Trade negotiations were not supposed to take all day, but in the seven years Sebastian’s cousin, Goran the Usurper, sat the throne in Starkhaven, he’d made a mess of relationships the Vael family had kept in good standing for several generations.
Duke Antoine of Wycome had come to power three years earlier, and though communications over the last couple months painted him amicably, the ambassador he sent to renegotiate the terms of their agreement regarding the harbor in Wycome was a shrewd and unforgiving man. And apparently he admired Goran Vael a great deal, which said very little about his character in so far as Sebastian was concerned. He didn’t like the man, but he knew well enough one didn’t need to like his adversary to come to an agreement with him.
It took four hours to convince him to review the contracts his father and the former duke signed over two decades earlier, and then they spent two more hours arguing the rising cost of grain with threats of war and rebellion looming on the horizon. He’d woke up with a headache, and whatever it was that happened with Hawke before breakfast—because he still had no idea what to make of it—set the tone for his entire day.
He’d give anything for a tumbler of whiskey. On an empty stomach the results would be devastating.
“The threat of war always looms, Lord Dernial,” Sebastian insisted, “and these tower rebellions are unpredictable, at best, which is why Starkhaven and Wycome must stand united in commerce. We need to make the Free Marches strong again and that strength lies in keeping our lines with the world beyond our borders open. Since I reclaimed the throne with Kirkwall at my side, Starkhaven has already reestablished trade with Markham and Tantervale. Merchants from Antiva and Rivain are thrilled to do business with us again, but without that waterway open to our ships and theirs we lose weeks between shipments and are forced to rely on land driven caravans. Caravans face bandits on the road.”
“And ships face pirates, Your Highness, many of them from Rivain. Tell me, where does Starkhaven stand with the Anderfels at present?”
“I’ve sent ambassadors to treat with the king in Hossberg, as well as to Weisshaupt to meet with the Grey Wardens, and I am confident they will return with good news. All prior communications with the Anders have been promising.” Lord Dernial did not appear to be impressed, and simply saying the word Anders only further provoked Sebastian’s bad mood. He sometimes had to fight with himself not to take out his frustrations with a single man on an entire country simply because of the name that man went by. “I am also expecting to entertain King Alistair of Ferelden during his visit for my coronation ceremony, and plan to discuss reopening trade lines between Ferelden and the Free Marches. If you and I can reach an agreement here today, I can include Wycome’s offerings in all my negotiations outside the Free Marches. We can all benefit, my lord.”
“Ferelden,” Lord Dernial spat over his shoulder at the floor. “Of course the stinking dog lords will hear our offerings, but they will only take. Like beggars. They’ve nothing to offer in return, Your Highness, but the blight.”
He started to lift a frustrated hand to his brow, fully prepared to puff out his cheeks and let loose the most exasperated sigh he could muster. Clenched hands tightened atop the wood, his mind already picturing the many ways in which he could strangle the man before him until his face turned blue, but Chancellor Benneit caught his eye from across the table and curtly shook his head to discourage him from losing his temper. The man was beyond infuriating, the smoldering core of Sebastian’s anger burning steady and strong. Soon it was going to take more than an advisory head shaking to curb his ire, and they’d be forced to say goodbye to their only opportunity for a coastal route into Antiva and Rivain that didn’t lose relying on Kirkwall’s ports.
Drawing in another breath, he steadied himself, ignoring the throb of his pulse in both temples. “The blight ended seven years ago, Lord Dernial, as you know, when the Hero of Ferelden slew the archdemon at Fort Drakon. King Alistair assures me harvests in Highever, the Bannorn and the Hinterlands have been bountiful these last three years, with no signs of blight. Grain, vegetables, fruits, hearty cattle and swine without a hint of despair.”
Lord Dernial sniffed, still sticking his nose up at the idea. “I will have to consider this, perhaps take your terms back to His Grace to mull over for himself.”
“I was under the impression you had full authority to treat on his behalf.”
“As you say, Your Highness, but there is a great deal at stake here, and much hangs in the balance. I leave your city at dawn and head north into the Imperium to meet with our allies in Minrathous. Much depends on my negotiations there.” The legs of his chair scraped the marble as he backed away from the table. He offered a somewhat mocking dip of his head, then said, “Duke Antoine will be in touch,” before bowing out of the room with his head so high Sebastian was surprised he didn’t break his nose on the doorframe.
Hours of his day absolutely wasted.
“They’re worse than the bloody Orlesians,” he growled. “Wycome is nothing to us but a waterway. They bring absolutely nothing to the table of their own but port access for traders from Antiva and Rivain.” For the first time in hours he unclenched his fists, but his fingers still hurt, and the muscles in both forearms ached from the strain.
“Trade with Antiva may move slowly without that waterway, Your Highness, but it still moves. And we do have Kirkwall’s ports, as well.”
Itching fingers through his goatee, he leaned back in the chair and let his thoughts drift to his wife for the first time in hours. He should have brought her into negotiations with him; she’d have either convinced Ambassador Dernial to sign the agreement with a winning smile, or stabbed His Lordship in the throat with one of her daggers and declared war on Wycome. Which wasn’t entirely bad, so far as ideas were concerned.
“We could take control of the waterway by force,” he mused. “Send troops into Wycome and secure the waterway. Surely Duke Antoine will see reason when he’s face to face with the soldiers of Starkhaven.”
“I don’t think that’s wise, Your Highness, at least not at present. Our army is growing, but with the unrest in Kirkwall, and the growing rumors of mage rebellion all across Thedas, it is impossible to say what other challenges we might find on our doorstep. Give Lord Dernial time to present our terms to Duke Antoine and return to us with his answer before you start readying your soldiers to march on our neighbor over a waterway dispute.”
“If they block us out, Chancellor, and their alliances in the north decide to impede land trade with Antiva…”
“We could always send one of our own ambassadors to Tevinter. Have a man leave tonight before Lord Dernial has a chance to set out come morning. Our man would arrive in the Imperium before Wycome and already be negotiating terms that work Wycome into our favor, or overpower them completely.”
Sebastian didn’t even have to think on it. His instinctual response pushed him forward in the chair, a re-clenched fist dropping painfully on the tabletop as he loudly declared, “Absolutely not. I will not treat with the blasphemous Imperium.”
“As you say, Highness, but Tevinter has…”
“No. Nothing you say will make me reconsider, Benneit. We wait to hear from Hossberg and Weisshaupt, and pray negotiations with Ferelden work in our favor. In the meantime Kirkwall’s ports are open to us, if need be.” Raking fingers through his hair, he realized for the first time in hours he was hungry. He barely picked at the offerings of food they brought in during the negotiations, and though he’d done his best to eat breakfast, his stomach was in knots over his argument with Hawke. “What else is on my agenda today, Chancellor?” He just wanted the day to be over already.
“We’ve had to push back your meeting with Lady Laurintha of Ostwick until tomorrow. Word arrived this morning that her caravan was delayed just outside of Markham. She should arrive late this evening, so I’ve rescheduled that for just after breakfast. There are several petitions awaiting your judgment, and you’ve a second fitting with the royal tailor for your coronation attire.”
“Reschedule the fitting for tomorrow afternoon.” He didn’t have the patience to stand through a fitting. One accidental slip of a pin, and he was like to tear the tailor’s head off.
“As you wish, Highness. Oh, and Revered Mother Lucinda has also asked for an audience with you and the treasurer to discuss roof repairs on the west wing of the priory.”
“Of course,” he nodded. “I will meet with her first, then attend to court judgments.”
Mother Lucinda was a long-winded woman, and though her request was simple enough, and Sebastian agreed to see it done within moments of her entering the chamber, it was more than an hour before he finally convinced her he had other duties to attend to. By the time he finished listening to disputes and passing judgments dinner had come and gone, and he found himself exhausted in his private chambers waiting for the servants to bring him a warmed plate.
He hadn’t seen Hawke since he bent to kiss her temple before leaving breakfast and telling her to enjoy her day, and the doors to her private apartment were closed when he reached his own rooms. He was anxious to sit down and talk with her about whatever it was that upset her that morning, but he knew if he didn’t eat something before he saw her, his temper would be far too easily stirred and another argument would ensue.
He didn’t want to bicker with her, not after they spent so many months apart, but he didn’t want to start their new life together with tensions between them either. As long as he’d known her, she’d been a complicated woman. Easily stirred to action, but difficult when it came to emotions. She flirted dangerously, batting those thick black lashes of hers and flashing a smile that could convince just about anyone to do her bidding, but when it came to expressing actual feeling and sentiment she struggled to find strength in their expression. The first time she told him she was in love with him, he nearly died of shock.
Could it be just as she said that morning? Her emotions got the better of her, and she cried tears of joy? She wasn’t used to being happy, and so maybe it was a struggle for her. Or was it something more she wrestled with? Maybe he was reading too much into it, but to have known her so long, to have watched her shrug off tears during even the most emotional of moments… She’d stuck a knife in the back of a man she called friend for seven years, at Sebastian’s insistence, then wiped her bloody hands on her armor and headed out into the city to fight their way through the chaos without even batting an eyelash.
For her to break down there must be more going on under the surface, and he would get to the bottom of it.
They’d come so far together, and so little of the journey had been easygoing. She deserved so much more, and he would spend the rest of his life giving her every happiness. She might not know what to do with that happiness as he heaped it upon her day after day, but he would do everything in his power to help her adjust. It might take a firm hand, but if she’d taught him anything over the years it was how best to wield one.
He owed everything to her; it was his turn to give back.
The cream in his rewarmed fish stew was already clotted when the servant laid it out before him, making every bite taste rancid in his mouth. He shoveled it in anyway and sopped the broth and bacon-specked leavings from the edges of the bowl with fresh buttered bread. He felt ravenous after so long a day, but the moment the broth began to settle in his stomach his insides started to churn. After he finished eating, he changed out of his formal attire and into something more comfortable. He dragged a comb through his hair, and then set off across the hallway to the suite of rooms she’d been given.
He wondered as he crossed the corridor if it would bother her, having their own separate apartments within the castle. She hadn’t complained, yet, but she’d only been there a day. His parents, who loved one another rather epically as he recalled, kept their marriage fresh by giving one another much needed space. His mother used to say there was nothing more comforting than crawling into bed to steal his father’s warmth in the dead of winter, but at times it was even more refreshing to know she could sprawl out in the center of her own bed and not have to worry about him stealing the quilt as he tossed and turned and muttered in his sleep.
Sebastian couldn’t imagine sleeping alone now that she was with him. Whatever sacrifices he must make—sheets, quilt, pillows, sleep itself—he would make to keep her happy. He was fully prepared to give her whatever she wanted.
Arriving outside the door, it was open just a crack, but he hesitated when he heard voices from within. Cocking his head to listen, it took only a moment to realize the wicked laughter she issued was in response to some joke—undeniably filthy, no doubt—Varric spun to amuse her as they shot cards across the table in a high stakes game of Wicked Grace.
Pushing through the door, Varric looked up from the table first, shaking his head as he laughed. “Should I deal you in, Choir Boy?”
“It’s Your Highness now, Varric. Be polite,” Hawke scolded. “He could have you hanged with a snap of his fingers, you know.”
“Your Choir Boyness?” The dwarf chuckled.
“I hope you haven’t gambled away half of Starkhaven, love.” He approached her side of the table, hesitating to lift his hand to rest on her shoulder as he worried she might shrug it off to let him know she was still in whatever mood he’d left her in that morning. Fingers twitching, he took a chance, and she tilted her head down to rest her cheek atop his knuckles as thought nothing transpired between them.
“I’ve only lost the Minanter River,” she said, “and a couple of holdings near the southern border.”
“You won those back last round,” Varric told her, “but I’m keeping the river.”
“All right, but your room in The Hanged Man belongs to me now. Assuming it ever gets rebuilt.”
“Fine, you can have your damn river back.”
“Too late. I’m already rearranging the furniture as we speak.” She straightened her back as she sat up and reached for a card. Shaking her head, she discarded and tossed her hand on the table. “And there she is: the angel of death. I’ve got three angels, a dagger, and a song.”
“Four songs and the noontide knight. I win.”
“Hey, what can I say?” He raked the feet of his chair across the floor as he pushed away from the table and staggered to his feet. “I’ll be taking back the keys to my room in The Hanged Man as I bid you both a fond goodnight.” Circling his hand in mocking gesture, he bowed low at the waist and swiped a set of room keys off the table before hobbling toward the door. “You know where I am if you need me, Hawke,” he called back before disappearing into the hallway.
She made herself busy cleaning up the cards, shuffling them all back into the deck, then bridging them between her hands. The flutter of sound was sharp, succinct, determined—just like everything she did. “One of these days I’ll catch him cheating,” she noted with a hint of amusement in her tone.
“How long were you holding onto the Angel of Death?”
“Since the first hand,” she shrugged, “but he cheats in other ways. I think he was keeping cards up his sleeve again.”
“Everyone cheats at Wicked Grace, Hawke. Even me.”
“Sebastian,” she scolded, clicking her tongue three times against the back of her teeth. “No one actually admits they cheat at Wicked Grace.”
“It would seem I’m far too honest for my own good.” Withdrawing his hand, he stepped around to the other side of the table and sat down in the chair Varric vacated. “Mother Lucinda was most pleased to inform me she saw you and Varric in the chantry this afternoon.”
“We only stepped in to get out of the heat.”
She bridged the cards again, then stacked them neatly on the table before tapping her fingernail atop the deck. “It’s a beautiful cathedral. Very peaceful.”
“I’m glad you approve and hope you take solace there whenever the need arises.”
“Varric thinks the chantry should cater more to dwarves. All the pews are too high, so his legs don’t touch the floor. It’s very uncomfortable for him.”
“I’m sure if Varric would like to spend more time here in the chantry, I could make special arrangements for him.”
“Could you also put pillows in the pews, maybe? I think if I’m going to be forced to endure lectures on how often I disappoint the Maker, I should at least be cozy while I do it.”
“No one’s forcing you to go to chantry services.”
“I just assumed it would be expected.”
Sebastian tilted his head to study her, watching the orange glow of hearth fire cast light and shadows across her pale skin. The dark smudges beneath her eyes were more prominent than they’d been that morning, making him wonder if she was getting sick, or still just exhausted from her journey. “It would make me happy to know you sat beside me during services, but I would never force you to join me in my praises, Hawke.”
“Good to know.” Still tapping her fingernail on the cards, she didn’t look up at him as she asked, “And your day? How was it?”
“It was a day.” He reached back and rubbed the stiff muscles in his neck as he let the breath that puffed out his cheeks gust out. “I spent several hours in negotiations with Wycome that fell flat after all my efforts, missed lunch, and then I sat down with the Mother Lucinda and the treasurer to search out funds to repair the priory roof. After that, I juggled the fates of farmers and nobles. My supper was cold when I finally sat down, and now here I am.”
He couldn’t help the chuckle that worked its way through him. “What do you have to apologize for? It’s not as if you’re personally to blame for the stubbornness of Wycome.”
“I didn’t exactly start your day off on the best of terms.”
“That’s not entirely true,” he grinned. “I was awakened rather delightfully and quite happy, for the most part.”
“Until you weren’t…” She dipped her head down, worrying her lower lip between her teeth as she stared at the table. “Are you still upset with me?”
“Hawke, I was never upset with you, just confused. The shift in your mood was… unexpected.”
“You knew before you married me I was completely crazy.”
“Of course I knew,” he shrugged. “Why do you think I proposed?” That made her smile, though she still didn’t lift her eyes to meet his. “Do you want to talk about it? Whatever it is that upset you this morning?”
Shaking her head, she pushed the deck of cards away and said, “Not yet.” She waited for him to say something, but when he didn’t she finally brought her gaze up and searched his face. “Is that all right?”
“It breaks my heart to know you’re hurting in some way and I can’t fix it, and even more so that you don’t feel like you can share it with me, but I won’t push you if you don’t want to be pushed.” He wondered if Varric knew, then inwardly chided himself. Of course Varric knew whatever was bothering her. She told the dwarf everything. Sometimes he envied the closeness they shared, knowing he would never quite understand her the way her best friend did.
“I appreciate that. And I will talk about it,” she promised, “soon. I just… I need some time to figure it all out for myself.”
“Maybe I could help you figure it out.”
“You said you wouldn’t push…”
“I know, and I’m not pushing. But while you’re trying to figure it all out consider this.” Leaning forward in the chair, he reached across the table and curled his fingers around hers, giving them a gentle squeeze. “We are partners now, equals. We share more than just a bed. We share our burdens with each other, no matter how heavy. We will carry whatever you’re struggling with together. And I know it’s hard for you to believe, but the Maker will see us through whatever comes our way. I have faith in us, Hawke.”
He watched as her face twisted almost painfully, and then she looked away. “After all this time, you’re still too good to be true. I keep waiting for… I don’t know, for someone to pinch me. I’ll wake up hungover on the floor in the corner of Varric’s room at The Hanged Man and you’ll have been just a pretty dream.”
“If all the worst of our days together end with you thinking me dreamy, I’ll not complain.”
She moved away from the subject with admirable grace and skill, bringing her other hand in to rest atop his as she said, “You look almost as tired as I feel. Maybe we should put this entire day behind us and go to bed.”
“Why do I get the impression I won’t get much sleep if I agree?”
“What can I say,” she slipped her hand off his and withdrew from the table, “I’ve got insatiable appetites.” Drawing him out of his chair with little more than a look, she led him toward the bed on the other side of the apartment, and for a time neither of them thought about the strange dark cloud looming over their bliss.