Gamlen went into the room where the coffins were. He moved his mother's hairbrush, his father's shaving blade. Looked at himself in the mirror. He did this with surprise at what he saw, divorced from his reflection, seeing there too much of her, and of him; his face was not even his own. Their deaths altered the house, made it empty to him, no longer his family's home. It was a waiting room, for the coffins to loom lengthways, containing nothing but rot and a lack of forgiveness.
Gamlen had told them to close the coffins before he went in. He wrote Leandra and Malcolm some days ago, at their last known address, thinking through his abstraction that Leandra would likely disapprove if she ever arrived. What of her chance for the Final Farewell? She would cry. She always cried. But she had not lived with Lord and Lady Amell in their final days, the wasting and the cholera, wealth and reputation sparing nothing when the demons tainted even Hightown's wells. Leandra wrote to Dearest Mother, Dearest Father, as if Elysabeth and Aristide were an idea in her head which could be lavished with love provided there was a safe distance. Her last words to them in person had certainly not been those of love, but accusation, betrayal that they had failed to save her best beloved cousin Damion from his fate, demands that they would change their world to suit her needs. No, no love there. It had been Gamlen who lived with them, who endured, and when they had filled this empty house with their voices, it was he who came as called. The remaining loyal son, the oft-kicked dog.
His mouth trembled. His hands, rigid as the bodies within the looming wood. From the Chantry the sound of bells penetrated, the toll of the choleric dead. At least he would not die of melancholia, he thought.
He was free now. In every toll of the bell. One, the shattering of his chains in the City of Chains. Two. He was free. He had told himself this many times since the final bloody liquid released from his father's exhausted bowels. He could not explore what this meant to him, because freedom was a state he had never learned to enjoy. In the back of his mind the concept lurked there nevertheless, without the weight of guilt but as fragile as glass, waiting only for him to embrace the concept without grief. He could not mourn, not as he imagined Leandra mourning, who would cry for the dead until she had appeased the world and what she understood to be sorrow. For Leandra the emotions were either black or white. For Gamlen, who was less certain of the rightness of things, love and hate were as smudged as the city. He could not mourn. He knotted his feelings tight.
He waited for Leandra over the next three days, the only time the city could spare even its nearly regal dead. He tried to avoid the mirror, which showed him as dry, leathery, yellow. A man older than his years, to be certain, but whose eyes burned still, under the hair, which he slicked back from his forehead with fine oils, the scent of which were a memory of his father, a brief moment of care in a childhood abandoned to nannies. He did not love his face, or the eyes. This thing an eternal bachelor, he thought, at best the noble institution of Uncle, if Leandra chose to return with her children.
With Malcolm's children.
The perspective made the situation tolerable: he was at most, but also at least, an uncle to Malcolm Hawke's children. Gamlen moved to the window. Watched the trees talk to each other through Hightown's long arcades, smelling the salt rise from the Gallows, for once a clean smell, kept so by the chain that closed the harbour in the event of the city's widespread illness. A layout designed for conquest and submission also served to barricade against the spread of illness and disease. Hightown suffered most only because it had been struck first. Somewhere he could hear the usual murmur of Lowtown progress, conversation, leaves, oceans. It would be a wind like this to bring Malcolm's children back to him, over the sea. In other circumstances it would be joyful, the children running wild through the estate, tugging at his hands, hot laughter, chocolate smiles, tiny stomachs stuffed round with tea. Tell us a story, Uncle Gamlen. He would be spent from running with them, striving to catch his breath. They would make a game of that, also. How might we help catch your breath, Uncle? Should we lay a trap beneath the tree? The joke would be huge, children helpless with giggles. They would stroke his hands. The girl would nestle on his lap, her hair sweet smelling on his shoulder. The boys would touch the smooth tail of Gamlen's hair, admiring, giggling at the cream and the traces of moustache on his shaven lip. They would run sticky palms through their own hair and run again, alive with their father's spirit. The girl would wonder why Uncle looked so old and tired compared to her father; all men she would ever measure against Malcolm's broad shoulders and bright eyes.
That they laughed at him would not be so terrible, he thought. Affection could blunt words. He would respond with affection to the girl's pointed assessment, because it was not so much the girl he loved, he imagined. It would be the eldest boy, the heir, who would have eyes like Malcolm's, which could read a silence yet remain so blind to the words behind, with a mouth as quick and sharp as conscience. Gamlen would love that boy the most. His nephew. Too much to express how he felt for someone he had never seen. The boy would show no connection to Leandra. Suddenly Gamlen longed for the children to be with him, now, for Malcolm to bring them. There would be no grief for the grandparents they had never known, only laughter. They would explore the estate and fill the rooms with voices, calling his name. They would restore Gamlen's identity, ratify his freedom. He could be the Lord Regent Amell. The eldest boy would be his honoured heir. Leandra would expect it. Malcolm would never show gratitude, but it would come in other ways.
Leandra's letter arrived full of tears unshed, claiming the children far too young for travel, and Malcolm unwell. But what would Gamlen know of children, but that they had been born safety for twins, and that the elder was exactly as Leandra's letters had reported him, the image of his father.
Her excuses yawned like a grave, then Gamlen buried his parents and breathed his first free breath in years.
'How terrible it is,' Leandra said. 'Reduced to this.'
'Lowtown isn't so bad.' Gamlen thought she would get used to it. He could not accustom himself to her expectation or her kisses, wet and dutiful on his cheek, which she delivered despite what hurtful words might have proceeded and which might follow. He was her brother, still and always to be pitied. 'It can be a lot more lively than Hightown come a week's end.'
'Poor Gamlen,' Leandra said. 'Poor mother! And father. Damion broke their spirits, after what happened with Revka—'
But it was old history. 'It was over quickly enough,' Gamlen offered. He thought, Leandra blamed everyone but herself. He thought, and yet I try to give her solace, because that is what brothers do as much as uncles. 'They seemed well for a day, then I went in the next and they were just gone. Better than shitting themselves to death!'
But Leandra's eyes narrowed. Gamlen was crass and insensitive, said those eyes. She cried for a while longer.
Once she had been plump and pretty, now she looked grey and worn. She cried, Gamlen thought, because it was expected. For the Amell daughter she had been in her youth, tears would have brought about change, half the noble youths leaping heads over their heels to please her. The one time her tears had not worked had been when she confronted their parents about Malcolm Hawke, and the apostate's child she carried within her belly, so close to Revka's birth of a mage child that Uncle Fausten could not forgive, that Aristide would not be bent around his only daughter's finger, that Elysabeth and Leanora wept and waited and cried out for the horror of it all. Gamlen could remember Leandra's shock at being denied, even through her tears. Leandra was accustomed to getting her way. He wondered if she even remembered more than vaguely any kindness their parents had done for them. He thought of an elven nanny, one in many, who had smuggled coconut cakes both for him and the other elven boy, his whipping boy, who had taken the punishment for Gamlen's demeanour. Of Damion, their beloved, wide travelled elder cousin, the gifts he brought back from distant lands. Those days were cast in shades of gold. How strange to have lived so blithe.
Leandra touched Gamlen's hand. Both were rough and hard. Gamlen clenched his fist. She sought Malcolm's large and comforting fingers woven through her own, not his, with the bones as narrow as hers, flesh just as sparing.
She had brought two children only, with the death of the girl prior to their arrival in Kirkwall, and the two that remained were hardly children, young men, for whom Leandra's tears would scarcely abide. She wept for the fact she had no more children to call her name. Validation for her existence, that tragedy of domesticity it had become. The exhalation of her grief was a phenomenon.
'Steady on, Leandra,' Gamlen said, embarrassed.
The boys burst through the door. They always did. Garrett took one look at his mother, his expression pained, and said, 'Carver only nearly missed catching a fireball with his arse today!'
'Shut up, Brother.' Carver blushed.
'Oh, but you did. Thinking you were hiding so neatly behind that rock, all while your huge arse was poking out like a ripe and rosy target. Can't blame even a wild apostate mercenary for trying to singe it a little.'
'At least I'm not the one tripping over his gigantic pride. Oh, oh Athenril, I've fallen and I can't possibly get up on my own, please bend over and help me, no I'm not looking down your cleavage—'
'I might have been tripping over something gigantic, true, but it wasn't my pride.' The grin was impossibly Hawke, and peasant crude as an Amell would never be.
'Shut up,' Gamlen said.
'For once, Uncle says something which makes sense. Shut up, Brother, or I'll kick you in the stomach.'
'Carver,' Leandra pleaded, then to her empty, wringing hands, 'you've no idea what I endure every time you go out!'
But it was good, in a way, the loud silliness of those big men of his blood filling the room, sweat of their efforts strong enough Gamlen could imagine it covering the smell of the slums beyond. It was as if his contempt and disgust for his permanent residence within this Lowtown hovel had been finally justified by their matching distaste; a contempt they shared, for him and with him. Family.
'Poor Mother,' appeased Garrett Hawke, with the opposite meaning that the words should have contained, and that, too, made Gamlen feel justified in his irritation with his sister.
They sat around the table for supper. Garrett Hawke knocked his knee against Gamlen's and said, 'Uncle, what is it again about the grandparental will that you won't tell us?'
'There's nothing to see, we've been through this already. You should stop bothering yourself about it.'
'I would have given so much for a chance to say farewell,' Leandra said.
Carver sucked his teeth, not in commentary, but chasing a shred of salted ham.
'I wrote you,' Gamlen answered the question his sister had not asked, so many times before. 'I wrote you and Malcolm even before they died, I gave you time, I waited, I said, even with the harsh words between them Leandra won't be able to abide not having a chance to say farewell. Don't blame me if it was your shiftless husband and your choices which kept you from them.'
'How do I know you wrote me,' Leandra said, 'that this isn't just another one of your lies? I received many of your letters over the years, but none telling me of mother and father until they were gone. It's getting hard to trust you, Gamlen, after you gambled away our status as well as your pride.'
Leandra pushed away from her plate and lumbered, weighed by the accusation, to the door beyond which the changed city waited, no halcyon golden days as pillar above the corruption. Carver looked at his brother then stood, wiping his mouth on his wrists. 'Hold up, Mother. I'm coming with you.'
Carver Hawke's wrists were as big and rawboned as the outthrust joint dominating the remainder of the ham. And Leandra reminded Gamlen of a battered clockwork doll, once so functional within her limits, now stiff and rusty for the rest of time. She had been a practical woman, a total success as an Amell that had Revka not borne a mage child so recently Leandra likely would have had her way with Malcolm Hawke, apostate mage, all Kirkwall revolving around her. But her success had been built on the success of the name. She had not survived Damion's fall, Revka's revelation, no more than she had survived Malcolm's death.
'You know what,' Garrett Hawke asked the silence. He knocked his knee again against his Uncle's, then pressed and stayed, firm and heated. 'I believe you, Uncle.'
His eyes were golden, like his father's, and his mouth was a grin waiting to burst.
'I believe that you firmly think I shouldn't bother about that will in the slightest.'
The plate which had so briefly held salted ham and days old bread with sopping was pushed across the beaten wood, no crumbs remaining, because Garrett Hawke would know how to survive anything, Gamlen suspected, a pride that could starve and scavenge and recoil like a vine. Garrett arose, heavy chest, heavy thighs, so much more a man than his uncle, as much a man as his father. A heavy hand to the crown of Uncle's head mussed the hair still combed and tended each morning for all the greys. And Garrett would go, Gamlen thought, not to patronise his mother or ease his own wounded (absent) conscience, but to claim what he thought a bit of paper could grant him, an empty house in which no one would call his name. Go, Gamlen thought, try, boy; you won't like it once you're there. Garrett followed his brother and mother, and Gamlen was glad, because it was difficult to be alone in the same room as Garrett Hawke, as those eyes and that mouth which were Malcolm's, always about to ask something he could not answer.
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