Anyone with even a basic knowledge of history knew the story of Lion’s Arch. I’d studied it thoroughly as a child, so I knew how the first city had sunk beneath the ocean when the awakening of the Elder Dragon Zhaitan had pulled the drowned nation of Orr from the depths. This newer city had been rebuilt by survivors and settling pirates and turned into a cultural melting pot where racial identity and national feuds were secondary to the shine of gold and silver. I had never been here before, but I had an idea of what to expect from a place founded by thieves, even if time had mellowed them into something vaguely resembling legitimacy.
As Baen and I made our way through the northern entrance into the city itself, the first thing that struck me was the smell. I had been able to catch the air of the sea from the fields, but stepping through the gates and into the city itself was like stepping into a different world. I could smell the ocean, mixed in with what seemed like every scent imaginable: bubbling laundry lye, burning wood and the stench of sweat. Not far from appeared to be a furnace, spewing acrid smoke from a chimney was a giant norn standing before an equally giant heated plate yelling at the top of his lungs to come and sample his culinary wares. Across the lane from him were a pair of asura, bickering loudly across a stand laden with bottles and jars that bubbled with punguent, indescribable liquids.
Second, after the smell, but far worse in the sheer force of it was the sheer visual barrage I was subjected to as we moved closer to the crowd. In Divinity’s Reach, I had always been careful to steel myself before entering crowds and those were nothing compared to the swarms of people that bustled back and forth in this chaotic metropolis. It grew worse the closer we came to the crowds, and I felt my head start to throb as the vision of first a few and then dozens all vied for my concentration.
Someone was staring into a fire. Another watched a woman laugh, trying to hide that their gaze was inexorably drawn towards her ample cleavage. Someone was on their hands and knees, scrubbing at a dark stain on the cobbles. A dozen stared ahead, pushing their way through a crowd on their own private errands. Someone was running, trying to read a scrap of paper. Another ate, looking at their food. Another pointed an accusing finger. A dozen, a score, a hundred, their eyes crowded their way into my mind, and I staggered at the sheer force of it.
“Come on, Varr.” Baen caught me, her powerful arm going around my shoulders to keep me standing. “Let’s not make a scene.”
“There’s just… so many of them.”
“Then look only at you.” She said, shifting so she was facing me. “There’s only person looking just at you here, and that’s me. Find those eyes, stick to them.”
“Easier said than done.” I muttered.
“Well, if it’s too hard I can just carry you.” Her words set my teeth on edge, and it was only the rapidly growing headache that kept me from snapping at her.
“I’ll be fine.” I said, pushing her away even as I took her advice and did what I could to focus only on her vision. The others were still there, but they became more like background noise, blending in with one another. They still clamoured for attention, so it would be impossible to really concentrate on much of anything, but it was the best I could do on short notice. “I’ll be fine in a minute.” I lied. “It just takes some getting used to, that’s all.”
“It wasn’t this bad in Reach.” She said. “Though I remember you getting that nosebleed and staining your pretty dress during that market chase.”
“That wasn’t nearly this busy.” I growled back, trying to keep my gait steady as we moved on. “And I was already sick that day.”
“Of course you were.”
“Just find us an inn.” I snapped. The thought of being able to sit or lie down somewhere to rest seemed immensely appealing to me, and I cursed my own foolishness.
Of course Lion’s Arch would be busy beyond anything I’d encountered before, and I had wasted the opportunity to prepare myself for it. Now I would have to hope I could recover quickly, though I knew the process would take at least a few hours, and then ready my mind for the onslaught of the crowd again.
Worst of all, I knew that Baen would never let me forget this for as long as I lived.
Even in my limited experience with their kind, I’d found that sailors tended to lack imagination, so I wasn’t surprised in the slightest that the somewhat isolated dockside inn that Baen had found for us was named The Gilded Anchor. Similarly, the building was much as I would have expected from the name and general clientèle. Stained wooden chairs, benches and tables were scattered about the common room, and the swarthy norn who eagerly accepted a few coins for our lodgings would have looked as much at home on a ship as he did behind the dirty bar he tended.
My head was already starting to feel better now that we’d moved out of the crowd, and I was actually able to enjoy Baen warning the first man to block our passage and drunkenly suggest we’d be better suited saving our coins to spend the evening in his room that if he didn’t move he would be spending the evening at the bottom of the bay. This warning, punctuated by a well-timed growl from Grapple, had the man defensively backing off and any onlookers returning to their drinks. The dog, as she had been in the past, was at least proving herself useful.
For all that Baen and I could protect ourselves, two women travelling alone seemed to give some idiots the impression of an easy target. We had dealt with the likes of them in the past, but avoiding a conflict was better than winning one during undercover work and the presence of a guard animal like Grapple tended to tip the scales. The creature looked friendly enough at a glance, but when the hackles rose and the savage, thorny teeth were revealed it discouraged all but the bravest – or drunkest – of would-be antagonisers.
Our room was passable. A single room with two beds, surprisingly clean given the suggestion made by the rest of the building. Baen and I made ourselves as comfortable as possible, arranging a quick schedule as to who would sleep where, who would keep an eye on the door and what our avenue of escape would be were we attacked. It was old training, something we had done with Elsif on every mission we had undertaken with her and had been tested on frequently. Simple things to remember: which way does that door open? How far is the drop from the window? Where are your weapons? Are there squeaky boards outside the door? Simple things that could mean the difference between life and death.
Baen made the excuse of going out to scout the surrounding alleyways and streets for my benefit, knowing I would be using the time to fortify my mind and recover from the initial shock of the crowd. I felt an odd combination of anger and relief at her suggestion, but shrugged it off and gave in. In truth, I was too drained to argue or fake well-being.
I followed her view until the stairs leading back down the common room. Then slipped into darkness as she left the range of my vision. I made my way carefully across the floor, finding the bed, then collapsed onto it with a long sigh, rubbing my temples as I tried to ease the now dull throbbing in my skull. Darkness settled in, leaving me with only the sound of the ocean, the ever-present drone of the city and the faint scuffling and sniffing as Grapple explored our small room. For all I despised the beast, the sound was oddly soothing.
Alone now, truly alone save for Grapple, and my vision was lost. Unlike others born blind, I knew what it was like to see so I had something to compare the absolute darkness to. I had heard of those who had gone blind later in life going mad with grief over what they had lost, and though I could understand it I could hardly empathise. The constant visual assault of the world on my mind could be tiring, and at times I wondered how normal sighted people lived with it daily. Of course, at other times I also wondered how they could survive seeing only through their own eyes.
Though I had not appreciated some of the boons until I was a grown woman, there had been less obvious benefits to my being born to my station besides the wealth, status and dignity of nobility. The Varr estate was large, and even with all our servants there had always been places to go when I wanted to be alone or even just reduce the number of eyes I had to look through. No peasant child, doomed to be born and die in their little hovels could have hoped for something like that. Even as a child, I had often sent Maei away so that I could enjoy the comforting blackness of being, for once, alone in my head. She had never understood, and given how thick she was I’d never bothered trying explain. I had barely trusted her to obey, let alone comprehend.
Idly, I wondered what she was doing now. I’d left no specific instruction what was to become of my handmaiden in my absence. Had it been my choice, I’d likely have given her a small sum of money and sent her on her way. But Cymea was softer than I, weaker, and no doubt she’d make sure the girl had some prospects lined up before throwing her out.
I was confident that I had made the right decision, however, and I knew my family’s holdings would run smoothly under Cymea’s guidance. Her family, House Akron, was noble in its own way and though it paled in comparison to the House of Varr she understood the workings of money and power. When I returned all would be in as fine a state as it was before my departure or my father’s descent into madness.
My mind drifted back to Quintus Varr’s wavering last moments of sight as he reached for my blindfold, those last moments as he stared into my blank, unseeing eyes of milky white violet. Angrily, I pushed the memory away.
The waste of a man was dead, and he didn’t deserve what I remembered of him.