Varric sits at a small table in the back corner of the Hanged Man. Without thinking he sips on the warm ale, his attention is solely on the small stack of papers before him. He’d been receiving reports all day from his various contacts. On a separate sheet of parchment he jots down notes that are important. He turns his gaze back to the mysterious orders he recovered from Bianca’s home. He’s so focused on the paper that he doesn’t notice the tavern’s door open, or that Bartand has walked in.
The blonde dwarf stands near the door with his hands on his hips and surveys the bar with a disapproving gaze until he finds his brother. With an air of superiority, Bartrand makes his way towards Varric’s table.
“By the Ancestors, Varric! Have you no sense of position?”
Bartrand’s sudden outburst startles Varric, causing him to jump, and draw an unwanted line on his notes. The younger dwarf sighs and sets his quill down.
“What do you want Bartrand? I’m working.”
“Working? Why are you working here?” He spreads his arms indicating the substandard, crowded, foul smelling establishment. Varric makes a point to look around.
Nora is fending off some unwanted attention with her colorful use of language. A small group of drunken guards are singing a popular drinking song, loudly and off key. A large party of men laughs noisily and raises their glasses in a toast to one of their newly engaged brethren. And a brawl just broke out between three men playing cards.
“It’s quiet,” Varric shrugs slightly.
“By the Stone little brother,” he doesn’t hide his disappointment. “The Guild gives you an important assignment and you waste your time!”
“I’m not wasting time,” Varric calmly protests.
“By drinking, and telling stories in a questionable bar,” Bartrand continues as if Varric had not spoken.
“Bartrand,” Varric rubs his brow. “I know you don’t understand the finer points of dealing with those beneath you, but believe me when I say that none of my contacts will come to Hightown.” His mocking tone was not lost on Bartrand.
“Contacts,” he scoffs, crossing his arms over his broad chest. “You’ve never even been to this dung heap until about two days ago. It would be more believable that your contacts are all at the Blooming Rose, given the amount of time you spend there.”
“They keep inviting me back,” he protests with a smug grin. Varric’s known from the beginning that his older brother was having him followed. In fact, Bartrand’s flunkies liked Varric better and could easily be bribed or persuaded to alter their reports.
“The whores? The whores invite you back?”
“What can I say; the ladies can’t resist the chest hair. Why else would I have such a small tab?”
The dwarf’s face flushes red with anger. “The Council will want results and all you have are your pretty stories,” to prove his point Bartrand produces one of Varric’s journals and drops it onto the table.
“You went through my room?!”
“As the eldest it’s my duty to maintain House Tethras’ reputation and increase our standing. When the Council summons us, and you have nothing to show, I’m the one held responsible for your failure.”
“You’re faith in me is overwhelming,” his tone is flat and he tries to return to his reports.
“Do you have anything to justify my faith?”
“Bianca was kidnapped two days ago from her home by someone in the Merchant’s Guild. Whoever did it is well connected, maybe even in the Council.” Varric holds out the bloodied parchment with the smudged clan rune.
“All this proves is that her partner can forge clan runes,” unimpressed he drops the paper onto the floor.
“Forgery? You think-” Varric is interrupted by the door swinging open and Nico running in. The boy skillfully dodges the drunken brawl and leaps around a tipped over chair. He runs up to Varric’s table and slams his tiny hands onto the wooden surface.
“Varric,” the urchin gasps out of breath from running.
“By the Stone, what is that stench,” Bartrand’s comment is obviously directed at the dirty child.
“The stew,” sarcasm drips from Varric’s words. Bartrand suddenly grabs the storyteller by his shirt and hauls him out of his chair and into a wall. It happens so quickly that the table is knocked over, scattering his papers and ale
“Listen carefully little brother, because I’m only going to say this once,” his teeth are tightly clenched and his face is red with rage. “As eldest I will have your respect, and I will not have you bring shame to our House. Do we understand each other?”
“Leave ‘im alone!” Nico launches himself at Bartrand, a dagger in his tiny hands. Bartrand releases Varric and quickly steps back in order to avoid the blade. The child deftly lands between the two dwarves, and judging by his posture and how he’s holding the weapon, the boy knows how to fight. Bartrand makes a frustrated sound and throws his hands in the air, his signal that he’s not pressing the issue.
“Be home by nightfall,” he points at Varric. “The Council sent word of a meeting tonight and we are waiting to find out when. Don’t make me hunt you down,” he turns and leaves, stepping on the scattered papers.
Only when the door closed behind Bartrand did Nico let his guard down.
“You ok, mate?”
“That could’ve gone better,” He crouches to gather his papers and Nico wastes no time to help.
“Varric,” it’s Nora calling his name as she kneels down with a semi-clean rag to blot ale off of his papers. “The Hanged Man use to have a co-owner named Torc. Nice dwarven fella who did all the paperwork upstairs. Corff says you can rent the space.”
“Where’s this Torc feller,” Nico asks.
“He married a wealthy merchant woman from Felderan and moved to Denerim with her.”
“Why offer the space to me?”
“Corff and I like you. You’re here most days, you pay your tab, you bring people in with your stories, and you don’t grab my arse or try to lick me. Want me to go on?”
“No,” he chuckles. “I get the idea. Let me take a look at the space in a couple of days and I’ll think about it.”
“I think it still has all of Torc’s furniture. I’ll make sure the space is clean when you come back.” She hands the wet sheets of parchment to Varric before standing up. “Right, let me just give Corff your answer then.”
Once the papers were gathered, the urchin and dwarf righted the table and put the chairs back in place. Varric surveys the damage: the ink on the wet pages is too smeared to read as were a couple of pages Bartrand stepped on. He thanks his Ancestors that the abduction order was still intact. All of the legible papers he stuffs into his journal.
“So, you have news for me?”
“Yes, did you know that someone in the Dwarven Merchant Guild is selling information to the Carta?”
“That is old news, unless you know who’s doing the selling.”
“Don’ know that, but I know the bloke doin’ the buyin’.”
“Big dwarf feller, by the name of Cort.”
“What else do you know,” Varric does his best to hide his excitement.
“He’s sweet on this girl in Hightown and sometimes they meet real secret like.”
“Do you know who this girl is?”
“No, but he’s meeting her tonight. I done followed him and heard him talking to one of his mates.”
Varric pulls out a silver and hands it to the child. “If you find out her name I’ve got a sovereign for you.”
“You got it. So, who was that horse’s arse?”
“How is that related to you?”
Varric chuckles as he recalled Bianca asking the exact same question. His face quickly drops, if the Council is calling a meeting tonight it means her kidnappers either got a confession out of her, or they realize she’s not going to break and turned her over to the Guild. Either option is not good. A plan begins to take shape. He pulls out a few silvers and hands them to the child.
“Nico, I need you to do something for me.”
Varric sits in his room, behind a locked door, frantically writing a letter. He’s four pages in and desperately trying to get all of the details down on parchment. He signs the letter, pulls out another page and begins a second letter, but this message takes no more than a page and a half. He signs this second note, folds it and seal with few drops of blue wax. He puts everything into a large envelope and attaches it to a small coin pouch which he leaves in the center of his desk. He laces his fingers together and stares at the little package. After a moment he drops his head. “Ancestors, please hear me. Let this work,” he begs. He can hear footsteps coming up the stairs. “I’ll give you anything….anything you want. Just please, spare her.”
The insistent pounding at his door betrayed the visitor as Bartrand.
“What,” Varric makes it clear what he thinks of older brother interrupting him.
“We need to leave, the Council has summoned us.”
“Fine, I’ll be down in a moment.”
“Two minutes, little brother. Do not be late.”
Varric pulls a small vial from his pouch and carefully coats one of his blades with the thick yellowish concoction he had Nico purchase for him earlier. He hides the vial in the back of his bottom desk drawer before he heads downstairs. His stomach is in a tight ball as they silently make their way to the Council meeting. He can feel his heart pounding in his chest, his mouth goes dry, and his palms begin to sweat.
Ancestors, please let this work.
This is the last Merchant Guild meeting Varric will ever attend.
Varric and Bartrand walk into the Guild meeting and take their appointed seats. A Varric remains as detached as possible as the meeting is called to order. He watches helplessly as two men haul in the ‘witness.’
The woman they drag in is limp and her face is covered by a thick cloth, obstructing her vision, and her hands are bound behind her. Blood and bruises cover her dwarven frame. The guards unceremoniously dump her on the ground. When she rolls onto her side Varric can see where the lash has ripped both fabric and flesh. Her moans and groans of pain pull at his heart as she struggles to get to her knees. Defiant as ever, she rises to her feet, only to have one of the guards punch her in the gut, driving her back to her knees. She coughs, desperate to catch her breath, but remains on her knees.
Izo regales the small group with the witnesses crimes before one of the two men rips off the hood back to reveal a battered and bruised Bianca. Varric gasps at the sight of her. Her once waist long hair had been crudely hacked away. Uneven edges barely reach her shoulders. Her left eye is swollen shut and there is a dark bruise on her right cheek. The bruising and scabs around her neck and wrists reveal how the ‘evidence’ was collected. Varric clutches his fists as he watches his beloved rogue as she is roughly and painfully hauled to her feet.
“Varric Tethras,” Gorbor’s voice echoes off the wall. “Step forward.”
He takes a deep breath before stepping forward.
“Do you know this woman,” Gorbor’s gaze is unrelenting.
“I do. She’s a working girl from the Blooming Rose, Mirabelle Bellini.”
“According to their records you ‘visited’ her as often as three times a week,” Izo’s voice feels like slime in Varric’s ears and the man’s dark eyes bounce between Varric and Bianca.
“The Blooming Rose is run by the Coterie, which is no opposition to the Guild and they have no connection with the Carta. According to Guild bylaws I can visit the establishment everyday if I so choose.”
“But she is the only one you patronize.”
“She’s my favorite,” Varric shrugs and refuses to be intimidated.
“Did you approach her or did she approach you,” the sleazy little man is now focused solely on the blonde man before him.
“She approached me. She said she heard some rumors about me and wanted to see if they were true,” Varric sticks to the cover story they came up with months ago.
“I told you! The younger Tethras has a reputation for creativity and stamina.” Bianca’s split lip curls into a suggestive grin. Her interruption is rewarded with a back handed slap that knocks her to the ground. She cries out in pain as the guards again yank her to her feet, blood trickling from the corner of her mouth.
“Did you find it odd that she would solicit you?” Izo eyes narrow as he glares at the storyteller.
“Am I subject to an Inquest,” Varric’s tone is defensive and irritated. “Do I need representation?”
“No,” Gorbor’s deep voice puts an end to Izo’s line of questions. “What have you learned about Bianca Volkean?”
Varric takes a breath and relays what his contacts know about her, leaving out a few details in the process. He never mentions her brother, Gerav. Nor does he detail any targets or jobs that would anger the Council. He also does not volunteer her description.
“And what does she look like,” Izo leans forward, eager for Varric’s answer.
“Dwarven woman with red hair and face tattoo.” It’s only a partial description, but it’s vague enough that it could be several women in Kirkwall.
“Sounds like your whore,” Izo points to Bianca.
“It also sounds like your youngest daughter. All of my contacts say she has a small facial tattoo, but none of them could really describe it.”
“Why did you withhold this information,” Gorbor strokes his long silvery white beard.
“The information was too vague and incomplete. I was hoping to get a more detailed description before submitting my report to the Council.”
“She has confessed that she is Bianca Volkean,” Izo announces.
“The Blooming Rose doesn’t hire Carta, and I don’t know anyone who does a background check on the prostitutes they use. Again I ask, am I subject to an Inquest?”
“No, you are not. Many of the facts that were leaked were not known to you or your House until a few nights ago.” Gorbor announces.
“This one,” Izo waves in Varric’s general direction, “is good at ferreting out secrets.”
“Even the witness confirms that information did not come from the Tethras sons.”
“But she refuses to give us a name.”
“I’m not the Carta you’re looking for. I only know the rumors and the rumors don’t name names. They only say the seller is a woman.”
“Then you are of no use to us,” Gorbor waves his hand in dismissal.
“Time to prove your loyalty, Tethras,” Varric knew this was coming and begins to reach for his coated blade. The substance is not a poison, but it will send its victim into a death-like state. His plan is to get in close, and stab her. It doesn’t have to be deep, and he’s skilled enough to miss everything vital. He will only have a few seconds to reassure her that he has a plan.
“We hear that among the Carta, it is the ultimate sign of disrespect to be killed with one’s own weapon.” Izo waves his hand and one of the guards produces Bianca’s crossbow as if by magic. Varric is stunned, and it’s obvious by the expression on his face. He looks at the weapon, then at Bianca and finally back to the Council.
“I’m more a knife man,” Varric tries to hand the weapon back.
“Tonight you’re an archer,” Gorbor orders. Again Varric looks at the crossbow. The red cedar stock is masterfully carved and the brass fittings gleam in the light. His heart is pounding in his throat; he’s had only a few lessons with the weapon and doubts he has the skill to shoot her without killing her. The guards are holding her steady, but she shakes them off.
“I’ll face my death on my feet,” she straightens her back and meets Varric’s concerned gaze. Her facial expression is stern and brave, but her eyes are soft with a look of understanding.
“What’s the matter little Tethras, can’t kill a woman,” she taunts. He brings the weapon up and aims it at his lover. His blood roars in his ears and he can’t hear her other taunts. His heart is pounding in his chest so fiercely he’s surprised that is doesn’t break his ribs. His hands tremble slightly. He’s aware of noise in the room, Bianca’s voice and the encouraging droning of the Council and his brother.
Ancestors please. He takes one last breath, holds it and pulls the trigger. Time seems to slow. The snap of the serving slipping the latch is deafening. He can almost feel the wooden bolt sliding against the wooden flight groove. It smoothly sails through the air, crosses the distance and buries itself in Bianca’s chest. He’s still holding his breath as he watches her collapse. He stares at her body, hoping to see some sign that she’s alive. He’s willing her to give him even the tiniest of hints that he didn’t kill her. It isn’t until his lungs burn that he takes a breath and he becomes aware of the cheering in the room. He watches as the guards drag her body from the room, and gradually becomes aware of people leaving.
“You taught that whore a lesson,” Bartrand laughs and slaps his brother on the back.
“Bartrand, you’re my brother so I’m only going to say this just once and as mildly as I can,” he finally pulls his eyes from the corridor the guards disappeared into to glare at his sibling. Varric’s brown eyes are filled with a hateful rage that sends a shiver down the spine. “Never speak to me about this night again,” his teeth are clenched and without realizing it he’s aiming the crossbow at Bartrand’s chest.