keep being in the right place at the right time.”

“Nope. Sorry.” He shook his head. “You’ve got the wrong man.”

Her eyes narrowed. “What?”

“Hero, you said.” He shrugged. “Instead of some fellow who happens to keep being in the wrong place at the wrong time. And I’m sorry, but I’m honestly, really just the latter. What’s going to happen is, right – you’re going to go out there, and you’re going to tell them what you said needed saying. You’ve led people before. You’ve got form for the whole heroism thing. You’re going to save the city and lead it into this new age you want. Change the world, or at least our corner of it. It’ll need a good hand on the tiller and I couldn’t think of anyone better.”

“And what are you doing through all of this, h’m? Just going back to lounging back and playing idle-rich?”

He glanced at Isabela. “You’ll never see or hear from any of the three of us again. No undermining. My word on it.”

Aveline blinked. “You’re leaving?”

“We are.”

“Tobias. In all seriousness.” Aveline spread her hands. “I’m not the leader these people need. You are.”

“Bad luck to them, th-”

“Don’t you dare.” She raised her voice. “We need you. I need you. Damn you, Tobias, I can’t do this alone!” The room went quiet.

And Hawke practically exploded in her face. “You know what happened the last time I gave orders, Aveline? You’re fucking standing in it!” Snatched a breath. “And the time before? Oh, let me think. That’s right. D’you remember? Do I have to draw you a little picture?”

Aveline looked at Isabela, standing there tight-lipped and still. “You seriously expect me to blame-”

Leave it!” His voice echoed in the stone hall. “Fucking leave it! Everything. Every single fucking thing I’ve done since the Blight, Aveline, it’s been for one thing. One thing, right? Us. Me and Bethany and Mum. And I took my eye off the ball and went to seek my fortune and the bad guys came and took Bethany away. And I fell in love a-and-” his voice cracked – he went on – “don’t you dare tell me I couldn’t have stopped the Invasion if I’d only bothered to ask twice. And I was just keeping my own – fucking – head up above the waterline as the city filled with bullshit and I never even noticed that half of it was mine, and then you know whose fault all of this is?” There were tears in the corners of his eyes. “You know where Anders got that lyrium? You know where he got his conspiracy? His contacts? You know that on any given day for the past five years I could have decided to get up in the morning and turn Anders in to the Templars and they’d have given me a fucking medal? No. You know what? I’m out of the game. This is where I fold. I’m done-”

Aveline slapped him.

Or, rather, it was not truly correct to call it a slap. This wasn’t a personal insult. This was anger, pure and simple and irrational, born of seeing a man with every qualification and talent to become a hero, a man who was exactly what the world needed, her friend’s son, a man she’d sworn to look after, throwing it all away on one single self-destructive idiotic headstrong impulse. Refusing to clean up the mess on the grounds that he believed it was he that had made it. And besides, Aveline’s hand was closed, not open, and her fist took him on the point of the jaw.

And Bethany caught him, and Aveline and Isabela stared one another down, and the pirate’s voice was very very quiet. “Go on,” she said. “Try it. Dare you.”

Aveline spat on the floor. “Get out,” she growled.

*

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