The sun set long ago and the moon is beginning to rise. Varric sits anxiously at a small table in the back corner of the Hanged Man. He hails the waitress, Nora, and orders second ale and a bowl of stew.
“Really? You’re going to eat the food? Here? I thought you’ve been here enough to know otherwise,” her hands are on her slender hips. She cocks her head to one side and eyes him carefully.
“Is there a reason I shouldn’t?”
“Your funeral,” she shakes her head at some private joke as she heads towards the bar to fill his order. Varric watches as the bartender does a double take. She points over at Varric and the bartender shakes his head before disappearing into the kitchen. Moments later he emerges with a large mug and small bowl which he hands to Nora and watches as she makes her way towards the back table. She sets the bowl down and then the mug. She promptly grabs a spoon from another table, cleans it with her dirty apron and plops it into the bowl unceremoniously. She glances at the bowl raises an amused eyebrow and walks away.
His face twists in disgust as he eyes the spoon in his stew. The rumbling of his stomach convinces him to look past the lack of sanitation. Chunks of meat sit in a thick broth along with carrots, potatoes and onions and some random ingredient he cannot identify. Picking up the spoon, he pokes at one of the half inch long, black things. Its firm texture does not betray it origins, nor does the way it cracks under pressure. As he continues to prod the stew, and briefly wonders where the Hanged Man got the beef from; the Merchant Guild holds all of the beef contracts in Kirkwall. He then begins to go through the other common meats used for stew until his stomach grumbles again. He jabs a chunk of meat. It looks ok, but smells a little gamey. With a sigh he scoops up some of the soup and finds a rat tail hanging off the utensil. Not a rat, just the tail. Instantly he knows what the mystery meat is. Did something just move in the stew?
“Nora, more ale!” He immediately puts the spoon down and puts some distance between himself and the rat stew. He quickly finishes his first beverage and uses the tankard to push the bowl even further away. She sets down another tankard and chuckles as she picks up the offensive bowl and empty mug.
He wraps his stocky hands about the fresh mug and stares at the door as he tries not to dwell on Gerav’s tardiness, or his beloved Bianca. His closes his brown eyes as images of his red-haired rogue flash in his mind in an effort to concentrate on his rescue plans. He tries to push the memory her smile and the mischievous twinkle of her intense fire blue eyes out of his mind. He makes an effort to not focus on the memory of her soft skin and loving touch. He can almost feel the silkiness of her hair as the sound of her laughter tickles his ears.
He snaps his eyes open and wills Gerav to come through the door; dread begins to fill his empty belly. He knows the methods the Merchant’s Guild uses to extract information from the unwilling and it breaks his heart to know Bianca is suffering. His stomach moves in nauseating waves at the thought of her stubbornness and the Guild’s brutal tactics.
The door opens and for a hopeful second Varric is pulled from his troubled thoughts. The grey haired elven woman that walks in causes him to swear quietly and take a long drink of the watered down ale. He forces his mind from Bianca to the information he managed to gather today. He begins forming a report in his head: three men were seen leaving her home, one carrying her over his shoulder and the other two were dragging their dead.
Her crossbow was missing from her home. He assumed that the thugs took it with them. Several ideas for why it was taken come to mind, each worse than the previous theory. He begins praying that Gerav would walk in soon and save him from his troubled thoughts. Again the door opens and again Varric finds himself disappointed by the face that enters. His stubby fingers begin to drum nervously on the side of the mug.
Where is Gerav?
The door opens again and this time a young human boy, barely 10 years old enters followed by a disheveled and exhausted Gerav. He waves the pair over while ordering a drink for Gerav. The dwarf drags the child behind him and collapses into a chair with a tired sigh. Nora delivers ale with such speed that Varric instantly decides that she is now his favorite waitress.
“Ah, thanks mate!” the child joyfully exclaims, reaching for the mug. Gerav growls, slaps the tiny hands away and snatches up the beverage. “Your payment comes later.”
The urchin plops down in a chair muttering obscenities under his breath. Varric takes a moment to size up the boy. His hair is dirty, unkempt and reaches his shoulders. He speaks with the uneducated tongue of the slums, but intelligence shines in his eyes. His forest green eyes are constantly scanning the room and Varric can see the boy’s mind taking notes. With a little guidance, this boy could become a cunning scam artist, a clever spy, or a dangerous criminal. Several layers of grime and dirt cover the child and his rags which hang on his extremely slender frame.
“You want some stew?” Varric offers.
The child just laughs “not even for a sovereign. There’s more than rat in that shite.”
“Smart boy,” Gerav mutters into his drink.
“Momma drowned the dumb kids,” the urchin retorts. Despite himself, Varric chuckles and then the thought occurs to him that he’s not entirely sure if the boy is joking or not.
“What’s your name?” Varric asks, as he slides his tankard to the child and orders ale for himself.
“Nicodemus, but me mates call me Nico for short. What about my payment?”
“Three silvers,” Gerav elbows Varric, implying that the merchant should pay the fee. Varric pulls out the three silvers and places them on the table, far from Nico’s reach.
“What do you know about Bianca?”
“Red-haired dwarf with amazing tits,” the boy snarls, holding his hands out to exaggerate her bust size while making a lewd face.
“That’s my sister.” His voice is a low and dangerous growl.
“Don’t make her baby feeders any less impressive.” He eyes Gerav and sneers, almost daring the dwarf into action. Varric can see that the boy is deliberately pushing Gerav’s buttons, trying to get a reaction out of him, but he cannot figure out why.
“What do you know about her disappearance?” he asks quickly before the Carta dwarf knocks the boy’s teeth out. He pushes one silver coins towards Nico, but keeps his finger on it.
“I’s supposed to meet her that night for a job. I’s on my way to her house, when I seen ‘em.” Green eyes never leave the coin. “Four Merchant goons they’s just standing outside her door. So I hid and listened. I heard ‘em talking, real quiet like and all.”
Varric removes his finger and the child snatches up the silver coin with lightning speed. A second silver gets pushed towards Nico. “What did they say?”
“For a bit they just talked ‘bout random stuff, like their favorite whore at the Blooming Rose, who has the best ale, stuff like that. After a while another one shows up with a piece of parchment. He tells ‘em other fellers that they have the orders and that they’s supposed to take her alive. This new fella makes it real clear that they ain’t getting paid to kill nobody, so they shouldn’t waste their time with that. But he did tell ‘em that if she had a blonde ‘gentleman caller’ with her, to kill ‘em both. They’d get paid extra for that, but only if he was with her otherwise they ain’t to hunt him down.”
“Did they use any names or say anything about who hired them?” Varric asks, still pinning down the second coin.
“Can you describe any of the men you saw?”
“They’s all dwarfs, but I only got a good look at two of ‘em. One was big and ugly. He got these face tattoos,” with his finger the boy draws the shapes on his face to describe them. “He got no hair on his head, but a big bushy mustache and long braided hair with metal beads at the bottom. He also got this nasty scar on the left side of his face, look like he tried to catch an axe with his face or somethn’.”
“What color is his hair?” Varric still keeping the coin pinned.
“And the other guy?” Gerav flags down Nora for more ale.
“He’s a skinnier chap, nicer armor then them other blokes. He got short, blond hair, with a big mustache that’s braided and comes down to his chest, no beard but lots of stubble. He got this wide flat nose, like someone beat his face with a shovel.”
The second coin disappears as quickly as the first. Varric pushes the third coin out. “What happened next?”
“I could hear the fight, and peering in through the shutters I could see some of the fight. She done pretty good, until she got distracted. Then they overpowered her and knocked her out. Big-n-Ugly carried her out, while Slim led the way.”
The boy tries to take the coin, but Varric does not release it. “Did you follow them?”
“For a bit, yeah. They went down the street like they’s headin’ to the docks, but they turned and disappeared into a warehouse.” Again he tries to take the coin, and again he’s blocked by Varric.
“The small one close to the end, just before the steps, but when I followed them in they’s nowhere. Like they jus’ disappeared, I mean it’s a small warehouse and there ain’t that many hidin’ places.”
Varric releases the coin and pulls a sovereign from his pouch. He holds it up so the urchin can see, but is careful to keep it out of reach. “This is yours, if you take us to that warehouse.” He moves the coin slightly so that the flickering light of the fire reflects off the gold. Nico’s eyes go wide as he stares at the gold coin, his mind already planning on how to spend the money. The glint of greed gives Varric his answer before the boy ever speaks.
“So this is the place,” Nico says, leading the dwarves up the door. The dark haired dwarf places an ear to the door. Varric’s brown eyes glance around the desolated streets; his gut is telling him this is all going too smoothly.
“It’s quiet.” Gerav takes a moment to survey the nearby roof tops.
“Who’s using the warehouse now?” The blond man cautiously keeps his hand near the coin-purse that the boy is eyeing expectantly.
“Dunno. Heard rumors ‘bout some Tevinter feller, but I don’ know for sure.”
Carefully, the Carta member opens the door and peers inside, then quietly reports that he doesn’t see anyone before pulling his daggers and heading in. Varric also unsheathes his knives, then gestures for the boy to follow Gerav before he enters the building.
The trio remains in the deep shadows as the door shuts and their eyes adjust the dimness of the warehouse. Moonlight filters in between weathered slats and does little to illuminate the area. Gerav signals for them to wait while he checks the place out. The Merchant directs the boy to the darkest corner then takes a position in the opposite corner, if this is an ambush, it will be easier for Varric to draw them away from the child, buying Nico time to escape.
The minutes pass slowly, but finally Gerav returns, weapons sheathed. “It’s clear.”
“Can I have my money now?”
“Not yet; how much time passed between when they entered and you followed?” Varric pulls the promised payment from his pouch.
“Not long, just long enough for me to listen to through the door.”
He holds the sovereign up for Nico to see. “Two more things; one, don’t ever let me hear about you speaking of Bianca in such a rude manner again. I might get offended next time. And when I get offended people disappear. Understand?”
“Perfectly,” there’s a hint of fear in the child’s voice. “And the second thing?”
He tosses him the coin. “If you happen to come across any interesting pieces of news or gossip, let me know. If I think it’s valuable, I’ll pay.”
“Cross my heart. Now get out of here before we get ambushed, mutilated and murdered in horrible, violent ways.”
Nico opens his mouth to say something, but then his eyes go wide as Varric’s words sink in. Clutching the coin tightly, the boy bolts out the door and runs down the street, kicking up a small dust trail behind him.
“Thanks for putting a little fear into that bastard. I swear if that son of a bitch said one more thing about Bianca’s…um…endowments, I was going to break his nose.”
“He was just doing it to provoke a reaction. Don’t know why though.” Brown eyes survey the small area.
“So someone in your Guild does know about you and Bianca,” he stops looking about and faces his friend. “But why pay extra to kill you both if you were with her, why not just take out a contract? That part makes no sense.”
“Yes it does. Together and dead, we’d be the perfect scapegoat. No one could argue that we didn’t know each other and we wouldn’t be able to argue our innocence.”
“If they know you’re lovers, why not ambush you two at the Blooming Rose?”
“Plausible deniability. When we meet at the Rose she uses the name Mirabelle Bellini. My clan would easily argue that I never knew she was Carta.”
“Then why take her alive. I mean I’m grateful for that and all. But wouldn’t she be just as useful dead?”
“No. The Guild would view her death as someone covering their tracks; that they were getting close and would increase the efforts to catch the mole. Alive they hope to…persuade her to reveal her partner’s identity.”
“Namely you,” it’s more a statement than a question.
“Maker, watch over my sister,” Gerav prays under his breath.
“Ancestors protect her,” Varric adds. All of Varric’s life was on the surface, but his family is from Orzammar, and as a result his beliefs lean more towards the Stone and Ancestors; not that stops the occasional Adrastian phrase from passing his lips like Gerav. “Ok,” he pulls their minds from troubled thoughts and onto the current problem. “If it was only a few seconds between them entering and Nico following, they couldn’t have made it very far into the building. There no place to hide in here, no access to a ship from here, and the place is damn near empty.”
“There must be a hidden passage somewhere here.”
“Right, I’m thinking floor, because this wall,” Varric indicates the wall behind him. “Is shared with the neighboring warehouse, and beyond that wall is just an alley.”
“And these buildings don’t exactly have thick walls,” Gerav looks about the small area from some clue.
“It will have to be close by, for them to disappear in such a short amount of time.”
Something catches Gerav’s eyes and he crouches down to clear away some dirt. “Look here,” he points to the recently discovered scratch marks. Varric kneels down and follows the scratches to one of the shelves.
“So it’s under these shelves, but where is the switch,” Varric wonders aloud, he runs his hands along the wall, searching for a hidden release.
“Merchant, you’re making things more difficult than they need to be,” Gerav grabs the shelves and pulls on them. The entire shelving unit swings effortlessly open to reveal a stairwell carved into the floor.
“Well, that was easier than expected.”
“Then you go first,” Gerav chuckles. Varric grumbles, draws his weapons and heads down into the dark passageway.
The ground beneath the city is riddled with passageways, sewers and hidden tunnels. Runes line the walls of the long corridor, and bathe the area in a faint light. Scholars believe that when Kirkwall was under the Imperium’s rule the Magisters had hundreds of mages living beneath the city conducting dark research and forbidden magic. No one questioned why the walls or rooms in certain subterranean areas emitted their own light; it’s just assumed that this was old magic from the Imperium’s time in the city.
The tunnel is wide enough for both men to walk comfortably side-by-side. The hallway is devoid of sound; even their footsteps seem silent as they slowly progress into the unknown, pausing only when they reach a fork in the tunnel. Gerav carefully studies the ground and disturbed dust.
“Hard to tell. Footprints lead down both tunnels, but through this tunnel,” he point to the opening on his left. “Something was dragged. It doesn’t look like they split up, but the drag marks are making it difficult to be certain.”
“Then let’s follow the drag marks.”
Gerav nods and leads the way through the corridor which splits into three possible paths. Again the Carta member scans the area in search of tracks or clues for which path to follow. After several moments Gerav swears, declaring the trail lost.
Varric curses loudly, and sheaths his knives. “We could spend months search these tunnels and never find them. We need to get back to the surface and study the paper we found at your place.”
“Fine. You do that and I’ll follow up on a couple of leads that weren’t as promising as this and I’ll meet you back at the Hanged Man as soon as I can.”