Eating Lionfish, part 2
"Everything has gone according to plan," laughed the manly baritone voice. The speaker sat in a plush velvet chair, swirling a fine wine in his jeweled goblet before taking a sip. He lazily leaned back, a wide smile reflecting the orange firelight on his shiny, even teeth. "She is mine now, and needs only accept it."
"Are you quite certain of this, du Gaudet?" asked a deep, rasping voice. The hooded figure stood, his back to the fireplace. The shadows covered his face, obscuring all but his thin, bony silhouette. "She has proven herself extraordinarily... resourceful in the past."
Du Gaudet continued to grin as he raised his glass to his companion. "Aye, she has. It's what makes her such a prize. Making her mine will be the crown jewel in my collection of prizes," he laughed.
"And her companions?" asked the shadowed figure, raising one hand to stroke his chin thoughtfully.
"Without her, they are nothing. She is the force that binds them. Once you break the dragon's back, the claws, the teeth, and the fire are no longer a danger."
"Then all that remains is tightening the leash. Do not forget the terms of our arrangement, du Gaudet," rasped the hooded figure. "You may do with her as you please until then, but once she perishes, she belongs to me."
"Oh, I'm sure I'll have my enjoyment from her. You'd be surprised what you can live through," smirked du Gaudet, as he raised his goblet again.
Hawke looked over the parchment in her hand a second time, to make sure she had read it right. Her emotions swirled inside her, the icy chill running up her spine fought with the rage bubbling up from the bottom of her belly, but she forced herself to be calm.
To my dearest Champion,
I believe I may have come across as overly confrontational at our last meeting. For a partnership as ours, I believe it is important to understand each other's position. I am not an unyielding stone, I do give as well as take. And so, in a show of good faith, I would like to cordially invite you to my Chateau. It is only a day's journey from the City of Chains, and I would like you to familiarize yourself with your future home.
I understand that you may be somewhat skeptical about the genuineness of my offer, and so I am fully prepared to offer you some fair recompense for accepting my generous offer. Do you remember the jeweled amulet I showed you so recently? I would happily offer you one of the gemstones from it, and all associated benefits in exchange for your presence. I am hosting a grand gala event in two weeks time. Your presence at my manor is required until then. If you don't accept, then I will use the gemstone you have refused for its original intention.
Jean-Claude du Gaudet, Lord of the Brooksmere Valley, Bann of Wildervale, Seneschal of the Viridian Mountain.
She shuddered. The thought of living so closely to du Gaudet made her skin crawl. A sudden, dull pain flared in her jaw as she realized she had been grinding her teeth. She took a deep breath.
The snarl on her face must have been showing. Bodahn, her dwarven majordomo, cringed in the corner and trying very hard not to look conspicuous as he watched her reactions carefully. She clenched her fist, crumpling the letter into a ball, before addressing her valet.
"A messenger brought this?"
"Yes, messere. Not even an hour ago, just dropped it off and went on his way."
Hawke let out her breath slowly, sighing and relaxing her fingers. She looked at Bodahn, resignation obvious on her face, and nodded to him.
"I'll be going out for a few days. An urgent matter requires my attention," she said.
The dwarf looked at her carefully, trying to gauge her mood.
"Messere? Shall I send for your companions to accompany you? The lady Aveline, or perhaps Captain Isabela?"
"No, Bodahn. I'll be going alone this time," she said with a smile that didn't quite reach her eyes.
"Right, then. I'll just keep the manor for you the way you like it. We'll await your return, messere."
Hawke nodded, and went to gather her things.
Isabela scowled into the bottom of her cup. Unlike her usual reason for scowling, the cup was not empty. She had a dilemma, and her usual solutions were inapplicable. She took a sip of the bitter liquid and rolled it around on her tongue.
Hawke needed help.
She took another mouthful from her cup, gargling with it a bit before swallowing. The normally-pleasant burn as it traveled down her throat felt irritating, rather than reassuring. She turned the situation over and over again in her head. There had to be a solution to it.
Hawke needed her help.
She finished the last of the whiskey from her cup, feeling it travel down her gullet and through her chest, burning all the way. Corff looked at her and raised an eyebrow, but she waved him off.
"Not today, my friend."
She stood and stretched, feeling her warmed blood flow through her arms and legs while ignoring the appreciative glances thrown her way by the other tavern patrons.
It had become common knowledge that the pirate had taken up with the Champion, but there was also a prevailing rumor that a third party could get invited to their bed should the lucky hopeful obtain blessings from both women. None of the attempts to woo both had yet been successful, but that had not dissuaded a myriad of optimists from endeavoring to try.
A pretty young woman gathered her courage and took a breath, trying to calm her nerves. Becoming the Champion's lover would mean prosperity for her family, and she had heard rumors that the sea captain would take practically anything to her bed. The youthful blonde put on her most winsome smile and approached the dusky corsair.
Isabela heard the movement behind her and turned to face her.
The girl froze as she saw the ice in the pirate's stare. Her blood turned to sludge in her veins as her smile vanished from her face. She involuntarily stepped back, a wave of fear washing over her as she took in the baleful look in the captain's eyes.
A murmur rippled through the patrons, as the buccaneer sniffed and turned toward the back of the establishment. The snubbed young woman sank into the nearest chair and hastily raised the nearest tankard in her trembling hands in a desperate attempt to purge the sight from her memory.
"Captain Isabela!" called out a male voice.
Her glorious boots stopped, as she focused golden eyes on the caller. A harried-looking dwarf in a fine velvet waistcoat stood near the entrance, breathing heavily. He looked like he had been running.
"Bodahn, Hawke isn't here," she replied, waving him away.
"I know, messere. I came looking for you," panted the dwarf. He doubled over, hands on his knees, trying to catch his breath.
"Messere Hawke just left the manor, said something about leaving for a few days and being back later," he added. He didn't see much, but he heard the staccato sound of rapid footsteps approaching. He looked up to see the pirate looming over him with a frown on her face and a look in her eye that brooked no nonsense. He swallowed as she grasped him by the collar and hauled his face up toward hers.
"Tell me everything," she demanded.
"We're here, Champion," called the driver as he halted the horses. He stepped down from his perch above the carriage and opened the door with a deep bow.
Hawke stepped out of the coach and shielded her eyes from the setting sun as she surveyed her new surroundings. Chateau du Gaudet was a massive undertaking of craftsmanship. The walls were made of smooth, smoky marble that stretched three floors up. Dark ceramic shingles decorated the roof around several chimneys that were gently smoking in the late afternoon air. The cavernous mansion would have looked much more foreboding, had there not been a steady stream of servants entering and leaving the chateau's side entrance, each carrying boxes and materials from the small fleet of wagons laden with sundries. The Champion strolled down the stone walkway from the gate to the massive wooden double doors to the manor. Two liveried servants in green and gold bowed before her, pulling the doors open and allowing her to enter. A plain-looking man with chestnut hair that was streaked with grey stood to meet her.
The thin, lanky man looked her over with shrewd brown eyes as he placed his hands on his belt. He was easily a head taller than everyone else. He wore a plain white linen tunic above brown leather pants that highlighted his bony features, and long boots that looked like they had traveled far and wide. Hawke's eyes lingered on his heavily callused hands, and the battered-looking sword at his hip. He nodded to her.
"Well, if it ain't the Champion of Kirkwall. His lordship will be pleased to see you're here," he drawled. "Please come this way."
The entryway was enormous. Great stone pillars rose from the marble tiled floors to the vaulted ceilings. Suits of armor polished to a mirror sheen dotted the walls, as the occasional servant scurried by, intent on some pressing task. They would each bow as the Fereldan passed, before resuming their duties.
"And who might you be?" asked Hawke, as she walked with him.
"You can call me Nolan. Everybody does. Ah help out around the estate, odd jobs mostly. Bit of this and that. His lordship says Ah'm a real handy man," he said. "He's been looking forward to your visit quite a lot, so forgive him if he's a bit over-excited."
"I don't recognize your accent."
"It's just a little of this, a little of that. Ah reckon I've been just about all over Thedas doin' odd jobs fer folks," he said.
"What kind of odd jobs?"
"Whatever needs doin'. I fix problems, is all."
The lanky man fell silent as they approached the great hall. The barrel-chested lord of the manor stood with his back to them, directing servants. A pretty young maid of about fifteen in green and gold livery brought a platter with several goblets and a decanter of wine. He idly took one and she filled it for him. He sipped it, before pointing and telling a workman where to place the decorations.
"Your lordship, the Champion of Kirkwall's here to see you," announced Nolan, inclining his head toward the nobleman.
Lord du Gaudet turned and broke into a wide smile.
"Champion, so lovely to see you. I have been awaiting this day. Please, please, make yourself at home," he said, gesturing to the manor.
"Your request said it was urgent that I come," Hawke said a bit stiffly. "You offered a bargain, and I am here to collect."
"Of course, of course. Anything at my disposal is yours. You must be tired from your journey. Please, enjoy some refreshments while I show you the preparations for the gala in a week's time."
The young maid carrying the wine stared at the Champion with wide eyes. Spots of color bloomed on her cheeks.
Lord du Gaudet looked at her with annoyance. The smile vanished from his face, as he snapped his fingers in front of the mesmerized serving girl's face.
"Do not embarrass me like this, servant," he growled at her, his face nearly contorted with rage.
She stumbled toward Hawke, startled, and lost her grip on the platter. The crystal decanter and goblets fell to the tiled floor, shattering and splashing the red liquid contents across the smooth tile. The wine splashed a bit onto Hawke's right foot before she could step back.
"You worthless ingrate!" shouted the livid nobleman. "The Champion's visit is supposed to be perfect! You miserable failure!"
"It's alright, Ser du Gaudet," soothed Hawke. "It's not her fault, and it's really not cause for alarm."
Another servant appeared and whispered something in Nolan's ear. He cleared his throat loudly.
"Your lordship, somethin's come up on the grounds. Ah'll be takin' my leave if you don't mind. If you like, Ah can take Nicola here for discipline while Ah'm tendin' to that business," the tall man suggested.
"It's really alright, no harm done," assured Hawke.
The nobleman nodded to the tall man, and his smile returned.
"Don't trouble yourself with that, my dear. The servants just need a firm hand, is all," he said, clapping his hands loudly. Another serving maid scurried off to retrieve more refreshments.
"Come," he continued. "Allow me to show you the preparations."
Hawke moved to follow him, but glanced behind her at the dejected form of the serving girl following the lanky man from the room. The feeling of unease in her chest began to grow.
Isabela looked down at her traveling companion and groaned. The chestnut mare briefly flicked one eye back at her as it trotted briskly down the dusty road.
"Don't look at me like that," she grumbled as she tried to find a more comfortable sitting position. She gripped the animal awkwardly with her legs, while one hand tightly gripped the saddle horn, and the other held onto the reins.
"Bloody horses... if I wanted a big, sweaty creature between my legs, I'd have gotten Hawke. At least then the ride would be a lot more fun."
The horse ignored her words as it crested the next hill. The pirate shielded her eyes from the afternoon sun, as she spotted the small dust cloud in the distance of a horse-drawn carriage pulling through the gate surrounding a large manor house . She snapped the reins, directing the mare to a nearby tree and dismounted.
"Be good while I'm gone. I think I'll walk the rest of the way to loosen up," she muttered to the horse as she loosely tied the leather straps to a low-hanging branch. She stretched for a moment, limbering up her muscles, before gingerly rubbing her thighs and rear again.
"Bloody horses..." she cursed as she walked toward the manor.
The pirate approached cautiously, spending time to observe the patterns of the servants entering and exiting the rectory from her vantage point in the trees. There were a few guards, but they didn't look particularly well trained. With a little encouragement, they might be persuaded to look the other way.
She observed a few more moments before she made her move. She slipped from the trees and followed a maid of about her height and build to one of the wagons, and quietly overpowered her by clapping one hand over the surprised woman's mouth, while twisting the maid's arm painfully at the wrist.
"I'm sorry, my lovely, but I really must get inside. If you don't wish to be hurt, you'll cease your struggles and be silent. Screaming will be much worse for you than it will for me," she whispered gently to her victim. The poor maid looked at her with frightened eyes, but didn't make a sound as Isabela lowered her hand.
"Are... are you going to kill me?" whispered the terrified maid.
"No, my dear. I'm not going to kill you," sighed Isabela. "I need to borrow your uniform for a bit. My friend is a prisoner in the chateau, and I need a way to get her out."
"Ah wouldn't be doin' that if ah were you," a masculine voice warned.
The pirate froze, her hand already extended toward the serving girl's bonnet. She turned to see a tall, thin man in workman's leathers. He stood in a relaxed stance, scratching at his chin while observing with a slightly curious expression on his face. He had a curved blade at his belt. The handle and crossguard looked old and battered, but the canny buccaneer could recognize a silverite blade when she saw it.
"And here I thought the dancing wasn't until later," remarked the pirate, unslinging her blades from her back.
"Don't say ah didn't warn you," the man said with a shrug. He unbuckled the strap holding his blade in its sheath, laying one callused palm on the sword handle. He glanced at the trembling maid to reassure her. The momentary distraction spurred the corsair into action.
Isabela wasted no time propelling herself toward the lanky man. She covered the short distance between them in the blink of an eye, and lunged blade-first at him.
The serving girl gasped as the sound of metal on metal rang in her ears.
The pirate's blade had been blocked by the lanky man's weapon. She spared it a quick glance, and grimaced. Her opponent wielded a long notched sword-breaker. Like a single-edged sword, the reverse side had wicked-looking grooves with little metal teeth carved into it to catch enemy weapons. Only a bit of lateral force would be enough to wrench her dagger from her hands if those teeth caught.
The tall man gave an almost-imperceptible shrug as he whipped his wrist to one side and tore her dagger out of her grip. It clattered to the dusty ground with a small bump.
"Ah don't really want to kill you. Why don't you just give up?" he suggested reasonably as he moved to block the path to the fallen weapon.
Isabela leaped back and quickly transferred her remaining blade to her primary hand. She adjusted her stance a bit, rebalancing herself for the missing weight of her second weapon.
"It's only just begun to get interesting," she said with a smile. She dashed in again, this time going low with her remaining dagger.
The tall man moved to parry the blow like he had done the first, but his eyes widened in surprise. Rather than catching her weapon in the teeth again, she had turned her weapon sideways and caught the flat of her blade against it. He looked back at her just in time to see the smug grin on her face as the corsair hurled a needle-sharp spike at his chest with her off-hand.
He threw himself to one side to avoid the projectile. Unable to fully dodge, he spun and took it in his free arm. It took only a moment to reestablish his guard, but a moment was all Isabela needed to launch past him and grab her fallen dagger.
She locked eyes with him as she rose, both weapons extended.
"Looks like you're a bit tougher than the usual sorts ah need to deal with," he said affably before grabbing the spike and pulling it out of his arm. "Reckon ah oughta get serious then."
The pirate rushed at him again, threatening with both weapons, but this time he was ready. He stepped forward to meet her, parrying her first attack with the swordbreaker, and blocking her second with a curve-bladed hand axe he had drawn from a belt loop. Isabela held her charge a moment longer, challenging him to continue pressing against her.
He did not back down, though he narrowed his eyes as he looked at her.
She grinned, stepped back, and let go, using the momentum to spin her in a circle. She rotated with the movement and kicked him squarely in the ribs, before dancing back.
The tall man gave a grunt of pain, before standing again in a guard stance, both weapons at the ready.
She watched him carefully, wondering if he would say anything.
He didn't. Instead, he rushed toward her almost as quickly as she had gone after him.
She deflected the lanky man's hand axe on her right, then caught his swordbreaker on her pauldron as it came down, hoping that the red iron wouldn't break. She tried to slide in closer to bring her blades to bear, but a white-hot flash of pain stopped her forward momentum as the man raked his axe across her left arm.
He continued his relentless assault as blow after blow was parried or deflected. Isabela had only been struck once, but she was losing ground as their clashing weapons rang in the afternoon sun. He finally swung one mightly attack and drove her back several steps, forcing her to dance away out of range.
"You'd best be gettin' along. The guards will likely be here soon," the man said, nonchalant. "Ah could tussle with you a bit longer if you like, but the longer you wait, the harder it'll be for you."
The corsair quickly glanced over the man's shoulder and realized that the maid had run off. Worse yet, she could hear the telltale sound of marching boots in the distance. She glanced down momentarily at her fingers. They were already beginning to feel numb, the effect from gripping her blades harder to keep them from being yanked out of her hands by the swordbreaker, and from absorbing the force of his blows a moment before.
"This isn't over," she said, carefully backing away toward the tree line.
"Ah didn't think it would be," he replied, shrugging. He began whistling a merry tune as he sheathed his weapons and turned toward the manor, knowing full well she had already disappeared.
The Champion awoke to the sound of thunder. She pushed back the comforter and stretched, rubbing her left shoulder. She reflexively reached to her left, but where her hand expected to find a warm, still-sleeping woman, she found only silken sheets. She sighed as she turned to look out the window. The leafy trees obscured her view, and the darkened sky caused the room to look every bit as dreary as she felt. The steady rain made the room feel cold, despite the presence of the glowing coals in the bed warmer.
Hawke brought one hand up to her throat, feeling her new golden choker. A single emerald was set in the center, and she felt the tingle of magical power as her finger traced the hard, square gemstone set in the golden necklace. The lord of the manor had been true to his word. She had watched him pluck the jewel from his own amulet, and place it in the choker she now wore. As long as she had it, he would be unable to use it to kill. He had three others set in that amulet, keyed in on blood magic and ready to release their deadly payload in the city.
The Champion sighed. She shook her head, willing herself to remain positive. She'd think of something. She had to.
The oaken door creaked as it opened, followed by soft, tentative steps against the stone floor and rug. Hawke glanced over her shoulder at the entrant, smiling when she realized who it was. It was the same wide-eyed serving maid who she had met the day before in the grand ballroom. She waved the maiden in and rose from the bed to greet her.
The young woman carried a silver tray laden with a matching porcelain teapot, teacup, a small jar, and a lidded bowl. She glanced from Hawke's icy blue eyes to the tray, and nervously kept her eyes down. Her brown hair was done up in a bun on the back of her head, and her hands trembled a bit as she set the tray down on a small table. The maid bowed to the Champion before turning to leave.
"Wait a moment," called Hawke, reaching out to the nervous young woman.
The girl halted at the door, trembling slightly.
"You're... Nicola, right? The girl from yesterday?"
The maid nodded nervously, taking care not to make eye contact. Instead, she continued to look down at her shoes.
The Champion approached the uniformed girl, padding across the rug silently.
"Can you answer a few questions for me about this place? I've only just arrived."
The maid looked at Hawke's face in fear before dropping her gaze again. She seemed terrified.
The lanky Fereldan woman reached to touch the girl on her shoulder in a reassuring manner, but the young woman pulled back.
"There's nothing to be afraid of, Nicola. I'm not going to eat you," promised the Champion. "We've only just met."
The girl's trembles slowed a bit as she raised her head to look at Hawke. Her eyes were filled with curiosity, but still exhibited a healthy amount of fear. She flinched a bit when Hawke touched her shoulder, but the hand was warm and inviting. The maid nodded, then relaxed a bit.
"Perhaps some tea, then? I'll tell you about me, and you can tell me about you," said Hawke.
Nicola's eyes looked down. She sighed sadly.
"Not a fan of tea, hm? Let's see what else we have here," said Hawke briskly, pulling back the lid of the bowl. She smiled when she saw a large dollop fresh yogurt, mixed with a variety of ripe and colorful berries before her.
The young woman's stomach gurgled at the sight. She blushed, looking embarrassed.
"I see this seems to be a bit more attractive than the tea. Would you like to share it with me?"
The maid looked at her questioningly.
"You... can't speak, can you?" asked the Champion.
The maid shook her head, sadly.
Hawke patted her gently on the shoulder. "Thankfully, you needn't speak to eat. I'll have a bit of that tea, and you can try this out and let me know if it is tasty," she said with a smile.
The Champion sat in silence for a moment, sipping the hot tea and watching the girl hurriedly enjoying the breakfast.
"Would you like to hear about why I am here?" Hawke asked.
Nicola paused, her spoonful of blackberry and yogurt halfway to her mouth. She looked unsure of herself, as if unable to decide between hearing a story, or finishing the breakfast.
"You can keep eating while I tell you," Hawke said with a smile.
The maid nodded vigorously and ate a little slower, watching Hawke with deep brown eyes as the Champion began recounting the tale of the events leading her to du Gaudet's mansion.
"You've gotta be shittin' me, Rivaini!" Varric exclaimed, as he slammed his tankard down on the table. The contents of his mug splashed out, leaving small flecks of foam on the aged oak. The dwarf slumped in his high-backed chair, exhaling loudly. "I've heard some pretty tall tales in my time, and even told a few myself, but this?"
"It's true," replied the pirate simply.
"Let me get this straight. That smug son of a bitch nobleman is the one behind the disappearances of the ladies of the Blooming Rose," began the dwarf.
"Yes," nodded Isabela.
"The same son of a bitch has somehow gotten possession of three more canisters of that Qunari poison that killed a lot of innocent people," continued Varric, drumming his fingers on the table.
"He's using some sort of blood magic to activate the poison gas!" added Merrill helpfully.
"He's holding the city hostage to force Hawke to do whatever he wants," sighed Aveline, crossing her arms and scowling.
"And even if we could talk to her, which we can't, if we tell Hawke or act on what we know and that villain finds out, hundreds of innocent people will die," sighed Sebastian.
"Shit," Varric cursed in summation. "That son of a nughumper has really got us by the short and curlies."
"Forcing Hawke to act the slave," growled Fenris, clenching one fist. "We cannot let this stand."
"You've got a plan, don't you Isabela? You must have a plan," piped Merrill.
"I do," nodded the corsair, standing up.
"Now just wait a moment," interjected Aveline. "Why would we follow orders from the washed-up whore? Some of us have actual leadership experience that doesn't involve taking our clothes off."
"Right, we should follow things by the law and the rulebook like Madame Muscles wishes," mocked Isabela. "What messere Man-Chin doesn't realize is that the bastard will be watching for that. He's been a member of the Viscount's court for years now. Do you honestly think he hasn't paid attention to how the guards and the law in Kirkwall work?"
"Be that as it may, I've got plenty of experience bringing criminals to justice. My guardsmen and I-," began the armored woman.
"If you lead the charge, he'll see and hear it coming from a mile away. Mobilizing the guard is the last thing Hawke needs. I've seen his keep. If you bring your guardsmen into this, all that will happen will be a protracted siege, culminating in him detonating the poison and a lot of dead Marchers. We need someone who can do things unexpected and with subtlety," interrupted Isabela. She casually tossed a small leather bag at Aveline.
The redhead snatched the bag out of the air and her face darkened as she realized it was her own coin purse.
"Stealing from me while I'm distracted doesn't prove anything!"
"Varric is just as sneaky and underhanded as Isabela. Why not listen to him?" offered Anders.
"Oh no, Blondie. I'm not cut out for leadership. I write the stories, I don't star in them. I deferred to Bartrand when we entered the Deep Roads, and I defer to Hawke when we're out on our grand adventures. I'm the type who spots talent, not the one who gives orders," said Varric, raising both hands. His grin grew sly."That said, Rivaini has had a lot of men under her. Clothed, even. While at sea. We could at least listen to what she has to say."
"She does know Hawke a lot better than the rest of us," mused Sebastian.
"More often, too," murmured Isabela to herself. She cleared her throat, before continuing. "Regardless of your feelings toward me, think about Hawke. Think about what sort of position she's in. She's got such a soft heart that it would kill her to know that even more innocent people died because of her."
Aveline's glare softened, and she took her seat again. Anders looked like he wanted to say something for a moment, but sighed and nodded his head. He then motioned for the pirate to continue.
"I know how to think like a rogue. This blighter has been one step ahead of Hawke the entire way, and playing catch up won't work. What we need to do is to get ahead of him," she said.
"How are we to do that?" asked Merrill, chewing her lower lip.
"Kitten, what was the first lesson I taught you about cheating at cards?" asked the corsair.
"That she's terrible at it?" muttered Fenris.
"Misdirection," recounted the blood mage. "You need to distract them so they don't see you cheating."
"Very good, Kitten. I've worked out a plan, and I'll need all of you to do it," Isabela nodded, glancing at each person at the table.
The other members of the group exchanged glances, finally looking at Aveline and Anders.
"I hope Hawke's planning skills are as contagious as those diseases of yours," muttered Anders.
"I still don't like it. We can't just leave Hawke's life and the lives of hundreds to some half-cocked scheme," grunted the ginger warrior. She glared at Isabela.
The pirate met her gaze, and they stared at each other for a long moment. Aveline blinked first, surprised. There was no joke, no merriment in Isabela's amber eyes like there usually was. There wasn't even any of the sea captain's usual bravado or swagger. All the peace officer saw in the corsair's eyes was grim determination with a hard edge the Fereldan woman rarely saw from the pirate. Aveline sighed, louder this time.
"Let's hear it, whore. What would you have us do?" asked the armored amazon.
"I'm glad you asked," said the pirate with a wicked-looking smirk, as she began unrolling a map.
The Champion woke with a yawn. She rubbed her eyes gently as she rose from the bed, looking at the smiling maid at her door.
"Good morning, Nicola. Are you doing well today?" asked the Fereldan.
The maid nodded vigorously before placing the covered silver tray on a small table. She quickly pulled the covers back, and laid out a deep blue velvet gown onto the bed.
Hawke glanced at the dress, and sighed. The serving girl touched her arm, a questioning look on her face. The Champion shook her head and stepped behind the Orlesian dressing screen to change her clothes. It had been only two days since she had arrived, and she had waited nervously for something, anything to happen.
Each day, the lord of the manor would spend the morning overseeing issues from his vassals, and directing the preparations for the ball. She would be required to join him for lunch, where he treated her with civility, but always with an undertone of possessiveness. The afternoons were spent walking the grounds, where he would show her the various parts of the land he owned, and the evenings were spent similarly, idly conversing about Kirkwall politics or economics. Hawke had adamantly refused to divulge any information about her friends. Whenever du Gaudet was rebuffed, he simply laughed. He wouldn't press the matter, and just changed the subject of the conversation each time to something else.
Instead, the Champion mentally gathered as much information as she could from the walks on the grounds. She memorized the patterns of the guards, noting when they changed shifts and all of their specific posts, and paid attention to the way the guards and servants interacted. The guards were mercenaries, she discovered, who thought themselves better than the men and women who performed the day-to-day duties of maintaining the manor. Of particular interest was the cavernous hallway that the servants clearly avoided. The guards patrolled it, but the attendants always gave it a wide berth. Hawke wondered what was in that mysterious corridor.
Hawke had enjoyed the mornings most. Nicola had been as helpful as she could. The young maid had provided her with maps of the grounds, and answered her questions to the best of her ability, but was unable to provide any insight into the enigmatic east wing. Nicola loved hearing the Champion's stories. From the events leading to her to the mansion to her desperate flight from Lothering, the serving girl had listened with rapt attention.
"I wonder what's for breakfast today?" asked Hawke as she sat at the small table.
Nicola pulled the silver platter cover back, revealing three sunny-side-up eggs, fried potatoes, and a generous helping of bacon. She smiled and began pouring orange juice from a crystal decanter into a pair of goblets.
"It smells lovely," said Hawke. "What story shall I tell you today? The time I went into the Deep Roads? The time I was hunted by a Nevarran dragon hunter? Or the time that a simple treasure hunt led to me almost being buried underground?"
Nicola shook her head at each of the suggested tales while chewing a mouthful of bacon. The maid brought both hands to the sides of her head, making fake horn shapes with her fingers, then made chopping motions with her hands.
"Oh, so you want to hear how I became Champion. The tale of the Qunari attack. Is that it?"
The maid nodded.
"Well, it all began when I met a gorgeous pirate captain from Rivain... or so she said. She had skin the color of bronze and lips like the smoothest chocolate, but the thing I remember most about her were those stunning amber eyes. They were full of fun, confidence, and more than a little mischief," Hawke began, leaning back in her chair. She smiled as she continued.
"She offered me her services in exchange for my help... she was looking for an ancient relic somewhere in the city, and she needed someone to watch her back. In return, she'd lend her blades to my cause, whatever that might be. Little did I know that what had started with a simple business arrangement would become something... different."
The girl's eyes widened in recognition. She raised one hand and looked as if she were about to say something, when a knock came from the door.
The heavy oaken door swung inward, and Nolan entered the room. He looked a bit uncomfortable, and scratched at his neck nervously.
"Beggin' your pardon, your ladyship, but his lordship requires your presence," he announced.
The Champion took a moment to glance at Nicola, then back at Nolan.
"Ah believe he meant immediately, your ladyship," he clarified, holding the door open.
"I'll be right back, Nicola," the Fereldan said with a smile, plucking one of the bacon strips from the tray and popping it into her mouth.
She walked silently behind the gangly man through the hallway, past the suits of armor and oil paintings decorating the walls.
"What's all this about?" she asked.
"Ain't my place to say, your ladyship. Ah just know he's with one of his liege men and requires your presence," replied Nolan.
They passed through the great hall, and toward a carpeted room just adjacent to the ballroom where a small group of finely-dressed men and women stood. The mood was somber, and Hawke could practically taste the fear in the air. The gathered nobles exchanged nervous glances, some quietly whispering amongst themselves as they recognized her.
"Come on, your ladyship. He's expecting us."
She followed him into the office, where an old man in a garish orange doublet and a bald head was bowing and apologizing to Lord du Gaudet.
The room itself looked imposing. The walls were lined with shelf upon shelf of leather-bound books and tomes, and the largest bear skin rug Hawke had ever seen covered the floor. A pair of preserved dire wolves stood in silent vigil on each side of the tall fireplace that held a crackling fire. The heads of several dangerous animals were mounted above the hearth - a dragon and a wyvern bared fangs in a permanent, silent snarl. Mounted on the walls were several vicious-looking exotic weapons each with its own set of nasty barbs and hooks.
"... There's nothing I can do, milord! My family needs those prize steers to bring them to market! If I give them to you, we won't have enough coin to buy grain for the winter, or pay our ranch hands! Please milord, I'd be happy to provide you with plenty of other prime animals for your banquet. Just don't take the prize steers!" beseeched the balding man. He bowed and scraped before du Gaudet, clearly hoping for clemency.
The lord of the manor sat behind a large wooden desk that had been carved to look as if crying slaves were holding it up. His only acknowledgement of the Champion's entrance was a single cocked eyebrow. He listened intently to the supplicant. When the petitioner finally finished and looked to him for a response, he steepled his fingers and looked directly at the old man.
"Ser Adel, do you remember the oaths you swore to me when I inherited my title?"
"Y... yes, milord. I swore to serve you and your family loyally, and you swore to protect and to rule us fairly," Adel answered.
"Good. When your lands were assaulted by bandits last spring, who was it who summoned armed guards to drive them away?"
"Y.. you did, milord."
"Excellent. And have you been ruled fairly? Have I asked for more of you, in taxes or tribute, than I have of any of my other vassals?"
"N-no, milord. You have not."
"And Ser Adel... did you not say, months ago, that you would provide your finest livestock for our little celebration?"
"But Lord du Gaudet, the growing season has been terrible this year! We'll have no food for this winter!"
"Ser Adel, I would like you to meet someone," announced the nobleman, gesturing toward Hawke. "I'm sure you recognize her."
The old man turned toward Hawke, and the color drained from his face.
"Th-the Champion of Kirkwall?!" he stammered. "I... I..."
"As I said, the Champion is my honored guest. I'm sure you would never wish to disappoint someone with such an esteemed reputation," du Gaudet mused aloud.
"N-no, milord," replied Adel, his shoulders slumping in defeat.
"So you will honor our agreement, will you not?"
"Y-yes, milord. I'm sorry, milord," said the elderly man.
"Good. If we do not honor our agreements, we're little more than animals."
The dejected man slunk out of the room silently, while the lord turned to face the Champion. He broke into a large grin.
"Good morning, Champion. I'm glad you could join me," he said.
"Just... what was all that?" asked Hawke warily.
"Simply insuring that my liegemen fulfill their sworn duties, of course."
"And my involvement?" continued the Champion.
"It's quite simple, really. You are likely the most dangerous and fearsome slayer of man and beast alive. You are here at my pleasure, and it is useful to me that they know how far my reach extends."
"You can't seriously believe that I would just agree to become your enforcer. I'd never do that!" Hawke retorted, furrowing her brow.
"Wouldn't you, my Champion? How many innocent lives would it take to convince you otherwise? A dozen? A hundred? All I am asking for is for these men and women to honor agreements and oaths already made, nothing more. If their oaths of fealty to me will not straighten their spines, the threat of force may be necessary."
The lord of the manor stood, and Hawke's gaze was drawn sharply to the burnished amulet around his neck. The remaining three gemstones sparkled in the firelight. As he looked at her with grim determination, all traces of smile had vanished from his face.
"Make no mistake, Champion. Regardless of whether it is the carrot or the stick that I employ, those who are beholden to me will know their place. It is at my pleasure that they serve, and it would do well for them to remember that," he said. His expression changed, and the smile returned as quickly as it had departed. "Now, shall we take our meal outside today? I wish to show you the lake on the grounds."
"We've managed to find one of the canisters," Anders announced. "You were right about its location; Aveline and I found it in the rafters at the Chantry. That's the good news."
"Well, that's wonderful!" chirped Merrill.
The pirate captain narrowed her eyes.
"This seems a little too easy," she said, furrowing her brow. "What's the bad news?"
Anders glanced at Aveline before replying. "We can't move it and we can't disarm it. If we do, we'll trigger the poison early."
Isabela pinched the bridge of her nose and sighed. "That's more like it. If it was too easy, he'd never have been this confident about blackmailing Hawke. Varric, tell us about the anti-tampering device. I take it that you weren't able to disarm it."
"I've gone over the thing with a fine-toothed comb, and believe you me, climbing to the top of a tall ladder, even one held steady by Aveline, is not an experience I'd care to repeat. That thing isn't mechanical. There's no hole, no panel, no port. No tripwire to cut, no counterweight to secure, and no spring to weigh down. The only thing in that thing looks like a series of grooves all leading to some sort of indentation... like something's meant to go there," grumbled Varric.
"It's blood magic, isn't it?" the pirate mused aloud.
"How did you know that?" asked Anders.
"A while ago, Hawke and I came across a similar trap in an ancient dungeon. There was some fighting, and she tried to kill me for a bit, but then she got better."
"She tried t' kill you?" asked Sebastian.
"Oh, it seems to happen to all of my lovers eventually," replied the pirate, shrugging. "She did get better, and, as you can see, I'm not dead. It all worked out in the end. The point was that we found a device that sounds similar to this. It was an ancient trap that channeled blood and lyrium through these grooves in the walls, and brought them to some sort of focusing gemstone."
"And what did you do to this thing?" asked Aveline.
"I smashed it," said the corsair with a smirk.
"Of course you did," sighed the guardswoman.
"The important thing is that it's blood magic. We can all thank Andraste's soiled white granny panties that we've got our very own blood mage who can tell us about it," replied the pirate, leaning back in her chair.
"It certainly sounds like blood magic. The grooves are there for the blood to flow to the channeling stone. That's what's missing, you know. The channeling stone is what you'd place into the indentation that Varric mentioned. All of the lyrium and blood would flow into it, but that would all be raw energy." Merrill chewed her lip in thought before continuing. "You'd need a lot of energy, in order to make sure that it would be controlled from such a large distance, but it would require precision. Like when Aveline pokes something with her sword instead of punching it. It's the same amount of strength, but all of that energy is focused into the tip of the blade instead of spread out through her knuckles."
"I do not poke!"
"That must be what the channeling stone is for. Focus all the energy from the blood, make it do what they needed. But you'd need something special, something that could contain all of that energy," mused Anders, stroking his chin as he thought aloud. "It would need to be small enough to conceal. But for something to be that small and yet able to channel that much power..."
"It would have to be an item from a creature. Something with great vitality, crystallized down to the purest form," Merrill added, sounding excited. "A great creature, with great strength... probably a mighty hunter, in order to add even more energy into it."
One mage looked at the other as recognition dawned on both of their faces simultaneously.
"A wyvern's bezoar!" they both exclaimed together.
"For those of us who don't speak mage, what on earth is a wyvern's bezoar?" asked Varric, scratching his temple.
"It's like... a bit of something that gets caught in a creature's digestive system, or gullet. Usually they're digested or passed, but, very rarely, they stay inside the creature for years, soaking up and absorbing bits and pieces of the creature and everything around it," answered Anders.
"The result is found when the creature's life ends. It ends up being a hard, rock-like thing, but it isn't just a rock. It's got so much life energy that's been put into it over the years that if you channel magical energy into it at all... lyrium, blood, mana, anything, it lights up like a thousand candles. Bezoars of all types have been used in many legendary incantations in the past, but something like this must require something with a tremendous amount of life energy," added Merrill.
"Then that's it," declared Fenris. "We just need to find one of the bloody things."
"How d'you suppose we find one?" asked Sebastian. "Do we just pack up and find a wyvern to kill?"
"It isn't that easy," cautioned Anders. "Not every wyvern has a bezoar. They're incredibly rare. I can't even begin to imagine where we might find one."
"We're also pressed for time," said Aveline. "Remember, every moment we chase this thing is a moment Hawke remains in du Gaudet's clutches."
"It sure seems to be a real conundrum," sighed Varric. "This is usually to be the part where Hawke comes up with some crazy scheme that's just crazy enough to work."
The room was deathly quiet for a moment.
"I've got a plan," declared the pirate, breaking the silence.
"I'm ready to listen to just about anything at this point," groaned Aveline. "Even if the plan is just 'not enough whiskey.'"
"I'll take care of the wyvern's bezoar. In the meantime, the rest of you keep searching for the other canisters. It won't help when I bring the thing and we still have the threat hanging over our heads like storm clouds on the horizon," the corsair declared.
"How will you find it?" asked Merrill.
"Come now, Kitten. Finding rare artifacts and making off with them is what I do best," replied the sea captain with a wink.
The woman leaned back in her plush chair and sipped the wine in her jeweled goblet. The moonlight filtered gently into the room through the drawn curtains. A cozy fire crackled merrily in the hearth as she flipped the next page in a heavy, leather-bound tome. She could hear scuffling sounds through the large, oaken door but paid them no heed. Muffled shouts and screams occasionally interrupted the steady hissing and popping of the fire.
She sighed as she swirled the contents of her goblet before taking another sip. The liquor was sweet, but pleasantly burned as it went down her throat. She smiled a bit as the she continued to read the book, paying little attention to the noises coming from beyond the door. She didn't even look up when the door itself shook, as if something (or someone) heavy had been slammed into it. The heavy wooden door creaked as it opened inward. A man in armor fell backwards through the entrance onto the rug, groaning and clutching his privates.
The woman sighed, and placed a pink, silk ribbon in the book to mark her place, and carefully closed it. She looked up as the invader entered the room, stepping over the fallen man as if he were nothing.
The dark-skinned invader stood in the entryway, fists planted on her hips. Her white tunic was generously spattered with crimson blood, though none of it was apparently hers. She grinned.
"Can't you just make an appointment like the normal people who come to visit me?" asked the woman in the chair, setting her book on a carved wooden table.
"The last time we spoke wasn't exactly under the friendliest terms," replied the captain. "How was I to know you wouldn't just run away like the last time?"
"I'll be honest," said the sitting woman. "The thought had crossed my mind. Did you leave any of my men alive?"
"Most of them, I think. You don't employ a particularly brave bunch," said the pirate with a shrug.
"Now that the pleasantries are taken care of, perhaps you could tell me just why you're here," asked the woman.
"The answer is simple, Athenril. I'm looking for something, and you are going to help me find it."
Author's Note: I truly apologize for how long it's been. I've been grappling with the details of this story (which originally all stemmed from a single mental image that I still haven't written yet) for a long, long time. I hope that some of you are all still interested in what happens next. A tremendous thanks to the inestimable suziegon, a loyal reader who PMed me and actually reminded me that there are some of you faithful readers out there who still very much would like to know what happens next. You can thank her for this story actually making it into the wild. I hope I have not disappointed too much.
Believe it or not, the story is still continuing. I've got about 9,000 more words written or so, and (yes, I know) the story is still not quite finished. It's coming together, I just need to get the details of each scene straight. I've got... maybe three scenes left to write, I think, and the final chapter can go to the pre-readers, whom I love dearly and thank profusely.
If you are still looking for Isabela-related tales and adventures, I heartily suggest visiting her tumblr at isabelaexplainsitall dot tumblr dot com. If you have any comments, suggestions, or story ideas you'd like to see, please send them to hoorayforicecream at yahoo dot com.
Hope you enjoy the tale. Cheers.