"I'm not asking for love," Gamlen told Hawke in weary resignation. His mouth twisted. "But at least I got the money," he added bitterly.
Dragon Age belongs to BioWare.
"My dear!" The grand ladies kiss the air beside each other's cheeks in affirmation of their undying affection.
"Such a pleasure. And is that your darling Leandra I see?"
"Yes, indeed. I must say, my daughter is always so delighted to attend your soirees, my dear. She insisted upon a new gown of Orlesian silk just for the occasion."
The lovely young woman sparkles amidst an adoring crowd, her raven-dark tresses flowing across her neck with artful simplicity as she laughs and flirts with her fan.
"Too kind, my dear. And over there, do I spy young Gamlen?"
"Oh? Oh, yes. Her brother. My dear, you simply must hear what my precious Leandra said to me just this morning. Too witty, I'm laughing still..."
"Lea, are you sure about this?"
"I've never been so sure of anything in my life."
And that's saying a great deal. His sister is glowing, sending the same worshipful glances she was accustomed to receiving toward the mage standing quietly at her side.
"You won't be able to talk them around this time. Even if you weren't already betrothed to the Comte-"
"My lord de Launcet can easily buy himself another flower to hang on his elbow."
"You didn't exactly say 'no' at the time."
"I wasn't exactly in love at the time either." She beams at Malcolm Hawke, and pouts prettily at Gamlen. "Be happy for me, Gammie."
Maker help me. "Don't do that, Leandra," he says in exasperation. She laughs, and he tries again without much hope.
"Look, I can number the times you've even seen Lowtown on one hand, and now you're planning to just drop everything you know – wealth, society, privilege – for a life on the run with an apostate." He glances in apology at her lover, who looks back impassively.
"That doesn't matter. Money doesn't matter. Only love matters – Malcolm is all I'll ever need." She hugs the man fiercely before adding, "Anyway, once I'm gone maybe they'll start caring about you."
Gamlen flinches and even Malcolm stirs in protest. Her eyes widen in quick remorse.
"Oh! That's not what I meant!"
Gamlen stands helplessly on the periphery of the tempest that has been raging for the better part of two hours. His sister has run the gamut from sweet charm to tearful fury to stubborn defiance, and remains immovable in face of the wrath their parents have brought to bear.
"Do you want to embarrass the Amell name? Nobility since Garahel drove out the fourth Blight?" Their father roars yet again, slamming his walking stick into the table. "No! I won't have it! Majority or no, daughter, I'll have you locked in your room until you come to your senses."
Leandra takes a wary step back as he advances.
"Fausten." Their mother's voice cuts like an icy blade and he stops in his tracks.
Every inch the grande dame, Lady Amell draws herself up, the fireplace's glow at her back painting her with flickering shadow.
"Think carefully, Leandra. I warn you: go against our wishes in this and you will be disowned, dead to us as surely as if you were spitted on the inevitable Templar's sword destined for your precious apostate."
Leandra's only response is to lift her chin under her mother's steely gaze.
There is a thick silence in which the snap of resinous firewood resounds as though the mansion's very foundation were cracking.
"Well, then. Go." She forestalls their father's incipient outburst with a sharp gesture. "It's her life. Let her ruin it." At Leandra she spits, "Go on. Rut with your mage pet, and may your mongrel offspring bring you much joy, for you'll have no more from us."
Eyes glittering with unshed tears, Leandra turns on her heel and unhesitatingly leaves without a backward look.
The front door slams shut with the finality of a trap's jaws.
Lady Amell's rigid posture slumps. Gamlen reaches to support his mother and she shrugs him off impatiently, sparing him no glance as she makes her way to the staircase.
"Useless." Gamlen starts and meets his father's hateful glare.
"You should have prevented all this."
"What? How could I have-" He stifles a yelp as the walking stick whips painfully across his shins.
"Quiet, boy! Worthless whelp." Lord Amell shoulders him aside and follows his wife upstairs.
It is a truth pointedly left unacknowledged by the nobility that much of their wealth lies in appearances alone, and the Kirkwall Amells are no exception. Lord Fausten had nearly bankrupted them in his attempts to clear Damion Amell of smuggling charges earlier in the year, and barring their Hightown estate and some small land revenues they are comparatively cash-poor. Leandra's marriage to the Comte de Launcet was to have alleviated this circumstance.
Though he had already suspected this to be the case, Gamlen has to learn the particulars from his acquaintances in the lower classes. Despite his sincere efforts to prove himself, his parents continue to dismiss him with the long-familiar sarcastic contempt. He has always been most comfortable away from the rarefied Hightown society, in which he was merely a dull foil for the sparkling gem of his sister, and now must endure scandalized whispers and smirks over her flight. At least in Lowtown people are open in their hatreds, and honest in their lawlessness. Still, as he runs interference with tradesmen and servants, Gamlen continually puts his mind to finding some way he might contribute to the family's fortunes and well-being that would satisfy his father's pride, if not earn his respect.
In contrast, Leandra's shining perfection is all the more noticeable for its absence, an observation Lord and Lady Amell never scruple to voice.
Guille rolls away and props herself on her elbows as they catch their breath, her nipples brushing delightfully against his forearm as she kicks the knot of sheets free.
"So, I'm wondering..."
He raises his arm and pushes against her breasts. "Wandering? You certainly have been, Gillyflower." She giggles and squirms closer to lay her head on his chest.
"Won-dering, you silly. About the bruises." She delicately traces the greeny-yellow stripe that wraps his bicep and pictures the colorful lines she saw across his back and legs. "If I didn't know better I'd say someone's been caning you."
Gamlen is silent for so long she thinks he will not reply, and the working girl fears she has overstepped her bounds with her favorite regular.
"The old man," he says at last, his voice oddly distant, "he gets...frustrated. At life. Circumstances. Mostly at me. And he lashes out. Usually once or twice and he's done."
"Doesn't your mum...?"
"She always gets up and leaves the room whenever I come in – as long as I can remember, she's been that way. I doubt she notices one way or the other."
Guille listens with her ear pressed to his chest, his heartbeat running a vibrant counterpoint to his words.
"In a sense, I suppose letting him get it out of his system is a way I can help him, if it makes him feel better. Maker knows I can't seem to do anything else to please him."
"But what about you?" she asks quietly.
"What about me?"
It is her turn to be silent. The girl already knows very well how meaningless it is to complain of fairness or deserving; things simply are as they are, although it is a revelation to discover that the nobility are just as broken as everyone else.
The flames crackle mockingly in the study fireplace.
"What rubbish is this, boy?" Lord Amell rattles the sheaf of papers at Gamlen.
Maker give me strength.
"As I said, ser, it's a proposal to invest in a mercantile imports business. I've looked into it thoroughly, and I believe it could show a large return in a relatively short-"
"Trade!" Lord Amell snorts. "As if I would dishonour the Amell name by associating with merchant riff-raff! Preposterous!"
"Those merchant riff-raff are wealthier than we are. If you would just look-"
"Nonsense!" His father casts the documents into the fire with an abrupt gesture and flushes dangerously at Gamlen's cry of protest. "Bad enough that ass Damion got in bed with smugglers and left it for me to clean up. You forget your place, boy!"
"You know very well that if Damion hadn't been caught he'd be the toast of society!" To his inner astonishment, he hears himself shouting back. "And you were perfectly willing to sell Leandra to the highest bidder. You old hypocrite!"
The overhand arc of the cane comes to an abrupt halt as Gamlen catches it with a crack. They stand in a frozen tableau, each holding an end of the stick, the younger man dispassionately regarding the elder's bulging eyes and purpling visage. Inexorably, he draws the cane away, and Lord Amell is forced to release his grip lest he be pulled off balance.
Feeling strangely calm, Gamlen drops his gaze and watches the firelight quiver across the gleaming ebony for a long moment, then deliberately places the cane on the desk with a click. He turns away without meeting his father's eye, saying, "I'll be dining out," and walks away.
"Tchah! At least your sister had some backbone!"
Gamlen pauses in the doorway, grasping the frame, but does not turn.
"I'll tell Cook there will only be two for dinner," he says tonelessly, and continues walking.
Cholera rages throughout Kirkwall, the city's impenetrable walls as useless in face of this invader as a child's set of blocks. The daily struggle for survival in Lowtown and the Alienage becomes a literal truth, and Darktown is a hell out of a demon-fed nightmare. Even the bright streets of Hightown turn shabby and neglected as the populace struggles with realities no amount of manners can dismiss.
Gamlen and the maid-of-all-work, Mynnera, are merely brushed by the disease and recover quickly to care for his parents, who as most elders are laid low indeed. Lady Amell is particularly hard hit.
"Where is Leandra?"
"Mynnera, let's get her into the chair so we can change the sheets. Leandra's in Ferelden, Mother, remember?"
"No, she was here just a moment ago. Have you met my daughter, young man?"
"Mother, I'm Gamlen."
"Gamlen? That's her brother. A dull child, such a disappointment. If one ever believed in changelings...is that Leandra I hear?"
"No, Mother, she isn't here. On two, now: one – two."
"Never mind, I'll clean it up. Mother, here, drink a little tea. There. Mynnera's going to help you wash, all right?"
"We have some lovely lavender water, mum, you'll feel right as rain."
"Yes...save some for Leandra, she'll be back soon...Do I know you, young man?"
"I...sometimes I wonder. Here, give me that, I'll take it down with the slop."
"Thank you, messere."
"What was that? Speak up, lad!"
"I'm your son, Mother."
"Do you know my daughter?"
When he steps into the hallway, he is startled by a movement, thinking Lord Amell is again stubbornly making his way to the liquor cabinet for some ill-advised self-medication, only to realize it is his own reflection in the night-dark window. Perhaps due to the lines of weariness, the frown of tension, but he sees for the first time his father's features cast over his own. A drinking partner's favorite toast, one which Gamlen always fervently echoed, springs to mind: Maker save us from becoming our parents! With a foreboding sense that it is already too late for himself he scrubs the back of his hand across his forehead and continues downstairs.
I trust you will forgive my presumption. I found your letter to our Mother in her personal effects and will use the Lothering address from it in hopes of reaching you. Mother returned to the Maker this last tenday – she never completely recovered from the cholera last summer, and when it hit again recently it was just too much for her. We made her as comfortable as the disease permits – at least it went fairly quickly.
Our Father is failing rapidly as well, not that he would ever admit it, and the prognosis is that he will not see another moon. You know I am the first one to say the old man would outlive us all out of sheer spite, but I fear this is one argument he cannot win.
You have your own life now, I know, and the city is no friendlier to your husband's talents than it ever was, but might you be interested in at least a brief visit?
As he seals the missive, he experiences a flare of irrational envy for the life of an apostate, in which the overriding priority is to run away and stay anonymous.
The air of sickness in the bedroom has an underlay of the smells of old brandy and cigar smoke, as stale as the feelings they provoke. From his seat at the bedside, Gamlen looks up at a restless movement from his father and sets aside his book.
"Are you thirsty?" The invalid jerks his head and Gamlen pours out a small amount of the waiting tisane. Supporting the bony shoulders, he holds the cup as his father slurps, then carefully blots the ensuing rivulet from the corner of his mouth while feeble hands querulously try to bat away the attentions.
Settled back and framed by pillows, Lord Amell stares at Gamlen, sunken cheeks and bristling moustache giving him the appearance of an elderly owl glaring at the world from the safety of its treetop den. His lips work soundlessly and his gnarled fingers pluck at the coverlet as the younger man gently smoothes and straightens the bed linens.
"Father? What is it?" Gamlen leans over attentively. "I can't make that out."
"I'm here, ser."
"Le...andra..." the name ghosts out on a sigh as the old man sags and closes his eyes in exhaustion.
Gamlen waits, and then with a quiet sigh of his own begins to tuck the coverlet around Lord Amell's shoulders. He suddenly stills, fingers touching the age-mottled neck, and then slowly leans back.
The lamp eventually gutters out, and Gamlen remains by the shell of his father as the room fills with shadows.
Gamlen turns the key with a brief struggle and pushes open the vault door. After lighting a sconce, he raises his lantern to examine the room. He feels as though he has been sleepwalking through the last few weeks, uncertain whether the grief finally beginning to rise is for what has been, or what now could never be. There is a parent-shaped void in his world, and he is oddly dislocated, like a cut tether fluttering loose.
He locates the particular lockbox he seeks, and, placing his lantern on a nearby chest, he seats himself on another and skims the papers within, lingering with a twinge over the familiar shape of his father's writing. It takes a moment before the meaning of what he is reading sinks in.
"To my daughter Leandra and all children born of her...the estate in Hightown and all associated revenues..."
"To my son Gamlen, a fixed annual stipend under the control of my daughter Leandra, not to exceed the amount of..."
Heat rises to his face as his heart begins to pound, and the parchment crinkles in his grip.
What? How could...She's not even in the same country...didn't even respond when I wrote ...She abandoned us...me. All this time – all that I've done...dealt with...
Is everything that I am truly so meaningless?
He feels as though he is choking, his breathing harsh in his ears.
I must look like the old man having a tantrum.
The stray notion inserts itself into the emotional tumult and steadies him more surely than a cold water plunge. Calmer, he frowns at the wall in thought.
He recognizes this for what it is: a final, spiteful blow to break him for whatever real or imagined transgressions he has committed.
(The cane swings and)
Does he have to let it happen?
(smacks into his palm.)
Leandra's made her life in Ferelden, with every expectation of being disowned. She didn't answer my letter, let alone show up after Father died, which certainly implies she's cut her ties.
I'm right here; I've been managing affairs now since the first epidemic. People already assume I'm the only one left.
No one needs to know otherwise.
And if she were to return, he thinks a bit wistfully, I'll always help her if she needs me.
Decision made, he nods and removes the cover from the lantern. Only one thing left to do.
The creamy parchment is backlit as he raises it toward the bared flame, and a phrase just above his thumb catches his eye.
"To my son Gamlen."
He lowers his hand, staring at the words.
Had the old man ever called him his son in life?
Leandra's brother. Young fool. Insolent puppy. Ungrateful whelp.
All Gamlen has ever wanted was to be acknowledged.
He shakes himself mentally. Legalese. He intends to thrust both the will and the memories into the flame, but instead finds his eye retracing the elegant copperplate script.
"...my son Gamlen..."
The only time...
He slowly lays the parchment on the chest's surface. Gently, he smoothes and straightens out the creases, folds it carefully – almost tenderly – and locks it safely away in the strongbox.
Thank you, Shakespira.