Sideline Wednesday: The Champion's Side, Chapter 30

An Evening of Surprises

I spent the afternoon making the rounds, visiting my friends in their various homes around the city. Varric regaled me with tales of Merrill’s latest midnight wanderings and how much it cost him to hire thugs to guard her from thugs. Anders told me about his more colorful patients and let me cajole him into clean robes and a hair brushing.

Sebastian showed me where he’d added my mother’s name to the prayer wall. Merrill nattered on about the eluvian and described how much more she could do with the arullin’holm. She took my refusal to hand it over with equanimity, however; she hardly expected a different answer after all these months.

I crossed the bay to the Gallows on the off chance that they would let me see my sister. Cullen, sweetly apologetic but firm, told me that the mages were all sequestered and could have no outside contact. He did let me know that a message had come from Uncle Gamlen so at least Bethany knew that Mother was dead.

The last of my errands complete, I returned home to prepare for the evening’s festivities. With luck we’d recover the mysterious artifact, soothe the trouble between the Qunari and the city guard, and be at The Hanged Man in time for a few round of Wicked Grace.

There was no luck to be had that night. Aveline, Fenris, and I met Isabela at The Hanged Man and she steered us to the cul-de-sac containing that same benighted foundry where we’d chased my mother and her killer to ground. “Andraste’s tits, Isabela,” I protested. “You could at least have warned me.”

Memories of following that blood trail, of fighting my way through only to find I was too late, rose within me. “If the meeting is in that Maker-forsaken foundry you can find someone else to help you,” I told her furiously. I’d seen enough failure there to last me a lifetime; I wasn’t about to try again.

“Don’t worry.” She sounded worried, as well she might. Aveline looked like she was going to clout her one, Fenris fairly growled, and I teetered on the verge of walking away entirely. “It’s in a warehouse to the east.” It was rare for her to show any emotion beyond amusement or mild frustration. Either the artifact meant a lot more to her than she let on or Castillon was a very bad man indeed.

As she spoke we rounded the last corner and found ourselves confronting not a shady, black-market, Lowtown sleazeball but nine or ten Qunari that looked prepared to remove our limbs from our bodies. One of them stepped forward, his tattoos livid against the grey flesh of his chest where they showed between the straps for his weapons. His horns were nothing next to the Arishok’s but still stood impressively long off his forehead and extended several inches behind his head, sweeping to fierce points.

These were no Tal-Vashoth, living hand-to-mouth as mercenaries. They were well-fed, well-trained soldiers. The fury of the group was palpable but none had yet drawn a sword or mace. “Give us the book,” he spoke, as taciturn as their leader. He was looking at Bela, however, not at me.

“I haven’t got your stupid book,” she said defensively. “Go sharpen your horns or something.” She turned as if to leave and the Qunari at once showed naked steel. They tried to stop her, we tried to stop them, and one fast-and-furious fight later they were dead and I was even angrier.

“Book?!” I rounded on her, sword still in my hand. “You’ve known what this artifact was the whole sodding time! Why didn’t you just tell me?”

She backed away a bit, hands palm out before her. “I didn’t want to worry you,” she said placatingly. “Who knew that bastard would hide it for four damned years?”

“And it’s why the Qunari have been camped out here instead of leaving.” I made a disgusted noise. “You could have told them who had it and solved this whole culture clash but you had to be cute. I ought to run you through myself and hand over your body to the Arishok.”

“Castillon would have killed me if I had given it back to them,” she protested, “and so would they. I was going to give it to him and then tell them where he was: a win-win solution for me. But I couldn’t get my hands on the cursed thing.”

“And, what, you didn’t trust me enough to tell me the plan? We could have helped you, Bela. We would have helped you. That’s what friends do. Hell, Varric could have found it in a week with his contacts.”

She gestured helplessly. “It’s just…the longer I didn’t tell you the harder it was to start. And then no one knew where it was so what was there to say?”

I swallowed my anger. We could protest innocence and finger point later; this argument wasn’t getting us the book. “Just tell me what the hell it is,” I said resignedly. We were going in, regardless. All of us knew that.

“Some philosopher wrote it. Kapitan, Konrad, Konstantine…something like that.”

Fenris looked half admiring and half horrified. “Koslun?! You stole the original Qun, their holiest of books? The equivalent of the Chant of Light in Andraste’s own hand?”

He shook his head while I threw up my hands. So much about the Arishok’s immovable insistence now made sense. If he’d lost the book on which their entire culture was based he could never return home without it. They’d kill him. “We’ll talk about what in the Void is wrong with you later. Let’s just go get the damned thing back.”

“Swear you’ll give it to me,” she said, grabbing my hand as I turned toward the warehouse. She’d never looked so frightened or so sincere. For once I didn’t doubt how earnest she was. “Please. I’ll never be free of Castillon if I don’t give it to him. The Qunari will follow it out of Kirkwall if we tell them where we sent it.”

As angry as I was, I had to concede that she had a point. Sending their most revered relic to Rivain and then telling them exactly where it was headed should rid us of the Qunari without bloodshed. Maybe there’d even be a reward from the Viscount for solving his most pressing problem. “Fine,” I snapped, exasperated, “but you’re telling the Arishok. And the lies stop now; if we’re your friends then trust us so we can trust you.”

Isabela stood, stunned, for a moment before she grinned in relief. “Really? Hawke, you’re a lifesaver.”

“Shut up and get in the warehouse, whore,” Aveline said gruffly. As usual, I couldn’t tell whether she was furious or having fun. She gave Bela a little push.

“Bite me, big girl,” Isabela laughed. Apparently they were pals again. Fenris and I shrugged at one another. For a bastion of law and order our Aveline certainly seemed impressed by the exploits of a conniving pirate. Maybe it was good for her to see things from the other side once in a while. Stealing something that must have been as well-guarded as what we sought showed an impressive amount of skill and daring, things that Bela’s cavalier attitude hid well.

We made our way to the door and found our target in the midst of telling a wild-eyed apostate that he had the tome. You’d have thought maleficarum would be smart enough to ditch the robes and not carry their staves openly, but fugitive mages were not known for their ability to escape detection, with the apparent exception of Anders. This lot didn’t look like the sort to heal refugees free of charge and thus earn their protection.

No sooner did we burst into the room than more Qunari appeared on the walkway above the other end. As the mages turned to defend themselves against the spears that suddenly filled the air the scruffy black marketer bolted past us. The apostate with whom he’d been talking seemed to think we had something to do with the fight and Aveline and I were hard-pressed to fling ourselves out of the way in time to avoid the bolts she flung.

“He’s getting away!” Isabela yelled over her shoulder as she chased the man out the door through which we’d just come. I could hardly follow with an apostate attempting to set my ass on fire so I let her go. If the man had the book she’d get it. If not, we’d find it here once the fight ended, presuming we could stay alive that long.

Of course, we did. Aveline wasn’t about to let apostates and Qunari wreck yet another building in her city. Fenris and I looked on this sort of thing as healthy exercise, a good time to practice new skills that practice dummies just couldn’t help us perfect. He’d been teaching me to surge forward under a strike instead of dodging back, surprising a foe. I got plenty of practice that night.

It helped that they fought each other as fiercely as they did us. The soldiers of the Qun were such an obvious threat that the mages concentrated most of their energy on them. We just worked our way around the edges, picking them off one by one. When all was quiet save for the creak of our own armor we headed back to the courtyard.

There we found, among the Qunari corpses we’d left there, the man we’d come to find. His throat had been neatly cut. Isabela had, with typical flair, pinned a note to his chest with a small dagger. “I’m sorry,” it read, “but I can’t chance it. The Arishok will kill me if I go to him and Castillon will if I don’t bring the book. I’m sorry.” She’d underlined the last word three times.

Wordlessly, I handed the scrap of paper to Aveline, who said in earnest the sorts of things she usually called Bela in jest. I was too angry to speak. Fenris seemed unsurprised. “She is a pirate,” he said. “She’s supposed to lie and steal.” He had a point.

After she’d vented the worst of her wrath, Aveline shrugged philosophically. “Should we talk to the Arishok, just the three of us, or should we go pick up someone else?”

“At this rate they’ll blow us up with some of that powder everyone wanted so badly,” I said. Fenris grunted, either in amusement or agreement. “The Hanged Man’s right there. Let’s grab Varric and a good hit of whiskey and get this over with.” I had a feeling we wouldn’t find ourselves playing cards at the pub much that night.

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