Agent Max Trevelyan tried to sit up straight and keep his face calm. He really hoped it was working, because he was starving, exhausted, and his head felt like it was about to explode.
Four straight hours of being yelled at by Meredith Stannard during a public hearing would do that to you.
“Let us review,” the Councilwoman said crisply. She glared across her desk at Max and Seeker Cassandra Pentaghast. Cassandra looked back coolly, her expression calm and unamused. Meredith apparently sensed that she would not win that staring contest; she shifted her gaze to the crowd behind them, the members of the public who had come to witness this little drama.
“Your own investigations have shown that Uldred and his allies had been planning this attack for months. Yet the Denerim Circle’s Templars—including Mr. Trevelyan here—noticed nothing amiss." Meredith's cold blue eyes swung back to Max. "And in the end, it was only the intervention of a Denerim city Detective that prevented the abominations from escaping the Circle to visit unknown havoc and destruction on Denerim.”
“That is an inaccurate description of the events,” Cassandra replied coldly. “For one, Circle personnel, especially Agent Trevelyan, were instrumental in bringing the crisis to a close.”
And civilians, Max added silently. He didn’t say that out loud, though; it wouldn’t help their case if he pointed out that two private detectives, a popular local author, and a Councilman’s adopted son had been key to stopping Uldred’s plan.
“Indeed.” Meredith’s voice dripped with disdain. “But the fact remains that this nearly became a catastrophe. And the local Templars did not anticipate it.” She leaned back and steepled her fingers. “It seems to me that Denerim would do well to entrust its magical protection to someone more reliable. Someone who can keep this city's mages safe and under control.”
And there it is. This had been Stannard’s favorite stump speech for the past four months. The Templar Order was incompetent and old-fashioned, according to the Councilwoman, and only a local group could truly protect Denerim’s citizens from the danger mages posed. Max didn't know what this local organization would look like, exactly, but he was pretty sure it would have Meredith at its head.
He wondered what percentage of this was revenge for the way the Templars had treated Meredith. She had been a skilled and relentless Agent, but often passed over for promotion—she lacked the ease with people that smoothed the way to leadership. Max couldn’t blame her for leaving to pursue politics.
“The Templars are an international organization with Circles in every city-state outside of the Tevinter Imperium,” Cassandra returned crisply. “We have resources, training, reinforcements—all things a new organization would lack.”
“Respectfully, Agent Pentaghast, this is not the time for a political debate.” Councilman Loghain Mac Tir’s serious voice cut right through the little swell of murmurs that arose in the gallery.
“I propose that we adjourn until tomorrow,” Councilman Eamon Guerrin put in. “It is noon, and I am certain we could all use a meal and a break.”
“Seconded,” Eleanor Cousland murmured from her own seat. The other woman on the Council had been largely silent during these proceedings; Max could not tell what she was making of all this. The other member of Council, Marlowe Dumar, nodded his assent as she spoke.
Meredith’s mouth curled in a sneer, but she quickly forced her face back to neutrality. “Very well. I believe we are done with these witnesses, in any case.” She shot Max and Cassandra a look of pure contempt. “They have told us all we need to know.”
Mei watched steam rise from the little pitcher of milk in the machine. She breathed in and out, forcing herself to be patient, though she knew that a little twist of fire magic could accomplish this task much more efficiently.
Not worth getting arrested, she reminded herself. Not worth going back to the Circle. Definitely not worth being made Tranquil.
After what seemed like an eternity, the milk was heated and foamed. Mei poured it carefully into a pair of tall mugs, added the coffee, and set the lattes on a little tray to take to the couple in the corner. The customers were both humans—not unusual for this neighborhood—and seemed to be on a first date that was going well. Conversation flowed easily between them and they both smiled a lot. Mei felt a twinge of envy as she watched the two women take each other in, recognizing that flicker of hope and attraction and exhilaration that came with a new relationship.
Maybe she would be ready for that again one day. When she stopped fantasizing about Cullen walking through the door of Three Nugs Coffee, miraculously healed and whole and still in love with her.
“Here you are,” she said quietly, sliding the drinks off the tray.
The two women didn’t respond—not that Mei expected they would.
“What do you make of that business at the Circle?” the blonde woman asked her date.
“Oof. That’s what nightmares are made of,” the second woman responded, shaking her cloud of dark curls. “I’ve always felt sorry for mages. But maybe Councilwoman Stannard is right. Maybe they all need to be in a Circle. What if they’d been living right next to us when they turned into abominations?”
For a moment, Mei hoped that would be the end of the date—this was a controversial topic in Denerim—but the blonde woman sighed. “It does make you wonder.”
Since there was no one else in the coffee shop, Mei allowed herself an ugly, annoyed scowl before returning to her post behind the counter of the little six-table coffee shop. If it weren’t for the Circles, there wouldn’t have been so many mages signing up to join Uldred. And he wouldn’t have had a ready supply of unwilling converts trapped in a prison for him.
When she’d first left the Circle she had been shocked to realize how little the average Denerim citizen knew about Circles and mages and Templars. It probably shouldn’t have been a surprise, but it irked her all the same—especially when people insisted on having opinions about the events that had resulted in her unceremonious transformation from Enchanter to barista.
To work off her irritation, Mei buried herself in cleaning her station—it was always covered in coffee grounds, no matter how neat she thought she was being—until a thump on one of the bar stools at the counter made her turn around.
“Whiskey,” the customer groaned, his head resting on his arms. “All the whiskey you’ve got.”
“That would be zero whiskey. This is a coffee shop, Max. We’ve covered this before.” Mei felt her mouth curve in a smile.
“Oh. Damn.” Agent Max Trevelyan, Knight-Captain of the Denerim Templars, raised his head. “Can I have something with a lot of sugar, then? One of those drinks that’s mostly whipped cream and sprinkles?”
“Coming right up.” Mei poured another pitcher of milk and put it in the machine to foam. “Was it really that bad?”
“Maker. I thought Meredith Stannard was scary when I lived in a Circle with her. Behind a Council desk she’s a menace. The hearing was four hours of her spitting at us and grandstanding about how incompetent the Templars are.” Max ran a hand over his face. “I think she even had Cassandra sweating.”
“Agent Pentaghast is still in town?” Mei’s eyebrows rose.
“I think she’s going to be sticking around until the Templar leadership decides what to do with Greagoir. They’re pissed at all of us for not noticing what Uldred was up to, but Greagoir ranks highest. He’d make the best scapegoat.” Max pulled a face. “Oh. And they ‘encouraged’ Irving to step down. His replacement arrives tonight from Halamshiral. A Senior Enchanter named Vivienne de Fer.”
Mei burst out laughing.
Max raised his eyebrows. “That can’t be good.”
“I’m sorry,” Mei said, wiping her eyes. “It’s just—oh. I met her when I was in Orlais. Vivienne thinks Ferelden is a stinking backwater that just discovered fire. I can’t believe she took the job.” Then she sobered. “Wait. Yes, I can. She’s got her eyes on Fiona’s seat. She can’t run unless she’s a First Enchanter.” Vivienne would have taken a position in Hell itself if it meant an opportunity to ascend to the Grand Enchanter’s office in Montsimmard.
“My father thinks she’s a ‘smart, reliable choice.’” Max’s tone suggested he wasn’t sure if that was a good sign.
Mei nodded as she began preparing Max’s drink. “Vivienne is the anti-Fiona. Pro-Templar, pro-Circle.” She didn’t much like the future First Enchanter, but honesty compelled her to add, “With Meredith chomping at the bit to make big changes in Denerim, she could be an asset. No one plays politics like Madame de Fer.”
“I’m not sure I’d describe what Meredith does as ‘playing politics.’ That woman is not playing at anything. My head’s going to hurt for weeks.” But Max perked up when Mei set a wide mug in front of him. The cup was piled high with whipped cream and chocolate sprinkles. Underneath was a mix of milk, chocolate syrup, and a tiny bit of coffee. It was, she knew, Max’s favorite thing on the Three Nugs menu.
As she watched him smile and take the first sip, she wrestled with her desire to ask about Cullen. It felt intrusive, somehow, to be discussing her former lover behind his back. But Maker, she wanted to know.
Max, perhaps sensing her indecision, saved her the dilemma by answering the question before his third sip. “Cullen seems to be doing well. The medics cleared him to return to duty.”
“But?” Mei prompted, sensing hesitation in his words.
“He’s … not his old self.” Max grimaced and set down the cup. “That sounds stupid. I mean, how could he be? But he’s even more rule-bound and duty-oriented than he was before the crisis. Quicker to snap, harsher when the recruits fail. I don’t think he’s sleeping well. I’ve been meeting him for workouts at five-thirty in the morning, and he’s usually already there and drenched in sweat when I walk in.”
“Give him time,” Mei said gently, as much to herself as to Max. “He’s lucky you’re there for him.”
Max used his spoon to poke the whipped cream a bit. “I hope so.” He looked over at her. “And how are you ?”
That was a complicated question.
For the first month after she’d left the Circle, Mei had been completely focused on just surviving day to day. She’d moved into a shelter operated by a tough, principled elf named Shianni. A week later, Shianni’s cousin Soris had passed along a tip about a job at Three Nugs. A week after that, Mei had her first paycheck and her first apartment. She’d spent the next month terrified of screwing up every order, often double- and triple-checking her tickets to make sure no one got a mocha instead of an espresso, sure that she’d be fired if she failed. But that fear had faded, and now she barely glanced at the tickets a second time.
She had expected to feel a sense of accomplishment when she settled into a routine. But instead, she was restless and unsure of her next step. As grateful as she was for this job, she knew it could not be her future. But she had no idea what kind of future might be possible for an ex-Enchanter who would be arrested if she used her magic in public, and she had no idea how to begin figuring it out.
But that seemed like a lot to lay on Max, so instead she said, “I’ve been good.”
“I know that look,” Anders said as his magic wove through Juliet’s, healing the damage she’d inflicted on herself at the Circle. “You’re thinking of trying. Don’t.”
“Really? Still?” Juliet could hear a hint of a whine in her voice.
“I told you six months. It’s only been four.” His mouth quirked up. “Not that I’m surprised you want to push your limits.”
Juliet shifted in her office chair and sighed. “It’s so unfair. Mess around with just one horrifying blood-magic generator thing and you’re branded reckless for the rest of your life.” She rolled her eyes. “And now I haven’t got a leg to stand on when Naia pulls her reckless shit.”
Not that there had been a lot of it, of late. Naia’s contract as a consultant on the Guard’s alienage task force kept both of them busy. While Naia helped Donnic Hendyr navigate the neighborhood where she’d grown up, Juliet kept the rest of the agency running by handling their usual mix of small-time surveillance cases. But eventually their case load became heavy enough to justify hiring another employee: Zevran Arainai, who was currently bent over his small desk in the waiting room, examining film negatives through a magnifying lens.
Anders followed her gaze. “What exactly is his story, anyway? Every time I ask he tells me some nonsense about being a former member of the Antivan Crows.” He snorted. “Like I’d believe that.”
“You should. It’s the truth.” Juliet winced as Anders’s magic found a stiff, painful place in one of her chakras.
Anders stared at her. “Maker. And you hired him to work for you?”
“He was very well-qualified,” Juliet said seriously. “You’d be surprised how many skills transfer from assassin to PI.”
In fact, she and Naia had argued strenuously about making Zevran a member of the team. Naia had pointed out Zevran’s skill set; Juliet had pointed out the fact that he’d tried to kill them both within days of meeting them. Naia won out by arguing that he’d come with them to the Circle and had been valuable backup there. Four months later, Juliet had to admit that his work had been good and they needed the help. She had not yet admitted to either Zevran or Naia that she was coming to like the former assassin. For someone who had been trained since childhood to kill people, he was weirdly reliable and a very good judge of character.
Anders’s hands dropped from her temples; his magic withdrew from her slowly. Juliet tried not to let her disappointment show on her face. The healing sessions were as close as she got to channeling magic lately—but it was more than that. She had not realized how lonely she was for other magic, other mages, until Anders began healing the mess she’s made at the Circle. By this evening, she knew, she’d be counting the days until her next healing session.
“Same time next week?” Anders said.
“As always.” Juliet reached for the envelope on her desk.
“Ah. Rent. Always a good thing to have.” He grinned, taking the envelope between his fingers. “Of course, I may meet a beautiful woman or a dashing man on the way home and spend it all on drinks. Decisions, decisions.”
“Drinks first. Then rent. You can always find another apartment. Good dates are harder to come by,” Juliet advised.
“This is why I like you, Hawke. Your priorities.” Anders folded the money away carefully into the pocket of his jeans.
Juliet tried to think of something funny to say in response, but was interrupted by the sound of the outside door.
Zevran’s silken Antivan accent pierced the silence. “Ah, Detective. A pleasure as always.”
“Mr. Arainai. Is Hawke in?”
Juliet felt every muscle in her body tense. Fenris. Shit.
“She is with the healer. I expect they will be done momentarily.” Zevran’s airy tone held no hint of the blowup to come.
Anders met Juliet’s eyes sardonically. “Oh joy. Your boyfriend’s here.”
“Maker, the two of you give me a headache. He might not hate you so much if you didn’t antagonize him every time you saw him,” Hawke pointed out.
“I might not hate him so much if he occasionally shut up about how much he loathes mages,” Anders shot back.
“He doesn’t … ugh. I am not having this conversation with you.” Hawke stood up and opened the door. “See you next week, Anders.”
She looked over at Fenris, then, and tried to smile a normal happy-girlfriend smile. But Fenris’s eyes went right to Anders and Juliet felt her smile slide off her face.
“Detective,” Anders said—rather respectfully, for him.
Fenris did not return the effort. “And here you are again, mage.”
“I have a name, you know.” Anders crossed his arms. “It’s Anders. Aaaaaaaaaan-derrrrrrrrs. Two syllables, six letters. Try using it sometime.”
Fenris curled a lip, but before he could answer, Zevran looked between the two of them and raised an eyebrow. “I am curious—this animosity between you two, is it sexual tension? Perhaps the situation might improve if you kissed. It certainly could not hurt, provided Ms. Hawke does not object.”
Anders and Fenris both turned their heads to glare at the former assassin. He grinned back at them unrepentantly. “I am only trying to help.”
“Please don’t,” Anders said, shaking his head disgustedly.
Fenris actually chuckled. “For once, I must agree with the healer.”
“Glad we found common ground. See you next week, Hawke.” With that, Anders was gone.
Juliet braced herself for an argument. At first, she hadn’t told Fenris that she was working with another mage to fix her magic. In retrospect that had been a mistake. One afternoon Fenris happened upon Anders in her office. The two men took an instinctive dislike to each other, and the revelation that Hawke had been working with Anders for months had led to an explosive fight with Fenris. They both threw things; they both said things that they later had to take back with tears in their eyes. Weeks after they’d both apologized, though, Juliet still felt her head start to throb whenever the subject of Anders came up between them.
Fenris crossed to Juliet’s side and brushed his fingers against hers as he kissed her—an intimate gesture for someone who was so wary of touch, and one that he would not have made if he were truly upset to find Anders here. Juliet felt her breath ease in her chest.
“Hey,” she said.
Fenris’s mouth quirked up at the side. “Hello, Hawke.”
“I thought we were meeting downtown.”
Her boyfriend rolled a shoulder uncomfortably. “I was in the neighborhood.”
Juliet stepped back and crossed her arms. “You mean you remembered that Anders was here and decided to check on us.”
In the background, Zevran quietly picked up a stack of papers and went into Naia’s office to pretend to file them.
Fenris scowled. “That man abandoned you at the Circle, Hawke. He is also a wanted criminal. He is not worthy of the trust you have placed in him.”
“You do realize that he and I are guilty of the same crime, right? Being mages who use their magic outside the Circle?” Juliet rubbed her forehead. “You don’t have to like him, Fenris. Or trust him. But you could try to remember that he’s helping me—”
“For money,” Fenris amended stubbornly.
“He’s helping me,” Juliet repeated a bit louder. “And since he’s helping me, you could try not to be such an asshole to him. Or, don’t drop by unannounced when you know he’ll be here. Just avoid him.”
Fenris’s expression darkened and she expected him to escalate the argument, but instead he simply sighed. “I do not wish to fight about this again, Hawke.”
“I don’t either,” she replied honestly. It’s not like we’ll solve anything. “Let’s just go to lunch, all right?”
“Have I mentioned that you look nice today?” Fenris asked as he opened the door for her.
In spite of herself, Juliet chuckled. “Keep up the flattery, Detective. It helps.”
Max couldn’t stay long—his testimony was done for the day but he had Templar business back at the Circle. Mei bade him farewell with a hug and a second drink to go. As usual, she told Max it was on the house. As usual, Max said thank you and stuffed two large bills into the tip jar when he thought she wasn’t looking.
The rest of Mei’s shift passed slowly. A few customers came in for an afternoon pick-me-up, but when she locked the doors at five, Three Nugs had been empty for nearly a solid hour. Mei felt a twinge of nervousness at the thought of the owner looking over her receipts for the day. What if he decides to close at four? The hit to her paycheck would not break her—she still had most of the money Max had given her on the day she left the Circle, and she’d been picking up occasional catering shifts with Soris’s employer—but that meant less money to spend on her books, and yet another hour she would have to fill in the day.
Worry about that when it happens, not before.
As she did most nights, Mei boarded the bus back to the alienage with a large paper bag in hand—the previous day’s pastries and cookies, slightly stale but still tasty with coffee. She climbed down from the bus two stops before her apartment building and headed four blocks over to Helping Hands Shelter, the little house where she’d spent her first weeks in Denerim.
The warm weather had drawn the shelter’s residents outside; Mei could hear laughing and shouting from the backyard, the sound of kids running around. But she spotted Shianni’s familiar red hair in the window of the front room, so she rang the bell as usual and waited to be let in.
“You’re a saint,” Shianni sighed happily when she saw Mei with the bag.
“Don’t thank me, thank my kindly employer, who allows me to not throw these away in return for a small tax break,” Mei said wryly. “There’s a bear claw in there, by the way.”
“Just when I thought I couldn’t like you any more.” Shianni grinned. “Want to come in? I’m catching up on the latest episode of Eternal Love.”
Mei chuckled. Eternal Love was a long-running soap opera set in Highever. Mei found it both impenetrable and improbable—one of the characters was an apostate mage and the writers always managed to get nearly everything about magic wrong—but Shianni was good company and the romantic leads were both fun to look at. “Sure. Count me in.”
As Mei crossed the living room to sit in her favorite battered armchair, she couldn’t help glancing at the pictures on the mantle. Most of them depicted the shelter’s residents—current and former—but a few were shots of Shianni’s family. On her second day at Helping Hands, one photo in particular had caught her eye: Shianni as a teenager, her arms flung around two cousins. Soris stood on her left, lanky and awkward, with only a few hints of the handsome man he’d be by twenty-five.
On Shianni’s right, grinning brightly at the camera, was Naia Tabris.
Mei had never told Shianni that she’d met Naia, or that she too had been present at the Circle crisis. She preferred, for now, to keep her abilities and her past to herself. But she still felt an odd twinge every time she looked at that photo. Maybe it was because the world was such an awkwardly small place sometimes. Or maybe it was because she knew she couldn’t keep her secrets forever. She might be separated from the Circle now, but whether or not she used her magic, she would always be a mage—and there were people in this city who knew exactly what she was.
Pushing that thought from her mind, Mei settled in to watch Eternal Love ’s romantic leads gaze longingly at one another. But the show had barely been on a minute when the screen went black.
“Hey!” Shianni protested.
Mei stood up to adjust the antenna—but sat back down when the words Breaking News flashed across the screen.
Varric tapped his toe impatiently. Alas, the line in front of him continued to not move. He’d noticed this was not unusual for afternoons at the First Denerim Bank. The cheapskates in charge of the place seemed determined to force one harried teller to deal with the increasingly surly customers in line. As Varric watched the tense lines between her eyes deepen, he vowed to be charming when he finally got his turn. Or at least not scowl at the poor woman.
He did sort of wish she could hurry up, though. He desperately wanted to deposit his latest royalties check and get out before someone noticed him there and …
Varric cringed as a human man approached him, arm eagerly outstretched. “Mr. Cavin. Nice to see you,” he lied.
The bank managed beamed at him. “Oh please, call me Bran.” He shook a playful finger at Varric. “And haven’t I told you before that I am more than happy to attend to your accounts? You really don’t need to wait in line like …” He coughed diplomatically as the other customers glared at him.
Like one of the riff-raff ? Varric filled in for him silently. But now that Bran had spotted him, there was no getting rid of him, so Varric stepped underneath the weathered ropes demarking the line and prepared himself for another speech on just how much more First Denerim could be doing for the Tethras family money.
I’d love to invest more of our inheritance, really, but I need to pay for my brother’s asylum fees. You remember him, right? About yay tall, tried to kill me over an artifact a few years back?
Varric was debating the pros and cons of actually saying that to Bran when a chunk of the ceiling exploded.
As plaster rained down into the room and his fellow customers began screaming, Varric spun around, seeking the source of the blast. He didn’t have to look hard. Three people in heavy woolen masks were standing in front of the glass doors into the bank. All three had fire flowing from their hands.
“Everybody down on the ground!” the one in the middle yelled—a woman with an accent that Varric couldn’t quite place.
For half a second Varric considered trying to do something. But three against one were bad odds even if they hadn’t been mages, and it just didn’t seem worth it to protect the contents of First Denerim’s safe. So instead, he obeyed the order, lying down on his stomach next to Bran. The bank manager seemed remarkably calm, given the circumstances—although Varric noticed him pulling his name tag from his blazer and pocketing it.
“You there. Give us all the cash you’ve got and everyone can walk out of here,” one of the mages yelled, pointing at the teller. A little tongue of fire sliced through the air and struck the glass in front of her, half-melting it on contact. The woman shrieked and flung open the drawer to her cash register, frantically pulling bills from inside it.
The bank was eerily quiet as the teller worked, save for the ring of each successive cash register she opened. Varric risked a peek at the robbers and saw that they had not yet dropped their spells. If he had to guess, he would have said that two were women—one an elf—and the third was a human man, but it was hard to tell under the dark, heavy masks. One of them—the woman who had ordered them all to get on the floor—finally drew her magic back within as she produced a large canvas bag from within her oversized coat.
Five minutes later, the money was packed into the bag, the robbers were gone, and Varric was standing on unsteady legs with the rest of his fellow customers as Guard cruisers pulled up to the bank with sirens blazing.
Well, shit, Varric thought as the first Guardsmen entered the bank. This is probably not going to help mages’ reputation in Denerim.