Varric spent the remainder of his afternoon kissing up to Hawke, making sure she wasn’t actually mad at him for spilling her beans. Not that the Wardens actually cared, but it was the principle. He really shouldn’t have told them, but for a second he was actually worried they might try to drag her back to the Deep Roads with them. Someone like her would clean the place out in no time flat; the wardens had to know that.
She insisted she wasn’t really mad at him, but sometimes he couldn’t tell with her. She was that good at pretending to be an asshole. She was even better at actually being one. The fact that she was still laughing at his jokes boded well, but he might want to check his room for traps later… you know, just to be safe.
The last thing he said to her before they parted ways was, “You still love me, right?” Because he genuinely couldn’t imagine living out the rest of his life if the answer was no. Sure, he’d find a way to muddle through, he supposed, but it would be a drab existence.
“Oh, Varric,” she sighed, “I couldn’t hate you even if I tried. I know because I have tried. All afternoon, actually.”
“Well, that’s a relief. You know I only do the things I do because I care.”
“Yes, well, sometimes I wish you didn’t care so much, but somebody has to, I suppose.”
“It’s a dirty job,” he shrugged.
“Oh, I do hope this whole dinner thing hurries up and gets started once I’m upstairs. That sandwich I had for lunch feels like a distant dream.”
“So, dinner with Choir Boy. You’re going to tell him, right?”
“I’ll try very, very hard.”
“Yes, Varric, I know. I heard you the first twelve times. If the time is right, I’ll tell him. Don’t you have a book to finish?”
“I do indeed.”
“Then get on that. I’ll have saved the world all over again before you finish the first book and everyone will start bothering you for a sequel. And no excuses about your arm hurting either. You had that coming.”
“I guess I’m lucky you didn’t break it.”
“Very. Wish me luck.”
“If anyone can do it, you can.”
He stood at the bottom of the steps, watching her ascend and considering a walk to the tavern in the city. He did have writing to do, but after the day he had with the Wardens he needed to think, and he always thought better after a pint. Plus, he’d already be softened up in case Hawke needed someone to cry on later, not that she’d actually let herself shed a tear, but it never hurt to be prepared.
Hitching his shoulders back, he started through the castle mulling over everything they learned from the Wardens as he walked.
It was a lot to swallow, and he wasn’t going to lie: it made him nervous to think there were other things out there like Corypheus. Architects crafting designs that would put life as he knew it in the crapper… yeah, he was definitely getting too old for this shit. Life was so much easier when the worst thing about darkspawn was the simple fact that they existed. To find out there were some who could actually think… not a comforting thought.
Early evening sun dappled the walk through the trees, specks of brilliance dancing in the shadows as leaves swayed provocatively at the breeze’s behest. The shades cast a mesmerizing green hue on the white paving stones, making him realize how easy it would be to take the color itself for granted in a place such as that, almost as easily as Varric took for granted the sepia and tan hues that comprised most of Kirkwall. The White City of Chains his ass… Dirty White City was more like it, though so much of it was black now on account of all the smoke.
Everything in Starkhaven was green: the grass, the trees, the depth of the water rushing through the Minanter, several species of bird native to Antiva that crossed into the Free Marches near the border. Even the air smelled green and alive in ways he didn’t know air could smell; part of him wondered if it actually should smell that way. Did air have any right to be so fresh and clean, to smell sweet and fragrant with every gust of wind that tickled through his hair?
He smiled and nodded as he walked, waved to several folks who had grown familiar since his arrival, and while they definitely went out of their way to make him feel welcome, he missed Kirkwall. Sure, it was a cesspit of despair with thieves in every shadow and a knife always at the ready for one’s back—all things made only worse by the mage rebellion—but it was still home.
He was going to have to increase his spy network in the north to keep an eye on Hawke. She wouldn’t like it, but could she blame him? She had to know he couldn’t stay on there forever, not even with a baby on the way. Once she told Sebastian and she seemed settled in, he’d be heading back home. His life was in Kirkwall, his contacts and family, and though many of his best years had been spent there with Hawke, he’d have to find a way to make it without her until fate or the Maker or whatever brought them back together again for the next adventure.
In the meantime, there’d be visits, of course. Old Uncle Varric wouldn’t be able to spoil her royal brats from Kirkwall, but he had to resign himself to the fact that she’d settled down. Maybe it was time he did too. Just think of all the writing he’d get done without her always nagging him to go kill shit.
As he approached the tavern, he got the strangest sense of déjà vu, like he’d walked back in time to find the high cackle of a familiar laugh eking through the doors to welcome him when another patron spilled out onto the walk reeking of the cheap stuff.
“Rivaini?” he mumbled, shaking his head. “Nah, it couldn’t be.” Last he heard, Isabela took the helm of another ship, rounded up some of her old crew, and headed back out to sea. She said she might see them around someday, but neither Hawke nor Varric actually believed she’d be back. Spending time with Hawke, contributing to so many good deeds changed the Rivaini pirate in ways she admitted unsettled her, but when he pushed his way through the doors he swore he heard her laughter again.
Surely there were other half-naked pirate wenches from Rivain who knew how to tie the stem of a cherry with nothing but her tongue…
“And there it is.” She plucked the stem from between her teeth and held it out to the broad-shoulders man sitting across from her at the table, displaying it like a prize ribbon. “Nothing but my tongue, just like I said.”
“Yes, well,” another familiar voice stammered, “that’s very… That’s a very useful skill, I imagine.”
“Your Majesty?” Varric said as he approached the side of the table.
“Shh!” Alistair hissed warning. “No one knows I’m here, and I’d like to keep it that way. If Teagan catches wind I didn’t actually go to bed with a migraine, he’ll have my hide.”
“Right, because you’re not the king of him, or anything.” Pulling up a chair from the table behind him, he slid it into the open space between the two of them. “Rivaini, I thought you’d be halfway to the Frozen Seas by now.”
“Varric,” she crooned, “I might have heard you were here, but I wasn’t actually paying attention. Where’s Hawke?” She craned her neck to see over Alistair’s shoulder, watching the door for signs of their friend. “She rarely leaves your side, so I expect she’s just around the corner.”
“Hawke’s presently indisposed, you know, with her crown and her husband and all those responsibilities she was so looking forward to taking on.”
“Oh, right. I heard something about a coronation as I rolled into the city. I didn’t miss it, did I? Hawke will never forgive me if she finds out I was here and didn’t even bother to pop in with a gift.”
“I’m sure she’ll be devastated.” He rolled his eyes and waved the serving girl over with a pint. “Help me wrap my head around this. I know why he’s here, well, not here-here, but in Starkhaven,” he gestured toward Alistair, “and I can only imagine why you’re here, Rivaini, but I don’t understand what the two of you are doing here together.”
“Alistair and I go way back, don’t we, love?”
“I wouldn’t say way back…” the king shifted uncomfortably in his chair. “But we do know one another. Well enough that when neither Kyleah nor I couldn’t reestablish contact with an old friend in Antiva, I thought perhaps Isabela might be able to offer her services.”
Varric’s mind took that confession in about three different directions; all of them wrong. “I see.” He hoisted the mug the moment the serving girl plunked it down in front of him and told her, “Keep ‘em comin’ kid. I have a feeling it’s going to be a long night.” Wetting his lips with the liquid, he gulped down several swallows before lowering it back to the table again. “Much to my surprise, there’s a pretty nice brothel here in Starkhaven, Your Majesty. His Royal Chasteness pretends he doesn’t know about it, but I have it on good authority Prince Sebastian spent a fair amount of time there in his youth.” He leaned forward and offered an exaggerated wink of conspiracy. “He’s not as tightly wound as he pretends to be, or at least he wasn’t once, but that’s about all the dirt I’ve got on the guy. And trust me, I’ve looked.”
“Still think he’s got ulterior motives?” Isabela wondered.
“Everyone’s got ulterior motives, Rivaini.”
“A brothel? What does that have to…”
“All I’m saying is it wasn’t necessary to call Isabela all the way to Starkhaven to scratch your itches. In fact, I’m prone to believe she’d only give you more itches.”
“Hey! I resemble that remark,” the pirate smirked.
“Oh, did you think…” Nervous laughter followed, trailing into a disgruntled sigh. “It’s not like that. I need a ship. I am… can you be discreet?”
“Me?” Varric chortled. “Discretion is my middle name, Majesty.”
Gritting his teeth, Alistair leaned forward and said, “Ixnay on the ajestymay.”
“You know, Alistair,” Isabela began, swiping the bottle she’d been drinking from off the table and glugging down several swallows, “now that he’s sitting right here in front of us, I think he might be a valuable asset on such an expedition. We should invite him along.”
“Expedition? What expedition?”
Ferelden’s king cast a disparaging look in Isabela’s direction, took a drink, and said, “I’m beginning to think this whole thing was a bad idea, but I… I suppose I have no choice.”
“Of course it’s a bad idea, love. Anytime you’re planning to cross the Antivan Crows, you’re asking for trouble.”
“Which is why I thought to employ Zevran. His entire life’s mission now is to destroy the Crows, but he’s gone silent since our last communication seven months ago.”
“He’s probably laying low. I have contacts, and so does Varric. We could rout him out in a finger snap, but you don’t need him if you’ve got us. I certainly know my way around the Crows.”
“Why do I get the feeling that wasn’t figurative, Isabela? Wait, what?” Varric hunched forward in the chair. “You’re going up against the Crows?” He gestured toward the king with his mug. “Count me out.”
“Don’t count yourself out until you’ve heard his proposition. Go on, tell him what you’re after, Alistair.”
The man hesitated, hazel eyes staring into the amber liquid at the bottom of his mug for a long time before he tossed it back as if to calm himself. Long fingers trailing through his immaculately styled hair, he stopped to scratch just behind his ear, but Varric could tell he was stalling, weighing his options. When he lifted his head again, his ordinarily friendly eyes were hard, unspoken threat lurking just beyond the lashes. “I need to know you can be discreet, dwarf, or I’m not even going to bother.”
“There’s no need for racial slurs. Like I said before, Discretion is my middle name. I may spin stories for a living, but that doesn’t mean I exploit all the secrets I’m asked to keep. If you’re asking me to keep one for you, Your Majesty, I’ll be asking you to make it worth my while.”
“Because of course you would,” he clicked his tongue against the roof of his mouth. “I suppose this is what I get for entertaining the notion of hiring pirates and thieves.”
“Author. I’m an author.”
“And a pretty fair burglar,” Isabela chimed in. “Don’t sell yourself short, Varric.”
“Not helping, Rivaini.”
“Well, I need thieves, at least one, and I definitely need a ship. I have to get into the Archive of the Crows in Antiva City.”
The dwarf’s mug was halfway to his mouth before he spluttered into it, dropping it back onto the table and loudly blurting out, “Are you insane?” The drink sloshed out onto the table, a terrible waste in his opinion, but it was too late to take it back. “One doesn’t just walk into Crow territory, and most especially not into their archive.”
“Keep your voice down, Master Tethras.”
“Right, discretion. Sorry.” Inching closer, his gruff whisper was known to carry much further than this shouting voice, but at least he tried. “Why would you deliberately piss off the Antivan Crows? Do you not like having a head to carry that really shiny crown of yours around on?”
“Look, I’m not asking for a lecture, or your advice.”
“If you’re hiring us, you’re going to get our advice, just sayin’.”
“I just need backup. I’m not exactly skilled in the art of stealth. I always had Kyleah for that, but she…” Turning his head down again he closed his eyes almost nostalgically. “I can’t involve her in this. Not now. If you’re in, there’s good coin in it. You people love your coin, or so I’ve heard.”
Well, that was offensive. “You people? As in dwarves? Another racial slur, Your Majesty.”
“What? No! I meant Brigands and thieves. You just told me I had to pay you to keep my secrets. What else am I supposed to think?”
“That was a joke, Your High and Mightiness, but how much coin are we talking?”
Alistair Theirin reached into the breast pocket of his doublet and brought out a slip of parchment. He glanced around the tavern in the most suspicious manner, as if he had no idea how seedy undertakings actually worked and was attempting something sly he once read in a book—not one of Varric’s books, he’d never write something so amateur—then slid the parchment across the table writing side down. Isabela stared at it a moment, not wanting to appear too eager, but Varric had no such qualms. He snatched it up, tilted his head while analyzing the number of zeroes trailing a five.
“Is that… sovereigns?” he wondered, itching fingers through the stubble on his chin.
Isabela snatched the parchment from his hand and stared at it with wide eyes the color of molten honey. “We’re in.”
“Hold up, Rivaini,” Varric snatched it back. “This is a serious amount of coin.”
“I’m good for it,” he said. “King of Ferelden, remember?”
“If you’re serious about this…” Varric scratched his chin again, head shaking back and forth as he handed the parchment back to Isabela. “I’ll need to talk to Hawke.”
“Come on, Varric, you don’t need Hawke’s permission… And besides, that number’s only getting split two ways. If you want to share your half with her, whatever…”
“It’s not about permission, Rivaini. It’s about respect. Hawke depends on me for a lot of things. I can’t just walk away from her and into some mad Antivan death trap without so much as a word.”
“You mean to leave her behind? Wow, she really is shackled to that pretty little throne of hers, isn’t she?”
“It’s not that, it’s… complicated.” The last thing he needed was to piss off Hawke even more by telling Isabela her secret. “Anyway, I will have to talk to her, tell her where I’m going.”
“Discretion,” Alistair sing-songed through tightly clenched teeth.
“Trust me, there’s no one more discreet than Hawke.”
“I had a friend once who taught me never to trust someone who had to tell you to trust them.”
“Well, in most cases you’d be right, but not with me. And besides, I don’t even know the full details for what I’m signing onto here, so I don’t think you have much to worry about. How soon were you planning on setting out? Where are you docked, Isabela?”
“My ship and crew are in Kirkwall.”
“As little sense as it makes to head back to Ferelden with Antiva so close, I have to make sure a few things are in order before I take off.”
“Putting your affairs in order?” Varric balked. “Now I’m definitely concerned.”
“Look, if you’re in come with Isabela to Denerim. She has all the rest of the details. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve a headache to feign and a bed to crawl into.” He downed the last swallow of ale in his tankard, deposited the cup on the table with a silver, and scooted his chair back to rise. Varric noticed it the night before, just how tall Ferelden’s monarch was, but there in the shadowy alcove of the tavern where they conspired, he wasn’t just tall, he was menacing. And he seemed like such a good-tempered young man…
He waited until the shield on his back disappeared through the tavern door, then turned his full attention to Isabela. “That’s a lot of zeroes,” she mused thoughtfully, running a fingernail over the number on the parchment. “I could add three ships to my fleet with my share.”
“Assuming we actually live through it. Do you really think this is a good idea? Fucking with the Crows is asking for trouble, and I know it often looks like I have a death wish, but…”
“I’ll watch your back if you watch mine.”
He’d fought beside the pirate for years. She was a master duelist, her blades only second to Hawke’s, in so far as he was concerned, but she wasn’t Hawke. And following her and the king to Antiva wasn’t going home, a place he felt sick inside for but knew would never be the same. Not without Hawke. What waited for him in Kirkwall? A burned down tavern? Empty, ruined streets? Then again, with his share of the coin His Majesty was offering, Varric could contribute to Kirkwall’s restoration in a big way, make his home great again.
“I still want to talk to Hawke before I commit,” he hemmed, though internally he already knew he was all in. He’d always been a gambler, and though the stakes were definitely higher than he wanted to admit, a payout that good was hard to walk away from. “You should come talk to Hawke, too, at least say hello.”
“I will. I’ll stop by in the morning. Well, afternoon.” She poured herself another shot of whisky and gulped it down. “Is she… all right? I mean… here in Starkhaven? Is she doing okay?”
“I think she’ll be just fine here.” A statement that both comforted and saddened him immensely.