Moment of Gain
Birds swooped through the white stones of the roof reaching so high into the sky they butted against the breach. I craned my head back to try and spy the tail coloring on a hawk when I heard a gasp from the man beside me. He broke his hold on my hand that he clutched the moment we got off the boat. His eyes only glanced once towards the floating island off the harbor, a hollow shudder shaking him. After that it was straight to Hightown, when we didn't get horribly lost in Darktown, wander into a cave, kick a few spiders the size of nugs, wander into another cave identical looking to the first, and find ourselves on a shore overlooking the waking sea.
"We don't have to go inside," I whispered to him. The massive door was cracked open, letting people in and out at their leisure. A guardsman stood watch, tipping her head and smiling at the people and waving cheery greetings. This felt so far removed from every memory he told me of Kirkwall I feared we got the city wrong.
"No," Cullen shook his head, struggling to lift a smile to his cheeks, "I am fine. And we need to...we can enter. It will be fine."
Pressing my fingers into his palm, I shook our conjoined hands once then pulled him through the door. "Feenhedis," I cursed, overwhelmed by the massive splendor stretched above my head, "this place is three times the size of Skyhold."
"It's not that impressive," Cullen muttered, shifting on his shoes. He glanced around the staircases filled with milling Marchers in various economic states of dress. Even a few elves in familiar alienage garb hovered beside a statue of a bird with its head missing. Someone put a box on its neck and wrote "Caw" on it in bright red paint.
"They've changed the carpeting," Cullen mused to himself before shaking his head. "If he's here, he'll be in the back."
Having a job before him, even if it was one he partially dreaded, drove Cullen forward. Still clinging to my hand like a pair of indecent lovers, he pulled me up those re-carpeted stairs and down a hall. More guards milled to the right, shooting the breeze -- a pair even played Wicked Grace smack dab in the middle of an ante chamber. We never got that relaxed in the Inquisition, I thought. Then again, if it wasn't an archdemon's fire, it was demon armies, or empress assassinations. Much easier to kick back and relax when your biggest concern is a merchant stubbing his toe on the way to your gilded throne.
Cullen drew us up beside another door - this one shut tight while a man kept sentry outside threatening all passerby's with his mighty clipboard. My heart suddenly ached for an Antivan ambassador and her quill of doom.
"State your business," the clipboard said, running his finger along a line of lists.
"We need to see the Viscount," Cullen answered.
"As do most who come here, unless they're trying to find the bathroom. For what purpose?"
"That's private," he said, those golden eyes honing in on the man's weak spots. Too bad bureaucracy had none.
"Bully for you, Sirrah, but that doesn't gain you entrance."
Cullen flipped back to me, but I held up my stump. I probably could have waved it around and pulled out the Inquisitor card, but judging by the abundance of over-importance wafting off the man, I wasn't about to get anywhere. Besides, I wasn't the one who was once the Knight-Commander here.
At that moment, the door cracked open and a familiar sneer poked through the hole. "His eminence requires another set of clippers because he, once again, shattered a pair trying to cut through the crown." Bran glanced up from his man to catch my eye. Somehow his face managed to fall even further than from the clippers incident. "Oh, it's you. I'm assuming you are not expected."
I shrugged, "It's hard to say in these exciting times."
The provisional viscount sighed, then stepped back, holding the door open. "Just...don't drag him off on any adventures. We have much to accomplish today and he's in the mood to do it - for once."
Dropping my grip on Cullen, I nodded at the man with the clipboard and slipped through the door. My husband followed behind, whispering, "I've never actually been in here before..."
This throne room made mine look like someone hauled up a chair from an abandoned cellar and tossed it to the back of the room - oh wait, that was what we did. White marble reached three stories above our heads, carved in the Kirkwall seal everyone seemed to wear to end in a seat no butt currently filled. Instead, a much more padded and comfier chair sat at the bottom of the empty dais. The Viscount even had a footrest placed before it, though it was currently filled with papers leaning precariously on edge. Beside him stood a woman with a shock of red hair folded back into a loose bun. She wore typical guard armor, but it was her bearing that yanked me back to the Temple of Sacred Ashes when a Seeker held a blade to my throat for killing the Divine. I would never want to cross Cassandra, not even now, but this woman scared the soul from me. The dwarf sitting on his armchair throne barely paid her any mind.
"No," she said, shaking her head and sneering.
"You can't say no to the Viscount."
She folded her arms across her chest, "I believe I just did. No."
"They'll barely even notice it's missing," Varric's wheedling died away as he turned to catch me walking across his carpet. "Andraste's tits, what are you doing here?" he shouted.
"It's good to see you too, Varric," I smiled, pausing my gait then gesturing around. "Nice throne room you have, very cozy and intimate."
He jumped off his chair throne, knocking over the tower of papers and ran towards me. Gripping palms, our handshake turned into a half hug, then a full one. "I keep trying to sell off parts of it, a little fruit stand would do wonders over there, but the council won't budge," Varric said waving his hand around.
"Ever feel the urge to stand here and shout echo at the top of your lungs?" I asked, glancing around at the massive space. It was so wide, a small terror crawled up my spine from the insignificance it radiated. How could anyone feel like anything other than a spec in the world's eye in here?
Varric winked at me, more than likely his echoing was to pass the time or piss off Bran - perhaps both. Then his eyes rolled up to Cullen. He twisted his head to the side, then covered one eye, "That can't be. No way."
"What?" I turned to my husband, watching to make certain he didn't suddenly combust or something. The stories of Kirkwall's blood magic were probably exaggerated, but...
"There's no way that's Curly. No armor, no sword, and no sneer. What'd you do with the real one?"
Cullen grumbled, folding his arms and glaring at the sky.
"Oh, there he is," Varric snorted, then turned back to the red haired woman. "Shit, Inquisitor, this is Aveline - the scariest fucking guard captain you'll ever have the displeasure to meet."
She snarled at the Viscount in a proud way, but then her eyes pierced through my soul, trying to size me up, "You're the one that fixed the sky."
I smiled at her, "That's what they say."
"Don't care what they say. They tend to say a lot of shit, especially when they are Varric."
Cullen chuckled at Aveline's unimpressed response, "The years have done little to dull you Guard Captain."
"Knight Captain," she said, tipping her head. That drew a blanch from both Cullen and me. We opened our mouths to correct her, but she was ahead of us, "Oh, right, it's Commander now."
"No, just Cullen," he said, extending his hand. Aveline gripped it, shaking it once - the two of them sharing a harried glance I'd seen from other battle hardened soldiers. It was usually given across a decrepit pub before both combatants returned to the drinking.
"They're retired," Varric threw in, then he snapped his fingers, "Oh Bran!"
"Yes, your worship?" he asked, sliding forward from the shadows. I tried to not jump - I all but forgot he remained in the room.
"There's a package in my office, in the medium sized chest - I know you've got a copy of the key. It's for the Inquisitor. Go up and get it."
Bran's narrow eyes slipped over me, then back to his Viscount, "We still have much to discuss about..."
"The quicker you get up there and bring it back to me, the faster we can get through your never ending piles of shit," Varric said.
Bran sighed, "Very well." Accepting defeat as gracefully as he did anything else, he slunk out of the room - shutting the door louder than necessary.
"Varric...?" I asked.
"Just wait," he said, "it's a surprise. Speaking of surprises, what brings you to Kirkwall? Finally get tired of the turnips?"
"Ferelden is more than turnips," Cullen sighed, getting an approving nod from Aveline.
"We're on our way up to Wycome," I said diplomatically, "thought to stop by Kirkwall and say hello."
Varric nodded his head as if he'd been expecting us, then turned to Cullen, "Off to see the in-laws? Hope you brought a big shield."
Breath poured out of Cullen's nose but he smiled through the grimace, "It will be fine."
"Uh huh," Varric said, eyeing up the two of us, "Do they know about your hand, or the fact you lost your arm?"
I chuckled at his wordplay, "The Keeper knows about it...ish."
Cullen snapped to me, his eyes boring through, "I thought you wrote to her."
"I did, I just didn't wait for a response. And I may have been a bit vague about what human marriage technically is..." my fingers worked through each other as I glanced up at him before shrugging. He sighed, his head flopping forward while he pinched at the bridge of his nose. My fingers caressed his cheek, "That isn't the news I'm most concerned telling my mother about." Cullen leaned his face into my hand, the now rarely trimmed beard prickling my fingers.
"The elfy shit," Varric filled in the unsaid words. That was it. How was I going to explain the elfy shit to my Keeper, my clan? Though I did intend to take a bit of enjoyment lording over my mother the true nature of the mage she thought I should fall for instead of the shemlan. Oh, so he's at least got pointy ears and seems to know elvish and the old ways. Well, funny you should say that because he's actually the Dread Wolf -- it was his creating the fade that toppled our people. And right now he's planning on destroying the world. Cullen looked like the perfect son-in-law by comparison.
"Then," Aveline said to Cullen, "you are married?"
"Didn't I mention that?" Varric asked.
"No, somehow you missed that part despite the hour long description of the 'upside down elf mirror crap.'"
I tried to peer into my husband's mind. He'd never mentioned this guard captain, though he rarely brought up much of his time in Kirkwall aside from the basics. After Meredith went and turned herself into red lyrium, it'd make sense he'd have to work closely with the guard captain to bring some order to the city.
"We wished to keep it quiet," Cullen said, then muttered to me, "not that it worked well."
"Congratulations. You wear it well," Aveline nodded her head once.
Now the blush rose as Cullen tried to scratch at the back of his head, "I, uh, thank you. And your husband, Donnic, yes? How is he?"
"Up to his knees in bullshit because the Viscount endorsed the lyrium smuggler's trade behind my back," Aveline cursed, whipping her head on Varric.
"They're going to run through the city one way or another. This way, we get our fair cut and can put that money to rebuilding."
"It's wrong, Varric."
"That's probably why it's getting the job done," the least lawful Viscount said, shrugging. It was a good point, but I watched both Guard Captain and ex Knight-Captain work their jaws from the injustice.
The massive door cracked open, and Bran entered, a box stuffed under his arms. Varric clapped his hands together, "You found it! I was afraid you got lost."
Bran dropped the box into his Viscount's hands, then unearthed a kerchief to wipe them off. "There was an unexpected consequence. Were you intending to ever tell me about the bronto in your office or...?"
Varric waved him off, grinning down at the box. Bran shook his head, sharing a moment with Aveline as we all tried to peer down at whatever present had Varric almost skipping about. "Well," he held it out towards me, "open it."
I prodded at the box's top, "This isn't going to be like the key to the city again, is it?"
"Nah, it's much better," he said. "You tried it out, right?"
"Of course not," I said, then winked. Cullen sighed often while playing lookout, though I only got one chain to twitch before it all rusted tight.
I sized up the box, all the more massive in the dwarf's hands. Someone took the time to sand down the edges, removing a chance for splinters. The lid lifted easily to reveal a complex turn of gears and wires winched back along a piece of rosewood. Varric lifted his hand higher so I could reach in to pick it up, the metal crossbeams cold to the touch, but the mechanism to hold the bolts hummed unnaturally warm.
"It's a crossbow!" Varric shouted. "Designed to be one handed courtesy of a mutual friend. She'd been wanting to see if she could go for something more compact. Not as beautiful as Bianca, but few things are."
"Blessed Cr-" I began, then the curse died away, my lips twisting into a frown. Cullen's hand rubbed circles along the small of my back at my stumbling. A crisis of faith wasn't something that came and went like an avalanche, fast and destroying everything in its wake. It kept hitting me in the tiniest moments when my lips would twist to thank or praise a god that -- if Solas was to be believed -- had enslaved our own people. Regardless, I did what I could to not mention the Evanuris by name if only to keep the Dread Wolf off my scent.
Smiling, I tried again, "Varric, this is - thank you. I don't know what to say."
"Try it on," he said, gesturing to the straps laying in the box. It took a bit of adjusting to get the leather bonds in the right holes, my fingers pausing every few seconds to admire the craftsmanship put into the crossbow. Bianca even took the time to etch a small halla onto both sides of the butt, silver inlays bringing it to life.
Sliding up my sleeve, I hooked the straps around my elbow and shoulder - the crossbow almost slotting perfectly into place around the stump. "Hm, going to need some padding at the butt to cushion and probably a sheep's hide on the shoulder strap."
"Don't forget a belt to hold your bolts," Varric said, his own fingers twanging across the strings as he pointed to the firing mechanism. I'd already pulled back the drawstring, notching it into place to test the tension. It was going to have to be increased a few notches.
"Ooh, good idea," I smiled at him, mentally adding to the shopping list.
My poor husband sighed, his hand working up to massage my shoulder. Varric smiled up at him, "Uh oh, did I shatter the picture of domestic bliss? Break your retirement plans?"
Cullen shifted from the eyes turning on him, but I waved my hand while lifting the crossbow higher. The weight caught me by surprise - I'd need to do much more heavier lifting than I'd done in months to adjust to it. "He's upset this means I won't be taking up the sword instead."
"I am not," Cullen lied poorly.
"Tried to teach me a few times," I stage whispered to Varric.
The dwarf chuckled, "He does know about that time you 'borrowed' Blackwall's and wedged it into a tree? Shit, the damn thing's probably still in the Hinterlands starting a few legends of its own."
Cullen whipped towards me, "You never mentioned that."
I shrugged, my shoulder twisting under its new weight, "This was, what, a few weeks after we moved into Skyhold? I wasn't in a big rush to embarrass myself in front of the strapping Commander."
"That's fair, I suppose," Cullen said, a blush growing around the massive grin on his cheeks.
"It's a shame I can't try this out," I sighed, lining down the sight. Normally, I'd need a few dozen bolts to get it set, but something told me both Bianca and Varric took the time to "test it out." The smell of fresh oil wafted off the gears.
"Funny you should say that," Varric said, tapping his fingers against his chin. "Seems that house of yours, well, someone tipped off to the Red Chain gang that it was abandoned and they've decided to try squatting in it."
"Tipped them off?" Aveline repeated, folding her arms and glaring down at her Viscount.
Varric held his hands out, the picture of innocence, "Now now, the esteemed ruler of Kirkwall would never cavort with men of such lacking character."
"Not unless they had coin you could win off them at cards," Aveline shot back.
Cullen's fingers wandered away from my back as he tried to reach for a sword that was no longer there. "While your offer is an interesting one..." he began, glancing towards me.
But I didn't finish for him, "We did have plans for that house. Plans that wouldn't include filling it with ruffians." I smiled at the flash of 'oh shit' crossing my husband's face.
"Any plans concerning the property will have to be discussed through the proper channels," Bran interrupted.
I turned back at Varric, "Building a refuge for templars trying to break off the chantry yoke, that proper enough?"
"Sounds good to me," the Viscount shrugged. "Guard captain?" She smiled, nodding at Cullen. "Looks like you got out voted, Bran."
"Quite," he grumbled, rolling on his feet.
"But, we can't get all the paperwork, caretakers selected, and other things started without clearing house first," I said, sliding back into Cullen.
"The Kirkwall guard would be more than happy to assist in removing any dangerous criminals within your premises," Aveline said, glaring at Varric as her sentence ended.
The Viscount shrugged, "Come on, you don't want to see the Inquisitor in action?"
Aveline sighed, rolling her eyes up at what seemed to be a losing battle, "I'm grateful Hakwe isn't here."
Varric snorted, "If Hawke were here we'd have vengeful, undead, demon bakers storming up the steps as we speak."
"Bakers?" I asked, digging through the box. A pile of bolts rattled across the wood, all with green tips.
"That was a great Summerday," Varric mused. "Not so much for the massive undead, but the sweet rolls were perfect."
"Because you didn't have to clean up the corpses - neither of you," Aveline muttered.
Cullen stepped in between the two, "It's all a moot point. There's barely any time to adjust to the new crossbow until..."
Three bolts sprang from the end of my wrist, embedding into the wall, rock dust tumbling to the floor - a perfect grouping. The firing mechanism was hair triggered, and the groove held five bolts before I needed to reload, giving me plenty of time to turn any bandits into swiss cheese before the next round. "A small dagger on the side would work well," I said, running my fingers along the edge, "perhaps embedded here so I could whip it out should someone try to flank me."
Smiling, I batted my eyelashes at my husband, reloading the crossbow by feel. Cullen closed his eyes trying to summon a strength within, "Very well, as if I could stop you anyway. But I'm coming with."
"I wouldn't have it any other way," I cooed, rising to my toes to press my lips to his. He ran one soft finger down my cheek, his light smile shaking from my boldness. I broke away and turned to Varric, "What about you?"
"Oh no," Bran stepped in, "we cannot have the Viscount chasing after ruffians..."
But Varric already hauled Bianca out of her seat of honor behind his comfy throne. Patting her once, he tipped his head, "Don't worry Bran. I've got the Inquisitor to watch my back. Just like old times, but I can do without the Qunari invasion for once."
"And what about the stacks of patrons waiting for an audience with you?" Bran tried again to assert dominance.
But Varric waved him away, "Give everyone whatever they want and a free kitten. We've got a new crossbow to break in. What are you gonna named it? Every work of art needs a name." He reached around my back, pulling me into a conspiratorial walk towards the door. Cullen fell behind us, nodding once to Bran.
"I was thinking Cariad," I mused, rolling my biceps and savoring the feel of a bow once again in my hand.
"Good choice," Varric said. He reached out to open the door, then paused and turned back, "Well, are you coming or ain't you Aveline?"
"There are things I need to do here," she said, standing straight.
Varric rolled his eyes, "As if that's ever stopped you before."
A terrifying grin cut the guard captain's face. Grabbing onto her own sword, she followed behind us out of the Viscount's keep. No one ever believed that by afternoon's light in an abandoned mansion of Hightown the Inquisitor, her Commander, the Viscount of Kirkwall, and the Guard Captain battled against common thugs - no matter how many times Varric tried to spin it.