Thunder pounded above, and the rumble of it was so deep, so loud, the force of it seemed fit to shake the paintings upon the walls and rattle the glass in the panes. The skies were leaden grey, clouds so thick they left the world as dark as dusk, though it was barely past noon, and the rain fell in nearly opaque sheets, sluicing down rooftops and gathering in the gutters, tiny currents that rushed through Hightown, cascading down stairwells. It was dry within, but the weather outside, so full of noise, unrest, suited the occupant's mood.
There was no sugar-coating it. She knew that.
Eliza Hawke was beyond such self-deception, anyway; there was no point in trying to lie to herself, no point in pretending things were fine when the truth was the furthest thing from it.
Maker, she thought, swinging the greatsword against an invisible foe, when did I become such a bloody cynic?
That part was anyone's guess—perhaps it had been the moments when she'd held her mother's patchwork body, so wrong and foul, and watched the life—if it could indeed be called "life"—fade from her eyes. Or maybe it had been coming on slowly over the years; perhaps this cynicism was merely the end result of too much heartache, too much hurt, too many times thrust into situations too upside-down, too inside-out, too wrong to make sense of, no matter how hard she tried.
Or perhaps she'd been lied to one too many times.
Something was different, something had changed between them somewhere along the way, her and Anders. Eliza knew there was, of course, the chance things hadn't changed, that they'd always been this way, and she'd simply been… complacent. In fact, complacency felt like a far too uncomfortable truth—complacency and distraction. Maker knew she'd been distracted. The question was, had she been too distracted to see this unfolding? It was an uncomfortable possibility, but one Eliza didn't want to consider just then; the when and how of it was less important than that it happened at all.
He'd lied to her. Anders. He'd lied. More than that, he'd lied to her while exploiting her affections, twisting words and actions and using them to make her feel… obligated to do what he asked, simply because he'd asked it. Anders had known too well that if there had in fact been a potion to separate him from Justice (and, oh, how she doubted that was truly the spirit's name anymore), he could have counted on Eliza's assistance. And he used that hope—false hope—to guarantee her aid for as long as he could. But there had never been a potion, never been any intent to separate him from that increasingly pervasive demonic presence. He'd lied to her about the potion, and she had been led, acting both against her better judgment and under false pretenses.
Eliza Hawke was a great many things, but she was nobody's pawn.
"I suppose he figures he lied to protect me" she spat, her grip tightening on the greatsword as she moved gracefully around the library - the walls already bore a few gouges, and Bodhan had urged her to practice with something else.
Something a bit duller, please, messere? And with that request he'd tried to offer her an old staff from his wares - one cracked and aged, hardly worth more than a few coppers to sell, and utterly unmagical in someone like Eliza's hands anyway. But the weapon had only served to remind her of him, when she wanted no such reminder. In any case, she far preferred the solid weight of her old greatsword, way it made her arms ache the longer she practiced — she even liked the way handling it made blisters rise on her palms. Blisters that turned into calluses — and wasn't that a nice thought? If only other parts of her so hurt, so damaged, could harden like her palms and pads of her fingers.
"To protect me," she said again, this time a snarl to her words as footwork complicated as any Orlesian ballet took her across the thick carpeting. "Far more likely he was simply trying to protect himself."
But then Eliza stopped sharply, the end of the blade dropping with a muffled clang upon the carpet, her right foot frozen upon the stair, and she wondered. And she hated herself for wondering, but if Anders had lied to her so easily now—and he'd done it convincingly enough—had he done so before? Had this been an isolated incident, or had he been making a habit of misleading her? Had Eliza simply been too blind, too in love to see it?
The possibility left unsettling nausea twisting restlessly in her belly.
She expected lies and half-truths from Isabela, and tall tales were Varric's stock in trade, but she expected honesty from Anders, not deception from the man who lived under her roof and shared her bed. Definitely not whatever half-assed "better to seek forgiveness than ask permission" bullshit he seemed to have embraced in the wake of this transgression.
Well. At least one other lie has outed itself, she thought, chewing her lip as she twisted the pommel in her hands. He cannot love me—if ever he truly did.
And that was a path she had no interest whatsoever in exploring, but she'd taken the first steps upon it, the ground unsteady and painfully rocky below her feet. Now she'd started, she wasn't quite sure she could turn back.
In Eliza's most painfully honest moments, she believed what Anders seemed to love most was hating the templars, and the prospect of making them all pay. She was increasingly less convinced his goals were even as altruistic as he claimed; having become gradually become less focused on justice for mages and more keenly pinpointed on gaining vengeance against every last templar, whether deserving of it, or not. And worse — he didn't seem to see the difference between the two.
The whole argument gave her a headache. She'd seen villains on both sides, from Ser Alrik to Decimus. Both sides had good men and flawed, heroes and monsters. There was kindness and empathy at work on both sides, but it was drowned out by cruelty and anger, fogged further by a miasma of distrust. Everyone was shouting so loudly that it was impossible to listen and harder still to speak rationally and make people listen. Eliza could not help but sympathize with the mages—it was impossible for her not to. She'd grown up around magic, knew better than many it was a force not to be toyed with, a tool, as useful or as deadly as the sharpest sword. Father had taught Bethany to respect her magic as she ought to respect any other force of nature.
Lightning is dangerous when it strikes randomly, he'd once told her sister. And the danger is twofold when one little girl can control it.
Malcolm Hawke had taught all his children that magic ought not to be used to serve man, or enslave him. It was not the sort of blasphemy Eliza repeated in polite company, for all she believed it. Forcing mages to serve did nothing but engender resentment, as anyone with two eyes could plainly see, particularly now. But neither had the Tevinters managed to get it right—Fenris was more than proof enough of that—and Malcolm Hawke had frequently expressed disgust and frustration with both the Circle and the Imperium.
The moment a mage gives in to the urge to act like a fool, the rest of us pay the price, he'd muttered more than once whenever word had reached them about some blood mage causing trouble somewhere. Eliza wondered what he'd think of Merrill, of Anders, and she suddenly felt her father's absence lance through her breast and her breathing hitched as she gritted her teeth and hefted the sword up, thrusting it forward just that much harder.
In that moment, Eliza missed her father terribly.
That boy's no good for you, Lizzie. There'd be hope for him if he could see past the end of his nose, but idiots who make deals with demons—and don't you look at me that way, little miss; he's a mage, and ought to have known better than to get himself into a mess like that—idiots who make deals with demons never end well. He wants to make the world burn, and to the Void with anyone who gets in his way.
Eliza stopped again, her shoulders aching to the point of agony, blinking back tears brought on either by sore muscles, or her own conscience, sounding painfully like her father's voice. She couldn't keep on this way, couldn't allow these thoughts to chase dizzily around her head. She needed to stop. She needed some air.
No. She needed a drink.
Anders was upstairs in the bedchamber, scribbling furiously at the writing desk — Eliza knew as much without having to look. She left without changing from her sweaty clothes, without even saying goodbye, hardly a surprise these days—they spoke less and less. Her anger with him now was but a small price to pay for whatever it was he'd acquired in those underground caverns. Eliza wondered if he thought she'd simply get over it in time, like a silly fit of pique or a foolish lovers' spat.
Eliza wondered if she'd get over it at all.
A voice whispered up from the depths of her, from somewhere deeper than her heart, deeper than her soul: Not bloody likely.
Rain came down steady and hard, slicking the stones, but Eliza didn't bother hurrying. The moisture felt cool against her hot face, and soon her short auburn hair was plastered boyishly against her head. She walked through Hightown, but instead of taking her usual shortcut to The Hanged Man, Eliza found herself making her way through Lowtown, and out to the docks. The Gallows and Templar Hall were barely visible through the gloomy rain, and the longer she stood there, a small boat soon became visible. It shepherded people across the water to and from the Gallows, not that many people visited the Gallows, but there were a fair few who were frequent patrons of the marketplace there, and so there was a need for passage.
The boat docked and a handful of people willing to brave the damp disembarked. As they did, several more stepped aboard, and it wasn't until a gruff voice snarled, "You comin', lass, or just committin' the scene to mem'ry?" did Eliza step off the docks and onto the boat, handing over the ten copper fare, still not sure why.
The Gallows. It wasn't remotely on the way, not in the slightest bit convenient, but its gates were the only thing filling Eliza's sight through the falling rain. Eventually the little boat slowed, coming to a gradual stop and bumping not-entirely-gently against the dock. Mindful of the slick gangplank, she stepped down upon the wet stones, far more solid under her feet than the boat on the choppy water, and made her wandering way to the courtyard. The marketplace was perhaps not as busy as it might have been on a clearer day, but patrons still moved from stall to stall, table to table, haggling over the price of potions and weaponry. She strolled slowly to an armor dealer, listening with only half an ear as the gentleman in question tried to sell her gauntlets she did not need.
Offering as polite a smile as she could muster, Eliza turned away from the collection of armor, suddenly catching sight of Knight-Captain Cullen across the courtyard. It was then that the idea came—or perhaps not that moment, no, for the germ of such an idea had to have been taking root and growing for some time now. It did not feel like a new idea, just a newly acknowledged one.
Either way, she hated it.
But then, she'd faced down blood mages and abominations before with only her sword, and those altercations had truly been a battle. She needed proper skills—specialized skills—to fight them. Being sympathetic to mages didn't mean turning a blind eye at those who abused their gifts, after all. There was being sympathetic, and then there was being an idiot.
Eliza couldn't help but wonder which she'd actually been, lately.
She tried not to think about how frequently she saw a stranger staring back at her when she looked into Anders' eyes. He barely held her, barely spoke to her, barely looked at her anymore. He left their bed in the dead of night, slipping back beneath the sheets scarcely an hour before dawn. Eliza had no idea what he was doing, or what he'd already done—no idea what she'd unwittingly done for him—but she knew on a level that was pure instinct she didn't like it. She didn't like, didn't trust this change in him.
She began to wonder how long she hadn't trusted Anders.
Shoving this train of thought from her mind, she strolled up to the templar, who was tolerating the rain, if only just. She had no quarrel with the templars—indeed, she'd done them favors on more than one occasion, and even if she did not agree with them entirely, nor did she paint them with a broadly evil and oppressive brush.
"Afternoon, Knight-Captain," she said, coaxing her features into a genial smile. "How are you doing this fine and beautiful day?"
The templar knight-captain arched a sardonic brow at her. "Beyond the rain, it's utterly glorious."
"Well, you know," she replied, slicking her bangs back and flicking the water from her fingertips. "Weather isn't everything."
His lips twitched slightly, belying faint amusement. "Perhaps not, but it does make a difference when one is standing watch outside, however."
"Just be careful you don't rust. Horrible mess, that."
Here, the knight-captain let out a little laugh. "A good thing silverite doesn't rust. That could get ugly."
"Well, if it did, you could try hanging tiny oil cans from your belts," she suggested, grinning more broadly and linking her hands behind her back — if her hands were hidden, then he wouldn't see just how badly she was twisting them, picking at her cuticles. "It'd be a positively fetching accessory, I'm sure."
"Fetching and practical. My, Hawke, you are out to solve every last problem in Kirkwall, aren't you?"
"I do get such a warm glow from a job well done," Eliza replied, rocking back on her heels.
"You'd need such a glow, in this weather." He glared a bit at the sky, then looked back at her. "But enough of that—surely you didn't come all the way out in this wretched rain to make pleasant conversation about it. Is there something I can do for you?"
Eliza took a deep breath, ignoring the way her heart had suddenly begun to pound in her chest, the way her stomach twisted into sick, lurching knots. Maker, but she was bad at betrayal. "There is a matter I wish to discuss with you, but…" Pursing her lips in thought, she looked around.
He read her caution as just that—caution—and Eliza hoped she didn't appear as guilty as she felt. "But you'd rather not discuss it… here?"
She nodded, gesturing at the wet around them. "Here. In the rain. It's a conversation better suited to somewhere dryer, after you're off-duty. Possibly with refreshment on hand."
He considered it for a moment, hazel eyes narrowing in thought and Eliza could practically see the gears churning in his head; she spoke before he could turn her down on principle. "Know that I would never ask you to participate in anything that would jeopardize your integrity, Knight-Captain," she added quickly. "The matter is nothing untoward, I assure you. I merely… seek your advice and assistance. Whether you see fit to give it is entirely up to you."
"I… see," he replied, relaxing somewhat. Eliza wondered what he thought she was going to ask him and decided she'd rather not know. "And where did you plan on meeting, ah… for…" He blushed suddenly and coughed into his fist, reminding Eliza so vividly of his discomfiture when they talked about templar recruits visiting The Blooming Rose.
She schooled her laugh into a cough. "I think The Hanged Man will more than suffice."
"We'll be able to speak privately there?"
She turned and started off for the Gallows gates, calling back over her shoulder, "No one will be able to hear us above the brawling."
"Sounds charming," he replied on a dry chuckle. "Very well, then, Hawke. The Hanged Man it is."