title: "The Affair of the Stolen Dagger, Part 1."
characters: Soris, f!Tabris
summary: One summer night in Denerim, sixteen-year-old Soris finds out what his cousin does for a living.
as though the past could be present and memory itself
a Baltic honey—
chafing at the edges of the seen, a showing off of just how much
can be kept safe
inside a flawed translucence.
-Eavan Boland, "Amber"
If Soris hadn't been drunk - well, tipsywas probably the more accurate word - he'd never have followed his cousin Kallian that night.
He never claimed to be smart.
It happened like this:
He and Pol and Pol's brother Tam had spent all the hot, dusty summer day on the quays, running messages, hauling crates whenever the stevedore-crews lacked a man, carrying water. In short, doing whatever kind of work came the way of a trio of adolescent elves, and ducking the back of the stevedores' hands when they didn't run fast enough. Dusk brought the unaccustomed jingle of coppers in their pockets, and Tam - older, more experienced, soon to be married - led them to a tavern's back door to buy a pitcher of ale. Insidewould be too dangerous, with shems fresh off their ships, full of sailor-pride and spoiling for a fight, but the tavernkeep took their coin and nodded them towards a sheltered corner of the yard.
With a cool breeze ruffling the sweaty spikes of his hair, and - Soris leaned back into the sheltering wall, taking a cautious sip from his tin mug - good dark ale, he didn't mind. Outside might stink of fish from the market and the tiny privy-shack by the west wall, it might be dim and unlit in the gathering twilight, but at least it didn't stink of shems.
"I am going to find the Dalish. Just you see."
"If you want to go looking for fairy tales, go ahead."
Soris let the latest round of Pol and Tam's ongoing argument roll over him. He didn't catch the next exchange of insults. The sight of a familiar figure slipping - with all due care - through the yard gate to hunker down beside the dogcart that rested unhitched and empty beside the privy shack distracted him.
Kallian? What's she doing here?
She hadn't seen them, and Pol and Tam were too occupied with their bickering to notice her. The lantern that lit the gate cast a poor light, even with the last streak of sunset in the sky, and the noise of the taverns all along the wharf covered whatever small noises an elf - or three - might make.
He wouldn't have recognised her, but for the fact that - poor orphan relative that he was - he'd shared houseroom with her and her father for the last year. Her stride and the set of her shoulders were as familiar to him as the dirt under his fingernails. But Cyrion Tabris was what passed for respectable in the alienage. Or he had been, until Adaia got herself killed and the shem lord he clerked for turned him off without a character. So what the hell was Cousin Kal doing down by Farrar's Wharf after twilight, dressed all in grey, and crouched where no one stepping across the tavern's yard would spot her until he touched the latch of the jakes - and then not unless he was looking?
Waiting, by the looks of it. Kallian did patient watchfulness like nobody he knew. And it was none of his business, right? I mean, I didn't see her face, so how do I know for sure it's even really her?
Soris drank his ale and tried to put it from his mind. When Pol turned the conversation to baiting Tam about his upcoming nuptials, he joined in - he was only sixteen, with at least another three years before the hahren would be considering making a match for him. But his glance kept flicking to the deeper patch of shadow where Kallian crouched, and he found himself watching the handful of men and women who traipsed out to use the jakes with apprehension. None of them noticed Kallian. Only one, a Rivaini whose skin gleamed in the lamplight, even looked towards Soris and his companions.
"More ale?" Tam suggested, when he'd dribbled the last dregs into each of their cups with ferocious concentration.
"Curfew," Soris reminded him. "We need to be sober enough to dodge the shems." An elf outside the alienage after dark without a pass was fair prey for the guards: a night in the cells and a fine being the least you could expect, with a flogging if the fine proved more than you could pay.
"One more jug won't hurt," Pol said. Soris, outnumbered, surrendered with good grace. He was fishing in his belt for the coppers for his share when the tavern's back door opened yet again. A woman balanced on the stoop, surveyed the yard's dimness for a moment, then threaded her way around the worst of the filth towards the jakes. At the door she halted, as though fumbling with the latch - and in that instant Kallian Tabris rose up from the shadows and wrapped an arm around her neck. An arm flashed, the point of a knife driving up between ribs -
It happened so fast, Soris hardly realised what he witnessed. And then it was over, and Kallian - his cousin Kallian - straddled a corpse in the dimness, going through pockets with brisk, silent efficiency.
"Maker's breath," Pol whispered. "Did you seethat?"
We have to get out of here, Soris thought, as Kallian straightened and walked unhurriedly towards the gate. Three elves and a shem corpse, that's not a good set of numbers.
"Let's go," Tam said, shakily, an unwitting echo.
Why, for the Maker's sake? The recklessness of burning curiosity seized Soris. Not good for health or self-preservation: the last time he'd felt this way Alarith had ended up thrashing him within an inch of his life. But... "You go," he said, before he could change his mind, and ducked Pol's restraining hand. "I'm going to find out who that was."
He lengthened his stride to reach the gate. Which way? Left, right - There hadn't been time for her to get much head start, but even if his eyes were better than a shem's, the alley was still damned dark.
There. A blacker patch of moving shadow, disappearing around a corner. He set off in pursuit.
Three streets he stuck on her tail, dodging the sailors and stevedores who stumbled into - and out of - the lanternlit mouths of raucous taverns. The docks were dangerous for an elf alone at night - you could maybe end up dead or bound for Tevinter if you weren't careful - but he had to know.
He rounded the third corner to nothing. In the dimness, with warehouses hemming him in on both sides, not even a whisper of motion reached his eyes. He took a step into the street, peering, straining his ears -
A brass knuckle hit him in the kidney. Hard hands trapped his elbow, spun him around, slammed him up against a doorway. Splintery wood bit into his cheek. He didn't fight - struggling'd only break his elbow, by that grip - but when the point of a knife touched his nape, fear turned him limp as wet rags.
"Who are you," said his cousin's voice, quiet and vicious, "and why are you following me?"
"Kallian?" It sounded like Kallian. It smelled like Kallian, camphor and leather and sweat. "I - I'm sorry. It's me."
A long moment's silence. "Soris?"
He swallowed. "That's me."
"Andraste's flaming -" In a tone of utter disgust: "You're lucky you're family, Soris. Because sometimes you really do have nothing in your head but air."
Released, he turned to face her, gingerly fingering the soft flesh at the back of his neck where the knife had pricked. His stomach did somersaults, but he made his voice light. "So, um. New hobby?"
The set of her shoulders held nothing but hard tension. He could tell that much even in the dimness. "How much did you see?"
"We were drinking in the yard -"
"Pol and Tam and me."
"Shit," she muttered. "Fucking shit."
His throat was dry. "I don't think they knew it was you, though. I mean, what the hell, Kal? You're killing people now?"
"Go home, Soris," she said, soft and weary. "Go home, and forget you saw anything."
"No." For the second time that night, Soris surprised himself. He firmed his tone. Maybe she wouldn't realise he was frightened down to the soles of his bare feet. For her, yes, but also of her. "You're my cousin, Kal. Whatever you're into, it's dangerous. You need someone to watch your back."
He braced for an argument - Maker, what was he thinking? - but Kal just tilted her head. "Soris..." A heavy exhalation. He could feel her weighing him up against whatever unknown set of scales she held in her mind. "Okay," she said after a moment, quietly. "But if you do this, Soris, you're all the way in. No questions, no comments: you keep your mouth shut and do exactly what I tell you. Understood?"
Maker, what am I getting myself into? "I understand."
"Damn well better," she muttered, and tugged him to follow.
More alleys, leading away from the wharves. Soris could feel Kallian's unease in the tight pinch of her fingers on his wrist. She flinched when a cat yowled and knocked over a pile of detritus with a clatter, and when she slipped her knife away he realised he'd never seen her draw it.
"Here." Outside a narrow door on Threadneedle Street, between a bookbinder's and a grocer's, his cousin halted. She rapped four times on the peeling wood, waited a heartbeat, rapped four times more, and pushed it open without waiting for a reply.
Lamplight dazzled after the street's blackness. Soris blinked and knuckled his eyes. Two men sat playing cards at a low trestle table. A human and a dwarf - the human middle-aged and stubbled, with the tabard of the city guard slung over the back of his chair, the dwarf with a cocked crossbow resting on his knee and an ugly brand scarring his cheek. The guardsman raised his eyebrows. "You brought a friend, Tabris?"
"He's family." Kallian leaned against the doorframe and met his gaze steadily, with none of the cowed deference he'd expect her to show a shem guardsmen - Maker, a shem guard sergeant, by his sash. "And I'm going to need another pair of hands, since Faith the Cope wasn't carrying the merchandise."
"Damn," the shem said, mildly. "We know she had to have had it this morning. Which means she's either stashed it somewhere, or -"
"Or she's sold it already." Kallian's tone was challenging. "She didn't break her routine, though. Went to Mallory's this evening just like usual."
"My people are watching the Tevinters," the dwarf said. He chewed the end of his beard. "No sign of anything new with them. But hold a moment. You brought this boy here?"
"Family," Kallian said again, with an edge of warning in her voice. Soris shrank back, nerves bilious in his gut, as she stepped in front of him. Shielding him.
"Leave it, Rikor," the shem said in the same moment. The two men, dwarf and shem, exchanged a glance. The shem said smoothly, the way that fine steel was smooth, "Tabris' word is good with me."
The dwarf - Rikor - grunted. It seemed to pass for agreement, because the shem inclined his head, and Kallian visibly relaxed.
"Fine," the shem said. "We don't have much time if we're going to keep the templars out of this. Tabris, you and your friend go search her rooms. Backtrack to Mallory's if you have to. I'll go knock over some fences and see what falls out. Rikor?"
The dwarf spat. "The sodding Tevinters won't go swanning off home with that particular bit of pretty on my watch."
"Good." The shem flipped a brass token to Kallian. "There's a night pass. Go."
Kallian seized Soris's arm and they went.
Templars? Tevinters? "Kal?" he said uncertainly, as they trailed through the dark untrafficked streets of the Tanneries. "What's going on?"
"Didn't I say not to ask questions?" No sting in her voice.
"You could at least tell me what sort of shit I've landed in!"
She stopped. Her grip on his shoulder ground muscle against bone. "The dangerous kind, Soris. You were right. I need someone to watch my back. And it shouldn't be you, because-" savage "-this is dangerous. I trust Herrian - the sergeant - but he's as bent as two copper pins, and he owes Rikor. And I don't trust Rikor as far as I can throw him."
"I'm what you've got," Soris said, carefully. "Tell me what's going on, Kal?"
A gusty sigh. "Okay. But keep walking. Herrian was right that we don't have much time." And after a moment, soft and low, barely loud enough to hear above their footsteps on the packed earth: "Rikor runs the glimmer trade - illegal enchantments, lyrium smuggling, theft, you name it, if it's got magic in it, he deals in it. This fool of a shem, Faith the Cope, ripped off one of the Grand Cleric's enchanted pretties without cutting him in. Worse luck, it's actually something the templars will come down pretty hard to get back - so I'm told - so it has to go back, because seriously pissed-off templars are not healthy for someone in Rikor's line of work. They tend to stab first and ask questions later. So Rikor can't bring his own people in - hunting down the thief's one thing, but handing back the merchandise makes him look weak, and if he looks weak, one of his own people will jump him."
"The woman you... killed." Soris swallowed. "She was the thief?"
"She's not the first," his cousin said, her tone flat and distant. "She won't be the last, either, Soris."
"Why are you doing this?" The question burst past the lump in his throat. His cousin wasn't a killer, a hired murderer - couldn't be.
"Because Herrian owes Rikor, and I owe Herrian." There was no emotion in her voice. "And because I'm good at it."
"Uncle Cyrion -" Would never allow this.
"Is barely," she said, still flat, "able to put food on the table for himself. I have to think about -" She cut herself short. More softly: "Shianni's nearly fifteen."
His - their - cousin Shianni, another orphan. Since her mother and brothers died in the summer plague last year, like him she'd lived under Cyrion Tabris' roof. "So?" he said, groping for understanding.
"She's too pretty to be safe in service," Kallian said quietly. "Too careless - too angry- to last on her own for very long as a thief, and far, far too honest to make a whore. She doesn't have a chance, unless I can raise a prentice-fee for her. She's deft enough to make a dressmaker."
"Oh." He was obscurely comforted. At least his cousin had a reason. "What about me?"
"You're the wrong kind of pretty for most sorts of trouble." She sighed. "Da doesn't know. He's guessed that I'm running as someone's muscle, but he doesn't know that I've done murder out of it. So don't tell him, okay?"
"Cousin -" Soris shook his head. Murder. Maker's breath. "I have your back."
Possibly a play in three acts. Comments would make me happy. Particularly constructive criticism!