A day like this one had no right being so… sunny.
Orana had already been in to open the curtains, so a rogue streak of sunlight slashed across the floor, defiantly cheerful.
Rain was appropriate for funerals. Especially when the plural was so… devastatingly high. Kiara rose from her bed and stalked across the room, violently pulling the curtains shut again. Then she put her face in her hands and breathed deeply until she no longer wanted to scream. A throbbing headache persisted, beating a staccato of pain behind her eyes.
She debated civilian clothes over her leathers, but decided in favor of the latter. A silk dress would no more hide her identity than a haircut or a suit of plate or a mage’s robe. She was who she was: the Champion of Kirkwall who’d failed too many. Almost sadly, she slung her bow over her shoulder. She didn’t precisely want to go about armed, but if Cullen and Aveline’s warnings were any indication, she could hardly take the risk.
Halfway to the kitchen in search of tea and something to eat, Kiara paused. Amelle sat by the fire, Killer’s large head in her lap, running her hands through the mabari’s short fur while he gazed at her adoringly. Amelle glanced up when Kiara stopped, her expression inscrutable.
Her fingers hesitated briefly, then continued on over the dog’s head. “You… look as if you slept poorly.”
Kiara frowned. “You look as if you haven’t slept at all.”
“It’s nothing to worry about.” She shrugged and looked back to the fire. “Dreams. Nothing new, really. Father… Mother…” she trailed off and swallowed hard. “…Carver. And how we never—” Her fingers clenched then released. “How we just… left him there. He never got—” They clenched again and she blinked quickly, looking more intently at the flames. “I know we couldn’t. And— and Wesley blessed him, but…”
Closing her eyes, Kiara turned her face away. She rarely dreamed, but she could see Carver’s death on the backs of her eyelids as clearly as if it were happening right in front of her. Again. Her headache pounded its displeasure at the memory, but the thought wouldn’t be banished. Carver’d always been so… so anxious to prove himself. Especially after Father. But after Ostagar, anxiety had become desperation. He’d taken more risks, challenged more enemies outright when it would have been wiser to wait for cover. As he’d done with the ogre.
And then she’d followed in his footsteps, nearly getting Amelle killed—or worse—in the process. She still remembered every moment of the harrowing race to the Wounded Coast, and turning that corner in the dunes to see Amelle sprawled out like a sack of potatoes on the sand—like Carver, after the ogre threw him so carelessly aside—with Thrask and Grace standing above her. Threatening her. “Amelle,” Kiara said slowly, dragging out the final syllable of her sister’s name. “I don’t think you should go to the memorial.”
Her sister’s head shot up with a jerk that seemed to carry through her entire body; the tears that had been gathering in her eyes, either at the memory of Carver or the memory of whatever dream she’d had, fell free as she stared at Kiara. Killer looked up, also startled, looking between the two of them before letting out a soft whine. Amelle’s hand went back to the dog’s head, though it was a more conscious gesture. Her green eyes looked too bright in the firelight as her eyebrows drew together, and it was difficult to tell whether her expression was one of shock, confusion, or betrayal.
“What?” she finally asked, shaking her head slowly. “Are you mad? No, absolutely not. I… no. I can’t just… not go.” Her voice quavered slightly. “How— how could you possibly suggest such a thing?”
Kiara crossed her arms over her chest, the gesture caught somewhere defensive and dismissive. She wasn’t sure herself if it was meant to rebuff her sister, or to protect herself from her sister’s emotion. “It’s not safe. Emotions will be running too high, and you’re a mage. You’re the best… you’re the second-most well-known apostate in Kirkwall, and the first is the one to blame for this destruction. I don’t—I won’t see you hurt because of him.”
Standing slowly, Amelle turned to face her. “And it’s… what, better to hide? Better to stay shut up inside as if I were responsible? No, Kiara, hiding implies guilt. If anything, I need to be there. I’m grieving, just like everyone else. Anders betrayed me, too; I’m not going to act as if I’m ashamed to show my face.” With a stubborn tilt of her chin, at odds with the tears still in her eyes, Amelle shook her head decisively. “I’m going and that’s final.”
Kiara squeezed her arms tighter around herself, and the leather gave an unhealthy-sounding creak at the pressure. It was all she could do not to snarl when she replied, “And that’s what you think I’ve been doing? Hiding? Implying my guilt? Isn’t that what you’re saying?”
“What? No!” Confusion flashed in Amelle’s face, in her eyes as she widened them, but that gave way to wariness when she asked, “If you’re saying that I shouldn’t go to the memorial because I’m a mage and because emotions are running high, then how in Andraste’s name could I be accusing you of anything? No, I’m saying that I reject your reasoning, and I’m going to this memorial whether you approve of it or not.”
“And now you think I’m, what? Self-centered? I should think it’s pretty obvious why I jumped to that conclusion, if it was a jump at all. You disapprove of the way I’ve acted? You think it was wrong of me to keep a low profile after… after everything? While you play the selfless martyr sacrificing her own health and wellbeing to heal others?” Kiara continued at a rush, before Amelle could argue. “Healing is noble work, Amelle. I know it. You know. Shit, even bloody Anders knew it. But look me in the face and tell me what Papa would say. At some point you threw caution entirely to the wind and decided to flaunt your powers. Do you have any idea how much effort it took to keep Cullen from dragging you to the Gallows? You mustn’t, because if you did you’d be a damn sight more willing to listen to me and not invite the attention of the hundred bloody templars who will also no doubt be in attendance at this memorial.”
That was enough to make Amelle flinch, even take half a step back, but somewhere beneath the hurt, anger began to flare to life. “You tell me what Papa would have said. You never complained once when I flaunted my powers on some job or other. I’m not playing bloody martyr — I’m trying to help, trying to— attempting to fix some of the unholy mess that son of a bitch made of this place. Do you think I was showing off when I healed Sebastian? Was I playing the martyr then? No.” Her hands clenched, released, then clenched again. “I’m trying to do what I can — don’t get angry with me because for once I can do something— I can help, while you’re stuck watching from the sidelines. You might find this difficult to believe, but my decision to flaunt my powers has nothing whatsoever to do with you. And I don’t think Papa would have said, ‘Well done, rabbit’ for turning my back on anyone I could help.”
Kiara snorted derisively, shaking her head. “What were my options? Every time I tried to leave you at home, you trailed after me giving me sad puppy eyes or you snapped at me because you didn’t like the way I was ‘interfering’ in your life. You want me to take care of you only when it’s convenient for you.” Kiara stalked down the rest of the stairs, keeping herself safely on the other side of the room from her sister. She gazed longingly—just for a moment—at the wine bottle on the table, before remembering she’d not even had breakfast yet. “Papa might not have said, ‘Well done, rabbit’ if you’d walked away from Sebastian or Ianna and her child, but he spent ten years teaching you the apostate’s life, and throwing yourself constantly in the line of danger and exposure wasn’t part of it. I know that because he spent ten years teaching me how to protect you. I didn’t realize how often I’d have to protect you not from templars or bandits or fearful fools, but from yourself. Why, why, is it so hard for you to see what you’re doing? They’ll be looking for a scapegoat—a mage scapegoat even better—and you’re going to walk into their hands?”
“Oh, don’t act like it was a bloody burden to take me along,” snapped Amelle, her tone loaded with derision. “Yes, you’re the grand protector, aren’t you? How often did my barriers protect you in a fight, how many times did one of my glyphs or one or my spells keep you from having to get healed again? But no, why would you remember something as inconvenient as someone else protecting you? Someone else saving your reckless hide? Someone else protecting you from yourself? If you want to call someone a martyr, why don’t you take a look in the sodding mirror?” She took a step closer, hands clenched at her sides, and said far, far too quietly, “And don’t you dare drag Papa any deeper into this. It’s nothing to do with him and everything to do with you, so at the very least own up to that.”
“I didn’t have a choice,” Kiara spat. “While you were learning not to burn the house down, I was given daily lectures: ‘Mind your sister, Kiara. Keep her safe, Kiara. She’s just a little girl, Kiara. She didn’t choose this, Kiara.’ No one seemed to care that I didn’t choose this, either.” Kiara took a deep breath, bending slightly at the waist, as though winded from a long run or a tense battle. Her fingers itched. Her head screamed. “I’ve never made decisions based on how much they might annoy you. That wasn’t my intention. And I stepped into the role Mother and Papa built for me. It’s… it’s my job. It’s the only thing I know how to—I can’t help protecting you. I just don’t understand why you seem so intent on not letting me. So I can come too late, like almost happened with Grace? Like happened with M—” Kiara couldn’t bring herself to say Mother, but even thinking it brought tears to her eyes which she pushed away roughly with the heels of her hands. It didn’t help. Black stitches and empty eyes swam through her memory, haunting her. Taunting her.
“Fine.” Amelle’s lip trembled, but she swiped at her face with her sleeve and when her arm came away, her jaw was set and her eyes hard. “Fine. So we’re both stuck with lives neither of us chose. You ought to have told me I was so much bloody trouble sometime earlier! I’d have made more of an effort not to get underfoot so often. I hadn’t realized you’d have preferred I was seen and not heard — or, wait, no, what would be more apt? Not seen, not heard — Maker,” she said, eyes widening as she tilted her head in affected innocence, “it really would have been more convenient for you if you’d simply let Cullen take me away. I bet you’re regretting that little stratagem now.” Amelle turned angrily on her heel, stalking toward the doorway. “So sorry for the trouble I’ve caused you, sister,” she spat, “but I’m still going to that Maker-forsaken memorial. Maybe if you’re very, very lucky the templars will haul me off.”
“You’re right,” Kiara replied coldly. “It would have been easier to let Cullen take you. But it wouldn’t have been right. And it would have gone against everything Papa ever taught me. Since when have I ever chosen the easy path? You’re my sister, Amelle. I love you. But that doesn’t mean I’ll ever be content to see you wantonly throwing yourself in harm’s way.”
“Oh, please,” Amelle replied acerbically, rolling her eyes. “The truth’s coming out now; don’t try to sugar-coat it with noble intentions — you’d rather I not be any visible part of your life. Fine. I get it. But I am twenty-five years old, and the only person insisting you protect me is you. So if I want to ‘wantonly throw myself in harm’s way,’ by the Maker, I will. And may I remind you, sister, on the subject of templars? They all know where to find me. Showing my face at this memorial isn’t going to deter anyone when they know where I live. So what’s this all really about?”
“You’re not safe,” Kiara repeated hollowly. She knew Amelle wasn’t safe, knew it in her bones, but nothing she said seemed to make any bloody bit of difference. Meanwhile, the sun kept shining through the windows and the fire kept crackling in the hearth and Kiara’s heart kept racing because she… she’d already failed. She’d failed Elthina, and the chantry, and Mother, and Carver, and those were just the big failures. Kiara put a hand to her face and was surprised to find her cheeks damp. She glanced down at the moisture on her fingers as though it had appeared by magic, or as though its presence somehow spoke of betrayal. “I don’t know what to do.”
“No, I’m not safe!” Amelle cried, rounding suddenly on her sister, hands clenched so tightly her knuckles were white. “Father taught me that much, at least: apostates are never safe. I have to live with that — and I do. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to cower and hide under my bed praying and hoping the templars never find me. What’s the bloody point of trying to live freely if I’m just going to make myself a prisoner in my own home? I refuse to do that, and I accept the consequences! Maybe, for once, you don’t have to do anything — and maybe you don’t know how to handle that. I don’t know.”
Kiara stared at her sister. “Oh,” she said softly. “I—it’s you who wants to be free of me. I didn’t… I hadn’t realized that.”
Killer had curled up into the tiniest ball his huge form could make—exactly halfway between them, Kiara noted—but at this he raised his head and whined. Kiara almost called him to her, desperate to feel some kind of contact that didn’t involve the way Amelle was glaring at her.
“I didn’t— oh, Andraste’s buggering tits, I never said—” Amelle lifted a hand to her forehead and rubbed her fingers against the crease between her brows. “You’re my sister,” she said, tiredly. “And you are giving me a headache. I just want to go to this bloody memorial and pay my respects and remind people in some small way that not all mages are blighted idiots.”
Kiara nodded, chewing on her bottom lip pensively. Then she walked to the desk that held the bottle of wine, lifted it, examined the label for a moment, before throwing it against the far wall. It shattered, leaving wine like a bloodstain on the stones and piles of twinkling glass in a puddle on the floor. “Maybe Fenris knows what he’s doing,” she said absently, tilting her head as she watched the rivulets of wine run the length of the wall. Then she sank to the floor in a boneless heap, put her face against her knees, and wept.
Amelle stared. First she stared at the mess of glass and wine trailing down the wall, dark liquid streaming out from the smashed glass like blood. Then she stared at her sister. And all the while her mind was struggling to absorb everything that had just transpired — she wasn’t coming up with anything resembling logic just yet. What she was coming up with was a lot of anger and frustration and hurt at the discovery that her sister saw her as little more than an obligation to be taken care of, like some troublesome, high-maintenance pet.
And somehow things got so twisted and turned around that now Amelle was trying to understand what she’d said or done to make Kiara cry. She wasn’t having an easy time of it. From the corner of her eye she saw Sebastian standing in the doorway, alarm etched on his features. Amelle resisted the urge to rub her temples — hopefully it was the sound of glass breaking and not their arguing that had roused him. He still needed all the rest he could get.
“Fenris hasn’t flung a bottle at a wall in years,” she said, hearing the tired frustration in her tone. “And I don’t know if that’s because he ran out of bottles or just got tired of wasting the wine. What are you doing, Kiara? What is this?” She wondered if she sounded as weary, as exhausted and sleep-deprived as she felt. Probably, she decided. After the night she’d had, between the tossing and turning and the nightmares, Amelle wasn’t equipped for… this, whatever this was.
“I should have gone right away,” Kiara said, the words muffled by their proximity to her knees. “I was going to, you know. It seemed… sensible. To flee.” Raising her head, she laughed mirthlessly, a single strained, dry chuckle. It sounded painful. “I’m the one. Who should leave. Who shouldn’t go to the memorial. You’re right. There is nothing for me to do here. And I’m the one they should blame. Just as Aveline and Cullen warned.”
With that, Amelle’s patience, strained by this point beyond all endurance, snapped. “No!”she yelled, and she felt the heat struggling to snap free; it felt like the sparks were dancing beneath her skin, trying to push their way out. She breathed in deep and clenched her fists again. “No, Kiara — Anders is the one they should blame! Not you, not me, not bloody anyone but him. He did this! He created this, and we’re the ones left to pick up the pieces and clean up the mess! I don’t know what in the Void is the matter with you, but if you want to sit here and hide in the dark like a coward, then be my sodding guest. I’m going to that memorial, and I am holding my head high, templars be damned, because I’m a Hawke.”
“It’s not about the bloody memorial,” Kiara shouted, staggering to her feet and taking two or three uneven steps toward Amelle. “Maker’s balls, Amelle. I only said I thought you shouldn’t go; you’re the one throwing a temper tantrum and acting like I took your favorite doll away. This isn’t about you getting what you want because you want it.” Kiara’s arm swept wide, encompassing the room. “It’s Kirkwall. We need to leave Kirkwall. Because we’re more Hawke than Amell, and there’s no place left for us here. Don’t you understand? Don’t you see? Our names—my name—the name Hawke is going to be anathema just as soon as the Divine hears we—I—was in any way connected with Anders. There will be assassins, Amelle. And there will be templars. And there will be Seekers. And the likelihood of us surviving is not high. This isn’t a pretend game of Exalted March, Mely. Not even close.”
“I’m throwing a…” Amelle shook her head and turned away from her sister. “You know what? Maybe you’re right. Maybe we do need to leave. Maybe the Divine will send assassins and Seekers and Maker knows what else down upon our heads. But for right now there’s a mess out there. There’s a mess and people are dead and still missing and some of them won’t ever be found. I can’t do a blessed thing to undo what Anders did, and I can do even less about whatever it is the Divine’s planning. But I can do something about this. Don’t drive yourself mad over things that haven’t happened yet. There’s no point in it.” She blew out a breath. She started again for the doorway, her voice soft and ragged. “We’ll talk more when I get back. Preferably without the histrionics.”
“Amelle Arista Hawke don’t you dare walk out of this house in the middle of a conversation—”
“We aren’t having a conversation,” replied Amelle, and though she tried to keep the sharp edge from her words, she could hear how badly she failed. She pressed cool fingertips against her eyelids and swore she could feel the pounding there. “You are alternating maddeningly between insulting me and feeling sorry for yourself. So, yes, I’m going to walk out of this house, and hopefully we can have something resembling a civil conversation when I get back.”
“You sanctimonious bitch,” Kiara spat. “Things get the slightest bit challenging and you walk out? You wouldn’t have a house to come back to, if not for me. You’d have died or been carted to the Circle fifty times before your fifteenth birthday if not for me. I may be feeling sorry for myself, but at least I’m not hiding it behind a veneer of arrogance and entitlement.”
The words shot through Amelle, and it was only through years of practice and training that she managed to keep sparks from spitting from her palms as she spun around and shouted, “Arrogance? Arrogance? Kiara Hawke, I highly suggest you engage the brain the Maker saw fit to give you before you breathe another blighted word. Only one of us is arrogant enough to believe she can save the entire bloody world, and it isn’t me. I know my limitations. Do you?” She thrust her arm out, pointing at the window and all of Kirkwall beyond it. “Once they started calling you ‘Champion,’ you believed it — more than that, you embraced it. After all, champions never lose, right? Once you became the Champion of Kirkwall, you thought you were infallible — and where did that lead? You think my flaunting my powers puts me in danger? I’ll ask you to remember that Grace wanted to kill me for no other reason than being related to you! If you really wanted to keep me safe, you’d stop being my bloody sister.” Her throat was tight with tears, raw and sore from shouting. She closed her eyes and turned on her heel, striding across the room, coming to a stop in the doorway, arms around herself as she leaned against the wall, letting it take her weight. She needed to get out of the house soon, or she really was going to burn it down. She closed her eyes and counted to ten. Then she counted to twenty. Her hands felt hot, intolerably so, and she drew in a deep breath and pushed the rogue energy back down.
Once Amelle’s hands were once again… well, if not cool, then something like a normal temperature, she straightened her back and squared her shoulders, then turned her head slightly to regard Kiara over one shoulder. “Kiara,” she said, her voice strained and hoarse, “for Andraste’s sake, your own, and mine, just shut up.”
Kiara didn’t say anything. Her face went carefully still even as a hot flush of color stole over her cheeks. Then she reached over her shoulder and brought her bow to hand. A moment later, an arrow dangled from her fingers, swinging back and forth like a pendulum. Amelle turned slightly and felt something icy and leaden settle in the pit of her stomach as she watched, unable to believe her eyes.
Amelle turned more fully, facing Kiara now, and drawing a breath of mana for a barrier she dearly hoped she wouldn’t actually need to summon. But Amelle knew Kiara never drew her weapon without meaning it, which left Amelle well and truly confused — and not a little worried. This was not like her sister, not in the least.
“Kiara,” she began slowly, “what are you doing?” She wondered for an instant where her nearest staff was, and then hated herself for the thought. Surely she didn’t need to defend herself against her own sister. Surely. Amelle looked harder at Kiara, searching her face, her eyes, for some hint toward why her sister was acting so… mad.
Still Kiara said nothing, and that in itself was almost worse. Lazily, she brought the arrow to the bowstring, and pulled slightly, the way she always did when she was testing the tension. Cupcake stood, his massive head swinging back and forth between the sisters. He padded closer to Kiara, sitting near her and tilting his head. Kiara didn’t reach out to scratch his ears. She didn’t even appear to notice him. She tested the bowstring again, and her eyes lifted, finding the wine stain on the wall. Her cheeks were still flushed, and even from a distance, Amelle could see how quickly her sister was breathing.
“You’re the one with the death wish, Mely,” Kiara said at last, her voice low and ragged. “Wouldn’t it be better to see it coming?”
Hearing the endearment fall from Kiara’s lips while she was aiming an arrow at her was enough to send a chill down Amelle’s spine. She eyed the weapon, calculating whether she was quick enough to burn the arrow to ash before summoning a barrier spell. Another breath of mana, and it tingled hotly as it traveled down her arms. “I don’t have a death wish, Kiara — Kiri. I don’t… know what’s wrong here, but something isn’t right.” The magic hovered, barely contained, at her fingertips as she waited, noting her sister’s stance, the tension in her arms. “Come on, why not put the bow down, hmm? Let me check your—”
Kiara shook her head, eyes narrowed, and then pulled the arrow back. The creak of bow and string was unmistakable. “You wanted to go? So go.”
Cupcake rose to his feet and barked. Not his usual begging whine, or even his playful yips and growls—this was a full-voiced shout of a bark that echoed in the rafters. Kiara blinked, and finally looked down at the mabari. When she met the dog’s eyes, he barked again, a little more quietly. But still the arrow remained nocked.
The distraction, however, was all Amelle required. Flicking her fingers, she sent out a small, but intensely focused flash of heat — enough to make the arrow crumble to ash in Kiara’s fingers; before the first flakes of ash could hit the floor, a protective barrier spell shimmered into place around herself… and Sebastian. He was still frozen in the doorway, unarmed and looking utterly horrified; Amelle she didn’t entirely trust him not to rush into the fray to stop Kiara. At this point she wasn’t sure what could stop her sister, short of a sleep spell or a paralysis glyph, and she wasn’t quite ready to try such drastic measures. Yet.
“Amelle, what—” Sebastian began.
“I am not healing you twice,” she growled at him, keeping her eyes on Kiara. “And I have no idea what’s wrong with her. For the love of the Maker, stay put.”
The sound of Sebastian’s voice, however, did what even Cupcake’s bark could not. As though stung, Kiara opened her hand and the bow dropped to the ground in a clatter. The flush of anger was replaced by a grey pallor, and Kiara pressed the hand that had held her weapon to her heart. “Maker,” she whispered, her voice hardly audible. “Maker, Amelle. I—I’m sorry. I don’t know—oh, Maker, I’m sorry.”
Her sister’s voice had lost its cold, furious edge, and one look at Kiara’s eyes told Amelle her sister was as confused as she was. The barrier faded away with another brief shimmer of light and Amelle took a tentative step forward, but only one. “Kiara? Are you…” She wasn’t even sure how to finish that question — not when there were a dozen others fighting for dominance in her head, not least among them: What in all the Black City just happened? She licked her lips and asked the safest question she could. “Are you okay?”
Kiara nodded, and then almost as quickly shook her head. “It was just… you mentioned Carver and…”
“Amelle,” said Sebastian, with a calmness she found enviable, “if you would be so kind?” He gestured at the barrier still glimmering around him, and she released it reluctantly. “I wonder if you might permit me a moment’s conversation with your sister. The… chantry isn’t far. We can meet you there shortly.”
The silence that had settled over the room — over the whole house — was almost overwhelming. The fire crackled softly. Somewhere, a clock ticked. Her own pulse thundered in her ears, counterpoint to Kiara’s breathing. Indeed, she wasn’t sure if she should leave — ironic, considering leaving was all she’d been trying to do — but Sebastian seemed certain. After several long seconds of consideration, Amelle swallowed hard and nodded. He chanced another quick glance at Kiara, then back at Sebastian.
“All right,” she finally said. “I’ll… see if I can find the others. We’ll keep an eye out.” With that, she tapped her hand against her thigh, wordlessly summoning Cupcake to her side. He seemed as unsure of everything as she did, but he padded quietly to her, following her through the house and out the door and into the sunshine that seemed more incongruous as the day wore on.
Sebastian stood in the doorway until the last echo of Amelle’s footsteps faded into silence, and then he waited a little longer, half expecting Hawke to turn and look at him, at the very least. He still couldn’t believe what his eyes had so very clearly shown him, and what his ears had plainly heard. Even now, his rational mind wanted to dismiss the entirety as a dream, a pain-induced hallucination. It would make more sense than… than what he’d witnessed. Hawke had been… quieter, certainly, in the time after. Certainly around him. But he hadn’t imagined her so changed as this. Not in the worst of his nightmares.
Hawke did not turn. If he’d not seen it himself, if the pile of ashes that had once been an arrow did not still rest at her feet, he’d never have believed his own memory. She seemed… normal now. More normal. She remained frozen, eyes still gazing after Amelle, fingers still pressed to her breast. Her breathing, at least, was no longer quite so audible. His own chest ached when he took too deep a breath, and it was the catch in his breathing that made Hawke turn at last.
“You heard that, did you?” she asked softly, without even a trace of her usual humor. On a different day, at a different time, she’d have said the same words with a smirk or a cocked head. Then again, on a different day, at a different time, she would never have drawn her bow on her own sister.
“Hawke,” he replied, attempting to keep the wariness from his tone and aiming instead for something like lightness even though it was not his first instinct or the least bit natural, “all of Hightown heard that.”
On a different day, at a different time, his rejoinder would have made her laugh. On this day, at this time, it only brought tears.
This in itself was startling enough to propel him down the stairs. It galled him how difficult it was. He had to hold tight to the banister and take each step one at a time, carefully. Even the faint pressure of setting his foot down on the next stair was enough to send frissons of pain through his breast and up into his left shoulder. He made it half a dozen steps before Hawke met him, sitting on the stairs and gesturing for him to join her. He sank down gratefully, leaning against the railing.
“I know I deserve the lecture,” she said, no longer crying, but cheeks still stained with tears. “Best get it over with.” Her gaze drifted to her bow, still lying on the rug where she’d dropped it. “I don’t have any other weapons on me. I probably won’t try to kill you.”
Sebastian did not answer right away. Her voice was too resigned to inspire laughter, though he recognized the words for an attempt at wit. He cast a sideways glance at Hawke. Her features were familiar enough, pinched and pale though they were, but the hunched shoulders and haunted expression were foreign. It was something deeper than mere grief. Sebastian hated even thinking it but… she looked broken.
He couldn’t help wondering if his own actions had done part of the breaking.
And I will bring such an army with me on my return that there will be nothing left of Kirkwall for these maleficarum to rule!
Ignoring the faint pang of pain from his still-healing wound, Sebastian leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees. After a moment, he said, “My grandmother died when I was seven.”
Startled, and clearly caught off-guard by his non-sequitur, she stammered, “I—I’m sorry.”
Shaking his head slightly, he continued, “She was… you must understand, in a place where time was a commodity, she always found some for me. I was too young to know what her life was like, as wife of the ruling prince. I had some lessons and responsibilities, but not many, and I didn’t understand how busy my parents were, or my grandparents. Even my brothers were old enough to be more involved.” His lips twisted ruefully. “I was the baby. And everyone in my family treated me like the baby, except for my grandmother.”
Another slantwise glance revealed Hawke sitting up straighter, her shoulders back, her eyes curious. Curiosity he could work with. Curiosity was better than despair. Curiosity was more like her.
“I had asked her to come watch me practice. I was—” he paused for a moment, and almost smiled, remembering the brutally awful attempts at swordplay. “My brothers favored the sword. I never did. Disastrous was the word my father used, I believe. Luckily my affinity for the bow manifested early. I was proud of myself, and I wanted her to be proud of me. That morning I waited and waited, but she never came.”
“Aye. On the way to see me, she’d fallen. She wasn’t young, but I blamed myself. I… no one had told me she was sick, you see. All I knew was that she’d died because I asked her to watch me shoot some feathered sticks at a target.”
Hawke’s eyes narrowed. It was an expression he knew so well he almost heaved a sigh of relief. “But that’s ridiculous. Of course it wasn’t your fault.”
“I know,” he replied gently. “And yet, even though it seems obvious now, at the time I was inconsolable. I hid for three days. I was… very good at hiding.” He did sigh here, remembering those strange days darting around corners and hiding in wardrobes, listening to people calling his name. He’d stolen food from the kitchens when he could, but he’d been hungry all the time. It had been the first time he’d known hunger. That pain had been nothing to his grief. “I thought my grandfather—the prince—would have me arrested. That’s how thoroughly I convinced myself I was guilty.”
Her tenderness was palpable, and even more familiar to him than her curiosity. Even at her most reserved, he’d still seen flashes of tenderness in the week since Amelle had… pulled him back from the brink. Still, the weariness in her mien and the weight of her sorrow had not been present before. Before.
“Eventually my brother Connall found me curled up asleep in the bottom of a closet,” Sebastian said calmly. “But I’d missed the funeral. I was devastated. And of course my grandfather did not blame me; I’d hurt no one but myself.”
Hawke said nothing. Her hands were folded so tightly the knuckles were white under taut skin. She brought her hands to her face and pressed her thumbs to her lips, the attitude a strange echo of prayer.
“We do not honor the dead for the dead,” Sebastian added. “They are gone, no matter how we might wish otherwise. But without closure the living… drift. It wounds us not to have our farewells.”
She swallowed audibly and after hesitating, asked, “Is that a true story?”
“You didn’t… make it up, to…”
“Make you see parallels? No, I did not.”
The breath she released sounded halfway caught between relief and a sob.
“But I did tell it to you hoping you’d see parallels, Hawke. You have cause to worry for your sister’s safety, just as you have cause to worry for your own, but today is a day for mourning. No one will draw lines in the sand. No battles will be fought. And what happened… it was not your fault.”
“I wish I—” Hawke ground to a halt, and even with a foot of space between them, he could feel her trembling. “I wish I’d done things differently.”
“You can’t start pulling threads from a tapestry once its been woven, Hawke.”
She curled forward again, but this time the gesture was one of comfort instead of despair. “So you’re saying I should go.”
“I’m saying we should all go.”
Tilting her head, she raised a questioning eyebrow. “Are you well enough?”
He smiled slightly. “I believe I just overheard this argument, and it didn’t end well for anyone. I… know my limitations. Amelle will see I remember them, no doubt.”
Hawke rubbed absently at her temples, wincing. “I still don’t—I would never—I was just so… I wasn’t even angry, Sebastian. It doesn’t make sense. I was just so bloody scared.”
“I understand. Sometimes… fear drives us harder than anger ever could.” Raising his right hand he hesitated a moment before settling it lightly on her shoulder. Instead of jumping at the contact or shrugging him off, he felt her take a deep breath, and settle.
“Are you well enough?” he asked. When she shot him a confused look, he added, “Headache?”
Hawke pulled her hands away from her temples and stared at them as though she didn’t quite believe they belonged to her. “Yes,” she said. “But it’s not crippling. Amelle can—no. Perhaps just some breakfast quickly. Maybe that will help.” She didn’t sound convinced, and her falsely chipper tone did nothing to erase the lines of anxiety and pain at the corners of her eyes.
“We have time,” he replied.
When she rose to her feet, she immediately reached a hand to him. Wordlessly, she helped him down the remaining stairs, and she did not let him go once they reached the bottom. She cast a cursory glance at her fallen bow, but did not stop to retrieve it.
And Sebastian realized that, in spite of its horrifying beginning, this was the longest, most civil conversation he’d shared with Kiara Hawke since… since before.
He wasn’t quite sure how it made him feel, but her steadying arm was solid and somehow hopeful. On a different day, at a different time, he thought it might almost have made him happy. But there was little room for happiness on a day like this one, for anyone.
“We have time,” he repeated, ignoring her bewildered expression.