Ferventis, 9:38 Dragon—Seven miles south of Starkhaven
“Explain to me why you’re doing this again, Hawke. The Templars’ bluster is just that, bluster, and besides, once this coronation is over, there’ll be no turning back. You do realize that, right?”
Varric Tethras shifted in his saddle and coughed into his shoulder to hide the grunt of discomfort that followed. His backside throbbed, both legs felt numb, and the pulse of his sciatic nerve promised the two of them would be up half the night trying to find a comfortable sleeping position without the promise of a stiff drink to ease the pain. He didn’t care how fancy the pillows were—and he was sure they were going to be unbelievable—he would find no comfort at Castle Vael. Knowing Sebastian, the entire city was probably dry, which meant his stay was going to feel overly long, no matter if it lasted three days or three weeks.
He had no idea how Hawke would manage a life there. Not that she wasn’t legitimate by reputation and title to become Starkhaven’s princess, and she certainly had the drive and leadership skills to rein in a nation, but some people weren’t born to sit still and that made them somewhat apathetic when it came to thrones. She’d taken the mantle of Champion with pride, but her reluctance to accept the position as Viscountess of Kirkwall spoke volumes about how suitable she would likely be to rule Starkhaven with Sebastian. It seemed like the moment the Templars started pushing, her experience with the Knight-Commander made it easier for her to walk away, but she didn’t have to. She was viscountess, still in a position to govern and negotiate on Kirkwall’s behalf. And besides, she was going to die of boredom in that place. Much like the prince who’d reclaimed his rule, Varric imagined even the trappings in Starkhaven were snoozeworthy, which brought him back to the central point that launched his entire thought sequence: What in Andraste’s name were they doing there?
Hawke’s jaw clenched, the muscles tightening and protruding as her back teeth came together and her lips twisted toward her ear in a scowl she did nothing to hide. She brought a hand up to brush the loose strands of black hair from her face and scanned the rising hills. Blue eyes reflected rolling layers of brilliant green decked in white marble columns and spires, the entire image looking as though it’d come straight out of a children’s storybook. Bold heraldry fluttered in the crisp afternoon breeze rustling through her hair, the colors providing stark contrast to the peaceful atmosphere. A statement, to be sure, those flags were almost enough to make the dwarf reevaluate his impressions of the do-gooder that somehow managed to sway Hawke’s heart. Almost… but not quite.
The banners alternated: Starkhaven’s flowing black koi against bold red fabric and the Amell family crest—bright red over black. A joining of more than just two houses, those banners brooked an everlasting peace between two cities. Sebastian Vael promised her a kingdom, no less than she deserved, and he’d delivered with an inspiring ease the dwarf hadn’t expected from a man who’d seemed plenty of talk and very little walk since the day they met. Hawke had that effect on people, driving them to get things done. She was one of the few people he knew who delivered results on just about everything she did, and while he certainly hadn’t expected Choir Boy to follow through on his promises, with Hawke in his corner Varric shouldn’t have been surprised.
She released a breath, the stream pulsing through the errant strands of hair that landed back in her face the moment she dropped her hand against the horn of her saddle. “I’ve explained it several times already, Varric. Will one more careful placement of syllables and phrases make sense of it all for you?”
Still prickly, he noted.
Sarcasm was Hawke’s native tongue, a tongue as sharp as the twin blades she sported on her back and used to slice their enemies into tiny, indiscernible pieces. It was one of the reasons they got along so well, but in the weeks before departing from Kirkwall she’d become extraordinarily moody, and he couldn’t help but wonder how much of it had to do with her move to Starkhaven.
“You never know. Maybe if you put the words in a different order it’ll all be much clearer.”
“Perhaps if I speak very slowly this time?”
“Probably not, but I’m still trying to wrap my head around it. You could have done… anything. Had your pick of suitors in Kirkwall, hell, all of Thedas, more than likely. And yet, this is your choice.” He gestured toward the city in the distance. “You’ve chosen to spend the rest of your life with the most boring man alive.”
“Well, after you shot me down I had to lower my standards,” she chided. “Besides, behind closed doors Sebastian’s not so buttoned up as you might think.” Winking over at him, she added, “He’s actually quite… entertaining, if you know what I mean. Very aggressive between the sheets.”
“Ugh, Hawke, stop,” he moaned. “I’d rather not be able to conjure that mental image at will. I’m barely keeping down my breakfast as it is.”
“I know the feeling.” She grimaced, the hand on her saddle rising to rest on her stomach. She smoothed a circular pattern across the taut leather before leaning forward to disentangle the leather reins and clutch them tighter in her hand. “The terrain is very rocky. All this jouncing around is murder on my insides.”
“Tell me about it.” They trotted forward several hundred feet before Varric returned to the subject at hand. “I still don’t get what you see in him, and I don’t think you’ve ever told me.”
“Family.” She didn’t look at him when she spoke, but instead trained her eyes on the gates and fluttering banners in the distance. The hand resting on the pommel of her saddle drew in to rest over her stomach, but Varric couldn’t tell if she was nauseous again, or reflecting on something else. Probably nauseous. Maker knew he was.
“All right…” he took the bait. “You lost your family. I get it. You’re the last of a dying breed, but what does that have to do with Sebastian?”
“I know he’s got a very stiff collar out and about, all that Chantry rhetoric is in there deep, but when we’re alone, Varric, and it’s just the two of us, it’s not just his collar that’s—”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa! I’m gonna stop you right there. There are things I’d rather not know about Choir Boy. In fact, if I could go back in time and not know Sebastian at all, I’d take that leap without question.”
“I just don’t get what you see in him, Hawke. He’s your polar opposite, and I know they say opposites attract, and all that, but—”
“Is it so hard to believe I love him, Varric?”
Was it so hard to believe? Yes, in some way he couldn’t put his finger on, it was.
Where Sebastian Vael was soft, a pampered noble turned Chantry priest, Marian Hawke was hard. She’d been carved of stone long before he ever met her, hiding behind a veil of insults and jabs and making light of the most dire situations because it was the only way she knew how to cope. He wondered at times if she was like that before she lost her father, or if the death of Malcolm Hawke inspired the first wall to rise around her. Another layer obviously found its place when Teryn Loghain’s men fled the battlefield at Ostagar, and she and her little brother were forced to flee for their survival, hoping to get home in time to save their mother and sister. A third layer formed while her family fled Lothering during the blight. She had to be strong for them; of course she did, but losing Carver on the road tested that strength in ways she didn’t know how to survive. And that was all before he even knew her.
Whatever softness she had left, whatever optimism she held onto was crushed to dust in her hands as she held her dying sister in the Deep Roads—a blow Varric would never forgive himself for, no matter how many times she blamed Bartrand and not him. He’d already had a soft spot for her, but her willingness to forgive him… Sometimes it still brought a tear to his eye.
Poor Sunshine. That girl was the only hope in Kirkwall, and her death hardened Hawke in ways there was no coming back from. By the time she lost her mother, she was little more than a sharp machine moving through the City of Chains with unshakeable purpose. Obliterate blood magic and make the city safe again.
Anders’ betrayal, though… her coffin already sealed with nails, Hawke could have just lain down and let them shovel dirt over her, but she fought on. Because that was what Hawke always did.
Hearing her say love and family in practically the same breath was a terrifying thing. Because people like her didn’t have families. Oh, they loved fiercely enough, but their attachments were weaknesses, strings to be pulled to provoke them and draw them into the light. People like Hawke couldn’t afford to have families.
“All right,” he brought up a hand in concession. “You love him. He’s all white and shiny and noble and perfect, and he’s got really great hair, I’ll give them that. I get it. It’s just… your life here in Starkhaven, all the politics and nonsense… It’s not who you are, Hawke. It’s going to be… boring. You know that, right? Lots of meetings with politicians and ambassadors, trade negotiations, peace talks, border surveys. Shit, I’m getting bored just thinking about it.”
He dug his heels into the belly of his halflinger; the chestnut beast tossed her mane and cantered forward with a begrudging grunt. He knew exactly how she felt. He didn’t want to go to Starkhaven anymore than she did.
“You keep using that word, boring. I’m beginning to wonder if you’ve forgotten what it actually means. Starkhaven is in chaos, Varric. We helped Sebastian take his throne back, but the people are slow to trust him, and there’s very little in the way of stability. What could possibly be boring about that?”
Shortly after Wintermarch five months earlier, Hawke and Sebastian led a squadron of Red Iron Mercenaries into Starkhaven to tear the usurper, Goran Vael, from the throne. It had been surprisingly easy, Varric remembered. He guessed that was why Choir Boy let Hawke take the helm in the first place. She had an uncanny knack for getting things done—another reason they got on so well.
She returned to Kirkwall only when she was sure his reclamation was secure, promising to return for his coronation ceremony to stay on more permanently.
“I’m sure with Choir Boy at the helm it’ll only be a matter of time before everything is back in boring order. He’ll turn this perfectly good anarchy into frilly draperies and afternoon tea, and where will you be then? You don’t even like tea, Hawke. And when push comes to shove, and it will, he’s not going to just let you stab every representative who doesn’t agree with your terms in the throat. You know that, right?”
He was being too hard on the kid, and he knew it, but he hadn’t actually liked him since they met him years earlier. There was something… off about him. He was too clean, and Varric knew from experience there was really no such thing as too clean. Take his easy shift in politics, for example. Simply knowing Hawke, traveling with her, and fighting beside her had changed Sebastian Vael—probably not for the better. Sure, he’d always been a little petty and conniving, and his skill with a set of lockpicks was…admirable, even if he did bitch and moan every time someone asked him to check a lock or trap. Begrudgingly, Varric would say he wasn’t bad with a bow, but his bragging had always gotten under the dwarf’s skin. When Hawke came along and with a few hard-edged words undid years of Grand Cleric Elthina’s hard work at remaking Sebastian into a Maker-fearing cloistered brother training for the priesthood, the changes in his demeanor all seemed just a little too… convenient.
Sebastian had more than likely always been a hot-headed glory seeker under that shining white armor, but without Hawke’s influence he might very well have been able to keep that temper of his under lock and key.
Hawke really did bring out the worst in people, drawing their hidden nature to the surface. The whole Anders thing, for starters… Hawke poked the unstable mage like a child jabbing a wasp’s nest with a stick, calling him paranoid, refusing to help his cause, and burning every single copy of the manifesto he tucked between bills of lading, shelves, drawers, and into closets just to make her see. Because the mages were out of control, solving all their problems with blood magic, and whether they deserved the end they got, or not, they only had themselves to blame.
Well… there was also Knight-Commander Meredith, but Varric didn’t like to think about her anymore. If dwarves could dream, he imagined he’d still be having nightmares about Kirkwall’s Knight-Commander.
“I’m sure you’re right,” Hawke muttered, urging her white mare onward and matching pace with the halflinger. There was absence in her voice, a lingering cadence of distraction and doubt Varric had likely inspired on the long journey from Kirkwall. “I’ll probably die of boredom here, and there’ll be no one to kill.”
“It’s not too late to turn around and go home,” he pointed out.
For a moment she seemed to consider it, her long neck stretching as she craned a look back over her shoulder and stared in the direction they’d come from. “There’s nothing left for me in Kirkwall. That place took everything from me, and I’m not about to let it have anymore.”
Once more her hand came down to rest on her abdomen; it lingered there as they continued, and Varric found himself staring as he contemplated her gentle, thoughtful words. He knew she hadn’t meant to hurt him when she spoke them, but they bit into him nonetheless. He would be in Kirkwall; wasn’t that enough? They could suffer out the rest of their days there together, miserably alone and pining for people they could never have and good old days that hadn’t actually been all that good the more he thought about them.
“Sebastian is my family now. The only family I have left, and he’s here in Starkhaven trying desperately to put his kingdom back together. He needs me to help him restore order. I’m very good at that, as you know.”
“Like I said, he’s not going to just let you stab important people in the face when they don’t say yes to your terms. Meanwhile, who’s going to restore order in Kirkwall?” he muttered, more to himself than Hawke. “You’re the viscountess now, Hawke. You have responsibilities.”
“I can do both, Varric. The seneschal was beyond ecstatic when I told him I would be leaving for Starkhaven.”
“I bet he was,” the dwarf muttered under his breath. Seneschal Bran Cavin liked to pretend he wanted nothing to do with the viscount position, but Varric knew better. Provisionary viscount hadn’t been enough for him, especially with the Templars wreaking havoc.
“And the templars are getting scary again.”
“All the more reason for you to stay.”
“Sebastian… needs me.” Though she didn’t say the words, their meaning was intoned. Sebastian needed her, but she needed Sebastian for reasons the dwarf would never understand.
Varric needed her too. He would always need her, but he knew where she was coming from. Andraste’s ass, most of the time he felt responsible for all the bad in her life. Kirkwall had not been kind to its Champion, and it would likely be far more demanding of its viscountess. One by one, the City of Chains tore into the members of her family, leaving nothing behind but an uncle hardly worth knowing, a collection of nightmares, and a void not even the strength of their friendship could fill. Somehow Choir Boy filled that… hole, or void, or whatever it was.
But that wasn’t the point he was contemplating. It was Varric who introduced Hawke to Anders, urging her to seek out the former Grey Warden and the Deep Roads maps he possessed. It was Varric’s fault Bethany died down there. Well, technically it was Bartrand’s fault, but if Varric hadn’t pushed so hard for Hawke to partner in their expedition, the sisters probably wouldn’t have gone into the Deep Roads in the first place. The red lyrium idol that drove his brother (and later Knight-Commander Meredith,) mad would never have been discovered. Maybe there wouldn’t have been a mage rebellion, though with the crazy bubbling just beneath the surface of their spirit-possessed companion, Varric couldn’t see a clear way through all that blood magic.
How much of that did she blame on him? Deep down, she had to think at least some of it was his fault. Was it him she wanted to get away from? Maker, he hadn’t thought of that, but suddenly he couldn’t stop thinking about it.
Sure, she’d been looking for work, for ways to make more coin for the expedition when she happened upon Sebastian Vael’s contract on the chanter’s board in Hightown, but chances were she’d have met up with Choir Boy anyway. The Hawke sisters, freshly freed from their indentured servitude with the Red Iron Mercenaries, wanted out of Lowtown. They would have taken just about any job that came their way, but Varric blamed the long line of circumstances following the Deep Roads expedition. That was when Hawke glommed onto Choir Boy’s cause. Avenging his family, after having lost so much of her own to forces she couldn’t exactly exterminate, seemed a worthwhile cause, and seeing as he had a home to return to if only he’d just take back his throne, maybe she had pushed him a little… all right, she pushed him a lot, involving him in plenty of things that would turn the whitest of hearts just a little bit black around the edges.
Things really started to change between them after her mother was murdered by an insane maleficarum trying to recreate his dead wife from the salvaged body parts of the women he’d been killing for years. When she needed a shoulder, Sebastian was the first one to comfort her. Chastely, of course, at the time, anyway. Maker forbid the Choir Boy of yesteryear break the vows he struggled with day and night while battling the murderous urges to avenge his family, but then Blondie took out the chantry, and Grand Cleric Elthina with it, and any restraint Sebastian Vael might have practiced went up in smoke with the already cracked voice of reason holding him in check.
It was morbid to think of it that way, but it was true. Varric had no doubt Sebastian believed in the Maker and revered Andraste, but without the Grand Cleric to remind him of his vows, he let them go and seized a moment Hawke had been provoking since the very first time she batted her long black lashes at the exiled prince almost eight years earlier.
As the world crumbled around them, chaos throwing them out of the hot pan and straight into a raging fire, Sebastian clung to Hawke like a slip of static-charged silk. Her every whim became his desire, and though Varric had no idea who officiated the farce they now called a marriage since half of Kirkwall’s chantry went up in that explosion, the Champion Viscountess and the most boring prince in all of Thedas were wed before the burning fires of Kirkwall were even extinguished.
Hawke hadn’t told any of their friends until after the fact, didn’t even invite Varric to witness the ceremony. Not only had he felt the sting of that slight, he was more than just a little pissed off she hadn’t given him the chance to try and talk her out of it. Because he would have talked her out of it, or wasted plenty of breath giving it a shot.
But he forgave her; he always did. And no matter what she did with her life, he would support and care for her because she was the only worthwhile thing he had left. Well, her and Bianca, but that mess was another story.
“A lot of people need you, Hawke.”
The look she cast over her shoulder at him was surprisingly gentle. Jaw unclenched, eyes soft, she blinked away what looked like tears, and forced a smile to her lips. “I’ll still be there for those who need me, Varric. Most especially you.”
“I…” Guilt tightened the muscles of his chest, a cold pain that made his heart ache as he forced himself to look away. “I know, I know. I’m sorry, Hawke. I just… It’s… Kirkwall’s Kirkwall, you know? But without her champion, Kirkwall’s just a place now. It’ll barely even feel like home.”
“Varric,” the light shimmered in her eyes, a familiar gleam that lightened the burden he felt for a moment, “if I didn’t know any better, I’d think you were jealous. Whatever will Bianca say?”
“You leave Bianca out of this,” he smirked and shifted the crossbow on his back. “And besides, I gave up on any hopes of our torrid love affair the moment I realized I wasn’t clean enough to compete with Choir Boy. Is that what it is? You think he makes you look… better? Because if that’s the case it’s not true.”
Rolling her head back as she laughed, the sound was almost reminiscent of a much younger, less embittered woman. For a moment he almost believed she was still the bright eyed girl he tried to get in front of in Hightown all those years ago—before she ever even talked to Bartrand. For a moment…
“You’re a terrible person, Varric Tethras.”
“And I keep terrible company.”
The look they shared spoke of far more than he could ever say with words, and he was good with words. While he couldn’t imagine life in Kirkwall without her, maybe Starkhaven was the best place for Hawke. She could recover her losses there, perhaps find some well-deserved solace.
For a little while anyway.
But the peaceful life wasn’t her way. Varric knew that better than anyone, maybe even better than her. Oh, she deserved to be pampered and fussed over and doted upon, but eventually she’d grow tired of that life and start itching for a rebellion to put down. She wouldn’t stay in one place for long.
Poor Choir Boy. He had no idea what he was getting himself into, and for a moment thoughts of the struggle Prince Sebastian Vael was going to endure with Viscountess Marian Hawke as his consort actually relieved him. It would be amusing to watch… from a distance, of course. The further he was away from the shining example of righteousness and grace as it fell, the better.
Hawke was right; he was a terrible person.