With each step they take closer to Nevarra Varric’s anticipation grows. Little slivers of doubt that slipped into his consciousness back on the ship continue to grow. He tries to ignore that sense of foreboding by entertaining the group with stories; however, even he can run out of tales. Six days outside of Cumberland the storyteller has run out of words and he’s left with only this thoughts as company. And right now his thoughts make for lousy companionship. He finds himself hoping for a bandit attack, or an ambush, heck even food poisoning would save him from the uncertainties dancing in his head.
As they set up camp near the guard’s post he tries to figure out what type of trouble she could be in. What dangers was she facing that she would risk being found by the Carta? And would he be able to help her?
As he eats his dried meats and rations he starts wondering about what Bianca has been doing since they parted. Has she met someone new? Does she have a family? Does she still love him? He then wonders if he can let her go if there is someone else in her life. And after hours of soul searching he still doesn’t know if he can let her go again.
He looks up and watches Isabela and Bethany practice. She only had a year of practice under her belt, and she’s struggling to hold her own against a pirate. Bethany swings wide, and Isabela easily dodges and sweeps the mage off her feet. She’s quick to recover, and tries to continue her attack. The Rivaini feigns to be off balance and Bethany seizes what she thinks is an opening. Isabela quickly grabs Bethany’s slender wrist and disarms her, then she spins and knocks the other weapon from the mage’s hand. Exhausted, Bethany collapses to her knees.
“You cheated,” she accuses.
“Sweetness, when you’re fighting for survival, there are no rules. Also, you’re over extending yourself which makes it easy for your opponent to throw you off balance.” She offers her hands to help her friend to her feet.
“Want to go another round,” Isabela watches her retrieve her weapons.
“Doesn’t matter,” she regains her fighting stance. “Come at me.”
Bethany groans, rolls her eyes and begins the next round.
“She has more skill than I thought,” Fenris sits next the dwarf and offers him a tankard of ale.
“Well, she had an accomplished teacher,” he sips the beverage and the two men watch the training.
“Isabela says you and Bianca did not part of good terms.”
“I imagine Isabela says a lot of things, listen at your own peril.”
“Is it possible that we are walking into a trap?”
“It’s always a possibility, but in this case I doubt it,” Varric sips the ale, his gaze shifting from the elf to the women fighting.
“Why are you so certain?”
“I’ve got my reasons. So when are you going to tell Bethany how you feel about her?” Varric’s subject change is not as subtle as he would like, but his mind is elsewhere.
“There’s nothing to tell,” Fenris swirls the liquid in his tankard.
“Everytime she’s not looking you stare her with those sad puppy eyes.”
“There are no puppy eyes,” Fenris does not sound amused.
“Women won’t wait forever. If you don’t talk to her you’ll lose her. And take it from me, that’s a loss that will haunt you for the rest of your days.” Varric’s mind drifts back to memories of his beloved Bianca and their tragic parting.
“Speaking from experience,” there’s no humor in Fenris’ voice.
Varric doesn’t respond.
Travel along the Imperial highway is long and boring. The ground is hard, the food is terrible, the ale is flat, but they are making good time. The further they travel from Cumberland the fewer houses they see, eventually the random cottages change to large stretches of farmland with the occasional farmhouse and barn dotting the landscape. Fields of grain, waiting to be harvested, move in the breeze like rippling water. The air is pleasantly warm and filled with the scent of ripe apples waiting to be plucked and sent to market.
Bethany allows her mind to wonder back to her happy days in Lothering. The friends she made, the dreams she had and good times she and her family enjoyed parade through her mind. Bethany smiles softly to herself as she fondly recalls the harvest festivals, Summerday dances and the huge First Day celebration the Koehlers would hold in their barn. It was the only time Mother would make her chocolate and dried cherry cookies, of which about half would make it to the Koehlers’ party. Life was simpler back then, and they were all happy. Suddenly the memory of a young and brave suitor fills her head.
“What’s so funny Sunshine?”
“I was just remembering my first kiss; well it was almost my first kiss.”
“You’ve never been kissed?”
“Would you kiss me if you had to face my sister? And Carver was just as protective, only not as intimidating.”
“I’m sure there’s someone who would risk the wrath of Hawke to kiss you.”
“I certainly hope so!” She giggles and launches into her story about Marcus wanting to kiss her and how Marian and Carver were having none of it.
The road is busy, and they frequently pass travelers heading the other way. They spot merchants, taxmen, farmers bringing their goods to market, elven laborers in search of work, guards and many more. Given the activity of the road, the daytime is safe; it’s at night when the bandits strike. When they aren’t camping at outposts, they’re sleeping under the stars, each taking a turn a watch.
Grey rain clouds gather overhead and get darker as they gradually leave vast stretches of countryside and enter the scattered houses of urban life outside of Nevarra. A cold drizzle settles over the group, and continues to cover everything in a fine shimmering sheen throughout the night.
When the sun rises the drizzle has thicken to the point that it could almost be called fog. Fenris, who had last watch, shivers. He mumbles a few curses under his breath and looks at the canvas tents erected about him. He thought about waking his friends, but soon abandons that idea when he hears Varric moving about in his tent. The dwarf emerges from his shelter with a yawn and a stretch.
“Morning, Elf, anything exciting to report?”
“We’ve made this entire trip and Isabela hasn’t shared her bed with anyone. It must be the pants.”
“I meant in the night,” Varric can’t help but laugh.
“A few travelers passed by heading the opposite direction, a group of dwarven merchants passed ahead of us, but nothing else worth mentioning.”
“I’ve been listening to the merchants talk and we should reach Nevarra in the next day or two.”
“Good, I’m getting tired of rations and sleeping on the ground.”
“I dunno; think this outdoor thing is growing on me. Like a tumor.”
“Let’s wake the girls and get moving. The sooner we get to Nevarra, the better,” Fenris chuckles.
As they neared Nevarra City the sun finally peeks through the grey clouds and they can see hints of bright blue sky. Further down the road they are flanked by row after tightly packed row structures. The smallest are barely 3 feet tall by 5 feet wide and 6 feet long and made from a gleaming white stone. Hundreds of other buildings that look like houses others are just as tall, but look to be little more than a door ways or entry areas. Some are made from stone, while others are drafted out of rare and expensive wood. There are five massive building, two on the left side and three on the left. The largest structures are easily three stories, made from high quality, imported stone. Detailed carvings and life like statues cover these structures. Everything is well maintained and quiet. Around everything is a massive stone and iron fence.
“By the Maker,” Bethany gasps. “What is this?” Bethany finds the stillness to be unnerving.
“A necropolis,” Fenris answers. “The Nevarrans don’t burn their dead; they mummify them and place them in these elaborate tombs.”
“How bizarre,” Bethany comments, her eyes drawn to one of the more elaborate middle sized structures.
“Have you ever been to Nevarra City,” Isabela asks.
“No, Danarius once had a visitor from Nevarra. I listened as she attempted to impress him with tales of the necropolis and the design of her own tomb.”
The city itself is massive with huge statues of various men and women littering the streets. Each statue is in a different heroic pose, some are on the verge of delivering a death blow to some monstrous creature, darkspawn or person. Every available surface is painted with stylized images of local flora and fauna. Elaborate knot work is carved into the wooden doors and painted in bright colors. Banners of every color hang from banisters and patio railings and flap gently in the breeze. The air is filled with the sounds of people talking, merchants hawking their wares and children laughing and playing. The tantalizing scent of freshly baked bread and seasoned meat fill the market area. In the distance the faint sounds of music and singing can be heard, and while it’s too far away to make out the words, they can tell it’s not the Chant of Light.
“Maker’s breath,” Bethany’s eyes are wide as she takes in the site of the city.
“No kidding,” Isabela says.
“Come on the sooner we get this escort over the sooner we can get to the Red Rat,” Varric’s emotions are conflicted. After fifteen years of separation, he’s eager to get to Bianca, but he’s worried about the reception waiting for him.
The Red Rat is just what Varric expected, a tired pub in the poorer section of town which smells of urine, stale ale and a hint of blood. Over the door hangs a faded wooden banner in the shape of a rat with a tankard. The carvings on the door are poorly done and worn almost to the point of non-existent. Everything about this place screams old and decrepit.
“Just like the Hanged Man,” Bethany comments.
“Better make sure the beernuts aren’t moving before we eat them.” Varric swings the door open and is surprised that the hinges don’t squeak. Only a few disinterested eyes look up as the group enters.
The inside of the Red Rat is not only well lit, but surprisingly clean. The floor is made of worn wood, but not a speck of dirt can be seen. The tables and chairs also tell the same story of age and use, but look to be in good repair. A long bar takes up much of the far left wall, and at least two bartenders can be seen. One is filling an order while another is wiping down the counter top with a stained rag. Colorful banners hang from the railing of the second floor; they too are ancient and fraying along the edges. What surprises the group the most is not the large wooden chandelier hanging in the middle of the main room, but the fact that glowstones is being used in place of candles.
“Those are glowstones. I’ve never seen them outside of the Circle,” Bethany whispers.
The bar is full is patrons who are laughing, talking, singing, arguing and playing games of chance. Three women and two men, presumably prostitutes, move about from table to table to socialize and ply their skills. Servers hurry about the tavern, their trays full of drinks as they rush to fill customers’ orders.
“I’ll grab that table in the back. It seems to have a good view of the room,” Isabela states. She weaves through the crowd toward her goal.
“I’m going to talk to the barkeep,” Varric heads towards the bar.
Bethany and Fenris follow the pirate, but Bethany does not have their skill at dodging people and accidentally bumps into a tall, dark haired man. She immediately apologizes and tries to continue her journey to the table. A charming smile spreads across his face as he blocks Bethany’s path.
“Hello gorgeous, mind if I keep you company?” he asks.
“Um, no thank you. I’m fine,” she tries to walk around him, but he casually side steps into her path again.
“Now, now, don’t be shy. Where are you from” he chuckles and places a hand on her shoulder.
“Uh, Kirkwall,” she politely removes his hand from her shoulder, only to have him begin playing with her dark curls. Again she pushes his hand away.
“Why would a pretty thing like you come all the way to Nevarra City?”
“I’m here to visit a friend. If you’ll excuse me,” she manages to walk past him, but he hooks an arm about her waist and begins guiding her to a quiet corner. A twinge of panic begins to bubble in her. The man continues to smile and make small talk, but each time she tries to slip away he’s just as quick to grab her. She doesn’t want to use magic and she doubts she can draw her weapon without hurting someone by mistake. She’s about to kick him in the shins when Fenris appears.
“She said no,” he growls, the look in his green eyes is dangerous and feral. The man huffs and wonders off to another table to speak with a petite elven woman.
“Are you alright? Did he hurt you?”
“I’m fine he was just…persistent,” she pushes a stray curl back behind her ear. She rolls her dark eyes up to hit him with the full force of her gaze and his heart skips a beat. “Thank you Fenris.”
“We…uh, we should…join the others,” he stammers.
“Making friends with the local prostitutes, Sweetness,” Isabela teases. Bethany flusters and tries to deny and argue, which only causes the pirate to laugh.
“So now what do we do,” Isabela waves over a server.
“Now we wait. Rose said Isana would find us.”
They wait for almost an hour before a young, blonde dwarven teenage girl walks in. She wearing light leather armor and has matching blades on her back. Her blonde hair is cut at an angle with the back short, barely reaching the nape of her neck, and the front brushing against her collar bone. She casually surveys the bar before heading towards Varric and his group.
“Isana, I presume.” Varric rises to his feet. If this turns into a battle, standing will make it easier for him to draw Bianca from her sheath.
“That should make you Varric Tethras, if you have the coin,” her eyes are cautious.
After a second he pulls the boon-coin from the inner pocket of his coat and shows it to her. When prompted he shows her the carved initials on the back. Suddenly her face lights up and she runs towards Varric, wrapping her arms about his waist in rib bruising hug.
“I knew you’d come,” she says in joyous relief while holding him tightly. Still smiling she rests her cheek against his chest. Uncertain of what to do, Varric holds his arms out, shock evident on his face as he looks to his friends for guidance. After a moment of hesitation he awkwardly pats her on the back.
“Wow. Thugs sure are friendly here,” Bethany teases.
She looks up at him with a smile of pure delight, while her blue eyes sparkle with relief. Varric’s right hand shakes slightly as he moves her blonde hair away from her face granting him an unobstructed view of her eyes. He finds himself staring into fire blue eyes he thought he’d lost forever. Bianca’s eyes.
Something crosses over her face and she backs away from Varric.
“Yeah, I’m Bianca’s daughter,” there’s disappointment in her voice and her eyes become guarded. Varric hides his heartache at the realization that Bianca has fallen in love with someone else. He buries his pain, after all it’s been fifteen years and neither expected to see the other again, was it really fair of him to expect her not to have moved on?
“So where’s Bianca,” Varric voice betrays none of anguish as all of his doubts come crashing into his reality.
“Two weeks ago some bastards busted down our door and dragged her from our home,” she hooks one of the longer strands behind her ear.
“Who took her,” Bethany asks.
“Mercs hired by Zinaga.”
“Who,” Isabela finishes her drink.
“An elf with an over-inflated sense of importance. Look, we shouldn’t talk here. Follow me.”
She stands up and leads them out of the tavern and deeper into town. She passes through an arched doorway and heads down a steep and long flight of stairs. Along the walls shallow nooks have been cut out and in each alcove sits a lantern or candle, the dim light weakly pushes back the darkness. At the end of the stairwell is what seems to be a solid wall. Isana touches two spots on the wall and then, using her weight, pushes open a heavy door. The sound of stone sliding against stone reverberates in the hallway. The light that pours in is almost blinding, causing half of the group to shield their eyes.
“Welcome to the Undercity,” Isana says, leading the way into the huge underground cavern.
“Great ancestors,” Varric stares wide-eyed at his surroundings.
Before them is little town seemingly inside a massive cavern. Hundreds of houses, in various state of disrepair, line narrow streets. Each house has a small flower box on either side of the door. Most of the planters are empty or have dead vegetation, but a few actually have healthy looking plants. In the ceiling of the cave, several hundred feet above the town is a large crystal glowing brightly shedding light on the buildings below. The sounds of people talking, fighting and laughing fill the air.
“That’s a Sunstone. Dwarves haven’t used those in at least three ages.” The large crystal gives Varric an idea of the age of the buildings.
“Is this the deep Roads,” Bethany asks when eyes become accustomed to the light.
“No, the Casian family built this necropolis for the family and servants. But when the family line died out and the coin dried up it started falling apart. Then about fifty years ago it was repurposed.”
“Repurposed by whom,” Isabela asks.
“Don’t know it was before my time. Come on, it’s this way.”
“So you’ve lived down here, your whole life,” Bethany asks.
“No, when they took Mom I didn’t think it would be safe to go back home, we have a lot of friends down here, so it’s the safest place for me to hide.”
“Were you there when she was taken,” Varric asks
“Yes. She told me to run, and that she’d be right behind me, but…” her words trail off.
“I’ll get her back,” Varric promises.
“I hope so.”
She leads them to larger house and casually walks in and the instant they do they recognize the place as a brothel. It’s cheaply decorated, but clean and at the moment business seems slow. A familiar dark haired man rushes over to Isana.
“I was starting to get worried darling.” He hugs her and then addresses Bethany. “Hello gorgeous,” he winks but doesn’t move any closer.
“Back off, Rafino,” Isana playfully slaps the man’s chest. “I need to talk with them.”
“I’m just playing, darling; you know I prefer short men. Here, this room is free and should suit your needs,” he tosses her a key. “Honey-Bear will be here soon and we have some catching up to do.”
“Zinaga is third in command of the Thieves’ Guild, but the way she acts you’d think she was running things. She’s smart, cunning and dangerous.”
“So why take your Mom,” Isabela sits in a chair and props her feet up on the nearby table.
“I don’t know. I can’t figure that out.”
“Tell us about Bianca. Is she a member of a rival guild or something,” Bethany asks.
“No, she’s part of the Thieves’ Guild, and has been for as long as I can remember, but isn’t a ranked member. She has no desire to hold a position of power within the Guild.”
“Why,” the pirate asks.
“Because the politics can kill you,” Varric paces.
“Yeah, that’s what she always said. But from what I found out Zinaga wasn’t acting on behalf of the guild. She took my Mom for her own reasons, but I don’t know what those reasons are.”
“How do you know this wasn’t done by the guild,” Fenris leans against a wall and crosses his arms.
“Because they’re looking for Mom too,” Isana sighs. “Last week someone tried to take me. I’ve been in hiding ever since; my friends have been helping me gather information about Mom’s disappearance. I can introduce you to them if you would like.”
“What about your father? Will he be able to help,” Bethany asks. Varric stops pacing to listen to the girl’s answer.
Everything about her becomes unreadable. “He left before I was born. It’s just Mom and me.”
Varric feels a guilty relief that Bianca is not in a relationship. “I’m sorry,” the mage apologizes.
“His loss,” she shrugs.
“What makes you think she’s still alive,” Fenris finally voices the question many have thought since hearing about Bianca’s disappearance.
“When they tried to grab me I heard one of them say that I could make her talk.”
A red haired elven woman suddenly opens the door and walks in. All eyes turn to this new person and all are ready to attack if need be. Her gaze is drawn to Fenris, a look of recognition in her eyes. He has the feeling that he should know this woman, but cannot recall how.
“Triss! Don’t you ever knock,” the teen asks.
The woman cocks her head and knocks on the open door three times. “Happy?”
Isana makes a face which the woman ignores and approaches the group.
“Things are worse than you think. Bianca is being held in the Lacier Estate,” her slight accent marking her as a former member of the Tevinter Imperium.
Isana curses, while Triss explains the difficulties to the rest of the group.
“The Laciers are a noble family with strong ties to the city guards, the Chantry and the Templars. They are also tightly connected with the Thieves Guild and the Crows. The only family more connected and powerful than them is the Pentaghasts.”
“It also means that I can’t go with you. Their guards know me.”
“How,” Isabela asks.
“No shit there I was,” Isana begins only to be interrupted by Triss requesting the short version. The girl sighs. “I had a run in with a few of their guards last year…they still haven’t gotten over it.”
“You shouldn’t go anyway, you don’t know the layout of their estate, or where they might be holding you mother,” Triss points out.
“And you do,” Varric asks.
“Yes. I was their ‘guest’ for a couple of months until Bianca broke me out. I owe her. If you’ll have me I can help. I know the layout of their manor and where their dungeon is.”