The Viscount’s Keep sat at the very top of the city, casting a long shadow over Hightown and the rest of Kirkwall below. Once only the Chantry had rivalled the keep’s imposing walls, but it had now been over a decade since that had been the case. When one stood on the Viscount’s private balcony, there was an unmistakable hole in Kirkwall’s skyline—a ghost with an uneasy, steady presence to which everyone in the city was well aware.
The gap made Venara uncomfortable. She had never been to Kirkwall before, never knew what the original Chantry had looked like. But when she looked at that hole in the skyline, she could feel it—the tear, the rip, the blast, hundreds of voices crying out in pain and terror. Since the events of recent years, she was far more vulnerable the memories echoing through the Fade. Yet another gift bestowed upon her, unasked, by the god who had irrevocably changed her life.
She felt ill. The physical sensation gripped her, stomach churning, and she closed her eyes. With her hand resting on the balustrade, she closed her eyes and breathed in, focusing on the fresh air, the wind on her face, the sun on her cheeks.
Her thoughts raced to anything but the sickness in her stomach. It was a lovely day, the first sunny day they had seen since stepping off the boat. It was spring and the air was filled with the sound of birdsong, but Venara had yet to see any birds. Alia had insisted they spend the afternoon outside, nearly tripping over her own feet as she ran for the balcony doors. She had never been to a city this large before and she wasn’t accustomed to being cooped up. The past few days had been terrible for her. While rain lashed their window outside, inside she wilted like a flower. Her boundless energy had floundered as she sulked in front of the giant fireplace in their rooms, bare feet wriggling back and forth, desperate to feel the softness of the earth.
Varric had been quick to suggest that Venara take her for a walk around Hightown, but Venara declined. She and Alia did not do well in cities. There were too many people with suspicious looks and inquiring minds. Even without knowing the truth, they knew Alia was different. They knew she did not belong.
They knew she should not exist.
Venara heard Alia stir behind her. She turned, her gaze passing over her dozing daughter, but Alia did not wake. She lay on one side in a pool of sunlight, knees tucked into her chest, a blanket draped haphazardly over her. Her curls spread across the couch’s upholstery, black contrasting sharply against bright red velvet. Her bare feet poked out from under the blanket, wiggling back and forth as she dreamed.
I wonder where you’ve gone this time, Venara thought. What places you must see, what friends you must have made. I hope they’re kind to you, da’len. That the bloodshed spilled in this city does not haunt your dreams the way it does mine.
Venara glanced over her shoulder and saw Varric, arms folded, a familiar grin on his face as he leaned against the arched doorway that led onto the balcony. “I thought she was ready to run from Hightown to the Gallows in one go this morning,” he added.
“She’s six years old,” Venara replied. “Everyone needs sleep at that age.”
“Heh, maybe we should listen to children more often,” Varric said. “Everyone needs a mid-afternoon nap. Maybe I should pass a law.”
“Your seneschal would have a fit.”
“Isn’t that what I pay him for?”
Venara smiled. She had missed Varric’s easy banter, the way he could lighten a room simply by speaking. She leaned against the balustrade, back to the view. She took a breath. The sickness in her stomach lingered.
Varric’s expression fell. “This isn’t easy for you. I’m sorry.”
“You have nothing to apologize for.”
“I had hoped that a change of scenery, a retreat to somewhere new, would be a much-needed reprieve for the two of you.”
“We did need it,” Venara admitted. “She grows so quickly. The cottage isn’t enough for her anymore. I can tell, even now, that she will never be content to stay in one place for long. She needs new places to explore, to satisfy her curiosity. New places to dream.”
She paused, a ghost of a memory and a man haunting that familiar turn of phrase. Varric noticed it, too, and she immediately regretted phrasing it that way. He looked away from her and out at the cityscape.
“We’ve been here two days and already she has so many questions about the city,” Venara continued. “I wouldn’t be surprised if she starts pestering you for answers. You know she’s already calling you as Uncle Varric?”
Varric laughed. “I’m honoured. But you that means that I’m obligated to never give her a straight answer to any question she asks. It’s my duty as both a friend and as Viscount to tell her a wild tale and leave her to untangle the truths from the lies.”
Venara’s eyes narrowed. “She’s six.”
“Since when is cleverness restricted by age?” Varric retorted, grinning. “Never, that’s what!”
Venara rolled her eyes.
“But if you’re really concerned, I’ll tell her to ask Aveline. Aveline is incapable of giving you anything but a straight-faced reply.” Varric paused, fingers tapping on his upper arm. “Although, not all of Kirkwall’s history is fit for young ears. Most of it isn’t, actually. A good 95%, to be honest.”
“We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it,” Venara said. “Not many would do what you have done. You’re a good friend, Varric.”
Varric nodded gravely. “I made you a promise at the Exalted Council,” he said. “I said I would be there if and when you needed help or refuge or if you simply needed a friend. I would never go back on my word. And I would never leave a friend to bear such a burden alone.”
A cloud passed over the sun, blocking its golden glow. The light faded from Alia’s sleeping form and she squirmed a little, discomfort twisting the features of her face. Venara swept to her side and adjusted the blanket, pulling it over her exposed feet.
“Raising Alia is no burden,” she said curtly.
“Andraste’s ashes, of course not,” Varric said quickly. “Alia could never be a burden. I’d give my life for her and you, you know that. But the circumstances surrounding her are a burden. You and her…” He paused. She could tell he was mulling over something, wondering if it was better left unsaid. Finally, let out a breath that sounded suspiciously like “sod it all” and turned to her. “Venara,” he said, “you’ve been given the short end of the stick more times than anyone I’ve ever met, including Hawke—and that is saying something. You deserve so much more than the lot you’ve been given. Thedas may hate you, the Chantry may want to kill you, but you don’t have to live in exile just because you think it’s what you must do to survive.”
“No,” Venara said. “But it’s what I must do to live.”
“Then tell me something,” Varric replied. “Are you happy?”
Venara looked sharply at Varric, a retort ready to pass her lips. But as soon as she looked at him, and saw the concern that graced the look in his eyes, her retort fell short. She fell quiet, her eyes passing over her sleeping daughter. She calmly stroked Alia’s hair, gently untangling it with deft fingers. Birdsong floated by, but again, she could see no sign of the winged creatures.
Venara thought of their life in the cottage, so far away, so alone, just the two of them. She thought of the terrible isolation she had imposed on herself, how the only person Alia had ever truly known was Venara herself. Her daughter was growing up without friends, without siblings, with no other family than Venara herself. And even then, most days she disappeared into the woods to run with wolves and dance with spirits. She was a child of magic and wilderness, and for that she had gained so much, but lost even more in return.
And as for Venara herself… Her clan was annihilated. Her lover was slain by her own hand. So many of her friends were dead or had turned against her. The world had gone from hating her, to worshipping her, to fearing her, to calling for her death. She felt terribly, terribly alone and she had, for years, accepted that as her punishment for her failures.
“No,” Venara said softly. “I’m not happy.”
“Then stay,” Varric said. “For as long as I am alive, you have a place in my home.”
Venara shook her head. “And what happens when the Chantry discovers that the false Inquisitor and her demigod daughter are permanent guests in this keep? I won’t put you at risk—”
“I’ve been dodging Guild assassins for most of my life,” Varric interrupted. “Believe me when I say whatever the Chantry can do, the Guild has done a hundred times worse. I’m at no more risk than I usually am.”
“You’re lying,” Venara said flatly. “I can always tell when you’re lying.”
“How?” Varric sounded genuinely curious.
“You sound like you’re saying lines you’ve rehearsed from a script,” Venara pointed out. “And you get a little line between your eyebrows. Lorenna told me about that one.”
Varric cursed. “Damn it, Hawke!” He shook his head and sighed heavily. “Regardless,” he continued, “I meant what I said. You have a place here, if you want it.”
Venara looked at Alia’s peaceful face. She breathed evenly now, smiling slightly. The sun burst out from behind the cloud and golden light flooded the balcony. “It won’t be my decision,” she said, her hand brushing Alia’s face, brushing a loose strand of hair off her forehead. “It will be up to Alia.”
“I wouldn’t expect anything less,” Varric said.
A bird landed on the balustraded, twittering its tune. It cocked its head at Venara and, for a brief moment, it seemed to observe her and Alia candidly. Then it took flight, soaring up and up into the sky and out of sight.