The seneschal wore a deep frown as he hurried along one of the non-public corridors of the Keep. Things were, in his opinion, a complete disaster. The templars had finally made their move to absorb the viscountancy. Of course, the templar-commander claimed it was only for the interim, until a new viscount could be selected from among the noble families, but Bran was shrewd enough to know that the templar order never cared to relinquish any power once they'd obtained it. Meredith would remain in the viscount's office until she'd found a candidate even less inclined to question the Chantry and her soldiers than Marlowe Dumar had been.
He could not see how things could be any worse.
Out of the corner of his eye he caught a strange shimmering flicker, and he spun on his heel, hand reaching for the dagger concealed in his belt sash. But the hallway behind him was empty. Shaking his head at his own foolishness, he turned back in the direction he'd been traveling and found himself staring into a pair of hard green eyes.
"Mister Seneschal," growled Shepard. "Just the man I wanted to see."
"Serah Shepard," Bran replied, making no effort to conceal his distaste. "And I wondered how things could possibly get worse."
Shepard gave him a fleeting, wolfish grin as she advanced on him. "Now you know."
Bran found himself involuntarily backing away from the woman. He swore at himself and stood his ground, folding his arms over his chest.
"I am unarmed," he pointed out.
"I doubt that very seriously," Shepard said, but gave him the courtesy of halting her advance. "I want some answers."
"There are civilized ways to obtain them," Bran reminded the woman, his lip curling with derision.
That predatory grin grew wider. "I prefer this way."
The seneschal had no doubts on that score. The woman was a thug. But, and much as it pained him to admit such, she was an intelligent one. He allowed himself a slightly theatrical sigh. "I expect you do," he agreed.
He also knew what she was after. Had the circumstances been different, Bran would have been very much amused to watch the clash between Shepard and Meredith.
He described a short gesture with his hand. "Marlowe Dumar formally abdicated his position as the Viscount of Kirkwall this morning," he informed her, keeping his voice and expression coolly detached only through long practice.
"Voluntarily?" Shepard pressed.
Bran raised an arrogant brow. "Of course," he said, as if there could be no other possible answer. "I believe," and here he gave the troublesome woman a pointed look from half-hooded eyes, "the betrayal by his son was more than the poor man could take."
Although he quite agreed with her sentiments, Bran made a show of brushing some non-existent lint from his doublet disdainfully. "Indeed?" he remarked, the faintest of sneers underlining his words. "I should have thought you'd be pleased by this new state of affairs, given your… concerns… about the qunari. You have, after all, what you wanted— a military presence in the viscount's office."
Shepard flashed him a look that his mother, Maker bless her, would have called old-fashioned. On this strange, foreign woman, it seemed uncomfortably close to dangerous. "You're right," she snapped. "Right now I'd love to have a military presence," she delivered the words with so much irony they practically clanged, "in the viscount's office. Instead," she muttered, "I've got a madwoman."
From Bran's point of view, it wasn't so much a madwoman as a pair of madwomen. And he shouldn't forget the unpredictable and pestilential Hawke, either. That was how much worse it could get. He should know better than to question the potential for disaster in this city.
"And I'm quite sure you'll deal with the situation with your usual tact and subtlety," he replied sourly.
"No," said Shepard, and there was something in her tone of voice that made a shiver run up the seneschal's spine.
"I really don't think I will."
Isabela was indeed at the Rose. Currently she was drinking at the bar, but given her drinking companion, Hawke suspected that the pirate had been doing more at the brothel than simply hiding from her tab at the Hanged Man.
"Isabela," said Hawke as she came up beside the dusky rogue. "And Jethann as well!"
"Ah, Hawke," smiled the elven whore, his magnificent blue eyes sultry. "It's been far, far too long! Care to… make an afternoon of it? The more, the merrier." He tilted his head slightly toward Isabela.
Not that long ago, the idea would have been tempting enough to distract Hawke from her mission. And given her firsthand knowledge of Jethann's… talents , there was true regret in Hawke's voice when she said, "I'm afraid not. I'm under strict orders to collect Isabela and drag her back to the Hanged Man."
Isabela gave her an incredulous look. "What? That bastard Corff recruited you to make me pay my tab?"
Hawke grinned. "No, Varric did."
"Why the little… you would take his side," Isabela grumbled.
"What can I say?" protested Hawke, her hands spread wide. "It's the chest hair. Who can resist the chest hair?"
Isabela sighed, all pretense of offense banished by the Paragon of Manliness. "The chest hair…"
Jethann sighed too. "Oooh, yes, the chest hair."
There was a moment of silence in which Varric's chest hair figured largely in their collective thoughts, until Hawke cleared her throat with a soupcon of embarrassment.
"Varric was very specific that I wasn't to let myself get distracted," she said sternly, trying to banish the thoughts that were, indeed, distracting.
The fiery elf gave a throaty little chuckle. "Have you told him just how distracting I can be? I would be glad to show him."
Hawke bit the inside of her lip. Hard.
"Why, Hawke!" exclaimed Isabela. "You're blushing!"
"I am not," Hawke retorted. "It's just… a little too warm in here."
"Of course it is," Jethann agreed, sharing an amused look with Isabela.
The pirate laughed in delight. "Really, Hawke," she insisted. "You look just like Sebastian when he hears a racy joke!"
"Isabela!" Hawke protested, feeling the heat in her cheeks increase significantly.
Jethann's eyebrows lifted at the mention of Sebastian's name, and he shook his head sadly. "Such a waste," he lamented. "The stories I've heard about your lovely Prince Vael in his youth…"
Hawke shoved her fingers in her ears. "I refuse to listen," she declared loudly. "It's just a blatant attempt to get me into trouble."
"Honey, you're nothing but trouble," the elf laughed. "Just the kind I like…"
"Stop right there," Hawke said firmly holding up one hand to forestall the whore's next words.. "Varric's right. This could be important." She glared at the pirate. "You," she said pointedly to Isabela, and jerked her head toward the door. "Let's go."
Jethann gave Hawke a lazy smile as she turned to the exit. "Be sure to let your delectable dwarf know that my door is always open for him, hmmm? And for you," he added, "I'm willing to offer a two-for-one special."
"I'll be sure to keep that in mind," Hawke murmured, cursing the vivid detail with which her mind kept it.
"Send a runner to the alienage if you see her down at the docks," Varric was explaining to a young man with mouse-colored hair and a dirty face. "She'll probably be in with the qunari, and they're not in the best of moods, so for Andraste's sake, be careful."
The boy— who looked to be in his late teens— nodded and scuttled off, leaving the dwarf to don his leather coat and lovingly swing Bianca over his shoulder, nestled in her leather holster.
Corff gave him a sour look as he stopped at the bar to settle his— and Isabela's— account. "Don't know why you're the one always handin' over the sovereigns," the landlord grumbled. "But… I suppose there's ways and ways of payin'," he said with a shrug of his shoulders.
Varric shook his head. "It's nothing like that," he answered. "She's just… a friend, down on her luck."
Corff snorted and wiped the rough bar with a dirty rag. "Been down on her luck for a long time, then, that one," he remarked. "You've been clearin' her tab for years now."
Varric shrugged easily. "She's a pirate queen without a ship, Corff," he said breezily. "Trust me, it's hard to be any further down on your luck than that."
"As you say," Corff replied dismissively. "It's your money. You spend it any way you like."
Varric chuckled to himself as he left the Hanged Man. How could he possibly explain that the handful of coin he passed to the innkeeper was more than worth the entertainment value Isabela offered? Her skill at games of chance and her undeniable ability to cheat at the same were worth a good half of what he paid— she could clean out one of his business rivals faster than the entire Merchant's Guild put together. And the pirate's terrible friend fiction and the consternation it caused… priceless.
He let himself into Starkiller's rooms in the alienage with the keys he'd conveniently neglected to return to the Spectre. As was his habit when entering someone's home, he let his eyes rove around to pick up whatever details they could. Even more than clothing, the details of someone's space could tell you more about them than they probably wanted you to know.
The rooms were tidy; Varric had already noted that about Starkiller. He supposed that was a martial trait; every trained soldier he'd ever met shared the same meticulous tidiness. There were a pair of trousers and a shirt of some sort laying haphazardly on the bed; the sole jarring note in the symphony of obsessive neatness. A book sat on the top of the locked chest beside the bed; a glance at it confirmed it was a treatise on ancient ruins in the Free Marches.
He fervently hoped Kirkwall wouldn't end up a modern ruin in the Free Marches.
Varric returned to the front room and settled himself in one of the spindly wooden chairs at the small kitchen table. There wasn't anything edible visible anywhere in the rooms; Starkiller was clearly a woman unused to cooking. There was a pitcher of water on the table, and an unopened bottle of wine beside it. Varric smiled at it, recognizing it as an Antivan vintage Broody favored.
He was trying to pinpoint when exactly Starkiller managed to earn the prickly elf's friendship— the how he suspected lay in whatever mysterious talent for command Starkiller seemed to possess— when the woman blew into the room like a thundercloud.
"Judging by your expression, I'm not going to ask how your day went," he said heavily. "Besides, I've already heard most of it from Hawke."
The storm clouds darkened in Starkiller's expression. "Aveline really fucked up," she growled. Her face changed, somehow managing to convey curiosity without losing any of its anger. "Did you know about Dumar?" she asked sharply.
"What about Dumar?" Varric replied guardedly.
"He stepped down," Starkiller answered. "The templar-commander is now in charge of the city."
"What?!" Varric exclaimed. "No," he shook his head. "This is the first I've heard of it." He paused a moment, as the full import of the news settled in his mind like a corpse in the harbor muck.
By the time the four of them had reunited in his suite at the Hanged Man and Varric finished filling them in, Shepard expression had lost it's edge. Strangely, Isabela's seemed to have acquired it.
"Thank fucking god," Shepard exhaled. "That's the best thing I've heard since…" she considered a moment, "Well, since I woke up here."
"Are you sure about this?" Isabela demanded. "Wall-Eyed Sam isn't even a decent thief." She shook her head. "He's not even a bad thief!"
Varric shrugged. "All I can say is it's a lead. We won't know any more until we find Sam, turn him upside down and shake him to see what comes out."
Hawke pursed her lips. "Do you think you can find out anything else about this deal he has with the magisters?" she asked.
"Who cares about the deal with the magisters!" snorted Isabela. "What we need to know is where the little sod is hiding. That way we can get the rel… the uh, thing before anything happens to it."
"Sam's gone to ground, Rivaini," Varric explained in a reasonable voice. "If the Coterie can't find him, I doubt we're going to."
"We've got to try," Isabela pressed, a faint note of desperation in her voice.
"Varric?" Hawke lifted an eyebrow questioningly.
The dwarf sighed. "I can try, I suppose. But I don't think it'll do much good."
"No," Shepard interjected crisply. "Hawke, you and Varric are right. If this deal is for the book, we need to know everything we can about it. Don't waste resources trying to find Wall-Eyed Sam. We get details on the deal— specifically how the transaction is going down— and we can plan how best to get our hands on the book."
Isabela threw up her hands in frustration. "For all we know, the deal could be taking place right now! We've got to find Sam!"
Shepard gave the pirate an odd look. "Calm down," she ordered. "If it's happening now, and it is for the book, there's not a lot we can do about it. We're screwed. We've just got to hope that we've got some time to get traction on this." She drummed her fingers on the table.
"Isabela," she said after a moment. "You'd know a Tevinter ship if you saw it in the harbor or docks, right? Or could find out if a bunch of magisters arrived recently on another boat?"
Shepard cut her off. "You'd be able to find out if they'd left recently, then, too?"
Shepard continued. "Good. Do it. Varric, how quickly do you think you could get us details?"
"From the Coterie? I can find out what they know in about half an hour. My editor's Coterie. She'll pass it along… for a fee, of course." He lifted one hand palm up in a helpless gesture. "Otherwise… your guess is as good as mine."
"What about the Tevinter angle?" Shepard pressed. "Can you help Isabela? If there is a group in Kirkwall right now, maybe find out where they're staying?"
Varric nodded. "That I can do. It won't even be hard; I've got people keeping an eye out for magisters anyway." He looked slightly sheepish. "Broody, you know."
Shepard nodded as well. "Good. Get your people out there, Manliness," she said sternly. "I'll continue trying to keep a lid on the qunari."
Her jaw set, and she looked about as grim as any of them had ever seen her. "When you hear anything, send a message to the qunari compound. I'll tell the gate sentries..."
"Wait…" Varric raised both hands to halt her. "You're not really going back there, are you?"
"Yes," Shepard replied tightly. "There's no other way. I have to be there."
"But that's crazy," he protested.
"So? I've got to keep an eye on the Arishok. And the elves. And probably Seamus Dumar, too." Shepard's voice was bleak.
"What about me?" Hawke interrupted. "What can I do?"
Shepard thought for a moment. "Get the others together," she said. "Patrol the docks. Keep everyone away from the qunari."
Hawke nodded. "Will do."
The redheaded rogue looked at the solemn faces around the table and grinned wrylly. "Well, I don't know about you, but I for one am excited. I think we've got nearly a million to one chance to pull this off. Hurrah. Go team."
She looked around again.