Garrett Hawke met Sebastian Vael in the Hanged Man the very night he was freed from indentured servitude.
As masters went, Athenril wasn’t the worst, but neither of the remaining Hawkes had personalities suited to serving anyway. Carver chafed more loudly of the two; that didn’t mean Hawke didn’t chafe at all.
Sebastian was a stranger, no more nor less than a willing participant in a spectacular bar fight. Hawke only took note of him because he came tearing down from one of the rooms upstairs, half dressed, fighting at range with a borrowed bow.
Carver broke a chair and used the back end to knock a few city guards’ heads together; Hawke used two of its legs, catching an off-duty templar in the flank when he looked to the stairs and taking the sharp-aimed stranger out.
It was a magnificent row. No table was left standing; Corff was underneath the bar for shelter, and Hawke heard his old friend Varric cackling in the fray. He had no idea what started the whole thing. Something about a beautiful pirate—Hawke would get the full story from someone, once the dust had settled.
Out back, breath forming hot clouds on the cold air, Hawke rested his hands on his knees while Carver laughed, then vomited.
‘You boys were good in there,’ the stranger said, a thick brogue coloring his voice.
‘Let me guess,’ Hawke said. ‘You’re not from around here.’
Usually Hawke knew everyone in the Hanged Man—everyone who was worth knowing, anyone with aim like that. The stranger called himself Sebastian but didn’t give a last name, or a profession other than ‘dedicated wastrel and adulterer.’
‘Now where can I get a job like that?’ Carver asked.
Sebastian tipped his tankard in a somber toast. ‘I’m afraid to tell you Fereldans generally aren’t very good at it. Now, Antivans or Rivainis… They’re more naturally suited to the task.’
Hawke pulled a few strings, talked to Athenril about it. ‘Just couldn’t keep away from me for long, could you, Hawke?’ Athenril asked. ‘And here I had money on you coming back in a little more than just one day.’
‘You, and your entrancing…contacts,’ Hawke agreed, looking deep into her eyes. ‘I can’t keep my hands off them.’
‘I’ll see what I can do,’ Athenril said.
First name Sebastian, last name Vael. ‘And if it sounds familiar, that’s because he’s supposedly a prince of Starkhaven,’ Athenril said. ‘Slumming it in Kirkwall’s rankest taproom, no less. What a guy. Doesn’t stand to inherit the family fortune though, not from what I can tell. Has two brothers in line ahead of him, so I guess that’s why he’s here in Kirkwall.’
‘No reward for kidnapping him?’ Hawke asked.
Athenril snorted. ‘If there was, would I be telling you? You don’t work for me anymore, Hawke. He’d be kidnapped and ransomed before I even let you know his last name.’
‘Oh, Athenril,’ Hawke said. ‘You do know how to talk to a man.’
Prince or no, the man knew how to hold his ale, and there was a different woman sneaking out of the rooms he’d taken every morning—sometimes more than just one. Sometimes not only women. Hawke was impressed.
‘How does he do it?’ Carver wondered. Over the music and the ceaseless gossip of the Hanged Man’s regulars, they could hear a fine lady shouting in ecstasy, the rhythmic thump, thump of a bedframe pounding against the floorboards.
‘The noise is unbearable, Hawke,’ Varric said, but from the glint in his eye, Hawke knew he was interested in getting the whole story. ‘Endless. Eternal. Until all hours of the morning.’
‘I could always kidnap him for you,’ Hawke suggested.
Varric took off his writing glasses and hailed Edwina down. ‘You mean you could always try,’ he corrected.
Later that night, a dusky Rivaini goddess with a golden lip-stud and no pants left Sebastian’s room, adjusting her corset, swaggering happily, like Carver had on the ship from Gwaren—before he found his sea legs.
She was new to the Hanged Man, herself. A lot of strange faces coming in these days.
‘Corff, I need three drinks and a seat for the night,’ the Rivaini said. ‘Because I don’t think I can stand up ever again.’ She moaned and purred as she lowered herself onto a stool. Carver’s jaw nearly hit the top of the table.
‘That’s Isabela, or so I’ve been told,’ Varric said. ‘Word around town is she’s a pirate. And if you ask me, I’d let her keelhaul me in a heartbeat.’
‘And if you did, you wouldn’t regret it,’ Sebastian said from behind them, throwing one arm around Varric’s shoulders, the other around Hawke’s. ‘So, boys. What are we drinking tonight?’
Hawke knew then and there that he needed this Sebastian fellow on his side. The man worked fast; he was a deft hand with a longbow, skilled where it counted, and kept a cool head in a fight. He had the kind of face you couldn’t trust but wanted to see more of anyway, and he could pitch his voice to sound sweet and innocent as a babe’s, then turn around and tell the filthiest joke this side of the Free Marches. Men liked him. Women liked him even more. Hawke got the impression he’d’ve cheated Andraste herself if they were playing a round of Wicked Grace together, and that was exactly the sort of partner Hawke needed.
Carver was a relatively decent brother, as far as brothers were supposed to go; he certainly knew how to smash anything that got in their way, and Hawke appreciated his skill with large metal weaponry. But he really wasn’t partner material, and besides, Hawke knew better than to mix business and family.
They already had enough trouble working together. Why do something that would so obviously make it worse?
‘Look,’ Hawke told Sebastian, while Carver desperately attempted to make it with Isabela, ‘I’m going to give it to you straight. I’m looking to change my fortunes in this city; scraping by in Lowtown has its charms, but I’ve got my eye on a Hightown mansion, which means I’m looking to…alter the caliber of my usual jobs.’
‘Fascinating story,’ Sebastian said, grabbing for Edwina’s hip as she wandered by. She laughed and slapped him, but unlike with the other patrons, she didn’t scream bloody murder. ‘And I’m sure you’ve got some reason for telling all this to me...?’
‘Because I think you’d be excellent at what I have in mind,’ Hawke replied. ‘Those blue eyes, your way with women and men… You’d be the perfect fit, if you’re planning on staying in Kirkwall for a while.’
‘A business proposition?’ Sebastian asked. Those blue eyes sparkled. ‘Interesting.’
‘Isn’t it just?’ Hawke said.
‘I do like the Hanged Man.’ Sebastian rubbed at the corner of his mouth with one nock-worn thumb. ‘Fine beds here. Fine people.’
Hawke glanced around, took a moment, took the whole place in. ‘Who doesn’t like the Hanged Man?’
‘If you can beat me just once in Wicked Grace,’ Sebastian replied, ‘then you’ve got yourself a deal, Hawke.’
Hawke did it. Twice, even. Cheated through his teeth to do it, too, but Sebastian never specified how.
That was what made them such good partners; that was why Hawke had known from the beginning. There was no one else for the job but Sebastian.
‘They call me Nuncio Broma,’ Hawke said, wrapping his arm around a lovely young woman’s shoulder. ‘Have you met my brother, Vincenzo? We’re famous in Antiva.’
‘Famous for what?’ the girl asked, arching a brow.
‘All sorts of things,’ Hawke told her.
During the Antivan Game, Sebastian wasn’t allowed to talk—his accent gave them away every time. Instead, Hawke told everyone that he’d had his vocal cords tragically severed by an evil magister from Tevinter. It was so easy to run afoul of them back home, what with Antiva bordering the Imperium.
‘He doesn’t need to talk,’ said their other companion that evening. She had lovely, flaxen hair, and her dress was worth more than all of the Hanged Man and its inhabitants. ‘He says so much with his eyes.’
They fleeced the girls—sisters—for a handful of sovereigns each; donations to the cause of the poor Broma brothers, both without a home, and one without a voice. Hawke waited outside in a Hightown alleyway for the silent Vincenzo to finish up his business—it was his throat he had trouble with, not his tongue—coins jingling in his purse.
Soon enough, there was a scuffling from overhead. Sebastian vaulted himself over the railing of the balcony, making his way down from the second story of the estate.
‘You have got to be kidding me,’ Hawke said.
‘Hawke, what do my eyes say to you?’ Sebastian asked, batting his lashes. His breath stank of brandy, and his skin smelled of sweat and perfume. Someone else’s bed; someone else’s body.
Getting this close to Sebastian always felt like participating in an unwitting threesome.
‘They say well done for coming up with this scheme, I’ll never question your brilliant ideas again,’ Hawke suggested.
Sebastian let out a loud laugh, the sound echoing over the high stone walls of the Hightown mansions. He slung an arm around Hawke’s shoulders as they made their way down the steps, tugging him to a halt as they stepped into the Chantry courtyard.
‘Do you see that building, Hawke?’ Sebastian always got maudlin on nights like these. Nostalgia, Hawke thought, and waited for it to pass. ‘That is where my parents wanted to send me. That is why I am here in Kirkwall, instead of enjoying the liberal bounties of Starkhaven. Though I must say, I am coming to appreciate it, here. There are no ports in Starkhaven, and no pirates at all.’
Hawke barely gave the Chantry a second glance. He’d never been a religious man, and the help they offered to refugees always came with a generous dose of guilt as payment.
There were deeper pockets to pick elsewhere, and more fun to be had while doing it.
After the sisters, they set their sights on the Comtesse de Launcet. Hawke had seen women like her in the Blooming Rose, desperately bored with Kirkwall culture and Kirkwall scenery.
What they needed was a man of quality. A man who looked handsome and worldly. What they needed was Sebastian Vael.
‘Begging your pardon,’ Sebastian said, helping the Comtesse with her groceries after he’d bumped into her. ‘I don’t know what I was thinking—I ought to have been looking where I was going. Such rudeness is, of course, inexcusable.’
‘Oh no,’ said the Comtesse, fluttering like a bird in spring. ‘The mistake was all mine, I’m sure. I don’t know where my mind is, these days.’
‘Perhaps it’s the sun,’ Sebastian suggested. ‘Would you allow me to escort you home, Mistress?’
Across the crowd, he threw Hawke a wink.
Hawke saluted, two fingers to his brow, and disappeared into the crowd to join Carver for drinks while Sebastian worked his magic under the brocades, curtains drawn to discourage peeping toms and hide faint wrinkles from harsh sunlight.
Work, where Sebastian was concerned, was no more strenuous than allowing well-trained servants to pour brandy for him in crystal glasses while they attended his every need. He made his own fun with the ladies of the house, as well—and, once, a young lord; as he told Hawke later, he didn’t bother discriminating—and though he preferred pirates to princesses, there was something to be said for undoing all those Hightown laces.
When he was finished he shared the stories with Carver, who hung on each word like he thought he’d ever be the same kind of man as Sebastian Vael.
Poor Carver, Hawke thought behind his cards. A hearty dose of realism would help him more than anything. But there was a place for raw muscle on every team, and his time would come eventually, if he didn’t get himself killed before then.
‘…but that wasn’t half so bad as when her husband arrived home early,’ Sebastian said, as Edwina poured him another round, the second one always on the house. ‘If he ever finds my smallclothes under his pillow, I cannot imagine the woman is capable of talking her way out of that.’
Carver shook his head in wonder. ‘The great Vincenzo Broma strikes again.’
‘Wearing nothing underneath his trousers, no less,’ Hawke said.
Sebastian lifted his glass, clinking the lip to Hawke’s and Carver’s in their nightly toast. ‘I’ll drink to that.’
‘To freedom,’ Hawke agreed.
They had more money now than Hawke had ever seen in one place. He laid it all out on the table in Sebastian’s room, while Carver watched and licked his lips.
Sebastian’s hair was still damp from Kirkwall’s spring rains, and he shook it out by the fireside, stripping down to his breeches with ease.
‘What will we do with it all, Hawke?’ he asked.
‘Buy ourselves wine, women and serving dwarves, I suppose,’ Hawke said. He split it halfway, but Sebastian shook his head.
‘I’ve had my fair share of coin for one lifetime,’ he explained. ‘I’m in it for the challenge. For the love of the game.’
‘Because you’re bored and you’ve nothing better to do?’ Hawke took the money; Athenril had taught him long ago there was no need for honor among thieves. It sat right with him because he wanted it, because it was smooth and cool to the touch and left the bitter smell of metal on his palms.
‘It isn’t the money that makes me happy,’ Sebastian said, firelight twinkling in his eyes. ‘I would rather chase one beautiful woman for all eternity than know I bought her for the night.’
‘Some people can’t afford that leisure,’ Carver muttered, and Sebastian laughed his Starkhaven laugh.
Vincenzo Broma was retired the night a raging husband burst into the Hanged Man, inciting a riot that nearly burned Corff’s place to the ground. The pirate joined in, and the dwarf living at the far end of the hall, and after the ruckus was over two men were dead, a third on his way to joining them. Flushed, wicked and wild, they drank from the tap and the pirate taught them her favorite Rivaini sea shanties, and that night Carver finally had her, or she gave herself to him, or whatever happened behind those closed doors.
It was a personal triumph for him—even if it was with Sebastian, as he put it, tagging along.
‘Hear you’re moving up in the world, Hawke,’ Athenril said. Hawke rolled over, fumbling for his smallclothes, and she didn’t move after him, or try to trap him in her nimble arms.
That was another reason he liked her. She always knew when something was done.
‘Am I?’ Hawke struggled into his breeches. ‘And who told you that?’
‘Don’t play newborn nug with me, Hawke,’ Athenril said. ‘Just ‘cause you’re not working for us anymore doesn’t mean I’m helpless. I got by just fine before you came along, didn’t I?’
Hawke leaned down to kiss her at her collarbone, where the pulse was still pounding. ‘That’s only because you didn’t know what you were missing.’
‘Just don’t mess with me or my turf,’ Athenril said, before Hawke showed himself out her door. ‘Just because you do that thing with your tongue doesn’t mean I care enough not to kill you. It’s not as special as you seem to think.’
Between Athenril and the noble husbands of Kirkwall, it seemed prudent to lay low for awhile.
Unfortunately, Sebastian was the sort of man for whom laying low was anathema. Maybe it was his royal upbringing, or maybe it was just some peculiar flaw of his character. Either way, he seemed to attract attention, no matter where he was. He was worse than an apostate in the Gallows, if only because apostates, as far as Hawke knew, were usually fully clothed.
‘Don’t look so sour, Hawke,’ Sebastian said, as he swanned by wearing nothing but a towel.
A normal man could catch diseases walking around the Hanged Man like that. Hawke didn’t even like to take off his boots in the taproom, let alone his pants.
‘It does seem like such a waste of a pretty face,’ the pirate said as she sauntered in after him. She was at least fully clothed—although come to think of it, Hawke had never seen her wearing pants before. ‘Chin up, handsome. I’ve got a cure for that. You just need to come below decks with me for a while.’
‘No thanks,’ Hawke said, smiling his best charming smile.
Unlike Sebastian, Hawke had no desire to come down with whatever infernal itch was sweeping the docks these days. Just because he’d earned some extra coin didn’t mean he wanted to spend it visiting a healer.
In the absence of being able to haul out the Broma brothers, Hawke took on some more straightforward jobs. There was a dwarven merchant offering good coin to anyone who’d clear the coastal trading routes of some nasty Tal-Vashoth. When he offered to split the take with Sebastian, he surprised Hawke and took him up on the offer.
‘There’s more to life than drinking and whoring, Hawke,’ Sebastian informed him, stringing up his bow.
It was a fine weapon, though Hawke couldn’t get it out of him where he’d picked it up. It must’ve been in some Hightown storeroom, during the wee hours of the night after he’d seduced the house’s mistress.
‘Is that so?’ Hawke asked. He knew he was being set up—it was just a matter of waiting for the punchline.
‘Of course,’ Sebastian said. ‘There’s also fighting. I like a good bar brawl as much as the next man, but these qunari should prove a more…interesting challenge.’
‘If by ‘interesting’ you mean bloodthirsty and relentless,’ Hawke agreed, strapping on his daggers.
Sebastian laughed, bright eyes twinkling in the sunlight. ‘I rarely ever mean anything else.’
Precisely one week after Hawke and Sebastian had cleared the Wounded Coast of qunari, a very special visitor slipped into the Hanged Man. It was clear that he was the type of man who didn’t want to draw attention to himself, which in Corff’s bar of course meant he stuck out like a bent nail.
He was clean, for starters. Dressed in fancy noble clothes, with an impeccable haircut. He reminded Hawke a little of that man who’d claimed to be the bastard king of Ferelden, before his uncle had shown up to reclaim him.
Embarrassing business, that. He’d called himself Alistair, but Sebastian always referred to him as ‘the man who stinks of cheese.’ Privately, Hawke figured he just didn’t like having any royal competition in the tavern, and so undermined his claims at every turn.
‘Who’s that?’ Hawke asked, keeping a weather eye on the man as he crossed over to speak with Corff.
Carver tore his eyes off his pirate queen by the bar. Then, helpfully, he shrugged. ‘Dunno. Don’t see his like in here too often, do you?’
Across the room, Corff nodded, then pointed to Hawke’s table. Or rather, to Hawke himself.
‘That’s something,’ Hawke muttered.
‘Hello, boys,’ Sebastian said, coming up behind them to ruffle Carver’s hair. ‘What’s the good word?’
‘Don’t know yet,’ Hawke said. ‘But it looks like it’s going to be fun.’
The noble Seneschal Bran—as he introduced himself, with much fuss and many a flourish—was excruciatingly uncomfortable in a place with as much flavor as the Hanged Man. When he sat across from Hawke on one of the well-worn bar stools, he cringed, and he kept trying not to touch the table with any part of his body. After all, Hawke had chosen the one with the most vomit stains, just to see his reaction.
‘I am here on important business from the...Viscount,’ the seneschal said, leaning closer over the table, his voice hush-hush. At least thirteen other patrons were listening and could hear his every word. They, too, leaned closer, the creak of wood almost audible over the sound of the bi-weekly belching competition taking place in the far corner.
‘Why don’t you step into my office,’ Hawke said, and when Carver and Sebastian both cleared their throats, he said, ‘I mean, our office, of course.’
Their office was actually Varric’s quarters, the back room with the big bed and the door that locked, but Seneschal Bran didn’t need to know that. Hawke introduced Varric as their business associate and bookkeeper, and Varric played the part beautifully, perching his reading glasses on the tip of his nose and making important notes on a scroll of vellum.
‘So, the Viscount’s heard of us?’ Hawke asked casually, inspecting a spot of cracked skin on the tip of his thumb. ‘What an honor.’
‘If you are the group of…enterprising individuals who took care of the Tal-Vashoth on the Wounded Coast, then a great many have heard of you—not just the Viscount,’ the Seneschal sniffed. ‘Yet don’t you think it would be prudent for men of your myriad…talents to do something for this city, even if it is clear that none of you happens to be native?’
‘Any port in a storm,’ Carver said. They all swiveled to look at him. ‘What? Isabela says it all the time.’
‘It’s an intriguing business proposition when a man comes to ask for your aid while implying you’re a dirty refugee,’ Hawke explained. ‘I believe that is what my brother was saying.’
Carver shrugged. ‘More or less. There’s only so many ways you can tell a man to learn some manners or bugger off.’
‘You are…refusing to hear my request?’ the seneschal asked. He was a man unaccustomed to being refused for anything, especially not by four out-of-towners in a cheap room in the scenic heart of Lowtown. ‘It comes from the Viscount himself!’
‘Now, let’s not be hasty,’ Sebastian said. In a world of good mercenary, bad mercenary, he always played the former part, whereas Hawke was better suited to be his angrier counterpart.
Carver simply was, the strong arm they needed when negotiations went south.
‘You know how we Fereldans are,’ Hawke added. ‘Always so sensitive about our heritage. Yet that sensitivity can be overlooked—depending on the price.’
‘Ah,’ the seneschal said, with a hint of something dry in his voice. ‘And here I thought you’d never ask.’
The pay was more than adequate; frankly, it was obscene. But they were working for the Viscount, after all. No one short of Knight Commander Meredith had more sway—or more coin—in Kirkwall. They agreed to do the job, no questions asked; Sebastian told Hawke his eyes were practically the color of two sovereigns in the firelight.
‘Oh, Sebastian,’ Hawke said. ‘I’m sure you say that to all the girls.’
Sebastian shrugged, one-shouldered, self-deprecating, always beautiful. ‘Well, more or less,’ he admitted. ‘But don’t worry. You’re the special one, Hawke.’
They showed the seneschal out after bargaining him up five more sovereigns to take care of his commission before the others already on their schedule. Hawke bodily removed a drunkard from falling against him on the way, and for the first time that evening, he was startled enough to appear grateful.
‘And I can trust your…circumspection in this matter?’ the seneschal asked, lingering by the door. Hawke wondered if it was out of concern for the delicacy of his charge, or because he’d noticed Isabela leaning amply over the bar.
‘Our lips are sealed tight as a Saarebas,’ Hawke assured him.
‘A qunari reference, I suppose; I will not ask for elaboration, and assume it has some relevant meaning.’ Seneschal Bran adjusted his cuffs. ‘And your methods…?’
Sebastian took his hand and bowed. ‘Leave the methods up to us.’
The Viscount’s boy—named Saemus—was impetuous, impulsive and inconsistent, yet one thing was clear: he favored the certainty of the qun, and quite possibly the physical strength of those who served it, to what little comfort he’d found in looking to the Maker.
‘Now that’s just plain weird,’ Varric said, polishing his glasses and returning them to his pocket. ‘I’ve heard of some strange dalliances in my time, don’t get me wrong; even knew a fellow who was in love with a statue, the crazy bastard. But a lad and a qunari…now that’s something.’
‘I’ve never tried that,’ Sebastian said, both hands under his chin as he gazed into the fire.
For someone who’d broken out of the chantry, he spent an awful lot of time looking like a portrait from an illuminated manuscript. No doubt that was what the women saw in him: he had a saintly face and a wicked demeanor.
You couldn’t bottle that kind of appeal. If you could, Hawke would sell it on street corners from the docks to Hightown, and make himself a fortune.
‘You wouldn’t,’ Carver said, making a face like he’d swallowed a tooth in his whiskey.
‘Never say never,’ Sebastian murmured. There was almost a reverence in his voice. ‘I hear their women are a sight to behold. Glorious tall creatures, with muscled thighs and magnificent horns.’
‘Perhaps I’d better talk to Saemus when we find him,’ Hawke said. ‘I think you’re making too good a case for the opposition.’
‘It never hurts to be open-minded,’ Sebastian said innocently.
‘Except when we’re being paid to do the opposite,’ Hawke reminded him.
Just because an ex-prince thought nothing of coin didn’t mean Hawke was willing to throw his share of it out the window on a little thing like principle.
What the seneschal had failed to mention was that there were other interested parties—chiefly groups of ill-mannered mercenaries who had no qualms about applying their brand of pressure to the problem.
Things would have been much simpler if the viscount had simply left things to Hawke and Sebastian. But nobles never trusted the lower class to do anything right. That was the sentiment in Kirkwall; the viscount embodied it, but he was merely a representative of a larger symptom. And Hawke had been around long enough to figure it out.
‘He’s dead!’ A boy with dark hair dropped to his well-dressed knees in the sand. Hawke and Sebastian had been tracking Saemus and the qunari’s habits for three days—what was it with qunari and the Wounded Coast?—and now all that work was for naught because some other mercenary had shown up, a fly in the ointment. ‘You killed him—’
Sebastian drew an arrow out of his quiver, fingers stroking the fletching in a way that seemed entirely inappropriate to Hawke. ‘Seems our job just turned into a rescue mission.’
‘You’re always complicating things,’ Hawke said. But he pulled out his daggers, stalking down the narrow path and into the open campsite.
They should have brought Carver with them. That was Hawke’s first thought, once it became clear that the woman they’d dispatched of earlier wasn’t just acting on her own, but part of a larger company known as the Winters.
They were numerous as cave spiders, and almost as unappealing.
Since they hadn’t known this was going to turn into a fight, they hadn’t brought their muscle. Instead, Hawke and Sebastian were forced to split up quickly to maximize their abilities. Sebastian made his stand in the camp, protecting Saemus, while Hawke and his daggers got up close and personal with their assailants. He sank his blade into the nearest man’s shoulder, bracing his boot against him and wrenching it out again fast so he could meet the next.
It wasn’t ideal, but Hawke had quick reflexes, and with Sebastian providing cover fire, the fight wasn’t as unbalanced as it might have seemed at the start.
‘Oh, Maker!’ Saemus yelled, from safety.
‘He probably can’t hear you,’ Sebastian advised, shouting over the squelch and clang of combat. One of his arrows pierced a man’s skull, and he dropped the mace he’d been about to smash Hawke’s leg with, body crumpling to earth. ‘But if you’d like, I can guide you in prayer!’
‘I beg your pardon?’ Saemus asked.
‘Those who oppose thee shall know the wrath of heaven,’ Sebastian began, letting two more arrows fly. One of them found its home in a man’s throat. ‘Field and forest shall burn—watch your ass, Hawke! You’ve picked up a friend—and…where was I? Oh, yes, the seas shall rise and devour them!’
Hawke leapt onto one of the last men standing, burying his knives deep into his back. He made a wet, burbling sound and fell forward. Sebastian let out a whoop of delight.
‘Is he a madman?’ Saemus asked, looking uncertainly toward Hawke as he wiped his daggers on his trousers.
‘Blessed are the peacekeepers,’ Sebastian said. He lowered his bow with a benevolent smile. ‘The champions of the just.’
In Kirkwall, there was often little time or place for mourning. But Saemus’s ashen face and downturned eyes struck a chord with Hawke, a chord that hadn’t been plucked in a year.
‘I wouldn’t mind taking the poor lad out for drinks,’ Sebastian admitted. He turned half-way to observe Saemus, crouched by the massive corpse of his fallen companion, blood and warpaint streaking the Ashaad’s chest and cheeks. ‘If ever there was someone who needed a stiff drink…’
‘That sermon before was very convincing,’ Hawke said, eager to change the subject. ‘Almost made me want to convert, myself. Almost. But there’s no religion fine enough to lure me into a life of charity, and you know it.’
The viscount’s boy bowed his head. He was muttering under his breath in qunari tongue, thick, powerful words that made more sense when you couldn’t understand them. But he was committed to the display of understanding, if nothing else. He hadn’t suggested burying or burning the body—Hawke was relieved; qunari were big, and the former would have meant a lot of digging in raw sunlight—but he didn’t seem ready to leave it, and Hawke wondered at the very human obsession with their dead.
Maybe the qunari had the right idea. Let the flesh blister and rot beneath the sun, no longer a part of this world, no longer concerned with ritual or appearance or, indeed, with anything.
Hawke shielded his eyes from the sun, took in the sand stains on the knees of Saemus’s trousers and the tear in his silk vest. He also saw the full pouch of money at his side, a purse so laden with coin it was like ripe fruit waiting to be plucked.
‘I’ll tell you what,’ Hawke said. ‘Saemus can treat us, and I’ll gladly take him anywhere you like.’
Sebastian clapped him on the back. ‘Now that,’ he said, ‘is a fair bargain.’
Saemus couldn’t hold his liquor; what Edwina served them made him choke and splutter. Carver laughed until Hawke reminded him he’d done the same when he’d first tried it, and Saemus looked muddy-eyed, but grateful for the vote of confidence.
‘I…have heard of this place,’ he said, wiping the back of his mouth and glancing around the taproom. There was Norah fighting with her lover in the corner, and Corff arguing poetry with a redheaded patron, and Isabela attempting to flirt with a Tal-Vashoth mercenary named Maraas. Tal-Vashoth or no, he was still a qunari, and she was getting nowhere, no matter how many times she brought up his enormous horns. The muttering and the music and the madness was a far cry from the Viscount’s Keep; Hawke had to wonder why it was the rich were always so obsessed with the way the poor lived, when the poor were always so obsessed with becoming rich.
If only they could switch for a day or so—Hawke would take full advantage of the opportunities for pomp and circumstance, and Saemus would discover a newfound appreciation for all the difficulties life and birthright had given him.
The only trouble would come when Saemus wanted to switch back, and Hawke didn’t.
It only took two tankards for Saemus to be sick, but he needed the release. When he vomited on the front steps of the Hanged Man—he didn’t even make it all the way around to the back, though Hawke did escort him—it was more than just the rat droppings his body was reacting to, but the physical agony of what he’d lost emotionally.
Hawke remembered doing the same thing, retching into a fire-twisted bush, spilling his guts in Lothering after he saw his own sister and mother beaten to pulp by an ogre’s massive fist. There was relief in the misery, too, completely selfish, the wretchedness of loss mingled with a private feeling of reprieve—he was still alive, he wasn’t a bloodstain splattered against stone, and his bones wouldn’t be picked clean by stray dogs in the weeks to come, one of the countless casualties of the Blight.
‘It’s a real burden, being alive,’ Hawke said, leaning against the wall.
Saemus braced himself against it, knuckles white. ‘I’ll never forget him,’ he whispered, ‘and I know that’s wrong. It isn’t the way of the Qun.’
‘The Qun tells us it doesn’t matter; the Maker offers platitudes in an attempt to comfort us,’ Hawke agreed. ‘The way I see it, Saemus, is that everyone has it wrong.’
‘I have wondered at that, myself, serah,’ Saemus said. ‘But it is a sobering thought.’
Hawke clapped him on the back and steered him once more through the Hanged Man’s open door. ‘Better to get drunk then.’
The viscount was overjoyed to have his son returned.
In retrospect, Hawke might have been a little more polite about it.
But Saemus was a good lad, if foolish; he’d fought for what he believed in, which was rare enough. He had more conviction in his little finger than his milky father had from top to toe, and when they’d finally been given the rest of their reward and stepped out into the sunlight, Sebastian slung an arm around Hawke’s shoulders, breathing in deep.
‘Would you smell that?’ he said. ‘There is goodness in you. Maker be praised!’
‘What does it smell like, then?’ Hawke asked.
‘Sweat and Corff’s ale,’ Sebastian replied. ‘And don’t let anyone ever tell you different.’
He was a strange one, Sebastian. Hawke could never figure out whether he was touched by something great, or just plain touched in the head. It was the same quality women found so fascinating in him, and while Hawke wasn’t that far gone yet, he was able to understand it. Maybe. A little.
‘Got a job for you,’ Athenril said, when they met up next outside the Blooming Rose. Strictly business, although Hawke had never been able to get it out of her why she insisted on keeping her books next to a whorehouse. ‘And your new boyfriend, if he wants in on the take.’
‘Athenril, how many times do I have to tell you that Carver is my brother?’ Hawke said, shaking his head sadly. ‘Implications like that only demean us both. Even Fereldans don’t go in for that sort of thing. Maybe in Orlais… I’d imagine it’s there if it’s anywhere.’
‘Keep talking,’ Athenril told him, unimpressed. ‘I’m sure there’s someone out there looking to fill the position of court jester.’
‘Come on, Athenril,’ Hawke said. ‘I’m sure you can think of a more interesting position for me to fill than that.’
A thin, tight smile was his reward for that comment, and Hawke felt satisfaction set in. It was the little victories that mattered in life—wasn’t that what Sebastian was always saying? Well, something like that.
‘It’s a Hightown job, and none of my people look the part,’ Athenril said. She crossed her arms. ‘I figure now that you two have retired that ridiculous Antivan thing, you might be willing to liberate some merchandise for me. Some of the newly-arrived nobles appropriated a few of my crates at the docks—damned things had the Orlesian port authority seal on them, and they took them for part of their own luggage.’
‘Breaking and entering?’ Hawke asked.
‘To take back what was technically mine in the first place,’ Athenril said. ‘You’d better not be giving me that noble look right now, because I’m practically making you into a guardsman here. Think of it as returning stolen merchandise.’
‘And helping out a friend,’ Hawke added, in his best, most charming voice.
Athenril scowled. ‘You’re even starting to sound like him.’
‘I’ll take that as a compliment,’ Hawke said, because on anyone else’s lips, it would’ve been.
The job, at least, was straightforward enough. Hightown by night was usually deserted, save for the occasional roaming band of ne’er-do-wells; Hawke wouldn’t have to worry about someone recognizing the notorious Broma brothers. The nobles had many ways of amusing themselves late into the evening, but none of them involved standing out on the streets.
Which was why it struck him as slightly odd when they climbed the steps to the residential district and saw a shadowy figure pacing back and forth. There was a positively enormous sword strapped to his back, and Hawke halted as Sebastian put a hand on his arm.
‘Elf,’ Hawke corrected. There was no mistaking those ears.
And Kirkwall would be progressive one day—once Saemus was sitting the viscount’s office, not his father—but it wasn’t there yet. A well-dressed elf in Hightown who wasn’t a servant was a rare sight, indeed.
‘Who’s there?’ the elf asked, turning at the first noise he heard. His eyes were large in the darkness, but they narrowed as they focused. ‘You are not hunters.’
‘Well now,’ Hawke said, keeping an eye on that sword. It really was enormous. ‘That all depends on what we’re hunting, doesn’t it?’
‘I think he means slavers, Hawke,’ Sebastian said. His voice had slipped into the gentle tone he reserved for children and young, unmarried women. ‘I can assure you, we are nothing so foul as that, friend.’
‘I am not your friend.’
‘What a pity,’ Hawke said.
The elf scowled, taking in their appearance. Hawke knew what they must have looked like: they were obviously out of place, battered armor and well-used weapons resting on their backs—they didn’t belong here, just as Hawke had known at first glance that elf didn’t belong here, either.
At length, he made a restless motion, glancing up at one of the mansions in the dark.
‘I was…waiting here for someone,’ he confessed slowly. ‘Some assistance. It would appear however that they do not intend to come after all. My cause is lost.’
Hawke always wondered what it was about him that made so many people come to him with their causes. It had to be more than dumb luck. Maybe it was a question he could put to his very own priest later on. Surely Sebastian would have some words of comfort, something that would make it all make sense.
‘What cause might that be?’ Sebastian asked.
As it turned out, the cause was hunting slavers down through the hallways of an abandoned mansion.
‘Sounds like a bit of fun,’ Sebastian reasoned. ‘You don’t get an offer like that every day, now do you, Hawke?’
‘Well, why not,’ Hawke capitulated, after the elf promised whatever goods the mansion held were his for the keeping, should they make it through the gauntlet alive.
‘I do not intend to die here,’ the elf said, ‘but I have no need for my master’s effects.’
Elves, Hawke thought with a sigh. They couldn’t all be like Athenril. Such a pity.
The elf fought like a nightmare, like a tale of the Dread Wolf from the Dalish, like a ghost. The markings on his skin and the way he glowed raw and white-hot all led Hawke to believe that he wasn’t right, but while he cut a bloody swathe as front-guard Hawke didn’t care one whit about wrong or right. He got the job done, and he did it with the efficiency and ruthlessness of a trained soldier, without any of the moral complications a trained soldier sometimes had.
Once they’d dispatched of the slavers—‘Slavery is a despicable practice,’ Sebastian said, and Hawke wished he’d save his oddly placed sermons for when he wasn’t preaching to the Chantry choir—they found Tevinter silks and jewelry scattered through the house. Hawke backtracked through the hallways cutting purse-strings while the elf stalked after him like a wounded cat, snarling past empty doorways and through empty rooms.
‘Whatever you’re looking for, it doesn’t seem to be here,’ Hawke said, pocketing the last of the coin. It was still early. Athenril would never have to know they’d taken a little detour before safeguarding her interests—though of course she would know, because Athenril knew everything.
‘Not what,’ the elf said. ‘Who. My former master—I believed him to be here. But he is long gone, if he ever came at all. Danarius,’ he added, the opposite of a prayer, a condemnation, a conviction, and spat onto the floor.
‘Seeking this Danarius out instead of leaving him here to wait for you while you hop the next boat to Amaranthine…’ Hawke said, sheathing his blades. ‘What a curious plan for a curious ex-slave.’
‘Sometimes a man tires of running, Hawke,’ Sebastian said. ‘He turns to face what he senses chasing him.’ Then, because he was never quite as serious as he pretended, he dropped the act like other men dropped a glove. ‘Not that I would know what that moment is like, of course.’
‘You speak as though you do,’ the elf said, but he made no more of it.
He didn’t believe the coin was enough in terms of payment—yet it was more than enough, and Hawke didn’t mind liberating it from those who’d come by it through ill-begotten means in the first place.
‘You have business of your own now?’ the elf asked. Hawke nodded. ‘Then I will attend.’
‘You’ll help?’ Hawke asked. More importantly, ‘For free?’
‘I believe the phrase used commonly here begins ‘one good turn…’’ the elf said. ‘Lead the way, and I will follow—but either way, we should move on.’
The elf wasn’t exactly stealthy, but he got the job done, better than Carver on an off night.
‘You in the market for making this a more…permanent arrangement?’ Hawke asked. Athenril’s chests were always so tempting—his fingers twitched to pick the locks—but he piled them into his arms instead, reminding himself there’d be a sweet reward if he managed to be a good boy all night long.
The elf wiped blood from his gauntlet and the taloned claws of his armored glove. He had this handy trick where he was able to put a hand through a man’s chest no matter what kind of armor he was wearing, and he was nigh unstoppable with that sword.
‘I am not in the market for anything,’ he said. ‘But perhaps this would not be entirely unpleasant.’
‘Why can’t people just say yes these days?’ Hawke asked.
Sebastian shook his head. ‘You’re too young to reminisce about the good old days just yet, Hawke. If we cannot call you friend, elf, what should we call you?’
‘What my master once called me,’ the elf said. ‘Fenris. His little wolf.’
‘I don’t see what’s so special about him,’ Carver said, when Hawke informed him they’d have a fourth business partner.
‘Well, for starters, he can tear a templar’s heart out through full plate armor,’ Hawke said, spinning a copper across the table. ‘Can you do that, Carver?’
‘The markings are fascinating,’ Saemus said. ‘What the Dalish call vallaslin, and yet…quite different.’ When Carver shot him a look, he flushed all the way to the tips of his ears. ‘There was a time when I imagined I would run away to join the Dalish,’ he explained. ‘I was young, and had a fondness for their tales.’
‘Of course you did,’ Hawke said.
‘Nothing wrong with a healthy thirst for knowledge,’ Sebastian said, flicking the copper back in Hawke’s direction. ‘Never let anyone try and steer you off a path of learning new things. Trying new things. There’s nothing in life that’ll give you more satisfaction.’
‘Is that your excuse for never bedding the same woman twice?’ Carver asked, while Saemus gave Sebastian a look of starry-eyed respect.
‘I am not Dalish,’ Fenris said. He seemed to have decided to speak up at last, which was a real blessing, since it saved Hawke the trouble of having to coax him out of his shell.
‘No, of course not,’ Saemus said, snapping out of his reverie. ‘I didn’t mean to imply… Is that an insult? If so, you must forgive me my ignorance. There is much I do not know.’
‘There’s a lot of ignorance in the Hanged Man,’ Sebastian sighed. He slid his tankard across the table to Fenris. ‘You’ll find it goes a lot better with whiskey, Fenris. As do most things.’
The elf looked at Sebastian, then at the mug in front of him. His lip curled in scorn. That was probably the smell reaching him—tonight’s bouquet was a particularly piquant mixture of rats and something Hawke couldn’t quite put his finger on. Was it human remains? Stray dog, perhaps, or dwarf corpse? There was no way to tell with Corff, a master of secrecy and one-of-a-kind blends.
‘This is…drunk here?’ Fenris asked finally. There was a note of uncertainty in his voice that Hawke hadn’t heard before. It made him sound younger.
‘Drunk, imbibed, enjoyed,’ Sebastian assured him. He rested his chin in his hand, idly fingering a knot in the wood surface of the table. ‘Just try it. I think you might like it, Fenris.’
Fenris shrugged. He lifted the mug and took a liberal swallow of the drink within. When it was done, he coughed, lifting an armored hand to cover his mouth. Sebastian laughed, slapping the table in delight.
There was a sly hint of a smile on Fenris’s face as he lowered his mug.
Hawke could only watch in awe.
‘How does he do it?’ Hawke asked Varric later, upstairs, going over their accounts.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the safest place to keep money in the Hanged Man was Varric’s room. For some reason, Varric was the only one there who never had to deal with break-ins.
‘Who, Loverboy?’ Varric wondered.
Hawke made a face. ‘Do you have to call him that?’
‘I have other names, but they’re not nearly so polite,’ Varric admitted. ‘And some of them aren’t even mine. I hear them through the walls.’
‘You too?’ Hawke asked. He slid a sovereign from one pile to another, then added three coppers to it.
Varric pushed the coppers back. ‘Insulation’s a real problem in this place. I’d talk to Corff about it, but I have a feeling there’s no materials topside that’d keep out the sounds he makes.’
‘I thought dwarves were supposed to know everything about building,’ Hawke said. He glanced at Varric’s accounting sheets, then moved five pieces of silver to another column.
‘And I thought humans were supposed to be good at counting,’ Varric said, moving them back. ‘Listen, if you want my protection—and trust me, with the numbers you’re running, you want the Coterie off your backs—then you have to cut me in. Simple as that. You’re just lucky I don’t charge what the Carta does.’
‘And you smell so much better, too,’ Hawke said.
Planning jobs for four people was a lot more difficult than planning for two or even three. Carver could at least be trusted to go along with a plan some of the time, but Fenris had no skill for artifice. He was a terror with that blade of his, but he couldn’t—or wouldn’t—lie for anything.
‘Did you ever know an elf with such a strict moral code?’ Hawke asked.
‘Not everyone is motivated by the promise of coin alone, Hawke,’ Sebastian said. He was polishing his bow, the act thankfully not a euphemism, for once. He’d been known to indulge in both before, though never at the same time. ‘Some answer to a greater purpose.’
‘Are you sure you never took your vows?’ Hawke said.
‘I never advanced beyond being a lay brother,’ Sebastian said delightedly.
Hawke had walked right into that one. Yet one more reason he absolutely hated traps.
‘There is no purpose in fooling a man when you only intend to kill him,’ Fenris said. ‘It is better to be blunt. It honors no one to go another way.’
‘Yes, but we don’t always intend to kill people—that’s the point,’ Hawke said. ‘Sometimes you’re able to have a little fun with—oh, never mind. Would someone else explain this? My tongue’s all wagged out for the night.’
‘Mine never tires,’ Sebastian said. ‘Old Starkhaven trick for improving one’s stamina.’
‘Indeed,’ Isabela purred.
‘Some animals toy with their prey. I am no such animal.’ Fenris knocked back a full tankard, pulled a face, and made a matching noise of displeasure. He reminded Hawke of a cat—and cats did toy with mice. ‘Pfaugh! It tastes like fish tonight.’
‘Hawke here likes to perform,’ Varric said. All eyes turned to him, and he settled back in his chair, a familiar—if defensive—stance. ‘Well, no one else obliged the elf, did they? I thought maybe I’d give it a go, see what I could come up with.’
Hawke glanced his way. ‘You’ve made a study of me, Varric?’ he asked.
‘Only now and then,’ Varric said. ‘Don’t go getting any ideas that you’re important or anything crazy like that. So—care to hear my findings?’
‘No,’ Hawke replied, but something told him he’d hear them anyway.
‘The floor is yours, dwarf,’ Fenris said. ‘Best to make it quick.’
‘Oh, yes,’ Sebastian agreed. ‘I’d like to hear this, myself.’
Carver snorted. ‘More talk of my brother? Just what I always wanted.’
Saemus said nothing, but he did lean closer over the table in his chair, while Isabela hid a yawn behind the palm of her hand. ‘All you boys do is talk,’ she said, but Hawke noticed she was also listening, hadn’t chosen to take her leave.
There was just something about Varric—the way he spun a story, the way his words sold you half-truths you’d never believe were real in the clear light of day. It had something to do with the firelight in his chambers, the dim flicker and the wavering shadows that played across his face—but Hawke knew he’d be able to pull it off no matter where he was, under the noonday sun on the Wounded Coast in the middle of a skirmish with raiders or Tal-Vashoth, or in the pitch darkness of an abandoned sewer, picking his way through the rising chokedamp.
True to form, Varric wet his throat with a pull of his ale, a ready-made dramatic pause that to everyone else felt effortless, but Hawke knew better. He contemplated piercing the artifice, then settled in for the story—easy enough, when he pretended Varric was talking about somebody else.
‘The thing is, elf, Hawke’s not a natural born killer—he’s too much of a rogue for that,’ Varric began. ‘For him, it’s all in the deception, the sleight of hand, the thrill he gets pretending to be someone else. Of course, he likes the coin he gets after about as much as the story he tells while making it, so you’d think it wouldn’t matter—but it does. It makes all the difference. Because he can’t go on pretending to himself the coin’s all he loves if he takes the fun out of it. Oh, no; he has to turn it into a game. Something to keep his head busy while his heart’s somewhere else.’
‘That was beautiful Varric,’ Hawke said. ‘True poetry.’
‘Like one of the dwarven bards of old,’ Varric agreed. ‘Thank you, one and all; I’ll be here through the rest of the week.’
‘You’ll be here for all eternity, I think,’ Carver said, his brow heavy with thought.
‘Come now, brother,’ Hawke said. ‘Surely you know me better than that?’
‘If what Varric said were true, you’d be a tragic figure indeed,’ Sebastian murmured. He met Hawke’s eyes across the table, the sharpest flash of keen, pure blue. ‘But since I have a fine time with you, and others do, I cannot imagine that would be the case.’
Hawke would have to thank him for the save later.
‘Serah Hawke?’ Saemus said, turning up his collar before heading out into the cold. Kirkwall near Wintersend was merciless, thoroughly brutal. Hawke felt it in his bones, and not even the promise of coin could warm him.
‘Don’t tell me you’re interested in Varric’s stories and you want to become a dwarven bard now, Saemus,’ Hawke said. ‘I don’t think your poor father could take it. Haven’t you put him through enough trouble?’
‘I doubt I could become a dwarven bard this late in life,’ Saemus murmured, with a flicker of a smile. ‘Never mind, then.’
Hawke clapped him on the back—not too hard; he didn’t want to break him. ‘There’s a good lad,’ he said.
Hawke expected to find Sebastian with Isabela that night, but the door wasn’t locked so Hawke couldn’t pick it, and when it swung open—all too easily—he saw Fenris at the foot of his bed, holding a tattered book in his narrow lap.
‘Huh,’ Hawke said. He turned around, looking over his shoulder into the empty hallway. ‘Guess I got the wrong room.’
‘You are not…mistaken,’ Fenris said, with some effort. He shifted uncomfortably, glancing off to one side. ‘He is here.’
‘You’re starting without me?’ Sebastian’s voice came from another room. Hawke braced himself for impending nudity, then relaxed as it became evident that Sebastian was fully dressed. There was a towel looped over his shoulders, but for once, it wasn’t the only thing he was wearing. ‘Oh. Hello, Hawke. Did you need me for something?’
‘I was looking for Isabela,’ Hawke offered. It was a fair enough excuse. Fortunately, he was good at thinking on his toes when it came to being confronted by utterly incomprehensible situations.
He expected this sort of thing from Sebastian, of course. But not from the elf.
Fenris’s fingers tightened around the book, the armored tips of his gauntlets digging into the pages. ‘I should leave, if you’re…expecting someone.’
‘You don’t have to do that,’ Sebastian said. He crossed the room to sit next to Fenris on the bed, then put a hand on his shoulder. Hawke waited for Fenris to tear his arm off.
Disappointingly, the moment never came. Maybe the Maker really was watching over Sebastian. It was the only explanation for how he managed to get away with as much as he did. Fenris’s body did tense, but there was no dismemberment. Hawke was shocked.
‘Clearly I’ve interrupted something,’ he observed, leaning sideways against the doorframe. ‘Shall I tell your throngs of admirers that you’re all full up for the evening? An old book and a towel…looks like the makings of a great night.’
‘You can tell them I’ll be making an appearance later, if it’s so important to you,’ Sebastian said. He stretched his long legs out on the bed, leaning back against the wall.
‘This was a mistake,’ Fenris said.
‘Oh no you don’t,’ Sebastian said. ‘We were on the second chapter, if I recall. You can start from there.’
‘This story is ridiculous,’ Fenris grumbled. ‘Does this human fight the werewolves, or is he one? The tale is littered with inaccuracies.’
‘That’s the fun of history.’ Sebastian threw Hawke a grin, wiggling in place to get comfortable. ‘The more it passes from hand to hand, the more it changes. Chantry history isn’t like that at all. It’s very dull.’
‘I cannot believe you had to run away,’ Fenris muttered.
‘Why?’ Sebastian asked. ‘Because I seem like such a fitting choir boy?’
‘No,’ Fenris said. ‘I cannot believe that they even allowed you into the Chantry in the first place.’
‘Ah,’ Sebastian said, nudging him in the back with his knee. ‘Very amusing. You wound me with your keen observations, Fenris. Now: second chapter, if you please.’
It was all too strange for Hawke to stay and watch, curious as he was about the details. He felt like he was intruding on something private, and it wasn’t at all the fun ‘something private’ he’d been looking to intrude on. What was happening in the Hanged Man tonight? The next thing he knew, Saemus would be telling him that he really liked the qunari for their spear-throwing abilities and the reason he’d followed the Qun was to learn mastery of the weapon.
Not in this lifetime.
Downstairs, Carver was engaged in a drinking contest with some of the guardsmen, with Varric presiding. Sure enough, Isabela the pirate queen was sitting in another man’s lap. If she’d had plans with Sebastian, at least she was mourning them in style.
‘Where’s Sebastian?’ Carver asked, wiping his mouth. ‘With him on my side, we’d wipe the floor with these braggarts.’
‘He’s upstairs,’ Hawke told him. ‘With Fenris.’
‘No,’ Carver said. His tone was equal parts scandal and horror. ‘Why do you tell me these things? I don’t want to hear it. So long as that’s not why we took him on.’
‘It’s not what you think. They’re reading.’
Carver laughed hard, then paused, looking like he might be about to vomit. ‘Oogh.’ He belched, and his expression cleared somewhat. ‘Good one, brother.’
‘I’m serious.’ Hawke remained standing, rather than sit next to Carver. It was always best to stay well out of range when drinking games were involved. ‘On my life, the elf’s reading him Dane and the Werewolf.’
‘Stop,’ Carver pleaded. ‘I can’t laugh anymore, or I really will be sick.’
‘He’s doing histories with that handsome elf and I’m not invited to join in?’ Isabela scowled. ‘Ooh, that does burn.’
‘Yes,’ Carver said. ‘You’d know all about burning, wouldn’t you, Isabela?’ Isabela rolled her eyes and offered him a lewd gesture to piss off; little did she know it was one of Carver’s many poor attempts at flirtation, not an insult about her recent troubles below deck.
‘You don’t kick a lady when she’s down, little Hawke,’ Varric said. ‘That’s just bad manners, not to mention poor planning. Especially when you’re so keen on her in the first place. Don’t you want to make a good impression? Isn’t that just what you told me just the other night?’
‘I swear, dwarf—’ Carver began.
Hawke supposed they were all taking care of themselves well enough without his assistance or supervision. He felt secure in leaving them to their own devices, and so he headed off to take a pleasure-stroll through Lowtown, get into a scuffle with a few of Sharp’s Mercenaries, and have a chat with Samson on his corner down by the water, where it stunk of sun-baked algae day and night. Samson always had the latest news from all over the city, and if you knew how to talk to him, he even gave it away for free—which was why he was so desperate all the time, Hawke figured, but his study of Athenril had taught him to keep such personal revelations to himself, especially when it would benefit him.
The Broma Brothers, Hawke reminded himself, weren’t running an orphanage or a charity—no matter how many strays they’d decided to pick up recently.
What Varric had said—in front of everyone, no less—bothered Hawke only when he wasn’t busy, and there was always someone to fleece, which kept him very busy indeed. Anyway, it wasn’t true—half the things Varric said about everyone weren’t true, and Sebastian had the decency not to bring it up again, just like Hawke had the decency to ask him only once a day how reading with Fenris was going.
‘How’s reading with Fenris going?’ Hawke asked, true to form. It was already noon, and he hadn’t introduced the topic yet. For shame. ‘I knew you were all for poetry, Sebastian, but Fenris…’
Then again, considering the elf’s fondness for grand pronouncements and impressive platitudes, maybe he’d been wrong about that particular detail.
‘Poetry is part of a man’s soul, Hawke,’ Sebastian replied, a wicked glimmer in his eyes. ‘Not all men have it, of course—it is what separates them from the boys.’
‘It’s a good thing my mother read me all kinds of heroic verse when I was littler, then,’ Hawke countered smoothly. ‘It didn’t take for Carver, but look how I turned out.’
‘A magnificent example of manhood, I agree,’ Sebastian said. He broke away from the wall they stood against, stepped out into the sunlight and after the passing figure of the Comtesse de Launcet. ‘Comtesse!’ Hawke heard him exclaim. ‘It has been far too long.’
‘Oh my—Sebastian?’ the Comtesse gasped, charmed beyond a chance of escape.
‘Don’t know how he does it every time,’ Carver muttered. ‘That blighted dwarf says it’s the kind of thing someone like me shouldn’t even bother with studying, but you and me both know he’s full of dog shit.’
‘Nug shit, I believe,’ Hawke corrected him, ‘is the proper term, when referencing dwarves.’
That evening Hawke read through the book while Sebastian enjoyed a fine meal with the de Launcets. Maybe it was the remembrance of his mother—he had no one to blame but himself for bringing her up—or maybe it was the time of year, the days swiftly approaching his twenty-fourth birthday. Maybe it was Corff’s ale that had poisoned him, or something about the intensity of Fenris’s brow while he read, reminiscent of simpler pleasures, an open acceptance of tall tales and fine words.
‘But some things cannot be repent,’ Sebastian said, appearing in the doorway while Hawke lounged on the bed, shutting the book a hair too slowly to hide what he was doing. ‘Some coin cannot be unspent—When hearts are wagered, a fissure rent.’
‘You memorized that whole thing?’ Hawke asked lightly. ‘It’s a wonder you have time for business or pleasure, Sebastian.’
‘The ladies do appreciate an appropriate quote now and then,’ Sebastian admitted.
‘All a part of the game, then?’
Sebastian headed toward his washroom. ‘What isn’t?’ He paused before he disappeared through the door and glanced back at Hawke—who looked very nonchalant, if he did say so himself, arm draped easily over one bent knee. ‘To be perfectly frank with you, the tale has often reminded me of you, Hawke.’
‘Because I’m such a beast in the bedroom?’ Hawke asked. ‘A veritable werewolf myself?’ But no; it was never that. At least they were both able to have a good laugh about it.
‘No,’ Sebastian said. ‘Thus a bargain struck… One year and a day all told…’
‘And coin unspent and things that cannot be repent,’ Hawke added helpfully, ‘yes. You mentioned that part already, in that rich, convincing Starkhaven voice of yours, no less. A man who has to resort to poetry to explain himself is a sorry sight indeed—especially when that man has Varric around to do it for him. Why even bother?’
‘You’re right, of course,’ Sebastian said. ‘Do you wish to join Fenris and me for his reading lesson, by any chance?’
‘And interrupt your precious time alone?’ Hawke pressed a hand to his chest. ‘Never.’
‘Suit yourself,’ Sebastian said with a shrug, and began to strip down to nothing more than how the Maker made him. Hawke appreciated the sight for as long as was strictly friendly, then made a break for the taproom. That was enough stories for one lifetime, history or otherwise.
‘What about Sebastian?’ Hawke asked Varric over a simple game of diamondback for two. ‘Haven’t you got any brilliant analysis of his character?’
‘Are you kidding? Now that one’s a complex study,’ Varric replied. ‘But there’s no point dressing him down in front of everyone, seeing as how he’s naked all the time anyway.’
‘He reads, you know,’ Hawke said. ‘With Fenris.’
‘So I’ve heard,’ Varric chuckled, rearranging his cards. ‘I don’t think it’s that surprising. At least, not as surprising as you seem to find it.’
‘Well, pardon me,’ Hawke said. ‘Maybe I’m too busy selling off my own mother for coin to notice these little details.’
‘You said it, not me,’ Varric told him.
‘My mother’s dead, Varric,’ Hawke said. The admission came out raw without a pint of rat-whiskey to soften it. ‘Can’t sell that to anyone.’
‘We’ve all got our limitations,’ Varric said. ‘It’s good to know you recognize yours.’
True. Hawke wouldn’t sell his mother for coin. He also wouldn’t have sold his sister, and that opportunity had come up more than once. The templars paid in gold for apostates, not just in Kirkwall, not just in the Free Marches, but throughout Ferelden as well—probably everywhere else, too, except for Tevinter, which everyone agreed was different and didn’t count.
There had been things more important to Hawke than coin once. It was just that most of them had died along with his old life in Lothering.
It didn’t take a dwarf’s analysis to figure him out. Hawke was a simple man—not at all complicated like certain disaffected heirs of Starkhaven.
Word finally came by way of a few bored templar recruits: something had gone wrong in the Gallows.
The sight of templars was rare enough in the Hanged Man. They usually never bothered with Lowtown. Mostly they stuck to the Gallows proper, or to Hightown near the chantry, except when something big was going down, or they were chasing after apostates and had a less than savory lead on where to find them.
Hawke eavesdropped on their conversation shamelessly, knowing that Corff was doing the same.
‘—destroyed a great number of phylacteries,’ said one of them.
‘So of course, the mages take the opportunity to escape,’ said another. ‘Great. That’s just perfect. We finally make it past the vigil and now we’re going to be stuck hunting blood mages? I’m too young to die.’
‘They can’t all be blood mages,’ said their third friend.
‘You never know until it’s too late,’ the second retorted.
Seated at Hawke’s elbow, Fenris snorted. ‘Mages.’
‘I beg your pardon?’ Hawke asked.
‘It is the same everywhere you go,’ Fenris explained. ‘Mages seeking to free themselves—to rule over everyone and everything. I saw it well enough in the Imperium. It would happen here, too, if the templars ever grow less…vigilant.’
‘Magic is meant to serve man, and not rule over him,’ Sebastian quoted. Hawke hadn’t seen him eat or drink anything that didn’t come out of an ale tankard all day, and yet he still managed to look bright-eyed and rosy-cheeked and well possessed of his wits. He slipped his arm around Fenris’s shoulders, neatly navigating around the worst-looking spikes on his armor.
Fenris stiffened, but allowed the touch. Somehow, Hawke managed to keep his jaw from dropping.
‘I knew there was something I liked about you,’ Fenris said drily—once again pointedly not choosing dismemberment.
‘Just one thing?’ Sebastian asked. ‘I am affronted and insulted. Wounded. Offended.’
‘Talking a great deal,’ Fenris contributed. ‘And I believe you left out a few other adjectives, besides.’
‘I was leaving those for you to fill in,’ Sebastian said, winningly. ‘Handsome and charming, for example.’
‘Conceited and childish,’ Fenris agreed.
Hawke turned away, before the sight made him ill. At least Isabela had always done her flirting in private—a shock, since she didn’t leave much else to the imagination. Or maybe there was just something different about the quality of her flirtatiousness. She didn’t discriminate, whereas Fenris had made it abundantly clear that there were only a few people in all of Thedas he was willing to tolerate, and Hawke only knew of one of them.
Hawke thought about what the templars had said long into the night. He was used to catching shut-eye whenever and wherever he could, in the worst of conditions and at the most inopportune of times. Working for Athenril had taught him how to sleep curled up in a ball down by the docks, one ear still cocked and one eye still peeled for a contact; he’d taken naps in trees and behind empty crates and once in an old slaver’s tunnel, with a dewy blanket made of sticky cobwebs. He’d certainly slept often enough in abandoned barns—and not so abandoned barns, using lazy, fat sheep as impromptu pillows—when he’d been on the run from templars in Ferelden.
He never had trouble sleeping, but that night, it just wouldn’t come to him.
‘Would you stop tossing and turning, brother?’ Carver moaned, from underneath the pillow he’d dragged over his head. ‘Even my headache has a headache now.’
‘And that’s why Mother always said you shouldn’t drink so much.’
Carver’s voice hardened; he lifted the pillow, eyes cold in the darkness. ‘You leave Mother out of this,’ he said.
He was in a sour mood—Carver was neither a morning nor a nighttime person. Occasionally he laughed, but he hadn’t let his guard down in nearly a year, so brittle Hawke sometimes didn’t recognize him.
So Hawke took a gamble.
‘Do you remember the stories Father used to tell us?’ he asked. ‘About how he escaped the Circle here, and ran away with Mother?’
‘Shut up,’ Carver suggested.
He was well within his rights to be a miserable little bastard about the topic. They hadn’t spoken of Father since Mother died, and they hadn’t spoken of Mother since then, either. Maybe they’d both thought they could bury themselves with her and Bethany and they wouldn’t have to remember—but it didn’t work that way, did it? Or so Dane of Dane and the Werewolf would have you believe, and the story must have been popular for a reason, at least some of which certainly had to do with deeper truths.
Hawke was tired and confused about some things, apparently. Some key things he’d never allowed himself to feel confused about until now.
‘Father had to destroy his phylactery,’ Hawke pressed on. ‘I remember I imagined it was something large and terrible, like a golem—I actually thought Father fought golems.’ Carver snorted. ‘Don’t you remember not being able to pronounce that word? Phylactery.’
‘And it’s not as if I use it all the time, so who gives a nug’s ass,’ Carver snapped back, but there was hesitation in his voice now.
Hawke let the silence linger on purpose, leaving Carver to his thoughts. He often looked like he didn’t have any, but the truth of the matter was, he probably had too many of them. It was Hawke who didn’t think, who didn’t allow himself to think. Not thinking was much easier. It made doing much easier, too.
But he’d been past the Gallows before. He’d crossed beneath the portcullis, observed by the weeping statues; he’d seen the templars and the tranquil in the courtyard. And—sometimes—he felt a shiver, like Bethany was standing beside him, afraid as always of being spotted and taken in against her will.
‘Well,’ Carver muttered, sitting with a creak of the bed frame, ‘what do you want to do about it, then?’
‘I am not sure if I can join you on this endeavor, Hawke,’ Sebastian said, a furrow in his brow rather than a twinkle in his eye. He leaned his chin on his clasped hands, his elbows on the table. ‘Aiding rebellious mages who have broken free of their Circle… What do you think they will do once they have left Kirkwall and the Free Marches?’
‘I could tell you quite easily,’ Fenris said.
‘I was afraid you’d say that, actually,’ Hawke admitted, taking a steadying pull on his ale. There were definitely flies in it this time; they added to the distinct flavor, as well as the consistency. ‘But, look, the Broma Brothers didn’t let anything silly like personal opinions or morality affect their decision to make a grand show of it. Where they could make a name for themselves, they did. Without discrimination.’
Varric grinned behind his tankard.
‘You mean you’d do it for the fame?’ Sebastian rubbed at his chin. ‘Now that is interesting.’
‘Fame, charity-work, insanity…’ Hawke waved a hand. ‘In the end, it’s really all the same thing.’
‘I think it’s a wonderful idea,’ Saemus said, his own eyes full of admiration. ‘Serah Hawke, today… Today I have seen you in an entirely new light.’
And that was how Hawke knew it was just about the stupidest thing he’d ever planned.
It was Varric who cornered him later, before they headed out. Privately, Hawke’s money had been on Carver, but he was probably still downstairs trying to make it with Isabela. He was tenacious, Hawke had to give him that. One of his most redeemable and irredeemable qualities—that he never gave up on a fight.
‘So,’ Varric said, drawing the word out. The dwarf had an unhealthy obsession with suspense.
Hawke didn’t think it wise to encourage him. More than that, in his experience, it was never a good idea to prolong the inevitable. ‘So?’ he prompted.
‘You’ve decided to prove me wrong; I get it now.’ Varric shrugged, rubbing the bridge of his nose. ‘I can’t say I’m all that surprised. Guys like you never like to be pinned down—or worse, figured out.’
Hawke shrugged. It wasn’t about that; at least, it wasn’t entirely. Maybe all of Sebastian’s half-cocked sermons had finally gotten under his skin. Maybe it was remembering a time when Mother had read him the tale of Dane and the Werewolf. All he knew was that living hand-to-mouth was a rather grim prospect when it stretched out over the course of the rest of his life. There was more to living than that. Even Sebastian could see it, although whether he was aware of the change within him was another matter entirely.
‘It’s just a job, Varric,’ Hawke said. There was a twinkle in his eye that would have done Nuncio Broma proud.
‘So you say,’ Varric agreed. Then he gave Hawke a knowing look—the kind that meant he’d been headed in this direction all along, leading the conversation by the nose. ‘But every good story’s gotta start somewhere.’