Chapter Fifty-Nine

"No," said the Arishok, before Hawke could even open her mouth.

"But…"

"No."

Hawke and Varric traded glances.

"I thought you said Starkiller was smoothing things over?" muttered Varric out of the corner of his mouth.

"Wishful thinking?"

The truth was, the giant ox-man looked anything but mollified. Hawke could only remember one other time when the Arishok had looked this thunderous, and that had been when he'd spoken of the theft that left him stranded in Kirkwall.

It was more than a little frightening.

Hawke made a decision. She bowed her head to the giant and spoke formally. "I am sorry to have trespassed on your time, Arishok."

They left.

"This isn't good, Hawke," murmured Varric, as they climbed from the docks into Lowtown proper.

"What am I supposed to do?" Hawke demanded. "He has a point. I may not like it, but I can't fault it."

Varric sighed. "The viscount won't like it."

Hawke waved this off with a flip of one hand. "The viscount? It's Bran I'm worried about." She made a face. "Serah Hawke," she mimicked, her voice haughty and disdainful. "The next time you save this city from crazy elves, blood mages, or overly ambitious Orlesian businessmen, have a care not to disturb the Office of the Viscount in any way. Oh, and do try to acquire some fashion sense."

Varric gave Hawke a wry look. "You really don't like that man, do you?"

"He's an insufferable, pompous…"

Their steps had brought them to the Hanged Man, and Hawke paused long enough to wrench open the door.

"Let me buy you a drink," Varric offered. "It'll put everything in perspective."

"You mean I'll be grousing about how terrible the ale is instead of Bran?"

"Exactly."

-ooo-

"I'm afraid the viscount isn't granting audiences today, serah."

Shepard scowled briefly at the seneschal, her arms folded on her chest. "This is important," she said bluntly.

Bran gave her a cool glance. "As are his duties to the city."

Shepard dropped her arms and put her hands on Bran's desk, leaning forward until her weight was resting on them and she was looking the seneschal in the eye. "I'm pretty sure averting a war would be somewhere on the top of that list," she pointed out.

"A war with whom, pray?" asked Bran. "The qunari?" He lifted an eyebrow. "Their force was only a hundred or so strong, and between causalties and desertions, my sources indicate he has less than half that number left."

Shepard gave a bark of laughter. "I could take this city with two dozen."

Bran also leaned forward, though his expression remained cool. "And is that your intent, serah Shepard?"

"No," she replied, her voice steely. "Trust me, you'd know it if it was."

"Is that a threat?"

"A statement of fact."

She shoved off the desk, her head dropping back so she could vent her frustrated glare at the ceiling. With a roll of her neck, she returned her head to level and tried again. "The Arishok is done playing nice," she warned.

"I think," answered Bran, with the slightest curl of his lip, "you'll find that the viscount is as well. Good day, serah."

It was a dismissal, and Shepard knew it. She turned on her heel and stalked away, grinding her teeth in fury.

You tried, Shepard. Time to appeal to more practical heads.

She made her way down to the guard barracks and the guard-captain's office. Though the door was open— Aveline was clearly a believer in the literal interpretation of an open door policy— Shepard rapped her knuckles on the wood anyway.

"Come," Aveline called, glancing up in surprise at the knock. Her eyes started to return to the paperwork in front of her until recognition short circuited the movement, yanking her gaze back to Shepard. Her expression, which had been harried, settled into something far more wary.

"Do I want to know?" she asked.

"The shit's officially hit the fan," Shepard told her. "And if you're not familiar with the expression, I'll be more specific: you are one blink away from a very brief, but very messy bloodbath."

Aveline closed her eyes. "The qunari?"

"The Arishok is not a happy camper," Shepard affirmed. "I'm hoping you'll take the threat more seriously than Bran."

The guard-captain shrugged helplessly. "Believe me, I do. But you have greater influence over the qunari than I do."

"Then keep everyone off the qunari's back," Shepard instructed. "Give them space."

"They have their own compound!" exclaimed Aveline. "I don't know how much more space we can give them!" She shook her head. "The viscount has granted them everything they've asked for. Why isn't that enough?"

"Because the viscount's message of peace and goodwill didn't make it to everyone's ears clearly enough," Shepard snapped. "Because some people can't help poking the tiger. Because life isn't fair, or just, or even pretty." She threw up her arms. "At this point, the why doesn't matter. The important thing is not to piss off the Arishok until I can figure out what to do about it."

Shepard paused for a moment, as her words caught up to her ears. "Shit," she said, rubbing her forehead. "I just said that, didn't I?"

Aveline folded her arms on her breastplate and rocked back on one heel in an eerily familiar motion. "Yes," said the ginger-headed woman. "You did."

You knew it was going to come down to this, Shepard. It always comes down to this. It always comes down to you. Only this time, you have no ship, no team, no clever AI to help you.

Aveline watched Shepard thoughtfully. "Has Hawke spoken to you yet?" she asked.

"Not since the mess at the Chantry," Shepard replied. "Why?"

Aveline shifted and dropped her arms, resting her hands on the top of her desk. "Hawke has an idea," she admitted. "Not a very promising one, but perhaps a place to start."

"I'll take any help I can get," Shepard declared.

The guard-captain's face took on an expression of wry amusement. "You might want to listen, first, before judging it helpful."

"Ah," sighed Shepard. "One of those ideas." Then she shrugged. "What the hell… it's not as if I've had a surplus of sensible ideas over the past three years. What's one more desperate, crazy plan for the history books?"

After all, right now there's only one thing you can think of that might calm the situation down, right, Shepard?

It was a bitch, but there was no getting around it. If it promised to keep the Arishok from deciding to sack the city, there really was no other choice for her. No matter how much it felt like a betrayal of her feelings for Thane, when push came to shove, she'd do what she saw as her duty.

She always did.

She just wished her traitorous body wasn't so enthusiastic about the prospect.

-ooo-

"There you are!"

Shepard glanced up from her omni-tool. Hawke stood in the doorway to Varric's suite with her hands on her hips and a mildly exasperated cast to her features.

"Aveline mentioned you had an idea," Shepard answered, squinting at the rogue. Then she grinned and gave a lopsided shrug. "I have to tell you, she didn't seem terribly impressed with it, whatever it is."

Hawke huffed. "You could have made it easier to find you, if you knew I was looking for you."

Shepard waved her over to a seat at the table opposite her. "I didn't know you were looking for me," she corrected. "And I stopped by your house on my way here." One dark eyebrow lifted. "You weren't there."

"Well, yes. I was looking for you."

But Shepard continued as if Hawke hadn't spoken. "Where else would I find Hawke? I wondered. So here I am."

"And now," said an amused voice from the doorway, "here she is."

Varric came in, carrying two tankards of ale. "Brilliant deduction, Starkiller." He lifted one of the tankards slightly. "Want me to get another?"

Shepard jerked her chin at a bottle resting on the table. "I'm ahead of you."

Varric looked surprised. "Swill?"

The Spectre shook her head grimly. "It's been that kind of a day."

"I'd ask how it went with the Arishok, only I've already experienced his boundlessly effervescent good humor," Hawke made a face. "How can one person put so much meaning into the word no?"

Shepard poured herself another shot of swill and gulped it down. "It's a talent." Her face screwed up in something approaching pain, and she gestured with the empty glass. "What does Corff distill this in, a used bucket?"

"He cleans it out first," Varric replied, in tones of mock defense. "Sometimes."

"Well," said Hawke pointedly, "now that you're here…"

"You mean now that you're here," Shepard corrected. "I've been here." She grimaced. "Drinking swill."

Hawke waved a hand airily. "Whatever. Now that we're all in the same place, I can tell you about my plan."

"Plan?" Shepard's brow crinkled. "When did this go from an idea to a plan?"

"It's always been a plan," Hawke declared. "It was just masquerading as an idea for a time."

"Go on." Shepard poured another shot but did not drink it. Her hand hovered over the glass, though, ready for action.

"The plan is…"

"Just a moment," interrupted Varric, holding up one hand to forestall Hawke's exposition. He turned to Shepard. "You lit anyone on fire recently?"

Shepard frowned. "Not since this morning," she answered slowly, her voice puzzled. "Why?"

The dwarf looked back at Hawke. "You sure you want to go through with this right now, Hawke?"

Hawke shot him an exasperated look. "She's going to have to know sooner or later. Why not seize the qunari by the horns?"

Varric shrugged. "It'll be your pyre."

The rogue flipped a dismissive hand at him and turned a bright smile on Shepard. "The plan is to find this thing that was stolen from the qunari and give it back to them."

Shepard's hand stopped hovering over the whiskey, and settled on the table. Her frown deepened, but remained just that, a frown. Not a scowl. She was thinking.

After a moment, she asked, "Correct me if I'm wrong, but didn't this thing get stolen years ago?"

"About two years, I think," said Hawke.

"That's a cold trail," said Shepard, drumming her fingers on the table. "How, exactly, was this plan supposed to work? Presumably, the qunari have been looking for it the whole time they've been in Kirkwall. If they haven't found it, what makes you think we can?"

"We have unique qualifications," Hawke asserted.

"And what qualifications are those?" Shepard didn't look at all convinced.

"Well…" Hawke began, drawing out the word slowly. What had seemed so clear and obvious to her before now quailed under the Spectre's scrutiny. "Varric has connections pretty much everywhere," she said. "And Isabela is, well, not a thief exactly, but sort of on the same lines, you know? And you," Hawke coughed a little as her throat tightened in defense, clearly not wanting to be part of the brain's obvious suicide attempt, "have a… a… friendship… with the, uh… qunari…"

But Shepard merely snorted. "Details, Hawke," she pressed. "I need details."

Hawke's eyebrows lifted. "Details?"

"Yes, details," said Shepard sharply. "What contacts does Varric have that can help? How can Isabela's questionable career as a smuggler best be utilized? Why do you even think this thing is still anywhere near Kirkwall? Two years? It could be anywhere."

"Details…" Hawke shifted uncomfortably in her seat, her expression sheepish.

Shepard's fingers curled around the glass of whiskey with a desperate twitch and she knocked it back with a grimace.

It was going to be a long night.


A/N: Apologies for the shortness of the chapter and the lateness in posting it. I'd blame it on GenCon, but I was struggling to write even before the prep and aftermath of the con.