Every year the Dwarven Merchant Guild holds a grand ball for Satinalia and only the most powerful and influential families are invited. Somehow, much to my surprise, Bartrand had managed to secure an invitation for the Tethras clan.
The Satinalia celebration thrown by the Dwarven Merchant Guild is the envy of all in Kirkwall. Tales are woven about the elaborate feast with rare meats, exotic fruits and of the wines brought in from the far corners of Thedas. Only the most talented and renowned entertainers are even thought worthy to be considered for this yearly gala. And only the most beautiful, elegant and eloquent courtesans are brought in for those who seek ‘other’ amusements. Attire is planned at least a year in advance and if it is deemed substandard then the attendee is turned away at the door, regardless of invitation or social status.
Varric stops half way down the stairs, his arms held out as he eyes Bartrand, hoping this outfit meets with approval. The elder Thethras strokes his mustache as he contemplates his brother’s attire. Dark burgundy pants woven from thick, fine cotton and embroidered with a delicate design in gold thread which compliments the cream colored silk top. The outfit is completed by brown doe skin boots and a thigh length black and cream velvet coat with thick, colorful embroidery of Dwarven design running the length of the lapels.
“Don’t you own any proper tunics?”
“I’m shocked you would even ask such a thing,” Varric places his hand to his chest in mock surprise. “Don’t you know it’s against Chantry law to hide chest hair as glorious as this?”
“I suppose that outfit will work,” Bartrand is obviously not amused by the joke.
“Are you sure? I still have clothes in my wardrobe I haven’t worn for you yet.”
“Let’s go before we’re late,” again Bartrand is not entertained by Varric’s humor.
Bartrand talked the entire trip the Ball. Reiterating again and again the finer points of etiquette, who they need to talk to and who they need to avoid. Varric would have been impressed with his brother’s knowledge of their target’s personal life, if he hadn’t just provided the same information to Bartrand only a week ago.
The hall is lavishly decorated, and mages have been hired to maintain the delicate flickering lights which floated about in the air like stars. Music drifts through the grand hall loud enough to encourage dancing, but soft enough to permit conversations. High above the stone floor acrobats perform daring feats of agility, balance and timing. Servants wander the hall offering rare wines and enticing samples of the feast to be served. Varric sees a familiar face weaving his way through the crowd, with a tray of wine. He slips away from Bartrand while his brother is speaking with Cady Alricsson, the matriarch of the Morngrimssom Clan, a trusted business ally of Clan Tethras and a shrewd businesswoman. She has also been trying for months to arrange a marriage between the two clans, a conversation which Bartrand carefully dances through as the matriarch is not willing to negotiate a match with the second son.
Varric takes a glass of wine and places himself next to the dark haired waiter. When people pass within earshot he makes a point to ask questions about the wine or the festivities planned for the evening.
“What are you doing here Gerav,” he keeps his voice low as he sips his wine.
“Carta wants some information. Took them three years to sneak someone in.”
“After anyone in particular?”
“Phelan Cadellin. He owes us some money and is refusing to pay, but because of his ties we can’t touch him.”
“Never liked the little weasel, his family has always been in competition with mine. Talk with the girls from the Blooming Rose, apparently he talks in his sleep.”
“And I assume his wife has no knowledge of his visits to the Brothel?”
“You’re smarter than you look Gerav,” the blonde smiles and sips his wine. Suddenly he sees her, the fire haired beauty he encountered at the Hasselen estate several months ago.
“That’s her,” he gasps. The woman has been haunting his memories and plaguing his dreams for months. Tonight she wears a long tight gown of forest green and gold. It’s fashioned in such a way to show off her tiny waist and generous bosom. Her long red hair done up in an elaborate style of curls and braids, with a sweep of her bangs cascading over her right eye. He grabs his friend’s arm. “Gerav, who is she?”
“Who? The red head?”
“Yes,” Varric’s eyes never leave the captivating woman.
“I’m going to talk to her,” he sets his empty wine glass on the tray and grabs two more.
Gerav moves to stand in front of the blonde. “Just walk away from her Varric.”
“So you do know her.”
He growls silently at his slip. “Just walk away.”
“How can I? Look at her. Have you ever seen anything more beautiful?”
“Her name’s Bianca, She’s here from the Blooming Rose.”
“So that is her name,” he recalls her giving that name all those months back, but was never sure if that was her true name. “I need to talk with her.”
“Varric, don’t. She’s my sister.”
“No shit,” he gasps, unable to find any family similarities between the two. “Obviously she got the looks.”
“Varric, no. She’s my sister.”
“So she’s Carta,” he catches what the raven haired man isn’t saying.
“It’s dangerous for you both.”
“And more exciting,” he winks and makes his way towards the blue eyed beauty.
“My mother was not a whore,” Isana’s voice echoes as she shoves Varric.
“I never said she was.”
“You said that the courtesans are invited to this party, courtesans are just fancy prostitutes. And I know about the Blooming Rose. My mother was not a whore!”
“No, your mother wasn’t,” Varric sighs. His daughter has no sense of timing or drama in storytelling. “But your grandmother was. Bianca grew up in the Blooming Rose and had many friends and associates there. When she joined the Carta she was able to use those contacts to infiltrate the Guild’s festivities.”
“Oh,” the girl’s anger immediately diffused by Varric’s admission.
“Something I would have covered later in my tale.”
Zinaga had called out a break to the group. Almost everyone immediately sits down. Bianca slowly lowers her tired and sore body to rest on a rock. Her back and hips ache from sleeping on the rocky ground. Her feet and ankles hurt from the hours of walking and her stomach cramps with hunger. The elf had made it clear that their guide was to have food, but Bianca isn’t receiving the fair share that the others are, and when she is fed she runs the chance of being drugged. Her bound wrists are throbbing beneath the coarse ropes, but she is grateful that they removed the rope from about her neck. She heaves a deep sigh as she reaches up in an attempt to smooth her burgundy tresses.
“How much further,” Zinaga demands.
Weary fire blue eyes look up at the lean elf. “Six days. Maybe seven,” she drops her head in exhaustion. Silently she hopes that Varric and his group are already ahead of them. Despite the protest of her body Bianca rises to her feet and tries to warn Zinaga about the dangers of being this far in the Deep Roads.
“It’s been a five days and the only thing we’ve seen are those weird worm headed things.”
Bianca has to think for a moment to figure out what ‘worm-headed things’ Zinaga is speaking about.
“My men can handle themselves,” she dismisses the dwarf’s concerns with a flip of her wrist.
“Oh yes, they bravely took down all of two deepstalkers we encountered,” Bianca rises to her feet. “There are more down here than that. Darkspawn for example,” she shouts. “What’s your plan for dealing with them? I’ve seen your men fight I think they did more damage to each other than they did to the deepstalkers.”
“Is that really the best you have,” she clicks her tongue in disappointment. “I expected better from you.”
“I merely lowered my standards given the present company,” she counters.
“What is your reason every other day? Laziness? Incompetence? Ignorance?”
“I wouldn’t dare use those excuses. I wouldn’t want to be accused of following your example.”
Zinaga chuckles, but there is no humor in her eyes. “I would love to say that I enjoy our witty banter, but I can’t. It’s so unfair going up against an unarmed opponent.”
“That’s not what your reputation says.”
“Touché, dwarf, touché,” the elf’s eyes narrow and her words are cold. “But do keep in mind that your safety is dependent upon these men, and I don’t think they would take too kindly to you calling them stupid. It might hurt their feelings, which could be hazardous to your well-being.”
“You need me alive.”
“Don’t worry,” she sarcastically pats Bianca’s cheek. “I won’t let them kill you.”
Bianca and Varric danced through several songs before he finally managed to figure who her mark is.
“If you’re planning a seduction, forget it. He’s a workaholic with little time for entertainment or women. Just ask his wife. Now, his wife on the other hand is a little starved for attention. She could be your way in.”
“Why help me?”
“That motherless son of a,” he clears his throat before the profanity escapes his lips. “He’s stolen several trade agreements away from my house, so if someone wants him dead, who am I to stand in the way?”
“That’s a very superficial reason to risk the wrath of the Guild,” her eyes narrow in distrust.
“We’re here to work, not to mingle with the whores,” Bartrand walks up and grabs Varric arm before the younger Tethras can respond to Bianca’s question.
“Courtesan,” she smiles politely. “Several heads of households contract with courtesans and calling us whores, might offend some of those you are so eager to impress.” Her voice is smooth like Orlesian silk and her smile a well-practiced to hide any emotion she might be feeling.
Bartrand moves Bianca’s hair aside revealing the casteless tattoo on her face.
“Casteless? You couldn’t do better than casteless? Have you no respect for your status?”
With a gentle and elegant motion she removes Bartrand’s hand while sweetly asking what caste he would be should he return to Orzammar. Varric couldn’t help but laugh at his brother’s expression, but pulled his brother away before the elder Tethras lost his temper. She rewards the storyteller with a small victorious smile.
“Did you hear that,” Bethany’s voice interrupted Varric’s tale. The party stopped moving and listened carefully. Straining, they could just make out a faint and peculiar clicking sounds in the darkness. Weapons are prepared as the clicking continues.
“What is that,” Isana keeps her voice low as she tries to peer deeper into the shadows.
“Not a clue, but I’ll bet it’s dangerous,” Varric narrows his eyes and thinks he sees movement in the dark.
The group lingers in the gloom, several minutes after the strange sound has stopped. “Well, we can’t just stay here,” Varric voices, but makes no indication of returning his crossbow to her holster. “Sunshine, would you mind walking up here, we can use your light.”
“Won’t that give our position away,” Fenris asks, clearly uncomfortable with Bethany being so close to danger.
“Most underground things are blind.”
“Most, but not all…darkspawn for example,” Isabela counters.
“I agree with Varric,” Bethany moves up in the line. “If there is something ahead, I would rather see it than stumble over it.”
“There’s an old outpost about a hundred yards ahead,” Varric takes point with Bethany and Isana close behind.
There is no conversation and no stories while they travel further into the Deep Roads. The mysterious clicking sounds coming and going at random interval, it’s impossible to tell if the source of the noise is aware of them or not.
As they near the corner leading to the outpost Varric presses his back against the stone wall of the tunnel and carefully peers around the corner. After several seconds he signals for Bethany to bring her light around granting him a better view of the structures. The clicking noise continues, but seems to be moving away.
“I don’t see anything moving,” he waves his arm suggesting that everyone follow him into the outpost.
“Maker’s breath,” Bethany gasps at the sight of the massive stone structures.
The outpost is comprised of six buildings, two large and imposing gate towers, with a massive stone gate between them however the left gate had long since fallen to the ground. Just beyond the gate are two medium sized structures, presumably the barrack and commons. Beyond that are two long and wide warehouse looking buildings that the team assumes are for storage. Everything is covered with a thick layer of dust and dirt and an even thicker layer of spider webbing.
“Let’s look around. There might be something salvageable,” however Isabela’s idea of ‘salvageable goods’ is more along the lines of treasure.
“That’s not a bad idea, but all of this stuff must be thousands of years old,” Isana uses her short sword to push open a door and peek inside one of the buildings.
“Old doesn’t mean worthless,” the pirate counters.
“Ugh,” Isana’s face twists into a look of revulsion at the sight of a large webbed ball. “What is that,” she pokes it a few times with her swords.
“I don’t know, but you probably shouldn’t be poking it,” Isabela says as she walks past.
“Perhaps we could make camp in the barracks,” Bethany points to one of the medium sized buildings. It might be nice sleeping in a building for a change.”
“Camping in a cave not your style Sunshine,” he chuckles.
“No, not really,” Bethany shudders and recalls the odd clicking.
“I think that’s a great idea,” Isabela adjusts her pack and heads into the structure. “I get first choice of bed.”
“I think she’s forgotten that these were beds for dwarves.” Bethany giggles and whispers to Varric.
“Now now Sunshine, we don’t want to ruin her surprise.”
After a through exploration of the outpost they find three more of the odd balls of webbing, a few gold coins, several rusty and broken blades and a handful of petrified skeletons. Bethany is pleased that the barracks, not only is in good condition but also the kitchen area seems to be in working order. Bethany and Isana work on the evening meal while Isabela complains about the lack of treasure.
“If Hawke were here this place would have had some serious treasure.”
“Yes, because my sister’s presence magically creates treasure,” Bethany laughs and hands the pirate two bowls of stew to bring to the table.
“We would have at least found a magical weapon or enchanted armour.”
Bethany sighs and carries two bowls of stew, Isana follows carrying the last bowl. The food is distributed, past adventures with Hawke are swapped and laughter is shared. Isana joins in the laughter and recants her own amusing and sometimes embarrassing adventures with her mother and the Thieves Guild.
“Varric, finish your tale about the party,” Isabela tosses a small chunk of bread at the dwarf.
Isana sighs and rolls her eyes. “They dance together every chance they get, which didn’t make Bartrand happy. By the end of the night she slipped away when Varric wasn’t looking and had Uncle Gerav gave him a note to meet her the following night at the Hanged Man.”
“Precious,” Varric tries to swallow his frustration at the teenager. “You really need to learn the finer points of storytelling. You can’t just jump to the end of a story like that.”
“Don’t call me Precious,” she barks. “You’re stalling.”
“I’m building the back story,” he finishes off the last of his supper.
“It’s stalling and you know it.”
“It’s called character development.”
“It’s called stalling,” the volume of her voice rises with her irritation. Bethany quietly gathers the last of her dinner and slips from the barracks unnoticed by most. Fenris notices her retreat and follows after her. Isabela decides to stay and watch the drama unfold.
The attack came suddenly and without warning, dozens upon dozens of deepstalkers charging from all directions. Zinaga’s men, those not killed in the initial ambush, begin waging war against the small lizard like monsters. Tavish is frantically casting spell after spell, Zinaga remains close to him, dealing death to any threat that comes near. The elf spins, adding her weight and momentum to the attack which neatly severs the head of a charging deepstalker. The scaled body twitches and manages a few more steps before the headless body collapses. She viciously kicks a second, stunning it which allows her to quickly kill a third with a thrust through its lamprey-like mouths. The blade digs into bone and becomes stuck, forcing Zinaga to release the weapon and use her second sword to deal with the stunned deepstalker at her feet.
Bianca knows that she can use the chaos of battle to escape, just as she knows she can’t survive the Deep Roads without provisions or weapons. As much as she loathes admitting it, she needs the backstabbers in order to stay alive. Bianca shrieks and narrowly dodges a deepstalker hurtling towards her at a staggering speed. The beast slides across the stone floor stopping just before it collides into a rock. It recovers, turns, and locks its beady black eyes on its prey. The dwarf’s muscles tense, preparing to explode into action at a moment’s notice. The creature makes a low guttural hissing and prepares to pounce, sweat trickles down the back of her neck. It lunges at her again; instead of dodging she grabs the animal by the throat with her bound hands. She allows the propulsion of the leaping beast to throw her back, she places one foot on the deepstalkers belly. With a fluid motion she lands on her back and slams the beast onto its head. She can hear the neck break with a sickening wet snap.
She gets to her feet and tries to avoid another deepstalker attack, but this one manages to latch on to her arm with its serrated teeth. She screams in pain and tries to pull her arm free, but only makes the injury worse. A wave of searing heat flashes over her and the body of the deepstalker on her arm seems to vanish in a mage’s fireball. The lifeless head falls to the ground at Bianca’s feet. She pulls her arms in close to body, the bite wound throbbing as warm crimson drips down her arm. With a few more fireballs the last of the deepstalkers are eliminated and the group can begin assessing the injuries and loss. Nearly a quarter of the party is either dead or missing, three quarters of the food survived, but half of the water was lost.
Zinaga’s men are tending to their wounded, while Tavish cleans and tends to the bite on Bianca’s arm.
“Aren’t you a mage? Can’t you just use magic and heal it,” Bianca watches as the mage ties off the ends of the rag covering her injury.
“Not every mage knows healing magic,” there’s no humor in his voice.
“So only the useful ones know healing magic,” she chuckles to herself. The mage slaps her soundly bloodying her lower lip. He takes several deep breaths which calm his anger.
“Watch your tongue dwarf,” he warns. “You don’t need it to lead us to Torkver Thaig,” he gathers his poultices and healing supplies before walking away.
“Struck a nerve, did I,” she says to herself, a hateful glint in her blue eyes as she watches him tend to other party members. She had no idea it would be so easy to push Tavish’s button, after all magic users are renowned for control over their emotions. If she can trigger an emotional response then she can cause them to make mistakes.
“Get up. We need to find a safe site to set up camp,” Zinaga orders, roughly hauling the dwarf to her feet.
“A safe site,” she scoffs. “We’re in the Deep Roads! Safe is a place that doesn’t exist down here.”
“Then the sooner we reach that thaig the sooner we can leave the Deep Roads. Don’t you think? Or are you still holding out hope of a rescue?”
“Even if people wanted to rescue me, how would I be found in a darkspawn filled maze?”
“How indeed,” the elf’s grin and the glint in her golden eyes confirms Bianca’s suspicions. The elf is indeed planning a murder once they reach their destination, which means that the way back to the surface was marked. She has no plan B, her only hope is Varric.