Sideline Wednesday: The Champion's Side, Chapter 26

All Is Revealed

I sent ‘Bela, Sebastian, and Varric back to The Hanged Man and walked past my own front door, sparing it a longing glance before I continued past and up the nearby stairs to the Viscount’s Keep. This was going to be an uncomfortable confrontation but putting it off wouldn’t make it any easier.

During the day the bright stonework hosted a couple of minor food stalls and a number of nobles milling about, seeing and being seen. But this late at night thugs and criminals often lurked in the shadows of the white pillars hoping for easy pickings as unwary residents made their way home from dinner parties and card games. Happily, I didn’t encounter someone looking to rob me or worse as I crossed the courtyard in front of my door.

The keep’s grand entrance hall stood nearly empty, only a few guards scattered about the vaulted space and up the steps to the second level. I’d never known there were so many stairs in all the world before I’ve moved to Kirkwall. With everything built on top of itself even the slums, like Gamlen’s hovel, had two or three levels and were stacked to conserve space.

Most of the mansions contained at least three floors as well as cellars and basements below. Every day was an exercise in climbing, but at least my legs had never looked so good, something I appreciated when wearing the short skirts of my armor. With such light thoughts in my head, I turned the corner into the guard barracks to find Aveline pacing in agitation before her own office.

“Where is he?” she muttered to herself. She turned at the far side of the room and spied me standing near the door. “You!” Half a dozen furious strides brought her right into my face, finger extended and nearly touching my nose. “I can’t believe you did this to me. He’ll go to the Viscount for sure and then where will I be?”

Though I knew it would infuriate her, I couldn’t help but smile. Judging by the way Donnic had been making eyes at her for years he most likely was off nerving up to make a move on her. Before I could tell her that, however, the man himself spoke from just behind me.

“Excuse me, Hawke,” he said, “but I would like to have a word with my captain.” He sounded much sterner than I’d expected and a flutter of concern danced in my gut. Aveline looked like she couldn’t decide whether to run away or vomit on me so I sidestepped my position between them, just in case. I heard her swallow hard before inviting him into her office. He nodded curtly to me as he passed and firmly shut the door behind them.

Though I listened as hard as I could, there being no guards to observe my ear pressed to the wall beside the heavy wooden door, all I could hear was murmurs for a time. Then, unexpectedly, Aveline let loose a clear, girlish giggle the likes of which I’d have sworn could not come from her throat. Clearly, I was no longer needed here. She could tell me all about it later, and I would make her.

I skipped lightly back down the stairs and to my own door, busily imagining Isabela’s reaction to my report of the evening’s results. All I wanted was a late supper and a date with my bed and I breezed into the parlor, ready to ask Bodahn what remained of the evening meal. In addition to my merchant-turned-manservant and his son I found Uncle Gamlen anxiously demanding they tell him where my mother was.

“Is something wrong, Uncle?” I asked cheerily. “You seem unusually interested in Mother this evening.”

“It’s just that she never showed up for her weekly visit tonight,” he said. “That’s not like Leandra.”

He was right. Though he’d gambled away our family fortune and ancestral estate, though he’d sold me and Bethany into a year of servitude with smugglers, though he’d asked her to pay rent when we’d stayed in his slum while working off that year, he was still her little brother and still family. She never missed her weekly stop at his home, though she rarely invited him into mine. She might love him but she would prefer the neighbors not see him too often.

My mother was also punctual almost to a fault. She got flustered if she ran so much as five minutes late for something and only the requirements of being fashionably late could keep her from arriving at parties precisely on time. If she’d not shown up at Gamlen’s at the appointed time then something had definitely happened.

Bodahn spoke up. “Mistress Leandra left some time ago, well before she was due to arrive at your home, messere. It was shortly after that bouquet of lilies arrived, as I recall.”

A bell jingled in the back of my head. “White lilies,” I mused as I looked them. “That sounds familiar…Maker, no!” I spun back to Bodahn. “When did these arrive? Who sent them? Who delivered them?”

The dwarf looked shaken at my sudden concern. “A boy from that flower stall down in the market brought them,” he answered. “There was a card but Mistress Leandra tucked it into her sleeve after she read it. She looked quite happy about whatever it said and left almost immediately.” He stroked his impressively-braided beard. “I would guess she’s out with her beau.”

“Bodahn, I hardly expect you to read people’s mail just in case they wander off and lose track of the time.” My fears would hardly be helped by screaming at the one person who’d seen her leave. “How long ago was this?”

“Oh, hours ago,” he said, progressively more concerned. “She’s normally not here for dinner on nights she visits Messere Gamlen so I thought nothing of the fact that she didn’t return.”

Gamlen interrupted. “What’s happened,” he asked harshly. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

“In a way I have,” I responded. “Those lilies may be a signal, a gift from a killer I thought I’d already caught.” Gascard DuPuis’s face floated in my memory, his insistence that he be the one to confront his sister’s killer. The bastard had been telling the truth after all! And then I’d gone and gotten him executed without any more proof than a coincidence. Andraste’s tits I was an idiot. But he was already dead, and had been for a while. My mother might still be alive.

I sent Sandahl off with messages to both Anders and Fenris, asking them to meet me outside The Hanged Man. I wanted as much power behind me as I could get and, though they hated one another, they were the strongest fighters I knew, if in completely different ways. After the man in the robes at the foundry and the shades that had killed Emeric I wanted a mage with me to counter what he could but I wanted some strength beside me, as well.

When I stepped out of The Hanged Man, having found Isabela inside just preparing to settle into a night’s drinking, Fenris and Anders had already arrived. They milled about the courtyard, eying one another warily, but I had no patience for their rivalry just then. “My mother’s missing,” I announced, drawing the attention of all three. It took only moments to outline what had happened.

Thankfully, all of them understood the significance of the lilies. “I thought that, since she was headed for Lowtown and we last caught this guy’s trail at the foundry, we should start there.” Anders nodded thoughtfully while Fenris turned and started away and Bela put her arm around me. That’s so like each of them, I thought warmly as I trotted to catch up to my impetuous elf.

I thought I heard Gamlen somewhere nearby in the labyrinth of alleys, arguing with what sounded like a child, but I wasn’t about to waste time searching for him. Something shone wetly in the gathering gloom near the arch that separated the foundry district from the more-public areas of the slums and I stormed over to it, the others trailing a bit. As we drew nearer I could see that it was blood. I swore viciously beneath my breath, earning a sympathetic look from Fenris.

“If that’s my mother’s this bastard is going to pay,” I said aloud, locking eyes with him. He nodded solemnly. Whatever our history he knew how a thirst for vengeance burned. It seemed so strong it might consume my reason if I couldn’t focus on pursuing its cause. I’d not considered before how he’d lived with this fury for years and sudden sympathy for his misanthropy bloomed for a moment before I turned to find another small blotch near the door we’d gone through so long before. The fire flared up, turning everything else to ash.

“I’m coming for you, you son of a bitch,” I whispered, “and you’d better give back what’s mine.” I kicked open the door, deftly side-stepping the bounce-back into the familiar, eerie red space. Anders had apparently never raided anywhere and got a slab of wood in his face for his effort at following me closely. Fenris snorted back laughter as the mage was forced to heal his broken nose while the Isabela swung the door open more cautiously.

By the time all three of them got in I had followed drabs of blood across the dirt floor. They grew smaller as I went and hope flickered that, whatever wounds she had, they were well within Anders’s ability to heal. There was no doubt in my mind that the killer had brought my mother here. This trail represented too big a coincidence for any other explanation to suffice.

The drips led me up the stairs and into a storage room. On our last visit the walls had been lined with crates and barrels, piled haphazardly and leaving only a small space in the center of the room. Now, someone had cleared one corner to reveal a trapdoor. In case that weren’t obvious enough, a dribble of red ran right under its edge. “Gotcha.”

I hauled on the ring and it lifted easily on well-oiled hinges. Everyone had caught up by then and Fenris grabbed my arm as I made to descend the ladder. “I will descend first,” he said. When I started to protest he silenced me with a little shake of his head. “We don’t know what lies below.” That dangled for a moment as I imagined horrible scenes of mutilation and death. “I can ready my weapon more quickly,” he continued, his eyes on mine again.

The wryly crooked half-smile I summoned seemed to reassure him that I was not completely over the edge. It was true that he could respond to threat much more quickly with his enormous, two-handed blade than I could draw my sword and set my shield. But we both knew that wasn’t the reason he wanted to go first. My smile showed him that I understood why he’d volunteered and that I appreciated it.

“Well get down there already,” Isabela said, shoving him toward the darkness. “We haven’t got all night.”

Fenris released my arm with a little grin of his own. He climbed down the ladder, his slender frame disappearing into the gloom below. An eternity passed before he finally called up to us. “This area is secure, at least momentarily.” The three of us joined him, Isabela first so that she could watch Anders navigate the ladder in his hiked-up robes. Even in the worst of times, some things never change.

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