My bitter laugh sent more tears spilling down my cheeks. “Better late than never, right?” I swallowed my gorge and my anger. This was the last conversation I’d ever have with her. Vomiting could wait and revenge had already been exacted. For once I’d pay attention.
“I’m so proud of you,” she said. “I should have told you that long ago. You’re so like your father.” One of those mystery hands rose unsteadily. Chilled fingers brushed my cheek. “He would have loved to see you so fierce, fighting for the people that need help most.”
Andraste’s ass, why now? I thought. I couldn’t remember the last time she’d said she was proud of me. Certainly she hadn’t since she’d accused me of letting an ogre crush my brother while we fled the Darkspawn horde into the Kocari Wilds. “This would be a lot easier if you told me off for wearing a helmet that clashes so badly with my chestpiece,” I told her.
We smiled at one another. She knew my abrasive words were meant to shove my pain aside. “Let’s get you out of here. Surely someone at The Gallows can help…you,” I finished feebly. We hadn’t even found the rest of her.
She shook her head the tiniest bit, probably all she could do. “I’m afraid you’ll have to finish decorating without me, dear,” she said faintly. “I don’t have the head for it anymore.”
I laughed again, choking back a sob. “I’ll never find a rug to match that huge tapestry you had installed on the third floor.”
The ghost of a smile touched her mouth. She tried to raise that hand again but it lifted only a few inches before sinking to the floor at my knee. “A nice mauve, I think,” she whispered. She looked up at me sadly for one last moment. “I love you,” she breathed, barely audible. And then she died before I could respond. I laughed and cried more. It was so like her to make sure she got the last word.
It must have been an hour that I knelt there with the ghoul in my lap, or so it seemed. For a time I forgot where I was and that anyone else was in the room as I said goodbye. Finally I laid the dead body on the ground and tried to rise. All I felt was a numb confusion that interfered with my legs. When my knees failed to hold me Fenris quickly came to one side to steady me as Anders drew my arm over his shoulder from the other side. For once the two managed to restrain their animosity, for which I was vaguely grateful.
Once I’d steadied I waved aside the offers from my companions to come home with me. My only desire in that moment was quiet in which to avoid the image of the monster into which my mother had been turned. My well-meaning friends would insist on talking about what had happened and I couldn’t face that. They reluctantly left me at my front door with expressions of sympathy.
I’d entirely forgotten about Gamlen. Despite his frequent lapses into asshole behavior he had been happy to have a family again and he truly loved my mother. As I walked into the drawing room he leapt from the chair in which he’d been dozing. “Did you find her?” He wrung his hands anxiously, peering behind me as though I were hiding her.
I dropped into the other chair before the fire. “Yes.” I drew a deep breath to steady my voice. “She won’t be coming home, Uncle.”
He let out a wail. “Why? Why Leandra?” he asked plaintively. “What did he want with her?”
The surreal conversation I’d had with Quentin played in my mind. It would do him no good to know how gruesome his sister had been made before she’d died. “It doesn’t matter,” I answered gently. “It won’t bring her back.”
He hung his head, his grey hair straggling around his jowls. My uncle was a hard man but I’d never before realized just how much his life had worn on him. His past mistakes and the rough life he lived in Lowtown had made him look even older than his sister after her twenty years of peasant life on a farm in Ferelden. “I suppose you’re right,” he said. Then he looked up, his eyes fierce. “What about the bastard who did this? Did you at least kill him?”
“Oh, yes,” I said bitterly. “That son of a bitch won’t be sending any more lilies this side of the Void.”
“Good.” His savage satisfaction was clear in his voice. We remained still for a moment but there seemed nothing else to say. He walked over and laid a hand on my shoulder, one of the few times he’d ever touched me. I laid my fingers over his and we shared a moment of silent sympathy. Finally he shook his head. “I’m going home.”
Gamlen slammed the front door as he left. I found that I could no longer sit downstairs so near where I usually found mother making plans to marry me off to some noble’s son or having tea with our snooty Hightown neighbors. The only place in the house that didn’t remind me of her, that didn’t display her personal décor, was my own bedroom so it was to there that I retired.
After I’d changed out of my filthy armor I sat on the bed, hands dangling between my knees in an unladylike way that would have earned me a scolding a few days before. My mind was utterly blank. I simply stared at the fire, watching the flames dance, as my mind ran over and over the mistakes I’d made. The sound of someone clearing his throat drew my attention and I blinked, realizing that the flames had died at some point. I ran a hand over my face, trying to shake my daze, and turned to find Fenris standing at the foot of the bed.
“I’ve never had to deal with something like this,” Fenris said when I looked at him. He took a hesitant step toward me, struggling to make eye contact in his discomfort. It must have cost him a great deal to come. “I have no words to ease your pain. But I am here if you need me.”
My heart tried to leap at his words but the pile of wool that stuffed my chest restrained it to a minor thud. “Words are not what I need right now,” I answered, stretching out a hand to him. He took it and sat beside me on the bed. For a moment we sat awkwardly, our history keeping us stiffly apart, before he again took the initiative and tentatively put his arm around me, drawing me to him. This time my heart did swell, knowing that he was setting aside his own distaste for physical contact to comfort me as best he could. Then I broke down completely.
I sobbed on his shoulder, not even noticing that he must have gone home to remove the spiky armbands that normally kept anyone from getting so close to him. He rocked me a bit, saying nothing. Eventually my tears slowed and our position grew uncomfortable, sitting beside one another as we did. I pulled him down onto the bed with me and huddled into his arms, my face buried in his neck as he stroked my hair.
“It’s not as though we got along,” I finally said. “The woman looked down her nose at her own daughter just because I wasn’t as girly and fascinated with getting back into this stupid house as Bethany.” A little hiccup caught in my throat and fresh tears scalded my cheeks. “Why didn’t I tell her about the stupid lilies? I should have checked out this ‘suitor’ weeks ago.”
Here was the heart of the matter, revealed: this was my fault. I’d been mostly ignoring my mother since we’d arrived in Kirkwall and look what had happened. When she’d mentioned remarrying my only concern was her moving in some stranger who would judge my life and my friends as harshly as she had. My time and energy had been consumed by my companions and the worst elements of Kirkwall instead of my own family.
Maker, what would happen to Bethany? I couldn’t keep an eye on her and she’d been locked up in the Gallows for almost four years! The way my family was going she’d be made Tranquil by the end of the week just so the Maker could really drive this lesson home. Maybe mother had been right in blaming me all along. They had been dying, one at a time, father and Carver and now mother, because I wasn’t protecting them like I should have been. I’d taken them for granted and now they were gone.
“You couldn’t have known,” Fenris said, his voice rumbling beside my ear after I’d poured all of it out in a bitter rush. “And I’m sure Bethany will be fine. She’s a strong mage and not the type to cause trouble.”
A little grunt of amusement escaped me at his defending a mage and I snuggled in a little tighter. “Maker, I hope so,” I whispered. Suddenly I remembered what Gascard had said when we had walked into his bedroom: “You’re not him.” A wail escaped me as I fell back and smacked my forehead.
Startled, Fenris grabbed my arm, confused at my sudden change of mood. He must have thought was trying to hurt myself. “What?”
“I should have realized then that Gascard knew precisely who the killer was!” I cried out to the ceiling. “He could have told us who to look for instead of playing the innocent.” Yet another misstep in this fiasco: we hadn’t pressed Du Puis for details. At least I could take a small amount of satisfaction in the idea that the manipulative bastard got his, even if I didn’t get to give it to him.
Fenris pulled me to him and reassured me again. “All of us thought he was guilty, Aveline as much as anyone or she would never have allowed the execution. You cannot blame yourself for the actions of madmen and blood mages.”
“I bloody well can,” I said furiously, “and I do. This all comes down to my preoccupation with my own concerns.” The sobs started all over again. Fenris stroked my arm awkwardly until I’d calmed. “I failed my family,” I stated firmly, tears clogging my voice, “over and over again. I let the Darkspawn have my father and my brother, the Circle took my sister, and a madman destroyed my mother. Now I have no family at all.” When he tried to speak I stilled him with a finger across his lips. “But I can’t just give up. Kirkwall and you are all I have to defend, now.”
Fenris looked at me, his expression unreadable. I rolled onto my back again. “Okay,” I called out skyward, “I get it. I’ll protect them all.”
We lay quietly for a time. The emotion of the day had exhausted me and I slid into an uneasy sleep, sparing a last waking moment to hope that he would stay with me. Whatever had been or could happen between us, I needed someone close to me just then.