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Denerim Siege

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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 …

“Mr. Tethras!”

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.

Bank-robbing mages?

“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.

Chapter Text

Despite the inauspicious start, it had been a good afternoon. Fenris and Hawke had gotten lunch together at the sandwich shop near her office. They’d followed it up with an afternoon movie, a very pleasant stop at Hawke’s apartment, and an early dinner before Fenris’s evening shift started.

Strange, Fenris thought as he and Hawke each pulled a slice of pizza from the plate between them. At times being with Hawke was so easy. More than easy—it was wonderful, better than anything he had even dreamed of having in his life. At other times it was infuriating. He could not for the life of him understand why Hawke sought the help of someone like Anders. He knew she valued her magic, thought she could use it to help people—but why place herself in the hands of a coward who had run from the Circle, just to restore such a dangerous ability?

Had he stayed, perhaps he could have healed the damage before it became so severe.

Fenris was just about to make that point to Hawke when the young man at the counter cleared his throat.

“Um. Is there a Detective Fenris Leto here? Detective?” the young man yelled, one hand over his phone’s mouthpiece.

He grimaced apologetically at Hawke, but as he expected, she waved it off. “Take it,” she mumbled through a mouthful of her own pizza. “If they’re calling you here it must be important.”

There are benefits to dating a former Guardswoman, Fenris thought as he took the phone. It was nice to be understood.

“This is Detective Leto.”

“Um. Fenris. Detective. Hi. I knew you ate here sometimes. It’s Alistair. I mean, Guardsman Alistair. Guerrin.”

“I know who you are, Alistair,” Fenris said evenly. He liked Alistair—he did—but Maker, the boy did tend to ramble.

“Right. Of course.” He heard the younger man take a deep breath. “We need you to get down to First Denerim Bank. There’s been a robbery. Witnesses claim it was a team of mages.”

 


 

When Fenris arrived at the bank, a small team of rank-and-file Guardsmen were all taking statements from the witnesses. Alistair was standing behind the tellers’ glass holding out a handkerchief to a bank employee; dark streaks of mascara were running down her cheeks, but she seemed otherwise composed. Fenris was glad Alistair was handling her statement. The young man’s slightly awkward but genuine manner seemed to make shaken witnesses feel safe.

And then Fenris’s eyes locked onto, of all people, Varric Tethras.

The blonde lawyer was talking to a dwarven Guardswoman named Lace Harding, one of the excellent people Aveline Vallen had brought into her Guard in the past months. Fenris’s first feeling was relief that the dwarf was safe, followed by a strange sensation of unease. Lately Varric had seemed more accepting of his presence in Hawke’s life—or maybe just resigned to it—but he could not say that they were friends. And it didn’t help that Varric and Anders already had a quick rapport and private in-jokes.

“Two humans, one elf. I think the elf was a woman based on her voice. But I wouldn’t swear to it. She was wearing pretty loose clothing,” Varric was telling Harding as Fenris approached. “And yeah, it was definitely magic. All three of them cast fire spells.”

“So much for my hope that it was just a bunch of weirdos with flamethrowers,” Harding quipped. “Detective Leto, this is …”

“Varric Tethras. We’re acquainted,” Fenris said. “So, will we be seeing these events in your next novel?”

Varric snorted. “Please. No one would want to read about such a lousy team of robbers.” When Fenris raised an eyebrow, Varric elaborated. “Three-mage team, right? That’s a lot of firepower, pardon the pun. This is a small branch; they don’t have top-notch magical security. The robbers could have burned their way into a vault from an alleyway, or melted the door to the safety deposit box room, nice and quiet. Instead, they came in through the front door throwing spells left and right and settled for the tellers’ petty cash.”

“A team of mages could have done quite a bit more damage to First Denerim’s bottom line,” Fenris agreed thoughtfully. “We are likely dealing with amateurs.”

Not that Fenris would be the one investigating this in the end. The Templars would be happy enough to let the local Guard collect tedious things like witness statements, but they would expect everything handed over to them by the day’s end when the robbers had obviously been mages.

Unless and until Meredith gets her way.

Fenris had not yet decided how he felt about the Councilwoman’s proposals. The Circle crisis had been an undeniable catastrophe. There was much he liked about the idea of giving the Guard more responsibility for magical crime--and strengthening Denerim’s regulations on magic and mages. But the ability to investigate and pursue the most hardened magical criminals was not something the Guard could acquire overnight. Developing a team that could handle people like Uldred would take time. Fenris somehow doubted, however, that Meredith was willing to be patient.

The bank’s clock began to toll the hour and Varric huffed out a sigh, drawing Fenris back to reality. “Well, shit. Five o’clock. Guess I won’t be depositing this check today after all.”

Fenris chuckled sympathetically. “I fear not.”

 


 

Mei and Shianni stared at the television as it cut to commercial, both stunned into silence.

“So. Magical bank robbery. That’s new,” Shianni said finally.

“New to me too.” Mei blinked, as if blinking might make the news report they’d just watched go away. “Maker,” she murmured. “That’s going to create a mess. As if the Circle wasn’t enough to send everyone into a panic over mages.”

Shianni tilted her head thoughtfully at Mei, but did not ask the obvious question. The shelter’s director almost never inquired directly about the circumstances that led people here unless it became clear that they needed help with trauma or illness. But Mei suddenly felt as if she’d just revealed too much.

“I should walk home before it gets too dark,” she said, standing. “I’ll be back with more pastries soon.”

Shianni smiled. “Keep saving those bear claws.”

Mei’s apartment was a roughly twenty-minute walk from Shianni’s shelter, on the third floor of a ramshackle brick townhouse that had been lazily converted into apartments. After living there for about a month, Mei had realized that the layout of her apartment was almost aggressively nonsensical. Her kitchen was awkwardly wedged in a triangular corner, the bathroom door hit the toilet every time she opened it, and there was no place to put even a small table so she generally ate standing over the kitchen counters. But by the time she saw its shortcomings, it already felt more like home than anywhere else she’d ever slept, and so she stayed.

She had put her apartment together bit by bit, starting with the bed and moving on to a single armchair, an only-slightly-broken set of drawers, and whatever mismatched pots, pans, and plates the secondhand store had in stock that day. The only thing she’d purchased new, and the most expensive thing in her apartment by far, was the heavy lockbox she kept underneath her bed. She pulled it out now and spun the combination, her fingers moving easily through the sequence.

Three books lay inside. One was a spiral-bound notebook filled with Mei’s handwriting. The second was an Elvhen-to-Ferelden dictionary. The third was the reason she’d bought the lockbox: a slim, faded volume written in spidery Elvhen, bearing a title that Mei had translated as The Training of the Arcane Warrior.

She had found the little book—more a pamphlet, really—in a rare-books store in Denerim. One glance at the diagrams told her that this was something worth investigating. The illustrations portrayed slim elven mages in armor that should have crippled a Qunari warrior, tossing their enemies about as if they weighed nothing at all. Mei wanted to be careful about using her magic as an apostate—now that she was no longer a Circle mage, any spell she cast was illegal—and the prospect of a spell that would be all but invisible while still letting her defend herself was tantalizing.

She had managed to persuade the bookstore’s owner to let her pay for the volume in installments. Then she bought the dictionary and began her work. Like many mages, Mei had studied some Elvhen, but it had still taken her the better part of a month to complete her translation. There had been a few false steps, a few words that could mean two things, but after long and careful trial-and-error, she had unlocked most of the pamphlet’s secrets.

Mei sat cross-legged on the floor, opened the spiral-bound notebook side-by-side with the real book, and turned both to the relevant page.

To build the Arcane Warrior’s strength, release thy magic through the chakras and weave it through the muscles to strengthen and support them. The original pamphlet contained a helpful diagram.

Mei pulled a stopwatch from the lockbox and hit its button to begin the timer. Then she closed her eyes and drew on her magic, felt it flow through her and gather, ready for use. She pushed it out—raw magic, dangerous if not controlled—and immediately drew it back towards herself, letting it flow into her arms and legs and torso, winding its way through her muscles and bones.

She opened her eyes and glanced down at the timer. The process had taken forty-three seconds. She smiled, pleased. I’m getting better at this. She hoped to get that time down to less than ten seconds, eventually, but forty-three seconds was much better than the five minutes it had taken her the first time.

She scratched down her time on the log in the back of the book, dismantled the spell, and readied herself to start again. Maybe tonight I can get it below forty.

 


 

And the day just keeps getting better , Max thought as the terrified trainee sat down in front of Cullen’s desk. Natalie Lovell folded her hands tight in her lap and straightened her back to ramrod stiffness. Max wanted to revert back to his old role as Cullen’s right-hand man—the genial lieutenant who patted the trainees on the back when mean old Agent Rutherford chewed them out—but he forced himself to be quiet. This was a disciplinary hearing and it was Cullen’s show to run.

But one look at Cullen told him that this was not going to go smoothly.

His friend rubbed a hand over his face, passing new wrinkles and dark circles underneath his eyes. “Ms. Lovell,” he said coldly. “Would you care to explain these?”

He slapped a packet of letters down on his desk. The trainee’s lips parted uncertainly as she looked at the first one.

“I. Um. I wrote them,” she said quietly. “To—to Jill.”

“To Apprentice Jill. A mage of this Circle.” Cullen’s voice snapped like a whip, and even Max almost wanted to flinch. “You flaunted the rules about fraternization over a childish crush. Explain to me why we shouldn’t throw you out in disgrace right now.”

“We’re just friends!” Natalie protested, starting to find her voice. “There aren’t many chances for mages and Templars to talk so we started leaving the letters instead. We—just read the letters, Agent Rutherford. We weren’t fraternizing. We talked about books we like, which spells are the scariest, music she hasn’t heard before.”

“All of it utterly inappropriate,” Cullen snarled. “Do you know why mages and Templars are kept separate from one another, Ms. Lovell? It is because mages are dangerous, and we are the only thing standing between them and those who cannot defend themselves.” He stood and began pacing the floor behind his desk. “The mages we guard are not your friends. You must maintain distance and discipline if you are to serve your purpose. If a demon possessed your friend ”—he put an ugly, sarcastic twist on that word—“could you do your duty and strike her head from her shoulders?”

Natalie Lovell swallowed hard and did not answer.

Cullen’s lip curled in a sneer. “If you cannot say ‘yes’ without hesitation, you are utterly useless to the Order. Collect your things. You are no longer a trainee at this Circle.”

Natalie’s jaw dropped. Max’s did too. Technically, as the head of this Circle’s Academy, Cullen could expel students he didn’t think were promising, but … no. This wasn’t right.

“I think that’s an extreme punishment for something that’s barely a crime, Agent Rutherford,” he said smoothly. “There’s nothing in the letters suggesting a physical relationship. And if Templars and mages don’t see each other as potential colleagues, how are we to expect them to work in the field together? So long as the friendship remains a friendship and nothing more, I see no reason to discipline either of them.”

Relief shone on Natalie’s face—along with just a hint of disappointment. Max suspected that Natalie’s feelings for Jill were not entirely on the friendship side of the equation; he would have to talk to her about that.

But it was Cullen’s reaction that worried Max. When Cullen turned his head and met Max’s gaze, his golden-brown eyes were practically blazing with fury. “Agent Trevelyan, it is my right as—”

Knight-Captain Trevelyan,” Max said sharply. “And it is my right as Knight-Captain to overrule you.” He wasn’t happy he’d had to say something like that in front of Natalie, but Maker’s breath, Cullen hadn’t left him much of a choice.

He turned to Natalie with what he hoped was a stern expression. “Ms. Lovell. Drop by my office at seven tomorrow morning so we can talk about this further. I may not be expelling you, but I think we need to have a serious conversation about conduct for Templars. You are dismissed.”

With a grateful nod, Natalie Lovell all but fled the room.

As soon as the door closed behind her, Cullen lowered his palm to his desk with a hard, angry smack. “What in the Maker’s name are you thinking, Max?”

Me? What in the Maker’s name are you thinking? They send a few notes about favorite bands and suddenly you’re throwing a decent recruit out on her ass?” Max snapped back. “And ‘Templars can’t be friends with mages’? What in the Void are you talking about?”

“You know exactly what I’m talking about. And you know I’m right.” Cullen’s voice was low and rough, nothing like his usual controlled tenor. “We are guardians, Max. Protectors. We are the only ones who can stop mages from misusing their power. It is our duty to watch these mages for signs of corruption, and we cannot perform it unless we keep our distance. How can you not see that after what happened here?”

Max drew a breath deep into his lungs. “Mages and Templars fought side-by-side to beat Uldred. If it wasn’t for Mei Surana I’d be three kinds of dead right now.” He paused, hoping Mei’s name would remind Cullen that he had once cared deeply for a mage, but Cullen’s expression remained stony. Max’s stomach sank. “We need to work with them, not treat them like they have some sort of contagious disease,” he finished.

Cullen shook his head. “You’re wrong, Max. Maker. How can you be this blind?” But his voice held sadness more than anger.

Max’s heart actually ached in his chest as he made his way back to his office. What in the Void was he going to do about Cullen? How could he be so vicious with someone like Natalie after breaking every rule the Circle had to be with Mei Surana? Did he not realize the hypocrisy? Or had the demons somehow twisted his love for Mei into a hatred for mages?

I want to give him time. But what if time isn’t enough?

He had no answer to that question. At least, none that he liked.

Max’s sole consolation was the fact that his calendar was free for the rest of the day—but almost as soon as he’d thought it, he heard his office phone ringing through the door. With a mounting feeling of dread, he picked it up.

“Knight-Captain Trevelyan.”

“Ser? This is Guardswoman Lace Harding of the Denerim Guard. We’ve got a case we believe may fall into your jurisdiction.”

Chapter Text

Naia felt a headache begin to mount between her eyes as she read through yet another case file. Petty vandalism, again. An alienage teenager, again. She tried hard not to feel like a hypocrite but did not succeed. She had once been a teenage burglar herself, after all.

“Maker, Donnic. How many of these are there?” she groaned.

“Too many.” Donnic sighed and rubbed his hand over his face. “It’s like trying to bail out the ocean with a teaspoon, I know. But I keep thinking there has to be a pattern. Why? Why so many? Why in the alienage? Why always elves doing it?”

Naia’s headache grew stronger. Oh joy. Time for another installment of Naia Explains the Alienage to Shems.

“They’re bored, they’re angry, and they don’t see the point in keeping things nice,” she said succinctly. “You’re not going to see this kind of thing go away until elves feel like they have some opportunities in Denerim, Donnic. Besides waiting tables and going to jail, I mean.”

Donnic’s shoulders slumped. “So, until every systematic problem in our city is solved, is there anything we can do to stop this sort of thing?”

“Someplace for kids to hang out?” Naia suggested. “A rec center, with games and supervision. My cousin Shianni might have some ideas. But that would be a Council project, not a Guard project.” And that, in a nutshell, was their task force’s problem. Too many issues that couldn’t be solved by a Guardsman, even a really good one like Detective Donnic Hendyr. Nothing they could do would bring those teenagers’ parents home earlier from their work-to-the-bone jobs, or make the teenagers themselves think there was much point to having a clean juvenile record.

“I’ll take the files home and ask around about the names,” she told him. “Maybe there’s a social link, a ringleader. If I can’t talk some sense into them maybe I can find someone who will.”

Donnic brightened just a bit. “That might just help. And in the meantime, I’ll talk to the Guard-Captain about getting some other proposals in front of the Council. Maybe we can get them to think about something besides mages for five consecutive minutes.” He shook his head.

As Naia packed up the files she wanted, she spotted Donnic staring at a little wooden box on his desk. “What’s on your mind?”

Donnic chuckled. “Am I that transparent? This has been the oddest day.”

“How so?” Naia asked curiously.

“I found this on my desk this morning.” Donnic handed her the box.

Naia rested it on her palm lifted the hinged lid. Inside sat a little copper square etched with a cheerful floral design. “Metal flowers?”

“A copper relief of marigolds, to be precise.” Donnic’s forehead wrinkled. “I have no idea who left it here. There was a bow on it, but no tag. In a fit of panic I actually took it to the crime lab for tests. It came back negative for explosives and common poisons.”

“Good to know.” Naia closed the box and set it back on her friend’s desk. “Offhand? I think you have an admirer, Donnic.”

Donnic’s jaw dropped. “A … a romantic admirer?”

“No, the other kind of admirer,” Naia teased. “Do marigolds have a meaning to you?”

Donnic shook his head.

“Then they must mean something to your admirer. Want me to ask around?”

Donnic paled. “Oh—no. If it’s … that … I don’t want to cause anyone distress or make any wrong assumptions. Perhaps it was a mistake,” he said hopefully. “A gift placed on the wrong desk.”

Naia didn’t really think so. As the newest detective in the Guard, Donnic had an unenviable desk at the very back of the room, next to an occasionally leaky air-conditioning vent. No one sat in the desk next to his. It was an unlikely mistake. She could tell that Donnic was reaching the same conclusion as he swept his gaze around the other detectives’ desks.

“Would it be such a bad thing if it came from someone who wanted to date you?” she asked, surprised. Kind, dependable Donnic seemed like prime boyfriend material to her—not her type personally, but someone she’d be thrilled to see a friend bring home.

Donnic drew in a deep breath. “I am, ah, interested in someone,” he mumbled. “I—but she’s not the type to be this coy, leaving an anonymous gift. And she’d never—it’s not someone I can ask out on a date.”

“It’s not Juliet, is it?” Naia said, alarmed. Please don’t be Juliet. I do not want to deal with Fenris finding out his co-worker has the hots for his girlfriend.

Donnic looked at her as if her head had fallen off. “Maker, no! I mean—Hawke’s great. A good friend. But that’s it.”

Naia sighed in relief. “Well, that’s good, at least.” She looked at him seriously. “You’re a catch, Donnic. You should ask her, whoever she is.”

Donnic chuckled. “Easy enough for you to say. It’s not always as simple as asking someone for a drink.” He clapped her on the shoulder. “Same time tomorrow?”

“Sounds good.”

As Naia wove her way through the maze of desks in the detectives’ office, she spotted a familiar silver head bent over his work—Fenris. She raised a hand in greeting as she approached, but he did not seem to see her. His bright eyes were solidly fixed on a stack of papers in front of him.

“Fenris?”

He looked over at her and blinked, startled. “Ah. Hello.”

Naia desperately wanted to look over his shoulder to see what had him so transfixed, but she’d quickly learned that Fenris found that intrusive, so she kept a step or two away. “Everything OK?”

His mouth quirked. “No, nothing is amiss, unless you count this afternoon’s bank robbery. I am waiting for a Templar agent to come and take our case files.”

“Meredith’s gonna love that,” Naia said with a sigh. “Sorry your date with Hawke got interrupted.”

“One of these days I will have to ask you how you know the ins and outs of everyone’s schedule. And why,” Fenris remarked, amused.

“Don’t worry. I only keep tabs on my closest friends and the clients who don’t pay their bills,” Naia told him with a wink. “Drop by our office for lunch tomorrow?”

Fenris smiled. “I look forward to it.”

 


 

The Templars occasionally let local law enforcement handle cases involving magic when the crime was small, or when the mage in question seemed to pose only a minimal danger. Max quietly hoped that this would be one of those cases. Unfortunately, Guardswoman Harding was no more than halfway through her account of the robbery when he reached an unpleasant conclusion: not only was this a Templar case, but he’d have to take it on himself. The Denerim Circle was still in disarray from the crisis; many of their Templars were recent transfers to the city. Sending a newcomer to investigate a flashy magical crime would only add fuel to Meredith Stannard’s fire. Yesterday he might have suggested that Cullen handle it, but … well.

“I’ll be there as soon as I can,” he said, trying to hide his weariness.

“Detective Fenris Leto was assigned to the case. I’ll let him know to expect you.” An efficient little click ended the call.

Max wasn’t sure what kind of reception to expect at the Denerim Guard. He liked Detective Leto—well, maybe liked was a little strong, but he respected the other man. Even so, he wished that he was taking the case from someone else. Councilwoman Stannard was already calling for the head of every Templar who hadn’t somehow prevented the Circle disaster. Poaching from her favorite detective was unlikely to put her in a better mood.

But the Detective showed no signs of anger when Max appeared at his desk. He merely nodded and motioned for him to take a seat. “Agent Trevelyan. Or—pardon me. Knight-Captain Trevelyan. It is good to see you again.”

“Likewise, Detective.” Max sat; his eyes quickly fell to a photograph of a melted bank teller’s window. “Yikes. This was not a subtle job.”

“That’s putting it mildly.” Fenris began paging through the photographs. “Witnesses say there were three robbers, all mages. The most likely combination is two humans—one woman, one man—and one female elf. They used fire to frighten the customers and employees into submission. For their pains, they gained an unknown quantity of money from the registers. The bank promised amounts and serial numbers by tomorrow morning.”

Max frowned. “Anyone check the vault? Or the safety deposit boxes?”

“Both rooms are undisturbed.” Fenris’s green eyes narrowed. “All told, the robbery appears rather second-rate.”

“Well, I suppose we can’t all be criminal masterminds,” Max joked. “Thanks for this, Detective. We’ll do our best to get them off the streets.”

But as Max thumbed through Leto’s case files, he couldn’t help worrying about his chances of doing that. Amateurs or not, the team had gotten in and out quickly, hadn’t used distinctive magic, and didn’t show their faces. Finding the culprits in Denerim’s apostate scene would be like finding three needles in a haystack. A scattered haystack.

But with Stannard breathing down our necks, we’ve got to do it anyway.

He closed the files with a snap and put them in his briefcase.

 


 

The morning after the First Denerim robbery Zevran awoke early again, thanks to the malfunctioning pipes that some sadist of an architect had seen fit to run right through the wall of his motel room. He groaned quietly when he saw the clock, and again when he remembered that this particular noise usually meant the hot water was broken. Sure enough, when he went to the bathroom to wash his face, the hot water taps poured ice-cold.

At least it is not winter any more, he thought almost cheerfully. And it is my own fault for not seeking other housing. The motel had simply been easy. No name required, cash only, and cheaper than most apartments—exactly the kind of place he had so often stayed while on assignment for the Crows. But perhaps a more permanent residence, with reliable hot water, was not an unreasonable step.

Unless the Crows come for me and I am obliged to leave.

That thought tempered Zev’s good mood somewhat. Thus far Denerim have proven an excellent place to hide, but his former guild were nothing if not persistent. Someone who went missing on assignment would be tracked until the Crows either found a corpse or made one. Someday, he knew, there would have to be a reckoning. He would have to pay the price for leaving.

Perhaps he should have moved on, gone further away. But at least in Denerim he had allies who could help him hide and watch his back.

To shake off the chill from his icy shower, Zevran picked up four cups of coffee on the way in to Tabris Investigations. He expected to be the first into the office—but to his surprise, cheerful music was already blasting through the rooms when he unlocked the door.

Naia was in her office with Dog, working her way through a series of stretches. She had clearly been out running; her shirt was damp with sweat and her skin glowed appealingly in the morning light. As Zevran approached, she stepped into a deep lunge and raised her right arm high, stretching her side long and pulling her shirt up just enough to reveal a thin strip of skin.

Zevran briefly imagined himself kneeling before her, lifting the shirt a little higher and brushing his lips against that skin. He pushed the thought away firmly. The fact that he was having those sorts of thoughts about Naia was hardly strange; she was an attractive woman, energetic and passionate and funny. But lately, he had noticed that he wasn’t having those sorts of thoughts about anyone besides Naia. And that was unusual, and more than a little unsettling.

From his spot in front of the water bowl, Dog raised his head to consider Zevran. Zev decided to say something before the mabari barked and gave him away. “Good morning,” he called over the beat of the music.

Naia turned to smile at him. “Morning, Zev.” She hit a button on her desk radio, abruptly cutting out the soundtrack. “You’re in early.”

“I could say the same of you. I thought you took your run in the afternoon.”

“Usually, yeah. But I woke up early and couldn’t get back to sleep.” Naia sighed and began stretching out her left side. “You see the headlines this morning?”

“Ah yes. The First Denerim robbery. I must admit that my professional pride is offended by such a clumsy crime,” Zevran said. “Coffee?”

Naia’s eyes lit. “Maker, yes.”

Zevran handed her the one with three sugars and the most milk. She grinned appreciatively at the first sip. But the grin faded quickly. “Well, in less newsworthy crimes, there’s been a rash of vandalism in the alienage. Donnic is trying to be sensible about it, but if it doesn’t stop there are going to be a bunch of kids with fresh new criminal records.”

Zevran felt his eyebrows knit together, though more out of puzzlement than worry. He was not surprised that Naia had taken on such troubles as her own, but he also didn’t quite understand it. Even after knowing her for several months he was still baffled by the way Naia Tabris flung herself into fixing every problem that came her way. The towering stack of files on her desk and the late nights she’d been pulling as a Guard consultant were only two of the symptoms of that compulsion. Zevran knew that he himself was a beneficiary of her determination to help everyone she met, though he hoped that he had now moved from burden to useful ally.

He didn’t like the idea of her losing sleep.

“Well. Should you need advice on, ah, discreetly eliminating anyone involved, I would be happy to provide consulting services on top of my usual employment, for a very reasonable fee.” He winked at her. “I always offer my best rates to beautiful, deadly women.”

Naia rolled her eyes at him playfully. “I don’t think this is quite an assassination-worthy problem. But thanks.”

 


 

Mei had two non-consecutive days off from her job at the coffee shop, neither of them on a weekend. This schedule suited her just fine. After living in the Circle for most of her life, wearing the same outfit and seeing the same people day in and day out, she found the bustle and chaos of Denerim both exhilarating and terrifying. Doing her grocery shopping and city exploration on weekdays, when fewer people clogged the streets, made everything feel more manageable.

Circle mages were kept to strict schedules, and Mei still found it difficult to sleep past the Circle’s official wakeup time on her days off. But she had grown to love her mornings anyway. Being able to walk around her small studio apartment in pajamas, drinking her tea and reading whatever she pleased, felt like a glorious luxury every time.

When her breakfast was finished, Mei washed her face and shrugged on a pair of sweatpants and a t-shirt, then laced up a battered pair of secondhand sneakers. After casting the arcane warrior spell twice more—setting a new record at thirty-nine seconds—she set out.

An hour later, Mei arrived at the door to Denerim Collectible Books. She noticed that her legs and lungs were not nearly as tired as they should have been, given her brisk pace on the nearly four-mile walk—which meant that the spell lent her physical endurance and not just raw strength, just as she’d hoped. She also noticed that she was extremely hungry. She tried to block out the smell of cooking meat coming from the Antivan restaurant across the street as she pushed open the door.

Denerim Collectible Books was a narrow brick structure sandwiched between a drugstore and a florist in a respectable but not affluent part of town. Mei had stumbled across the place on one of her walks through a new Denerim neighborhood—one fairly close to the Guard house that could charitably be described as “up and coming.”

She had quickly intuited that the owner, a dwarf named Cadash, could not possibly sell enough old books and assorted artifacts to pay the rent, even in a modest location like this. The shop had to be a front—almost certainly for the Carta, the dwarven criminal organization responsible for the lyrium trade in the city. Mei had also spotted Cadash marking up documents in a way that suggested the shop performed forgeries on the side.

But all of that was well-hidden from the average customer. Denerim Collectible Books was a cheerful jumble of mismatched shelves, all crammed with books—some rare, some merely old. The artifacts were more carefully displayed behind glass and locks, with neat paper tags announcing the origin of each little statue and relic. Cadash, as always, was sitting behind the counter, a lens over one eye as they examined a book.

“Right on schedule,” the dwarf said, motioning for her to approach without looking up.

Mei walked the length of the shop and pulled an envelope from her backpack. “It’s all there.” She’d had to dip a little bit into the money from Max this week, but she suspected that was far preferable to coming up short.

“Always is.” Cadash looked up and removed the monocle. Mei didn’t take offense when they opened the envelope and began to count anyway.

Mei never knew what the dwarf would look like when she opened the shop door. Sometimes Cadash dressed like a male dwarf, their dark hair spiked and their clothing neatly tailored. At other times, Cadash wore dresses and lipstick and soft, tousled hair. Today their look was elegantly androgynous—hair neatly slicked back, no makeup save for eyeliner, and a crisp button-down shirt in deep purple underneath a sleek black blazer.

Mei cast a critical eye down at her own clothing. She’d put on the grey sweatpants she’d been given when she left the Circle and a baggy black t-shirt, topping off the ensemble (if you could call it that) with a faded black hoodie. She still hadn’t figured out the trick of dressing to please herself after so many years in an Enchanter’s suit, and so she usually bought whatever was cheapest at the secondhand store. But she often envied Cadash’s skill with clothing and makeup, the way the dwarf used those tools to tell the world exactly who they were.

Cadash reached the end of the stack of money with quick efficiency. “Every penny as usual.” They smiled. “Are you enjoying your magical elf pamphlet?”

“It’s riveting reading,” Mei said dryly. She liked Cadash—as much as you could like someone you owed a lot of money to—but she felt the hair on the back of her neck prickle a bit at their tone and the reference to magic. “How many payments left?”

“Just five.” Cadash didn’t even have to look at a ledger. “Hey. I’ve got a question for you. How much do you know about the local lyrium trade?”

Mei felt every muscle and bone in her body freeze. “Nothing,” she said honestly.

“Figured as much.” Cadash’s tone was casual, as if they’d asked if Mei liked cats or knew a good place to buy a sandwich. “But given your taste in reading material, I’m guessing you know some magically inclined folks?”

Mei swallowed and nodded.

Cadash’s expression turned serious. “Tell them to watch out. Something weird’s happening. There’s an anonymous someone buying up huge stocks of lyrium directly from the usual supplier. And it’s not hitting the streets.”

Mei’s mouth opened in a surprised little O. The largest purchaser of lyrium in Denerim was, of course, the Templar Order—but that was all done through legal channels and a very elaborate trade contract with Orzammar. Cadash was referring to the illegal lyrium trade, the one that fueled addicts and gave apostate mages materials for potions. If someone was buying up everything the Carta had and then not selling it …

“Someone’s stockpiling lyrium,” she said, her eyebrows drawing together.

“Or using a shit-ton of it themselves,” Cadash agreed.

Mei felt her mind start whirring. “Do you think the robbery yesterday is connected?”

“Hard to say. There are a lot of reasons to steal money besides lyrium. But the timing seems … worth noting.” Cadash tapped their lips thoughtfully.

Mei grimaced. She didn’t have enough pieces to assemble a puzzle yet, but she didn’t much like what was taking shape. “Thanks for the warning, Cadash.”

Cadash waved an airy hand. “Anything for a loyal customer. Don’t mention it.” They paused, then, and for the first time Mei thought Cadash looked just a bit uneasy. “I mean that, though. You didn’t hear that from me.”

Mei nodded. “See you next week?”

“And the four after that,” Cadash agreed, pulling their monocle back into place and turning once more to their book.

Despite the long walk ahead, Mei went well out of her way to a payphone that could not reasonably be connected to Cadash before calling Max. She didn’t have much change, but fortunately Max answered on the second ring.

“Knight-Captain Trevelyan.”

“Max, it’s Mei.” She looked over her shoulder before continuing, even though she knew she was being paranoid. “I just got a tip that I thought I should pass on. Someone’s buying up Carta lyrium. As in all of it.”

On the other end of the line, Max let out a low whistle. “Wow. How good’s your information?”

“Pretty good, I think. I don’t know the source all that well, but I think they’re in a position to know and wouldn’t pass this on unless they were sure.”

Max, bless him, didn’t ask more. “Damn. That might just be a motive for yesterday’s robbery. I’ll look into it.”

Mei pressed her lips together. “You’re investigating that robbery?”

Max chuckled humorlessly. “I am indeed. It was decided that we needed to send someone important to show Denerim the Templars care.”

Mei’s hand tightened around the receiver. “Be careful, OK?”

“Bah, don’t worry about me. If I died in the line of duty my family would never let me live it down. Failure’s not an option for Trevelyans,” Max said lightly. “Thanks for the tip, Mei. And watch your back out there.”

Mei hung up the phone with an odd sense of disappointment. She’d expected Max to ask for her help, she realized—to ask if she could look into local apostates, or find out more about the lyrium trade. But she was technically a civilian now; that kind of help would have been completely inappropriate.

With a wistful little sigh, Mei started the walk back home.

Chapter Text

Max almost didn’t answer the phone when it rang—he was on his way out for a meeting—but when he heard Mei’s voice on the other end of the line he was glad he’d decided to procrastinate a bit.

He quickly went from glad to worried, however. Mei wouldn’t pass along a tip like that unless she thought it was genuine. And while she hadn’t lived outside the Circle very long, Mei was smart and placed her trust in people carefully. If she thought there was something to the rumor that an unknown someone was buying up lyrium, there probably was. Could the robbery be related, an attempt to get enough money to pay off the Carta? Or were these two entirely separate events linked only by timing?

With this puzzle swirling in his brain, Max left to meet the new First Enchanter.

Vivienne de Fer had wasted no time in ridding Irving’s office of the older man’s trinkets and decor. When Max opened the door, it looked as if she’d occupied the office for years. An expensive rug covered the floor, art was hung on the walls, and elegant lamps lit the room. Every office in the Denerim Circle had the same ugly burgundy curtains, but somehow Vivienne had gotten them replaced with ice-blue drapes.

Vivienne herself was a striking woman in her early forties with strong cheekbones, full lips, and skin as dark as Max’s. She wore her hair close-cropped and her makeup was subtle and skillfully applied. When she stood and offered her hand, Max noticed that she had made a few modifications to the standard Enchanter’s suit—she’d added lighter blue piping along the collar and cuffs and had her jacket tailored to flatter her figure rather than hanging loose around her body. She looked elegant and powerful, and Max had no doubt that was exactly the effect she’d been going for.

“Knight-Captain Trevelyan. A pleasure, darling.” She beamed at him as they shook hands. There was something a bit condescending in that smile, as if Max were a friend’s clever child and she was treating him like an adult to amuse herself. And maybe that was exactly how she saw him, because her next words were, “You do resemble your father. I knew him at my first Circle in Ostwick. Give him my best, won’t you?”

“The pleasure is mine, First Enchanter,” Max replied smoothly. “I’ll be sure to tell Father you said hello. He said we’re lucky to have you here.”

“How very nice of him.” Vivienne smiled as they both sat. “I hope you don’t mind, but I’ve asked Agent Pentaghast to join us. I think we need to put our heads together about this little robbery the local Guard has thrown in our laps.”

Max tried to hide his surprise. How did she get up to speed on our current cases and decorate her office in twenty-four hours? “What about Knight-Commander Greagoir?” he asked. “Will he be joining us?”

“Oh, did no one tell you, darling?” Vivienne folded her hands in front of her and tilted her head sympathetically. “Greagoir’s decided to accept a transfer to Orlais. It’s a better climate for a man of his age. We’ll sort out a new Knight-Commander shortly.”

The audacity of that “we” took Max’s breath away. Few mages would have dared to hint that they might have influence over a Templar appointment, much less stated out loud that they did. He quietly reevaluated Vivienne’s chances of going toe-to-toe with Meredith.

“Agent Pentaghast will fill in for the time being,” Vivienne continued easily. “Ah, here she is. Cassandra, dear. Thank you for coming.”

Agent Pentaghast did not appear entirely comfortable with being called “dear,” but she inclined her head respectfully as she closed the door behind her. Despite her discomfort she cut a striking figure. The Seekers wore dark grey suits instead of the lighter silver-grey of the standard Templar Agent, and against Cassandra’s creamy skin and dark hair the effect was severe and intimidating. “First Enchanter,” the Seeker said in her steady Navarran accent. “I am pleased to see you’ve gotten settled so quickly.”

“Well, there was hardly much to do. Is everything in Ferelden so cramped and small, do you think?” Vivienne asked with a little arched eyebrow.

The comment reminded Max of Mei’s observation: That Vivienne thought Ferelden was backwards and uncultured. She’s not here to stay, he told himself. She’s got her eyes on her next job already. Remember that.

Cassandra frowned. “By Navarran standards I have found the space adequate.”

“Ah. Well, I’m glad you’ve been comfortable.” Vivienne turned her gaze to Max, her focus suddenly laser-precise. “Now then. Tell us about this robbery.”

Max recounted what he’d gleaned from the files as best he could. He wished he’d had time to prepare a more elegant and linear presentation. He suspected Vivienne had intended the surprise meeting as a test, though, so he did his best to pass. Cassandra listened intently, her face grave; Vivienne’s face gave away nothing, though she did make a disapproving scoff when Max described the robbers’ use of fire magic.

“One more thing. Just this morning I received a tip from a source in Denerim,” he finished. “The usual supply of illegal lyrium isn’t hitting the streets. Someone’s buying it up straight from the Carta. Could be unrelated, but if I owed the Carta money, I might get desperate enough to rob a bank.”

Vivienne leaned back with raised eyebrows. “Most interesting.”

“And disturbing.” Cassandra’s dark brows drew together. “What use might apostate mages find for such a quantity of lyrium?”

“Too many possibilities to guess,” Max said wryly. “Even if it’s unrelated, I think we should look into it. Marcus Amell is still at large.” Not for the first time, he grimaced in regret about that. He’d thought Amell was just another victim of Uldred’s schemes when they’d run across him during the crisis, but apparently he’d been in on the plot from the beginning.

Vivienne tapped her fingers against the desk. “I don’t disagree. But I think the robbery must be your first priority, Knight-Captain. There’s not a newspaper in the city that doesn’t have it on their front page, and with Meredith Stannard making noise about whether Denerim needs the Circle, I believe we must be the ones to solve it.” She looked at Max. “Specifically, the acknowledged hero of the Circle crisis needs to be the one putting the robbers in handcuffs. We need to give the people of Denerim an appealing face to associate with the Templars.”

Apparently the fun part of being a hero is over, Max thought wryly. He tried to ignore the nagging worry about what would happen if he failed.

 


 

At an unsteady round table in the back of Denerim’s apostate bar, Marcus Amell cleared his throat to call the meeting to order.

It didn’t work, of course. Most of the group was laughing and talking, riding high on yesterday’s success. Greta and Ash were both receiving enthusiastic slaps on the back for their part in the robbery; both were on their fourth drink of the afternoon.

The third person who had gone with them, however, was stone-cold sober and sitting by herself, her sharp face thoughtful. When she saw Marcus looking at her, he tried to smile encouragingly. “You did well, Varania.”

That was apparently not the right response. “I am aware that we succeeded,” Varania replied coolly in a pronounced Imperium accent. The elf’s expression made it clear exactly how much she valued Marcus’s good opinion.

To hide his embarrassment, Marcus clapped his hands loudly until the assembled group quieted down—except for Ash and Greta, who had their heads together and were giggling like idiots. Marcus would have bet good money on the two of them ending up in bed tonight, if they hadn’t already.

“The handoff went smoothly,” he said once everyone was quiet. “We are square with our suppliers—in fact, they are in our debt. Our stocks are healthier than ever and our suppliers will compensate us in product next week.”

A scattered round of applause went around the table, but it was quickly silenced by Marcus’s glare. While the bar's regulars had mostly proven supportive, it was probably best not to draw attention while debriefing a bank robbery.

“What exactly are we going to do with all of this lyrium?” Greta asked, more loudly than Marcus would have liked.

We really need to find another meeting place. “It’s for defense, Greta.” Marcus smiled and tried to look like a kind and patient man. “Make no mistake, the Templars are coming for us. When they do, we’ll be ready.”

Even as he said those words he knew they were stupidly vague. In truth, Marcus had not yet worked out a plan. He dreamed at night of storming the Circle’s walls with an army of fellow mages, wielding blood magic and lyrium potions and spells the Circle had never seen fit to teach them. He wanted to do what Uldred could not: free the prisoners in the Denerim Circle and force the Templars to come from across Thedas to reckon with an army of free mages. But to do that, they would have to win the first confrontation—and Marcus was wise enough to admit that he did not know how to secure that victory.

Fortunately, his benefactor claimed to have some ideas.

“Where is the lyrium being stored?” Ash demanded, his low baritone rumbling in his barrel chest.

“It is secure.” Varania was the one who said this; her voice was cold and disinterested, clearly discouraging further questions.

Ash, however, was either too tipsy or too oblivious to pick up on that. “I know. But, like, where ?”

“We’re not going to discuss that in a public setting,” Marcus said sharply. “Now then. Updates on the local mage community? Any promising future allies?”

“I still don’t see why we don’t invite Anders.” Greta, smaller than Ash, had had the same number of drinks and was therefore significantly drunker; her voice alternated between loud and quiet with nearly every word. “He hates the Circles and he’s powerful as shit. And doesn’t he hold some sort of escape record?”

Marcus felt his back teeth clench shut. “He does. But he never brought a single other mage out of the Circle with him,” he said with exaggerated patience. “We need people who can be counted on to stand up for all mages. Someone that selfish has no place in what we’re trying to do.”

Plus, we don’t know who he’ll tell. Juliet Hawke was an apostate herself; maybe she’d sympathize. But Marcus could still see the contempt on her face when she’d told him that he was to blame for the disaster at the Circle. He sincerely doubted she’d be signing up to follow him into battle, no matter how good his cause.

Greta wrinkled her nose but didn’t argue further. Marcus found himself unreasonably relieved by her acquiescence. The blonde mage had been a fixture of Denerim’s apostate scene for far longer than he had and he needed her on his side.

“For now, I see no reason to plan new operations,” he continued. “But we’ll meet again tomorrow to discuss our status.”

The group broke up quickly after Marcus’s dismissal, returning to drinking and clapping Greta and Ash on the back. Marcus could feel sweat pooling underneath his armpits and at the back of his neck.

Why wasn’t that easier? They were coming off a risky but successful operation, Greta and Ash were getting the hero worship they had been desperately wishing for, no one had gotten hurt—what did these people bloody want from him, an endless supply of lyrium to snort straight up their nostrils? Meredith Stannard’s head on a literal platter?

They want a plan, you idiot, he told himself. They want to know the endgame, just like you do.

I just need them to be patient a little longer. I’ll figure out how to make the Circles pay.

He scrubbed his fingers through his curling hair—now overlong due to lack of money for a haircut—and looked over at Varania. The redhaired elf was still watching him with that cool, disdainful expression. “If we are done here, we should attend to my master.”

Marcus tried to hide just how nervous that prospect made him. “Right. Of course. We’ll head over now.”

 


 

Side-by-side with Varania, Marcus made his way through the Denerim streets. It was a long walk from the shabby part of town where the apostate bar made its home to the posh, safe streets with the city’s fanciest hotels, but they did not have much of a choice. There was no bus line that connected Marcus’s part of town with this one, and he didn’t want to spend any bills that could be connected to the robbery. He rather thought Varania could and should have offered to hail a cab, but she didn’t.

The Ferelden Arms, where Varania and her friends currently made their home, was the oldest of Denerim’s grand hotels. Marcus had little experience with fine, expensive things—a childhood and adulthood inside a prison would do that to you—but to his eye, the Arms was the least impressive of the bunch. The exterior looked worn and tired, its brick facade weathered, and the interior was dimly lit, its carpets heavy and dark and its windows half-hidden behind heavy drapes. A faint perfume hung in the air, but Marcus found it cloying rather than appealing. Perhaps Varania agreed, because the deeper they ventured into the hotel, the closer they drew to the elevators, the stiffer and more uncomfortable she seemed.

They ascended swiftly to the top floor thanks to the private elevator associated with the hotel’s most expensive room. Marcus took the opportunity to study Varania a bit. As ever, her clothing was almost painfully simple; today it was a cream linen tunic two sizes too big belted over shabby brown leggings. Her appearance was always at such odds with the image the other Tevinters presented, and Marcus had not yet deciphered why. Varania was clearly a junior apprentice—perhaps the money and finery was saved for the more skilled mages? Or was she trying to blend in with Denerim’s apostates, who were on the whole a shabby bunch?

The dark wooden elevator doors slid open, and Marcus stepped into the hallway in front of the suite.

Varania knocked—a rapid tattoo of beats that changed every time they came here—and the door quickly opened, revealing one of the elven servants. He inclined his head respectfully at Varania. “Mistress.”

Was it Marcus’s imagination, or did she twitch a bit at this word?

“Tell our master that we are here,” Varania said calmly as the door shut. The servant bowed and vanished down the corridor, headed for one of the many rooms in this suite that Marcus had never seen.

Marcus crossed the room and took a seat on an overstuffed red couch next to the window. It was one of those awkwardly low sofas with an angled back that seemed designed to make it difficult to get up again. Denerim’s idea of luxury almost made him miss the practical Circle furniture. He perched on its edge and kept his back straight, trying to look like a man you could trust to lead a mage uprising. Varania perched as far away from him as she could on a little armchair upholstered in white and gold.

But both of them stood when Danarius entered the room.

Marcus had seen drawings of magisters in various books in the Circle. They were usually pretty men and women, allegedly kept young with the use of wicked blood magic. So in a way he was comforted by Danarius’s appearance. He was wrinkled, with dark circles underneath his eyes and cavernous cheeks that gave him a nearly skeletal appearance. His expensive clothing seemed somewhat at odds with his beard, which was ragged and greasy and made Marcus wish he’d find the nearest bar of soap and give it a good scrubbing for once.

A scholar’s appearance, Marcus told himself. He cares about magic, not about his hair.

The slender magister’s mouth curved upwards. “Marcus. Varania. So good of you to join me. You’ve done well.”

“Thank you,” Varania said, bowing her head in acknowledgement of his compliment.

Marcus, however, bristled at his tone. He wasn’t a damn apprentice any more. Danarius might be powerful and wealthy, and they did need his help, but he was not going to bow to anyone, not ever again. “I think we need to begin discussing next steps, Danarius,” he said bluntly. “My people are getting restless and I don’t blame them. We need a clear plan in place, even if its realization may be years away.”

Danarius laughed. The sound was soft and eerie and made the hair on the back of Marcus’s neck stand on end. “Years? Marcus, you underestimate us.” He walked to the window and pushed one of the heavy drapes aside, staring across the Denerim skyline as if it was his own personal domain. “A Denerim safe for mages is far closer than you think.”

He turned his head and met Marcus’s eyes. “We will remake this city into a free mages’ paradise where those with our abilities are celebrated, not imprisoned. And if you follow my lead, it will be a matter of weeks before the first steps in our revolution are realized.”

The vision was so tantalizing that Marcus wanted to throw himself into it, almost wished someone would strike him across the head so he could wake up after his coma in this utopia Danarius promised. But he had been down this road with Uldred; this time he could not just blindly follow and hope for the best.

“How?” he asked bluntly. “I like the future you’re describing, don’t misunderstand. But my people need to know what they should do tomorrow, not just what things might look like in weeks or months.”

Something ugly flashed in Danarius’s silver-grey eyes, and for a moment Marcus thought he might have offended. But the magister’s voice was even and unflustered when he responded.

“If you are so eager, Marcus, tomorrow it is. To make this city accept its mages, we must remind them of the good mages can do if we are their friends.” A yellowed smile curved on his face. “Which means showing them what it’s like if mages are their enemies.”

He snapped his fingers. “Bring me the list from my desk,” the magister said without looking at the servant. “It is time to begin selecting targets.”

Chapter Text

Naia managed to sleep until eight the next morning, a blessed relief after several insomnia-interrupted nights before it. When she woke and saw the clock she wondered if Dog would be disappointed at missing a morning run, but her mabari was slumbering peacefully on his dog bed in the corner of her loft. Guess he needed the sleep too.

She was halfway through her second cup of coffee when the phone rang. She almost considered not answering it—Maker, she had enough to do today without one more emergency—but she knew it would nag at her if she didn’t. “Hello?”

“Good morning, my stunning employer.”

Naia smiled, her irritation instantly gone. “Good morning yourself, Zevran. You’re not at the office already, are you?”

“Alas, the hot water pipes broke again this morning. It was another early wakeup and cold shower for me.”

Well, cold or not, Zevran in the shower was an arresting mental image. Naia shook her head and tried to focus. “What’s up?”

“There was a hit this morning on the credit card we’ve been tracking for Lenora Osland. The Ferelden Arms Hotel.”

“Ah, the perpetual choice of cheaters,” Naia said with an amused chuckle. The grand old hotel was famously discreet, known for being close-lipped about its guests. It was also one of the few expensive hotels in the area that accepted cash, though apparently Mr. Osland hadn’t known that.

“It is a small charge by Arms standards.” She could hear Zevran rustling papers in the background. “Likely room service, or perhaps breakfast at the restaurant. It is possible they have not checked out yet. Should I attempt surveillance or do you want me in the office?”

“Surveillance,” Naia said immediately. A picture of Osland checking out of the Ferelden Arms when he was supposed to be on business in Highever would be solid gold for Lenora’s divorce filing. “I’d do it, but I’m supposed to be at the Guard by nine. Get there as soon as you can.”

“For you? Anything,” the Antivan replied before hanging up the phone.

Naia set her earpiece back on the receiver almost reluctantly. She could feel the stupid grin on her face, but since she was alone she didn’t bother hiding it. Even though Zevran flirted shamelessly with everyone, her heart still beat a little faster when it was directed at her. There was no denying it; her initial attraction to Zev had blossomed into a full-blown crush.

Keep it together, she told herself, taking a deep breath. Time to head back to the Guard.

 


 

There was almost no way Zevran could photograph the lobby of the Ferelden Arms Hotel discreetly. He therefore decided to be as obvious as possible. He waltzed through the revolving door with his camera around his neck and a sketchpad under one arm, his nose raised in disdain as he looked around. He didn’t even have to fake the disdain. The Ferelden Arms’s decor would have been fashionable fifty years ago; now it simply looked tired and frumpy.

The lobby was nearly empty of people save for a mismatched couple exiting the penthouse elevator—a red-haired elven woman and an older human man with an extremely unfortunate beard. Zevran quickly snapped a couple of photographs, but the man did not resemble the photographs Lenora Osland had given them, so he stopped after the first shots. Instead, he drew out a sketch pad and began drawing the room, pausing to frown, tilt his head, and occasionally shoot a photograph.

As soon as the departing guests had exited the building, the manager came out from behind the desk with an unhappy expression on his face. “Sir, I’m going to have to ask you to leave. We don’t permit photography of our guests.”

“I am photographing the room, not the guests,” Zevran said dismissively. He produced a business card from the breast pocket of his linen jacket, one of the several dozen fakes Naia had printed up for him when he’d started with Tabris Investigations. This one identified him as a Senior Designer at Custom Interiors.

He gave the manager a haughty sniff. “I am Antonio, and apparently I am to do something about … this.” He waved his arm around the room, including the dusty chandeliers, the tired carpets, and the manager’s ugly maroon blazer in the gesture. “I cannot do my work if I am not permitted to take images of the space, no? The owners assured me this would not be a problem. What did you say your name was?”

“I—oh. My apologies, sir,” the manager said, paling a bit. “Please, continue.” He dropped his voice. “We’ve been dying for a few upgrades, if you don’t mind me saying so.”

Zevran smiled. “Yes, the place is rather shabby, no? I am pleased you agree.”

With the manager dealt with, Zevran went back to his sketching and photographing, and settled in to wait for the possibly unfaithful Mr. Osland.

 


 

Naia arrived at Guard headquarters to find Donnic frantically flipping through the pages of an official-looking document bearing the Guard seal on its cover.

“Have you seen this?” he demanded, shoving it in her direction.

“This internal memo addressed specifically to you? Nope, wasn’t on my morning reading list,” Naia teased. She accepted the papers and looked down at the memo’s title with a tilted eyebrow. “Upcoming address to the Denerim Chamber of Commerce?”

“They want me to give a speech on how businesses can prevent and deter crime.” Donnic’s face was practically green. “A speech. In front of people.

“You’re great at talking to people,” Naia reassured him. “You’re amazing with witnesses.”

“That’s one-on-one. This is a bunch of rich people staring at me. Maker, what am I supposed to say to them?” Donnic ran his hand through his hair. “And when am I going to have time to write a speech? Do you think they gave me this because they don’t think the task force is doing valuable work?”

Naia shook her head. “No way. If the Guard leadership didn’t think you were doing your job, Aveline Vallen would come down here and yell at you in person.”

Unexpectedly, Donnic’s whole demeanor changed. The tension around his eyes relaxed and a smile curved his mouth. It was like the mention of the Guard-Captain’s name had instantly cheered him. “That’s true, she would,” he said with a little chuckle.

Aha. So that’s who he’s interested in. Suddenly Donnic’s reluctance to approach his crush made a lot more sense. Asking your boss out on a date was a tricky prospect. Especially if the boss was a no-nonsense, no-frivolity woman like Aveline Vallen. Naia wondered if she should say something encouraging, but she had no idea how the Guard-Captain would respond  if Donnic asked her for a drink.

She decided not to risk giving bad advice. “I bet they just asked you to do this because they think you’re likeable. I wouldn’t worry too much about it.” She gave him a friendly clap on the shoulder.

“I’ll try not to.” But Donnic still looked a little green around the gills.

*

Naia always felt a little strange about using the restroom at the Guard house. She was an outsider, and she knew that not everyone was happy the Guard had brought in an elven consultant to help Donnic’s task force. She couldn’t help tensing up when she saw Guard boots underneath a stall. But she quickly pushed that worry from her face when Aveline Vallen herself emerged and took the sink next to hers.

“Morning, Guard-Captain,” Naia said with a smile. As usual, she tried to pretend that she didn’t find Aveline extremely intimidating.

“Good morning, Ms. Tabris.” Aveline appeared to be lost in thought as she washed her hands, but then her eyes flicked upwards and met Naia’s in the mirror. “Have you seen Detective Hendyr this morning, by any chance?”

“I just came from his desk, actually. Need me to pass on a message?”

The Guard-Captain shook her head quickly. “No, no. I was just wondering—did he mention a speech we asked him to give?”

“He did, yeah,” Naia replied cautiously.

“I hope he was pleased.” There was something almost tentative in the Guard-Captain’s voice.

“I—oh yeah, of course. I mean, who doesn’t like public speaking?” Naia forced a grin.

The Guard-Captain’s face fell. “He wasn’t pleased.”

“Um. He—well—um.” For the first time in a while Naia’s words failed her. Finally, she blurted out, “I don’t think he has much experience with Chamber of Commerce types. And he’s sort of wondering why him.”

The Guard-Captain turned to look at her directly, her face filled with bafflement. “But—it was meant as a reward. He does good work and deserves to be a public face of the Guard. Surely he’d see that.”

Naia’s eyebrows drew together. “That’s a pretty vague way to deliver a compliment.”

Then something clicked in her brain. Her jaw dropped. “Wait a minute. The copper marigolds—was that you ?”

Aveline’s face went pale under her freckles. “He told you about those? How could he? It was meant to be discreet, a message for him alone!” Her mouth was tight and tense and she crossed her arms defensively.

“It was discreet, all right. He had no idea what it meant or who sent it. He actually had it checked for explosives.” Naia stared at the Guard-Captain. How could such a decisive woman be so ineffective at telling someone she liked them?

Aveline pressed a hand to her forehead. “Maker. This would be so much easier if I could just send his mother four goats and a sheaf of wheat.”

“I … don’t know what that means. Is that a shem thing?” Naia joked, trying to lighten the mood. “Do you humans exchange goats when you start a relationship?”

“It’s a old country dowry tradition,” Aveline said through gritted teeth as an embarrassed blush flooded her face.

“There’s a great new tradition in Denerim. You ask someone you like out for a drink,” Naia suggested.

“I can’t—bah! I do not want to put a member of my Guard in that position. Just—just forget it all.” Aveline’s face resumed her usual intimidating glare. “And Maker help me, Tabris, if you breathe a word of this to anyone—”

Naia raised both hands in surrender. “I’ve already forgotten it,” she lied cheerfully.

 


 

“So I have to say something, right?” Naia helped herself to a handful of chips from the bag in the middle of Juliet’s desk. “He likes her. She likes him. Neither of them know how the other one feels. It’s like I’m the only one who has both pieces of the puzzle. I have to do something.”

From his seat on the other side of the desk, Fenris looked over at Juliet. “Is there any point in advising her to stay out of it?” he asked dryly.

“Not really,” Varric said, taking a bite from his sandwich.

Juliet reached for a napkin. “Only to reassure yourself that you did the right thing.”

Fenris nodded gravely and turned to meet Naia’s eyes. “In that case, I advise you to stay out of it. Detective Hendyr and Guard-Captain Vallen are capable people. If they wish to be together, they will find their way.”

Naia looked pointedly between Juliet and Fenris, her eyebrow arched.

“We’re a bad example,” Juliet informed her. “And anyway, shouldn’t you be focusing on your own love life?”

Her best friend’s lively, expressive face immediately went blank. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“I suspect she is talking about Zevran Arainai, the assassin you have inexplicably decided to employ.” Fenris shook his head. “Your interest in him is rather noticeable.”

Juliet laughed as a blush crept into Naia’s cheeks—but stopped when Naia cast her eyes down at her lunch.

“I can’t—it’s not a good idea,” the elf said softly.

“Why not?” Juliet cast a quick glance back; the entryway to the office was still empty. Presumably Zevran was still on stakeout. Good. This would be an embarrassing conversation for him to overhear.

“It’s just—he’s been through a lot. Leaving the Crows, trying to get settled in Denerim, figuring out what to do now that he’s not a professional assassin. And now I sign his paychecks. He might say yes because he thinks he has to. Or he might say no and run away in horror,” she added, a forced lightness in her tone. “And then we’d lose a perfectly good junior employee. I’m not sure I can find anyone else who’s qualified and willing to take the garbage salary we pay.”

Juliet sat back in her chair with her eyebrows raised. Naia made a good point. Zevran enjoyed making light of his experiences with the Crows, but from what she’d heard, the guild hadn’t given him many choices in his life, up to and including who he slept with. It was just like Naia to worry about whether she’d be taking unfair advantage.

But Juliet wondered if that was the whole story behind Naia’s reluctance to act on her crush. The elf was a fiercely loyal friend, but when it came to romance she was the most commitment-phobic person Juliet knew. Her love life had been a series of casual relationships and short-term flings, always ending before anything became too serious. Dating someone she already knew and liked would be a major break with the pattern.

“I wouldn’t worry about him saying no, Sparks. He flirts with you constantly,” Varric pointed out. “It’s actually kind of revolting. I’ve been meaning to complain about it.”

“It doesn’t mean anything, Varric. He flirts with everyone . I think the only reason he stopped hitting on Fenris was because he thought Hawke might break him in half.” Naia shook her head. “For now I’m keeping things strictly professional.” She picked up a chip and crunched it decisively between her teeth.

“A wise decision. Perhaps the Detective and the Guard-Captain will arrive at the same one,” Fenris suggested.

Naia swallowed. “No way. They’re perfect for each other. We’ve just got to get them out of the Guard house so they can be Donnic and Aveline instead of a Detective and Guard-Captain.” She beamed as inspiration struck. “Let’s invite them both to a bar! I’ll scout out possible locations the next time I go to the Guard house.”

Fenris pinched the bridge of his nose and sighed heavily.

Juliet tilted her head back with a laugh. “You did your best,” she consoled him, patting the back of his chair.

 


 

Alistair arrived for his shift and went straight to the duty roster to see who he’d been paired with for the day. So far, he’d gotten along with his fellow Guardsmen much better than he had with other Templar trainees. Only one pairing—an elf named Oriel who thought Eamon Guerrin was a weakling and a mage sympathizer—had been an outright disaster. But he was still more than pleased to see Lace Harding’s name next to his.

“Looks like you’re stuck with me again,” the dwarf told him when she saw the list, her freckled face cheerful and smiling.

Me, stuck with you ? You’ve got it all backwards. I assume you lost a bet of some sort.” Alistair raised his eyebrows. “Come on, you can tell me.”

“You got me. I’ve been playing after-hours poker at some very questionable places,” Harding deadpanned. “So. What’s our neighborhood assignment?”

Alistair examined the list and groaned. “Theirin Park.” He and Harding had drawn patrol in one of the city’s wealthiest neighborhoods. People outside the Guard assumed this would be a soft assignment; in reality, it was one of the most annoying ones. Denerim’s elite was fond of calling the Guard over every stranger in the neighborhood. Those strangers usually turned out to be delivery people or gardeners. And there wasn’t a single affordable place to get lunch anywhere in those tree-shaded streets.

Plus, there was the added weirdness of knowing that he was technically one of the Theirins for whom the neighborhood was named.

“Well, that’s what we get for being newcomers,” Harding said with a shrug. “Come on, let’s go investigate some strange noises that turn out to be escaped house cats.”

*

Alistair and Harding were no more than halfway to their patrol route when the radio crackled to life. “Car 4602, respond. This is Guard HQ with a call for 4602, over.”

The number sounded familiar. Alistair frowned. “Wait, is that …”

“Yep.” Harding took the radio and depressed the talk button. “This is 4602, en route to Theirin Park, over.” She looked over at Alistair with a sigh. “So, let’s take bets. Pizza guy or angry pug?”

“Ooh, I hope it’s the pug. That’s the dog with the funny squashed face, right?” Alistair chuckled at the image of a barking pug terrorizing the sedate streets of Theirin Park.

The radio crackled again. “4602, we need you to respond to a robbery in progress at the Leske Pawn Shop on East Rowan Boulevard.”

“Holy shit, is that Guard-Captain Vallen?” Harding asked, her jaw dropping.

“That’s nowhere near Theirin Park.” Alistair frowned in confusion, but took his next right turn anyway, driving the car east.

“Witnesses say the robbers are using magic,” the Guard-Captain continued. “Repeat, witnesses say the robbers are using magic. We need 4602 specifically, over.”

And I’m their ex-Templar, sort of. Right. Alistair gripped the steering wheel a little harder and tried to look confident as he flicked on the siren.

As the car accelerated, Harding took a breath and pressed the talk button again. “Acknowledged, HQ. 4602 on our way. Over.”

*

Alistair pulled the car to a screeching halt in front of the Leske Pawn Shop just as a masked figure ran out. The robber clutched a paper bag in their left arm and they began to run down the sidewalk, stopping only to twist and fling their right hand back at the store they had just robbed. A massive fireball exploded from their palm and struck the wooden door to the pawn shop, sending it up in flames. Inside, Alistair could hear a scream, but it seemed to be one of alarm rather than pain. Even so it put every nerve in his body on edge.

“This is 4602. We need fire department backup. Repeat, we need fire department backup!” Harding shouted into the radio.

Alistair flung the patrol car’s door open and broke out into a dead run. His feet hit the pavement with almost painful force as he chased the suspect—an elf, he thought, though it was hard to tell with the mask. “Denerim Guard!” he yelled. “Stop immediately! I am binding you for questioning in—”

The mage glanced behind their shoulder and threw another fireball at Alistair. It was smaller than the one at the pawn shop and not nearly as powerful, its flames flickering and weak. They’re running out of mana, Alistair thought as he braced for impact.

His Templar training held; he only felt a bit singed as the spell shattered around him. But the flames had bought the suspect just enough time. A black car pulled up at the end of the block and someone inside it pushed the door open. The mage ran headfirst into the car, diving across the seat, and the car pulled away with a screech and the smell of burning rubber. Alistair could barely catch the first three numbers on the license plate before it was out of sight.

“Blast it!” he gasped, gulping for air as his sprint caught up with him. He allowed himself only a moment before running back to help Harding.

By the time he got there, Harding and the pawn shop owner had gotten the blaze under control with fire extinguishers and blankets. The flames had all but consumed the door; it had fallen from a shattered, smoldering doorframe into the shop, and flakes of ash floated in the air as Alistair stepped inside. The dwarven victim was pale and shaken, his hands trembling as he stared at the blackened wreck.

“I keep a gun for emergencies. But what is a gun supposed to do against a fucking mage?” he asked Harding, shaking his head from side to side. “I gave her all the cash and jewelry we had on hand and she still almost blasted me into oblivion!”

A crowd was starting to gather outside the store; Harding tossed Alistair a roll of yellow crime scene tape.

“You think the robber was a woman?” she asked the victim.

He nodded his head emphatically. “Sounded like one, anyway. Definitely an elf. Weird accent.”

“Weird how?” Harding’s pen and notebook were out now and she was scribbling frantically. Alistair tried to block the onlookers’ view of his partner and the victim as he strung the crime scene tape across the door.

“I dunno. Not from around here, that’s for sure.” The pawn shop owner rubbed his hands across his face, smearing sweat and soot into a black paste across his forehead. “She used the wrong words for things. Called my cash register a ‘till.’”

Witnesses at the bank said one of the robbers had an accent, Alistair thought. Is it the same woman? What does she need to pay for if she’s committing two robberies in three days?

His mind spinning, he went back to the patrol car to get the evidence camera—photographs of the damage at the shop would one day need to be admitted into a courtroom, if they were lucky and caught the thief.

We’ll have to be very lucky. “Mage with an accent” wasn’t no information, but it also wasn’t a lot to go on. Alistair opened the trunk of the car and pulled out the camera and the associated labels. He squinted at the shop and tried to reconstruct what he’d seen, what they would need to mark out as significant.

His musings were interrupted, however, when the radio crackled back to life.

“Robbery in progress at Calenhad University. Magic reported, over.”

Alistair hadn’t even begun to process that when another call came through.

“Robbery with magic in progress at Denerim Savings and Loan, over.”

“Robbery with magic reported at South Capital Jewelry, over.”

Alistair’s fingers tightened around the camera as he stared helplessly at the radio. Andraste’s ass. It’s a bloody crime wave.

Chapter Text

Alistair watched the procession through the window of Guard-Captain Vallen’s office. Eight Templars were marching towards the Guard house, their swords gleaming in the spring light, their silver suits perfectly pressed and their ties neat as pins. He spotted Cullen Rutherford’s blonde head and flinched instinctively. His memories of the Templar Academy involved a great deal of Agent Rutherford upbraiding him for laziness, indifference, and being generally unsuited to Templar-ing.

To be fair, some of his lectures were pretty accurate.

Three figures walked at the head of the group. One was Max Trevelyan. The second was a woman Alistair had only seen in photographs—Cassandra Pentaghast, the celebrated Seeker. The third wore a blue Enchanter’s suit and was not someone Alistair recognized from his time at the Circle. Based on the authority she projected, and on the fact that she was the only mage among the group, he suspected she was the Circle’s new First Enchanter.

“Twelve robberies. Maker.”

Alistair turned from the window. Aveline Vallen was staring at a hastily erected map of Denerim. Twelve purple pins marked the locations of the day’s magical crimes; they were frustratingly scattered, lacking any geographical pattern that Alistair could discern.

“The Templars are here,” he said unnecessarily. “They only brought one mage.” He supposed that wasn’t surprising, given what the mages at the Denerim Circle had been through, but he’d expected to at least see Mei Surana with them.

Detective Leto stepped to Aveline’s side and glowered at the purple pins, as if he could undo the crimes through sheer force of will and lots of staring. “Let us hope they are equal to this task,” he said cooly. He looked as exhausted as Alistair felt, his silver hair limp and tangled with sweat. The two of them, the Guard’s best hopes of capturing a mage alive, had spent the day trying to pursue the robbers across their crime spree. But the mages were smart and careful. They struck fast, had escape routes, and were generally gone by the time a squad car arrived. The three license plate digits Alistair had written down was their best lead so far and that wasn’t saying much.

“Max is with them. So’s Agent Pentaghast. And Agent Rutherford.” Alistair wasn’t sure if that last one was good news or not. “I didn’t recognize the mage but I think she might be their new First Enchanter.”

The Detective’s eyes widened in surprise. Alistair suspected that he had also been expecting Enchanter Surana.

The Guard-Captain looked between them. Aveline Vallen had an impressive poker face, but even so, Alistair could sense the tension and worry and anger behind it. “The local Templars have agreed to work with the Guard on this. What that means, I do not yet know. The two of you worked alongside Knight-Captain Trevelyan at the Circle. Do what you can to smooth the way towards true cooperation.” She looked back at the map. “Whether or not they know it, this is our city. The Templars need our help to protect it.”

 


 

Max could feel all eyes on the group of Templars as they flashed their badges and bypassed the Guard’s metal detectors. Members of the Guard and civilians alike were staring at them with expressions ranging from “mild awe” to “severely pissed off.” Most people just looked uncomfortable. The Guardsmen and Guardswomen were used to seeing an Agent or two at a time, there to take a case. Eight Templars must have seemed like a small army.

Eight Templars and one First Enchanter. He looked over at Vivienne. The mage projected complete indifference to the eyes upon her, but he could feel her taking in every scrap of the scrutiny, evaluating it and weighing it and deciding how she might use it.

Cassandra, meanwhile, was making eye contact with everyone. Most people found a reason to look somewhere else after she did.

Three figures were descending the central stairs to the building’s lobby as Max and his team made their way inside. Aveline Vallen, calm and authoritative in her Guard uniform, led the little party, with Detective Leto a half step behind. Max had expected both of them. But he hadn’t expected Alistair Guerrin.

A pleased grin lit Max’s face as he took in what Alistair was wearing. “Guard green suits you, Alistair. Nice to see you again.”

The younger man smiled back—a genuine smile, but one dimmed with exhaustion. “Nice to see you too, Max. I mean, Knight-Captain. Knight-Captain Trevelyan. Sir.”

From behind him, Max could hear Cullen let out a familiar, weary sigh.

Cassandra immediately offered her hand to Aveline. “Cassandra Pentaghast. We spoke on the phone.”

“Seeker,” the Guard-Captain said crisply, shaking her hand. She and Cassandra locked eyes, and Max watched them as they sized each other up. They nodded to each other at almost the same moment—they had apparently both recognized a kindred spirit when they saw one.

Before Max could even wonder how to handle Vivienne’s introduction, the mage had stepped forward and somehow claimed Aveline’s hand. “Vivienne de Fer, First Enchanter to the Denerim Circle.”

“A pleasure,” Aveline said easily—but behind her, Max could see Fenris Leto stiffen. “My people have been called to the briefing room. We can start when you’re ready.”

Vivienne answered before Max or Cassandra could. “A fine idea. Lead the way, Guard-Captain.”

And here we go. Max took a deep breath through his nose. On the way over, Vivienne had somehow vetoed the idea of Cassandra, the ranking Templar, speaking to the Guard. “Max’s face is known in Denerim, darling. We want to build that relationship, emphasize the essential stability of the Circles.” Cassandra had quickly agreed, though whether out of agreement with Vivienne’s reasoning or a dislike of public speaking, Max wasn’t quite sure. But it seemed an easy enough task.

Or it did until Max walked into the briefing room.

The full Guard was not yet assembled, but the room was already crowded with folding chairs and rickety metal tables. All eyes were on the Templars—and many of those eyes did not look friendly. At least Alistair was taking a seat in the front row.

Win them over, Max told himself. We need their help.

Vivienne appeared to sense his train of thought. “Don’t forget who’s in charge, darling,” she murmured as Guard-Captain Vallen stepped up to the podium.

“Guard,” she called loudly. Silence fell over the room in an instant, and Max saw at least half of the assembled Guard sit up a little straighter as Aveline looked out at the room.

“This afternoon and evening, twelve Denerim businesses were the victims of robberies in which magic was used as a weapon. There is no apparent pattern to the targets, other than being businesses with significant cash on hand. The damage ranged from mild scorching to a blaze that nearly took down the neighboring store. And I fully expect that these twelve are not the last robberies we will see. This is a concerted effort by an unknown group to put the entire city in danger.”

You could have heard a pin drop in that room.

“The Templar Order has jurisdiction over these crimes. They have asked for the Guard’s cooperation, and they are here to tell us how we can work together to bring these criminals to justice. We will defend our city.” Aveline nodded decisively. “Please give your attention to Knight-Captain Maxwell Trevelyan.”

The change in the room as Max took the podium was palpable. They went from silent and attentive to shuffling and skeptical in less time than it took Max to place both hands on the podium. He cleared his throat and decided to get straight to the point. “The Guard and the Templars will need to work together as partners if we are going to catch these people. You know the city; we know magic. We are going to put those skills to use with one goal in mind: to capture at least one of the robbers alive and bring them here for questioning.”

Max locked eyes with several members of his audience. Some of the skepticism was fading. Not all, but enough to give him hope. “From now until this is resolved, I will station Templars at Guard outposts throughout the city. They will respond immediately to any reports of magical robberies and their priority will be apprehending the robbers. Meanwhile, the Guard will handle the victims, take statements, and continue to assist with gathering evidence as we work to build a bigger picture of what’s going on here.”

“What about the mage?”

Max’s fingers tensed against the podium as he looked for the source of the voice. A grey-haired elf in the back straightened and stepped forward. His mouth was twisted in a sneer and his eyes were firmly on Vivienne.

“First Enchanter Vivienne de Fer is an experienced …” Max began.

The elf did not wait for him to finish. “Send her back to her Circle. What guarantee do we have that she’s not one of them ?”

Vivienne smiled pleasantly at the elven Guardsman. “It is nice to hear such support for the Circles. I happen to agree that they are essential for the well-being of mages and civilians alike. It’s why I am a respected First Enchanter and not an apostate who robs pawn shops for amusement, a fact which seems perfectly obvious to everyone but you.” She arched one perfectly groomed eyebrow. “Do try to keep up, darling.”

Soft chuckles echoed around the room as the elf turned red with anger. Max cleared his throat. “As I was saying, the First Enchanter is a valuable part of our team, a mage who is better-trained and more skilled than any of the robbers.” We hope. “We approve field assignments for Enchanters when a crime is serious enough and when the criminals are dangerous enough. In my opinion, this more than qualifies. These may seem like unsophisticated smash-and-grab robberies, but the spree is planned well. They strike quickly and they want us to know they’re mages. They’re sending a message.”

“To who?”

The voice was Alistair’s. The young Guardsman blinked, as if he was only barely aware of asking the question. “I mean, who’s supposed to get the message?” he elaborated. “And what is the message in the first place? ‘We’re here and we can throw fireballs?’”

That groan again from Cullen.

But Max realized they weren’t bad questions. “Yeah, that’s pretty much the message. For now.” It could easily become we’re here and you can’t stop us if they didn’t catch some of the robbers quickly, but Max didn’t add that insight out loud. “As for who it’s meant for, we don’t know yet. All the more reason to bring someone in for questioning.”

He looked out at the room with his most solemn expression. “It’s been a tough day for the city. But if we work together, this will end with the bad guys behind bars.” Or wearing a Tranquil’s brand, he thought uneasily.

He took a breath to shake that thought. “So let’s go get the bastards and find out what they’re up to.”

 


 

Juliet had been pacing her office for the better part of an hour when her phone finally rang. She snatched the receiver from its cradle before the first ring was over. “Hello?”

“Hawke. I am sorry. I only just received your message. I did not mean to worry you.”

Tension melted from her body as Fenris’s voice filled her ear. “Maker, no. I just knew you’d be in the center of all this, and I … I’m glad you’re safe. That’s all.”

She looked out at the lobby of Tabris Investigations, where Naia, Varric, and Zevran were staring at a television, watching reports of the crime spree trickle in. The robberies seemed to have settled down over the past hour or so, but Juliet suspected that whoever these people were, they were not yet done with Denerim.

“Any leads?”

“The Templars have taken over the case, though they say they want our help. They have little to go on.” Fenris sighed, his weariness clear. “The plan seems to be catching the robbers in the act, rather than attempting to trace them. It is not a bad plan considering our lack of evidence.”

A little chill settled over Juliet. Not a bad plan. But a dangerous one.

“Go home and get some sleep tonight,” she told him. “Let the Templars try their hand at catching these people. You can help them in the morning.”

“Good advice,” her boyfriend murmured.

Juliet sighed. “You’re going to sleep on a cot in the Guard house, aren’t you.”

A chuckle flowed through the phone line. “You know me too well, Hawke.”

“Be safe,” she said softly. “I’ll drop by in the morning with coffee. Good coffee, not the battery acid that they brew in the Guard break room. In the meantime be careful, OK?”

“I shall.” He paused. “If you promise me the same.”

She smiled faintly. Of course Fenris knew she could not sit by and do nothing. “I promise. See you tomorrow.”

Juliet hung up the phone and walked slowly out into the lobby. Naia was frowning in worry as the newscaster interviewed an elven witness—one of the robberies had taken place in the alienage at a popular restaurant. The robber had melted most of the diner’s pie case.

“That diner gave Shianni the Friday leftovers every week,” Naia said, glowering at the television. “Tell me Fenris is on the case, Juliet.”

“Fenris and the Templars.” Juliet sat down on the floor between Varric and Naia. She pushed both hands into her hair, shoving the strands away from her face. She kept coming back to the same conclusion, and she knew her friends weren’t going to like it.

“But there are places I can go that they can’t. I think I have to go back to the apostate bar.”

 


 

There was an argument about that. Juliet knew there would be. Naia and Varric both had strenuous objections, largely based in the fact that she couldn’t use her magic right now. Juliet argued that a little flame to get her in the door wasn’t going to set her healing regimen back that much. Finally, she offered her compromise.

“I’ll call Anders. Maybe he’ll go with me.”

She made this offer because she assumed that the Circle escapee wouldn’t want to get within a mile of anything involving these robberies. To her surprise, when she called to ask for his help, Anders immediately said yes. She half expected him to no-show at the bar after thinking it through, but when she arrived he was already waiting on the corner for her.

“Don’t look so shocked,” he said wryly. “I don’t want these robberies going on either. If they keep this up the city is going to be crawling with Templars. I’m pretty sure if they find me they have a brand with my name on it.”

How Anders could crack jokes about Tranquility was beyond Juliet, but she supposed black humor was as good a way to get through life in a Circle as any. “Any suspects?” she asked. Anders knew the local apostate scene far better than she did; her one previous experience with Denerim’s apostate bar had not exactly been welcoming.

“Offhand? I think we’ll want to find out what Marcus Amell has been up to.”

Juliet stopped dead in the middle of the sidewalk. “You think Amell’s still in Denerim?”

Anders shrugged uncomfortably. “Pretty sure, yeah. I see him around the bar every now and then.”

She crossed her arms. “And you didn’t tell me.”

Her fellow apostate turned to her with an exasperated look on his face. “What for? Amell’s an asshole, sure. But you’d just want to kick his ass, and without your magic …”

Juliet felt her shoulders slump. Six months ago I could have kicked his ass without breaking a sweat. But she knew Anders wasn’t wrong.

The healer grimaced. “Look, Amell’s dangerous. He’s not as good as you are at full strength, but he’s good. You’re basically my only friend in this city, you know. If anything happened to you I’d be sad for at least a day. Probably two.”

She chuckled. “Aw, thanks. I’d be sad if anything happened to you, too.”

“I think that’s the nicest thing anyone’s ever said to me.” Anders frowned. “Wow, that’s depressing. I need to get more friends.”

“So I’ll need to cast something to get inside,” Juliet said casually as they resumed their walk down the street.

Anders nodded. “Yeah, I know. One little fire spell. But as your healer, I declare that to be your limit.”

Juliet tried to hide how excited she was at the prospect of casting even the tiniest spell. “And if we get in trouble?”

“Then I cast something impressive and we run like mad.” Anders looked at her with an amused half-smile. “You probably don’t have much experience running from things. Just follow my lead.”

The entrance to the apostate bar was exactly as Juliet remembered it—the shabby, crumbling steps to the exterior basement door, an unfriendly pair of eyes behind the metal window, the request for a password. Tears pricked at the back of Juliet’s eyes as she reached for her magic for the first time in months. It burned a bit as it flowed through her, but it was a good burn—like the feeling of a stiff muscle finally being stretched. She bit back an enormous grin as fire leapt from her fingers.

It’s still there. I can still cast.

Anders cleared his throat as he reached for his magic. Reluctantly, slowly, Juliet let her own spell die.

The door’s hinges let out a rusty groan as it swung open to admit the two new mages. Anders let out a low whistle as they walked inside. The shabby basement bar was packed—not quite standing room only, but close. A low buzz of chatter filled the shadowy space. Juliet tried not to eavesdrop too visibly, but the words “robberies” and “fire” figured prominently into most of the conversations.

It was usually a good idea to try and blend in before asking questions, so Juliet pushed her way to the bar and ordered two beers for her and Anders. But they’d barely gotten their drinks in hand before a large human man clapped the healer on the back.

“Anders! Good to see you.”

“Same to you, Ash,” Anders said, clinking the neck of his beer against Ash’s. “So. Interesting day for mages. How long before Meredith Stannard starts rounding us all up, do you think?”

Ash snorted. “Stannard’s all talk. I wouldn’t worry about it.”

Juliet, who had actually met Meredith Stannard, emphatically disagreed. But now was not the time to remind anyone of the fact that she had once been a Guardswoman. “Yeah, we should probably worry about the Templars,” she said. “I bet they won’t even investigate. They’ll just arrest a bunch of mages and call it a day.”

“Templars are gonna get more than they bargained for this time.” Ash took a swig from his beer, a very satisfied smile on his face.

“Glad you’re feeling secure. I’ve been thinking about getting out of town until this blows over.” Anders shuddered. “I’m never going back to that damn Circle, I can tell you that right now.”

“Between you and me?” Ash leaned in. “Don’t blow town. It’ll be worth it.”

Every nerve in Juliet’s body was standing on end. Ash obviously knew something. Could we really be this lucky ?

“Andraste’s fucking tits, Ash. Shut up!”

Evidently not.

A blonde human woman was pushing her way to Ash’s side, a furious expression on her face. It took Juliet a moment to remember her, but when she did, her stomach twisted. Greta. Shit.

“What the fuck did you bring her in here for, Anders?” Greta glared at Juliet with bright eyes. “Last thing we need in here is the Guard.”

“She’s not with the Guard any more. Besides, I owe her a favor.” Anders grinned genially at his fellow apostate. “She helped me bust the Circle’s phylacteries. I say that earns her some good will among mages.”

“Bullshit,” Greta snapped, crossing her arms. “Marcus Amell broke those phylacteries.”

Three guesses about who told her that, Hawke thought sourly.

“Amell and I raided the phylacteries while Hawke here distracted an entire roomful of abominations.” Anders raised an eyebrow. “Is Amell leaving us out of the story? Where is he? I’ve got a bone to pick with him if he is.”

“That’s enough questions.” Ash stepped next to Greta and crossed his own arms. He glared down at them from a rather intimidating height, his dark eyes almost invisible under heavy brows. “We’ll tell Marcus you said hi. But the pair of you should get the hell out unless you want the Guard investigating two new bodies.”

The area around the bar fell silent. One by one, the surrounding apostates turned to face Juliet and Anders. Their expressions did not look friendly. With a sick, sinking feeling, Juliet realized they’d made a mistake. They hadn’t come to an apostate gathering spot to hear rumors and speculation. They’d walked right into the heart of the conspiracy.

Juliet glanced over to the door and frantically tried to calculate the odds of them making it out unscathed. Then a woman’s voice cut through the quiet. “Three bodies.”

Greta turned her head to a figure at the end of the bar—a small, slender woman wearing a faded black hoodie. “‘Scuse me?”

“It’ll be three bodies. You’ll have to deal with me too.” The woman reached for the fabric of her hood and dropped it down around her shoulders.

For the first time in four months, Juliet was looking straight at Enchanter Mei Surana.

 


 

Mei’s heart was pounding so loudly in her chest that she was surprised she didn’t hear it echo through the room. She could feel so many pairs of eyes on her, trying to place her face, wondering who the hell she was. She’d hoped to listen quietly and go unnoticed during her first visit to Denerim’s apostate gathering spot.

So much for that plan.

She stepped down from her bar stool, leaving her drink behind, and summoned the cold, emotionless face that had gotten her through so many days at the Circle. “For what it’s worth, Anders is telling the truth. I used to be a Circle mage. Hawke here is the only reason any of us survived the crisis, let alone got to break a phylactery.” She twisted her shoulders this way and that, slipping carefully through the crowd as she pushed towards the confrontation. As she’d hoped, Greta and Ash turned towards her, leaving their backs to Hawke and Anders. She stopped as close to them as she dared, leaving her hands free—a mage’s equivalent of letting someone else see your weapon.

“And Marcus? Well, Marcus is the reason the rest of the Circle’s mages got turned into abominations, were killed by abominations, or died in the Fade.” She could not keep her fury from her voice as she locked eyes with Greta, then Ash. “He was Uldred’s right-hand man. Every death in that place can be laid directly at his feet.”

Ash’s jaw clenched. “You’re lying. The Templars killed those mages. That story about the abominations is just a cover-up for the Grand Enchanter’s murder. Marcus told us so.”

Mei looked up at him as a cold sweat broke out on her spine. Is that what Amell’s been telling people? Maker. The worst part was how convincing it sounded. Any apostate mage would happily believe that the Templars had invented an outbreak of possession to justify killing Fiona.

“Then Marcus is full of shit,” she replied coldly. “I was in the room when Fiona died. It wasn’t a Templar—it was a Pride abomination. It threw her across the room and broke her neck.” She didn’t bother to hide how much the memory upset her. “Uldred bound her hands behind her back. She didn’t stand a chance.”

As Ash and Greta exchanged a look, Mei shoved her hands deep into the pockets of her hoodie and raised her voice. “If Marcus is involved in these robberies—if he’s leading you people on some quest to destroy the Circles or buy up a bunch of lyrium—I’m going to give you a warning. The last group of mages who followed Marcus ended up possessed, dead, or both. So you’ll want to think long and hard about any orders he gives you, or any people he chooses as allies.” That last was a stab in the dark, but Mei had not forgotten Dagna’s theory about Uldred having outside help.

The assembled crowd shifted and murmured uneasily. Mei decided not to give them a chance to decide how to respond. She looked past Greta and Ash to meet Hawke’s eyes. “Shall we?”

Hawke hopped from her bar stool. She looked annoyingly unaffected by the entire confrontation. “Sounds good. Let’s go.”

“Yeah, I’m suddenly feeling unwelcome.” Anders eyed his fellow apostates uneasily as he stepped to Hawke’s side.

Mei wondered if she would have to push her way back through the crowd, but it parted easily as she made her way to the door, Anders and Hawke close behind.

Chapter Text

Mei’s legs shook as they carried her through the bar’s door and up the steps to the street. The sun was sinking into the horizon, painting the sky an intense shade of red that somehow felt appropriate to the day. Behind her, Hawke and Anders were mercifully silent. She knew there would be questions, but right now she just wanted to concentrate on not throwing up.

Marcus. Again. Andraste preserve me. What is he trying to do now? Why is he telling other apostates to rob banks and restaurants and light half the city on fire?

She desperately wished she could have asked Ash and Greta those questions. But if Anders, someone they knew and liked, couldn’t get that information out of them, then what chance did a stranger like her have?

A block away from the bar, Mei turned a corner and gave in to the wobble in her legs. She leaned against the brick wall of a shabby restaurant and took a shuddering breath, closing her eyes. Then she wrinkled her nose; whatever they were cooking inside this place smelled like very old grease.

“Did you really leave the Circle?”

She opened her eyes to see Anders staring at her with wonder, as if she had suddenly sprouted wings or started speaking in tongues. “I did,” she replied shortly. “But legally. After the crisis was resolved.”

The apostate rolled his eyes. “Yeah, that figures. I can’t believe I thought you might have broken a rule. I don’t suppose I can get a head start before you call your Templar friends.”

Hawke turned her head and glared at her companion. “Anders, do you remember about five minutes ago, when she talked Greta and Ash and their many, many pals out of turning us into corpses? You’ve got a weird way of saying thank you.” She met Mei’s gaze, and Mei was astonished by the swell of emotion in the apostate’s eyes. “Thank you. For back there, and for the Circle. We’d all be dead if you hadn’t done what you did.”

For months Mei had thought of Hawke as the hero of the Circle crisis. Hearing the apostate thank her was more than a little disconcerting. She shrugged uncomfortably. “I meant what I said in the bar. You more than did your part.”

Hawke’s eyebrows drew together. “You haven’t—can you still use your magic?”

Mei blinked. “Yes. You can’t?”

“It’s healing,” Anders said, looking between the two of them. “But she did some damage to her chakras trying to control that much power.”

“Ah. I guess I didn’t try to control it. I just … aimed.” The memory of how that mana had felt flowing through her made the hair on her arms prickle. It had been exhilarating and terrifying and amazing, and she never wanted to do it again.

“Sorry we ruined your night out,” Hawke said, grimacing apologetically.

Mei shook her head. “It wasn’t a night out. I wanted—Maker, I don’t even know what I wanted. I was going about my afternoon routine as usual, but I saw the news, and—” She gestured helplessly. “Whatever comes out of this is going to affect every mage in the city. I couldn’t just sit at home and wait to find out how.”

The right side of Hawke’s mouth turned up. “I know the feeling.”

“But at least we learned something useful. Marcus Amell is involved.” Anders grinned. “Our law-abiding friend here can pass that tidbit on to the Templars, they’ll arrest him, and things will go back to normal. So I say good job us. Let’s get a celebratory drink at someplace where the patrons don’t want to kill us.”

Hawke shook her head. “I don’t think it’s that simple, Anders. This is bigger than just Marcus. Most of the apostates in that bar were ready to punch holes in our heads for getting too curious. He’s got people behind him.”

“Not just people.” Mei swallowed. “Someone’s buying up Carta lyrium. A lot of it. And that machine in the Circle? It was built somewhere else and transported there. He could be working with Tevinter magisters, or a faction of talented apostates we don’t know about yet.”

Silence fell in the street as the three of them quietly grappled with that idea.

“Where did you hear about the Carta lyrium?” Hawke asked. “I’d heard rumors that lyrium supplies were scarce, but not much about why.”

“A friend,” Mei said evasively. “Well, sort of a friend. They asked not to have their name connected with the information.” She wondered if Hawke would press her on that, but the other mage just nodded. She supposed a private investigator was used to informants who wanted to remain anonymous.

“So now what?” she asked, looking first to Anders, then to Hawke. “I can do what Anders suggested, go to Max and tell him what we learned. I’ll keep your names out of it. He already knows the bit about the lyrium. But I … that can’t be everything we can do. Is it?” There was no part of her that wanted to go back to live at the Circle, but for a wild moment, she wanted her old Enchanter’s suit so badly she almost cried from frustration. She’d been a prisoner, true, but a prisoner with an odd sort of authority.

“It’s the safe play,” Anders said, his voice oddly gentle. “There’s nothing wrong with keeping your head down and staying out of the line of fire.”

“I think that depends on who’s doing the shooting and who they’re shooting at. Right now I don’t know either, and that bothers me.” Hawke crossed her arms and leaned her head a bit to the left, considering. “It bothers you too, doesn’t it?”

Mei nodded.

The apostate raised an eyebrow. “In that case, want to work with us?”

Mei blinked, startled. Then her mouth curved in a smile. “Yes. Absolutely.”

 


 

 Varric looked over Naia’s eye at the case map she’d assembled. “Not to be critical, Sparks, but …”

“It’s a little empty,” Naia admitted, stepping back and staring at it with a frown. At her side, Dog growled and tossed his head back and forth, playfully pulling at a toy rope he had clutched between his teeth and paws.

She’d taken a map of Denerim and pinned it to the wall of her office, then put bright red dots at the sight of each robbery she could confirm, with the time listed underneath. On the side, she’d posted pieces of paper listing the clues they had so far. It was not a long list.

  • Three robbers at the bank
  • 1. Elven woman—accent
  • 2. Human woman
  • 3. Human male

“There were at least four robbers active today,” Zevran said. He placed four fingers on the map, pointing to four locations that had been robbed within a quarter hour of each other. “Not even mages can travel so far so fast.”

Naia added “Fourth robber” to the list of clues.

Despite the insight, her optimism was starting to flag a bit. It was hard not to think about what might happen to Juliet and the rest of the city’s mages if this crime wave continued. The Templars weren’t exactly warm and fuzzy, but Naia would take them over the Meredith Stannard Anti-Mage Militia, or whatever the Councilwoman planned to call that new group of mage hunters she wanted.

And then there was the small matter of what the hell the alienage was going to do if the robbers ever decided to target them. Maybe with the Templars on the case, and Donnic’s task force operating, the response time will be better, she thought, torn between her usual optimism and the hard-won realism of a lifetime as a Denerim elf. Maker, she hated not being able to do anything while people melted perfectly good alienage pie displays.

“The diner was the only alienage target so far,” she said, thinking out loud. “If they’re after cash, that’s weird.”

When Zevran tilted his head at her, Naia elaborated. “More bills change hands in the alienage than in other neighborhoods. A lot of elves get paid in cash under the table, or don’t trust shemlen banks, or don’t trust checks not to bounce. Plus, until very recently the Guard was slow to respond to calls from elves. If I wanted cash I’d rob a bunch of places in the alienage and then make a run for the city limits.”

“So you think the robbers aren’t locals?” Varric asked, looking at the map with a raised eyebrow.

“Or it’s not about the money at all.” Naia frowned. “They might care more about scaring shems than they do about what they gain from the robberies.”

Varric ran a hand over his face. “And they want people scared of mages specifically. That can’t be good.”

The creak of hinges in the lobby caught Naia’s attention. When the three of them returned to the lobby, Juliet was back and she had two fellow mages in tow. The first was one Naia expected to see—well, half expected, since Anders had a very good track record of getting away from trouble as quickly as possible.

She did not, however, expect the second person. “Enchanter Surana!” she blurted. “Are you undercover?”

The ice mage raised both eyebrows in surprise—then looked down at her clothes and blinked as understanding dawned. She was wearing a man’s hoodie, once black but now faded and pilled, over a yellow t-shirt and a pair of jeans with holes in both knees. The jeans looked oddly familiar to Naia; with a start, she realized they used to be hers. She’d given them to Shianni’s shelter when she moved apartments a couple of years ago.

She realized the truth a moment before Surana spoke. “Just Mei. I’m not an Enchanter any more. I left the Circle and surrendered my license.” She shoved her hands in the pockets of her hoodie self-consciously.

Naia tried to keep the shock from her face. She knew it was technically possible to leave the Circle, but she had never heard of anyone who actually did it. She wondered if Mei Surana was abiding by the law and not using her magic, or if she had taken Juliet’s path of using it in secret.

“We ran into each other at the apostate bar,” Juliet said after she shut the door. “She’s curious about these robberies too. I figured strength in numbers.”

Anders raised a hand to his forehead. “I genuinely do not understand how you find so many people willing to help you stick your noses in places where they really don’t belong.”

Varric chuckled. “Nice to see you too, blondie.”

Juliet gave Anders a look Naia recognized as her “cut the crap” glare. “You’re free to go if you want.”

Anders sighed. “No, I’ll stay. You’re my best chance of an advance warning if the Templars start rounding us up. I figure your boyfriend will at least give you a phone call to let you know they’re on their way.”

“Boyfriend?” Mei’s round eyes were growing even rounder as she tried to track the conversation.

Naia stepped to her side. “Fenris,” she said quietly. “He and Anders don’t get along.”

“The Detective and Hawke are together? I got the impression that he …” She stopped abruptly. “I suppose I do not know him well.”

Naia winced. She could imagine the kinds of comments that would have led Mei to conclude that Detective Leto was unlikely to date a mage. “He takes a while to warm up to people,” she said diplomatically. “Especially mages—he’s got a lot of baggage from his Imperium days. But he won’t turn you in. He hasn’t ratted out Anders to the Templars, and Anders once compared him to a rabid dog. Unfavorably.”

Anders crossed his arms. “I stand by that, by the way.”

“If everyone is done discussing my boyfriend, can we get back to the fact that Marcus Amell seems to be neck-deep in a conspiracy to light half the city on fire?” Hawke asked, her irritation clear as she glared at Anders.

“Ah, I remember Mr. Amell. It seems I should have shot him after all.” Zevran arched an eyebrow. “Well, it can still be arranged.”

“Leave Amell alone.” Mei’s voice was cold and furious.

“My apologies,” Zevran said after an awkward pause. “I did not realize he was your friend.”

“He is not.” The elven mage scowled. “I just want to kill him myself.”

The look on Mei Surana’s face almost made Naia pity Marcus Amell.

 


 

Getting Max on the phone proved to be more challenging than Mei had anticipated. The Templars were more or less in command lockdown, and even Hawke’s most persuasive tone did little to crack their resolve. But finally, Hawke managed to get them to put her friend Detective Hendyr on the phone, and he promised to do his best.

“Hawke?” Donnic said when he called back. “I’m putting you through to the Templars’ room.”

“Thanks, Donnic,” Hawke said as the line cut to a beeping dial tone. She handed the phone to Mei with a cheerful thumbs up.

Mei breathed a sigh of relief when the phone picked up—but the voice on the other end was not the one she expected.

“This is Agent Cullen Rutherford.”

She all but froze. She had imagined speaking to Cullen again so many times, but all of those fantasies, all of the things she wanted to say, seemed to die when faced with reality. “I … is Max there? Max Trevelyan?”

A long pause. “Mei?”

Of course he would recognize her voice. “Hello, Cullen.”

Another long pause. She could hear him take a breath, heard the whisper of a soft prayer under his breath. Then he spoke.

“I’ll get Max.” A clunk rang out over the line as he set the phone down on a table.

Mei swallowed hard and clutched the receiver. She could feel the attention of everyone in the room focusing in on her. Hawke and Varric pretended to look elsewhere; Anders’s jaw dropped in outrage; Naia’s clear green eyes met hers in sympathy; Zevran’s expression was unreadable but not unkind. She wanted to scream at all of them to go away and leave her alone, but she supposed that was not the right way to make new friends and cement new alliances.

She heard someone pick up the phone. “Shit, Mei, I’m sorry,” Max said, his baritone voice so apologetic it made Mei wince. “They told me there was a tip and it was a good one, but I had no idea it was you.”

“Marcus Amell is still in town. I think he might be involved.” Mei knew her voice was brisk and emotionless, but it was either that or break down in sobs.

She could feel Max go on alert. “Have you seen him?”

“No,” Mei admitted. “But I did a bit of digging in the local apostate scene. Some suspicious people get very testy when you ask them where Marcus is. You should get someone to do a sketch of him and distribute it to your people.”

“Huh. In a way I’m almost relieved. At least we’re dealing with one known quantity,” Max said. “Thanks, Mei.”

She paused. “Cullen’s not doing well, is he.”

“No.” Max sighed. “I’m going to help him. I promise. Once we get this crime wave stuff under control, I—I’ll think of something. More time off. Doctors. A beachside vacation. I’ll give him the keys to the Trevelyan beach house and order him to stay there for a month.”

“Some quiet might do him good.” She remembered Cullen talking wistfully about how hard it was to find quiet at the Circle. “But make it a lakeside vacation.” She smiled sadly. “He grew up near one.”

“Fortunately we also have a lake house.” Max let out a self-deprecating chuckle. “Be safe, Mei.”

“You too.”

She hung up the phone and, very deliberately, did not meet anyone’s eyes. But she didn’t have to.

“You were sleeping with him, weren’t you?” Barely contained rage wound through Anders’s voice.

“Of course not. Max likes men, Anders.” She knew that wasn’t who he meant, but she let herself hope that he’d bet on the wrong Templar.

“Not him, the other one. Rutherford.” Anders shook his head in confusion. “Andraste’s bloody knees, Surana. I can’t figure you out.”

She tilted her chin up, cool and unashamed. “No one asked you to.”

“So, that’s done,” Hawke said after a very awkward silence. “What do we do next?”

“There’s no pattern to the robberies, and when they strike again, the Templars will be the ones responding. I say we stay out of their way and move on the Carta tip.” Naia’s tone was so relaxed she might have been suggesting going out for ice cream.

Varric tugged an earlobe. “I’m sorry, I must have misheard. Did you just suggest that we, personally, look into the business of the most dangerous crime gang in the city?”

Naia smiled that bright, easy smile. “It’s me, Varric.”

“Oh. Right. Then that was exactly what you suggested.” Varric shrugged. “Well, I’m in. Hawke?”

“Always.” The apostate frowned, her eyes on the map. “But where do we start? With Mei’s tipster?” She looked over at Mei. “I can go with you if you want to talk to them again.”

Mei shook her head. “No. They said they wanted to keep their name out of it. If anyone goes, it needs to be me and only me.” She frowned. “And I’m not even sure how much we could learn. I have no idea what they do for the Carta. That might be all they know.”

Naia’s mouth scrunched up in thought. “If it’s a dead end, it’s a dead end. But for now it’s our best lead,” she said. “I think we’ve got to run with it.”

Silently, Mei began calculating what she had in the bank right now. Things might go easier with Cadash if she brought in an early payment when she started poking around in the dwarf’s business. “All right,” she said, taking a deep breath. “I’ll go first thing tomorrow.”

 


 

Anders left not long after the phone call ended, still practically bristling with rage at the revelation that Mei Surana had been involved with a Templar. Varric wasn’t surprised at how the healer felt about Templars but he personally though that Anders could tone it down a notch. Only an idiot would have missed the agony on Mei’s face when Cullen Rutherford picked up the phone. Whatever crime Anders thought she’d committed, surely she’d been punished enough without adding “snippy disapproval from a fellow apostate” to the sentence.

Hawke left next, saying she needed to get to bed so she could visit Fenris in the morning. Naia soon barricaded herself back in her office to do paperwork, and Zevran went to assist her—leaving the slightly awkward pairing of Mei and Varric out in the Tabris Investigations lobby.

The elven mage looked weary, her face pale and her hair uneven, as if it hadn’t been cut in quite some time. Between that and the ragged clothing, she looked like a vulnerable figure—that was, until you saw the steel in her eyes. Varric wondered what had driven her from the Circle. He guessed the ex-boyfriend had played a role, but Mei Surana didn’t seem like the type of woman to be driven from any place she didn’t already want to leave.

“Need a lift?” he asked her. “My car’s out front.”

She was going to say no. Varric could see it in her expression—that slight pulling away, the uncomfortable half-shrug of the shoulders. But then her eyes fell on the clock.

“Actually, that would be great,” she admitted. “My bus only comes once an hour at this time of night, and I just missed it.” She winced. “But I’m not much good with directions. I still don’t know Denerim very well.”

Varric pulled his keys from his pocket. “Just tell me the address. If there’s one thing I know, it’s this city.”

Mei followed him out to his car. He saw curiosity spark on her face as he pointed to an ordinary four-door sedan, but then doubt followed it and she remained silent.

“Modded for dwarven drivers,” he said in answer to her unspoken question. “Levers on the steering wheel accelerate and brake. Some of the fanciest dwarven cars bring the pedals right up to your feet, but that leaves less room for fast food wrappers underneath my seat.”

Mei chuckled. Then she got a good look at the inside of his car and realized he wasn’t joking.

They rode towards the alienage in silence for the first several blocks. Then Varric decided to take the chance. “Your Carta contact. By any chance, are they a bookstore owner named Cadash?”

Mei’s head whipped around, her eyes wide as she stared at him. “How did you …?”

“I know Cadash. We go back. And yeah, they’re Carta. I’ve never figured out where they rank in the hierarchy. Cadash is sort of an independent contractor.” His mouth turned down in thought. “Or maybe specialist is the better word. They do what they do and they do it very well, and that buys them secure status.”

“What do they do, exactly? Forgeries?” Mei asked, with neither fear nor judgment in her tone.

“As best I can tell.” Varric decided not to tell Mei that Cadash had done a good bit of forgery for him and the others at Tabris Investigations. Let’s confess to felonies a few weeks later in the partnership. “Maybe some money laundering and antiquities smuggling on the side. Long story short, if they told you someone’s buying up Carta lyrium, I believe them.”

The mage nodded. “I do too.” She sighed. “But Cadash and I—it’s a business relationship. Literally. I bought a rare book on magic and I’m paying it off in installments. They gave me a heads up out of courtesy.” She glanced down at her mismatched clothes and grimaced. “Or maybe pity. Either way, I’m not sure how much more information I’ll get by going back.”

“I could go with you,” Varric suggested. “Cadash likes me. Well, more accurately, they think it’s hilarious that a Tethras does business with a Carta forger.”

“Your family is prominent?” Mei asked politely.

Varric could tell she needed to think through his offer, so he decided to give her the long answer. “Well, we were. The Tethras clan got kicked out of Orzammar a few generations back. Now we’re only a big deal to other surface dwarves. Some of the more traditional families won’t give us the time of day.”

The mage blinked. “I’m sorry to hear that.”

“You’ve never met traditionalist Orzammar dwarves, have you?” Varric chuckled. “Don’t worry about it. No great loss, believe me. All I’m missing out on is a lot of lectures on castes and the best rock-busting sledgehammers on the market.”

Mei smiled, revealing an unexpected dimple. “I don’t know. The sledgehammers bit sounds useful.”

“Oh sure, take their side,” Varric complained as he pulled to a stop in front of a traffic light.

They waited in silence until the light turned green. When the car began moving again, Mei spoke. “I wouldn’t mind the company tomorrow,” she admitted. “When it comes to the Carta I—I feel a bit in over my head.” It clearly pained her to hear herself say that, but Varric admired the honesty.

“Pick you up at ten?” he suggested as he turned the corner onto her street.

“Ten it is.” She turned to him with a little half smile. “If Cadash really likes you, maybe you can talk them into cutting my astronomical interest rate.”

Chapter Text

It was another early morning for Naia and Dog. At 4:56 am, Naia’s eyes flew open, startled out of a dream that she couldn’t remember. She closed them tight and fought to breathe deeply and relax, trying to trick her spinning brain back into sleep. An hour later, she admitted defeat, rolled out of bed, and laced up her shoes for a run.

Her favorite run was a long, asymmetrical loop through the alienage, one that took her to the neighborhood’s largest park, where the vhenadahl’s shade watched over many picnics and alienage proposals. It was just beginning to be light at this hour of the morning, and Naia smiled as she ran, welcoming the lengthening day. If she was going to be up early anyway, she might as well get to see a sunrise.

At her side, Dog matched her pace, his stride swift for such a large animal. His head swiveled back and forth and his ears perked up when he saw a passerby, torn between his desire to protect his mistress and his natural instinct to enthusiastically lick any human, dwarf, or elf he encountered. Naia slowed her steps as they reached the park’s water fountain. She drank a long swallow for herself before catching some water in her cupped hands and offering them to her dog.

By seven, she knew Shianni would be awake and making breakfast for the people in her shelter, so Naia changed her usual route and headed for Helping Hands. As she climbed the back steps she could hear the familiar clink of dishes being pulled out of cabinets. She knocked twice and waited for the little curtain over the window to lift.

Shianni’s face peeked out from behind the iron bars that covered the window. Her eyebrows rose high when she got a good look at her cousin.

“Since when are you up this early?” she asked as she opened the door. Then her smile faded. “Is everything …”

“Just some insomnia,” Naia said quickly, before fear could really take hold. “I’ve been out for a run. Thought I’d check up on my industrious cousin. Need a hand?”

Shianni stepped back to let her in the door. “Here, you can help me carry the bowls and spoons to the table. I’ll grab the cereal and pastries.”

Naia tilted her head curiously at the plate of donuts, turnovers, and bear claws. “Does the diner give you those?” Too late, she remembered why the diner had been on her mind.

But her cousin shook her head. “Someone who used to stay here got a job at a coffee shop. She brings them by.” Her face darkened. “Speaking of the diner …”

“I know.” Naia grimaced as she picked up the bowls. “How is everyone?”

“On edge,” Shianni said candidly. “We got it easy compared to the rest of the city yesterday. But people are tense, cousin. Every shem is starting to look like a mage to most people here. It won’t be long before they start taking a hard look at their neighbors, too.” She sighed. “You’re going to tell me I’m being pessimistic, aren’t you.”

“Not really,” Naia admitted. “Um. Speaking of tense. There’s been a rash of broken windows and graffiti coming across my desk.”

Shianni paused just as she set the pastries down on the table. Naia braced herself for an argument, or at least a sarcastic comment. Shianni did not have a high opinion of the Guard, an opinion she had earned through several very negative interactions with human Guardsmen and Guardswomen, and she hadn’t been thrilled about Naia’s new consulting gig. Hell, Shianni still had trouble trusting Juliet, who hadn’t been a Guardswoman for three and a half years. But all she said was, “I’ll bet.”

“You’ve seen it?”

“Oh, yeah. And I know just who to talk to.” Shianni took a deep breath. “ Keri!

Silence. Then, feet thundered across the creaking floorboards above their head. The footsteps moved to the stairs, across the ground floor, and came to a skidding halt in the dining room door.

“What?” a blonde teenager snapped, crossing her arms and glaring at Shianni. Naia put her age at about fourteen, all knobby knees and elbows and round cheeks with a hint of babyhood clinging to them.

“Meet my cousin Naia. She’s here asking about some broken windows and tags. Do you remember the very serious conversation we had about a week ago? The one about hoarding glass bottles and cans of spray paint?”

Keri shrugged sullenly. “What’s it to you?” she asked Naia, her voice a low grumble.

“Nothing much to me personally. But local business owners are pissed, and the Guard’s on the case.” Naia met the girl’s eyes. “Might be a good time to lay low.”

“‘Lay low?’” Shianni asked incredulously. “How about ‘find a new hobby that keeps you out of shemlen jail?’”

I’m trying to avoid hypocrisy here, Shianni , Naia thought, giving her cousin a meaningful look with her eyebrows raised. “Yeah, that’s a good idea too,” she agreed, turning back to Keri. “I know you’re not the only one. There’s a bunch of you, right?”

Keri scowled and didn’t answer.

Naia tried to think of what to say. What had Varric told her that finally made her give up her burglary career? I know a better way to hurt them .

She looked at Keri seriously. “Why do this? Who’s pissing you off?”

The teenager dropped her gaze. “None of your business.”

“It’s going to become my business if you get arrested.” Naia’s mouth twisted. “Why go after places in the alienage? Elves have it bad enough in this city without …”

“Because my stepfather’s an asshole, OK?” the girl snarled. “He and his fucking friends think they’re the kings of the alienage. And then he goes home and drinks himself stupid every night and breaks my shit and my mom …” She stopped abruptly. But then, in a thin voice, she finished. “She never sticks up for me. Or herself.”

“So that’s why you’re staying with Shianni?” Naia asked.

Keri shrugged. “It’s a hell of a lot better than home.”

“So you decided to get a little payback and you got some friends to help out. But is all this really still about your stepfather?” Naia knew it couldn’t be; there were too many targets, too randomly placed. But she let Keri confirm it.

“I—they’re not all my friends,” the girl admitted, her eyes firmly on the toes of her shoes. “I don’t know how it got this bad.”

Naia did. You started off with a few kids and a specific vendetta, and it quickly spiraled into a destructive way to pass the time that involved way more people than the initial conspiracy. She tried to find the magic words, the ones that would make Keri and all her teenage collaborators drop their rocks and spray paint before the Guard got involved.

But there were no magic words. At least, not ones that could convince so many people outside the room.

“Getting arrested won’t hurt your stepfather, Keri,” Naia told the girl bluntly. “And it sure as hell won’t help your friends.” She grabbed a piece of note paper from Shianni’s refrigerator and scribbled down her number. “This is my office and home number. Tell your friends the Guard’s looking into this stuff and see if you can get them to back off. If you can’t, or if there are kids who won’t listen to you, call me when you know something’s going to happen. I’ll try to stop it before the Guard gets called.” She took a breath. “And if your stepfather does anything he can be arrested for, call me about that too.” Not every Guardsman would take an elven woman’s abuse seriously, but Naia had no qualms about leveraging her friendships to get Keri’s stepfather behind bars.

The teenager made a show of crumpling the paper and shoving it into the pocket of her jeans, deliberately indifferent, but Naia saw her touch the note through the fabric as she walked away, testing to see if it was still there.

Shianni sighed. “Maker. How can one kid be so damn smart and so fucking stupid all at once?” She looked over at Naia and chuckled. “Any insight, cousin?”

“Hey, I was much stupider than that,” Naia said in mock offense. She took out another sheet of paper and wrote three names on it, then handed it to Shianni. “And if you happen to need to call the Guard, here’s who you talk to. Donnic Hendyr, Alistair Guerrin, or Fenris Leto. They’ll take you seriously.”

“That’ll be a first, all right,” Shianni said with a little roll of her eyes. She paused as her mouth tightened; her eyes were tense and worried. “I don’t like you working with the Guard, Naia. People here trust you, but that trust only goes so far when they know you’re spending every other morning hanging out with a shem Detective.”

It was more like every morning, these days, but Naia didn’t say that. “It’s good money, Shianni. And if I’m not there, the alienage task force will have exactly zero people who have ever lived in the alienage.” And isn’t that fucked up? she thought sardonically.

“I know, I know,” her cousin sighed. “Still. Just … be careful. Watch who you trust.” She bit her lip. “Out there, and in here.”

 


 

Marcus bit his lip and focused on Danarius’s amulet, channeling his magic through it. He was not surprised when sweat started to form on his brow, despite the chilly temperature in Danarius’s hotel room. He had been one of the most skilled mages at the Denerim Circle, particularly when it came to chaotic magic that bent reality—but Danarius’s projects taxed even his abilities. At first Marcus had blamed this on inferior Southern magical training, but the more he learned, the more he realized that Danarius, too, lacked the knowledge to make the amulet work. This was a truly new frontier in magical science. The magister had been annoyingly cagey about its origins, but Marcus gathered that it had been developed by a late colleague, a fellow magister with a reputation as an inventor and scholar.

“I’m getting closer. I think,” Marcus said as more beads of sweat popped out. He reached for the lyrium potion at his side—an enormous one, held in a plastic sports cup the length of his forearm. He gulped it down, drawing on its power and forcing that magic through the amulet. “I just wish—Maker! There it is!”

Before his eyes, reality itself seemed to split.

It was only a tiny tear, shimmering in the air in front of him, but it glowed with an unearthly green light. Marcus knew in his bones that he had finally gotten the amulet to perform its task. He allowed himself a smile of pure satisfaction and enthusiasm as he pulled his magic away. The little tear wobbled, then closed.

From his seat in the nearby armchair, Danarius raised his eyebrows. “No bigger?”

“I think I could make a bigger one,” Marcus said. “But let’s start small and be careful.” He wanted to dance around Danarius’s hotel room. The Circle never, ever would have let him pursue his interest in this sort of magic, let alone given him an artifact to work with.

The magister smiled as he stood. “I am pleased. It is clear your talents have been held back too long. I look forward to seeing them develop.”

Reverently, Marcus tucked the amulet back into its lacquered box. “Things have gone well all around.” No captures, no deaths. It was more than he had dared hope for when Danarius had suggested the next phase of their plan.

But that did not mean their luck would hold. “I’ve told the others to keep quiet and remain scattered for the time being. We will reconvene in a few days to finalize plans for the next phase. But we will need to be prepared for a Templar presence in the city.”

Danarius’s chuckle suggested what he thought of Templars. “Do not look so concerned.” He placed a hand on Marcus’s shoulder, reassuring and almost fatherly. “The Order is soft, Marcus. They lead tame mages around by their leashes. Let them face free mages in battle. Mark my words, the blood that spills will not be ours.”

Marcus did not share his confidence. “Some of them are useless idiots. But others—they have warriors among them. We should be prepared for casualties.”

Danarius was unmoved. “I am aware. But it is an acceptable risk.”

“I should speak with Varania,” Marcus said abruptly. And where is she, I wonder? “The others have all encountered Templars before in one form or another. A lesson on what Templars can do would help …”

“Varania is not available at the moment,” the magister said with a dismissive wave of his hand. “I require her elsewhere.”

Marcus frowned. This was news to him. “Doing what?”

The magister shook his head. “It is a personal matter, and one I prefer not to discuss.” He met Marcus’s eyes. “I hope you do not think I would put our cause in jeopardy, Marcus. I only want to help Southern mages. It is all I have ever wanted.”

“Secrets nearly got me killed at the Circle, Danarius,” Marcus said bluntly.

“I am not Uldred,” Danarius sneered. “For one, had I made a compact with a demon, it would not so easily have overpowered me.”

Marcus did not find that reassuring. But he could tell from Danarius’s expression that he was not going to get any more information about what Varania was doing.

I will be patient, for now. But I’m also keeping my eyes open.

 


 

Juliet woke the next morning and immediately climbed on the bus, headed for the Antivan coffee shop about two blocks from the Guard house. She could feel an anxious energy in the spring air. If the robberies’ goal had been to scare people, they had succeeded. Juliet’s bus was half-deserted that morning, and if the nearly empty pastry case at the coffee shop was any indication, the people who had gone to work today were doing a lot of stress eating.

Her boyfriend was standing alone in the Guard’s briefing room when she arrived, looking rumpled but at least somewhat rested. In front of him stood a large map of Denerim—more professional than Naia’s, but Juliet recognized the locations of the pins. His silver hair was a little tangled and disheveled and she had to fight the urge to run her fingers through it to tidy it, the way she would have if they’d been in bed together.

His mouth curved and his eyes brightened when he turned and saw her. “A beautiful woman bearing coffee. I have fortune beyond my deserving.”

“Well, it wasn’t entirely selfless. The second cup’s for me,” Juliet admitted, handing the first to him. “So this is command central?”

Fenris nodded. “Alistair and I will wait here, along with the Knight-Captain and one or two more Templars. The rest of the Agents will be scattered around the city, hoping for the opportunity to respond in time to catch one of the robbers.”

“What’s the latest?”

The Detective sighed and turned back to the map. “The robbers were silent last night. Perhaps they knew the Templars had moved into the city. Or perhaps they are resting for more mischief today.” He shook his head, his face weary and worried. “Knight-Captain Trevelyan suspects that the intent is to send a message—to remind us of the damage mages can do.” He snorted. “I will never cease to be astounded by how many people forget that.”

“Well, Denerim’s a far cry from the Imperium.” Juliet tried to keep her tone pleasant, but she heard the bite in her voice. “Most mages are locked in the Circle, and most Denerim citizens have never seen a spell in person. The robbers must be thrilled that our city’s so easy to scare.”

Fenris turned to her, his eyebrows raised. “You think if the Circles were weaker , this could have been avoided?”

“Maker, Fenris, I don’t know,” she said irritably. “But sometimes you talk like you don’t know what I am.”

“You are Juliet Hawke,” he said, with a simple, elegant shrug. “A rare and capable woman who chooses to use her powers wisely. Even when they might allow her to take another path.” He tilted his head pointedly at the map.

There it was again, this idea that she was somehow special. As if she were the only mage in Thedas who wasn’t throwing herself into a daily orgy of depravity. “I’ve got a father and a sister making the same good choices back in Lothering, It’s not that rare, Fenris.”

His face stiffened. “It is also not so rare for mages to do what we saw yesterday. And far worse, when given the opportunity. The Imperium. Uldred. Do you deny the dangers magic can pose?”

“Of course not. I also don’t deny the good it can do.” Juliet wound both hands around her coffee cup, letting the heat seep into her palms. She stared down at the little paper lid as if it might somehow hold answers. “I’m going to get my magic back at some point, you know. Are we going to be OK when that happens?”

As soon as those words were out of her mouth, Juliet wanted to take them back. Not, she realized, because she wasn’t wondering. But he’d had little sleep and a hard day behind him and Maker, they couldn’t have this conversation in the middle of the Guard house.

Fenris looked as stunned as if she’d just slapped him. “Nothing will change when your abilities are restored,” he snapped, color rising in his cheeks. “Unless you intend to join this gang of bandits.”

“Maybe I should. It seems like a mage sort of thing to do.” That was petulant and she knew it. But Maker, saying it felt good.

“Yes, joke. That’s always so helpful,” he sneered. His face was tense and irritated, his arms crossed tightly across his chest, his coffee now abandoned on the table. “I cannot think why you are forcing this discussion now.”

“Maybe because the outcome of this case is going to determine the future of every mage in Denerim?” Juliet just barely stopped herself from crushing her coffee cup between her tightening hands.

Fenris opened his mouth to reply, but then the door at the back of the room swung open. Juliet was ashamed of how relieved she felt to see Agent Max Trevelyan walking towards them, a stressed-looking blonde man in tow.

“Hawke!” he called, holding up a hand. “It’s good to see you again.”

“Likewise, Agent Trevelyan.” She smiled, hoping it hid some of the tension between her and Fenris. “I was just on my way out. But good luck today.” She turned her face back to Fenris and didn’t quite meet his eyes. “We’ll talk later.”

“Indeed,” he said evenly. “It seems we have much to discuss.”

 


 

Half an hour later, Fenris had played the fight with Hawke over and over in his mind a dozen times. He grew more irritated with each iteration. I said nothing untrue.

Sometimes you talk like you don’t know what I am , Hawke’s voice snapped at him.

But Hawke often did the same thing—spoke as if she did not remember what he was. A damaged amnesiac with unnatural abilities. Someone whose life had been stolen by a magister’s cruelty and ambition, and only stolen back at great cost. A man who had to carefully plan for and negotiate every touch from the person he loved. He could not even spend the night in her bed—he could not sleep knowing another person was so close, even Hawke. Magic was dangerous; mages were dangerous. Was he himself not proof of this?

B ut Hawke is a mage.

The coffee cup she had brought him was empty and he crushed it in his hand, gritting his jaw in frustration.

From a nearby table, Cullen Rutherford sighed sympathetically. “Waiting for the chance to act is the most maddening part.”

“Indeed,” Fenris said, meeting the other man’s eyes with an appreciative nod.

Cullen looked at him for a moment, clearly trying to remember where they’d met before the current crisis. When the memory came to him, he flinched visibly—then tried to cover it up with a cough.

Fenris pretended not to notice. He had seen and spoken to Cullen when the Templar was imprisoned within the demons’ trap at the Circle. He knew all too well how it felt to encounter someone who had seen you broken and half-mad. He wanted to tell the other man he understood, but he did not know the words to begin such a painful conversation—and in any case, they were not alone.

“The robbers should really take that into account,” Alistair piped up from the other side of the room. “Their unpredictable schedule is very rude to the people who are trying to catch them.”

Fenris chuckled in spite of himself. “We shall endeavor to teach them better manners, then.”

 


 

The morning inched by with aching slowness. Every shuffle of feet in the hallway, every tick of the clock’s minute hand, set Max on alert, just in case it was the radio. But the device remained stubbornly silent. Alistair Guerrin started throwing pencils at the ceiling, but stopped almost immediately when Cullen swiveled his head to glare at the younger man.

Shortly before eleven, a young Templar named Delrin Barris arrived to take Cullen’s place on the response team, and Detective Leto left to pick up the sketches of Marcus Amell and distribute them to the members of the Guard on patrol. That, at least, was a noticeable step forward. Max had worked with the sketch artist last night; he thought the picture of Amell was a good one. Hopefully someone spots him. They were keeping Amell’s image and name a secret from the public, for now, but if things got desperate they might discuss asking the local papers to print it.

And they would definitely print it. There wasn’t a publication in town that didn’t have mage robberies on their front page.

All eyes are on us, darling, Vivienne’s voice informed him.

Max took a deep breath and was about to suggest sending someone out for lunch when the radio in the room crackled to life. “This is Dispatch to Knight-Captain Trevelyan, over.”

He leapt to the radio, moving so quickly that his folding chair tipped over and crashed to the floor. “This is Knight-Captain Trevelyan, over.”

“Sir, we’ve got a caller on the line. There’s been another robbery.”

Chapter Text

At 10:02 the next morning, Varric’s sedan pulled up outside Mei’s apartment building. Mei was still reeling from the anxious phone call she’d made to Three Nugs begging off work due to illness. Fortunately her boss had said he’d cover for her if she promised to come in on her next day off. But she could already tell that figuring out how to keep her job and help catch Marcus Amell was not going to be easy.

Varric wore a brown button-down shirt with several of the top buttons unfastened, jeans, and a cheerful smile. Mei raised a hand in a little wave and smiled back as she approached the passenger door. The signs up at Tabris Investigations had identified Varric as a lawyer, but he didn’t look very much like the slick, dark-suited legal characters on Eternal Love. Of course, she hardly ever saw dwarven characters on television who weren’t heavily bearded and obsessed with lyrium mining.

“Just how mad do you think Cadash will be when we ask them more about the Carta?” Mei asked as she fastened her seat belt. She pretended to smooth a wrinkle from her shirt. It was her favorite—a pretty red-purple v-neck that actually seemed to fit her—and she’d worn it to appear at least somewhat pulled together in front of the fashion-conscious dwarf.

“Eh, Cadash doesn’t really do ‘mad.’” Varric shrugged and put the car into gear. “At least, I’ve never gotten them above ‘mildly peeved.’ If they don’t want to say more they’ll just glare at us until we leave. Besides, they like my books. They’ve been bugging me about a sequel to Hightown Confidential ever since it came out.”

Mei suddenly realized where she’d heard Varric’s name before. “Wait a minute. Did you write Guarded Hearts?”

“And its less-successful sequel, Guarded Romance.” Varric looked extremely pleased. “You’ve read it?”

Mei wasn’t about to admit how many times she’d read it, so she just said, “Yes. It was a favorite in the Circle. Although we couldn’t read it out in the open, given the subject matter. We traded our copy around and hid it under mattresses.”

Varric tilted his head back and laughed. “Now, that’s a market I never considered. Contraband Circle literature.”

Mei crossed her arms and raised an eyebrow. “I’ve got a bone to pick with you about that surprise twist, by the way.”

The dwarf groaned. “Everyone’s a critic.” But she thought he was more pleased than annoyed.

The street in front of Denerim Collectible Books was nearly empty at this time of day. A large black sedan was parked out front of the shop, but it was the only car on the block. It’s probably Cadash’s, Mei thought, though she couldn’t remember ever seeing it before.

She decided to let Varric go first, since he seemed to know Cadash better than she did; the familiar little bell chimed and greeted them both as they entered the shop. The artifacts in the display closest to the door had changed--there had probably been a sale--but otherwise the shop looked just the same as it had for the past several months.

Mei looked across the room to Cadash’s desk—and stopped dead in her tracks.

Two enormous human men wearing dark, bulky suits were looming over the dwarf, staring down at them and silently radiating menace. A third man stood behind Cadash’s chair, watching the door to the mysterious back room of Denerim Collectible Books.

“Hey, Cadash,” Varric said warily, raising a hand in greeting. “Did we come at a bad time?”

The dwarf sighed, sounding almost bored. Today they’d put their hair in tousled curls and worn dramatic lipstick with smokey eyeshadow; they were glaring up at the human men through long, dark lashes. “You’d better come back later,” they said, crossing their arms and leaning back in their chair.

“No. I think they should stay,” one of the human men said suddenly. “Perhaps they will be extra incentive to behave yourself.” His voice was heavily accented, and it took Mei a moment to place it. When she did, her breath shuddered in her chest. Tevinter. They’re Tevinter.

Mei briefly considered making a run for it—Cadash seemed to think their presence wasn’t going to help the situation—but then one of the Tevinters drew a gun from a holster inside his jacket and used it to motion them closer. “Come here. And lock the door before you do.”

Varric grimaced and began the walk, glancing over at Mei to see how she was reacting. Mei gave him a little nod as she moved to lock the door, hoping it said “I’m OK” and “I’ll be ready to fight if it comes to that.”

Slowly, carefully, she drew on her magic and began weaving the Arcane Warrior spell through her limbs. She waited for one of the men to notice what she was doing, but both of them seemed to be focused on Varric. She supposed between the two of them he looked more threatening. His usual relaxed smile was gone, and without it, you tended to notice the broad shoulders and the broken nose.

They stopped a foot or so away from Cadash’s desk, unsure of how to proceed. The Tevinters seemed unsure as well; they kept glancing between each other, waiting for someone to take the next step. The man with his gun out appeared to be the only one of them who was armed, but Mei could not be certain that the other two didn’t have weapons concealed in their coats.

The spell continued its progress through her body.

“So, is this a robbery? I thought that was just mages these days,” Varric cracked—but his eyes were slightly narrowed, watching for a reaction.

“It is not your concern,” the man behind Cadash grunted.

There’s someone in the back room, Mei realized. They’re waiting for someone to find something.

The Arcane Warrior spell snapped into place.

Mei took a breath through her nose. Then another breath. Then she looked the gunman in the eye. “It is our concern if you’re keeping us here at gunpoint,” she said frostily, her tone almost approaching Vivienne de Fer’s in haughty contempt.

Just as she’d hoped, the man with the gun turned to face her directly and stepped forward. He was nearly a foot taller than she was and his bulk hovered over her, intimidating even without the gun in his hand. “No more questions,” he said, snarling down at her.

Time seemed to slow as Mei drew on the power in the Arcane Warrior spell. She reached for the man’s gun with her left hand and wrenched it out of his grasp by the barrel, moving too quickly for him to pull the trigger. He howled in pain as the twisting motion wrenched his fingers. Her right hand planted itself in the center of his chest and she pushed as hard as she could. The man grunted in surprise as the blow lifted him off of his feet and sent him tumbling backwards over Cadash’s desk.

Varric and Cadash leapt into action immediately. Cadash reached underneath their desk and pulled out a taser; they applied its prongs to the man behind their chair with vicious efficiency. He collapsed to the floor, twitching. Varric went for the most direct approach. He simply punched the third man in the gut, hard, and then smashed his knee into the human’s face when the man doubled over in pain.

“There’s a fourth,” Cadash said, leaping from their chair—just as the door to the back room sprang open and cracked against the back wall of the bookstore.

A red-haired elven woman stared out at them, her eyes wide and furious. She clutched a small square box in her left hand and she drew it closer, cradling it against her chest. She turned her right palm out and narrowed her eyes; fire burst from her fingers, racing towards the group.

Without thinking, Mei flung up a shield, a soft blue sphere that encased the area around Cadash’s desk. As the other mage’s spell struck it, Mei twisted her shield’s magic to absorb the mana behind the fire, using it to reinforce her protective spell. The shield grew brighter and stronger, and the red-haired mage’s eyes widened.

The other woman set down her small burden and flung both hands towards Mei, sending crackling lightning towards the group. There was power and ability behind the spell, but it was painfully elementary; with a quick twist of her left wrist, Mei shattered it, stealing most of its power for her shield. She flung the rest of the lightning back at their attacker. The woman defended herself, but just barely; she cried out as remnants of electricity seized her body, crackling around the arm she’d used to throw up a small, thin barrier.

Cadash used the opening well. She sprang over the prone forms of the Tevinter henchmen and applied her taser to the woman’s side. The mage fell to the ground, howling in pain, her back arched and her limbs shaking. Cadash flipped the woman onto her stomach and twisted her wrists behind her back, effectively neutralizing the possibility of further spells.

Mei dropped her shield and winced as she looked down at the Carta dwarf. It was the first time she’d used magic in front of someone else since leaving the Circle, and anxiety twisted her stomach—would Cadash turn her in?

Cadash, however, just looked up at her with a raised eyebrow. “Nice throw back there, Surana. I’m starting to think I should have charged you more for that pamphlet.”

 


 

Max hardly dared to believe it until he saw it for himself—a sullen elf with her hands cuffed behind her back, slumped behind a desk in a rare books store. On her left, the shop’s dwarven owner was glaring at her with crossed arms, tapping one toe of a strappy patent pump.

On her right stood Varric Tethras and none other than Mei Surana.

Max bit back a very undignified cheer and controlled the urge to sweep Mei up in the biggest hug of her life. “Wow,” he said instead. “Nice work.”

Mei smiled back, that unexpected dimple in her cheek flashing. “Glad we could help.”

The shop’s owner tucked back a dark curl. “My friends here arrived just in time. I was able to taser the mage while she was distracted.”

As he tried to decide what he should ask next, Max heard a handful of swear words in Tevene. It was then that he spotted the three large men crowded against the wall behind the desk, all with their hands tied in front of them.

He frowned, puzzled. A mage with henchmen in tow didn’t fit the pattern they’d seen elsewhere in the city. It was too early to draw conclusions about whether this was connected to the other robberies, but he braced himself for disappointment. This might not be the miraculous break in the case he’d assumed when he got the call.

There would be time to sort that out at the Guard house, however. He turned his head over his shoulder, where Delrin and Alistair awaited further orders. “Arrest them all and take them to the Guard house,” he told them. “I’ll ride with the mage.”

For the first time, the elven mage reacted; she raised her chin, her eyes narrow and furious. She snarled something in Tevene. Max didn’t speak the language himself, but he could guess that the words were something along the lines of “Templar asshole.”

He smiled at her pleasantly. “Didn’t catch all of that, sorry. But don’t worry—I happen to know someone who speaks Tevene.”

 


 

“So,” Cadash said from the front seat as Varric piloted his car towards the Guard House. “Are we all happy with our official story? I tasered the mage, you guys beat up the goons, no magic of any kind was involved at any point except from the redhead?”

Varric sighed. “It lacks dramatic flair, but I suppose it gets the job done.”

The job being keeping me out of the Circle, Mei thought silently, her stomach twisting with nerves. Max would look out for her, she knew, but even as Knight-Captain there was only so much he could do. But a cover story was a good start. “Yes. Thank you both.”

“Don’t mention it,” Cadash said, examining their hair in the side mirror with a little frown. “Between you and me, I’m not sure I remember how to tell the Guard the truth any more.” They frowned contemplatively. “Huh. Wonder what I should tell them about that artifact?”

Mei’s eyebrows rose. “I just figured it was something valuable. What is it?”

“Some kind of weird elven box.” Cadash shook their head. “It was part of a big shipment I got a few weeks ago. My associates dropped it on my doorstep without so much as a ‘thanks for cataloguing this.’ I tried to tell them my expertise is in dwarven and Orlesian artifacts, but they didn’t seem too bothered. They told me to get what I could for the stuff, take my cut, and send the money back.”

Varric winced. “Um. Do any of the artifacts seem to be singing to you?”

Cadash turned and gave the other dwarf a look. “What the hell are you talking about?”

“You remember my brother Bartrand, right? A few years ago he and I invested in an archaeological dig in the Deep Roads. When the treasure came up he got obsessed with this red idol.” Varric rolled his shoulders uncomfortably. “Tried to kill me over it, actually. Later he said that it was singing to him, that he had to have it to himself. He’s in an asylum outside the city now.”

Mei felt her eyebrows climb her forehead. “And you think the idol was responsible?” She tried to keep her amazement out of her voice.

“Yeah. Because after a week of keeping it in my house I started to hear the singing too.” He shuddered. “Don’t worry. Hawke busted it to pieces.”

“Oh.” Mei wasn’t really sure how to respond to that.

“You had a dwarven artifact that made people go insane, and I’m only just learning about this now?” Cadash laid a hand over their chest in mock offense. “Fine. See if I put a rush job on your next forged IDs, Tethras.”

“Back to the box,” Varric said wryly. “Any idea what it does? Or where it came from?”

“No and no. It’s old and it’s elven. Could be as old as the time of Arlathan. I need to consult an expert over at Calenhad University to figure out how to price it, but the guy’s a pain in the ass so I’ve been putting it off.” Cadash sighed. “And now it’s probably going to sit in an evidence locker for the rest of my life. Oh well.”

“I’ll tell Max to have it examined by one of the Circle’s people,” Mei said. She shifted in her seat and tugged her seatbelt, pretending to be absorbed in the way it worked. “Um. Cadash? I’ve been looking for someone. A guy named Marcus Amell. Ring any bells?”

Cadash shook their head, sending their dark curls swaying around their angular features. “Is this about that thing I told you?”

Mei met their eyes in the rearview mirror and nodded. “Marcus is ambitious. If he could scratch up the money, he’d be a good candidate. He’s human, about my age, light brown skin and dark curls. Big dark eyes. Thin but not skinny.” She swallowed. “Keep your distance. He acts normal, but that’s how he distracts you from whatever he’s planning.”

Cadash nodded. “Thanks for the heads up.” They paused, glancing at Varric, then gave an eloquent little shrug. “I wish I could tell you more. My colleagues are bragging about how easy it is to offload their lyrium lately because one guy is buying it all. That’s pretty much all I know. But I’ll keep my ear to the ground.”

They scowled. “If the buyer’s responsible for sending that mage to rob me, he’s about to find out how the Carta feels about having their contractors ripped off.”

 


 

It took Fenris some time to circulate the sketches of Marcus Amell to the members of the Guard. Fortunately, his colleagues had long since learned of his aversion to empty conversation; the encounters were brief and efficient. Even so, Fenris was looking forward to a brief break in his day--until he saw Aveline Vallen waiting for him when he returned to his desk.

The stern Guard-Captain had a very satisfied smile on her handsome features. “Detective. I’ve got good news. There’s been an arrest.”

All thought of a break fled Fenris’s mind. “Who?”

“A Tevinter mage was caught trying to rob a rare books store. We need you to run the interview. I’ll brief you on the way.”

When Fenris and Aveline arrived in the interrogation room, Seeker Pentaghast, the First Enchanter, and Knight-Captain Trevelyan were already standing behind the one-way glass, watching the mage arrested at the Denerim Collectible Books robbery. “She’s just been sitting here this whole time staring at the wall,” the Knight-Captain reported when Fenris entered the room.

Fenris squinted through the glass. The robber’s hands had been handcuffed behind her back—standard procedure for a mage—and her face was slumped miserably down towards the table, denying him a view of her features. All he could see of her was her ill-fitting clothes and a messy red knot of hair at the back of her head.

“She attempted to take an artifact from the store,” Max reported. “Some kind of weird hexagonal box. Probably elven.” He sighed and had the courage to say what they were all thinking. “I’m not sure this is related to the other robberies. I hope it is, but I’m not sure.”

“Let’s not be pessimistic just yet, darling,” Madame de Fer said crisply. “This woman is an apostate and a criminal—one who uses magic to further her goals. No one will be sorry to see her off the streets.”

The First Enchanter sees the dangers of magic, Fenris thought, mildly surprised. Why can’t Hawke?

“An apostate from the Imperium,” he said gravely. “I am surprised three civilians were able to capture her.”

The Knight-Captain pressed his lips together, but said nothing. Fenris got the impression that there was more to the story. He wondered, suddenly, if Hawke had been one of the three, but surely Agent Trevelyan would have said so if that were the case. I will have to learn more about the witnesses later.

“I will learn what I can,” Fenris told the others. “Though she will likely be unwilling to say much. Magisters are unused to having their actions questioned, especially by …” He almost said a slave , but he was not that any more. “By someone who wields no magic.”

The Guard-Captain nodded in support. “Good luck, Detective.”

Fenris entered the interrogation room on quiet feet, as if the robber were a deer that he was afraid of startling. Perhaps he moved too quietly, for the woman did not turn to look at him. Now that he was closer, he could hear her hum a little tune, a child’s skipping song that he could remember from his days in the Imperium.

“My name is Fenris Leto,” he said in Tevene, using his coldest, most even voice. “I am a Detective with the Denerim Guard, and I …”

The robber turned to look at him.

Fenris froze as a wave of recognition flooded his brain.

“I know you,” he blurted out.

The mage gave him a sad little smile, her green eyes wide and wistful. “Do you indeed, Leto? I was not certain you would.”

“I … I do not remember who you are. But your face—I know you,” he repeated. His face tightened in frustration as he struggled to grab something from the tangle of his lost memories, the ones he had been trying to coax from his mind for the past three years. That long jaw, the sharp features, the serious expression … he knew they were somewhere in there.

“My name is Varania. I am your sister.” Her eyes narrowed, watching to see if he believed her.

Fenris grappled with the idea. It seemed … possible. But how could he know?

When he did not reply, the woman sighed. “He said the experiment had locked your memories away,” she said quietly.

Every bone and muscle in Fenris’s body went rigid. “Who did?”

“Our master, of course.” She pronounced the words carefully, almost warily. “He thought I might see you in this city. He wished me to give you a message. It is time to resume your place at his side.”

Chapter Text

Fenris made no conscious decision to leave the interrogation room. But suddenly he found himself running, flying down the halls, putting as much space between himself and that woman as he possibly could. Dimly, he sensed that Aveline was following him, demanding to know what the suspect had said.

He could not bring himself to answer her.

His flight brought him back to the Detectives’ room, the place where he and his colleagues kept their desks. Barely aware of who else was there, Fenris ran to his desk and seized it by the side, his arms and hands flaring blue as the power in his lyrium tattoos exploded, responding to his rage and despair.

The muscles in his arms strained as he flung the entire desk against the wall, knocking over two more desks and sending pens and paper and his phone crashing around the room.

A surprised gasp from the opposite end of the room snapped him out of his blind rage. Slowly, he turned his head to see Naia and Donnic sitting at Donnic’s desk with a stack of documents between them. Donnic’s gentle, unflappable face was as alarmed as Fenris had ever seen it; Naia’s bright eyes were wide with worry.

He turned away so he would not have to look at either of them.

“Detective!” Guard-Captain Vallen snapped from the doorway.

He forced himself to look at her.

“What in the Maker’s name did she say to you?” the Guard-Captain demanded, her muscular arms folded across her chest and her expression deeply unamused.

“She claims—” the words caught in his throat and threatened to choke him. “That she is my sister. That my former master sent her. Danarius.”

It was the first time in years that he had said that name aloud. It tasted rotten in his mouth.

The Guard-Captain nodded slowly. There was understanding on her face, but also a stern determination. “I’m placing you on leave, Detective. Forty-eight hours, that’s all. But you are off this case.”

Blood began pounding in Fenris’s ears. “Are you mad?” he snarled. “You have no idea what Danarius is capable of. Only I …”

“We will use your knowledge of this man,” the Guard-Captain said evenly, cutting off his argument. “We will seek your advice, when we need it. But you are not to have any further contact with the suspect or with this investigation.”

“He’s a blood mage ,” Fenris said desperately. “You cannot send Guardsmen to face him.”

“Then the Templars will handle him.” Aveline’s voice was infuriatingly calm. “I will consult them immediately. In the meantime, go home. Collect yourself. I will update you on the status of the case when your leave is over.”

Her eyes met and held his. Despite himself, Fenris felt his nerves steady, just a bit, as he looked into her strong-featured face. “They want to use this to get to you, Detective. I will not let them do it.”

Fenris could not help a bitter chuckle at that.

A kind thought, Guard-Captain. But it comes years too late.

*

There was nothing to do but to keep moving.

Fenris managed to find his wallet and keys in the wreck of his desk, and even remembered where he had parked his car, But when he reached it, his hands were shaking so badly that he could not force the key into the car’s door. He tried once, twice, a third time. Each time, his shaking fingers missed the lock and dropped the keys onto the ground. When he bent to pick them up for the fourth time, he snarled in frustration, spun, and threw the entire key ring into the distance.

He barely had time to regret that stupid impulse before he saw someone snatch them out of the air. Naia was crossing the parking lot.

Fenris glowered at her, his breath fast and shallow. Of course she followed me. Naia’s inability to let her friends suffer alone was one of her more endearing qualities—but right now he wanted nothing more than to be alone.

However, he knew he was in no state to operate the car. He was worse off than if he’d been drunk. Embarrassment and rage warred within him as he tried to summon the sanity to ask for her help.

He could not quite do it. But fortunately, he didn’t need to.

“I’d ask how you were if that wasn’t such a stupid question,” Naia said calmly, holding his keys up in her right hand. “Get in. I’ll drive you home.”

*

Fenris’s car—a luxury sedan that aggressive neglect had rendered rusted and malfunctioning—stalled three times on the short drive. To his relief, Naia managed to coax the car back into operation all three times. Her adeptness made him wonder if cars had been on the long list of things she’d stolen as a teenager, but asking seemed discourteous. Instead, he focused on directing her through his neighborhood.

“Here. This building. Take a right, you’ll see the garage. The key card is behind the visor.”

Naia’s eyes grew wide as she followed his directions, piloting his car through the magnetic gate and into the generous underground garage. They only grew wider when he told her to park in one of the four spots marked “PH.” He could see the question on the tip of her tongue, could see her wrestling with whether to ask how in the Maker’s name he could afford to live where he did.

“I am not, strictly speaking, the legal owner of my apartment,” he told her as she turned off the engine. “My former master”—he could not bring himself to say that name again right now—“acquired the penthouse of this building some years ago. I found the keys to it, and this car, when his favorite apprentice came for me.”

“Hadriana,” Naia said, quickly connecting his explanation to a story she’d heard before. “The woman Meredith killed when she was still with the Templars.”

Fenris nodded. “Just so.” He took a shuddering breath. “When I heard nothing of him for so many years, I hoped Hadriana’s loss had kept him from pursuing me further. I was a fool.”

Naia turned her head to look at him. “What did she say? The mage, I mean?”

“She claims to be my sister. And for all I know, it may be true. She seems familiar, though I do not remember her.” He tightened his fist against his knee. “She says—bah. It does not matter. She invoked his name and that is enough. I knew he could never let me be!” He struck the side of his door nearly hard enough to leave a dent.

Naia was quiet as he struggled to get himself back under control. Finally, she said, “If this place was his, are you sure you should return to it?”

“I am done running,” Fenris said roughly. “Fear of him chased me across Thedas. But I have made a life here. I will cede no more ground to that ... “ He could not think of a term vile enough for Danarius. “He will not chase me further. Let him come for me, if he dares.”

He could see in her eyes that Naia did not approve. But all she said was, “OK. I’d feel better if you let me help you sweep your apartment, though.”

Fenris felt too bone-weary to argue.

They rode the elevator in silence; mercifully, no one else joined them along the way. Despite his earlier words, Fenris felt tension mount as they neared the top. Danarius. This place belongs to Danarius. He half expected to see the monster himself when he stepped out of the elevator and into his apartment. But when he flicked on the switch, everything was just as he had left it.

At his side, Naia’s jaw dropped. “Maker’s balls. Someone trashed your place.”

Fenris turned to her, surprised. “It appears untouched to me.”

Naia’s eyebrows rose halfway up her forehead. “You mean it always looks like this? Wow. I thought I was a slob.”

Fenris blinked and looked around. The penthouse was a cavernous space, one of those apartments that had walls for the bathrooms and bedrooms but nothing else. He usually only noticed the view when he entered—the Denerim skyline framed in the floor-to-ceiling windows—but as he looked at the space with new eyes, he realized that he did have a habit of leaving things where he’d last dropped them. The table was covered in dirty laundry, there was a stack of pizza boxes and takeout containers next to the elevator door— I will take those downstairs tomorrow , he told himself for the seventh day in a row—and Naia’s eyes were narrowed at a sizeable spiderweb underneath the kitchen cabinets along the wall. A week’s worth of dishes were piled in the sink, and more than a month’s worth of newspapers sat in haphazard piles around the floor.

“They are not my things. I suppose I have never felt I owe them much respect,” he said with a shrug.

Naia’s brow furrowed. Fenris readied himself to tell her that whatever she was about to mention was none of her business—but when she remained silent, that was somehow more infuriating. He crossed his arms and glared at her.

Fasta vass . Just say what you’re thinking, Tabris. You think it unhealthy for me to live in a place that belongs to my former master. Go ahead, tell me to move on.” He heard the bitterness in his words, felt his voice crack with rage and loss. “Tell me I should forgive and forget what was done to me.”

“Shit no,” Naia said immediately. “I wouldn’t. I’m not sure what you went through is the kind of thing anyone forgives or forgets. But—since you asked—I wouldn’t want to live inside a constant reminder of it, either.” She paused. “Juliet hasn’t seen this place, has she.”

It was a statement, not a question. Fenris answered it anyway. “No. I have not brought her here.”

And Naia, he realized, had just put her finger on why. This place was from his past—an ugly one that had left him scarred and broken. A past that had nearly robbed him of any chance at happiness with the woman he loved. He did not want to see Hawke inside it.

But he also could not imagine leaving it behind.

“Given what Varania claims, I hardly think now is the time to begin apartment-hunting,” he told Naia stubbornly.

His friend cast a thoughtful eye around the room. “Hm. Maybe if we cleaned this place up and got you some new furniture, it would feel more like yours.”

“I did not invite you here for decorating tips,” he grumbled, though without any real annoyance behind it.

“That wasn’t a decorating tip. That was a dating tip. If you insist on living here, Juliet’s going to see it at some point. When she does, you should make sure there’s not so much garbage on the floor.” She wrinkled her nose. “It’s really a mood-killer.”

Fenris chuckled. “I will take that under advisement.”

“Please do.” She turned and handed his keys to him. “And … you know that whatever your old friend has planned, you’ve got new friends now, right? We’re right beside you.”

Fenris felt the tension between his eyes ease just a bit as he accepted the keys. “I … yes. I suppose I did know that. But thank you for saying it, all the same.”

Naia walked Fenris’s apartment with him, looking for signs that someone had planted listening devices or magical traps. They did not find anything, but—as Naia could not resist pointing out—Fenris’s apartment was a difficult place to look for things.

“What are you going to tell Juliet?” she asked gently, when they were both satisfied that he probably wasn’t being spied on.

He pinched the bridge of his nose. “The truth. All of it. But I will tell her tomorrow. Tonight I intend to get very drunk.”

He could see that Naia had thoughts about that too, but wonder of wonders, she kept them to herself. Instead, she nodded and pushed the button for the elevator.

“Be safe, Fenris,” she called over her shoulder as she stepped inside.

He gave her a weary half-smile. “And you, Naia.”

*

After some digging, Fenris found a bottle of red wine in the bottom of a grocery bag he had never unpacked. He threw the spoiled food into his trash can and reached for the wine opener, the one tool in his kitchen that got some regular use. He left the wine glasses in their usual place in the cupboard and walked to his wall of windows, bottle in hand, staring out at the city as he drank.

A memory rose, unbidden, as he shifted the weight of the bottle in his grasp.

“You shall pour the wine for my guests tonight.”

Fenris nodded, his eyes cast down to hide his relief. A simple task. Easy to accomplish without provoking one of his master’s rages.

A hand seized Fenris’s chin and turned his face up, forcing him to look directly into his master’s face. Eye contact would be seen as insubordination, and Fenris’s eyes swung wildly back and forth, trying to find a safe place to rest.

A chuckle. “Have no fear, my little wolf. I am simply admiring my handiwork. Your appearance will remind my guests of my capabilities—and yours.” A possessive finger ran down one of the veins of lyrium in his chin, sending a jolt of pain through him. “I enjoy knowing they are frightened.”

With a rush of rage, Fenris flung the bottle into the kitchen. It shattered against the cabinets, drenching the cobwebs and the dirty dishes in a rain of wine.

He closed his eyes and drew in his breath, suddenly unable to look at the room around him. For one irrational moment he blamed Naia—if she had not insisted on seeing this place, perhaps he could have ignored its origins tonight—but that thought came and went quickly.

It is his fault, and his alone.

I am broken because he broke me. I see him every time I look in the mirror, every time I use these markings. Every time I cannot bear it when someone touches me.

I freed myself from his service. But I cannot undo what was done to me. Even if I killed him, I could not rid myself of him.

With a shuddering intake of breath, Fenris went to find another bottle of wine. But on the way across the floor, he tripped over his phone, lying abandoned next to the couch.

He swore as he bent to rub his stubbed toe—and then, without really thinking about it, he picked the machine up and began dialing.

She answered on the third ring. “Hello?”

“Hawke.”

“Fenris,” she said, a little warily. “How did it go today?”

Fenris could muster no reply. His throat tightened and the hand holding the receiver began to shake, blue light spilling from his tattoos.

Hawke sensed the tension in his silence. “Is everything all right?”

Fenris leaned forward, resting his forehead against the nearby wall “No,” he said softly. “It is not. I … I have been suspended.”

“What? Why?”

“We caught a mage during an attempted robbery. She … she claims she is my sister. She claims that Danarius sent her.” The name tasted rotten in his mouth, and his entire body convulsed and shuddered. “The Guard-Captain pulled me from the case.”

He heard Hawke’s breath whistle through her teeth. “Shit. Do you want to come over? We can make up the couch.”

Helpless frustration ran through Fenris. They had learned soon after their reunion that Fenris could not sleep if he shared a bed; his discomfort with being touched by surprise kept him awake and staring at the ceiling, curled into as small a corner as possible. They had solved this problem, for now, by sleeping in their own apartments. But he couldn’t bear the thought of staying the night on her couch, the door between his room and hers a reminder of all the ways Danarius had damaged him.

“No. I would be poor company,” he said roughly. “I will see you tomorrow. I will come to your office.”

“I’ll hold you to that,” she said softly, and he could hear the worry in her voice. “Good night, Fenris.”

“Good night, Hawke.”

 


 

Juliet didn't even put down the phone’s handset after Fenris hung up. She simply pressed a finger on the cradle to bring back the dial tone, then called Anders.

“I need my magic back. Now,” she told him when he picked up the phone.

“Hello to you too,” Anders said wryly. “I’ve told you …”

“This mage thing? It's worse than we thought. A lot worse. Fenris’s old master is involved.”

“A magister?” Anders’ tone was more curious than alarmed. “Huh. What does he want with a bunch of Ferelden cash?”

A good question. “We don't know. But if what he did to Fenris is any indication, it’s nothing good. This is someone who would be much better off dead. So, to repeat: I need my magic back. Now.”

There was a long, weighty pause on the other end of the line. “Hawke, if you push yourself to cast again before you’re fully healed, you risk never returning to your old strength. Are you really willing …”

“Yes,” Juliet said without hesitation.

Another pause. “All right. I’ll meet you in your office in an hour and we’ll start trying some spells.”

Chapter Text

From the other side of the one-way glass, Max listened to a series of low murmurs in a language he didn’t speak, wishing desperately that he could translate.

He watched what unfolded next as if in slow motion. The polished, reserved Detective went completely still, staring at the woman as if she had stepped out of his worst nightmare. A few more words were exchanged, and then suddenly the Detective turned on his heel, marched towards the door, and fled the interrogation room. After a shocked beat, Guard-Captain Vallen sprang into action and followed him into the hallway.

The suspect watched Detective Leto rush from the room with the strangest expression on her face. Her pale green eyes were unblinking and almost hungry. The moment he was out the door she closed them, her frame relaxing and slumping back into the chair. A shudder ran through her shoulders.

Max ran a stunned hand over his face as he stared at her. “I … what in the hell was that?”

Vivienne frowned through the one-way mirror. “I do not speak enough Tevene to guess. But it seems there is more to our ragged little apostate than meets the eye, if she can draw such a reaction from the Detective.” She arched an eyebrow. “Or is he always so emotional?”

Max bristled at that characterization of the Detective. Leto was prickly, sure. And he’d been close to losing it a few times at the Circle, but hell, who hadn’t? “He takes his job seriously. It would take something important to send him running from an interrogation,” he said stiffly.

“Oh, no judgment intended, darling,” Vivienne said with a little wave of her hand. “We all have our pressure points.”

Really? What are yours? Max wondered, though he didn’t say it out loud. So far he knew that Madame de Fer was ambitious and competent, but he could not say he understood her. Or particularly liked her. And damn it, he wanted to like the leader of his Circle’s mages. Things were bad enough between mages and Templars without adding personality conflicts to the mix.

“Indeed,” Cassandra said gravely. “Perhaps it would be wise to keep them apart, for now. I will ask the Order to send us a translator.”

It was some time before the Guard-Captain returned to the interrogation room. When she did, her jaw was set and her eyes narrow. “The suspect claims to be the Detective’s sister,” she said crisply. “She told him she is here on behalf of his old master. The man who gave him his … abilities.” She paused. “No. Not gave. Inflicted is a better word.”

Max’s jaw dropped. Everyone in Denerim had read at least one profile of Detective Fenris Leto, knew about the experiment that gave him his strength and unusual powers. “Shit. No wonder he reacted that way,” he said with a shake of his head. “What does she say the magister wants?”

“To enslave him again.” The Guard-Captain scowled. “I’ve placed Detective Leto on a brief leave of absence. You still have the Guard’s full cooperation and resources, make no mistake, but …”

Cassandra shook her head. “No explanations are necessary. We will want to question the Detective about this former master, of course. But you were right to remove him from the case.”

Aveline nodded gratefully, then turned her gaze to the one-way mirror. Her expression hardened as she stared at the suspect. “May I suggest, then, that you remove this woman to the Circle?”

Max nodded, already reaching for his handcuffs. “I’ll see to it personally.”

 


 

The dwarven Guardswoman who processed Mei for questioning treated her courteously, offering her water and pointing out the bathroom, making it clear that she was free to use it while she waited. Even so, the inside of the interrogation room made Mei’s skin crawl. It was just so … grey. She couldn’t even tell if it was dirty between the faded color and the terrible lighting. And she kept glancing at the one-way mirror, anxiously trying to intuit whether someone was watching her.

She had pictured half a dozen ways the visit to Cadash’s store was going to go. This particular scenario had not been among them.

And now those Tevinters know I’m a mage. She could only hope that their statements wouldn’t count for much. She hadn’t had a choice, not really; faced with the other elven mage, she’d had to use more than the Arcane Warrior abilities to defend herself and the others.

Not that most Templars will see it that way. Max would help her, she knew—but even as Knight-Captain there was only so much he could do.

As anxiety began to knot her stomach, the door opened. To her profound relief, it was Alistair Guerrin’s friendly face that appeared in the doorway.

“Hey, Enchanter Surana. I hope you haven’t been waiting that long?”

“I’m fine,” she said, shrugging a bit and trying to hide her unease. “And it’s not Enchanter any more. I left the Circle.” She was getting a bit tired of explaining this.

Alistair’s eyebrows rose in surprise. “Oh. Sorry,” he replied as he sat down in front of her. It was then that Mei noticed the recorder in his hand.

Oh great. I’m about to lie to the Guard on tape.

Alistair noticed her gaze; he set the little machine deliberately to the side. “In these situations, things tend to happen pretty fast,” he told her, raising his eyebrows meaningfully. “Details get lost completely by accident. You know how it is when you’re very upset and scared.”

In spite of herself, Mei smiled. “I suppose I do.” She tilted her head at the younger man, trying to see if she could find anything of Fiona in his face. Maybe it was just her imagination, but his smile reminded her of her mentor. Fiona smiled far more rarely than Alistair did, but it had the same shape, the same warmth.

“Shall we get started, then?” Alistair suggested, pointing at the recorder.

Mei nodded. “I suppose it’s best we do.”

Alistair pressed the record button. “This is Guardsman Alistair Guerrin, taking the statement of Mei Surana, a witness to the attempted robbery of Denerim Collectible Books. Ms. Surana, do you need a tissue? Another drink of water?” he asked seriously, giving her a quick wink as he did.

Mei wondered if she should sniffle, but she wasn’t much of an actress and didn’t want to overplay things. “I’m fine,” she said softly, hoping that would pass for shaken and scared to anyone listening to this recording.

“Just let me know if you need a break,” Alistair said gently, that smile flashing across his face once more.

It was a clever routine. Alistair managed to act exactly as if he were trying to coax a coherent story out of a very upset witness. Following his lead, Mei kept her voice quiet and her answers vague. Cadash had tasered the mage. She’d had to fight off the robber with the gun. Maker, it had all happened so fast. At the end of the interview, she’d left out a lot of details, but had somehow managed not to directly lie.

“Thanks,” she said softly when he turned off the tape recorder.

“No thanks necessary. I mean it,” he said seriously. His eyes studied her face, his expression oddly hungry for something.

Mei knew immediately what it had to be. “I think about Fiona a lot,” she told him. “If you ever want to talk about her, I work at the Three Nugs coffee shop out near Calenhad University. Drop by any time.”

A grateful smile lit Alistair’s handsome features. “I—yeah. I’ll do that when this is all over. I’d like that a lot.”

*

Mei had to stay in the Guard house a little while longer after giving her statement. She wrote down her contact information so many times that she thought the shape of the pen would be permanently stamped into her fingers; she also had to wait for Varric to be released from his own interview. He was, after all, her ride home.

Alistair told her which interrogation room Varric was signing his documents in, so Mei found the nearest bench and sat down to wait. A few Guardsmen and Guardswomen tossed skeptical looks her way, taking her in and seeing a slightly disheveled elf, but no one bothered her, which gave her a few blessed moments to breathe deeply and take a pause.

An unusual sound caught Mei’s ears—a firm click against the tiles. It took her a moment to recognize it as the sound of high heels. Who wears heels in a Guard house?

The rhythmic tapping grew louder as the heels rounded the corner. Out of the corner of her eye, Mei saw a dark blue Enchanter’s suit trimmed in silver-blue piping.

Vivienne. Of course.

As Vivienne approached her, Mei bent her head down and let her hair fall across her face, hoping the other mage wouldn’t recognize her. Maybe Vivienne, too, would just see an elf in jeans, not a powerful mage who had once served with her at Montsimmard.

She was not that lucky.

“Mei? Mei Surana?”

Mei pretended to look over and be surprised. She pushed herself to stand and met Vivienne’s eyes with a slight almost-smile. “I had heard you accepted Irving’s old position. Congratulations, First Enchanter.”

“That’s sweet of you, darling, but I’m not quite sure if congratulations are really in order. I’ve inherited rather a mess—as you know, of course. I had hoped there might be at least a few capable people among the remaining mages, but it seems they have almost all left, through one means or another.” She arched one perfect eyebrow at Mei. “How is life without a license, by the way?”

“More eventful than I expected,” Mei replied truthfully.

“Indeed? I’d heard you were working in … a bakery, was it?” Vivienne crossed her arms, that little eyebrow arch still in place.

“A coffee shop.” Mei bit back a smile at Vivienne’s disdainful expression.

“I hear we have you to thank for the knowledge that Marcus Amell is still in the city,” the First Enchanter continued, her tone curious. “You must be concerned about this latest string of robberies.”

“I passed along the news to Knight-Captain Trevelyan, yes.” Mei wasn’t sure where this was going.

“How clever of you to gather the information. And now you’ve helped capture this mage from the Imperium. My, you do seem to get around.” For a moment Mei thought Vivienne might actually pat her on the head.

“The mage. Is she …”

“On her way to the Circle as we speak,” Vivienne interrupted, cutting off the question Mei had really wanted to ask, about who the woman was and what she’d told them. “Seeker Pentaghast and the Knight-Captain are escorting her there. She’s off the streets for the time being.” The First Enchanter tilted her head. “Do you know, though, darling, I can’t help but worry about you.”

“I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time,” Mei said, shrugging uncomfortably.

“Of course, dear.” Vivienne’s mouth pursed in a sympathetic wince. “But if these attacks continue, and Councilwoman Stannard continues her campaign … well. Even a law-abiding apostate may find herself in difficulty. And may I tell you something else?”

Can I stop you? Mei thought.

“I really do not see the point in all this.” Vivienne gestured up and down in a vague sort of way, taking in Mei’s clothing with an air of baffled injury. “You left such a promising career at the Circle! For a mage of your talent to resign her license is such a shameful waste.

Explaining to Vivienne that she hated the Circles and thought they were little more than prisons was a waste of breath, Mei knew. Vivienne’s political acumen had allowed her to rise to a position of influence and relative freedom in Orlais. Anyone who had not done the same was simply not trying hard enough, according to her.

“That’s kind of you to say,” she murmured.

Kind implies I am saying it to make you feel good,” Vivienne sniffed. “I am saying it because I want you to think about where you can do the most good. It is not as an apostate.”

“First Enchanter.” Vivienne blinked at Mei’s firm tone. “I’ve made my choice.”

“Have you now, darling?” Vivienne’s mouth quirked up at the corner. “Well. Should you find yourself wishing to make another one, do give us a call, won’t you?”

 


 

When the knock came, Marcus all but dashed for the door. He forced himself to pause and compose himself, to hide his eagerness to see his visitors. He had stayed away from his room above the apostate bar since the day of the robberies, focused on his work with the amulet and conscious of the fact that they’d all agreed to avoid one another for a day or two afterwards. But Maker, he wanted to hear how it had gone.

He opened the door to see Greta and Ash standing shoulder to shoulder, their faces serious.

His heart fell. Something’s happened. Quickly, he stepped back to admit them to the room. “Come in.”

He hadn’t even closed the door all the way before Ash blurted out, “We had a visit in the bar from a newcomer. She claimed she was at the Circle crisis. An elf. Black hair, flat eyelids, pretty.”

“Does that ring a bell, by any chance?” Greta’s voice was more composed than Ash’s, and significantly unfriendlier. “Friend of yours?”

Marcus could actually feel the blood in his veins freeze. Yes. Yes, it does. The memory of his role in Mei’s kidnapping rose to the front of his mind; he tried to keep the guilt from his face. “It might be Mei Surana. And yes, I know her,” he said cautiously. “Or I did. She’s an Enchanter with the Circle. A skilled one. Why do you ask?”

Greta crossed her arms and glared at him. “Because she showed up at the bar claiming you killed Fiona.”

“What?” Marcus didn’t have to hide his shock. I was nowhere near Fiona when she died. “That’s preposterous.”

Greta seemed unconvinced. “She said it was abominations that killed the Grand Enchanter, and that you helped make them.”

Oh. Well, that was more accurate. “I don’t know why she thinks that,” he lied. He furrowed his brow as he tried to think of a way to explain why Mei might have said such a thing. “Mei’s loyalties are not entirely with her fellow mages, I fear. Her boyfriend is a Templar. Or was. He may have died during the Circle crisis.” If the Maker was merciful, he probably had.

Ash crossed his arms and glared. “She said the people who followed you all got killed.”

Marcus just barely fought back a smile. Ah. So that’s what has them worried. Of course. Greta and Ash were idealists, but they were not the kind of idealists who were willing to die for their cause.

Well, he knew how to play that off. He’d gotten good mileage out of playing the tragic hero, so he drew a deep, mournful breath and stepped to the lone window in his room, a narrow little sliver of glass between the door and his dresser. “We were outmatched,” he said quietly, trying to spin a half-truth that was vague yet believable. “The Templars … There had not been enough time to prepare, and the mages were scattered throughout the Circle grounds.” He turned to face the two of them. “I have learned from my mistakes. I swear it. But if you want someone else to lead you, just say the word.”

As he’d hoped, this was exactly what they wanted to hear. Ash frowned sympathetically; Greta’s tense posture relaxed. “I’m sorry, Marcus,” she said. “Surana was … convincing. And she wasn’t alone. Anders left with her. And that apostate Guardswoman, Hawke.”

“They were here too?” This just keeps getting better.

“Anders was looking for you,” Ash piped up.

Oh, that’s great. That’s just bloody great.

“Thank you for telling me,” Marcus said seriously, looking between them. “Do you believe me now when I say we can’t trust Anders, Greta?”

After a pause, she nodded uneasily. “I guess if he’s allied with those two, we don’t know what he wants.”

“Just so.” Marcus ran a hand through his curls. “Now, if you’ll excuse me. I ought to pass this warning along to our friend downtown.”

*

For once, Marcus didn’t mind the long trek to the Denerim Arms. Walking briskly helped him shake off some of his nervous energy.

Mei Surana is looking for me.

He’d barely spared a thought for his fellow mage since his escape from the Circle, but now she was all he could think about. He had broken with Uldred at the end and tried to help, tried to find a way to destroy the barrier trapping the Circle’s mages inside. But before that, he had taken Mei and her Templar from her bed, had given Rutherford to the demons as a plaything and left Mei to be possessed in the Fade. Mei had always been reserved and quiet, but Marcus knew better than to mistake her quietness for meekness.

If she finds me, she will try to kill me.

And a dark, disloyal part of Marcus suspected that she would succeed. Especially if Anders and Juliet bloody Hawke were now her allies.

It was not until Marcus rode the elevator to the top floor of the Denerim Arms that he realized he would not know the day’s knock—they had always planned his visits in advance, and Danarius always sent a servant to fetch him from the lobby. For a moment he just stared helplessly at the heavy wooden door. But on a whim, he placed his hand on the curling brass handle to the door and pushed it down. It gave way easily, opening with a slightly rusty creak.

“Danarius? It’s …”

A massive crack split the air in the room, and suddenly Marcus was being drenched in a rain of wine laced with shards of glass.

Too late, he threw up a barrier, but one of the shards caught him across the cheekbone, and his clothes were beyond even magic’s help. “What in the Maker’s name …”

The words faded as he got a good look at Danarius.

The magister, too, was drenched in wine. It clung to his cheeks and beard in glistening garnet drops. There was a gash on his forehead and more on his cheeks, and several shards of glass glittered on his suit. He was staring down at the sitting room’s small coffee table, where he always placed the wine he intended to drink that night after he opened it—something about letting it breathe. Nothing but red splatters and broken glass remained of it now.

Danarius’s face was pale and furious, and his chest rose and fell rapidly as he breathed. His fists were clenched and his eyes were still focused on the red splatter across the table and rug; Marcus realized that the magister had used his magic to break the bottle from the inside, forcing it to explode.

There seemed to be only one sensible response. “I’ll come back later.”

But Danarius raised a hand and a gust of wind slammed the door before Marcus could step back outside. “No,” the magister said coldly. The word had the force of a command.

He turned his face to Marcus, red wine mixing with blood as it ran down his face. “Tell me, Marcus,” he said, his tone now calm and almost conversational. “Have you ever had something precious stolen from you? Something you cherished that was taken from you?”

My life, by the Circles, Marcus thought. But he somehow knew that wasn’t the kind of thing Danarius meant. He was talking about an object, not an abstract concept like one’s own existence. “I … we didn’t have many possessions in the Circle. I never owned anything I treasured, really.”

“Nothing you loved has ever betrayed you, then.” Danarius sighed and returned his attention to the wine-stained wall. “I almost envy you, Marcus.”

Marcus tried to look sympathetic, but he was quickly losing the thread of the conversation. Are we still talking about an object? How does an object betray you? “What was stolen?”

“Varania was captured in the city today.”

Marcus’s mouth opened in horror. “Maker. Do you think—will she tell the Guard …?”

“Of course not,” Danarius said contemptuously. “She knows what it would mean for her if she did.”

“We’ll get her back, Danarius.” Marcus tried to sound optimistic. “I’ll assemble some people right away.”

Danarius waved his hand, as if to swat Marcus’s idea away like a pesky fly. “Do not bother. I will handle this myself.”

“I did not realize you two were so close,” Marcus said hesitantly.

The magister actually snorted at that. “The girl is a means to an end, to regaining that which was stolen from me.” He ran a hand over his face, brushing away the wine and glass and blood. “My beautiful, skilled boy. My little wolf.”

I am running out of patience for riddles. Marcus forced steel into his voice and crossed his arms, drawing himself up to his full height. “What’s going on, Danarius? Tell me. Who is your ‘little wolf’? Why are you really in Denerim?”

Danarius’s feet shifted; he turned his body towards Marcus, glass tinkling to the floor as he did. “I came to this hellish southern backwater to help you. But I am also here to reclaim what I lost. My wolf. My Fenris.”

Marcus’s blood ran absolutely cold. No. No. He can’t mean … he can’t possibly …

“Fenris Leto? Detective Fenris Leto?” he asked, stunned. The deadly, terrifying Detective had shown up at the Circle during the crisis and Marcus had watched the man kill an abomination with his bare hands. He had been a thorn in the side of Denerim’s apostate community for years. What could possibly be his tie to Danarius?

“Oh, Maker. You’re his old master,” he said with dawning horror. “I read a profile of him in the newspaper a few years ago. You’re the one who gave him those lyrium tattoos.”

Danarius nodded, his face etched in pain. “My Fenris competed for the right to participate in the experiment. He bested many candidates. But the procedure interfered with his memory, I’m afraid. He woke almost wild.” He shook his head. “It took many years of training and care to teach him to harness his abilities. And then suddenly, after years of affection and loyalty from me, he turned and he ran.” The words were laced with shock. “He betrayed me.”

Marcus felt his mouth drop open. “You think he didn’t have a reason? He was a slave.”

“He was treasured,” insisted the magister. “Slavery in the Imperium is not what you’ve been told, Marcus. Slaves have status. They may earn their freedom. And many who are freed ask to sell themselves to a new master. It is a stable life, with work and clothing and shelter provided to those who serve their purpose.”

It sounds like the Circle, Marcus thought. It sounds like something that robs you of your humanity.

He almost did it. He almost walked out of the hotel room. But he knew if he did, he would lose Danarius’s support, not to mention the stock of lyrium they had so carefully assembled. And there was so much at stake.

Freedom for Denerim’s mages, at the cost of one Detective we were probably going to have to kill anyway.

Put it that way, it was no choice at all.

“How do you intend to get him back?”

Danarius smiled. It was a humorless, hungry expression, cold and bright in his stained beard. “People respond to incentives, Marcus. I simply need to find the right ones.”

Chapter Text

Despite her intimate familiarity with Denerim’s bus system, it took Naia some time to figure out how to get from Fenris’s posh neighborhood to her office. Apparently it wasn't a route all that many people used. After a while she more or less gave up and hiked half an hour to the nearest stop on a familiar line. She didn't mind. The walk gave her some time to clear her head.

This is bad. This is so very bad.

She’d worked hard to be cheerful and matter-of-fact in front of Fenris. And it hadn't been a front, exactly. But anyone with enough power and cruel creativity to do what had been done to Fenris was a terrifying opponent.

What does he want? Is he just torturing Fenris? That couldn't be it. Why bother with all the robberies? Unless they're unrelated.

Or maybe he’s not even in the city. Hell, maybe she’s lying about being his sister. She could just be an unhinged woman who’s read too many newspaper profiles of the fabled Detective Leto.

Aaargh. We just don't have enough information. Maybe Donnic or Alistair would let her sneak a look at Varania’s arrest report.

She wondered if Juliet would be in the office when she got there—maybe she could give her friend a heads up about what had happened. But Juliet’s office was dark. Zevran, however, was flipping through a pile of photos, a pleased smile on his face.

The smile faded when he met her eyes. “I would ask how your day has gone, but it seems the answer is ‘not well.’”

Naia rubbed her forehead. “The Guard arrested a mage today. She claims she’s Fenris’s sister, here to take him back to an exciting life of slavery in the Imperium.”

Zevran set the photos down with a low whistle. “How is the Detective taking this?”

“Um. Not great,” Naia said diplomatically. “But I don’t think there’s anything we can do right now besides give him some space and wait for more information.” She sighed. “Distract me. Any good news about our friend Mr. Osland?”

“The best kind of news,” Zevran assured her. “The photographic kind, recording him with a young lady who is definitely not Mrs. Osland, checking out of the Denerim Arms with his hand on a most inappropriate part of her anatomy.” He handed the stack of photos to her.

Naia looked down at them and grinned, instantly cheered. “Grabbing her ass. Classy guy. Mrs. Osland is going to love these.” Sometimes presenting spouses with evidence of infidelity was heartbreaking, but Mrs. Osland had spent years listening to her husband tell her she was paranoid and uncaring for wondering why he spent so many nights away from home. Naia hoped she’d slap him across the face with these pictures at the divorce proceedings.

Out of idle curiosity, she began flipping through the rest of the photos, but none of the other faces looked familiar. She did pause for a moment on the image of a red-haired elf, a woman in baggy, unkempt clothes. The Denerim Arms didn’t get many elves, especially not ones who looked like starving artists. Her companion, an older human man, was much better-dressed, but something about his cadaverous face made Naia’s skin crawl.

“Ah yes, I noticed them too,” Zevran said. He stood and moved closer, looking over her shoulder. Naia could feel the warmth radiating from his body, and she quashed an urge to snuggle closer. “A strange couple. I wondered, perhaps, if she might be a call girl. Some women I knew in Antiva City specialized in that fantasy—an inexpensive prostitute in one of the city’s finest hotels.”

“Maker, rich shems are weird,” Naia said, shaking her head and handing the photos back to him. Her hand brushed Zev’s as she did—just a bit, but enough to send a shiver down her arm. “A year or so ago, Juliet ran surveillance on a woman who hired prostitutes dressed as gardeners. Exclusively. Once a hooker showed up in a plumber’s uniform and she sent him away. Spent an hour on the phone yelling at the escort service.”

“Her partner made out well in the divorce, I take it?” Zevran asked, amused.

“Oh, no. We were looking for evidence of corporate espionage. Turns out she wasn’t the spy, and her personal life seemed unrelated, so we didn’t tell the client. We probably still have the pictures in a filing cabinet somewhere.” Naia laughed. “But Varric did adapt that anecdote for one of his short stories.”

“Dare I hope his next novel will feature a certain dashing assassin?” Zevran gestured playfully to his features. “Though alas, it will be difficult to do justice to such beauty, even for a man of Mr. Tethras’s talents.”

“Careful what you wish for,” Naia said wryly. “He’s written a couple that are basically about Juliet and Fenris—an apostate in the Guard and her mysterious, sexy partner. They’re incredibly soppy. And addictive. I read the last one in about five hours flat.”

“Please tell me the Detective knows.” Zevran’s eyes were sparkling with amusement at the idea.

“He claims he has no idea who the brooding Detective Darrian is based on, as Darrian bears absolutely no resemblance to anyone he has ever met.” Naia shook her head with a playful little roll of the eyes. “Juliet didn’t say anything about them, but she did throw the last paperback at Varric’s head.”

“Is he writing another?”

“Not since they got back together.” Naia sobered. “And not since the Circle crisis. Apparently Meredith Stannard’s office sent his publisher a note about books that ‘romanticize apostacy.’”

And just like that her brain was back to mages, and to Fenris’s sister. She sighed. “I’m going to call Mrs. Osland and let her know. Maybe after that I’ll be able to concentrate on the rest of my work.”

The former assassin met her eyes with the oddest expression on his face. He almost looked worried for a moment. But then he winked at her. “I would happily take your mind off recent events, you know. You need only to ask.”

Does he mean that? Is that something he wants? Or is it just something he’s saying?

Naia didn’t know the answers to those questions, so she tried not to look like she was imagining exactly how he might take her mind off of mages. “That’s very generous,” she said dryly. “I’ll keep you posted.”

“Please do. In the meantime, could I borrow these books about Ms. Hawke and the Detective?” He grinned. “Perhaps it would cheer Detective Leto to discuss a bit of literature.”

Naia chuckled, though there was a sadness in the sound. “I don’t think he’ll want to talk about much besides Danarius for a few weeks. But it’s worth a try.”

 


 

Anders climbed the stairs to Tabris Investigations with his hands deep in the pockets of his light jacket and his head bowed. His mind was whirling with thoughts and ideas. Most of them were not ones he was proud of.

He’d promised to help Hawke cast again as quickly as possible. She was close to being fully recovered; he’d known that for some time. In fact, he had been slowing down the last stages of the healing process—telling himself it was for her benefit, to make sure the job was done right, but knowing that it was also because he was lonely and afraid to lose the only friend he had in Denerim once the process ended.

And now she wanted his help drawing it to a fast close in order to help her mage-hating boyfriend. Well, the Maker certainly gave Anders the punishment he deserved.

It’s not my decision to make.

But—aaargh. Why? Why was Hawke willing to risk her gift like this? As far as Anders was concerned her boyfriend didn’t deserve that kind of loyalty. The man investigated apostates for a living. He was practically a Templar. Whatever he’d been through in the Imperium didn’t justify his hatred for magic and mages.

Hawke might thank me in the long run if I didn’t help her do this.

In the short term, though, I’d probably lose my only friend.

And with that, his decision was made.

The door was unlocked when Anders reached the second floor, so he pushed it open with only a bit of trepidation. Zevran was sitting at his little desk, making notes with a wax pencil on the backs of a stack of pictures—date and time, it appeared.

“Cheating husband?” Anders asked, more to make conversation than because he really cared. Hawke said those cases paid the bills, but they didn’t sound very interesting.

“Indeed.” The elf smiled. “Some of my best work, if I may say so.”

“Better than all of the murdering?”

Anders immediately wondered if that had been a stupid thing to say— who taunts a professional assassin? —but Zevran appeared unoffended. “Why, yes, I believe so.” He flipped through the pictures with a raised eyebrow. “I have found that this work calls on many of my favorite talents. Lying, wearing disguises, inquiring after the darkest desires of our targets. And there is so much less pesky cleanup afterwards.”

His smile was friendly on the surface, but it made Anders a little uneasy nonetheless. “Right. That’s great. So glad it’s a good fit.” How do Hawke and Naia work with this guy parked in their lobby?

The elf tilted his head a bit, considering him. “Ms. Hawke is not here, I am afraid. I believe she may have gone home for the day.”

Anders shook his head. “She’s on her way over. Emergency healing session.” He sighed. “Apparently her boyfriend’s old enemy is involved somehow. She’s hell-bent on getting her magic back to help with this latest crisis.”

“And you disapprove?” the elf asked, his eyebrows drawing together curiously.

“I have decided that it doesn’t matter what I think, because Hawke’s going to do as she pleases regardless,” Anders replied wryly. “So I might as well try to help contain the damage.”

The elf chuckled. “A wise decision. I myself would not wish to stand between Ms. Hawke and her goals.”

Anders was saved from having to reply to that by the sound of the door opening. Juliet entered the office on silent feet, her lips pressed together anxiously. Her dark hair looked tangled and rumpled, as if she had been pushing her hands through it a lot in the past hour or so.

She met Anders’s eyes, her expression intense and focused. “Great. You’re here. Let’s get this started.”

 


 

“You’re fidgeting,” Anders informed her as she sat back in the chair, his magic weaving through her body as it had every week for the past four months.

“No, I’m not.”

“Yes, you are. You’re kicking your leg and tapping your fingers. Breathe deep. In and out. I need to get a full picture of where you’re at.”

Juliet obeyed. She planted both feet on the worn carpet beneath her chair and clenched her hands around the armrests, breathing in and out through her nose. As Anders’s magic flowed into her chakras, Juliet focused on the feel of it, on that golden-bright warmth that felt so much like her own magic, and yet so different. Anders had told her that her magic was like a wildfire combined with a lightning storm. She’d decided to take it as a compliment.

“All right,” Anders said, pulling back. “Let’s start small. I want you to draw in as much magic and hold it. Don’t cast. Just hold it. And release it the second you feel any pain.”

As eager as she was for this, Juliet couldn’t help a second of hesitation. Back after the original injury, channeling magic had been excruciatingly painful—like scraping the rawest ends of every nerve she had. It had also been incredibly frustrating, since it flowed right back out again.

I have to try.

Slowly, Hawke drew on her magic. She let it fill her drop by drop, testing her limits, wondering when and if her body would tell her she could not take in any more. After a minute, she began to feel a stretching in her chakras, the tight ache of something that had not been used in far too long. She wanted to push past it, but rather than take the risk, she stopped and simply held on. Her magic shone within her, crackling with power and begging to be used, but it was pushing up against a strange stiffness, against unfamiliar limits to her strength.

“It’s … not quite like it used to be,” she admitted, opening her eyes and looking over at Anders as she released the power and let it dissipate. “But it doesn’t hurt. It’s like I’ve got scar tissue, or something.”

Anders nodded. “I’m not surprised. Giving yourself time to heal was necessary, but it also means that your magic may feel a little rusty from disuse. I think you’ll want to repeat that exercise a few times a day. Stretch out the muscles, so to speak.” He crossed his arms. “You’re close to being back to full strength, Hawke. I’ll start coming by three times a week to speed things up. But in the meantime don’t do anything unnecessary.”

She felt her mouth turn down in frustration. “There might be a crazed magister after my boyfriend, Anders. Define ‘unnecessary.’”

Anders was silent for a moment, his eyes uncharacteristically cast downward. “I … Hawke. I know this isn’t my place. But it’s not worth permanently damaging your magic over this guy.”

Juliet crossed her arms tight. “I’m not some lovestruck teenager, Anders,” she said evenly. “I’m doing this for Fenris, sure. But I’m also doing it for Naia and Varric and everyone else in this city. I can't just do nothing while mages take the city apart.”

“Have you stopped to think about why these mages are doing what they’re doing?” Anders asked. “I know Marcus Amell is an asshole. But he’s an asshole who wants to destroy the Circles.”

“And he’s willing to bring in demons and demented magisters to help him do it,” Juliet shot back. “Anders, I thought we were on the same page about this. Marcus and his friends are not helping mages. They’re putting every one of us at risk. This doesn’t end in freedom and mage rights. It ends with Templars cracking down hard on every apostate in Denerim.”

“How do we know that?” Anders asked, his brow furrowing. “I mean, what’s the alternative? Keep quiet? Run scared from the Templars for the rest of our lives?”

That strategy had worked well for the entire Hawke family, though when Anders put it that way, Juliet felt a bit shamed. “Wasn’t that your plan, drink beer and lie low?” she asked, avoiding the issue. “Anders, what are you saying? That you want to join up with Marcus?”

“Oh, Maker, no,” Anders said, waving his hands frantically. “No, no, no. Entirely too high a risk of death there. I’m just saying—I’m saying you could stay out of it. If you wanted to.”

Juliet met his eyes. “All right. You’re right. I could stay out of it.” She paused. “But I don’t want to.”

“Well, points for honesty,” Anders cracked wryly.

Juliet smiled back, glad to see the spark of humor, but not quite willing to make jokes herself just yet. “They’re scaring people and hurting them, Anders. They’re turning the entire city against us. I’d love to live openly as an apostate someday. But I want to be able to look my neighbors in the eye when I do.”

The healer arched a blonde eyebrow. “That’s how you see it going? Someday Juliet Hawke, known apostate, will cast spells in her backyard while waving across her white picket fence to her neighbor?”

Juliet chuckled at the image. “Yep. That’s my fantasy. Bonus points if my neighbors are Naia and Varric.”

“Well, sign me up for the next house on the block. As long as I can have a cat.” Anders smiled at her. “Ready to try again?”

Juliet closed her eyes and reached for her magic. “Absolutely.”

 


 

Fenris rarely slept well. This night was no exception. As he stared at the ceiling of his bedroom he bitterly regretted throwing the bottle of wine. Alcohol, he knew, did not make for restful sleep, but even fitful sleep would have been better than none.

He dozed off around three in the morning, but woke several more times, startled out of his rest by nightmares—or more accurately, a nightmare. The same one every time. Danarius called for him, and he went. No resistance, no complaint. He simply walked to the magister’s side and awaited his next order as if he had never left the Imperium.

In the dreams, he never wanted to go. He felt terror and revulsion when he saw Danarius’s face. But he went all the same. He was unable to stop himself.

When true, deep sleep finally claimed him, it pulled him so far under that he slept until nearly ten. He woke because he had not pulled the curtains fully closed and the sun was shining directly on his face. He let out a groan and forced himself out of bed.

As his eyes focused on the bathroom mirror, he realized that he’d slept in his clothes for the second night in a row. He had removed his suit jacket, at least, but his button-down shirt was wrinkled and misshapen. He ran the tap as cold as it would go and splashed the water over his face, trying to startle himself out of his sleepless fog. Coffee , he thought. I should change my clothes and find coffee.

Thinking of coffee made him think of Hawke. Maker, had it been only yesterday that she brought him a cup, then fought with him about her magic? It felt like a lifetime ago.

I promised her I would call.

He almost didn’t. He almost tried to go back to bed to avoid it, or went out for coffee in his slept-in clothes, stares of his neighbors be damned. He desperately wanted to avoid another fight. But he also wanted to hear her voice.

She picked up her office phone on the second ring. “Juliet Hawke.”

“Hawke. Good morning.”

“Fenris.” Relief and affection mingled in her voice, and Fenris’s heart leapt in response. She is not angry.

“I cannot go to work today,” he said quietly. “But I … I cannot simply wait to learn what he will do next. I need your help.” He drew in a deep breath. “I need you.

Her response was immediate. “Come over. Or, wait. Naia and Varric went to a coffee shop near the university. Apparently it’s where Mei works. Someplace called Three Nugs?” She rattled off the address. “Meet me there.”

He blinked. “Mei?”

“Mei Surana. From the Circle. Well, apparently she’s not with the Circle any more. And get this: she’s the one who captured your sister yesterday.” Hawke sounded genuinely impressed.

Fenris fell into a startled silence. The image of Enchanter Surana working as a barista was not an easy one to wrap his head around—and he truly had no idea how to react to the knowledge that she had been the reason for Varania’s arrest. “I see,” he said, though he wasn’t entirely sure he did.

“Meet us at Three Nugs?” Hawke asked tentatively. “Or Naia could fill us in later. Maybe you and I could go get breakfast somewhere quiet.”

A quiet breakfast with Hawke sounded like heaven to Fenris. But he knew within minutes he would be consumed with thoughts of Danarius, and with frustration that he was not doing anything to find the man. “I think I should join the efforts at the coffee shop,” he said reluctantly. “Shall I pick you up on the way?”

“That sounds great.” A pause. “I’ll be glad to see you.”

The thought of seeing her lifted Fenris’s spirits as well. “I will be there as soon as I can.”

 


 

The counter in front of Mei’s station only seated three, so Naia, Zevran, Anders, and Varric dragged the shop’s largest table as close to the back of the coffee shop as they could. Mei tried not to look worried—after all, they were here so that she wouldn’t have to miss another day of work—but there was something unsettling about seeing her neat little coffee shop rearranged and put out of order. The life she’d built for herself might be dull, but as she felt it shift and tip off balance, she realized it had also been safe. Going after Marcus Amell was far from safe, especially without the protection of an Enchanter’s license to excuse the use of her magic.

Forget safe, she told herself as she set a large pot of coffee down in the center of their table. You’ll be safe when Marcus is stopped. Whatever he’s planning, it’s not good.

You’ve seen that firsthand.

At this mid-morning hour it was slow inside the shop, and while Mei didn’t quite feel comfortable enough to abandon her position at the counter, she was able to listen as Varric filled Naia and Zevran in on their adventures at Cadash’s the previous day.

“In short, just another series of daring exploits,” Varric finished nonchalantly. “Bianca’s sad she missed it, though.”

Varric had mentioned this Bianca several times. Mei made a mental note to ask someone who he was talking about. With all the nicknames the dwarf used it was sometimes hard to keep track.

“Well, I’ve got your epilogue,” Naia said. Her freckled face looked a bit drawn; something was clearly worrying her. “The mage you caught claims she’s Fenris’s sister.”

Mei almost shattered the mug she was washing. “What?

Naia nodded. “I was there when he finished interviewing her.”

Mei’s jaw dropped. Her mind raced as she grappled with the implications. “You said she claims she’s his sister. Is she telling the truth?”

Naia raised her shoulders and turned up her palms in an exaggerated shrug. “He says she looks familiar, but he can’t really remember much from before the ritual. So, probably?” She shook her head. “Anyway, he kind of lost it. The Guard-Captain suspended him for two days so he could calm down.”

Varric grimaced. “Poor bastard. That magister did a hell of a number on him, didn’t he.” It wasn’t a question.

“Yes, and now because of one bad experience, he thinks all mages are monsters.” Anders scooped another spoonful of sugar into his coffee.

“That ‘one bad experience’ lasted years , Anders.” Naia’s voice was as sharp as Mei had ever heard it.

“Indeed. I do not envy the Detective a life as a magister’s slave. Even the Crows are reluctant to take contracts on members of the Magisterium,” Zevran added. “There is profit to be made, as magisters often want to kill each other, but such assignments tend to be rather dangerous. They are a brutal group.”

Mei silently added “what in the Maker’s name are the Crows?” to her list of questions. But she was saved from revealing her ignorance by the tinkling sound of the bell at the door.

Detective Leto entered, pushing the door open with his left hand. His right hand was twined through Juliet Hawke’s fingers, and he looked back at her as she followed him, as if to reassure himself that she was still there. Hawke watched him just as closely, her usual confident aura a bit muted by the anxious tilt of her brows.

Mei had been there in the Fade when the desire demon had tried to trap Fenris with Hawke’s face. But even so, she had not expected such clear and powerful feeling between the two of them, given the Detective’s mistrust of magic. I hope this works out for them.

Naia’s face relaxed into a relieved grin when she saw the pair. “Hey. Good morning.”

The Detective nodded towards her, his face grave. “My thanks for your assistance last night.” He looked odd, and it took Mei a minute to realize why—he was wearing a grey t-shirt and jeans, the first casual clothes she had seen on him. They were rumpled, as if they had not been worn in some time.

“Don’t mention it,” Naia said easily. “Coffee?”

The Detective nodded—but paused as his eyes slid over Mei’s face. He inclined his head towards her respectfully. “It is good to see you again, Enchanter.”

The courtesy surprised Mei. She tried to respond in kind. “Call me Mei. It’s good to see you too, Detective.”

“Fenris will do. I am, after all, suspended at the moment.” He sat down next to Naia and reached for the coffee pot—pausing to pour a cup for Hawke first.

“It’s only two days. Let’s not be overly dramatic,” Hawke said. She sipped the coffee black with a smile on her face. “So. What did we miss?”

“Us moving the furniture. Varric filling us in on how he and Mei caught this Varania character. Other than that, not much.” Anders was pointedly looking at Hawke and not Fenris.

Fenris’s silver head swung towards Mei. “You were the ones in the bookstore?”

She nodded uneasily.

“You can confirm she is a mage, then?”

“Yes, she’s a mage.” Mei wasn’t sure where Fenris’s mind was going with this, but there was a particular fact that had been nagging at her since the store. “But she’s not very well-trained. Everything she cast was elementary and easily broken. If I had to guess I would say she has had a few months of instruction, at most.”

Fenris raised his eyebrows at this, his expression disquiet.

“So she’s probably not one of our robbers?” Naia suggested.

Mei shook her head. “I wouldn’t rule it out. The spells cast at the robberies were flashy but not hard, from what I understand.” She glanced at Fenris for confirmation; he nodded.

“It … would be like Danarius, to find my sister and make her his new apprentice,” he said, his baritone voice so soft Mei almost could not hear it. “Even if I could not remember her, the thought would please him.”

Hawke inched ever so slightly closer to him; he reached for her hand again, covering it with his own.

Abruptly, Fenris looked back at Mei. “I—I cannot judge such things myself. But do we resemble one another, she and I?”

“I only saw her for a bit,” Mei said apologetically. “And it’s hard to say. Her coloring is so different from yours, with the red hair.”

Naia and Zevran both sat up a bit straighter in their chairs.

“A red-haired elf and a visitor to this city?” Zevran repeated slowly. “Detective, what does this Danarius look like?”

“A monster,” the Detective snarled. He shook his head, as if the gesture would help him regain control. “A pale man. Close to Naia’s shade, though not freckled. When last I saw him, he wore a grey beard.”

The two elves looked to each other with mouths hanging open. Slowly, Zevran reached for his bag.

“I was in a local hotel on another case some days ago. I happened to take some photographs—well. You can tell me if they are significant.”

He pulled back the flap and removed a folder stuffed with pictures. Deftly, his fingers flicked through them and he pulled out two for Fenris to look at.

Mei could not help herself; she came out from behind the counter to look over his shoulder. Her breath caught just as Fenris swore in Tevene.

The picture depicted Varania standing next to an older man at the front desk of an expensive-looking hotel, wearing shabby clothing. Her lips were pressed together in a thin line; she seemed to be staring at the wall behind the clerk.

The man she was with wore an expensive suit, neatly tailored, with a high collar that obscured any shirt beneath. It reminded Mei a bit of her old Enchanter’s suit, though this was black and buttoned straight from the collar to the waist. The man inside the garment was thin and aged, almost sickly-looking in his black; his grey hair was slicked back and appeared greasy, as did his beard. Something about him made her skin crawl. Perhaps it was the possessive way he looked at Varania in the second photograph.

The pictures fell from the Detective’s fingers and landed in his lap. His eyes widened, enormous and round in his angular face, and the blood visibly drained from his features as he took a sharp breath.

Mei took it upon herself to answer the unspoken question. “Yes. That’s her.”

“And him.” Fenris stared down at the photographs with the face of a man whose world had been split open.

Chapter Text

Fenris could not take his eyes from the image of Danarius.

The years had not changed his former master much. He was a bit thinner, perhaps; his beard and hair a bit scragglier. But he would have known that profile, that cruel smirk, no matter how many decades had passed.

So you have come for me at last.

“We must not delay,” Fenris said. His voice crackled with intensity. “Without his apprentice he will be weak, distracted. This may be our only chance.”

Mei nodded. “I’ll call Max.”

It took Fenris a moment to realize what she was proposing. He opened his mouth to tell their new ally what a preposterous suggestion that was, but before he could speak, Hawke began nodding her head vigorously.

“Yes. Send the Templars for him. I don’t like the brand, but if anyone deserves it, it’s Danarius.” She stared down at the photographs in Fenris’s hands.

Fenris stared at her as if she’d lost her mind. “You wish him arrested by the Templars,” he said flatly.

“I wish him devoured by hungry cats. Or lit on fire. Or dropped to the bottom of the ocean with something heavy tied around his feet,” Hawke said, her features twisted in dislike. “But much as I hate to admit it, the Templars are trained to do exactly this sort of thing—capture blood mages.”

“Danarius is mine ,” Fenris growled. Blue light began to flare around the tattoos at the backs of his hands. “Mark my words, he is here for me. It is my task to deal with him. And not by sending him to the Circle’s prisons.”

“I find I must agree with the Detective.” Zevran leaned forward and put his elbows on the table.

“Oh, there’s a shock. The assassin votes for death,” Anders cracked.

Zevran looked over at the healer, his expression coolly amused as he folded his hands and tapped his index fingers together. “Perhaps my former profession does bias me. But this man is quite dangerous, no? It seems to me that the permanent solution is the practical one.”

“I suppose I am not surprised you wish to spare another mage.” Fenris looked directly at Anders for the first time since they had entered the coffee shop, and he let the full force of his contempt show on his face.

The healer merely rolled his eyes. “Look, if this guy just dies or disappears, the Templars will never know he was involved, and they’ll just keep cracking down on apostates. Like, say, the one to your right?” Anders said, glancing pointedly at Hawke.

That was an angle Fenris had not considered. He paused, suddenly torn.

“If they arrest him, maybe they’ll be able to get to the bottom of whatever he’s been doing,” Anders continued. “Maybe they’ll be able to find Marcus while they’re at it.”

All eyes at the table turned to Mei. Fenris supposed that was right; just as Danarius was his enemy, Mei Surana had the most important claim on Marcus Amell.

The elven mage grimaced uncomfortably. “I know what I said about wanting to handle Marcus myself. But going into a hotel after Danarius has a high risk of collateral damage. Civilians could be hurt. The Templars have the legal authority to evacuate the building and get management to let them into his room. Plus, like Hawke said, they’re trained to deal with blood magic.”

“Danarius is no mere blood mage.” Fenris’s mouth tightened with stress. How can I make them understand? “He is obsessed with lyrium. He studies it intensively and finds new ways to twist its power. You see before you one of the results of that obsession.” He raised a hand and let the power in his veins flow; blue light lit the coffee shop for an instant before he extinguished it. “I can rip a heart from a man’s chest thanks to Danarius’s arts. He may have done worse than that in the time since I left.”

Mei nodded seriously. “They’ll want to know all of that before they go in after Danarius. You’re right, he may use magic they haven’t seen before. But one mage against a team of Templars and Enchanters? It won’t be much of a contest.”

Anders looked over at her incredulously. “If you love Templars so much, why in the Maker’s name did you leave the Circle?”

Mei’s dark eyes narrowed. “Because I didn’t want to live there any more,” she said, with the exaggerated patience of someone talking to a sullen teenager.

“Stop annoying Mei, blondie. It’s not smart. I’ve seen her toss a two-hundred-fifty-pound man across a room.” Varric leaned back in his chair and took a long sip of coffee. “For what it’s worth, I’m voting for ‘let the Templars put this guy in chains.’”

Fenris could feel that he was losing the argument. Almost desperately, his eyes scanned the assembled allies and friends—and landed on Naia, who had not yet spoken. His friend’s brows were drawn together and her head was bowed in thought; she was clearly weighing the arguments. She tilted her chin up, finally, and looked directly at him.

“You know him, Fenris. We don’t. What do you think we should do?”

“I want him dead.” The words vibrated with loathing. “I want to crush his heart in my hand and hear him beg for mercy.” His fists clenched and he took a breath. Almost unconsciously, he looked over at Hawke.

She would be by my side when I faced Danarius. He would see a fellow mage as the greater threat.

What if he took her from me?

“But I … I will not place others at risk to take my revenge.” He sighed. “I will visit Knight-Captain Trevelyan. He should know who and what he is dealing with as soon as possible.”

 


 

Max decided to start the morning briefing on a positive note. “The arrest of the Tevinter mage Varania is a major break in the case,” he told his mixed audience of Templars and Guard, pointing to the case board behind him. “The car parked outside the bookstore matches the description of the vehicle at the pawn shop, and the plate matches the partial Guardsman Guerrin spotted. We are operating on the assumption that the suspect is involved in all of the robberies, not just the attempt at Denerim Collectible Books.”

He took a breath. “But. She’s not talking to us. And neither are the men we arrested with her. It’s possible they genuinely don’t understand Ferelden. We’ve asked the Order to send us a translator.”

But it might take a while, he added silently. Most Templars spoke both Ferelden and Orlesian, but for obvious reasons, few learned Tevene. Max himself spoke not a word of Tevene, partly because he had a personal grudge to add to the general Templar prejudice against the Imperium. Blood magic and slave murder were apparently fine in Minrathous, but if you were a man who fell in love with other men, well, that made you unfit for polite company. Assholes.

“So for now we’re going to work the car.” Max tried to sound like he thought this was a great idea that was definitely going to break the case wide open. “The plate was reported stolen from a used car lot near the alienage. Guardsman Guerrin, you and your partner can take point on questioning the owner. See if there are security cameras in the area or anything else that might shake a lead loose.”

Frankly, that didn’t sound very promising, but Alistair merely nodded in acceptance of the assignment.

“Meanwhile, my Agents will resume their places around the city as usual. Those of us at Guard headquarters are going to comb through stolen car reports looking for four-door black sedans, and call local dealers and car rental places to find out if anyone’s sold or rented this particular vehicle recently. We’ll do that while we wait for Varania’s friends to make their next move. As usual, everyone needs to keep an eye out for Marcus Amell. We’re developing a sketch of the magister Varania claims she’s working for. Any questions?”

There were none. But Max wasn’t sure that was a good thing. If they’d made more progress, surely a team of investigators would have questions to ask.

Don’t be impatient, he told himself. Bit by bit, piece by piece. We’ll solve this. We have to.

“All right,” he said with a decisive nod. “Dismissed.”

The assembled men and women got up slowly, moving towards the exits. As Max ran a hand over his face and let out a relieved breath, he realized that Guard-Captain Vallen had remained in her seat, waiting for the crowd to disperse.

With a glance back at the nearly-empty room, she rose from her chair and strode towards Max. He gave her what he hoped was a friendly look as she stopped in front of the case board.

“I appreciate you keeping the Detective’s name out of this for now,” she said quietly.

“Not a problem. I’d rather keep that kind of bombshell quiet until we can verify whether it’s true.” Max met her eyes seriously. “If it is, though …”

“It will become too relevant to the investigation to conceal,” the Guard-Captain sighed. “I know.”

“Any idea when the Detective might be able to help us with a sketch?” Max asked. “The magister’s probably back in Minrathous waiting for Varania to call in with an update, but I want to cover all of our bases.”

“I will call him shortly,” the Guard-Captain assured him. “He will be eager to tell you what he knows of Danarius.” She grimaced. “But for the Detective’s sake, and ours, I hope you are right that Danarius is not in the city.”

A soft ahem at the back of the briefing room drew Max’s attention. Alistair Guerrin was pushing the door open, two people trailing in his wake.

It took Max a moment to recognize Detective Leto out of his usual crisp black suit. The handsome elf looked tired and rumpled, but there was an unnerving, intense energy crackling around him. Next to him was Juliet Hawke, her arms crossed and her usual black leather jacket drawn close around her like a kind of armor.

Seeing Hawke always made Max uneasy. He didn’t regret the choice he made in the aftermath of the Circle crisis; Hawke had saved their lives, and it seemed lousy to repay her by arresting her and trying to force her into a Circle. But he knew damn well he was disobeying every Templar rule in the book by ignoring the fact that this woman was a powerful mage who used her magic outside the Circle. He wondered how Detective Leto reconciled his determination to fight illegal magic with the fact that he loved an apostate.

He tried to betray none of those feelings as the couple drew closer. “Alistair. Detective. Ms. Hawke. Good morning. I was just about to call …”

“Danarius is in the city.” Without further ceremony, Fenris shoved a stack of pictures at Max.

Max accepted the pictures and held them so the Guard-Captain could see them too. A jolt of recognition hit him when he saw Varania’s angular profile; the elf was standing at the concierge desk of an expensive-looking hotel. Next to her stood an older man in a carefully tailored suit, his smile thin and insincere beneath his sharp, cadaverous cheekbones.

“Andraste’s ass,” Max said, too surprised to hold in the mild profanity. “Where did you take these? How did you know where to find him?”

“Pure luck,” Hawke said with a shrug. “We were trying to get photos of a cheating husband a couple of days ago. We didn’t realize what we had until this morning. This is the lobby of the Denerim Arms Hotel.” Her dark eyes flickered between Max and Aveline; Max could sense a quiet request for help in the gaze.

“You will need to approach him with caution.” Fenris, never a relaxed man, was practically vibrating with anxiety and worry; every muscle in his body seemed wound with tension. “You are a capable fighter, Knight-Captain. I have seen so firsthand. But Danarius uses both blood magic and lyrium in ways that even frighten other magisters. Do not underestimate him. He is as dangerous as Uldred. More so.”

“I believe you,” Max said as he studied the pictures. Hope and satisfaction rose in his chest as he memorized Danarius’s harsh features. We’ve got you, you asshole.

He lowered the photos and met Fenris’s eyes. “We’re going to take care of this. Danarius will have a round-the-clock tail while we try to figure out where he’s meeting Marcus Amell, and where he’s hiding all that lyrium. You can expect him to join your sis—uh, Varania, within a couple of days.”

He could tell from their faces that this was not the response Fenris and Hawke had expected.

“You plan to let Danarius remain free.” The elf’s tone was flat and disbelieving.

“Not free. Followed,” Max said quickly. “This may have started with him, but it’s bigger than that now. Marcus Amell is involved, and maybe others responsible for the Circle crisis. If we follow him, we can shut down the entire conspiracy.” We might actually find out who built that creepy machine.

He glanced at the Guard-Captain for support—but her strong features were arranged in a doubtful expression.

“I realize that this is ultimately a Templar decision, Knight-Captain. And following Danarius may yield further breaks in the case,” she began carefully. “But the Detective has a point. It is a gamble. Arresting him now would almost certainly throw the conspirators into disarray.”

Almost certainly,” Max echoed. “Or Marcus Amell might just pick up where Danarius left off.”

“But Danarius would be behind bars,” Hawke said. “And that’s something. The conspiracy loses its most dangerous mage. We can handle Amell easily, Knight-Captain.” She paused. “Um. I mean you. You can handle Amell easily.”

Max arched an eyebrow at her. “Of course,” he said wryly. “But don’t forget that we need something to arrest Danarius on. Right now all we have is Varania’s word that she works for him. And she didn’t even claim she was acting on his behalf at the store. Danarius could disavow all knowledge of her, and without more evidence, we’d have to let him go.”

“He’s a magister,” Fenris snapped. “He has been using illegal magic in this city, I can promise you.”

“Can you prove it?” Max asked bluntly.

The Detective crossed his arms and said nothing—although the web of silver tattoos on his forearms spoke volumes about the kind of man Danarius was.

Max understood the other man’s eagerness to see Danarius in handcuffs, but as far as he was concerned the path was clear. “I’m not moving on a suspect like this until we’ve got what we need to hold him for a long, long time,” he said. “We’ll have an army of Templars ready to descend on him at a moment’s notice, Detective. Whatever he’s planning, he won’t get a chance to make it happen.”

The elf’s mouth twisted, as if he had bitten into something sour. “I hope you are correct.”

 


 

Juliet made it half a block before her rage bubbled out of her. “Surveillance? Surveillance? ” she spluttered, opening her hands in front of her in helpless bafflement. “There’s a crazed magister in the city and they’re going to follow him around. Maker. Of all the times for the blasted Templars to follow their own damn rules.” Her hands tightened into fists.

“You should have listened to me.”

Juliet’s blood froze at Fenris’s tone. His voice was low and cold, every word pronounced even more precisely than usual. His arms were crossed tight across his chest and his eyes were glaring down into the sidewalk in front of them. He did not turn to look at her, even as their steps slowed and stopped.

“I—what? When was I not listening to you?”

“I wanted Danarius dead.” Fenris’s voice crackled with anxiety and fury.

Juliet blinked, baffled. “And you said that, at first. But then you told us to let the Templars handle him.”

“I let you talk me into taking this to Max Trevelyan. It was a mistake Now he will remain free so long as he does not break the law within their sights.” He raised his chin and met her eyes. “He is going to come for me.”

“And we’ll be there when he does.” Juliet extended a hand for his, but he did not accept it. She dropped her arm to her side and pretended this hadn’t wounded her. “I’m working to get my magic back ahead of schedule. Danarius is powerful, I know. But so am I. And so is Mei, and so is Anders.”

“So you would have me trust illegal magic to control my former master. You will forgive me if I am not comforted,” he snarled.

Juliet’s heart sank. Maker. Why do all of our fights keep ending up at the same blasted place?

“I’d have you trust me, ” she snapped back. “And, OK, maybe not Anders, I know you hate him. But you told me Mei saved your life at the Circle. You’ve seen her in action. Do you really want to tell her to sit on the sidelines this time just because you hate magic?”

Fenris shook his head. “You are twisting my words, and my views.”

“Am I?” Juliet challenged. “How do you feel about magic, then?”

A thousand emotions flickered across Fenris’s face in that moment. He watched her intently as he grappled with how to answer that question. Juliet felt her shoulders tense and her stomach drop as she waited for the answer.

Finally, he drew in a breath. “I do not know what to say. Would you have me pretend that magic and those who use it have not been a curse on my life?”

“In the Imperium, they were. But what about in Denerim? The mages you’ve known here—have we been a curse on you?” Juliet shoved her hands deep into the pockets of her leather jacket.

“No. I have found friends, and more, among mages here,” he said, his gaze softening as he looked at her. “But I have also seen magic abused here. And I find I cannot leave my past behind so easily as you seem to wish.”

“I’ve never asked you to ignore your past,” Juliet said, frustration bringing tears to the back of her eyes. “I just wish … Maker, I don’t even know what I wish. I wish Danarius had died painfully decades before he met you. I wish … I wish I wasn’t always waiting for you to leave me when you remember I’m a mage, too.”

And there it was, laid bare: the worry that had followed her since the moment they kissed on this sidewalk four months ago. Her heart pounded in her chest and her stomach quaked with nerves as the words hung in the air, unanswered for one heartbeat, then two, then three.

Fenris’s green eyes were wide and agonized as he looked at her. “Hawke, I …” He swallowed. “I do not need to remember what you can do. Who you are. I have never forgotten, and it has not changed what I feel for you.” His gaze dropped. “Can you say the same? That you do not forget what I am? What he made me?”

“I hate what he did to you,” she whispered. The loathing made the words crack in the back of her throat. “I’ve never met him, but I’ve never hated anyone as much as I hate Danarius.”

He flinched. “Do not say that. It is a sickness, that hate. It is poison. I have tried for years to stop drinking it. But every time I look in the mirror, every time I cannot spend the night in your bed, every time a memory comes and then flees—he is in my mind, my skin, my being. And I can never get him out.” He raised his hands to his hair and tangled his fingers through the silver strand, agony etched in every line of his frame.

Juliet was almost shaking with the wish to reach for him, to fold him in her arms. But that wasn’t how they did things. She could invite, but he had to initiate the touch. Another thing Danarius did to him.

We can’t just let him walk free.

“Forty-eight hours.”

Fenris raised his head to look at her, his hands still in his hair. “What?”

Juliet crossed her arms across her chest. “Trevleyan’s got forty-eight hours to bring Danarius in. After that, we handle things the way you wanted to in the first place.”

Slowly, Fenris lowered his hands. “I—Hawke. Are you certain?”

She nodded. “We’ll use that time to talk the others around if we can. But if Danarius is still walking around Denerim in forty-eight hours, we go after him ourselves.”

For a moment he just stared at her, the spring sunlight glinting off his tattoos and hair. Slowly, he nodded.

“Good.”

 


 

It took everything Fenris had not to walk straight from the Guard house to the Denerim Arms.

Danarius would seek him out, he knew. The magister had tortured him and mistreated him, but he had also taken a sick sort of pride in Fenris’s abilities—and in his supposed loyalty. Even as he ran from his old life, Fenris had known that there would be no escaping him, not really. Danarius’s rage at losing something he considered rightfully his would be insurmountable, and the magister would hunt him to the ends of the earth. Max Trevelyan could watch Danarius as closely as he liked; if he remained free, he would come for Fenris, and Fenris far preferred to begin the encounter on his own terms.

But Hawke would be with him. Hawke was formidable, but she was injured—and too precious to him to risk.

I should not have blamed her, Fenris thought with a heavy sigh as he attempted to get comfortable on Hawke’s couch in the early hours of the morning.  It was not her fault we approached the Templars with the information rather than make the attempt ourselves. Naia asked me for my choice, and I made it.

I made the choice that would protect Hawke.

He flipped from his shoulder to his back and stared up at the ceiling, trying to pretend the couch wasn’t lumpy, that the distance between him and Hawke did not pain him. She had suggested that he not spend the night alone, and he had acquiesced—but he had drawn the line at her suggestion that she should be the one on the couch. He was the one who could not bear to share a bed; the least he could do was not deprive her of hers.

On the other side of the door, he heard a rustle of covers and a creak in the bedsprings, too loud to be mere turning over in sleep. Hawke was awake.

Fenris froze, wondering if she’d heard him. But Hawke did not call out to him. She eased out of her room on silent feet, creeping across the carpet as she moved towards the apartment’s bathroom. Fenris closed his eyes and pretended he was not awake, not wanting to worry her.

When her door shut once more, his eyes flew open. After a pause, he pushed aside the rumpled sheets and blankets, rose, and walked towards her door.

Hawke reached for her lamp when he pushed it open. Her hair was tousled and messy, her face creased with the marks of her pillow. She was so lovely in the soft light that Fenris nearly lost his breath.

“Sorry I woke you,” she whispered.

Fenris took a breath, watching her. “I was not sleeping. I … may I join you?”

Hawke blinked, then smiled at him sleepily. “Of course.”

Fenris crossed the room and lifted the corner of her bedclothes, sliding himself into her sheets. Tentatively, and then with more confidence, he pulled Hawke into his arms, molding his body to hers, resting his head behind hers on her pillow.

“I should not have blamed you for Agent Trevelyan’s decision,” he said, his voice low. “I am sorry. I made the choice to seek the Templars’ aid.”

“Is that what’s keeping you awake?” she asked, her voice as quiet as his.

“That is not all.” He closed his eyes and breathed in her scent, tightened his arms around her. “I knew you would face me at his side, and I could not bear it if he took you from me. Without your magic …”

“I have my magic.” She took a deep breath. “I’d been waiting for a good time to tell you. But I’m close enough to being healed that I can cast again if I need to.”

He saw the implications of her words immediately. “But you are not fully healed.”

“I can cast,” she repeated stubbornly.

“Hawke …”

“Fenris.” Her tone stopped him still. “I can cast. I will be there when Danarius makes his move. And we will make sure that bastard regrets every decision in his life that led him to this point.”

His heart thumped painfully in his chest. There seemed to be only one thing to say in response to such a declaration. “I love you, Hawke.”

He felt her go still in his arms. For a moment he wondered if he had said it too soon, or in the wrong way, but a second later she had turned to face him, her eyes shining in the dark. “I love you too. And Danarius will never take me from you.” There was steely certainty in Hawke’s voice. “I won’t let him take you from me, either. I promise.”

Chapter Text

Within an hour after Fenris’s visit, every Templar in Denerim had copies of the photographs and knew where Danarius was staying.

“We’ll work in shifts,” Max told his team once they assembled at Guard headquarters. “I’m bringing in reinforcements from the Circle so we have enough people to be on call if there’s another robbery attempt.” Most of those people would be young and new to Denerim, but at least Lillian Folmas was coming to keep the young pups in line. “Danarius is the priority, however. Follow him. Find out what he’s up to. And the moment we catch him in something even slightly illegal, bring him in.”

By noon the next day, however, Max was beginning to see this would be easier said than done.

The Templars checked into a room in a hotel across the street from Danarius’s, a somewhat more modest establishment called the Regency. One man would be stationed in the hotel, watching from a high vantage point; the other would stay on the street level, waiting in a car or drinking coffee at the Regency’s cafe or otherwise camouflaging himself among the city dwellers. Max allowed himself to hope that Danarius would leave to find lunch, commit a crime along the way, and that would be that.

Much to Max’s chagrin, however, Danarius never left the hotel. Flickers of movement in the penthouse suggested he was inside, but nothing happened that might give the Templars an excuse to look within. And so far, none of the visitors to the Denerim Arms had been Marcus Amell.

I wonder if Mei can point us to anyone else working with Danarius, Max thought as he leaned back in his metal cafe chair, pretending to read a newspaper as he watched the front door of the Arms. He almost said that over his radio earpiece—softly, of course—but he remembered who was on the other end just in time.

“Anything?” he asked, though he knew the answer.

“Nothing yet. Just like the last time you asked five minutes ago.” Cullen’s tone was full of weary but amused exasperation.

Then he let out a low, suspicious hmmm. “The motorcycle’s back.”

Max lowered his newspaper and reached for his coffee, a little ruse that gave him an unobstructed view of the street. Sure enough, a black motorcycle came speeding down the street, slowing just a hair in front of the Arms before picking up the pace once more and rounding the corner.

“Three times in the last hour,” Max murmured. “Let’s keep an eye on it. Could be one of his henchmen.”

“Or a pizza delivery man. It is almost lunchtime,” Cullen observed, almost sounding like his old self.

Max smiled. “Want me to catch up with him and ask if he’s got some extra slices we could steal?”

His friend chuckled. “I’ll let you know if I get hungry enough to want to blow your cover.”

Max raised the newspaper again and shifted his weight on the chair. He tried to calculate how long he had been here, and how much longer he could stay before someone got suspicious—but before he reached any conclusions, the motorcycle turned the corner again.

This time, the driver guided it to the sidewalk, parked it, and removed his helmet.

The man on the motorcycle didn’t look much like a pizza delivery guy—at least, not the ones Max had met. He was handsome, with dark olive skin and jet-black hair, and his carefully styled haircut struck Max as expensive. He also wore a small mustache that curled up at the ends, the first time Max had ever seen something like that in person.

He’s probably just lost, Max thought. Drove past here a few times because he couldn’t find the street he wanted.

Nonetheless, he took a breath and murmured into his earpiece. “Cullen? The motorcycle’s back and the driver’s headed my way.”

“I see him. What’s your order, Knight-Captain?”

“Hold position for now,” Max said as the other man stopped in front of the cafe to consider the menu. “Could be nothing.”

Max signaled the waiter for more coffee as the man entered the cafe’s seating area. Although more than half the tables were empty, he chose the table next to Max’s.

Then he sat down in the chair directly behind Max, and the alarm bells started ringing.

He was about to go to the bathroom so he could talk to Cullen more subtly when the man leaned back, tilting his chair onto its two rear legs. “So. Do I call you Agent or Knight-Captain?”

“Sorry?” Max said, pretending to be startled out of his reading. The alarm bells started ringing louder.

“You’ve been watching the Denerim Arms all morning and murmuring into your collar. You’re subtle about it by southern standards, but I recognize you from the papers, and I think I know who you’re looking for.” The man had a cultured, elegant tenor voice, laced with humor and energy. His tone was friendly, but Max couldn’t help a flash of dislike when he placed the man’s accent. Tevinter .

On the other end of the radio, Cullen drew a sharp breath. “Max. Get out of there, now.”

Max looked at the man and glared. “Fine. You got me. My ex-boyfriend works there. I heard he was dating someone new and I was trying to see if it was true. Happy?” He folded his newspaper in what he hoped looked like a huff and signaled the nearest waiter. “Check, please.”

“I find that somewhat unlikely,” the stranger murmured as Max stood up. “For one thing, a man with your looks could do quite a lot better than Danarius.”

“Walk away, Max,” Cullen growled in his ear.

But Max was already turning to the stranger.

“That is who you’re looking for, isn’t it?” the Tevinter persisted, arching one glossy black eyebrow.

Max asked the only question he could. “Who in the hell are you?”

In reply, the man gestured elegantly to the chair opposite his. “Please, join me. I think we might have something in common. My name is Dorian Pavus, and I’m looking for Danarius too.”

 


 

Dorian watched the handsome Templar wrestle with how to respond. He tried to keep his expression detached and arch, as if his palms weren’t sweating. Having a face-to-face conversation with someone who locked up mages for a living had not been high on Dorian’s list of “things to do in Denerim.” He was supposed to arrive in town, deliver some payback for Alexius, and hop the next boat back to Tevinter before Danarius had an opportunity to inflict his particular brand of havoc.

But it hadn’t taken Dorian long to realize that Danarius had been gone from Minrathous for longer than anyone had realized—and that he was at the center of something big in this city. Dorian felt reasonably good about his chances of taking on Danarius alone, but Danarius plus half the apostates in the city was another matter. And if anyone was going to be able to help stop Danarius, Knight-Captain Maxwell Trevelyan, the celebrated hero of a previous crisis at the Circle who also happened to be investigating the string of magical robberies, seemed like the obvious candidate. Even if he was a Templar.

I hope I don’t regret this.

After a long moment of hesitation—and a low murmur into the earpiece Trevelyan was wearing—the Templar nodded and sat, taking the seat Dorian had offered. Fortunately, the waiter chose that moment to bring Dorian’s pot of coffee to the table, complete with two mugs, as he’d requested.

Dorian poured the first and offered it to the other man. “Milk? Sugar?”

“I’m good, thanks,” Knight-Captain Trevelyan replied, looking at the mug as if it might contain poison.

“Suit yourself,” Dorian said as he poured his own cup. He took a sip and shuddered as the thin, bitter liquid hit his tongue. “Oh. I see. Good choice. Is there anyone south of the Silent Plains who can brew a proper coffee?”

The Templar crossed his arms and gave him a flat, unamused look. Dorian let out a wistful mental sigh—it was a pity for such a gorgeous man to lack a sense of humor. The way his grey sweater moulded to his biceps as he crossed his arms went a long way towards making up for it, however. Dorian quietly wondered about the fictional boyfriend Trevelyan had invented as a cover story. Did the handsome Knight-Captain prefer men?

Fasta vas, Dorian. Stop ogling a bloody Templar.

Trevelyan still hadn’t responded. Dorian sighed. “You’re going for strong but silent, I see. Very well. Let me start by telling you what I know.” He took a reluctant sip of his coffee to gather his thoughts. “I know that approximately eight months ago, Danarius vanished from Minrathous after killing a fellow magister. For some reason, he seems to have found his way to Denerim. And now he’s bankrolling a charming little crime wave using local apostates as his henchmen. How am I doing so far?”

“Not bad,” Trevelyan admitted grudgingly. “But my question still stands: Who the hell are you? What brings you from Minrathous?”

“Ah, yes,” Dorian said, to buy himself some time. “Well, here’s where things might get a bit awkward. My name is Dorian Pavus, and I’m an altus.”

He waited to see if the title would mean anything to the Templar. Sure enough, the other man’s mouth tightened. “A junior magister? Well, that’s terrific. Just what we needed, more mages from the Imperium.”

Trevelyan’s tone wasn’t exactly warm. But the Templar didn’t try to clap him in handcuffs, so Dorian decided to view his introduction as a success. “For the record, I have been extremely law-abiding since arriving on your shores, even though your laws are objectively ridiculous,” he said. “I’ve not used a drop of magic.”

Trevelyan looked skeptical, but said nothing.

“At any rate,” Dorian continued. “I’m here because the man Danarius killed—one of them, I should say, as he has rather a lot of blood on his hands—one of them was my mentor. Alexius.” Saying his friend’s name out loud send an unexpected stab of pain and loss through Dorian, though it had been more than half a year since Alexius’s murder.

The Templar raised an eyebrow. “I thought that was sort of an occupational hazard for magisters. But it seems like you’re taking it personally.”

Dorian felt himself bristle; his lip curled as he answered. “Believe it or not, Knight-Captain, we mages in the Imperium are capable of friendship and loyalty. Honor too. It’s almost as if we’re human. Imagine that.” He wasn’t surprised about the Knight-Captain’s opinion—he happened to share the view that magisters were an unscrupulous and somewhat murderous bunch—but that didn’t mean he had to like hearing it from a southerner.

Trevelyan seemed unimpressed. “So. Was your mentor a rival of Danarius’s?”

“Maker, no,” Dorian said instinctively. “Danarius is a psychotic sadist. Alexius is—er, was—a scholar. His research into chaos magic was groundbreaking.” He gritted his teeth. “And something he was working on apparently caught Danarius’s attention, because the bastard murdered Alexius in his bed and stole half the contents of his laboratory.” And now Felix, with his thin magical talents, was trying to hold on to the family seat without the father who had protected and supported him for his entire life. But Dorian didn’t expect that would interest the Knight-Captain much.

“What was he working on?”

Dorian took a deep breath. You’re not going to like your answer, Knight-Captain. “Time magic. A way to speed up or slow down time in a particular location.”

“Why in Andraste’s name would you want …” The Templar’s dismissal faded away abruptly as an idea lit in his eyes. “Medicine. If you could buy healers extra time to do their work …”

“Just so,” Dorian agreed. “And Alexius had hopes even beyond that. If we could actually unspool time, return to a previous moment, accidents could be undone. Disasters could be prevented even after they happened.”

“So what does Danarius want with it?” Trevelyan leaned forward, his dark eyes curious. Then he frowned. “No. Hold position. I said, hold position,” he murmured into his earpiece. Then he scowled. “Agent Rutherford. I gave you an order. Hold position.

“Your underlings don’t want you talking to me?” Dorian asked lightly when Trevelyan’s attention returned to him.

“It’s been a rough week. Everyone’s on edge,” the Templar said nonchalantly, though Dorian could see worry on his face. “Back to Danarius.”

“I have no idea what he could want with Alexius’s research,” Dorian admitted. “My one theory is this. There was a slave who used to accompany him everywhere, a terrifying fellow with lyrium tattoos. The poor bastard died some years back and Danarius has been trying to repeat the procedure that created him ever since. He’s failed every time, from what I understand. Perhaps he thinks Alexius’s methods might buy him more time to complete the ritual successfully.”

A shadow of something passed across Trevelyan’s face, but he kept silent. After a pause, he said, “So why follow him outside the Imperium? Are you here to heroically rescue the southern barbarians, since we couldn’t possibly handle Danarius without tripping on our feet and falling into an open sewer?”

Dorian concealed a smile. So he does have a sense of humor. “Something like that, yes. But much as I hate to admit it, my grand mission to stop Danarius has hit a few snags, Mostly due to the fact that I’ve only got myself, and he has an army of local morons who are apparently carrying out his plans. So I approached you, strange as it may sound, to offer you my help. In whatever way that might be possible, given the awkward altus-Templar situation.”

The earpiece let out an indignant yelp. Trevelyan ignored it. He leaned back in his chair, tilted his head, and considered Dorian seriously. After what seemed like several years, he spoke. “The next team will relieve us in thirty minutes. I propose you come back with us to the Guard house and give us a statement outlining what you know. We’ll go from there.”

Dorian let out a breath he hadn’t quite known he’d been holding. “Splendid. Now then. Do you think this cafe serves anything edible?”

 


 

The door to the briefing room had barely swung shut when Cullen Rutherford exploded.

“What in the Maker’s name are you thinking, Max?!”

Cullen’s handsome face was ashen as he stared at his friend. Max wasn’t entirely surprised—Cullen had fairly radiated disapproval the entire ride back to the Guard house—but the intensity of Cullen’s anger still caught him a bit off guard.

On the other side of the briefing room, Vivienne and Cassandra looked up from a stack of reports. The First Enchanter tilted her head. “An eventful morning, then?”

“He—a bloody Tevinter mage walked right up to him in broad daylight,” Cullen spluttered, appealing first to Vivienne, and then to Cassandra. “And now apparently this magister, Dorian Pavus, is part of our bloody investigation!”

“He’s an altus who came here to find Danarius. I told Delrin Barris to take his statement. So far, that’s it,” Max said mildly. “But I think he has useful intel. He knows what Danarius was working on before he left Minrathous.” It had also occurred to Max that Dorian might be able to translate for Varania, though he would want to know more about the other man before trusting him with something so sensitive. He didn’t mention this to Cullen, however.

“He’s an apostate!” Cullen snarled, wheeling on Max with his teeth half-bared in frustration. “You should have arrested him on the spot, not shared a nice chat over coffee!”

“Arrested him on what charge? He says he hasn’t used magic in Ferelden borders, and we have no evidence that he’s lying.” Max glanced over at Cassandra, wondering how she was taking this.

The seasoned Seeker nodded. “I must agree. An arrest would have been premature. Though I sympathize with your suspicions, Agent Rutherford.”

Cullen did not appear very comforted by that sympathy. “We cannot trust anything he says. Surely you know that. He could have been sent by this Danarius to plant false information.”

That had also occurred to Max, but it didn’t fit with his evaluation of Dorian. The man was all sophisticated polish and arch comments on the surface, and yet there had been a sincerity to him. The mention of Alexius’s name had clearly pained him; there had been tears in his dark eyes, though he’d blinked them away quickly.

“There should be one thing we can verify easily. He mentioned one of Danarius’s victims, a magister named Alexius. I’ll get one of the newer Agents to see if his story checks out—and to see if there really is a Pavus family in the Magesterium.” Max shoved his hands in his pockets, thinking. “If he’s an altus, his parents should be on record as magisters. If he’s telling the truth, we can take things from there.”

“And what do you mean by ‘take things from there’?” Cullen’s face was stony and pale.

“It depends on how much he can help our investigation.” Max had no idea where this conversation was going, but he strongly suspected he wasn’t going to like where it ended up. He fought the urge to glance over at Vivienne and Cassandra. Cullen was in his chain of command; this problem was his to resolve.

“He can’t help our investigation!” Cullen exploded. “And the fact that you think he can is the entire bloody problem!” His face was white with rage and his golden eyes were wide, almost panicked; Max could see the Agent’s breath rise and fall in his chest. “How can you possibly be this blind, Max? Or maybe the blind ones are the idiots who made you Knight-Commander!”

Well. That got bad, fast.

It took everything Max had to keep calm. “Seeker Pentaghast? First Enchanter? Could we have the room, please?”

“Of course, darling.” Vivienne stood, her face smooth, as if the air weren’t crackling with tension. Cassandra looked more concerned, but she too departed, sparing the pair of Templars a thoughtful and serious look as she did.

For a long moment after the door clicked shut, Max and Cullen simply locked gazes.

“You’re out of line and you know it,” Max said, as gently as he could.

Cullen crossed his arms defensively. “I’m telling you the truth. Everyone else in this blasted Circle is too dazzled by the Trevelyan name to say it to your face. But you’re not fit to be Knight-Captain if you look at a magister and see a potential ally.”

The words lashed into him and stung, as they were meant to do. But Max forced himself to look into his friend’s pale, exhausted face, to see the patches of stubble he’d missed while shaving and the dark, bruise-like circles under his eyes. His heart twisted as he faced an uncomfortable truth: Cullen wasn’t ready to be here. And it was Max’s fault for not seeing it sooner.

“And you’re not fit to be back on active duty if every mage you see looks like an enemy.” Max shook his head and took a deep breath. “You’re on medical suspension, Cullen. Effective immediately.”

Cullen took a step back, his face growing even paler. “You don’t mean that.”

“I do. I think you’ll be ready some day, and I’ll welcome you back when you are. But what you went through will take more time to heal than a few weeks of therapy and desk duty.” Max swallowed hard. “I’m sorry, Cullen.”

The other man crossed his arms, his hands shaking visibly. “You’re throwing me out because I think we shouldn’t trust a magister. You have to see how wrong this is!”

“No. I’m pulling you from duty because you couldn’t even bring yourself to take Mei’s tip by phone,” Max said bluntly. “I’m pulling you from duty because you tried to throw out a good recruit who didn’t even break the rules, just because she had a crush that hit a little too close to home.”

Cullen flinched at that.

“Think about it, Cullen. You loved Mei. You trusted her. This isn’t you. You know …”

“And you know nothing !” Cullen’s arms uncurled and his fists clenched at his sides. His handsome face was twisted in a snarl. “You have no idea what I went through. And it made me a better Templar than you’ll ever be, Knight-Captain Trevelyan. ” He spat the name and title at Max like a curse. “I know firsthand what mages can do to those who fall prey to their cruelties. I was blind to the dangers of magic once, but I will never, ever be that blind again.” He snorted. “And to think I used to defend you when people said you were oblivious. You’re every bit the privileged twit they said you were.”

That hurt more than Max would have thought possible. He knew, of course, that some of his fellow Templars resented the way his name opened doors, and he didn’t blame them. But he’d tried to make up for it by working hard and having the others’ backs. Hearing that some unnamed “they” thought he was an oblivious idiot … it struck his pride in a tender place.

Now is not the time for your hurt feelings, Trevelyan.

He straightened his shoulders and forced his voice to be cold and authoritative. “Medical leave, Agent Rutherford. Find a hotel in town and send the bill to the Circle, but you are not to set foot on Circle grounds until I give the word. You can return to duty when you’re cleared by a psychiatrist. Of my choosing. Not that doddering old incompetent who cleared you last time.” He took a breath. “Your badge. Now.”

For a moment Max thought Cullen would actually take a swing at him. The other man’s fists tightened further and his right shoulder pulled back, as if to begin lifting the arm. He readied himself to block the blow. But Cullen shook his head as if to clear the impulse. Instead, he reached for his belt, where he pulled his badge free with vicious efficiency. He threw it down to the floor; his sword soon joined it.

“You’re a damned fool,” he hissed. “I’m sorry I’m the only one who sees it.”

And with that, the man Max would once have called his best friend turned on his heel and stormed out, slamming the door behind him.

 


 

Cullen had no idea where to go.

His sister Mia and her husband lived in Denerim. They would be the obvious choice, he knew; Mia would open her home to him without hesitation. But there would be questions, and worried looks, and furtive calls to the entire extended Rutherford family to share the news that Cullen had been suspended, and he could not face that.

A hotel. Max had said to check into a hotel. He wondered if Max had been envisioning the kind of roadside motel where the Rutherford family had stayed on road trips, or the kind of swanky high-rise where the Trevelyans probably spent their family vacations.

Thinking about Max made Cullen’s fists tighten. He had thought the man a friend, damn it all. He had trusted Max. And yet again his trust had been misplaced.

Max may have been my friend, once. But he allowed a Templar recruit to seek a mage’s company. He has brought a magister into our investigation. He continues to ignore the dangers of magic, and of mages. He can't stay as the lead on this investigation.

He had failed his Circle once, when he allowed his infatuation with a mage to blind him to Uldred’s schemes. Good men and women had paid the price for his crimes. He would not fail again.

But what could he do? He was now excluded from the Templar ranks, if temporarily, and Max was Knight-Captain and a Trevelyan besides. Cullen respected Cassandra Pentaghast, but it was clear she did not yet see the danger in Max’s tactics. And the Templar leadership was riddled through with Max’s uncles and cousins; calling the Lord Seeker’s office was unlikely to get results when the Lord Seeker had dinner with Max’s father every other week.

And then he passed a newspaper, and saw the solution staring at him from the front page.

Twenty minutes later Cullen was standing at a pay phone, feeding coins into the slot as he waited to be put through to the office of Councilwoman Meredith Stannard.

“My name is Agent Cullen Rutherford,” he said when the call was answered. “I have information about the Templar investigation that the Councilwoman will want to hear.”

Chapter Text

Dorian could see from the wide-eyed way Delrin Barris looked at him that taking a statement from a Tevinter mage was not necessarily business as usual for the Templars. But he also saw the way the young man stood up a little straighter in Max Trevelyan’s presence, how seriously he took Trevelyan’s instructions.

The promotion wasn’t just about his name, then.

Giving the statement was relatively painless. Dorian simply repeated what he told Knight-Captain Trevelyan, trying hard not to show irritation at repeating himself, or indignation when a point of his story was questioned more closely. He knew that he was simply being kept busy while other Templars checked out his initial story.

He hoped they could verify it quickly. Maker only knew what Danarius was getting up to in the meantime.

Finally, young Agent Barris ran out of questions to ask. After a somewhat awkward pause, the young man pressed stop on his tape recorder and stood. “Thank you for your cooperation, Mr. Pavus. I’ll escort you back to the Knight-Captain now.”

Dorian followed quietly, letting the younger man lead the way through the ugly linoleum halls of the Denerim Guard House. It occurred to Dorian that he was fortunate the Templars were operating outside of the Circle for now. He’d been part of a Circle of Magi at home, of course, but in the Imperium those were prestigious training organizations for talented children with the right family name. A stay at a Ferelden Circle sounded far less pleasant.

He’d only just come up with something charming and clever to say to the Knight-Captain when Agent Barris pushed open a door to a long, homely room filled with grey metal tables and battered chairs. At the head of the room, several boards displayed maps and sketches and what Dorian gathered were other bits of evidence about the robberies. Photographs of Danarius in the lobby of the Denerim Arms were on prominent display. Dorian quietly wondered how Templars, of all people, had been able to get so close to the man—and why they hadn’t arrested the bastard on the spot.

A handful of Agents and Guardsmen occupied the room. Most were clustered around the boards, chatting among themselves, looking over the contents as if something might shake loose. But Max Trevelyan was sitting quietly with two women. One seemed to be a Templar, though she wore a dark suit while the others wore silver-grey. The other, a strikingly elegant woman, was obviously an Enchanter. Both eyed him as he and Agent Barris approached—the Templar with suspicion, the Enchanter with arch curiosity.

As Dorian drew closer, he realized that something had happened while he was giving his statement. Knight-Captain Trevelyan had changed back into his Templar suit; his handsome face was ashen and his expression was stressed and pained. Dorian immediately wondered if Danarius had struck again, but as he listened to the comfortable buzz of chatter from the rest of the room, he knew that couldn’t be the issue. Whatever had happened wasn’t bothering anyone other than Trevelyan.

“Knight-Captain. I’ve taken the, uh, witness’s statement,” Agent Barris said.

The Knight-Captain blinked, as if he’d only just seen the pair of them. “Good work, Agent Barris,” he said, almost as a reflex. “File the tape for transcription and then join us back here.”

He turned to Dorian next, his handsome face slowly becoming more composed. “You’ll be pleased to know we verified your story—well, parts of it.”

“You say that as if I ought to be surprised.” Dorian instinctively slid into sarcasm. “Which parts did you verify, exactly? The interesting ones, I hope.”

A muscle twitched in Trevelyan’s jaw. After a barely imperceptible beat, the Enchanter at his left came to his rescue. “The ones that mean we’re not going to arrest you, darling,” she said in a rich, wry Marcher accent.

The Templar smiled a bit at that. “Dorian Pavus, meet First Enchanter Vivienne de Fer and Seeker Cassandra Pentaghast.”

Dorian had no idea what a Seeker was, but he decided to assume it was someone important. He bowed to both women in turn. “Charmed, I’m certain. So. If I’m not to be thrown in a cell in one of your delightful Southern Circles, what am I to do?”

“You say you were working with your mentor when Danarius stole his research?” Trevelyan said. His tone was brusque and laced with more than a bit of skepticism.

Dorian prickled instinctively. “I said it because it was true.”

“Fine,” the Templar said shortly. “Let’s take you down to the evidence room to see if you can tell us what in the Maker’s name Danarius’s apprentice wanted with an artifact she tried to steal.”

*

Dorian followed Knight-Captain Trevelyan to a small, windowless room lit with hostile fluorescent bulbs tucked into the ceiling overhead. The ghastly things made even the Templar’s dark skin look sallow and unhealthy, but Dorian supposed bad lighting wasn’t such a dreadful problem compared to the other ones he was facing.

He didn’t know what had made Knight-Captain Trevelyan’s attitude shift towards him, but he’d somehow gone from cautious but willing to listen to curt and unfriendly. Dorian was trying not to mind, but he was very much aware that if the Knight-Captain developed a poor opinion of him, it could make his stay in Denerim significantly less pleasant.

He was brooding over Trevelyan’s sudden hostility when the artifact arrived. The efficient elven Guardsman who brought it spared the two of them barely a glance, and did not seem much interested in the contents of the plastic bag he was setting down on the desk. “Sign here,” he mumbled, shoving a clipboard at Trevelyan.

As the Knight-Captain signed, Dorian got his first good look at the box.

It reminded him of nothing in Alexius’s research, but it was a fascinating little object. It was a hexagonal box just small enough to hold in the palm of Dorian’s hand. He itched to unpack it and begin touching it, but waited for Trevelyan’s attention to return to him before he gestured at the bag. “May I?”

“That’s why we’re here,” Trevelyan replied. When Dorian frowned at the cool tone, the Templar attempted something like a smile. “Here. I’ve got a camera. Might be good to take some pictures for the record.”

Dorian took a seat and unsealed the plastic bag, drawing the little box out onto the table. He spotted the trick almost immediately—the box’s lid was made of interlocking triangles that had to be unfolded one by one to reveal its interior. As they swung open, the triangles began to make the hexagon look like a star.

Working carefully, using the caution Alexius had taught him, Dorian began opening the box piece by piece, photographing it at each step along the way. The Knight-Captain took a seat in the corner of the room, crossed his arms, and leaned back in his chair with a troubled expression on his face. His handsome features veered between worry, frustration, anger, and regret nearly every time Dorian looked at him.

Which, admittedly, Dorian was doing rather more often than was probably prudent.

“Well?” the Knight-Captain asked brusquely when Dorian had unfolded each triangle. “What is it?”

“I don’t know,” Dorian admitted. He hated saying those words.

Trevelyan’s eyes narrowed. “That’s it? You don’t know?”

“I can make some educated guesses. It’s a puzzle box, inlaid with an intricate pattern. I think—ah, yes.” Dorian ran a careful finger down one of the hexagon’s vertical seams, then slid his nail into a barely perceptible crease and tugged. The little square came free, falling to the table with a click. “It unfolds completely. If we separate each individual tile from the box, I believe we will be able to rearrange them. To what end, I don’t know. There are a few words in Elvhen here and there but the majority of the markings on the box seem to be unintelligible lines.” He took another photograph and pretended he wasn’t paying attention to Trevelyan’s reaction.

“Unintelligible lines? Well. That’s great.” The Knight-Captain sounded less than thrilled.

The words were out of Dorian’s mouth before he could stop them. “Please try to contain your enthusiasm, Knight-Captain. How can I possibly concentrate if you continue this incessant stream of chatter?”

A disgruntled sigh was all Dorian received in reply. In exasperation, Dorian set down the camera and looked directly at the other man. “I don’t suppose you might wish to tell me exactly why you seem to have taken a sudden dislike to me. Is my hair out of order? I’ve scarcely seen a mirror inside this gloomy place, I can’t tell if it’s up to my usual standard or not.”

There was a long pause while the Templar digested this question. Finally, he raised his eyebrows and looked at Dorian with unamused disbelief. “I apologize. Were you under the impression that we were going to be friends, Mr. Pavus?”

Dorian had expected this, but it rankled nonetheless. “Perish the thought. What could an honorable Templar want to do with a dastardly magister?” he asked, keeping his tone arch.

“You’re an altus, not a magister,” Trevelyan replied coolly. “And let me save you some trouble. We’re not going to get along, or be friends, and it has nothing to do with your magic. I sleep with men. I understand that’s a problem for you ‘civilized’ folks in the Imperium.”

Dorian’s jaw dropped.

Maker. I might actually perish from a fatal dose of irony.

“I … see why you might feel that way,” he said slowly.

He was tempted to admit his own preferences, but the words would not come. He had spent too many years taking care to say them only to the right people. They were not something he could share with Max Trevelyan, despite what the Knight-Captain had just told him. “I can assure you that particular quality does not offend me, personally,” he managed.

Trevelyan snorted quietly. “How magnanimous of you.”

Dorian tried to think of something to say, but after a pause, he simply reached for the camera once more. He’d felt unsettled ever since he came to Ferelden, but apparently today was determined to set a new record for feeling out of place.

 


 

Two hours after calling Meredith Stannard’s office, Cullen found himself face to face with her for the first time since she’d left the Templars.

Meredith looked much the same as she had two years ago. Her expression was still stern, her golden hair bright and her green eyes shrewd. Cullen had always respected Meredith’s discipline and passion for her work, though even he had found her single-minded focus a bit intimidating.

It was no less intimidating now. But Meredith Stannard was his only possible ally.

“Agent Rutherford. I was surprised to get your call.” Meredith leaned back in her chair and steepled her fingers. “I was under the impression that I am not popular amongst your colleagues at the moment.”

Cullen ran a hand over his face. “That’s why I’m here,” he said bluntly. “The investigation into the string of magical robberies has, quite frankly, become a disaster that puts the entire city at risk.”

Meredith’s eyebrows raised slowly. Her expression was a bit skeptical, but all she said was, “Continue.”

“Max—the new Knight-Captain—it wasn’t going so badly at first. But he’s soft on mages. We know the identity of the man behind the conspiracy, a magister from Tevinter, and Max refuses to make the arrest. Even worse, he’s allowed one of this man’s rival magisters to all but join the investigation!” Cullen could hear his words speeding up as anxiety twisted his stomach. Maker only knows what kind of magic that pair has at their fingertips. “They have to be stopped. Both of them. But he’s a Trevelyan—”

“Ah, yes. I know what kind of weight that man’s last name carries,” Meredith said, shaking her head. “Frankly, I assumed it was why he and not you was elevated to the rank of Knight-Captain.”

Cullen was flattered by the idea. But honesty compelled him to admit the truth. “I did not deserve the promotion. I was captured during the events at the Circle. And I should have seen the crisis developing far earlier. I …” He shut his eyes tightly. “I had developed feelings for a mage at the Circle.”

In the darkness behind his closed eyes, Mei’s face took form before him. She smiled up at him, delighted, the rare dimple in her cheek showing itself as she grinned. It was the smile she’d given him after they kissed for the first time, and even now it brought a happy warmth to his chest.

But then other Meis invaded his mind. The false ones the demons had used to torture him.

The nightmare had never ended quite the same way twice. Sometimes Mei died, torn apart before he could save her. Sometimes Mei herself turned into an abomination and killed him just steps before the door to freedom. The worst nightmares were the ones when Mei double-crossed him and killed his friends—when she told him she had only pretended to love him to distract him from her real plan.

Do not think of her. You cannot think of her.

He forced his eyes open with a sharp breath to find Meredith watching him closely. “And she was one of the conspirators?” the Councilwoman asked.

Cullen shook his head. “It seems she had no knowledge of Uldred’s plans. But I know my affection for her clouded my judgment and my ability to watch the mages. My failure allowed these events to occur, I am certain of it.” He forced himself to look at Meredith, expecting to see the full weight of her scorn written on her face. But to his surprise, her features, while still stern, were not unkind.

“You are not the first to let love blind you to the dangers of magic, Agent Rutherford.” Her eyes grew sad. “My own sister was a mage, did you know that?”

Cullen shook his head. Frankly, he had not ever imagined Meredith with parents or siblings. The idea of this serious, uncompromising woman as a child was utterly bizarre.

“My parents did not wish her to go to the Circle. They told themselves that if she did not use her magic, she would be safe.” Her hands fell to her desk and clenched, the knuckles turning white. “But a demon found her in the Fade and persuaded her to accept its bargain. Every member of my family paid the price, save for me. I was forced to cut her down myself to save my own life. I was ten.”

Cullen’s breath caught with horror. “No child should face such a choice. I am sorry.”

Meredith nodded gravely, her pain etched on her face. “Ever since, I have believed that there is no such thing as a mage who lives safely outside the Circle. The temptations of the Fade are too strong. I am aware that this is not a popular belief,” she finished wryly. “I suspect it was why I myself never won a promotion past Agent. But only those who have seen an abomination firsthand—who have suffered due to magic misused and out of control—only we know the true risks of apostacy.” She caught his gaze and held it, her green eyes glittering with that familiar intensity.

Cullen stared back, hope slowly loosening the awful knots in his chest for the first time since Max had sat down with Dorian Pavus. “I couldn’t agree more.”

The Councilwoman leaned back in her chair. “Now then. Tell me exactly what’s been happening with the Knight-Captain’s investigation.”

 


 

It had been quiet for an hour, or perhaps more, when Max felt he had to say something. With more time to recover from the fight with Cullen, he could see that he’d taken some of his agony out on Dorian Pavus. And the man might be an altus, and from Tevinter besides, but he’d done nothing so far but offer his help. He’d even seemed sincere when said that he didn’t care about Max sleeping with men. He hadn’t deserved that snotty speech about not being friends.

Max shifted on his chair and leaned forward to get a better look at what Dorian was doing. He’d disassembled the box into individual squares and triangles and was moving them around the table, his brow furrowed. He clearly thought it was some sort of puzzle. But why would Danarius try to steal a puzzle?

“Any idea what the picture shows?”

Dorian looked up at him, his black eyebrows arched in surprise. “I’m sorry?”

“The puzzle. Does it show a picture? Or are those squiggly lines writing in a language I don’t speak?”

“It’s not a language—though there are a few words of Elvhen here and there. I believe the, er, squiggly lines connect somehow, but with the mixture of squares and triangles, it’s not exactly straightforward.” The altus frowned a bit, as if he’d only just remembered who he was talking to. “Do stop me if I chatter on too long. I would not want you to think I was attempting anything resembling friendliness.”

Max winced. “I shouldn’t have said that. It’s been a rough afternoon and I took it out on you. I’m sorry.”

Dorian blinked. “I appreciate that, Knight-Captain.” He tilted his head curiously. “If you don’t mind my asking, what exactly happened while I was with Agent Barris?”

“I had to suspend someone—someone I respect. It got ugly.” That was all Max felt comfortable saying about Cullen to someone outside the Order, but even that small confession seemed to lift some of the weight on his shoulders. He’d kept a poker face in front of Cassandra and Vivienne, simply saying that he’d relieved Agent Rutherford of duty until he’d had more time to grapple with the events at the Circle. Admitting that the conversation with Cullen had been awful and had taken a toll on him was an unexpected relief.

Dorian let out a silent, sympathetic puff of breath. “I see. My condolences.” A spark of wit flashed in his eyes. “Although the fellow should be grateful that you aren’t in Tevinter. The sentences magisters hand out to apprentices who disobey them tend to be far more, er, permanent.”

“Was your friend like that? Alexius. You said he was a mentor.”

Dorian’s gaze dropped to the table. “No,” he said quietly. “Alexius was … a rare sort of fellow. My friend Felix, Alexius’s son—he’s only a middling sort of mage. Barely a mage at all to hear some of the other families talk. But Alexius refused all pressure to disinherit Felix. Had to break off with the rest of his family to do what he thought was right by his son.” His face tightened in pain. “Maker willing, Felix has enough support among the Magesterium now to sink into scholarly obscurity, rather than be targeted to open up his seat.”

Max whistled under his breath. “Damn. And I thought being a Trevelyan came with family pressure.”

“Did you, now?” Dorian arched an eyebrow. “Do tell.”

Max wasn’t sure how the conversation had ended up here, but oddly, he found he didn’t mind. “The Trevelyans and the Templars go back generations. My grandfather was the Lord Seeker back in his day. My dad’s one of three. He’s a Knight-Commander in Ostwick. My uncle Edward is a Knight-Commander in Starkhaven. My aunt Eleanor runs the family shipping business, but my cousins Alex and Evelyn joined up as soon as they could. So did I. And so did my brother Caleb.”

He choked back a sigh at the thought. Gentle, bookish Caleb had been a target for his father’s scorn since his first pair of glasses. Max had hoped he’d forge his own path—his brother had never seemed thrilled about a career with the Templars—but apparently he wasn’t the only Trevelyan sibling with a near-compulsive need to please their dad. He hoped Caleb was doing all right in the Ostwick Academy.

“We’ve also got some second and third cousins scattered through various Circles,” he continued. “Suffice it to say I’ve got a lot of people watching my career very closely to make sure I don’t disgrace the family name.”

Dorian chuckled. “Well, I wish you luck. Speaking from experience, I’ll tell you that disgracing the family name is not nearly as much fun as it sounds.”

Max raised his eyebrows in surprise. Handsome, confident Dorian seemed like the perfect magister’s heir to him. “How’d you manage that?”

Dorian smoothed his mustache with his fingertips. “My parents selected a wife for me. Pretty, magically powerful, the perfect mother to their beautiful magically-talented grandchildren. I declined the engagement on the grounds that we would have made each other miserable. The lady in question was relieved, but sadly my parents were not. My father took it particularly hard.” His voice tightened over that last sentence, but when he spoke again, he was back to his usual nonchalance. “I suppose I can see his point. After all, he and my mother have been miserable for years and it hasn’t killed them yet.”

“Good for you,” Max said sincerely. The concept of an arranged marriage wasn’t exactly in vogue in the Free Marches or Ferelden, but Dorian had defied his parents, something Max had never quite managed. “That took guts.”

“A compliment? Maker.” Dorian laid a hand over his heart in feigned shock. “I don’t know what to do with it. I’m afraid you’ll have to take it back.”

Max laughed in genuine amusement. He tried to think of something witty to say back—but then the door to the evidence room opened.

Delrin Barris stepped inside, his eyes wide. “Um. Knight-Captain. They need you upstairs right away. It’s Councilwoman Stannard.”

“Tell her I’ll call her back,” Max sighed. “See if you can figure out what she wants.”

Agent Barris grimaced. “She’s not on the phone, sir. She’s here.”

 


 

Max took his time climbing the stairs, partly to give himself time to speculate about what the Councilwoman wanted, and partly just to make her wait. He didn’t think of himself as a petty man, but he knew from the hearings that punctuality was very important to Councilwoman Meredith Stannard.

She must be here for some sort of inspection, he thought as he reached the landing. I’ll take her on the tour, she’ll sneer at everything I say and twist my words, and then we can go back to trying to catch Danarius. Fun times.

He pushed open the door to the briefing room to find Meredith Stannard standing toe-to-toe with Aveline Vallen.

The Councilwoman, as always, cut a striking figure. She was wearing a crisp white pantsuit that fairly gleamed against the dingy backdrop of the Guard headquarters. It occurred to Max that it bore a strong resemblance to the Templars’ suits; despite the different color, the overall shape was the same.

The second he saw her face, Max knew this wasn’t an inspection. And that was before he saw Cullen standing against the wall, his Templar grey already replaced by a plain, severe black suit. He would not meet Max's eyes.

The Councilwoman turned her head towards him, her green eyes flashing. “Knight-Captain. So good of you to join us. I was just telling the Guard-Captain the news. I’ve received some disturbing information about the way you’ve been conducting your investigation.” Slowly, a corner of her mouth curved upwards, the smile of a woman who had gotten something she had wanted for a very long time. “The City Council of Denerim has voted to strip the Templars of their authority in the city.”

The entire world seemed to spin around Max.

Well. Looks like I’m going to find out what it feels like to disgrace the family name after all.

Chapter Text

The license plates, as Alistair had suspected, were a dead end. He and Lace put in their best effort for a day and a half, canvassing the neighborhood and interviewing the owners of every adjacent building, but the used car lot where the robbers had stolen their license plate was on a half-abandoned block with nothing even resembling security cameras at the few businesses nearby. He hoped the Templars were having better luck tracking the vehicle, although he knew there were a lot of black four-door sedans in Denerim.

When their last potential lead proved to be a bust, Alistair and Lace played rock-paper-scissors to decide who would report back to the Templars and who got to go home. Alistair lost. He secretly suspected Lace might be cheating, but he really wasn’t sure how someone cheated at rock-paper-scissors, so he kept the thought to himself and drove back to Guard headquarters, dropping Lace at her bus stop along the way.

The moment he stepped foot in the Guard house, he knew something was wrong.

It looked fine on the surface. Civilians were still lining up to go through the metal detector; Guardsmen and Guardswomen were still moving around the main floor, murmuring between themselves. But there was a strange, anxious energy to those conversations, and everyone kept glancing up the main staircase, towards the area where the Templars had set up their temporary headquarters.

Alistair took the steps two at a time as he raced to the second floor.

Something had happened; he was sure of it. He was prepared for any number of situations when he opened the door, from witnessing a full panic to being embarrassingly late for another Max Trevelyan briefing.

He was not prepared to see Councilwoman Meredith Stannard standing toe-to-toe with Max and the Guard-Captain at the front of the room as a mixed audience of Templars and Guard looked on with wide eyes.

“How, exactly, did this new law come about?” Aveline’s voice was stony. Alistair had suspected she didn’t think much of Meredith, but he was surprised to see the naked dislike on her face. What in the Maker’s name is happening?

“It’s not a law, Guard-Captain—well, not yet. It’s an emergency measure.” Councilwoman Stannard was trying, and failing, to conceal a triumphant smile. “We passed it at an emergency session of the Council an hour ago.”

Alistair found himself wondering how Eamon had voted on that.

“Agent Rutherford—that is, Mr. Rutherford—gave us some most distressing information about the course of this investigation.” Meredith turned her gaze to Max, ice and scorn dripping from her expression. “It seems that Knight-Captain Trevelyan has been sitting on a crucial tip, and socializing with magisters in the meantime.”

It was then that Alistair spotted Cullen Rutherford, standing off to the side with his arms crossed over his chest. To Alistair’s shock, he now wore a black suit with no tie— he’s not an Agent any more? He told Meredith to do this? He’d thought Cullen and Max were friends.

“He’s not a—Dorian Pavus is a witness who came forward. He approached me in a public place, Councilwoman, and offered information. I would hardly call that ‘socializing.’” Max looked as unflappable as ever, his silver suit neat and his tie perfectly straight. But his voice was just a bit higher than usual, just a bit louder. He’s worried.

“Should I have refused his information simply because of where he was born?” the Knight-Captain continued. “As for the decision to conduct surveillance on Danarius, as a former Templar Agent I am sure you know …”

“Your opinion is no longer relevant to this investigation.” The Councilwoman’s chest swelled with pleasure as she savored those words. “The emergency resolution we passed is clear. The Templar Order has forfeited its right to conduct investigations in the city of Denerim.”

“You cannot do this.” Cassandra Pentaghast’s face was white with horror. “The Order’s treaty with Ferelden …”

“Allows for cities to decline the Templars’ services, if circumstances warrant it. You may have your lawyers argue the point in court,” Meredith interrupted coolly, not even turning her face towards the Seeker. “But for now all criminal matters, including the ones involving magic, will be handled by the City Guard.”

“You are asking me to put together a task force capable of capturing a blood mage, with no help from the Templars or their Enchanters.” Aveline’s tone made it clear just how stupid that would be.

“I suspected that might prove difficult.” Meredith’s expression turned serious. “It’s why I volunteered to lead the investigation myself. My colleagues on the Council, fortunately, have approved. I am to have whatever authority—and Guard support—I deem necessary in order to bring this matter to a long-overdue conclusion.”

The entire room fell silent.

We work for Meredith Stannard now? Is this a nightmare? Alistair wondered. He furtively glanced down at his outfit. No. I’m still wearing pants. Damn.

Meredith’s icy green eyes focused on the Guard-Captain. “I trust you will not find it a problem for us to work together, Guard-Captain Vallen.” Her tone practically dared Aveline to protest.

“My priority is the safety of this city.” Aveline’s voice was calm, but Alistair could see the tension in his mentor’s expression. “You and I are in agreement on one point: the magister Danarius must be stopped.”

“Indeed.” Meredith turned her back to Aveline, Cassandra, and Max, and raised her voice to address the room. “Templars, you know I hold deep respect for your Order. But your leadership has failed you. It is my hope that this situation will be resolved quickly. In the meantime, return to your Circle. There is nothing more for you to do here.”

Every single Templar in that room stood absolutely still—until Max Trevelyan cleared his throat. “We’ll get this sorted out,” he said, glowering at the back of Meredith’s head. “In the meantime, the last thing the Order wants is trouble with the local authorities.”

“Just so, Knight-Captain.” First Enchanter Vivienne’s voice cut through the room like a knife. She stepped forward, her heels clicking against the linoleum floors, and gave Meredith a perfectly vicious smile as she entered the other woman’s field of vision. “My compliments, Councilwoman. Quite a bold move. And how noble of you to risk your own reputation on the outcome of this case! I do hope it doesn’t blow up in your face.”

Meredith’s mouth twisted.

Alistair saw Max Trevelyan bite back a smile. “Move out, Agents. Assemble in the park across the street, find some pay phones, and start making calls to the agents we posted in local precincts. And pull the team from the Regency.”

They’re leaving. Maker. They’re really leaving. Alistair’s heart began to beat wildly in his chest. All right, he didn’t like the Templars, technically speaking, but sending them away when there was a crazed magister on the loose seemed bloody insane to him.

He did not have time to contemplate that insanity further, however. As the Templars filed past him, their faces worried and furious, Meredith Stannard looked directly his way.

“You there. Guerrin.”

Oh good. Now I know exactly how a deer feels in a pair of headlights. I’ve always wondered.

“Yes?” he managed.

“Get Fenris Leto on the phone.” Meredith’s voice cracked with authority. “I am lifting his suspension immediately. And then find yourself some riot gear. When the Detective gets here, we will move immediately on this magister’s hiding place. He has been in our city long enough.”

 


 

She kicked us out. She kicked us out. Maker help me. She actually got us kicked out.

The words beat a maddening tattoo in Max’s skull as he descended the stairs, following the Agents who had trusted him to lead them.

No. It’s my fault. I got us kicked out.

“Fuck!” he swore, as quietly as he could.

Cassandra heard him nonetheless. “Indeed,” she said with a heavy sigh. “We will fight this, of course. But I doubt it will be resolved in time for us to bring this Danarius to justice.” Her right hand tightened into a fist. “How could Agent Rutherford have thought this was the right choice?”

“It’s my fault,” Max said dully. “He wasn’t ready to be back in the field. I should have seen it sooner. Fuck! ” That one was louder.

As a few of the younger Templars turned their heads back to stare at Max, Vivienne cleared her throat delicately. “It occurs to me, darling, that Mr. Pavus is downstairs in the evidence room with Agent Barris. Perhaps he should be discreetly escorted to an exit before the charming Councilwoman decides to offer him other accommodations?”

Max felt an irrational flash of rage at Dorian Pavus—he’d been the reason for the fight with Cullen in the first place, after all—but he took a breath and forced himself to see reason. This wasn’t Dorian’s fault. “Yes. I’ll see to that right away.”

*

Pavus was bent over the disassembled pieces of the little box, trying to put them into some semblance of order, when Max pushed open the door.

There was nothing for it but to rip off the bandage. “Er. I have some awkward news. The Denerim City Council has unceremoniously thrown the Templars out on their ear. We are to return to the Circle immediately.”

Agent Barris’s mouth dropped open. “Sir?”

“We’re going to fix this, Agent,” Max said, with significantly more confidence than he actually felt. “But for now we’re going to play nice with the local authorities and let them take their shot at Danarius.”

Pavus’s mouth gaped in indignation. “You can’t actually mean that. No disrespect intended to the local Guard, but they can’t possibly be trained to handle someone like Danarius.”

One of them is, Max thought. But Maker, could Fenris Leto hold it together if he went after his tormentor in person?

He decided to be optimistic, at least in front of Barris. “Councilwoman Stannard is a former Templar. She’s taken responsibility for bringing Danarius in. She’s experienced and she’s fought magisters before.” Max met Dorian’s eyes, trying to convey the seriousness of what he was about to say next. “But she is not happy you’re here, so I recommend we get you somewhere else as quickly as possible. Agent Barris, join the others in the park across the street. I’ll get our witness to safety and join you when I can.”

Agent Barris was clearly struggling with indignation and frustration of his own, but he nodded respectfully to Max and departed. Dorian, too, stood, but paused to take a last, longing look at the puzzle box.

“Take the camera,” Max said impulsively. “We can’t take the pieces, but maybe the photos will help.”

Dorian’s mustache quirked up at the corner. “How devious, Knight-Captain. I didn’t think you had it in you.”

“I have untapped depths,” Max said wryly. “Now come on. Before Meredith decides to see how visiting mages might look in a Guard cell.”

 


 

The camera around Dorian’s neck swung uncomfortably as he followed the Knight-Captain out of the Guard house. Trevelyan apparently knew some secret routes out; they passed several storage rooms before entering a garage containing various patrol cars. Dorian tried to look nonchalant, as if he were merely a civilian employee there on perfectly ordinary business, but the more people they passed, the more conscious he was that his tailored designer clothing was deeply out of place. He almost regretted wearing his favorite motorcycle jacket that morning. Almost.

Fortunately, most people in the Guard house seemed to have their own business on their minds. Soon, Max and Dorian were walking down the sidewalk, their steps brisk and silent.

After four blocks or so, Dorian had to ask. “Where are we going?”

The Templar stopped, a startled expression on his face. “I—oh. Sorry. I have a friend. Someone outside the Circle. She can help you lay low until this blows over.”

Dorian wasn’t sure what startled him more—the idea of a Templar having a friend who wasn’t another Templar, or the idea that Max Trevelyan was trying to look out for him. “I appreciate the thought, Knight-Captain. But I’m quite capable of staying out of trouble on my own. I have a fake name for my hotel room and everything.”

“Good for you,” Trevelyan said wryly. “But I don’t believe for a moment that you’re going to stay out of trouble. Danarius killed your friend. So you might as well join forces with someone who can help watch your back. Danarius has been working with a Circle escapee named Marcus Amell. Believe me when I tell you Mei wants Marcus found as badly as you want Danarius.”

Now that sounded like an interesting story. But Dorian had a more immediate question. “What will you do?”

The Knight-Captain’s broad shoulders slumped ever so slightly. “I’m going to march back to the Circle and figure out how to get that damned emergency order reversed. I might take another run at questioning Danarius’s apprentice, see if she’ll talk now. I can’t do much else, frankly. I’d be risking the entire Order’s reputation if I continued to operate in Denerim.”

Dorian wanted to roll his eyes—he’d heard a lot of talk about reputation back in the Imperium, mostly from his father—but he refrained heroically. “Oh, fine. Leave the real work to a dastardly Tevinter apostate and your mysterious friend.”

For some reason, Knight-Captain Trevelyan seemed deeply amused by that sentence. “Her name’s Mei Surana. And if you’re nice to her, she might make you that decent cup of coffee you’ve been complaining about.”

 


 

Despite Hawke’s company—and the momentous words that had passed between them that night—Fenris knew it would not be easy to keep his mind from Danarius. From the moment he rose from the couch that morning, he was counting away the hours until Hawke’s forty-eight-hour deadline.

“Am I going to have to cover all the timepieces in the apartment?” Hawke teased gently when she caught him staring at her oven’s clock over breakfast.

Fenris smiled ruefully but did not answer. He was grateful for the attempt at cheer and knew he was being poor company. But everything within him itched to start this battle—the confrontation he had awaited for years. He tried to focus on his food but found that the cereal he had chosen looked suddenly unappealing.

“Let’s head to the office,” Hawke continued after an awkward pause. “I called Naia yesterday but had to leave a message. I want to be sure we’re all on the same page if we need to go after Danarius ourselves.”

That, Fenris could support. “A good thought.” He smiled, suddenly, as a thought occurred to him. “Perhaps watching Naia sneak glances at her assassin will distract me.”

Hawke threw back her head and laughed. “I’m going to do you a favor and not tell her you said that.”

*

Varric and Zevran were sitting across from one another at Zevran’s desk when Fenris and Hawke pushed open the door to Tabris Investigations. The pair were playing cards. Based on previous experience Fenris strongly suspected they were both cheating.

“Hey, Detective! Hawke! Want to join us?” Varric waved his hand in the air for emphasis.

“No. My wallet has not yet recovered from the last time,” Fenris said wryly.

“I’ll play a hand or two in a bit,” Hawke said. “Is Naia in?”

Zevran nodded. “An early morning, as usual.” Wonder of wonders, something like concern passed across the man’s face. “She mentioned your message. I take it the Knight-Captain’s reply to our information was … less than satisfactory?”

Hawke grimaced. “Trevelyan’s decent for a Templar but he’s a by-the-book guy. And I don’t think he really understands who he’s dealing with. This may fall to us.” She glanced over at Fenris for confirmation; he gave it with a quiet nod.

“How are you holding up, Detective?” Varric’s gravelly voice was strangely tentative. No, not tentative, Fenris realized—gentle, as if he feared too much prying would open a wound.

“I am … coping. Perhaps with less grace than I might wish.” Fenris sighed. “It is strange, having him so near, and knowing I must bide my time. And I find myself wondering what has prompted him to stay so long in Denerim, why he felt the need to support such an elaborate scheme. He holds the south in contempt. I cannot imagine this has been an enjoyable stay for him.”

“Good,” Hawke muttered.

“Well I, for one, rather hope that the Knight-Captain arrests him before we find out.” Zevran slapped his cards down on the table. “I believe I have won this hand, my friend.”

Varric scowled. “I could have sworn some of those cards were still in the deck.”

Zevran smiled merrily and swept the little pile of stones over to his side of the desk.

The day passed slowly. Naia and Hawke spent much of the morning filing away the documents and invoices for cases they’d recently cleared. Zevran put more invoices in the mail, including a staggering one to the Guard listing an astonishing number of hours Naia had worked. Varric drifted in and out of his office, taking mysterious calls and then reemerging to challenge the others to a new game. Fenris forced himself to accept more of those invitations than he declined; it turned out to be a good way to pass the time.

Late in the afternoon, Naia’s phone rang. It seemed to be an expected call, though not a scheduled one—through the door, Fenris could hear her assure the person on the other end of the line that she was on her way and she’d handle it.

The elf emerged from her office with her bag already slung over her shoulder. “Well, that was the kid at Shianni’s shelter who knows the alienage vandals. I’m off to stop some teenaged idiots from getting criminal records. Zev? Varric? I could use some backup, I think.”

Varric shoved himself away from Zevran’s desk. “I’m in. Slick?”

“I would prefer to continue winning your money. But I suppose duty calls.” Despite his reluctant tone, Fenris saw that Zevran had retrieved his wallet and keys from his desk the moment Naia stepped out of her office.

Hawke emerged from her own office to lean against the doorjam. “Need us too?” She sounded as if she hoped for a yes; Fenris wondered if she was as eager as he for ways to make the time pass.

But Naia shook her head. “I think this is strictly a task for slightly disreputable non-humans. Former Guardsmen and Detectives need not apply.” She softened that with a warm wink at Fenris. “Next time, I promise.”

“Stay out of my liquor cabinet, you two!” Varric called as they departed the office.

The quiet that descended when they were gone was both welcome and a bit unnerving. The clock read nearly five—less than twenty-four hours, now, to the deadline.

Hawke’s eyes followed his. “One more day. Want to call Donnic and see what the latest gossip is around the Guard house?”

Fenris shook his head. “The Guard-Captain said I am not to have contact with the investigation. And I do not wish to lengthen my suspension.” But then his jaw dropped. “I—wait. My suspension is over. It has been two full days since I questioned Varania.” He had been so focused on Hawke’s deadline for Max Trevelyan that he had forgotten.

He was halfway out of his chair, calculating how quickly he could be at the Guard house and how much professional status he might lose if he did not retrieve his usual suit, when he locked eyes with Hawke. She did not look pleased.

Fenris’s first reaction was irritation—could she not see how important it was for him to return to work? But he took a breath, looked closer, and saw worry in her eyes. Worry that he was pushing himself too hard, that he was rushing back to work after two of the most difficult days of his life. And he found himself torn between a rush of shame that he had worried, her, and deep gratitude that she would worry about him at all.

I love you, Juliet Hawke.

He finished standing, but instead of walking towards the door, he moved towards her. “Would the Guard-Captain think me irresponsible if I returned tomorrow morning?”

Pleased lines crinkled at the corner of Hawke’s eyes. “Instead of ten seconds after your suspension is over, you mean?” she teased, her alto voice warm. “Nah. She’s tough but not that tough.”

Fenris smiled and reached for her, running his fingers into her hair. Hawke smiled at him and tilted her head a bit to her left, a smile curving her mouth, the look Fenris had come to recognize as her invitation for a kiss. He leaned forward, closing his eyes in anticipation—but his lips had barely brushed hers when the phone rang.

“Ignore it,” she murmured, stepping closer.

And for a time, they did—but then the answering machine picked it up.

“Hey, um, hi, Hawke? This is Alistair. Guerrin. From the Denerim Guard. You know who I am. Anyway, I’m looking for Detective—”

Fenris did not make a conscious decision to stop kissing Hawke, but in the span of a heartbeat he had crossed the room and pulled the receiver from the phone so quickly that he nearly dropped it to the ground. “Alistair. What is it?”

“Sorry I keep doing this to you. But.” The young man took a deep breath. “You’d better come in. Long story short, Meredith Stannard got the Templars kicked out and now she wants to storm Danarius’s hotel room.”

Time seemed to freeze around Fenris.

“I will be there as soon as I can.”

Chapter Text

Hawke wanted to go with him, of course.

“Mei says the Enchanters’ ranks are thinned,” she argued, matching him step for step as he raced down the stairs towards his car. “Trevelyan isn’t stupid. He’ll look the other way if he thinks I can help.”

Fenris had not looked forward to telling Hawke about Meredith Stannard, but it appeared he had no choice. He forced himself to halt his steps halfway down the stairs; he caught her by the arm so she would not fall as they stopped. “Knight-Captain Trevelyan will not be leading the raid. Councilwoman Stannard will.”

Hawke’s mouth opened in bafflement. “I. What.” She shook her head rapidly in disbelief. “Wait. What?

“There has been some sort of vote enacting emergency measures. I do not understand quite how it came to pass." Fenris opened his free hand in a helpless shrug. "But the Guard is going after Danarius, and I must join them.”

She wanted to argue. He could see it in her eyes. And she was not wrong. Our odds would improve if she fought at our side. But persuading Meredith Stannard to accept an apostate as an ally was an impossible task. And though her magic would have been a welcome weapon against his enemy, he knew Hawke was still recovering. He preferred to know that she was safe. It is my responsibility to deal with Danarius.

He softened his voice. “I would welcome you at my side against any foe. But Councilwoman Stannard … would not be understanding.”

“There’s an understatement,” she muttered, rolling her eyes.

Fenris usually resented Hawke’s harsh attitude towards the Councilwoman. Today, however, he could not help but share it. Meredith Stannard had helped him in the past, but she now represented a terrifyingly immediate threat to the person he held most dear. I must keep Hawke away from her.

“I do not know how long the Councilwoman will remain in this strange position, or how she intends to handle illegal magic,” he continued. “She may still hand apostates to the Circle for training and trials, or she may take matters into her own hands. I do not wish to find out through you.”

“Yeah, I don’t really want to experiment with that either.” But Hawke’s face was tense. “Fine. But I’m parking a block away from the Arms. If anyone catches me I’m playing the worried girlfriend card.”

Fenris felt a smile curve his lips. Hawke gave him a strange look. “What?”

“I do not like you to worry about me. But … I am lucky that you do.” He reached out his hand and caught her fingertips with his.

Hawke squeezed back, the pressure gentle. “Just go get the bastard. Then we can both stop worrying.”

 


 

Dorian followed the Knight-Captain to a busy street where the other man hailed a cab. Once they were inside, Trevelyan rattled off an address that meant about as much to Dorian as a series of nonsense words. But the driver just nodded and peeled off. Belatedly, Dorian remembered that his motorcycle was still parked in the hotel district, but he’d have to go back there anyway to sleep.

When he stepped out of the cab and got a good look at the place where Max Trevelyan had brought them, his jaw actually dropped. “You can’t be serious.”

They were standing in front of a small storefront with one of the most horrifying color schemes Dorian had ever seen. The building was painted an aggressively cheerful yellow; a striped pink-and-green awning hung over the largest window. The door bore a decal depicting three frollicking nugs. Below that, another decal helpfully spelled out “Three Nugs Coffee.”

“Please tell me your friend did not pick the paint,” he said, shuddering.

“She didn’t. And don’t knock this place until you’ve tried their mocha latte.” Without further ceremony, Trevelyan pushed open the door. Dorian wasn’t surprised when a tinkly little bell chimed to greet them.

It was late in the afternoon and the coffee shop was empty, save for one person: an elf standing behind the counter, tidying the mugs and looking more than a little bored. She was a pretty woman with monolidded eyes, round cheekbones, and dark hair held back from her face in a ponytail at the nape of her neck. The pink stitching on her lime green polo shirt identified her as “Mei.”

Why in the Maker’s name is Trevelyan introducing me to a barista?

Mei’s bored expression lifted the moment she saw Trevelyan. “Max! You made it just before closing.” But almost immediately, her expression shifted to alarm. “Maker. That bad?”

Dorian blinked. Trevelyan looked fine to him. But the Templar sighed and nodded, as if he’d expected Mei to realize something had happened. “You’ll read about it in the papers tomorrow. But in sum, Meredith’s got her way for now. The Templars are officially persona non grata in Denerim and it’s all thanks to me.”

Mei shook her head, her mouth gaping in bafflement. “How in Thedas did Meredith justify that?”

“We found out that the mastermind is a guy named Danarius. And I decided to watch him for more information instead of storming in with guns blazing. I also had the temerity to talk to a Tevinter informant who knows the guy.” Trevelyan grimaced. “The other Council members didn’t even give us a chance to tell our side before they voted in Stannard’s emergency measures.”

The woman’s brow furrowed. “How did she know those things about your investigation?”

The Templar closed his eyes. A very long and pained silence followed. “Cullen,” he said at last.

Mei’s jaw dropped and her face fell, her eyes widening in sadness and fury. “Oh, Max,” she breathed. “How could he?”

Trevelyan sighed heavily. “He’s in a bad place, Mei.”

She crossed her arms. “I know he is, but Maker. You’ve done nothing but have his back ever since you were transferred to Denerim!” Her words sped up as she spoke, sliding from a calm alto to something higher and much angrier. “And he went behind your back to Meredith Stannard? I can’t believe him!”

Dorian was beginning to feel a bit out of the loop on this conversation. “Was this the blonde Templar who was trying to glare holes in my head?” he ventured. “The friend you had to suspend?”

“Yes and yes,” Trevelyan confirmed, his tone clipped. “But we’ll save that for another time. Mei Surana, meet Dorian Pavus, altus of the Tevinter Imperium. Danarius killed his friend back in Minrathous.”

Mei’s eyes flickered over to Dorian curiously; she held out her hand after a beat. “Hi.”

Dorian accepted it and bowed over it. “Charmed. And I must admit I’m desperately curious: how exactly do you know the Knight-Captain? Is he a regular at this establishment?” He rather enjoyed the image of the strapping Knight-Captain picking this pink-and-green monstrosity out of all the coffee shops in Denerim.

The elf smiled and began pouring milk into a metal pitcher. “He’s only a regular because I work here. I used to be in the Circle. I was an Enchanter.”

A mage? Dorian felt both his eyebrows climb halfway up his forehead. The idea of a Templar Knight-Captain having an apostate for a friend went against everything he’d ever heard about the Order. It was nearly as odd as the idea of a mage serving lattes at a place like Three Nugs. “I … was rather under the impression that Enchanter was not a reversible career choice.”

Mei’s hands began moving faster, combining coffee and milk and what looked like chocolate syrup into a tall white paper cup. “Technically, it is. In practice few mages leave. Since we can’t use our magic legally outside the Circle, we don’t have many career options. Which is how I found myself here.” Her tone was brusque and businesslike, utterly devoid of emotion; her eyes were focused on the drink she was making. Dorian recognized that tone. It was the one Alexius had used to disguise some of his own more inconvenient feelings.

“Anyway. He wants to find Danarius. You want to find Marcus Amell. I figured I’d introduce the two of you and see if you could help each other out.” Trevelyan gave them both a charming half-smile; it almost looked cheerful. “In the meantime, I’m going to go back to the Circle, talk to a bunch of lawyers, and hope I didn’t just destroy my career.”

“Can I do anything?” the barista asked gently. She shook a metal canister vigorously and aimed it at the top of a paper cup; whipped cream foamed out, covering the entire drink in several layers of sweet fluff. Dorian couldn’t help giving the concoction a horrified look. Personally he believed that coffee ought to be served absolutely black and so concentrated that it could practically hold a spoon upright.

Trevelyan, however, looked genuinely pleased with the drink. “Is that a mocha latte? If it is, you’re already helping.” He smiled as Mei handed over the cup.

“I’ll call you when we know more,” the woman promised. “You’ll be back in the field before you know it, and when you are, you’ll need to be up to speed.”

Trevelyan sighed ruefully and looked down at his coffee. “Thanks, Mei. I hope you’re right.”

A moment later, he was gone, and Dorian was alone with another new stranger.

It helped that Mei Surana didn't seem sure of what to do either. She looked at him contemplatively, as if trying to take his measure. “Want anything? I know it’s almost dinnertime, but …”

“Espresso,” Dorian said immediately. “Please.” This has been a very long day.

To Dorian’s surprise, the espresso Mei made him was quite good—not as strong as he would have made himself, but a damn sight better than any of the coffee he’d had so far in Ferelden. He settled in one of the counter seats and sipped it contentedly, letting the almost-like-home taste wash away the intensity of this day, just for a moment. The elven mage gave him space, setting a second espresso to brew and washing her station and her cups silently, barely glancing his way for much of her routine.

When Dorian had consumed half the cup, he set it down in its tiny saucer and cleared his throat. “So. Ah. What happens now? To me, most importantly.”

Mei arched an eyebrow, but seemed amused. She placed a metal pitcher into a frothing machine and placed a large white mug on the counter, apparently intending to make her own drink. “If you’re serious about helping to stop Danarius, I’ve got some people I think you should meet. A private investigator’s firm that’s been looking into the crime wave. But I should warn you: one of the partners is dating Detective Leto.”

The name rang dim bells for Dorian, but he didn’t quite follow. “I’m sorry. Who?”

The elf raised her eyebrows in surprise. “Detective Fenris Leto? The Tevinter elf with the scary lyrium tattoos?”

Dorian felt the strange soaring sensation that accompanied the drop of a second shoe. “Andraste’s knees! That fellow is alive? Danarius always claimed he’d died.” He shook his head. “Now it all fits. Or more of it. That’s why he’s in Denerim. Danarius has been trying to replicate that ritual ever since the man vanished and he’s failed every time. He must have come here to retrieve his slave.”

The elven mage’s friendly expression cooled. “I don’t advise calling the Detective a slave to his face. Or in front of his girlfriend.”

Dorian could see he’d put a foot wrong, though he wasn’t quite sure how. The word slave was apparently off limits, though, which was good to know. “I—understood. I would not wish to offend your friend.”

Friend is a bit strong.” Mei poured her foamed milk into the cup and reached for the espresso. “He’s not a tremendous fan of mages. And since you’re an altus he’s probably going to hate you. I’m warning you now so you don’t take it personally.”

Despite himself, Dorian bristled. “Oh, of course not. Why on earth would I take someone hating me personally?”

“Spend more time as a mage outside the Imperium and you’ll get used to people hating you on principle,” Mei said wryly. “I’ve gotten used to it, anyway.”

She took her first sip of her latte and grimaced quietly. “But it’s all right not to like it.”

 


 

 “My foot’s falling asleep, Sparks.”

“Then move it. And quit talking!” Naia hissed. But Varric’s words made her realize that her own back was cramping a bit. She shifted her weight, trying to get comfortable leaning against the brick wall of a local alienage grocery store.

“Exactly how much longer are we going to sit here in the dark?” the dwarf grumbled.

On Naia’s other side, Zevran laughed. “Such a lack of punctuality our teenage vandals have. Keri said they assembled an hour ago, did she not?”

“They probably stopped for paint and rocks,” Naia whispered. “Now shhh! My entire plan is about the element of surprise.”

“That and our ability to intimidate teenagers, I believe,” Zevran whispered.

Naia bit back her own laughter. “I am going to take off my shoes and stuff my socks in your mouths if you keep this up,” she warned.

And then, finally, she heard something in the alley.

She opened her mouth to shush the others, but Varric and Zevran had heard it too; they fell silent almost simultaneously, their banter replaced by a tense watchfulness as they listened. The noises were coming from the alley beside the little grocery store and they were exactly what Naia had expected. Footsteps belonging to several people. The sound of backpacks unzipping. Hushed laughter and whispers of “shhhh! ” not unlike the ones Naia had been exchanging with her friends a moment ago.

Naia reached down to pick up the flashlight at her side. “That’s our cue.”

She pushed herself to a stand, wincing slightly as her stiff muscles protested, and made her way into the alley, her sneakers silent against the pavement.

The laughter and the rustling continued as she took her position. Naia waited a moment to make sure she hadn’t been heard, then another moment to make sure Varric and Zevran were behind her. Then she put on her brightest smile and flicked the button on her flashlight.

It was a large flashlight, heavy enough to make Naia’s arm ache if she held it long enough, and its beam filled the alley instantaneously, making everyone blink against its bright, harsh glare. As her eyes adjusted, Naia saw five elven teenagers—four boys and a girl—each with an arm raised to shield them from the sudden light. Every one of them was holding a can of spray paint or a rock.

“Hi!” Naia said cheerfully. “Whatcha up to?”

Slowly, one by one, the arms lowered. The teenagers looked at each other, their young faces baffled and anxious.

“Nothing,” one of them said sullenly.

“Gotta say, it doesn’t look like nothing. It kind of looks like you were about to trash this place. Let me guess, Alarith wouldn’t sell beer to you without IDs?” That had been what Keri told Naia, but Naia probably would have been able to guess anyway; it was a predictable motive for teenagers, and not the first time Alarith had made someone mad by noticing they were too young to buy beer.

The lone girl crossed her arms and sneered at Naia. “None of your business.”

“You sure about that, kid?” Varric interjected. Slowly, calmly, he reached into his bag for something hiding inside.

The confidence in the dwarf’s voice unsettled the kids, as Naia had hoped it would; once again they exchanged looks, their brows furrowing in confusion.

“Look,” Naia said pleasantly. “I happen to know that the Guard is looking into alienage vandalism. That’s trouble you don’t want. You had some fun and you pissed off a guy who probably deserved it, but it’s out of control now. It’s not worth it. Go home, or the next time the person holding the flashlight is going to be wearing a Guard uniform.”

She almost didn’t see it. A shadow moved fast in the bright light; one of the teenagers moved their arm. A can of spray paint flew through the air, aimed directly at her head—not heavy or hard enough to cause real injury, but enough to startle and embarrass her, to shift the power dynamic in that alleyway.

Fortunately, Zevran was ready. Naia had just raised her own hand when the former assassin stepped forward and easily snatched the can out of the air. His eyes locked on the kid who’d thrown it, the largest and oldest-looking of the bunch, hanging back behind the other four with a glower on his face. The glower faded as he got a good look at Zevran’s expression.

“I do not recommend that,” the Antivan said simply.

Varric chose that moment to pull something from the bag he wore slung over his shoulder. A click echoed in the alley, followed by a soft pop and a flare of light.

“Say cheese, kids,” the dwarf said cheerfully as they blinked away the aftereffects of the flash.

“You took our picture?” the oldest kid said indignantly.

“An insurance policy against future incidents. If you leave the rocks and paint with me, and leave my neighbors alone, I leave you alone.” Naia crossed her arms. “Deal?”

A pause. Then the girl spoke. “That’s Shianni’s cousin. I’m not messing with her. See ya, Barian.”

The oldest boy’s mouth dropped open as she walked away. “What the fuck?”

“Yeah, I’m heading home.” Another boy dropped his can of spray paint and jogged away, rushing to catch up with the girl.

One by one they left, with varying degrees of sullenness. Barian stayed to the end, and Naia tensed, wondering if he’d try to fight it out—he was large for an elf, broader even than Zev—but he too ultimately rolled his eyes and walked away.

When they were out of earshot, Naia let out her breath in one long, relieved huff. “Thanks, you guys.”

“Any time, Sparks.” Varric looked down at his camera. “Wonder if that shot will turn out.”

“Hopefully we won’t need it.” Naia clicked the flashlight off. “Come on, let’s stop by Shianni’s and tell Keri her friends aren’t getting arrested tonight.”

 


 

Meredith was not the type of woman to belabor explanations of how she had come to be in charge; she was in charge now and that was that. Within a minute of stepping inside the briefing room—Meredith’s briefing room, now—Fenris was strapping on riot gear and trading his usual gun for a sword. They couldn’t take a chance on a stray Smite causing his weapon to backfire.

“We will inform the hotel’s staff of our intent when we get there,” Meredith said crisply, beginning the briefing even as Fenris fastened the last pieces of his gear. “Keep an eye on the manager, Guerrin. It’s possible this magister has bribed the staff to call him at the sign of trouble.”

Alistair swallowed and nodded. “Yes, ma’am. Councilwoman. Um. What do I call you?” He looked more than a little nervous, but Fenris had fought with the boy at the Circle and knew he was not a coward; he suspected the nerves were mostly about Meredith Stannard.

Meredith narrowed her green eyes at him. “Councilwoman will do,” she said crisply. “Detective Leto and Mr. Rutherford. We will enter the penthouse without warning; we will sweep it calmly and efficiently, following my lead. Every threat we face from this magister will be met in kind. I would not be sorry to capture him alive but that is not my priority. There will be civilians in the hotel. The magister must not be allowed to escape to a lower floor.”

Fenris could read between the lines of that easily enough. She means for him to die today. He could not deny that the thought gave him pleasure.

He glanced over at Cullen Rutherford.It had not escaped Fenris’s notice that Cullen was the only Templar who had been permitted to remain, and that Meredith was not calling him Agent Rutherford. He was not entirely sure what had come to pass between Rutherford and the Templars, but the handsome human had eschewed Templar silver for a severe black suit and a set of borrowed Guard riot gear. The man’s face was pale and haggard; Fenris hoped he would be up to the task of fighting a man like Danarius.

“The magister will almost certainly employ blood magic against us,” he warned. “And he experiments with lyrium, frequently and with skill. We should be prepared to face the worst.”

“We will be.” Meredith’s voice left no room for doubt or argument.

*

Meredith executed her operation with ruthless efficiency. She swept into the lobby of the Denerim Arms with her face bare, trusting her reputation to compensate for the absence of a badge. It did. Sixty seconds later Alistair Guerrin was supervising the shutdown of the penthouse elevator as Meredith, Cullen, and Fenris climbed the stairs.

The group was silent and swift as they climbed; they moved as fast as they could without creating noise in the stairwell, or spending so much energy they would arrive out of breath. Even as Fenris admired Meredith’s professionalism, he found himself wishing that they had not left Alistair behind on the ground floor. He trusted the younger man, he realized suddenly, in a way that he could not trust Meredith or Cullen. And he could have sorely used a friendly face at his side.

Danarius. Danarius is upstairs.

What would it feel like to see him again?

Like a nightmare. My nightmare.

The same end every time. He calls, and I go.

He reached for his borrowed sword, his hand tightening over its hilt.

It is only a dream. He does not have that power over me. Not any more.

But the more he told himself that, the faster his heart beat.

If Meredith or Cullen noticed his spiral, they gave no indication. Meredith barely paused at the top of the stairwell before pushing the door open onto a dark, expensive-looking hallway. There was only one other door, standing alone between a pair of sconces halfway down the hall.

Without so much as a breath of hesitation, Meredith drew her sword, stepped to the door, and kicked it with the heel of her foot. The old wood splintered and the door sprang open, hitting the opposite wall with a crack.

Fenris felt as if he might throw up. But he forced himself to follow her.

He whipped his eyes back and forth as he entered the penthouse suite, watching and waiting for his enemy to strike. But the enormous room was dark and silent. No one appeared to challenge them.

“They must be in the back rooms,” Cullen whispered.

Meredith turned to her left, moving towards the largest of the suite’s bedrooms. But once again they were greeted by darkness and silence. The bed was rumpled and unmade; it had been slept in recently, at least. But whoever had mussed the covers was no longer there.

It was the same in the other two bedrooms. And in every closet and bathroom and tucked-away corner. As reality sunk in, Fenris began to feel very, very cold.

At last, when there were no more places to search, the three of them found themselves back in the entry hall, looking to one another, seeing who would break the silence first.

“He is not here,” Fenris said at last, his voice low as he acknowledged what none of them wanted to admit.

“He can’t have gone far.” Cullen’s tenor was tight with strain. “I saw him this morning, damn it. When could he have left?”

“After the Templars were told to pull their people from surveillance, I imagine.” Fenris was suddenly filled with a helpless, searing rage. He has escaped. And it could have been prevented. If the Templars had not been driven away …

Meredith turned around to face them both, her shoulders pulled back and her chin tilted defiantly upward. If the Councilwoman saw the anger on Fenris’s face, she did not show it. “He cannot have gone far. He is still in our city, gentlemen."

She strode to the window and stared out into the streets, the late afternoon light casting a golden shadow on her face. "He may try. But he cannot hide. Not any more.”

 


 

“How do you make this taste so good every time?” Naia sipped her hot chocolate with a smile on her face, leaning back into one of the mismatched chairs around Shianni’s small kitchen table.

“I use actual chocolate and actual milk instead of that powdered nonsense you’re always buying.” Shianni grinned. “Zevran? Varric? You helped some kids not get arrested tonight. That deserves some chocolate.”

The two men accepted Shianni’s offered mugs. Varric immediately took a large swallow; Zevran wrapped his hands around the mug and breathed in its scent, enjoying the anticipation. Naia felt absurdly grateful to them both. It had been a small thing that they’d done tonight. She knew from hard experience that one mild scare usually wasn’t enough to turn a teenager away from bad decisions forever. But maybe it would turn them away for a while. And maybe at least one or two of them wouldn’t seek out trouble again.

She turned her head towards Keri, who was curled up in the largest chair with her feet pulled underneath her, her hands wrapped around her own mug of cocoa. She looked subdued. “How are you doing?” Naia asked gently.

“Fine, for a narc,” the teenager sighed. “But … it’s Alarith. He’s always nice. I didn’t want them to wreck his place.”

Naia sipped her cocoa again, mostly to hide a smile. Having a crush on handsome, smiling Alarith was practically an alienage rite of passage. As she swallowed, she met the girl’s eyes. “You did the right thing, Keri. Nothing got broken, no one got hurt, and the Guard didn’t get involved. And we kept your name out of it.”

The teenager snorted. “Like they won’t know it was me.” She stared into her mug. “But thanks, anyway.”

A knock at the door startled everyone just as Shianni put a fresh pot of milk onto the stove. Naia watched as her cousin’s shoulders squared. She knew what an after-dark knock likely meant: a scared teenager, a woman who couldn’t go home, a family who’d fallen victim to a scam and had no place else to go. At least Shianni had beds tonight; now that winter was over, the shelter was always less crowded than it had been in the coldest months.

Her cousin vanished into the hallway that led to the front door; the house was small, though, so Naia could still hear as locks turned and hinges creaked. “Hello?”

Naia could tell from Shianni’s tone that something was wrong. She usually greeted people with ease. This time her voice was cool and suspicious. Zev could hear it too, she thought—he immediately leaned forward to set his mug down and out of the way.

“Good evening, miss. I’m looking for Naia Tabris.” The voice was male, cultured and older, with an accent Naia didn’t immediately place. “I understand I might find her here?”

“What do you want with my cous—hey!”

Naia, Varric, and Zevran stood in unison, alert and tense, as footsteps approached down the hall. Moments later, a grey-haired human man appeared in the door, Shianni close on his heels.

Naia felt her blood freeze as she locked eyes with Danarius.

Chapter Text

Zevran had accepted more than a few contracts on mages during his time with the Crows. Those kills were particularly prized because of how difficult they were; the only strategy that seemed to yield success was catching the mage by surprise and striking before they could use their magic.

The worst mistake you could make was to let the mage surprise you.

Naia broke the silence first. “Shianni, Keri. Get out of here right now.”

Shianni nodded quickly and extended her hand to her teenage charge, her face white and serious. “Come here, Keri.” She gave Danarius a frightened glance, clearly fearing that he would try to harm the girl as she left the kitchen.

But the magister ignored them both as Shianni pulled Keri from the room. His eyes were focused on Naia the way a predator’s eyes would have focused on its prey. Zevran wished desperately that he had brought a gun.

“I see you know who I am, Ms. Tabris. I apologize for dropping in unannounced.” Danarius’s smile widened in a ghastly parody of friendliness. “I merely wish to give my little wolf a message.”

Naia crossed her arms defiantly. She was closer to the door than Varric and she shifted a bit, putting her body between the magister and the dwarf.

Bianca , Zevran realized, spotting the heavy bag slung over the back of Varric’s chair. She wants to give him the opportunity to draw Bianca.

“What’s the message?” Her green eyes were wide, but her voice was fearless. Zevran felt almost sick with helplessness as he looked between her and their dangerous enemy.

Danarius’s thin lips pulled at the corners. “Don’t worry, my dear. You won’t need to deliver it personally. Your corpse will drive home the point.”

Magic filled the room, making the hair on Zevran’s arms stand on end—and then he heard Naia shriek as she was lifted from the ground by an invisible hand.

Zevran expected to see her fly across the room, thrown aside in an effort to injure her. But instead Naia hung suspended in midair, held aloft by invisible hands. Her feet kicked helplessly and her hands clutched at something around her neck. Her mouth was open but she was horribly silent, her cries caught in her throat. He was choking her without even touching her.

Zevran’s world began to go black at the edges.

“Sparks!” Varric’s handsome face was ashen—and yet, he kept reaching for his bag, easing his hand slowly inside.

He has not given up. Neither shall I.

“Let her go,” Zevran demanded, his voice cracking in fear. It was a futile phrase—stupid, even, under the circumstances—but it did make Danarius’s eyes flicker towards him.

That ghastly smile again. “I’m afraid I can’t. My little wolf will not come to heel.”

The smell of scorched milk rose in the room as Shianni’s abandoned pot boiled over.

“He has forgotten who he is dealing with,” Danarius continued. His voice was calm and so polite, as if Naia were not twisting there, slowly dying.

His heart racing, Zevran tried to think of what he might use as a weapon. One of the chairs? Could he find a knife in the kitchen and reach Danarius with it before the magister could use his magic?

Danarius turned his eyes back to Naia, whose face was starting to flush with trapped blood. “When you see my Fenris, Antivan, you may tell him that his little friend’s death …”

And then out of nowhere, Shianni flew into the room with a baseball bat in hand, swinging it with the cold determination of someone who had needed to defend herself before.

Danarius turned his head towards her and flicked a wrist. A single line of lightning shot from his palm and cracked against Shianni’s chest, sending her stumbling back into the hallway, gasping in pain and convulsing. She had not even touched him.

But the distraction had given Zevran just enough time to realize he had overlooked a weapon.

In one smooth motion, he twisted around and seized the handle of Shianni’s pot in his right hand. Burned milk seared his palm but he held on, ignoring the pain. With ruthless precision, he spun back to face the magister and flung the pot’s boiling contents straight into Danarius’s face. It splashed across his face and into his hair, soaking down his clothing.

Not even Zevran had heard a man make a sound like that before. The noise was somewhere between a scream and a howl, high and long and agonized. The magister’s hands flew to his burned face and almost clawed at it, frantically trying to rid himself of the scalding liquid. Naia abruptly fell to the ground; she pushed herself onto all fours, gasping and coughing.

“Stay down, Sparks!” Varric’s beloved shotgun emerged from the bag; he nestled her against his shoulder and fired once, a brutal shot aimed at Danarius’s head. Zevran felt another surge of magic but the shield did not come quite in time; some of Varric’s shot still caught the magister across the upper chest and neck. Danarius’s entire body shuddered with the force of the blast. He stumbled and fell backwards, landing against the wall.

“Varric, go up the back staircase and find Keri! We’ve got to get her and the others out of here,” Naia gasped, pushing herself to her feet.

Varric rushed into the hallway with Bianca at his side. Zevran placed a hand on the table and vaulted over it, landing next to Naia. He reached down and helped her to her feet.

“He’s dead, right? He’s got to be dead, or on his way there.” Naia stared down at Danarius, watching the blood spread from his chest.

The magister moaned. Thin, unstable threads of magic began to rise in the room.

“Not yet, it seems,” Zevran replied. “We must go.”

“Shianni. Where’s Shianni?” Naia stumbled as she flung herself into the hallway, but righted herself quickly as she ran to her cousin.

Shianni was lying on the floor, her face pale and her limbs shaking. She’d clearly hit her head as she stumbled from the blast and her eyes were unfocused. She was breathing, but the breaths were erratic and too fast.

Zevran knelt and slid his arms beneath her knees and head. “I will carry her. Go! Outside, now.”

They ran down Shianni’s front steps, Naia gaining strength with every breath, Shianni still pale and not responding to their questions. Across the street, on the sidewalk in front of a liquor store, Zevran knelt and gently lay Shianni on her back. He was still wearing a light jacket—his Antivan blood had not adjusted to Ferelden, not even Ferelden spring—and he stripped it off to use as a pillow. Naia threw open the door to the liquor store, shouting at a surprised clerk to call the Guard.

A moment later Keri joined them, followed by half a dozen elves ranging in age from children to an elderly man. Varric brought up the rear, Bianca pointed at the shelter the entire time.

“Shianni!” Keri shrieked. She fell to her knees beside the other woman and grabbed her hand. Shianni’s unfocused eyes rolled towards her charge; she tried to smile.

“M’fine,” she mumbled.

Naia emerged from the liquor store, her hands shaking. “The Guard is on their way. I tried to tell them it was Danarius. I’m not sure they listened.” Her face hardened. “Varric, give me Bianca.”

The dwarf looked at her as if she’d asked him to take off his arm and hand it over. “What?”

“I’m going back in and ending this,” she spat. “He’s hurt, bad. One good shot to the head and he’ll never hurt anyone again.”

It was a bad idea. Danarius was injured, yes. But that did not mean he could not use his magic. Zevran opened his mouth to say so—but instead, he found himself saying, “I will go with you.”

“I’ll watch Shianni.” Keri’s face was pale and composed. “You guys go get him.”

Varric nodded. “My pleasure, kid.”

With grim determination, Naia crossed the street and climbed the steps to her cousin’s shelter. Zevran followed closely, suddenly afraid to let her out of his sight.

She eased Shianni’s front door open almost silently. “I’ll go first. I can distract him and Varric can take the shot,” she whispered.

“Right to the head, Sparks.” Varric already held Bianca against his shoulder. Zevran’s hands tightened into fists as he followed behind, bringing up the rear, ready to strike should Varric’s shot be blocked once more.

But when they pushed open the door to the kitchen, Danarius was gone. Only a puddle of blood remained, thickening slowly against the floor and the wall. In the middle of the room hung a bright green cloud of light, crackling with energy, unstable and menacing and unlike anything Zevran had ever seen.

Naia’s mouth dropped open. “What the fuck is that?”

 


 

Years ago, after Shianni had been hurt, Naia had allowed the Guard and the paramedics to separate them, to take Shianni in an ambulance without her. She did not make that mistake this time—though she suspected Varric’s murmured words and the bill he slipped into the paramedic’s hand helped.

“Your cousin’s going to be fine,” the human woman said dismissively as she pocketed Varric’s bribe. “But you can ride if you want.”

Naia brushed a sweaty lock of hair from Shianni’s forehead. “I want,” she snapped. “Now get her to the damn hospital.” And if they can’t fix her I’m calling Anders. The human mage liked to talk a good game about being selfish, but he’d helped people at Shianni’s shelter before; surely she could talk him into helping her cousin too.

The next hour passed in a blur of bright lights and fast movement. Shianni was raced through the hospital’s hallways on a wheeled cot, Naia close beside. Doctors and nurses took her pulse and checked her pupils; Naia stuck her hands beneath her armpits and tried to make herself as small as possible, trying to stay out of the way.

“We’ll keep her here a night or two for observation,” a young human doctor told her once Shianni had been taken to a semi-private hospital room. “My diagnosis is a mild concussion and the aftereffects of a bad electric shock. She’ll feel weak and dizzy for a few days, but she’s going to recover. I recommend letting her rest.”

With that settled, Naia found herself sitting across from Donnic in a hospital waiting room, giving a scattered statement. She thanked her lucky stars and then some that it was Donnic who had answered the call; he didn’t question her when she said it was Danarius, didn’t imply she was just some attention-seeking elf trying to get her name in the papers. He also didn’t roll his eyes or scold her when she had to backtrack to add a detail that she’d missed, like the pot of boiling milk Zevran had used to save her life.

“They’re not going to charge him with assault, are they?” Naia asked when she finished the tale. She knew it was a stupid question the moment it was out of her mouth; of course they wouldn’t. The cloud of green magic in Shianni’s kitchen was absolute proof that a mage had attacked them. But for a moment, all Naia could hear in her story was that an elf had thrown boiling liquid on a human.

Donnic didn’t treat it like a stupid question. “No. But I’m going to shake Zevran’s hand with sincere enthusiasm when I see him,” he replied. “We’re going to try to get Detective Leto and the others down to the shelter to take a look at that green, uh, thing. And in the meantime, we’re making sure the people in Shianni’s shelter have someplace safe to stay. Tell your cousin not to worry.” He clicked the lever on his pen, hiding the nib. Naia almost wept with relief. If her interview was over, she was one step closer to going back to Shianni’s side.

“Hell of a night,” he said quietly once he’d turned off the tape recorder.

“You’re telling me.” Naia managed a wobbly smile.

“Can I do anything for you?”

Donnic’s brown eyes were warm and sincere. Naia looked at him for a moment, basking in that sheer decency he radiated.

No wonder Aveline likes him.

“Yeah, you can.” She took a deep breath. “Ask the Guard-Captain out for a drink. She likes you too.”

Donnic’s jaw dropped open. “I—what?”

“The copper marigolds were from her. She was trying to give you a hint.” Naia shook her head with a little laugh. “I don’t blame you for not picking up on it, by the way.”

Donnic blinked once. Then twice. Then several more times. “Really?” he managed, finally, as a pink blush started to warm his cheeks. “That’s what you want from me after someone tried to kill you. You want me to ask my boss on a date.”

“Only if it would make you happy.” Naia rubbed her hands together. “But I—I didn’t want you two to have to dance around each other any more, wondering how the other one feels. You’ve got a chance. Take it while you can.”

That sounded grimmer and less romantic than Naia had been aiming for. But Donnic’s smile widened. “I … um. Thanks, Naia. I mean it.” He paused. “She really sent me the copper marigolds? The ones I tested for explosives?”

Naia chuckled. “I told you that you had an admirer.”

*

When Naia got back to Shianni’s room, a grey-haired elven nurse was shutting her cousin’s door quietly, easing it shut so that it would not make a sound. Naia’s heart sped up as she raced to catch up with the nurse.

The nurse saw the family resemblance right away, bless her. “She’s sleeping now.” Her brown eyes swept over Naia’s face sympathetically. “I suggest you go home and do the same, hon. You can come back in the morning when visiting hours start, but for right now rest and quiet are the best things you can give her. And yourself. Has anyone taken a look at your neck?”

Naia blinked. “I’m fine.” But even as she said it, she realized she wasn’t. Her voice was scratchy and sore, and the skin around her throat felt tender; it was probably red and developing bruises. Considering she’d been close to choking to death, it wasn’t as bad as it should have been, though—and that in itself was unnerving. For the first time she thought she understood something about why Fenris mistrusted magic so intensely. Danarius could have killed her without even leaving a mark.

I could have died tonight.

Don’t think about that.

She crossed her arms and found that she was shivering.

“Naia?”

Her head snapped to the left. Zevran was standing in the hallway. His right hand was wrapped in a light bandage, but he seemed otherwise unhurt. His eyes were filled with concern as he looked between her and the nurse. “Your cousin. Is she …?”

“Sleeping,” Naia replied.

The nurse nodded. “Is this your boyfriend, hon? Do me a favor and let him take you home. You look dead on your feet.”

Naia opened her mouth to say that Zev wasn’t her boyfriend, but the nurse was already walking away, absorbed in the next patient’s chart.

“Your boyfriend? Such a flattering assumption. I believe I like that nurse,” Zevran joked.

Naia smiled back, but she could feel her lips quiver as she did. Every inch of her felt freezing cold. To her horror, tears started to sting the back of her eyes and her shoulders began to shake.

“She’s going to be OK.” The words were more for her than for Zevran. “But … oh, Maker. He was there for me. He came for me. And Shianni …”

That thought broke the dam. Naia buried her face in her hands and choked back an awful, racking sob that tore at her battered throat.

I can’t cry right now. It hurts too much to cry.

A warm hand came to rest on her shoulder. The touch was gentle and came slowly, as if he expected it to be shaken off. But when she didn’t pull away, Zevran stepped closer, and inch by inch, he put his arms around her. The embrace was tentative and awkward—Naia supposed most assassins didn’t have a lot of experience hugging people. But it meant all the more to Naia that way, knowing that he was doing something so foreign to him because he thought it would comfort her.

When her shoulders had stopped shaking, Zevran spoke. “What happened tonight was not your fault, Naia.”

She leaned her forehead against his shoulder and wiped her hands over her eyes. “Thanks,” she mumbled, embarrassed.

Zevran paused, then patted her back as he pulled away. “We will make Danarius pay for this. Tomorrow. Tonight, you should get some rest. We should find Varric and leave this place.”

Naia almost told him that she was going to stay at the hospital—it would not be the first time she settled for fractured sleep in a plastic chair—but as she opened her mouth, she realized how stupid and futile that would be. “Yeah. That sounds good. Maker, I want a hot shower.”

The former assassin chuckled as they began to walk down the hall. “Ah, hot showers. I remember those. Wonderful things. I am glad to know they still exist.”

“The motel still hasn’t fixed your hot water?” Naia asked indignantly.

Zevran shrugged. “No. I will have to endure.”

“Or you can spend the night and use mine.”

The invitation sprang from her mouth before she’d really thought it through, and a blush heated her cheeks when she realized how that sounded. She rushed to explain what she meant. “On the couch, I mean. But my place is closer to the hospital than your motel, and it’s got hot water and you did save my life tonight. The least I can do is let you use my shower.”

He watched her for a moment, then nodded. “I must admit I would appreciate that. Thank you.”

 


 

Varric was still wrapping up his own statement to the Guard—his storytelling tendencies meant that every statement took three times as long as anyone else’s—so Naia asked Donnic to tell her friend that she’d taken a cab home. A kindly hospital receptionist let her use the phone, and ten minutes later, Zevran was climbing into the back of a cab with Naia as the curious driver eyed them both in the rearview mirror. Naia told him her address and he put the car into gear.

Zevran watched Naia out of the corner of his eye. She rested her arm against the car door and stared out into the dark. The headlights of passing cars cast rays of light across her face, tired and worried and still so lovely that Zevran could not look anywhere else.

Braska. Enough, Zevran.

Tonight of all nights, he should have been able to forget his attraction to this woman. He flattered himself that the attraction was not entirely one-sided, but if Naia had intended to act on it, she surely would have done so by now. And tonight she had nearly died in front of him. After all Naia had done to help him, the least he owed her was space and courtesy.

He cleared his throat. “I … I ought to return to my own room. You are tired. I do not want to impose.”

Naia turned to him, blinking. “You wouldn’t be. I promise.” She took a deep breath. “You’d be doing me a favor, actually. I’m … I’m pretty rattled. I wouldn’t mind the company.”

Zevran had been any number of things in the course of his strange life, but he did not think he had ever been a source of comfort. The idea that Naia would feel safer with him nearby was … bizarre. But not unpleasant.

Not unpleasant at all.

“In that case, I cannot refuse.” He forced his usual airy smile onto his face. “I can still smell burned milk in my hair. It is most disconcerting.”

Naia laughed softly under her breath—and wonder of wonders, she seemed to relax as she leaned back into the seat of the cab. “Thanks.”

 


 


Dog rushed to greet Naia the moment she slid her key into the lock; she could hear his nails skittering across the floor, though she’d finally trained him not to scratch at the door. Normally, he leapt up in joy when he saw his favorite elf. Tonight, he sat back on his haunches in shocked surprise when Zevran entered behind her. His handsome coat bristled and Naia could have sworn he was narrowing his eyes.

The Antivan eyed Naia’s pet warily. “Should I apologize for invading his space?”

“Dog, you know Zevran.” Naia gave him a soothing scratch behind the ears. “It’s fine, boy. It’s just Zev.”

Dog let out an exasperated huff and trotted over to his bed, tucked away in a corner of the kitchen. He curled up with his head on his paws, his eyes fixed firmly on Zevran.

Naia chuckled and shook her head. “Sorry. Mabari are territorial.” She wondered, suddenly, if there was any way the hospital would let her bring Dog to sit at Shianni’s bedside. It didn’t seem likely, but she decided she would ask anyway. She wouldn’t mind leaving her cousin with a protector.

She hadn’t looked directly at Zevran since they entered the apartment, she realized. Despite the fact that she’d looked at him every day for months, the idea of meeting his eyes now was terrifying. Inviting him here had seemed like such a good, easy thing to do at the time. But after months of trying to keep her crush under wraps, plus the aftereffects of a terrifying and awful night, she was afraid if she looked at him she’d do something embarrassing. Like fling her arms around him and try to kiss him.

You’re being stupid.

She drew a silent breath in through her nose, then turned to him with a smile. “Do you want to shower now? I can make up the couch while you do.”

Zevran shook his head. “You first. Show me where you keep your blankets and I will take care of the couch.”

Blankets and a towel were produced in due course. Naia could have spent hours in the following shower; she scrubbed every inch of herself and washed her hair twice, as if she could wash out Danarius with enough shampoo. But she remembered that Zevran hadn’t had a hot shower in well over a week and didn’t linger as long as she otherwise might have.

She emerged from the bathroom in her usual oversized t-shirt, her hair wet and her hair dryer in hand, to find Zev wrapping his borrowed towel around his waist.

She nearly dropped the hair dryer. Zev with his clothes on was always gorgeous, but Zev without a shirt was something else entirely. He was damn near perfect—all lean muscle and dark tattoos. The swirling markings covered his left arm, shoulder, and chest, cradling the curves of his muscles, and ended somewhere beneath the towel. Naia imagined herself tracing those tattoos, letting her index finger track the designs down his arm, over his chest, then lower.

She blurted out the only thing she could think to say. “Well, now you’re just showing off.”

Zevran looked at her, clearly startled. Naia began preparing an apology, but before she could, an amused smile curved his mouth. “My dear Naia. If you see something you like, you need only to ask. Perhaps you would like to join me in the shower?” He gave her a slow wink, his lashes dark against his golden skin.

Naia was going to brush off the flirtation, as she’d always done—make a quip about the size of that particular shower, or say thanks but no thanks. But she paused as the words formed in her mouth. She was tired of pretending, she realized—tired of trying to hide the way her pulse quickened when he said things like that.

“You don’t have to do that, you know,” she said quietly, crossing the living room and moving towards her bedroom door. Zevran watched her closely, his expression puzzled. “Flirt with me, I mean.”

He rocked back on his heels, blinking. “Would you prefer I did not? I will stop if you dislike it.”

And strangely, though he was infamous for flirting with everyone, Naia knew that he would.

“No. I—I don’t dislike it, Zev. I don’t dislike it at all.” Naia swallowed. “But I—do you mean any of it?”

Maker, she sounded like an idiot. At least she was going to die of mortification. Absolutely. Definitely. Any second now.

Zevran watched her wrestle with her embarrassment for a long moment. She could not read his expression. When he finally spoke, his tone was unlike anything else she’d heard from him—soft and solemn and utterly sincere.

“I cannot blame you for wondering. I will admit I used flirtation to gain advantage in my former profession, and that I have done so on occasion in my new one.” His eyes held hers intently. “But when it comes to you, Naia, I have meant every word.”

And with the barest flicker of a smile, he vanished into her bathroom.

Naia had to remind herself to breathe.

She shook her head, her hair still wet against her neck and down her back, and shivered a bit. Her skin was prickling with adrenaline and nerves and arousal. Half dazed, she wandered into her kitchen, where she set down her hair dryer with a soft clack. Dog raised his head from his paws and gave her a long-suffering look, then turned his head to stare pointedly at the bathroom door.

“Not you, too,” Naia told him, rubbing a hand across her eyes.

She knew she should go to her room. It had been a long day; she was depleted and tired and not in any shape to make important decisions. But all she could think about was Zev in that damn towel. About what it would have been like to walk up to him and kiss him, to feel his body against hers, his mouth on hers.

I have meant every word.

Naia took a deep breath. Then another. And another. When the impulse did not fade—when she was really, really sure—she crossed the apartment, her bare feet cold against the floors.

She put a hand on the knob to the bathroom door, took a breath, and opened it.

She paused as the steam rushed around her, suddenly unsure if she should come in further—but the shower curtain moved. Zevran peered around it, his eyes locking on hers almost immediately. Slowly, deliberately, he pushed the curtain further aside, and Naia felt her mouth go dry at the sight of him naked, his golden skin glistening with water.

Naia swallowed and stepped closer. She raised her hand and slid her fingers into his wet hair, brushing her fingers through a few remaining suds, washing them away. “So,” she said softly. “Did you mean the part about joining you in here?”

Zev turned his head and brushed his lips against her palm. “I did. Most sincerely.”

Her heart pounding, Naia leaned forward and kissed him.

It was a gentle kiss, an invitation rather than a demand, and Naia ended it quickly, not wanting to push too far too fast. Her mouth had barely left his when Zevran leaned forward and kissed her back, his mouth warm and eager. They wrapped their arms around each other at nearly the same instant, their bodies molding together as if this were the hundredth time they’d kissed instead of the first. Droplets from the shower and from Zev’s body began to soak through Naia’s t-shirt, but she couldn’t bring herself to mind. She held him tight and kissed him hungrily, her tongue tangling with his, her hands running down the strong muscles of his back, her heart beating faster with every touch.

“How would you feel about not sleeping on the couch?” she whispered when the kiss paused.

Zevran grinned. “Hmmm, that depends. What alternative are you offering?” He leaned down to brush his lips against the sensitive place between her jaw and her ear.

Naia closed her eyes and slid her fingers into his hair. “My bed. With me.”

“What a marvelous invitation.” His breath tickled her ear, sending shivers down Naia’s spine. “I accept.”

Chapter Text

Riding a Denerim bus was a new experience for Dorian. They had busses in the Imperium, of course, but Dorian had never been inside one before. Magisters’ children were usually chauffeured around town, or drove their own expensive vehicles with leather seats and a silent engine. Dorian had caused some consternation in his family when he bought his motorcycle, though he’d tried to explain that the bikes were in fashion among the younger set.

Mei Surana, however, apparently rode to and from work while smashed against a pile of other Denerim citizens, clinging to a cracking plastic handle that dangled from the metal rail above her head. The crush inside the vehicle didn’t appear to bother the elf, though, so Dorian grabbed hold of one of the bus’s slippery metal poles and tried not to look too horrified.

If my parents saw me now, the motorcycle would look positively respectable in comparison.

He missed the time when the motorcycle was the only thing his father wanted to change about him.

A painful thirty minutes later, Mei finally leaned over and pulled the cable indicating that she wanted the next stop. Dorian looked around the bus and realized that most of the other humans had already made their stops; the remaining riders were almost entirely elven or dwarven.

“I don’t think I’m familiar with this neighborhood,” he told Mei once they’d pushed their way to freedom.

“We’re near the alienage.” Mei said it as if it explained everything—which maybe it did. Dorian was still trying to grapple with the relationship between Denerim’s elves, dwarves, and humans, but he had gathered that elves stood at the bottom of the social ladder.

Mei led Dorian to a side street filled with mismatched townhouses—some old and brown with peaked roofs and bay windows, others newer and flatter and painted bright colors. The building Mei unlocked fell somewhere between those two extremes; it lacked the bay windows but was painted a sedate, clean grey.

After some fumbling, the elf unlocked the door and led Dorian upstairs to the second floor. They entered a small waiting room, most of which was occupied by a desk piled high with photographs. Dorian looked around the room and squinted to read the names on the three doors.

Mei followed his gaze and answered his unspoken questions. “Naia Tabris, elf, private investigator. Her partner Juliet Hawke’s newer to the firm. She’s an apostate mage, a powerful one.”

“She’s the one dating Detective Leto,” Dorian said, trying to keep up.

Mei nodded. “And the door that says Elmand Tethras actually belongs to a dwarf named Varric Tethras. He owns these offices. Actually, I think he might own the whole building, but he’s a little cagey about that kind of thing. And the desk is where their junior employee, Zevran, sits. I’m not quite sure what his story is but it seems to involve something called the Crows.”

Dorian stared at her, sure she was pulling his leg, but if she’d just told him a joke she didn’t seem to be aware of it.

She frowned as she looked around. “How odd. Someone’s almost always here, even in the evening.” Her mouth turned down in a grimace. “That’s probably not a good sign.”

“With Danarius in town? Almost certainly not.” Dorian shook his head. Suddenly weary, he crossed the room to an armchair and collapsed into it, resting his head back against its surprisingly comfortable cushions.

Mei watched him, her eyes serious. She was not entirely at ease with him, Dorian realized—though he had a sense that it wasn’t personal. Mei struck him as the sort of person who had to know someone a while before she would let her guard down. The animated, easy way she’d talked to Max Trevelyan spoke volumes about their friendship.

Dorian could not help voicing his curiosity. “Were you friends at the Circle? You and Max—the Knight-Captain, I mean.”

“Not at first.” Mei sat down in the second armchair and rubbed her hands together. She tilted her head, considering how to tell the story. “Max’s family is prominent in the Templars. The Trevelyans aren’t bad to mages, by Templar standards, but we didn’t exactly look for friends among them either. And Max was a bit oblivious to what the Circles were like for mages.” She chuckled. “Then one day we’d been working together and I lost it. I told him exactly what life was like for me and the other Enchanters. And the oddest thing happened: He listened. He took it to heart. And then when I wanted to leave, he helped me find my feet outside the Circle. He’s a good man.”

Her expression darkened. “And he deserves better than being run out of town by a former friend.”

Dorian wondered if Mei Surana and the blonde Templar would ever cross paths again. He didn’t envy the man, if they did.

“The Knight-Captain is not what I expected from a Templar,” he said honestly. “I half thought I’d end our conversation arrested.”

Mei arched an eyebrow. “Most Templars would have arrested you, you know.”

Dorian shuddered. “I’ll try to avoid them, in that case. But I needed to share what I knew with someone who could help. According to the papers, that was Max.”

And just when did I start calling him Max?

Mei looked around the office, her dark eyes narrowing. “I’m starting to wonder if something really has happened. Maybe I should call …”

But the thought was interrupted by the sound of footsteps coming up the stairs. A moment later, the door swung open, revealing a human woman in blue jeans and a black leather jacket. Her dark hair was tousled and hung long over her shoulders; her skin was a shade or two darker than Dorian’s, her features strong and attractive. Her full lips were tight with stress as she took in Mei and Dorian.

“Any news on Danarius?” Mei asked without preamble.

“Sort of. Not really. Today has been a fucking shitshow,” the woman sighed. She ran a hand through her hair, pushing it out of her eyes and away from her face. “Fenris got a call to go back to the Guard. Those morons on the City Council put Meredith in charge.”

Mei nodded. “Max told me. What’s happening there now?”

“They raided the Denerim Arms while I sat in a car nearby.” The woman crossed her arms and shook her head. “Found nothing. He must have escaped just after the Templars were kicked out. Fuck, I hate sitting on the sidelines.”

Mei closed her eyes. “Maker. So now we have no idea where he is. Or Amell. Damn it! Does the Councilwoman even know to look for Amell?”

“Who knows.” The newcomer’s eyes slid to Dorian and narrowed. “Hi.”

Dorian stood and offered his hand. “Dorian Pavus.” When the woman’s expression stiffened at his accent, Dorian hastened to add, “Danarius killed a friend of mine. I’m here to return the favor.”

“Sorry, there’s a line for that. You’ll have to take a number.” But the woman’s expression relaxed as she shook Dorian’s hand. “I’m Juliet Hawke. Nice to meet you.”

A bit of magic brushed Dorian’s fingertips—too little for anyone but a mage to notice, but Dorian saw its intent instantly. It was half invitation, half challenge. She wanted to know what sort of mage he was.

He let his magic mingle with Hawke’s, taking in some of hers while sharing his own. He couldn’t help widening his eyes. Most mages in the Imperium spent some time honing their magic-sharing, trying to show off technique and power at the same time. Hawke didn’t try to finesse her sharing or manipulate it to show off—but Dorian knew instantly that she was one of the most powerful mages he’d ever met. Her magic felt like raw energy, hot and bright and slightly frightening.

He was gratified, and a little relieved, when Hawke stepped back and nodded at him, her face impressed. “Glad to have you on the team.”

Mei blinked as she looked between the two of them. “I didn’t know mages did that outside the Circle,” she admitted, blushing a bit.

“And I didn’t know you were a mage when I first shook your hand.” Dorian immediately held his palm out to the former Enchanter. He tried to hide his intense curiosity—what would a Circle mage’s magic feel like? Magisters liked to think that their southern counterparts were essentially a collection of poorly-trained hedge witches, but ...

Evidently, not this one.

Where Hawke’s magic had been raw and open, Mei’s was carefully controlled, with a precision that reminded Dorian of a talented concert pianist. There was a bite around the edges that spoke to a skill with ice spells, and though she was careful to control the amount of power she showed, Dorian could feel the full force of her ability vibrating behind that little touch.

“Well,” he said as Mei pulled her magic away. “Now that we know we’re all very impressive mages, how are we going to go about finding Danarius?”

“Preferably without getting arrested by Councilwoman Stannard,” Hawke added wryly. She cast her gaze over to Naia Tabris’s door. “Naia’s good at that seek-and-find stuff. Zevran is too. Maybe this is a job for …”

The phone in Hawke’s office rang.

The apostate sprang to answer it with almost frantic speed. “Hello?” A pause. “Varric? Wait, Varric. Slow down. He— what ?”

Dorian couldn’t tell what the person on the other end of the line was saying, but the heavy way Hawke’s knees buckled beneath her told Dorian that something had gone very wrong indeed.

 


 

They nearly killed him.

Fenris knelt beside the bloodstain in Shianni’s kitchen. His stomach churned and his heart felt unsteady in his chest. He was badly wounded. Close to death.

He turned his head to glare at the crackling cloud of magic in the middle of the room. Though not, evidently, close enough.

He rested his hands against his knees, trying to calm himself as he reconstructed the sequence of events in the kitchen. A discarded pot with burned milk in the bottom and the shotgun pellets lodged in the wall told him how Danarius had been injured. The massive green cloud of magic told him how his enemy had escaped.

What he couldn’t see was what Danarius had tried to do to Naia. Or why his former tormentor had chosen his friend as the target. Or how Naia’s cousin had come to sustain the worst injury. Or what he was going to tell Hawke about the fact that while he was executing a failed raid on the Denerim Arms, Danarius had nearly killed her two best friends.

I drew them into this. It is my duty to ensure that it stops.

Meredith was glaring at the magical cloud with disfavor, as if she could banish it through sheer force of will. “What is this monstrosity?”

Cullen paced around the spell, keeping a careful distance. “I believe it’s some sort of portal.” He frowned. “And it’s shrinking. I would be afraid to try and cleanse it. It strikes me as unstable.”

“A portal? To where?” Fenris raised his eyebrows. He had watched Danarius work any number of spells over the years; none of them had involved travel.

When might be the right question. That magister who contacted Max claimed that Danarius had stolen research on time magic in the Imperium.” Something flickered across Cullen’s face, though whether it was resentment or remorse Fenris could not say.

Fenris himself felt irritation. They had apparently allowed this other magister to slip away as the Templars left town. Fenris did not relish the thought of sitting across the table with a mage from the Imperium, but he would have dearly liked to know what Danarius had been up to in the months before he left Minrathous.

Alistair entered the kitchen, a roll of yellow Guard tape in hand. “The doors are marked, Councilwoman,” he told Meredith. “But there are more than a few neighbors who want to know what’s happened. What should I tell them?”

“Nothing,” Meredith replied brusquely. “This is a sensitive investigation. They will have to content themselves with the knowledge that we are doing everything we can.”

Alistair’s eyebrows drew down. “I don’t think that’s going to satisfy them. Naia and Shianni are popular around here, and a lot of people saw Shianni taken away in the ambulance. Witnesses in the alienage don’t usually want to talk to us. If we want their cooperation …”

Meredith cut him off with a sharp, slashing gesture. “There is no want. We need their cooperation and we will have it, Guardsman. Or they will face the consequences.” She looked over at Fenris. “Detective. Go tell them that you are on the case. Surely a fellow elf will satisfy them.”

Fenris very much doubted that—but it gave him an opening. “Of course, Councilwoman. Might I have a word with you in private first?”

The Councilwoman looked startled and suspicious, but nodded after a moment. She followed him into Shianni’s living room, where plates and cups sat abandoned, a testament to an interrupted snack in front of the television.

He cleared his throat. “Shrinking or not, the spell in the kitchen must be dealt with, and it may be wise to have a mage to counter the worst of what Danarius may throw at us. I have a recommendation. A former Enchanter who left the Circle legally, resigning her license. Her name is Mei Surana.”

He doubted Mei would thank him for making this suggestion, but he could see no other alternatives. Mei’s ties with the Circle, and the fact that she had left voluntarily, gave her an aura of legality that no other apostate mage could match. Hawke was an illegal magic user; Anders was … Anders. If they could not seek the help of the Circle’s Enchanters, Mei was their best and only option. We will simply have to keep her away from Cullen.

Meredith frowned. “I remember her from the Circle. She is no longer an Enchanter? I must say I am disappointed in her poor judgment.” Then she shook her head. “It’s out of the question, Detective. I am surprised you suggested it.”

That was not the answer Fenris had expected. “I assure you, Councilwoman, Ms. Surana is a skilled mage. She fought by my side at the Circle and her reasons for leaving are understandable. I am certain she could …”

Meredith cut him off with a glare. “The last thing we need is to bring a mage into our investigation. I cannot risk it. Nor will I condone illegal magic use, even if it is used in the service of my investigation.”

Fenris thought of trying to point out that surely the City Council could grant Mei some sort of temporary license, but looking at Meredith’s face, he knew she would not be persuaded.

And yet he had to try. “Councilwoman. I know Danarius. The portal he created here is harmless by comparison to some of the things I have seen him do. Turning down the assistance of a capable ally puts us at a disadvantage we may not be able to overcome.”

“My answer is no, Detective.” Meredith’s voice was frosty and sharp. “And if you do not like it, you are welcome to leave my team. I want no one here who cannot follow my orders. Are we clear?”

Fenris gritted his jaw. “Quite clear, Councilwoman.”

 


 

Marcus listened to the message on his answering machine for a third time in a row. It grew no less perplexing.

“I’ve had to abandon my quarters. Go to the house at the northwest corner of 8th and Rowan. Keys will be waiting underneath the mat. You will find what you need there.”

It was Danarius’s voice, he knew that much, and it did not sound frightened. More … annoyed. He’d never heard Danarius frightened—and that in itself made Marcus uneasy. He’d seen Danarius superior, cold, amused, and angry, but never afraid. It was as if the possibility of failure had never occurred to him.

But Marcus had failed before. Ignoring the possibility did not make it go away.

Danarius is an arrogant fool, he told himself with a sigh as he locked the door to his little rented room. But he is an arrogant fool I can use.

The house at 8th and Rowan was a ramshackle mansion in a wealthy neighborhood where Marcus had never dared to set foot. Anora Mac Tir lived nearby, he’d heard, along with Eamon Guerrin and Marlowe Dumar and the rest of the non-mage humans who ran this city. People who glided along on their names and money, never giving a thought to people like Marcus who were condemned to live half-lives because of an ability they’d never asked for.

That line of thinking helped Marcus ignore the question of just how, exactly, Danarius had acquired this particular house.

Marcus pushed open the door into a dark entryway. The living room lay to his right, but all of its furniture sat beneath sheets, settled there to keep the dust away. It was the same in every room he went through. His puzzlement continued to mount as he wove his way through the ground floor, then up to the bedrooms. The entire house was dusty and silent, heavy with that sense of expensive decay that Danarius seemed to favor.

Finally, Marcus found what he was looking for in the basement.

Here at last were signs of recent life. Against one wall Danarius had set up two cots with narrow mattresses—was one meant for him, Marcus wondered? Against the other wall stood a jumble of things Marcus had glimpsed through cracked doors at the Denerim Arms, but never seen up close—a television displaying a black-and-white feed, and a cleanly organized tackboard covered in photos and newspaper clippings.

He took the opportunity to examine them now. He did not immediately understand the television’s purpose; it looked as if it showed the inside of an elevator, but the elevator didn’t seem to be moving. He turned his attention to the tack board instead. Most of the images and clippings were about Detective Leto. The person who had taken the photographs had not dared get too close to the elf; they all showed the Detective from a distance, and he might not even have been recognizable if not for his distinctive hair and tattoos. In some of them, he was with a woman—Juliet Hawke, her long hair half-obscuring her face as they walked down a sidewalk together. Marcus wondered if Danarius had sent Varania to obtain these photographs, or if the magister had taken them himself. He had to admit that either option was creepy.

A grainy black-and-white photo of the elevator drew his eye. The Detective was in this one, half hidden in shadow. He was standing with an elven woman in a hoodie. Danarius had circled the woman’s face several times and scrawled Naia Tabris Guard consultant beneath it. It took a moment for Marcus to remember where he had seen this woman before—she had been one of the people with Juliet Hawke at the Circle all those months ago, the private investigator Alistair Guerrin had hired to look into the attempts on his life.

What does Danarius want with an elven private investigator?

The last object in the room was a desk—two desks, really, shoved awkwardly together to form an L shape—covered in the artifacts and notes he and Marcus had been working on at the Denerim Arms. They had clearly been hastily swept up and haphazardly deposited, and Marcus could not help feeling a twinge of irritation. What was so damn important that he had to rush out without bothering to keep our notes in order?

Irritation would not put his research to rights, however. With a sigh, Marcus turned on the available lights, bent over the desk, and set to work.

It took the better part of an hour for Marcus to sort through the mess Danarius had made. He wondered if things would have been more organized had Danarius’s henchmen and apprentice not been arrested. Varania had always showed a grim attention to detail when she worked with Marcus. He missed her, in an odd way. Varania had been a welcome buffer between him and Danarius.

He noticed, with more than a little trepidation, that the amulet he’d been working with was missing.

He was just putting the last of the papers in order when magic crashed through the air in the basement.

Marcus whirled, drawing on his own magic and ready to defend himself—but there was no need. It was not an attack. Green light split the darkness, making Marcus squint his eyes defensively. He caught his breath in recognition—the time spell, the one he and Danarius had been working on. As the portal grew in size, it began to shake around the edges, its light wobbling, its magic growing unsteady. Marcus was just about to reach out with his own magic to stabilize it when something tumbled out of it and onto the floor. It was a man, his face badly burned, emitting low, mournful sounds of pain.

It took Marcus a moment to realize that the moaning wreck was Danarius.

“Andraste’s ass, what happened?!” he gasped. All of his previous irritation was forgotten as he rushed to Danarius’s side, reaching out with his magic to try and assess the damage. Healing had never been a particular skill of Marcus’s, but he was better than nothing, and Maker, he could not afford to lose Danarius’s support, not when there was still so much to do to break the Circles.

Danarius hissed in pain as Marcus’s magic slid through his blistered, scorched skin. It was even worse than his initial assessment, Marcus realized—Danarius had not only been burned, he had been shot. Pellets from a shotgun riddled his chest and neck; it was a miracle that none of it had nicked an artery. He bent his head and focused on his magic, trying not to look at the raw, painful spectacle of Danarius’s face. One by one, he lifted the pellets from Danarius’s wounds, healing the holes they’d left behind with agonizing slowness.

After half an hour of this, Danarius was recovered enough to growl out a series of low, angry words that Marcus suspected were curses. “What do they teach you in those blasted southern Circles?” he snarled in Ferelden, his lips cracking to free new trickles of blood.

With a hiss, he clapped one hand over a smear of blood on his shoulder, closed his eyes, and drew the magic from the dark red liquid. His skin began to knit together far more quickly than it had under Marcus’s care. Flakes of ash and dried blood cracked and fell to the floor as he healed himself.

“Lyrium,” croaked the magister. “The silver bottles underneath your desk.”

Marcus tried to lift the bottle to Danarius’s lips, but the man shook his head. He poured the raw lyrium over the wounds in his chest and mixed them with his blood. Power surged in the room; slowly, the cloud of green light began to shrink and contract, though Marcus could tell that it would be a while before it was truly gone.

Danarius pushed himself to a seated position with shaking hands. “What time is it?”

“Nearly midnight,” Marcus said. Only then did he notice the missing amulet hanging from Danarius’s neck. “How long …”

“I lost a few hours, then. That little knife-eared bitch,” Danarius snarled, brushing dried blood and flaking ash from his pink new skin.

“Naia Tabris?” Marcus guessed, pointing to the photo on the wall.

“The very same.” Danarius sneered, his face filled with loathing and indignation. “She’ll learn not to defy her betters, mark my words. The dwarf and the Antivan too. Her pathetic little friends did this to me. They are all going to pay.”

Marcus wasn’t entirely sure what had happened, but he could piece together the outline. Danarius had attacked Naia Tabris; her friends had defended her. And bizarrely, Danarius seemed to think that they had been in the wrong—that he should have been able to inflict whatever damage he liked on the elven investigator without resistance or objection.

And finally, Marcus lost his patience.

“Well, what did you expect, that they’d just stand around while you attacked them? You should have talked to me before going after that woman, Danarius,” Marcus spat. “She looks harmless, but she’s tough and she has dangerous friends. That Hawke woman I mentioned? They work together. You’re damn lucky you’re not dead. What in the Maker’s name did you need with her?”

Danarius’s mouth curved down in an ugly scowl. He was missing chunks of his beard; it looked even worse than usual. “I owe you no explanations, boy.”

Marcus crossed his arms as he stood. “Maybe not. But you could try making use of my knowledge. You think of yourself as so far above me—so far above everyone here in Denerim. But I’m the one who pieced together the amulet’s spell, and you’d be dead right now without it. And I could have warned you that Naia Tabris wasn’t going to be easy prey.”

His eyes locked on the collage of clippings and photos. He saw Fenris Leto staring out at him, again and again and again, from every angle, in every possible setting. He could not fool himself any longer; Danarius had not come to Denerim to help mages break the Circles.

He is here for the Detective, and the Detective alone. He is obsessed.

But the plan is a good one. And we need him for it.

With effort, he stamped down the flames of his irritation. He aimed for a conciliatory tone. “Tell me what you need and I can help.”

“I need my little wolf,” the man snarled.

Marcus’s head began to throb. For some reason he desperately wanted to turn and bash his forehead against the wall, as if that would release his frustration. “And attacking his friend was going to help you get him back?”

“It would have reminded him of what he owes to me. And what I can do when my will is thwarted.” Slowly, Danarius stood, his legs unsteady. Marcus braced himself for a confrontation, but instead, the magister turned immediately to the black-and-white monitor. The doors slid open, revealing an exhausted-looking Fenris Leto.

Danarius smiled. “My little wolf returns to his cave.”

He turned to Marcus, his eyes suddenly ablaze. “Call your friends. Tell them the next phase of our plan should be put in motion tomorrow.” He turned back to the screen, letting its silvery glow wash over his features. On the screen, the Detective slumped against the wall, leaning into his shoulder and staring out at nothing. “Perhaps my message might still be delivered.”

 


 

It was close to midnight before Meredith Stannard dismissed her makeshift task force. Fenris’s first instinct was to go to Hawke’s side—she would know what had happened by now—or to check on Naia. But they needed sleep as badly as he did. And Fenris was not sure if he could face either of them knowing that he was responsible for what had happened. Knowing that he had failed, and was still failing, to stop the man responsible.

He attacked her because she is my friend. Naia had reached out to him even before he and Hawke began dating again. That generosity had now painted a target on her back.

Did Danarius know about Hawke? If he did, would she be next?

That thought tormented Fenris during his dark drive home. Once inside, he slumped against the wall of the elevator and tried not to think about his enemy, or his fears, as it carried him to his apartment. The place was even messier than usual tonight; that would not usually have bothered him, but all he could hear was Naia’s cheerful voice informing him that the garbage was a mood-killer.

She could have died tonight because of me.

With shaking hands, Fenris brushed a sudden film of sweat from his brow. He collected his scattered thoughts with difficulty and turned towards the bedroom—he would do nothing useful without sleep—but as he took the steps, the phone rang.

Few people called this number—really, only one. Fenris all but leapt to the phone. “Hawke?”

There was silence at the other end of the phone. Then, a chuckle.

Horror seized every fiber of Fenris’s being. I know that laugh.

“My little Fenris. Have you forgotten me so soon?”

Fenris could not speak. He almost could not breathe. His limbs went heavy and numb, and he nearly dropped the phone—but he could not. His terror held him in place, unmoving, a captive to his former master’s next words.

And then his anger rose to replace the terror, burning it away like a wildfire. For once he did not attempt to fight for control. His voice crackled with unleashed rage. “I would forget you if I could, you coward. If you are here for me, face me yourself. Leave my friends out of this.”

“Coward? Fenris, you misunderstand. I do not fear you. How could I fear a thing I created with my own two hands?” That kindly, purring voice set Fenris’s skin shivering. It was the voice Danarius used before inflicting his most heinous cruelties.

“I could come to you now. Indeed, I want to. But you are not in the right frame of mind.” The voice dropped lower. “You have forgotten who I am. What you are to me.”

Fenris just barely stopped himself from snapping the phone in two. “Shut your mouth, Danarius.”

“The word is master , boy,” the magister snapped back. “And you will call me by it soon enough. Now them. To the purpose of my call. Your little friends did not let me deliver my message.”

Fenris’s lip curled in a sneer. “Indeed. I hear you were bested by a pot of milk. I hope it burned the flesh from your skull.”

There was a brief silence, and though Fenris could not see him, he somehow knew Danarius’s jaw was tightening in repressed rage. “You will return to me, willingly. You will undergo the ritual once more with a marvelous new form of lyrium I have been working with. All will be as it was before.”

“I would sooner die.” The response was pure instinct, but Fenris meant it with every fiber of his being.

But Danarius talked right over him, as if he had not heard Fenris speak. “Until you come to me, I will attack your city and your friends, without pause and without remorse. You know what I am capable of. And only you can stop it. I look forward to seeing you, my little wolf.”

The cold, monotonous buzz of the dial tone filled Fenris’s ear.

Chapter Text

It was a long time before Fenris moved from the couch.

He collapsed there after Danarius hung up, numb and furious and frightened, his head in his hands and his shoulders tense. He knew he should get up, call someone, do something—but thoughts came and left his head too quickly for him to put together a coherent plan of action.

Then one thought broke through the din. It was possible Danarius had managed to call at just the right moment—perhaps he had been trying all night. But Fenris knew in his bones that the timing was no mere coincidence. He knew I was home.

By two in the morning Fenris had ripped apart every inch of his apartment looking for the surveillance device he and Naia must have missed. He had shredded the cushions of his couch, torn his mattress from its frame, opened and emptied every drawer, looked in every corner.

There was nothing.

He nearly pitched the coffee table through his window in rage before he remembered there was one place he hadn’t looked.

Ten minutes later, Fenris was standing in his elevator, staring down at a small cylindrical lens that he had pulled from the top right corner. The little device crackled with magic in his palm, making his lyrium tattoos shine silver-blue in response.

He closed his fingers and crushed the thing in his hand.

 


 

If not for the day that abominations took over the Circle, it would have been the worst afternoon of Max’s life.

The briefing he gave the Circle’s Templars and Enchanters after returning from Denerim was tense and full of questions Max couldn’t answer. Cassandra and Vivienne did a good job of spinning the events as a momentary political setback, but Max wanted to be honest with the men and women of the Circle.

“I’m awaiting orders from the Templar high command. My hope is that we’ll soon resume the search for Danarius. But the last thing we want to do is make this situation worse,” Max told his subordinates. “Sit tight. Keep training. Keep our eyes on the news. And can someone get me an update on our Tevinter translator?” Bringing Dorian to the Circle was out of the question now, damn it all.

“Allegedly on her way from Halamshiral, Knight-Captain,” Lillian Folmas told him from her seat in the front row.

They couldn’t find anyone further away? Max thought sardonically. “Thank you, Agent Folmas. Everyone, don’t let gossip or speculation go to your heads. If you have questions, bring them to me. Dismissed.”

With that settled, it was time for the phone calls to Templar high command.

As he expected, Max and Cassandra were both thoroughly raked over the coals with questions about why they had not seen this coming, why they had not done more to placate Meredith, why Max had not arrested Dorian on the spot, and why Danarius had not been caught before the Councilwoman’s coup. Max tried to answer honestly, tried to take responsibility, but none of his answers seemed to satisfy Lord Seeker Lucius Corin.

“Agent Pentaghast, I am recalling you to my side to give a complete, in-person account of these events,” Corin said crisply after more than an hour of this. “In the meantime I will set our lawyers to work. Knight-Captain Trevelyan, your orders are to hold position in the Circle. No Templar is to set foot within Denerim city limits until we have legal standing to do so.”

“Lord Seeker, do those orders hold in the event of an emergency?” Max asked. “The magister Danarius …”

“The city of Denerim has made its choice. For the time being they will face their emergencies without Templar aid,” the Lord Seeker snapped. “Confine yourself and your people to Circle grounds, Knight-Captain. That’s an order.”

Cassandra’s mouth curled in a snarl as the dial tone sounded.

“I will do my best to fix this,” she told Max, standing and tugging at her black suit. “The Lord Seeker cannot mean to leave the largest city in Ferelden without Templar defenses. It is a preposterous and irresponsible notion. I will make him see that.”

Max nodded, trying to ignore the throbbing in his temples. “Good luck, Agent Pentaghast.”

Things only got worse from there. Almost as soon as Cassandra left the room, Max’s phone rang.

For a second Max had the wildly optimistic thought that it might be the Lord Seeker with a new and more lenient set of directives, but as soon as he put his hand on the receiver he somehow knew: It was his father.

Or, more accurately, his assistant. “Hello. I am pleased you are available, Knight-Captain Trevelyan. I have been trying to reach you for some time. Please hold for Knight-Commander Trevelyan,” the man on the other end of the line said in the placid tones of a Tranquil mage.

Max took a deep breath in through his nose and tried not to feel sick. “Yeah. I mean, yes. Put him through. Please.”

He waited until he heard the line crackle back to life. “Hi, Dad.”

“Max.” It was like hearing his own voice echoing back at him—a little older, a little more polished, but the same deep baritone, the same Marcher accent. “I hear Denerim has been interesting lately. What in the Maker’s name is going on there?”

“You remember Meredith Stannard, right?” Max said. His father would, of course, but he was stalling for time. “Well. She’s on the City Council now, and she’s got an axe to grind against the Templars …”

“Those sound like excuses, Max.”

Max’s next words died in his mouth. He slumped back in his chair and had the oddest flashback—suddenly he was sixteen again, sitting down with his dad to rewatch his team’s loss in the championship match and analyze what he’d done wrong. Probably the third worst afternoon of my life.

When he resumed speaking, he omitted excuses and emotion. “Cullen Rutherford disliked how I was handling the investigation, in particular my use of a Tevinter informant who knows our suspect. He verbally attacked me in front of Agent Pentaghast and the First Enchanter. I suspended him for insubordination and medical concerns. In my view he was restored to duty too quickly following the events at the Circle this winter. Following his suspension, Cullen approached Councilwoman Stannard with information about my work, and the Councilwoman persuaded the city to enact emergency measures suspending the Templars’ rights.” He pulled air into his lungs and breathed it out again. “For now, the Lord Seeker is telling me to stay put while the Order high command works to restore our rights in Denerim.”

“Ah. Good.”

That was not what Max had expected his father to say. “Uh, dad? Which part struck you as good, exactly?”

“You’d suspended Rutherford. His actions will be seen as the retaliation of a jealous colleague who was passed over for promotion and refused to follow your lead. And in the meantime, any blowback will fall on Meredith Stannard and Lucius Corbin, not you.” He could hear the smile in his father’s voice; he and the First Seeker were longtime rivals who pretended to be friends. “This is salvageable, Max. I wasn’t sure it would be. Actually, we might even come out ahead.”

Max felt an enormous rush of relief—followed quickly by something he couldn’t quite name. He hasn’t even asked if I’m OK, he realized. All he can think about is whether this is going to reflect badly on the Trevelyans and whether it might open a path for him to become Lord Seeker.

Unexpectedly, he found himself thinking about Dorian, defying his parents’ wishes and throwing worries about family reputation to the wind. Max wasn’t prone to envy as a rule, but in that moment he felt it in every cell in his body.

“I’ll call your uncle Edmund and we’ll start strategizing,” his father said crisply. “Sit tight and don’t do anything stupid. Play by the rules Lucius gave you. If we’re lucky, he's going to regret them.”

Before Max could say anything in response, his father had hung up.

Max placed the receiver back in the cradle, silencing the dial tone, then stared out into his office, feeling more alone than he’d ever felt in his life.

 


 

Naia woke to the smell of coffee coming from her kitchen. For a moment she was confused—had Juliet spent the night on her couch?—but then the previous night came flooding back to her.

All of it.

Maker. I—we—oh.

Twice.

There was a rustling sound coming from her kitchen. With reluctance, Naia pushed herself from her nest of blankets and went to investigate.

Zevran was standing in front of her refrigerator wearing his boxers and a t-shirt Naia had loaned him. He pulled a carton of milk out and gave it a wary sniff, then turned around to her with a smile. “Good morning. I would have made us breakfast, but … I find myself somewhat limited by the available ingredients.”

“Oh, come on. You can make a lot of things with a jar of pickles, some old milk, and assorted cheeses stolen from a fancy party,” Naia joked, though she was slightly embarrassed. “I haven’t had much time for grocery shopping lately. Maybe today, on my way home from seeing Shianni.”

Zevran tilted his head at her thoughtfully. “How are you feeling?”

Naia touched her neck self-consciously. “All right. You? How’s your hand?”

He looked down at it and blinked. “The burns were not serious. Indeed, I barely noticed them last night.”

Naia felt herself blush. “Yeah, your hand seemed to be working just fine.”

Zevran laughed. “I am glad you thought so.”

Naia shifted her feet self-consciously. Usually by this point in a morning-after situation, she was trying to shove her bedmate out the door with his shoes in one hand and his pants in the other. She didn’t want to do that with Zev. She wasn’t sure what this was, exactly, but she knew it wasn’t another impulsive one-night stand.

“Naia.”

She blinked. “Yeah?”

Zevran met her eyes seriously. “Perhaps we ought to talk about what happens next, no? Next for us, I mean.”

“That’s probably a good idea,” she admitted, twisting the hem of her nightshirt between her fingers as she tried to figure out what to say. “I—I, ah. Last night was great. Really, really great.”

A shadow of something passed across Zevran’s face. “But you do not wish it to be repeated?”

“No!” Naia blurted. “I mean, yes. I mean, I do want to repeat it. Unless you … is that what you want? To leave things here?”

The shadow cleared. “I will not ask more of you than you wish to give, Naia.” A slow, suggestive smile spread across his face. “However, I would be very interested in repeating last night’s events. Only the pleasant ones, of course.”

Naia felt herself relax. “Oh. Good.” She flashed him a grin. “It’s always nice to be on the same page.”

Impulsively, she stepped closer and kissed him. Her smile widened as he pulled her into his arms and deepened the kiss, his touch now more familiar but no less exciting for it.

A knock on the door startled them into breaking the kiss. Naia tightened her fingers against Zev’s bicep involuntarily—the last knock she’d heard, after all, hadn’t ended well. “Who is it?”

“It’s me, Naia.” Juliet’s voice was husky with worry. “Are you all right? Can I come in?”

“I’m fine. Hang on, I’ll unlock the door.” Naia glanced over at Zev, wondering how he was taking this—would he not want anyone to know he’d spent the night?—but he seemed unperturbed. In fact, there was an amused twinkle in his eye.

“Should I hide in the bedroom?” he teased.

“Not unless you want to. Juliet and I don’t keep many secrets,” Naia whispered back as she slid the deadbolt open.

Tough, sarcastic Juliet wasn’t much of a hugger. So Naia wasn’t entirely prepared for her best friend to pounce on her the moment the door was open. She quickly found her face half-smashed into the shoulder of Juliet’s familiar leather jacket.

“Thank the Maker you’re OK.” Juliet pulled back and started examining every inch of Naia’s face. “ Are you OK?”

“I’m fine,” Naia assured her. “Just pissed off. Do you think Fenris will let me kick Danarius in the crotch a few times before he rips the guy’s throat out?”

Juliet let out a weak but sincere laugh. “You can ask him. I think he’d enjoy seeing that, to be honest.” She narrowed her eyes, her gaze focusing on Naia’s neck—but then her mouth dropped open and her eyes went wide.

“Um. Hi, Zevran.”

Naia glanced back as Zevran gave Juliet a merry little wave. “Good morning to you as well, Ms. Hawke.”

Ever the investigator, Juliet cast a quick glance around the apartment. She raised an eyebrow at the pillow and blankets on the couch, which still sat there folded and clearly unused. A broad grin spread across her lovely face as she looked back at her best friend.

Naia couldn’t hide her own smile. “I’ll fill you in later.”

 


 

Fenris left the wreck of his apartment the next morning with the remains of the camera in his suit pocket. He knew Meredith expected him back at the Guard house. He would have to go eventually. But he could not imagine sharing the information about Danarius’s call with Meredith Stannard. It was too personal, too raw.

And he could not shake the suspicion that the single-minded Councilwoman would happily serve both Fenris and Hawke up as bait if it meant trapping her quarry. Fenris wanted Danarius caught more than Meredith could possibly understand—but he knew enough of the man to be cautious. His own death, he might have risked. But not Hawke’s.

Varric was just unlocking the door to Tabris Investigations when Fenris turned the corner in the stairwell. The dwarf was carrying a very large paper cup and hadn’t shaved for at least a day; he looked even more rumpled than usual.

“Hey, Detective.” Varric gave Fenris the once-over. “Nice to see I’m not the only one who looks like shit this morning.”

In spite of himself, Fenris chuckled. “I am glad to see your sense of humor survived meeting Danarius.” He sobered immediately. “Were you injured?”

Varric shook his head. “Walked away without a scratch. Shianni got the worst of it. Well, except for Danarius.” He shuddered. “Can’t believe that asshole had enough left in him to make that green thing. What the hell is it, anyway?”

“I do not know.” Meredith’s refusal to consider Mei’s help made Fenris clench his teeth all over again. “And it seems there is little chance of finding out. The Councilwoman will tolerate no mages near her work. The spell is shrinking, and so she has commanded us to leave it alone.”

“Leave it alone and it’ll go away, huh? Well, I’ll hand it to her, that’s a unique way of dealing with weird shit.” Varric pushed the door open. “Hawke? Sparks?”

The room was silent.

Fenris found himself staring at Naia’s door. “Have you spoken to her?”

Varric shook his head. “Not since she headed home last night.” He tilted his head at Fenris, clearly trying to read his expression. “She doesn’t blame you, you know. Sparks is too practical for that.”

“Perhaps she ought to blame me,” Fenris said, his voice low. “I might have ended this in the Imperium, had I tried to slay my master. I ran instead. And now he has followed me.”

“He could have stayed in Minrathous,” Varric pointed out. “All of this shit? It was his choice, not yours, Detective. If Sparks blames anyone it’s Danarius. And she’s got it right.”

“I appreciate your saying so, Varric.” But guilt and frustration still gnawed at Fenris. “Do you know when she will return?”

“Naia? Not for a few hours.” Hawke pushed open the door, a smirk on her lips. “She’s going to visit Shianni at the hospital and then she said she’d come here.” She paused, her eyes alight with a secret. “And you’ll never guess …”

“Slick spent the night,” Varric interrupted.

Hawke’s shoulders slumped and her jaw dropped in playful horror. “Varric! I was gearing up for the big surprise. How did you know?”

“Educated guess,” the dwarf said nonchalantly. “Donnic said they left in the same cab.”

Fenris found himself frowning. “You two seem to be coping rather well with the idea of Naia dating an assassin.”

Varric raised an eyebrow. “Sparks is a big girl, Detective. And it was kind of inevitable.”

“Ugh, no kidding. I was about to write ‘ask him out, you idiot’ on her wall in permanent marker,” Hawke chuckled. “Look, I wasn’t sure about him working here at first, but it’s turned out pretty well. He’s smart and reliable and he seems to really like Naia. I think we’ve got bigger things to worry about.”

The broken camera suddenly seemed much heavier in Fenris’s pocket.

“He called me last night.”

The mood in the room shifted instantly; they knew exactly which he Fenris meant. Hawke’s smile vanished and her eyes brightened with anger. “Maker, Fenris. Are you …”

Fenris could not bear to hear her ask if he was all right. “He told me that he will target this city, and my friends, until I agree to undergo the ritual once more.” He swallowed. “The ritual would erase my memory, of course.”

“Then it’s a good thing that’s not a fucking option!” Hawke’s voice grew louder with every word; the sentence ended on a near-shout. “Fenris, if you make me talk you out of sacrificing yourself …”

“I will never return to him.” With a shaking hand, Fenris pulled the camera from his pocket and set it on Zevran’s desk. “But there is more. He has been watching me. I found this in the elevator. I believe it is how he knew to target Naia.”

Varric picked up the device and let out a low whistle. “Enchanted tech. That’s some expensive stuff.”

Hawke glared down at the little machine. “What a complete creep. At least you found it.”

“I found this one, yes. But who knows how else he has been watching me?” Fenris shook his head. “I think we must assume that he knows about us, Hawke. The attack on Naia was meant as a warning shot.” His voice lowered. “He will come for you to break me.”

Hawke’s mouth tightened. She crossed her arms defiantly and locked eyes with Fenris. “Good. Let him try.”

 


 

Max racked the pair of dumbbells he’d been using with a relieved gasp. His arms felt like water and he had come closer than he wanted to admit to dropping the stupid things on his toes. That’s what I get for adding in another set of reps.

He hadn’t been trying to show off—for one thing, there wasn’t anyone else in the Templar gym at four thirty in the morning. He’d just been pushing himself, trying to burn away his stress with physical exertion. He felt a little better now, but exercise couldn’t make his problems go away.

On top of all the Templar bullshit from the previous afternoon, there was the teeny, tiny, trifling matter of the crazed magister loose in Denerim. Meredith had been a skilled Templar; Max didn’t want to underestimate her. But she would be working at a brutal handicap with no Enchanters, one emotionally compromised Detective, a brave but untried former trainee, and … Cullen.

Max’s hard-won endorphins seemed to desert him abruptly. He sat down heavily on the weight bench and looked around, wondering if his friend would ever join him in here again. Would the Order even have him back, after this?

It might depend on what happens to me. If Max became the scapegoat for the Templars’ troubles in Denerim, as Lucius no doubt hoped, Cullen might still be welcomed back into the fold.

I am not going to sit here and feel sorry for myself.

Forty minutes later, after an intense set of sprint intervals on the treadmill and one scalding hot shower, Max emerged from the locker room, walked to the office floors, and turned the corner to find Vivienne waiting in front of his door.

The First Enchanter looked as elegant and polished as ever, despite the brutally early hour of the morning. Max felt off-balance in his post-workout sweats but he tried not to show it. He raised his eyebrows as he met her gaze. “You’re up early.”

“Indeed. I’m glad to see that you are as well.” Vivienne’s voice was crisp and businesslike. “After all, sleeping will scarcely resolve the situation. Can we speak in your office?”

Max had been looking forward to coffee and breakfast, but there was no sense delaying the inevitable. “Of course, First Enchanter.”

He had not even fully settled onto his chair before Vivienne steepled her fingers, tilted her head, and said, “Well. This is quite the mess, isn’t it?”

“You’re telling me,” Max sighed. “The lawyers are on it. Cassandra is going back to Orlais to make sure the Lord Seeker has the full, accurate story. She thinks she can talk him around. But for now, our orders are clear: respect the City Council’s decision until we have legal standing to return to the investigation.” He shook his head. “In other words, we sit on our asses and hope Meredith doesn’t botch things in the meantime.”

Vivienne arched an eyebrow. “Politically speaking, darling, would that be the worst thing in the world? It would entirely vindicate your conduct and show the world exactly why the Circles and the Order are needed.”

Remind me never to get Dad and Vivienne in the same room. “By ‘it,’ you mean ‘a disaster involving a magister so brutal even the other magisters hate him’?” Max shot back wryly. “I don’t think I’m rooting for that outcome.”

The First Enchanter’s full lips quirked in a half-smile. “How noble of you. No wonder they like you.”

Max leaned back in his chair, not bothering to hide his surprise. “Who is they, exactly?”

Vivienne raised a finger. “Your subordinates, for one.”

Well, that was reassuring to hear.

“The public in Denerim, for another,” Vivienne continued, raising a second finger. “Surely you’ve noticed that the press coverage of your exploits at the Circle was absolutely glowing.”

“I tried not to read too much of that,” Max admitted.

“Perhaps you should. There’s nothing wrong with a little praise now and then, darling. And it’s always a good idea to know what people are saying about you.”

Max probably should have said something evasive and changed the subject, but he was in an honest sort of mood. “I didn’t read it because most of it was crap.” He leaned forward and drummed his fingers on the desk, as if to emphasize the point. “It’s not their fault, they were reporting what we fed them, but … I just happened to be one of the guys standing at the end. There were a lot of people who did more than I did to stop Uldred.”

Mei, for a start. Maker, he missed Mei. He knew it was a selfish wish, but he would have given quite a lot to have her sitting there in Enchanter’s blue instead of Vivienne.

“The Order needed to cover their asses and they had to tell people something. So, they told people I saved the Circle and they promoted me to back it up.” He’d been so proud to be named Knight-Captain. But he could see now that the promotion had come too soon. He’d let friendship cloud his judgment with Cullen; he’d played it safe with Danarius instead of taking the fight to him. I wasn’t ready yet.

“I didn’t deserve the credit. I just made the best story,” he finished.

“You say that as if it’s meaningless, darling.” Vivienne shook her head. “You made a good story because you survived when others did not. Because you fought bravely and saved your trainees. And, yes, because you are handsome and charming and a Templar with a storied family name. All of those things are assets. You should not overlook them as you plan your next steps.”

Something unexpected occurred to Max. Vivienne was trying to help him.

“I’m not sure if this is a moment for me to play politics, First Enchanter,” he said carefully.

“What an odd notion. ‘Politics’ is merely the art of getting what you want when the stakes are high. It is exactly the moment for politics.” Vivienne crossed her arms and looked at him, her dark eyes piercing. “So the question is: What do you want?”

Max sighed. He almost said that he wanted things to go back to normal—to rewind the clock to the days before he’d ever heard Danarius’s name. Maybe to the days before Uldred started chatting with demons.

But that would mean losing Mei’s friendship. It would mean closing his eyes once more to life for mages in the Circles. And there was no point in wishing for things he couldn’t have, anyway.

“I want Danarius stopped. And I want the Order’s rights in Denerim restored. Everything else can sort itself out.”

Vivienne nodded; that was clearly the answer she’d expected. “In that case, darling, my advice is this. The Lord Seeker’s orders are sensible, but you ought to keep your eyes open for opportunities to do what you’re good at.”

“Do I want to know what you think I’m good at?” Max asked wryly.

“Why, being the hero, darling.” Vivienne gave him a sincere, if slightly condescending, smile. “I’m not saying you should charge out, sword drawn, right this instant. Just that you ought to watch for your moment.”

Max leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms. “And what is it that you want, First Enchanter?”

She nodded, clearly pleased with the apt question. “I’ve made no secret that I intend to become the Grand Enchanter someday. When I do, I do not intend to spend my tenure engaging in the same tired debates about mage rights and mages versus Templars. It would be far better for Enchanters and Agents to regard each other as partners and work together for the benefit of the entire system of Circles.” She arched an eyebrow at him. “Am I wrong in thinking you share that vision?”

Max blinked in shock. “You are not wrong. I’d like that.”

“Well then, darling. For the time being, it appears what I want is to support the career of a promising young Templar who may soon become a powerful ally.” Vivienne smiled at him.

Max smiled back a little uneasily.

 


 

When Fenris arrived at the Guard house at around eight-thirty that morning, Meredith was holding a meeting in the briefing room, hands braced against the podium and face grave. As Fenris expected, Cullen and Alistair were there—both looking somewhat rumpled and underslept—but there were new faces in the room as well. A pale man with dark, messy hair turned his head and glared up at him, as if Fenris had done something to personally offend him. Next to him, a bald man with a grey goatee gave Fenris a quick look, sniffed, and looked away, as if he’d seen all he needed to see and wasn’t impressed.

Meredith arched an eyebrow as he shut the door. “Detective. I was beginning to wonder if you were coming in today.”

The Councilwoman’s gravelly voice could not have made her disapproval more clear. Somewhat to his surprise, however, Fenris found that he did not care.

“My apologies, Councilwoman,” he said politely. “I merely wished to determine how my friends were doing this morning.”

“You can help your friends by catching this man.” Meredith crossed her arms and glared at him. “You know him best, Detective. Enlighten us. Where could he be now?”

She was acting as if it were Fenris’s fault that Danarius was gone. He gritted his teeth. “I do not know. But he means to come after me. He made that clear last night when he attacked Naia Tabris.” Though he did not want to share the contents of that phone call with Meredith or these new strangers, he did not want to leave them entirely in the dark, so he added, “And he knows I work for the Guard. He may come at me through the city next time. Since he failed to kill Naia we should be alert for the possibility of another large-scale mage attack.”

The man with the grey goatee let out an ugly chuckle. “Good. I know just how to deal with that sort.”

“Ah, yes. Detective Leto, meet Otto Alrik and Raleigh Samson,” Meredith said, gesturing to the men in turn. “Both are retired Templars who have agreed to join our task force.”

Fenris inclined his head politely. The courtesy was not returned. Fenris noticed that Alistair was looking at both of the newcomers with a mixture of unease and alarm. He made a mental note to ask the boy about Samson and Alrik later. Perhaps he had encountered them during his time as a trainee.

Meredith gripped the edges of the podium and glared out at the group. “Well. If there are no specific leads in this case …”

As if on cue, the radio in the room crackled to life. “This is Dispatch to Councilwoman Stannard, over.”

Fenris wasn’t sure what he was more grateful for—a possible break in the case, or a reason to cut further conversation short.

Meredith swept to the radio and pressed the talk button. “Councilwoman Stannard, over.”

“Councilwoman, we’ve got an incident in progress at Denerim Central. The call was cut short, but we have at least five suspects robbing commuters and the train station businesses. The witness claimed magic was being used. Over.”

Fenris’s blood turned to ice. It was the middle of rush hour; the train station had to be packed. Denerim’s commuters would be trapped and helpless if the mages chose to escalate to violence.

“Have emergency medical and fire services on standby. We are on our way. Over,” Meredith snapped, dropping the radio onto the table. “Gentleman. Move quickly. This could be the opportunity we need.”

Fenris nodded shortly as he headed for the door, the others close on his heels. The image of the crowded train station would not leave his mind.

Damn you, Danarius.

Chapter Text

Meredith and her task force arrived to total chaos.

Cullen fought for control as the scene unfolded before him—the screaming people streaming out of the train station, their faces pale and damp with sweat, their movements frantic, seeking safety but not knowing how to find it.

For a moment he was back in the demons’ nightmares, running from the Circle with Mei by his side.

I’m not there , he told himself as an icy sweat broke out on his temples and neck. Those weren’t real. This is real. Look for them. Find the mages.

Meredith was already striding forward, her harsh voice echoing over the crowd’s noise. “I am Councilwoman Meredith Stannard!” she shouted. “Where are they?”

“Inside!” dozens of voices screamed. Somehow, the crowd knew to part to make way for Meredith—or perhaps they were making way for Detective Leto, who had appeared silently at the Councilwoman’s side, his face cold and resolute.

Cullen rushed after them, forcing himself to focus on the moment, to watch for threats. I cannot undo my mistakes. I can only be more vigilant going forward.

The crowd grew denser and more chaotic the further in they moved—and then abruptly thinned out when they reached the main hall of the train station. The area was a disaster, littered with spilled food and drinks, abandoned newspapers and train tickets, even a few shoes that had been left behind in the effort to flee the attack.

Some witnesses had hidden behind kiosks and inside stores, pressing themselves against the walls, trying to disappear into the background. A few of them looked relieved to see the Councilwoman and her makeshift task force, but most of them were staring at the smoking ruins of the station’s ticket booths. The neat line of little windows was gone, replaced by soot and ash and a few flickering flames. Cullen took solace in the fact that he saw no bodies. The employees must have had time to flee out the back. Maker, I hope that is so.

It was Leto who spotted the first one. With growing rage on his handsome features, the elf knelt and pointed to a woolen mask, lying limp and abandoned on the floor of the train station. With a sinking feeling, Cullen spotted another one, trampled and muddy, crumpled in a corner near the newsstand.

Meredith began pacing the floor of the train station, his jaw tight and his face stern. He stopped abruptly right in front of the ticket window wreckage. Cullen followed her gaze downward. Two more masks.

“We are too late,” the former Templar hissed, kneeling next to the evidence as if it might offer her answers. “They have escaped. Again.”

The cold sweat was back. They walked out the front door with the crowd. They hide in plain sight. How can we ever stop them?

Meredith’s eyes met his, and Cullen suddenly realized he’d spoken those words out loud. But she did not appear offended. Her green eyes blazed as she answered his question.

“It is clear that more drastic measures will be needed to bring these criminals to justice.” Meredith stood and brushed dust from the knee of her pantsuit. “Reconvene at the Guard house without me. There is something I need to take care of first.”

 


 

After Hawke left them, Naia busied herself with getting ready to visit Shianni. She left the apartment to get them both coffee and something to eat from the gas station around the corner; Zevran offered to go until she pointed out that Dog also needed a walk. The mabari was regarding him with somewhat less suspicion, but he was still uncertain if he could handle the beast should it decide to chase birds or cars or whatever it was that Ferelden dogs did for fun.

As he looked around Naia’s empty apartment, it occurred to him that she had trusted him alone in her home. That was not something that often occurred with Zevran’s bedmates.

And she wishes us to continue.

Zevran had fully expected to hear Naia Tabris tell him that their affair had been a one-night stand, a bit of comfort and pleasure on a dark night. He hadn’t been prepared to hear her say she’d like to do it again. He had also been unprepared for the rush of relief her words gave him. He had assumed she would end things there but had not realized how badly he wanted them to continue.

He found this all very disquieting.

For a moment he considered simply leaving—it would probably make things easier on them both—but he knew she would be puzzled, even hurt, to find him gone when she returned. The thought was quickly discarded. To give himself something to do, he washed his face and brushed his teeth with the toothbrush Naia had found for him, giving silent thanks for a working hot water tap.

Naia returned quickly, coffee and bagels in hand. “I’m headed to the hospital as soon as visiting hours start,” she told Zevran as they dug in.

Zevran took a sip of the coffee; it was borderline burnt, but still welcome caffeine. “I am ready when you are.”

From the slight rise in her eyebrows, he could tell that she hadn’t necessarily expected him to go with her—but the faint smile on her face told him she liked the idea. “Thanks. I really hate that place.”

They rode together on the bus in companionable silence, both of them avoiding the very real question of just what they were going to do about Danarius. Zevran’s preferred solution involved two fast bullets to the head fired from an unseen location. The one disadvantage of that was that it was a quick and relatively painless death. He had never been one of the Crows who tortured targets—he liked to think his expertise lay in pleasure rather than pain—but he would not have minded watching the magister suffer a bit. He was not going to forget the sight of Naia suspended in midair anytime soon.

He glanced over at Naia, who was biting her lip and staring out the window, turning the paper sleeve around her coffee cup. “We are not far,” he assured her. It seemed a silly thing to say once it was said—of course she knew where they were and how much further they had to go.

But Naia actually seemed to brighten at the sound of his voice. “I hope Shianni’s behaving herself. She’s an awful patient sometimes. She’s so stubborn and she has no idea how to take a break.”

Zevran couldn’t stop the low chuckle that rose in his throat. “There is a saying you have in Ferelden about a pot and a kettle, yes?”

Naia raised her eyebrows in mock surprise. “I have absolutely no idea what you could be talking about. I think I’m very offended.”

He laid a hand over his heart. “I apologize most sincerely. However can I make it up to you?”

Her answering grin was playful and wicked. “Don’t worry. I’ve got some ideas.”

Somehow, that bright smile washed away the strange worry plaguing him. A beautiful, intelligent woman enjoys my company. Why fret over it?

I should appreciate this. For however long it lasts.

 


 

About an hour after Vivienne left his office, Max’s phone rang. He braced himself for an update from his father, or maybe a call from his Uncle Edmond, but was pleasantly surprised when he heard a woman’s voice on the other end of the line.

“Hey, Max.”

“Hey yourself. It’s really good to hear your voice, Mei.” He smiled, though he knew she couldn’t see it. “You at work?”

“I just got in.” A pause. “How are you doing with all this?”

It was really nice to hear someone ask that. “I’m all right. The career stuff … none of it’s under my control right now. But I’m worried about Danarius.”

“Yeah. That’s actually why I called. He went after Naia Tabris last night.”

Max’s jaw dropped. “He did what? Why?”

“Because she’s friends with Fenris Leto, from what I gather.” Mei’s voice tightened. “Naia’s fine, but her cousin Shianni, the woman at the shelter? She got hurt in the crossfire.”

“Maker.” Max ran a hand over his face. “I’m sorry, Mei. I know Shianni’s a friend. What’s Meredith doing about it? Do you know?”

“Your guess is as good as mine,” the former Enchanter sighed. “I’m hoping to hear more later today, even if it’s just third-hand.” She paused. “Dorian’s doing well. For a moment I thought he might faint on the bus, but he managed.”

Max burst out laughing. “You took Dorian Pavus on public transit?”

“I wish I’d had a camera. Poor guy,” Mei chuckled. Her voice softened. “So. What are your plans for the day? Promise me you won’t spend it in the office waiting for the phone to ring.”

“Actually, I could use your advice on something,” Max admitted. “I just had the weirdest conversation with Vivienne. You know her. Can I drop by Three Nugs and get your perspective?”

A soft laugh echoed over the phone line. “You just want another mocha latte.”

“No, I want your advice. And also a mocha latte.” Max briefly wondered exactly how many calories he was racking up in mocha lattes lately—he was usually much stricter about his sugar intake—but Maker, if there was ever a week for empty calories, it was this one. “Don’t worry, I’ll come in plain clothes and I won’t try to investigate anything. Wouldn’t want to make you an accessory to illegal Templar-ing.”

Mei chuckled. “Don’t worry. That wouldn’t even make the top five crimes Meredith Stannard would charge me with if I ever got arrested.”

Max’s heartbeat sped up. He hadn’t considered that angle. Meredith was fanatically anti-magic even by Templar standards, and she knew Mei had been in the Circle.

“You’re being, uh, careful, right?” he asked, cringing at the clumsy phrasing. “I just … I don’t think you ever worked with Meredith, but it’s worth staying out of her crosshairs.”

“So I’ve heard,” Mei said wryly. “I’m being careful, Max. Now get down here before I run out of whipped cream.”

He grinned. “Already on my way.”

 


 

Councilwoman Stannard didn’t technically give Alistair permission to run by the hospital on his way back from the train station, but she didn’t say no either. Probably because Alistair didn’t ask. Inviting the Councilwoman’s disapproval probably wasn’t a smart career move, but Alistair had something important to check on and figured he’d just have to endure. He swung by the closest bakery to pick up a bag of donuts and two cups of coffee before heading to Shianni’s hospital room.

Lace Harding was sitting in a chair in the hallway, her intelligent face alert and her arms crossed over her chest. She raised a hand in greeting when she spotted Alistair. “Hey, Guerrin. Checking up on me?”

“And bringing you food.” Alistair held up the bag. “How’s Shianni?”

“Fine last I spoke to her. She wasn’t exactly thrilled to hear the Guard was going to be camped outside her door, but I think her exact words were ‘at least you’re not a shem.’” Harding chuckled. “I kind of like her. Want to step in and say hi?”

Alistair shook his head uneasily. “I, uh, I don’t actually know her personally. But after everything it just made sense to post someone here.” Luckily Guard-Captain Vallen had agreed, but Alistair still felt responsible for Harding’s somewhat dull assignment.

“Anything happen so far?” he asked, almost hopefully.

“Nope. Well, Naia and her boyfriend are visiting.”

“Boyfriend?” Alistair’s eyebrows rose.

“Zevran? Blonde elf?” Harding asked. “I mean, I assumed boyfriend. They had that look.” When Alistair blinked at her, she elaborated. “You know, the ‘We’ve just been making out in the backseat of a car’ look. What’s his story, anyway?”

Alistair tried to think of a simple way to explain that Zevran had been hired to kill him a few months back. He failed. “They, uh, work together,” he said, telling the truth while omitting almost the whole story. He handed her the second cup of coffee and the bag of donuts. “Well, at least someone’s happy today.”

The dwarven Guardswoman grimaced sympathetically. “How’s Stannard’s task force?”

“Very, very weird.” Alistair watched as Lace opened the white paper bag and pulled out a donut covered in powdered sugar. She offered him the remaining pastries; he accepted happily, selecting the one covered in chocolate frosting. “She’s brought these guys who used to be Templars onto the team. Samson and Alrik.”

“Wouldn’t have been your picks?” Lace asked shrewdly as he screwed up his face in dislike.

“Nope. Then again I didn’t like most of the Templars. But those two … Samson always looked like he’d just been snorting lyrium dust. Which you’re not supposed to do, by the way. And Alrik is …” Alistair wasn’t sure he had a word for Alrik. He’d only been in the Academy for a month or so when the older man retired, but ugly rumors swirled around his departure, most of them involving female Tranquil. “Alrik should be in jail. Give him a wide berth.”

“Noted.” Harding’s mouth twisted. “Charming little crew. How long are you going to be assigned there?”

Alistair wasn’t sure, and opened his mouth to say so, but at that moment the door to Shianni’s room swung open. Naia walked out with Zevran close behind. They weren’t actually touching, but there was an energy between them that not even Alistair—not exactly a relationship expert—could misinterpret. Zevran’s eyes watched the curve of her waist, the turn of her neck; Naia kept glancing back and smiling slightly.

The private investigator flashed her brilliant grin when she saw Alistair. “Hey! Is it your shift now?”

“Alas, no. I am more or less indentured to the Meredith Stannard Super-Special Anti-Magic squad until we catch Danarius.” Would Meredith surrender her new position after Danarius was caught? Maker, please let the answer be yes. “So far I’ve been pretty useless. Believe me, I’d rather sit here and keep your cousin company.”

“It was really great of the Guard-Captain to assign someone to watch her,” Naia said, looking between Lace and Alistair.

“What Alistair’s not telling you is that it was his idea,” Harding said, swallowing her bite of donut quickly.

“Oh, no no, don’t blame me.” Alistair waved his hands for emphasis. “Your orders come from the Guard-Captain.”

“Who made those orders after you called her and suggested someone should watch Shianni,” Harding continued, a little smirk on her face. “Sorry, Guerrin. I blame you.”

“You did this? Sent someone to make sure Shianni was safe?” Before he could answer, Alistair let out a little puff of breath as Naia flung her arms around him. “Thanks, Alistair,” she mumbled as she hugged him.

He hugged Naia back. “It was the least I could do. You did run into the Circle to save my life. How’s she doing?”

“Remarkably well. Toughness runs in the Tabris family along with the red hair, it seems,” Zevran said easily. “Though I think we will all improve once Danarius is dealt with.” His eyes glinted with a quality Alistair could only describe as “murder-y.” Seeing the perfectly even line of bruising around Naia’s throat, Alistair understood the feeling.

“I heard about the train station on the way here. Was anyone hurt?” Naia’s eyes narrowed. “Did anyone spot Danarius?”

“I’m not sure. Witnesses are still being questioned,” Alistair said honestly. “But we walked away with no hard evidence. They were gone by the time we got there. Maker, they move fast. Even without those green cloud-portal things.”

Naia shook her head. “I’m really starting to hate that guy.”

“You and most of Denerim,” Alistair said wryly. “Speaking of which, I should probably get back to the Guard house so the Councilwoman can yell at us some more.”

 


 

Alistair walked into the briefing room and found something he never would have expected: cameras.

Half a dozen video cameras were pointed directly at the podium, their black cords snaking a path across the floor. Twice as many people hovered behind the cameras, checking cords and moving the lenses, jockeying for the best view of the podium. Someone wearing all black barked at Alistair when he accidentally stepped on one, so he rose onto his toes and edged gingerly across the room, taking a chair next to Detective Leto.

The silver-haired elf was glaring at the cameras with intense dislike. “I take it this wasn’t your idea?” Alistair asked as he took his seat.

“No.” The Detective’s green eyes were narrow and skeptical. “They claim the Councilwoman authorized this and that she intends to speak to them shortly. I cannot imagine why. This morning’s debacle was hardly the sort of thing one would want to announce to the news media.”

“Maybe she didn’t have a choice,” Alistair said nervously. “Maybe there were too many questions about what happened at the train station. Maybe a press conference was the only way to answer them all.”

But even as he said it, he knew that wasn’t the reason. There were other ways to deal with an embarrassing incident, as he’d learned from Lady Ysolde in the years at Eamon’s mansion. Press releases. One-on-one interviews with sympathetic journalists. And Alistair didn’t really think Meredith Stannard was going to endure a barrage of questions from assembled reporters. No. She was going to make a statement. A big one.

At a table two rows ahead of them, Samson and Alrik sat at attention, looking rather pleased. Alistair wondered if they knew what Meredith was going to say, or if they were just feeling smug. He looked around for Cullen; the blonde ex-Templar was sitting at the back of the room, his face drawn and pale. He looked nothing like the stern, confident taskmaster who had intimidated the hell out of Alistair during his training.

Finally, a good fifteen minutes later, Meredith Stannard strode into the room and placed a single piece of paper on the podium.

She had exchanged her tactical gear for a practical pantsuit in dark grey; her blonde hair hung in waves around her face. She did not look like a woman who had lost suspects twice in the past twenty-four hours. There was no sense of nervousness about her as she took her place behind the podium.

“Thank you all for coming. I trust you are ready to broadcast,” the Councilwoman said, looking at each camera operator in turn.

Everyone nodded. “Councilwoman, if I may—” one of them began.

“I suggest you begin rolling your film,” Meredith interrupted, cutting off the question.

No one else was brave enough to interrupt her again. One by one, the little red lights above each lens turned green.

Meredith stood straight and proud, barely looking down at her notes. “People of Denerim. This morning’s attack on the Denerim Central train station was a monstrous act, the latest in a string of crimes perpetrated by a group of unknown mages. As you likely know, my fellow members of the City Council have tasked me with stopping these attacks. It is a task I take seriously, and one I intend to see through.”

Alistair’s stomach did a very nervous flip. And then a few more for good measure.

Meredith’s green eyes met each and every camera lens before she continued. “For generations, we have permitted mages who do not use their magic to live outside the Circles. But as we all know, many apostates use their magic illegally to gain advantages over the citizens of the cities and towns where they live.”

Alistair caught the implication immediately. Oh Maker. This isn’t going anywhere good.

“The attacks this morning show us the danger that our generosity poses. Mages, unfortunately, look much like ordinary citizens. The attackers this morning were able to disappear into the crowd following their crimes.”

Meredith tilted her chin up, radiating chilly determination from every inch of her frame. “I am therefore suspending this amnesty for illegal mages. All those capable of using magic are now subject to detention in the city of Denerim, regardless of whether they have cast recent spells.”

Alistair felt Fenris go very still beside him.

Meredith let those words sink in, pausing to give them weight, then resumed her speech. “This order will remain in effect until the mages behind these attacks are captured and brought to justice. I urge the citizens of Denerim to call us if they have any knowledge of apostates living in their communities. We will take every call seriously, and qualified investigators with Templar training are standing by to address threats to our safety. I pledge to you that I will do everything in my power to keep our city safe. I hope I can count on you to do the same. Thank you.”

Questions rose from the reporters behind the cameras. Meredith ignored them utterly. She swept from the room with her piece of paper in hand, her face the very picture of cold triumph. That, Alistair suspected, was a speech she had been waiting a very long time to deliver.

The young Guardsman looked over at Fenris. The Detective’s ashen face made it clear what he was thinking—and who he was thinking about.

Meredith just painted a target on Hawke’s back. And Mei’s. And every other mage in Denerim.

 


 

Dorian heard the news about the Denerim train station over breakfast in the hotel restaurant. He took a second cup of terrible Ferelden coffee to go and spent the rest of the morning locked in his room, cutting photographs of the artifact-puzzle into pieces, trying to reassemble them into … something. Anything. Anything at all that might provide a blasted clue about what Danarius had been doing.

He had about a quarter of the pieces organized into something that looked like it might possibly be close to right when he heard Meredith’s press conference blazing from the television in the room next to his.

“All those capable of using magic are now subject to detention in the city of Denerim, regardless of whether they have cast recent spells.”

When the Councilwoman was done with her speech, Dorian sat back in his chair, utterly stunned. He shouldn’t have been, he supposed. Everyone back in Minrathous—well, everyone who cared about him, which mostly meant Felix and Maevaris—had worried about how vulnerable he would be as a mage in the south. Dorian had breezily assured them that he just wouldn’t cast any spells until he came face-to-face with Danarius, then he would hastily make his way back to the Imperium. But apparently he’d avoided using his magic for nothing.

Simply out of a sense of defiance, Dorian reached for his coffee, which had long since gone cold. He pushed a thin, elegant line of fire magic into the liquid, warming it easily, and took a sip. Then he sighed. The coffee was still ghastly.

Thinking of coffee made him think of Mei. He wondered how she was taking the news—a woman who had walked away from her entire life, a powerful mage who had left the Circles and traded her magic for her freedom, only to learn that the bargain was now undone.

Dorian found himself wondering if Meredith Stannard had studied much Imperium history. Some of her tactics seemed ripped from the pages of a magister’s playbook. Isolate and humiliate your enemies. Take away their rights, if you can. Elevate yourself and your power at every step. And don’t worry about trifling little things like evidence or facts.

Would Max have done something like this, faced with the same situation?

He knew the answer even before he finished asking himself the question. No. Max Trevelyan wouldn’t have decided that the way to catch the guilty was to imprison everyone and sort it out later.

Dorian wondered if he should remain cloistered in his hotel—the privilege that came with obvious wealth was probably the best shield he had right now—but knowing it was the safe thing to do immediately made him want to do something else. Besides, he’d just acquired a perfectly good ally. The sensible thing to do would be to talk to her about next steps.

With that settled, Dorian went to fetch his motorcycle and set off for Three Nugs.

 


 

The street in front of Mei’s coffee shop was busier than it had been yesterday. Max saw two people walking their dogs, and a crowd of professionally-dressed young women headed into the coffee shop, their heads bent together in shared gossip and friendship. The sight cheered him; he knew Mei wondered and worried about the lack of business at Three Nugs, and what it meant for her future employment prospects.

In the distance, Max heard the distinctive roar of a motorcycle engine. He knew immediately that it had to be Dorian, but still smiled when the altus rounded the corner and parked his bike in a narrow spot between two cars. He approached with a hand raised in greeting as the other man removed his helmet.

“Hey, Pavus.”

Dorian smiled back. In spite of himself, Max felt his heart speed up a bit at the sight. He refused to let himself develop a crush on someone who didn’t even like men, but he’d have to be blind not to notice that Dorian Pavus was gorgeous.

“Hello yourself, Max.” Dorian stripped off a pair of paper-thin leather gloves, tucking them into his pocket with a flourish. “I assume you’ve come to talk to Mei about the latest news?”

“Oh, what, the train station robbery? Not exactly. I need her advice on how to handle something at the Circle.” Max shoved his hands into the pockets of his khaki pants and let out a silent sigh. “You?”

Dorian raised an eyebrow. “I, ah. I think you may have missed something on the drive in from the Circle,” he began diplomatically.

It was then that Max spotted the man at the telephone booth.

There was a brown-skinned man standing in front of a pay phone across the street from Three Nugs. A cloud of brown curls flared out from underneath a weatherbeaten baseball cap as he bent his head over the receiver. “Hi, is this the Councilwoman’s tip line? I’d like to report a suspected mage at a coffee shop …”

Oh no. Mei. He’s reporting Mei.

What the hell for?

Before he’d really thought it through, Max charged to the phone booth and pressed two fingers down onto the little metal tongue at the top of the machine, severing the line.

“What the—” yelped the man, jumping back and glaring at Max.

As Dorian joined them, a startled look on his face, Max tried to grapple for an explanation, some lie that would make this asshole go away and leave his friend alone.

But then the other man swore in surprise and alarm, and Max realized he was looking right at Marcus Amell.

“Pavus! Watch out!” he barked as Marcus reached for something in his pocket.

A bright green glow cut straight through the fabric of Marcus’s hoodie, illuminating him with its eerie light. Magic began swirling from the other man, rising in a carefully orchestrated series of waves, each one crackling with more and more energy.

Beside him, Dorian swore loudly in Tevene and lashed out with his own magic. Whatever it was, the green waves shredded and battered the spell, tearing it to shreds with almost laughable ease.

A cloud of green light exploded in front of Max, swirling and focusing into a pulsing portal that exerted a terrifying pull. As the light consumed him, he heard Dorian shouting, felt the other man’s hand close around his. Max clutched back and pulled, using all his strength to stay with Dorian, to try and escape Marcus’s portal.

For a moment Max thought the altus would succeed at pulling him out of the spell’s clutches—but then the portal closed around him, and he began falling.

Max couldn’t have said how long he fell through that green light. He had the oddest sensation of weightlessness, of tumbling head over heels. It seemed to go on and on and on.

And then abruptly, he spilled onto a sidewalk, landing face-down and barely catching himself before he cracked his head on the pavement.

“Owww,” he groaned, more out of a need to say something than out of real pain.

“I quite agree.”

Max swiveled his head to see Dorian Pavus pushing himself to a stand, an aggrieved expression on his face. He swept gravel from his palms before offering his hand to Max. “Blast it all. I should have targeted that mage, not the spell itself. Idiotic thing to do.”

“That wasn’t just any mage,” Max replied, thinking back to the man’s face. “That was Marcus Amell. Bastard didn’t even do us the courtesy of growing a beard to hide himself.”

“Oh, is that the fellow Mei is so keen to kill? Rather stupid of him to show up at her workplace.” Then Dorian’s face fell. “Oh Maker. You don’t think he was there for her, do you?”

“I don’t know.” Max’s stomach twisted. “I also don’t know where the hell we are, or how much time we lost.” Mei. Please be all right.

He looked around himself and tried to get his bearings. They were on a dilapidated block—he thought they were in Denerim, though he couldn’t be sure. Half the buildings he could see had boarded-up windows; one at the end of the block had been demolished, leaving only a pile of bricks and rebar sitting on its lot. The alienage, maybe?

The sky above him looked cloudier than it had before they went through the portal. Max hoped very hard that they hadn’t lost an entire day.

Next to him, Dorian gasped. “Max. Look. That building at the end of the block. What’s left of it, I mean.”

“The pile of rubble?” Max squinted and took a step closer. Then another step. And another.

With each step, bile rose further in his throat.

The pile of cement bricks was mostly grey, but one side of them had been painted a bright yellow. A corner of a pink-and-green awning was visible poking out from the destruction.

They were looking at what was left of Three Nugs.

Chapter Text

Mei!

Max charged forward, running down the street with a speed that Dorian wouldn’t have thought possible for a man of his size. He raced to keep pace, though he wasn’t sure quite why they were running. The rubble looked settled and dusty, the once-bright colors faded, and both the car Max had driven and his own motorcycle were long since gone from the street.

The Knight-Captain skidded to a halt in front of the Three Nugs wreckage, his face ashen. Dorian almost thought he might begin tearing apart the rubble with his bare hands, but instead he just stared at the shattered bricks, shaking his head back and forth as his eyes grew wider and wider. His mouth rounded in a silent “no, no, no.”

Dorian realized the other man was close to full-blown panic—a state he imagined was rather foreign to the charming, collected Templar.

Instinctively, he stepped close and rested his hand on the other man’s shoulder, squeezing gently. “Max.”

The big Templar swung his head around to stare at him. For a moment his eyes were almost wild, but then they met Dorian’s and began to focus.

“Mei is an extraordinarily capable mage. I generally find gambling stupid, but I would gladly bet a small fortune on her ability to escape whatever caused this. We simply have to find her.” Dorian put as much confidence as he could into the words—which was a lot, since he was not a man lacking in confidence. But underneath that confidence he could feel his heart beating wildly as he grappled with the enormity of their situation.

Whatever happened here occurred some time ago.

Andraste preserve us. How far did Amell send us?

Max took a deep breath. “OK. You’re right.” He turned to stare at the wreckage again. “Do you know … can you tell? When we are, I mean?”

“No. Alexius and I never managed to create a portal that large.” It killed him to admit that. “I … think we may have lost quite a bit of time.” He swallowed hard. “Years, perhaps. This does not look like the street that we left.”

“Years.” Max closed his eyes. “Oh, Maker.

Dorian wasn’t sure what to say, especially since he was close to panicking himself. “I must admit I’m impressed with your friend Mr. Amell. Annoyed, but impressed. If Mei hasn’t killed him yet I think I might give it a try. I do enjoy a challenge.”

Max’s broad chest rose and fell as he chuckled. “I guess we’d better start walking until we find a newspaper stand, then. We’ll figure out the date and go from there.”

*

It was an eerily quiet walk. Three Nugs had not exactly been in a bustling commercial district, but there had been bars for the University students and a laundromat and a large bookstore. All of them were boarded up and looked abandoned. Dorian half expected a tumbleweed to bounce through the empty street.

Slowly, he began to notice something odd—well, something else odd. Red, glittering rocks seemed to be growing from bits of the sidewalk and pavement. The rocks split the cement, creating fissures and cracks almost everywhere they stepped. At first, most of the rocks he saw were small, but they seemed to grow in size the further they went. As they passed a spike nearly as tall as Dorian he felt he had to say something.

“What is that stuff?”

Max frowned. “I don’t know. But it gives me the creeps.”

That seemed to more or less sum it up. Dorian, too, could feel a strange energy wafting from the rocks. It almost felt like lyrium, though he knew that was ridiculous.

They had been walking for a good quarter hour when they heard a car’s engine coming around a corner towards them. Something about the sound felt ominous to Dorian. “Should we hide?”

Max looked around the silent, barren landscape. “I’m not sure I see much point,” he said softly. “They’re not trying to sneak up on us. That’s probably a good sign.”

“Or a sign that they think we’re outmatched,” Dorian suggested grimly. He reached for his magic and felt it prickle against his fingertips, ready to unleash. He was still smarting from his failure to stop Marcus’s spell; he wouldn’t make such a stupid mistake a second time.

A bulky black car rounded a corner and drove towards them—not speeding up, but not exactly slowing down either. Two more followed in its wake. Since Max held his ground, Dorian did too, though he began the steps to throw up a protective spell should he need one.

“Should we be running?” the Templar murmured.

“Alexius always said my barriers could stop a tank,” Dorian replied. “Though I never really wanted to test it out.”

But suddenly, less than a half block away, the lead car made a showy turn-and-stop, skidding to a halt as the driver turned the car to block the road. The other two cars pulled to a stop behind it, offering silent support. The windows of the car were tinted dark, making it impossible to see who was inside. Dorian expected to see the driver’s door open, but instead a passenger climbed out of the backseat.

A tough-looking, androgynous dwarf with dark hair emerged, setting a pair of heavy combat boots down on the road. The stranger was dressed in close-fitting dark clothes; underneath their left arm, Dorian could see the butt of a pistol. They crossed their arms and looked Max and Dorian up and down in turn, their expression unreadable. “So. You’re what came out of that spell.”

Dorian wasn’t sure how his Tevinter accent would be interpreted— Maker only knows what Danarius has gotten up to in the last I-have-no-idea-how-many months— so he let Max take the lead. Fortunately the other man was already giving the dwarf his most charming grin. “Yeah, some asshole attacked us and threw us in a portal. I’m Max. This is Dorian. I’m actually looking for someone. A good friend of mine used to work at a coffee shop about a mile from here. But the place is blasted to bits. Do you know anything about what happened?”

The dwarf just stared at them for a long moment. Then, slowly, they arched an eyebrow. “I’ve heard rumors, yeah. But for the real answer, you’ll need to hop in the car and come with me.”

Dorian couldn’t help himself. He crossed his arms and arched an eyebrow. “Just so we’re all clear—you’re not really asking, are you.”

“Smart man. You’re right, coming with me is not optional.” The dwarf grinned at him. “But let’s all play nice and pretend you just said yes.”

 


 

Every cell and fiber in Max’s body felt like it was vibrating with tension. He and Dorian found themselves sitting across from the dwarf in the backseat of an oversized towncar; it was hard not to focus on the gun the dwarf was carrying, though the stranger had made no move to use it. He could not see the driver through the tinted glass that separated them, but the shadow was roughly the height of a human man.

“Who are you? Where are we going?” he asked as the car pulled into gear, more out of a need to say something than out of any expectation that he would be answered.

To his surprise, the dwarf replied. “I’m Cadash. And you’re going to see someone who can decide what to do with you.”

“How marvelously vague,” Dorian said dryly, making a show of examining his nails. Despite his cutting tone, Max found himself appreciating how cool the other man was staying under pressure. He had not even hinted at his magical talents; clearly, he was saving them until he knew he needed to use them.

Cadash smiled, amused. “Let me put it this way. Most of the things that come out of those portals have not been good news for us. If you’re telling the truth and someone else forced you through that thing, you’ve got nothing to worry about.” A pause for emphasis. “But if you’re lying, I’d advise getting a little worried.”

Even though Max had been entirely truthful so far, he felt a little prickle of nerves across the back of his neck. Whoever Cadash was, they meant business.

“Do you work for Danarius?” he asked bluntly.

Genuine outrage flushed Cadash’s cheeks. “Absolutely not. I’m going to pretend you didn’t ask me that,” the dwarf snapped.

Well, at least that was reassuring.

It was hard to see the landscape outside through the tinted windows of the large sedan, but what little Max could see wasn’t encouraging. A lot of wrecked buildings; a lot of those red crystals. Here and there he saw signs of life in the city, but they were few and far between. It looks like a war zone.

As soon as he had that thought, he knew that a war zone was exactly what he was looking at.

At long last, the car turned a corner and began approaching one of the largest buildings Max had seen so far—something that looked like a former warehouse, surrounded by a chain link fence. As they drew closer Max’s Templar senses ignited with the feel of magic nearby. This place was warded—very effectively warded.

Next to him, Dorian’s handsome face was arch and wry and unworried. Only the little white lines over the backs of his knuckles gave him away. Max shared his unease. Whoever these people are, they have serious magical firepower.

The car pulled to a stop in front of a gate guarded by a single sentry. Cadash’s vehicle was apparently known; they were waved through with ease after a brief exchange with the driver. A large metal garage door creaked open to admit the car, and before Max knew it, he and Dorian were being unceremoniously herded onto the floor of a large warehouse, past dozens of humans, dwarves, and elves moving weapons and exchanging handshakes and otherwise organizing what looked like a very efficient illegal militia.

Four figures stood bent over a table at the back of the room, examining what looked to be a scale map of the city. Max immediately recognized three of them. One was Juliet Hawke, her dark hair now held back in a tight braid and her face lined with stress as she stared down at the map. One was Varric Tethras, the dwarf who had come to the Circle with the apostate mage.

The third was Cullen Rutherford.

Max’s old friend was bent over the map, a single finger pointing to a spot along the coast. “We’ve secured the harbor; Varric’s contacts moved their ships in as promised. The latest refugees will reach the Free Marches. Maker willing, they’ll find safety there.”

Max had barely taken a second to process Cullen’s presence when the fourth person raised her eyes to him. She was an elf with shoulder-length black hair, dressed in black leggings and a stretchy grey motorcycle jacket. She looked sleek and efficient and intimidating, and Max saw the way Cullen’s eyes flickered towards her, waiting for her judgment on what he had just said.

It was not until his eyes locked with hers that Max realized he was looking at Mei Surana.

The surprise Max felt was clearly nothing to what Mei was feeling. His friend’s jaw dropped. She raised a shaking hand to her mouth as her face paled. “I—it can’t be. Max?”

Cullen looked between the two of them, worry on his handsome face. “We’ve seen stranger tricks, Mei,” he said gently.

The elf’s face hardened as she stared at Max. Max stared back, wondering how much time they’d lost for what felt like the thousandth time that day. He wasn’t used to seeing distrust on Mei’s face.

How can I let her know it’s me?

Mei crossed her arms. “Your demon in the Fade. What kind of demon was it, and what did it show you?”

It was the perfect question. Max chuckled at the memory, though it shouldn’t have been a pleasant one. “Sloth demon. It showed me becoming Knight-Commander. It almost had me until it tried to imitate you. It smiled at me and told me I was doing a great job. Dead giveaway at the time.”

He hadn’t even finished the story before Mei pushed back from the table and began running towards him.

Max held out his arms and half hugged, half caught her as she leapt into his embrace. He pulled her clean off her feet and spun her around, more relieved than he’d ever been in his life.

“You’re all right!” he blurted happily.

“Maker’s breath, Max! It’s really you!” she gasped, hugging him tight. “I thought you were dead! Where have you been ?”

Max set her down on her feet and clasped her shoulders in his hands. Her lovely face threatened to crack with the sheer force of the grin curving her lips. “I’m not sure how to answer that. The day I called you about Vivienne? Marcus Amell surprised us outside of Three Nugs. He made this gigantic green portal and, well, here we are.”

“Oh, Maker. I’d forgotten the portals could do that—send someone through time and not just space.” Mei ran a hand through her hair as she shook her head.

Max braced himself for the answer to the questions that had been driving him insane. “Mei. How much time did we lose? What in the Maker’s name happened here?”

Mei swallowed. “You disappeared a little over a year ago. As for what happened … I think you’d better sit down.”

 


 

Max did not expect a pleasant story. He was not disappointed.

Mei led them into the warehouse supervisor’s office, a strange fishbowl of a space where every movement was visible, but at least their words would be private from the bustle of people below. Cullen accompanied her, as did Varric. Mei invited Hawke, but the other mage had walked away on some pretense before the invitation was out of her mouth. He saw the worried way Mei’s mouth tightened at that; he also saw the pain on Varric’s face. Something happened to her.

He could not help but notice that he hadn’t seen Detective Leto yet.

The five of them sat down around a dented metal table. Without asking, Varric quietly poured shots of whiskey for all of them. Cullen waved his away, so Varric downed it before he sat. The dwarf looked at Mei. “I think this starts with you, boss.”

Mei turned her glass in her hands and drew a breath. “OK. On the last day you and I spoke, Max, I was working behind the counter at Three Nugs when I felt a huge surge of magic in the street. By the time I went outside I found nothing. Twenty minutes later a couple of ex-Templars showed up at Three Nugs and put me in handcuffs. I spent the day in a cell at the Guard house.”

Max noticed Cullen’s jaw tense. He would not meet Max’s eyes.

Mei’s story continued. “Danarius made his move the next day. He hit the guard house in full force, with dozens of mages behind him and an unreal amount of lyrium powering their spells. He razed the place to the ground and killed most of the people inside.”

“Those of us who made it out only survived because of Mei,” Cullen put in quietly.

Max felt very cold. The words made sense— razed, killed, mages, Guard house— but he could not picture it. His brain simply refused to build an image of a disaster that awful.

“Is that what happened to Detective Leto?” he asked as his mind raced. “Did he—was he at the Guard house when Danarius struck?”

Mei shuddered. “No. He survived that day. But—” She paused, clearly at a loss for words.

“I think we’d better tell the story in order,” Varric said, taking over easily. “All hell broke loose after that attack. Councilwoman Stannard and Guard-Captain Vallen both died fighting Danarius. When Danarius was done there, he struck the City Council. No survivors. The city’s leadership was wiped out in less than twelve hours. The rest of Denerim was given an ultimatum—allow mages the full use of their power, without restrictions, or die at the hands of the city’s ‘new leadership.’ Namely, Danarius and his second-in-command Marcus Amell.”

“And the Templars?” Max suspected he wasn’t going to like the answer.

Cullen’s lip curled. “At first it seemed they would send aid. But all of a sudden, the Lord Seeker dissolved the Denerim Circle and reassigned its people elsewhere. I believe his official declaration said that ‘Denerim chose to sever ties with the Order, and our obligations to them are at an end.’”

Max’s blood started to boil. “That fucking asshole,” he snarled. “And the Order just walked away? From a blood mage trying to take over a city?”

“Not everyone,” Mei said. “Cassandra Pentaghast returned from Orlais to join us. And she brought friends. But … Templar skills are useful against Danarius’s people, and it’s not as many as we’d like.” She took a sip of her whiskey.

“A few survivors organized a resistance force,” Varric continued. “Mei here became the unofficial leader pretty quickly, and we found some unexpected support from certain branches of the Carta. But we were outmanned and on the run, and Danarius’s people were using those portals to take us by surprise whenever we managed to put together a counterattack.”

Mei slid him her remaining whiskey; he downed it in a single gulp.

“Apparently Danarius had offered to leave the city and go back to Minrathous if the Detective went with him.” Varric’s voice was rough with suppressed emotion. “So, after about a month of us scrambling to evacuate refugees and put out fires, Fenris decided to take him up on the offer.”

The dwarf’s jaw clenched. “Here’s a shocker: The motherfucker lied. He erased the elf’s memory and then stayed put.”

The image of Detective Leto ripping an abomination’s heart from its chest rose in Max’s mind. To have that power turned against them … Oh, Maker.

“But why?” Dorian burst out. “Why not just go back to Minrathous?”

“As best we can tell, Danarius began having success with a new form of lyrium he’d been working with. It’s called red lyrium, and it’s … ah. It’s been quite the challenge to deal with.” Cullen shook his head. “At any rate, he appears to have no intention of leaving.” His mouth tightened. With a start, Max realized that his former friend now had a bright white scar splitting his lip. “Particularly now that he has the Detective to fight his battles for him.”

Max ran his hand across the back of his neck. His neatly shaved scalp was beginning to feel like stubble; inanely, he wondered if there would even be razors to shave it again in this hellish dystopia.

“I’m so sorry,” he said quietly. “I—I wish I knew what to say. I wish I’d been here.”

He wondered immediately if that had been arrogant of him. He doubted things would have gone all that differently with one more Templar fighting on the right side. But Mei’s rueful smile told him that she, at least, had heard the comment the way he’d intended it.

“We’ve missed you. I’ve missed you. Seeing you climb out of that car is the only nice thing that’s happened in months,” she admitted. She reached for his hand and clasped it in friendship. “I’m just sorry you landed in such a lousy future.”

Dorian cleared his throat. “There’s still a chance to build a better one.”

“I like your optimism,” Varric said dryly, leaning back in his chair. “It’s misplaced, but in a nice way.”

“No.” Dorian’s voice was firm and confident. “I don’t mean that a year from now might be better. I mean that if we can get our hands on the amulet they’ve been using to create their portals, I can take Max back to the day we disappeared, and we can stop any of this from happening.”

Absolute silence fell over the room.

Cullen crossed his arms and frowned; his expression was, at best, skeptical. Varric’s face was unreadable, at least to Max, but he seemed willing to listen. Mei’s eyes widened a fraction and her lips parted. Max could sense the desperate hope in those small gestures.

But a voice at the door broke the silence. “You can’t be fucking serious.”

All five heads in the room turned towards Juliet Hawke.

The apostate was standing in the doorway, her arms crossed and her expression furious. She looked a decade older than the last time Max had seen her; there was a white streak in her braid and her face was almost gaunt with stress and sorrow. “If you think you can just undo everything that’s happened to us since you and your Templar buddy disappeared, Pavus, you’re delusional,” she spat.

“I can see you’re upset,” Dorian said carefully, after a long pause.

Hawke’s lips pulled back from her teeth, baring them in a snarl. “Oh, wow, really? You can see that? How perceptive. ” She shook her head back and forth, sending her braid swinging over her shoulder. “You think it’s that easy? That all of this, everything we’ve been through, is just some little mistake that happened because you weren’t around to stop it? Fuck you.”

She was almost shaking with her rage. Max was at an utter loss for words.

Hawke’s dark eyes met his, boiling over with a thousand emotions. “This is reality. Get used to it. Both of you.”

With that, she turned on her heel and stormed away, slamming the door behind her.

Mei blew out her breath and rubbed her forehead. “Varric, should someone … ?”

“On it,” the dwarf replied. He grabbed the remaining whiskey and hopped down from his chair to follow his friend.

Dorian shifted in his chair, his expression anxious and almost hurt. “I did not mean to offend. Or to minimize what you’ve been through.”

Cullen grimaced. “Do not blame yourself. Hawke … Maker. I hardly know where to begin.”

“The Detective was her lover, was he not? That must be hard, to know he lives and serves Danarius,” Dorian said tentatively.

Mei’s mouth tightened. Max’s breath caught. “Oh, shit. There’s more?”

His friend nodded wearily. “Yes. Not long after Fenris struck his bargain, Hawke gathered a team to free him. They almost succeeded.” She swallowed. “Almost. But Fenris didn’t remember her, or the others. And Danarius was waiting. Those who made it out were badly injured.”

She drew a breath. “Naia Tabris didn’t make it out at all.”

Max’s hand clapped over his mouth before he was aware of moving it. He remembered the pretty red-haired elf from the Circle crisis, and from the Guard house. He did not know her well but he felt a surprising pang at her loss. What he recalled most was a smile, cheerful and optimistic and a little reckless all at once. And now that bright light was gone.

“Hawke blames herself, of course,” Cullen said heavily. “She should not. The operation was a calculated risk, and Naia knew the dangers when she volunteered to go.” His lids closed over his amber eyes. “But logic is of little comfort when faced with the loss of a friend.”

Unexpectedly, his eyes flew open and he looked right at Max for the first time.

“Max. I … I scarcely know what to say. Other than that I am sorry. I regret, deeply, every action I took after you suspended me. You were right to do so. I have no right to ask for your forgiveness, but …”

Instinctively, Max reached out and offered his hand. “You’ve got my forgiveness, and whatever else you need from me,” he said, his eyes never leaving Cullen’s. “I should have seen you needed more time before I put you back in the field.” He chuckled. “Maker, I wasn’t sure if you’d ever speak to me again. It’s really nice to hear you don’t hate me.”

The corners of Cullen’s mouth quirked up. “You are kinder than I deserve.” But his hand found Max’s readily.

“Well. That was a pleasantly heartwarming turn in the conversation,” Dorian said cheerfully. “Now then. I don’t suppose you’ve already captured Alexius’s amulet from our unpleasant friends?”

Mei grimaced. “No. Danarius and Marcus still have it. And they’ve made the old City Council building their makeshift fortress. Marcus steps outside now and then to give speeches about how Denerim is now the capital of Thedas’s free mages.” She made a disgusted noise. “But it’s locked down pretty tight. Which we found out when Hawke tried to rescue Fenris.”

Cullen shook his head. “Retrieving it would be an extraordinary risk.”

“For an extraordinary gain,” Mei countered back.

“How do we even know—if Max and Dorian went back through that portal, would our reality be altered at all?” Cullen’s brow furrowed. “Would we … simply cease to exist? Or would we be worse off than we were before?”

All heads turned to Dorian. “Alexius believed that if we reversed time to undo a mistake, the original timeline would be erased—it would be like unravelling fabric on a loom and then weaving it anew.” He grimaced apologetically. “But we never planned to test it on such a scale. I do not know for certain what would happen here.”

Cullen crossed his arms and gave them a skeptical look. “I sympathize with your desire to return to the day you left. Believe me, I’ve wished for the same thing,” he said dryly. “But how could we authorize such a dangerous operation for such uncertain rewards?”

Max didn’t have a good response for that. Fortunately, he didn’t need one.

“Because we’re losing, Cullen,” Mei said softly. “Because everyone in this building has given everything they have, and it has not been enough. The world has turned its back on Denerim and pretty soon we’re going to face a choice: become refugees ourselves, or die trying to stop Danarius. If there’s a chance— any chance—that this can be undone, we have to to take it.”

She took a breath. “And I think I know someone who can get us inside the building.”

 


 

Mei led Max and Dorian back to the floor of the warehouse. “Climb in the car. I’ll be right there,” she told them, pointing to the black sedan that had brought them here.

As they crossed the floor, Max saw Mei stop to exchange a few quiet words with Cadash. Max found his own eyes drawn to a group of three in the far corner of the room—Hawke, Varric, and none other than Anders. He saw Hawke’s eyes flicker his way but she quickly turned her back to the room.

Dorian shook his head as they climbed into the car. “I would have thought she would be more enthusiastic about the prospect of undoing this nightmare.”

“I don’t know. I kind of get it,” Max said honestly. “We’ve been here what, half a day? She’s been fighting a war for over a year. She lost two of the people she cared about most. And now two guys she barely knows claim they can make it all go away. I’d be skeptical too.”

Dorian sighed. “I suppose.” He leaned back against the cracked leather of the seat. “It’s strange, isn’t it. It doesn’t seem quite real to me, not yet. I can’t help wondering …” His voice trailed off. “My father hated everything Danarius stood for. There is some part of me that is angry he’s not here. And worried.”

“I know the feeling.” Max gritted his jaw. He wasn’t honestly surprised that Knight-Commander Trevelyan hadn’t put his career on the line to help Denerim, but he figured he was still allowed to be pissed off about it. “Maybe you could try calling him. He can’t still be mad about that broken engagement if you’ve been missing for a year.”

“You underestimate my father,” Dorian said wryly. He crossed his arms and stared down at his toes. “And I … may have omitted a small detail about our estrangement.”

Max raised his eyebrows. “Oh?”

Dorian smiled faintly and didn’t look up. “I told you I refused an engagement my parents arranged, I believe.” He turned one of the silver rings on his hand over and over, staring at it as if it might be able to tell the story for him. “What I did not tell you is that I had no intention of accepting any potential wife. I prefer the company of men.”

Max blinked. And then blinked some more. And even then he still couldn’t think of anything to say.

“To say my father disapproved would be an astonishing understatement,” Dorian continued. “He was prepared to use blood magic for the first time in his life to, as he put it, ‘rid me of my unnatural fixation.’ And he was willing to trick me into participating in the ritual. We have not spoken since.” He sighed. “Perhaps my father has missed me. But I suspect he is simply relieved to be rid of the embarrassment I would cause if anyone else knew.”

Max let out a soft, low whistle. “Andraste’s dimpled ass, Pavus.” He shook his head in astonishment. He wanted to tell Dorian he was sorry—whatever else Max’s father was guilty of, at least he hadn’t cared about who Max slept with—but he didn’t think the other man enjoyed sympathy very much. “I can’t believe you didn’t deck me when I gave you that stupid speech about how we couldn’t be friends because you’re Tevene and I like men.”

“Oh, yes. That was a stupid speech,” Dorian agreed, with something like his usual confidence.

The click of a door handle signalled Mei’s return. Max slid over to make room for the elf; behind him, he could hear someone climbing into the driver’s seat.

“So who are we going to see?” he asked as the car started.

“A former assassin named Zevran Arainai.” Mei seemed more than a little uneasy with the prospect. “He fell out of contact with us after Naia died. But I’ve tried to keep tabs on him.” Her lips pressed together. “He’s still in the city. And I’m pretty sure he’s been working on a plan.”

Chapter Text

As the car wound its way through the Denerim streets, passing clumps of red lyrium and quiet, scurrying citizens along the way, it occurred to Dorian that he was once again entirely lost when it came to finding his way around the city. The landmarks and businesses and intersections he’d known were so altered he could never identify them again. He wondered if Mei and the others also struggled with this sense of being lost in a place they should know better, or if they had become accustomed to each change one by one.

He was trying very hard not to think about what he had just told Max. Or why he had chosen this moment to detail the reasons for his estrangement from his family.

Oh, come now, Dorian. You know exactly why you told him. And now is hardly the time.

Zevran Arainai lived in one of the most depressing motels Dorian had ever seen. No one sat at the front desk; more than half of the lights in the hallway were broken or burned out. Despite that, Dorian heard more than a few signs of life stirring behind the doors. Thinking of the shattered buildings they had passed he could understand why. This place was still standing, which made it remarkable and relatively safe in this nightmarish version of Denerim’s future.

Mei delivered two quick knocks at a door about halfway down the hall on the second floor. Then, when no answer came, two more. Finally, a creak in the floorboards signalled that someone was looking through the peephole. A moment later, the door creaked open.

“Ms. Surana. This is an unexpected surprise.”

Zevran Arainai was not what Dorian had expected. He was an elf, handsome and olive-skinned, and even in those few words Dorian could hear an Antivan accent. Two dark parallel tattoos curved over his cheekbone, but at some point in the not-too-distant past, a blade had sliced through the bottom one, cutting a vicious line of scar tissue down his cheek and jaw. Arainai’s eyes were cold and uninterested; as he met Mei’s gaze, Dorian had the oddest thought that he might be looking at a statue.

The effect was spoiled when a mabari pushed its way through the gap in the door and barked at Mei, its coat bristling.

The mage took an instinctive step back—just as Max took an instinctive step forward. “Hey, boy!” the Templar said enthusiastically, kneeling and patting his knee. Before Dorian quite knew what was happening, the dog was allowing Max to scratch under its enormous head, then lying on the ground to offer its belly for rubbing.

Dorian could not help smiling. Even canines, it seemed, were not immune to Max’s charms.

Zevran sighed, a spark of affection lighting his face. “We will have to have words about strangers. Again.” Then his eyes focused on Max’s face. “Though this is not quite a stranger, it seems. Greetings, Knight-Captain Trevelyan. I hope it is not impolite if I ask where you have been for the past several months.”

The bite in those words was unmistakeable. But Max kept his cool as he stood. “Marcus Amell threw us in a portal a year ago. We popped out of it earlier today.”

“And you made it a priority to visit me? I am flattered.” Zevran inclined his head with exaggerated politeness. “Though at something of a loss for an explanation.”

Mei slid her hands into the pockets of her jacket and looked Zevran right in the eye. “We need to get into the City Council building. If we can get Marcus Amell’s amulet, there’s a chance we can turn time back to the moment Dorian and Max vanished. Now that they know what Danarius is planning, they’d stand a fighting chance of stopping it.” Her voice lowered. “And I’m pretty sure you’ve been working on a plan to get inside and get some payback.”

Zevran rocked back on his heels and raised his eyebrows. “So you wish me to render my assistance to break into Danarius’s stronghold?”

Mei nodded.

A slow, grim smile curved the elf’s mouth. “Splendid. Allow me to grab my maps. And a few guns.”

 


 

The ride back to Mei’s little compound was somewhat less comfortable than the ride to Zevran’s had been, owing to the very large dog that had sprawled itself over the floor, resting his head on Dorian’s shoes. Max didn’t mind much—he’d always liked mabari—but from Dorian’s expression, he could tell that the dog’s drool was probably ruining a very expensive pair of shoes.

Zevran Arainai’s presence was even more unrestful. He stared out the window the entire way there, his expression still and cold. Max could easily believe that this man had been a professional killer. He wondered how a member of the Antivan Crows had become tied up in the strange little circle surrounding Tabris Investigations. He had the sense that this man had loved Naia Tabris, but he could not imagine anyone more different from the smiling, red-haired investigator.

To distract himself from their unnerving companion, Max turned to Mei. Her dark eyes were focused in the distance; he could see her mouth moving occasionally and he could sense her busy brain turning gears, planning the next move. She looked different, harder, and yet somehow more herself than the Mei behind the counter at Three Nugs.

Sensing his scrutiny, Mei swung her head toward him and smiled faintly. “Enjoying your welcome-back party?”

“We need to talk about your definition of a party, Surana,” Max said wryly. “So. You and Cullen …?”

Mei’s mouth turned up in an amused half-smile. “Just friends. I miss the old feelings from time to time. But we’re both so different now, and—well, I was going to say there’s no turning back the clock, but we’re basically trying to do that, aren’t we?”

“I guess we are.” Max chuckled. “Any chance you’d come back through the portal with us? Having two Mei Suranas around couldn’t hurt.”

“I actually wouldn’t recommend that,” Dorian piped up. “Alexius theorized that traveling back in time would be far more difficult than the reverse. He was concerned that such an attempt would erase the person trying to return to a previous timeline. And that was the most pleasant option.”

Mei shrugged and smiled at Max. “You heard the man.”

Max swallowed at the thought of his friend trapped in this place—though he knew that wasn’t quite the right way to think about it. Maybe not the right way at all. This version of Mei Surana had risen to an unthinkable challenge and come out even stronger than the woman he’d known.

She’s good at this. She was practically born for this.

And if all goes according to plan, I’m going to take it away from her.

“Is there anything about this past year that you’d regret undoing?” he asked tentatively.

Mei tilted her head. “My haircut?” she said after a moment.

“I’m serious!” Max protested.

“I know.” She sighed. “I … there have been moments of good. A few nice things I’d miss, if I knew enough to miss them. But Max—the last year has been one horror after another. The bright moments don’t outweigh the bad. Sending you and Dorian back is the right decision. I promise.”

There seemed to be no possible response to that, except to reach for Mei’s hand and to squeeze it in silent support.

The ride ended sooner than Max had expected—or maybe his conversation with Mei had just taken longer than he realized. Either way, he found himself climbing out of the car to find a sea of strange eyes staring at him. Some faces were etched with hope; others with disdain.

Juliet Hawke stood at the head of the group, her arms crossed and her expression skeptical. That expression morphed into something else entirely when Zevran climbed out behind Max.

Her entire frame tightened. “You’ve got to be kidding me. This , you come back for? Did they tell you they have no idea what’s going to happen to us if this succeeds? What in the Maker’s name are you thinking, Arainai?”

Most people would have at least taken a step back when faced with an angry Juliet Hawke. Zevran just met her eyes, his expression as cold and angry as hers. “To tell the truth, Hawke? I am indifferent as to the outcome.”

He pulled a knife from somewhere on his person and turned its blade in the overhead lights, watching it turn this way and that. “But if I have a chance to make Danarius and his lackeys suffer for what they did, I will take it gladly and give thanks for it. The rest of this rotten world can burn for all I care.”

The heat from Hawke’s glare would have melted solid ice. “You’re not the only one who lost her, you know.”

Zevran put the knife away. “Neither are you.”

“And wouldn’t Sparks be thrilled to know that the two people closest to her are at each others’ throats?”

Hawke and Zevran both turned their heads to glare at Varric, who was walking up to the group with an expression somewhere between exasperation and exhaustion on his face. He brightened a bit, however, when Zevran’s dog hopped down from the car.

“Hey, boy,” Varric said affectionately, scratching the mabari behind its ears.

“You too, Varric?” Hawke’s shoulders slumped. “You really think they can just ‘make it all go away’?” She put a sarcastic twist on those last words.

“I think their plan is batshit crazy,” Varric said with a shrug. “Which means Sparks would have loved it.”

Zevran and Hawke exchanged a look. For the first time, Max saw something like understanding in their eyes—and maybe realization, too. Even Max, who didn’t know Varric well, could see the pain on the dwarf’s face when he talked about their missing friend.

Varric cleared his throat. “So let’s at least hear them out.”

Hawke sighed. “Fine.” She shoved her hands into the pockets of her leather jacket. “Let’s hear what you’ve got.” This, she directed at Mei.

Max suspected that was not the last of the objections she would raise, but Mei nodded as if the thing had already been decided. “Good.” She raised her voice, letting it fill the warehouse. “Briefing in ten minutes, everyone. If you want to listen in, find a chair or take a seat.”

 


 

It was a far cry from the briefing room at the Guard house, or the one at the Circle. Most of the people assembled were sitting on the floor, creating an amorphous blob of faces that somehow managed to be even more intimidating than the well-ordered rows Max was used to. He was reassured by a few familiar faces—notably, Alistair Guerrin’s and Cassandra Pentaghast’s—but whatever reassurance he found was counteracted by just how damn tired everyone looked. Alistair, however, managed a cheerful wave and a grin when he saw Max. Max returned it in kind, glad to see the younger man amongst the people fighting Danarius.

He glanced over at Dorian, wondering how he was taking all of this. The plan rested far more heavily on Dorian’s abilities than it did on Max’s, which meant he would probably have to explain Alexius’s amulet and what he intended to do with it.

“You feeling convincing?” he murmured.

Dorian scoffed. “I am invariably convincing. Because I am invariably right.”

“OK. Good to know,” Max chuckled. “You’ll have to tell me how you do it sometime.”

“I’m afraid you have to be born always right. It’s not a skill one acquires, really.” Dorian arched an eyebrow at him. “But somehow you seem to muddle through.”

“Yeah, I muddled us right through a portal,” Max said under his breath.

Dorian blinked. “Surely you don’t think this is your fault.”

Max sighed. “I don’t know. There’s a lot going on. But everything I’ve touched lately has turned to garbage.”

The mage’s dark eyes narrowed, considering him. “After Alexius died I fell into something of a period of self-recrimination. I was certain I could have prevented it, and I turned the events over and over in my head trying to figure out where I went wrong. Do you know what I realized?”

“That it wasn’t your fault and you were wasting your time?” Max guessed.

Dorian laughed. “Got it in one. See, you’ve got some brains to go with those looks.”

“Thanks for the pep talk, Pavus,” Max said wryly.

He hoped he wasn’t blushing.

Mei was watching her people assemble with her arms crossed, her eyes flickering over the faces, silently counting the number. Max wasn’t sure what made her decide it was time to start, but as a few last people straggled in, she crossed to the approximate middle of the pack and cleared her throat.

“Let’s get started, everyone. I’d like you to meet Maxwell Trevelyan, the former Knight-Captain of the Denerim Circle, and Dorian Pavus, altus of the Tevinter Imperium. Our old friend Marcus Amell ambushed them a little over a year ago and sent them through time to today.”

A low murmur ran through the crowd. Max detected some skepticism, but not as much as he’d expected.

“Dorian thinks that if he can get his hands on that Maker-blasted amulet Marcus has been using, he can get himself and Max back through to the day they left—with information about the next stages of Danarius’s plan.” She paused for effect, taking two steps to the left. “Meaning the attack on the Guard house and the City council. The two events that cemented Danarius’s rise.”

She looked out at the crowd seriously. “Our purpose here today is to determine if we should undertake that mission, and if so, how we’ll execute it. We’ll only have one chance to get this right, so I need everyone tearing the plan to shreds and looking for problems. We’ll save all questions until the end. Understood?”

A ragged chorus of “yeses” rose in the room.

“Good. Dorian, you’re up. Tell us about the amulet.”

Dorian did well, Max thought. He offered details about the amulet and Alexius’s work, but kept them succinct; he made it clear he thought he could do what he was offering without resorting to jokes or boasting.

Then, it was Zevran’s turn.

“The bulk of my efforts have been devoted to finding a way to Danarius, who sleeps in Councilman Mac Tir’s former office,” the assassin began, with no introduction or preamble. “However, my surveillance indicates that Mr. Amell has claimed Councilwoman Cousland’s former office as his sleeping quarters.” He laid a finger on the map of the Council building that had been hastily tacked to the wall behind him. “That office is on the third floor of the building and far from the stairwell. The good news is that his room is in the wing opposite Danarius’s, which may buy us some time before the magister responds. However, there is no plausible way to approach the building from the roof or from a neighboring building. We will need to break in and climb to the third floor the old-fashioned way.”

Max heard Hawke muttering under her breath. “Yeah, because that went so well last time.”

Zevran ignored her. “When we attempted the Detective’s rescue some months ago, we entered through a weak point in the compound’s security—a narrow window that led to the basement. Danarius has since placed bars across all windows.” The elf crossed his arms. “Entry to the compound is only granted to mages, and is only obtained by casting a spell. Furthermore, most, if not all, of our people are known to them.”

His eyes flickered immediately over to Dorian. “Fortunately, we now have someone that the guards will not know. Namely, Mr. Pavus.”

“Will they let him in?” The question came from Alistair Guerrin. “Sorry, I know we’re supposed to hold questions. But won’t they know he’s not one of theirs?”

“I anticipate they will not question our friend here. He has a Tevinter accent. More importantly, he will have something—someone—they want very badly.”

Max’s stomach turned to lead as Zevran’s eyes fell squarely on Mei.

“Absolutely not,” Cullen snapped from the back of the crowd. “You can’t seriously propose handing the leader of our resistance over to Danarius.”

“I am outlining the plan that I believe will give us the best chance for success, Mr. Rutherford,” Zevran said simply. “It is my view that we will not gain entry to the compound unless we offer them a prisoner they cannot turn away. Once inside, however, we would free Ms. Surana’s hands and kill the guards. Preferably before they raise an alarm.”

He said this as if he were proposing swatting flies or choosing paint samples.

“Mr. Pavus, Mr. Trevelyan, Ms. Surana, and myself would comprise the first four members of the team. I would accept up to two more. A larger team could not hope to move as swiftly and quietly as I plan. This is not a time for a diversion, or for a larger strike. We will want to move quickly, take Mr. Amell by surprise, and allow Mr. Pavus to do his work.”

“And how, pray tell, does your team get out?” Cullen asked scathingly.

“If we have done our work well, it will be a moot point, will it not?” Zevran replied, raising an eyebrow. “Our reality will simply … dissolve, did you say, Mr. Pavus?”

“Unravel, actually. At least in theory,” Dorian replied. He clearly wanted to say more, but when Max shook his head slightly, he stopped there.

“And if reality doesn’t unravel? Or the amulet gets broken, or something else goes wrong?” That was Hawke’s voice, and Max immediately felt himself tense.

“Then we head for the exits and hope to get lucky. But I will not lie. The plan I have been working on prioritizes getting in, not getting out.” Zevran shrugged. “It does not bother me. But those who volunteer should know that this is likely, as you say in Ferelden, a one-way trip.”

Remind me not to ask Zevran for help with our recruiting literature, Max thought.

Then came the questions—and there were a lot of them. Cassandra Pentaghast wanted to be walked through the maps of the Council building to map out the first-choice route, the backup route, and any potential paths for enemy forces to surprise the team. Alistair had several good follow-up questions, as did a freckled dwarven woman Max remembered from the Guard. Cadash and a few other members of the Carta recommended adding large quantities of explosives to the plan; Zevran insisted that this was too complicated and too likely to pull them away from their main objective. Anders pushed Zevran hard on the question of magical defenses and whether they might compromise Dorian’s work. The answers to those questions were not as specific as Max would have liked, but fortunately Max had always been good at cleansing that kind of thing, and he said so.

When the flurry of objections had died down to a whisper, Mei cleared her throat. “If we move forward with this plan—and I haven’t made a decision yet—are there volunteers to take the two remaining spots on the team?”

Alistair Guerrin’s hand shot up immediately. Cassandra’s came right behind him; her face was stoic and resolved. Max had expected those hands. He also wasn’t surprised when Varric reached into the air. But he was shocked when Anders raised his hand. Maker. What’s gotten into him over the past year?

And then, slowly, Hawke’s hand joined the little crowd.

“I’m in. But I have one more question,” the apostate said, meeting Zevran’s eyes. “Do you think we could still get in if I took Mei’s place?”

Mei blinked. “Hawke, that’s not neccessary—”

“Yeah, it is,” the apostate said bluntly. “Let’s be honest. If this mission goes sideways, the chances of getting out alive are not great. Danarius’s red lyrium nutjobs are crawling all over the Council building, and they’ll probably be the least of our problems. If this fails, our resistance will still need a leader. They’ll need you. And Danarius wants me just as bad as he wants you. Maybe more.” She swallowed. “I didn’t get Fenris out, but I did cost that bastard an eye.”

Zevran nodded. “I believe the swap would work, yes.” He looked over at Mei, but did not say more.

Max watched his friend’s breath rise and fall in her chest. “I’ll take that into consideration.”

 


 

“Is she going to pace up there all night, do you think?” Dorian asked with an arched eyebrow, staring at the supervisor’s office over the top of the cards in his hand.

“She takes this sort of thing seriously.” Cullen bristled visibly at the implied criticism.

“As she should,” Dorian said, with surprising gentleness. “I merely meant … shouldn’t someone go talk to her? That looks rather lonely.”

Mei did look lonely, pacing back and forth, her lips moving and her arms tight around her chest. Max was tempted to go see if he could help, but Cullen’s next words stopped him. “No. She doesn’t like to be interrupted when she’s making a decision.”

The three of them turned their heads back to the card game they were pretending to play. There were a few members of the resistance lingering, carrying out necessary tasks for the next day, but it was near midnight and the warehouse was largely empty.

After a long moment of silence, Max realized that none of them remembered whose turn it was.

“She’s going to approve the operation,” Cullen said abruptly. “She’ll pick Varric and Anders as the fifth and sixth members of the team. Cassandra and Alistair are too valuable to our current efforts—they lead the small crop of Templars we have. What I don’t know is if she’ll send Hawke, or insist on going herself.”

He sighed. “It’s not in her nature to ask someone else to face a risk in her place. But she knows what she means to these people.”

“And what does she mean to you?”

The words were out of Max’s mouth before he could stop them. But Cullen just laughed. “Brotherly concern, Max? Perhaps you’d like to ask about my intentions?”

Max felt himself flush a bit. “I—that’s not what I meant, exactly.”

“I know what you meant.” Cullen leaned back in his metal folding chair and watched Mei pace for a moment. “I regret how things ended between us. And I regret much of what I did after they ended. But we have other things to worry about at the moment.” He shook his head. “That does not mean I do not admire her. She is an extraordinary woman.”

As if she’d heard them talking about her, Mei suddenly crossed to the window of her little room. She flung it open decisively, calling down to their group.

“Max? Can I borrow you for a moment?”

When Max pushed open the door, Mei was sitting on the edge of the table and rubbing her temples, her head bowed. “I need your take on something,” she said as he closed the door.

Max waited as she struggled with the words. “I—Maker forgive me. I shouldn’t even be considering this. But I—I need an outside perspective.” She dropped her hands and tilted her chin up. “Should I send Hawke? Answer as a member of the mission, not as my friend.”

Max almost said “no.” Almost. He wanted Mei at his side for this so badly it almost hurt. “As a member of the mission, I would want someone I knew I could work with,” he began tentatively. “If it were just about that—about reliability, and power, and the ability to make this happen, I’d want you. Hawke’s carrying a lot of baggage with her back into that building. No judgment intended.”

Mei nodded, a wry smile curving her lips. “I hear a ‘but’ coming.”

“But,” Max replied, raising a single finger. “Hawke’s been in that building before. You haven’t, from what I understand. Whatever her baggage she’s a powerful and capable mage. And she’s right. If we fail, these people are going to need you.”

Her shoulders slumped. “I was afraid you’d say that.”

“You’re not being selfish if you send her, Mei,” he told her gently. “This is a hard choice in an impossible circumstance. But Hawke didn’t make that offer to be nice. She volunteered because she knows it’s the right call.” He paused. “I think you know that too.”

Mei chuckled. “Just so you know, I considered rejecting the mission so I could keep you around. I’ve missed you, Max.”

Max settled on the table next to her and wrapped his arm around her shoulders. “Yeah, I’m missable.”

She leaned her head against his shoulder, and for just a moment, Max could feel her releasing the weight of the world. 

Chapter Text

There was no sense in waiting once the decision was made. After a dizzying array of preparations—a sword for Max, lyrium for the mages, many guns for everyone else—Dorian found himself standing on an abandoned street in the middle of the night, his hand curved around Juliet Hawke’s upper arm. The apostate’s hands had been tied behind her back with a convincing but entirely useless knot Zevran had devised. The rest of the team had faded into the shadows, watching and waiting for the door to open. This first phase of the plan would depend on the two mages—and mostly on Dorian.

“Second thoughts on your grand plan?” the apostate asked wryly as he stared at the side entrance to the Council building.

Maker, yes. But it wouldn’t do to admit that.

“Second thoughts? Never. All of my first thoughts are flawless,” he said flippantly. “What about you? It can’t be easy, knowing …”

He bit off the end of that sentence as quickly as he could; he knew he shouldn’t say anything. But Hawke could tell what he’d been about to ask. Her face hardened.

“You want to know if I can handle seeing Fenris again,” she said coldly. “Don’t worry. He’s not Fenris any more.” Her jaw clenched and her body shuddered. “I figured that out when he put a sword through Naia’s chest.”

Dorian’s breath froze in his lungs. Mei and Varric left out that charming detail. “Maker. I’m …”

“If you say you’re sorry I’ll punch you,” Hawke snapped. “Let’s just get this over with.”

He nodded to steady himself. “As you command. Now come along like a good prisoner. Try to look like you hate me.”

Hawke snorted. “However will I manage?”

Dorian gave the metal door a sharp, authoritative rap of the knuckles—the kind of knock he’d perfected as Halward Pavus’s heir and a man who was never denied entrance to anything. The door swung open almost instantly.

He steeled himself to prevent a frightened step back. Zevran had described the guards Danarius used at his doorways—henchmen dosed with red lyrium until they were freakishly strong and mindlessly aggressive—and even provided sketches, but Dorian was still not prepared for the reality. The two figures staring out at him were hulking brutes of men—and their bulk was not natural. Far from it. A vicious growth of red crystals split their forearms and stretched their shoulders to enormous proportions. Both pairs of eyes glowed red.

“Credentials,” one of them hissed.

Dorian turned his wrist elegantly, casting a showy little flare of fire. “Now do step aside. I have something that will interest Danarius and Marcus.” He gestured at Hawke, letting the firelight illuminate her face.

The reaction from both creatures was immediate. “Hawke,” they snarled in unison.

“The one and the same,” Dorian agreed.

“You’ll pay for this, asshole.” Hawke jerked her arm as if to try and escape.

Dorian cast a little flare of lightning—just for show, not to shock. Hawke did a very good impression of a pained cry, though.

With ugly chuckles, the guards parted to let them in.

As soon as the door swung shut, Hawke snapped her wrists out of the false bindings they’d used to secure her hands. Dorian’s magic swirled around the first red guard, depriving him of air long enough to induce unconsciousness. Hawke had a more direct approach. She punched the guard straight in the nose and then cracked her magic like a whip, striking him at the base of the neck and knocking him out cold.

I will have to remember that spell.

Hawke pulled the door open on silent hinges and signaled the rest of the team. One by one, their grey-clad allies slipped inside.

Zevran nodded with satisfaction. “Did they make calls, or warn anyone?”

“No one that we saw,” Dorian whispered. “Now then. I would very much like to meet Marcus Amell.”

Max scowled. “Yeah. Wouldn’t mind seeing him again myself.”

They were halfway up the stairwell when they heard the alarm sound. Red lights began flashing; a loudspeaker blared muffled words. But the meaning was clear: Danarius’s people knew there were intruders present.

Max’s Templar sword flew out of its sheath. In unspoken unison, Varric and Zevran drew their guns. Dorian reached for his magic and held it close at his fingertips, ready at a moment’s notice.

“All right. Guess we’re taking the rest of the stairs in a sprint,” Max said wryly.

 


 

The team flew up the rest of the stairs to find a group of four guards on the other side of the door, blocking their way to Marcus Amell’s rooms. Despite the favorable odds it was a tougher fight than Max expected. Whatever the red lyrium had done to these people, it meant they were able to shake off blows that would have rattled even an abomination. He found himself wondering if the poor bastards even felt pain any more.

Zevran took a brutal hit to the upper shoulder, and Hawke—reckless as usual—had a slash down her back when the fight ended. But Anders healed the injuries with such ease that they barely qualified as scratches. Max was both startled and impressed; he’d heard Anders was good but he hadn’t realized the extent of the man’s talent.

The apostate caught him watching and narrowed his eyes. “What?”

Max shrugged. “Nice work. That’s all.”

“Yeah, thanks for putting my spine back on the inside,” Hawke whispered. She shrugged her familiar leather jacket back onto her shoulders, ignoring the gash down its length. “Now let’s move.

By unspoken agreement Zevran led the way down the hall, passing the irrelevant doors swiftly, then finally stopping in front of a scratched wooden door. A name plate had been pried off it at some point, leaving behind a splintering hole in the otherwise lacquered wood. Zevran reached for the knob, but suddenly, Anders stepped forward.

“I’ll go first,” he whispered. “Marcus and I aren’t friends, but he might hesitate when he sees me.”

Max wasn’t sure the logic tracked, but this was no time to argue. He gripped his sword and followed Anders into the room.

Eleanor Cousland’s former reception area had been turned into Marcus’s personal office. The little room was covered in artifacts, and for a moment Max hoped that they might not need to venture into the bedroom at all, but of course the amulet wasn’t among them. Varric and Zevran planted themselves by the door to the hallway as Anders led the procession to the inner door.

They were greeted by the sound of rustling fabric and a muffled curse word. Amell was standing in the middle of the room trying to pull a shirt over his head; his motions were clumsy, and Max realized his sleep had been interrupted by the alarm. Max almost began swinging the pommel of his sword at the man’s head, but then the shirt fell into place and Marcus’s eyes locked on their group.

“Oh, shit, ” he said, blinking the sleep away from his eyes.

Max felt magic rise in the room, but then Anders stepped forward. “We’re not here to hurt you, Marcus.”

“Speak for yourself,” Max heard Hawke mutter.

“We just need the amulet.” Anders looked at his fellow mage with something like sympathy.

Marcus’s eyes quickly focused on Max. “Trevelyan? What the hell? I sent you … oh.”

“Yeah. Oh ,” Max mimicked. “Thanks for the missing year. Love what you’ve done with the place while I was gone.”

“I didn’t … I’ve created a free zone where mages can use their magic in the open,” Marcus retorted defensively.

“And a delightful utopia it is. So many red rocks everywhere. I hear they drive people insane. Must keep the housing market affordable,” Dorian drawled. “But Max and I rather liked our own timeline. So let’s all be pleasant about this. Hand over the amulet and we’ll be on our way.”

Marcus crossed his arms and chuckled. “What, so you can have another shot at stopping me?”

“Stopping you?” Hawke snapped, unable to contain herself. “Maker’s balls, you’re delusional. Danarius runs this horror show and everyone knows it.”

Marcus’s face spasmed in fury but he didn’t respond. He kept his eyes on Dorian. “Look, whoever you are, I’ve studied the amulet in more detail than you can imagine. I know this reality will collapse if you go back.”

Anders took another step forward. “Marcus. Look me in the eye and tell me this is what you wanted. Look me in the eye and tell me that you don’t flinch every time you pass those red lyrium … things. This isn’t a paradise of free magic. Half the mages who aided your hit on the Guard have fled the city, and another quarter are fighting with us.” He held out his hand. “Give me the amulet. It’s a second chance for you, too.”

Marcus moistened his lips and stared at Anders. He was bitterly tempted; Max could see it on his face. But then he shook his head. “I’m not changing my mind this time, Anders. I’ve made my choice.”

When Anders spoke again, his voice rang with the metallic echo of the Fade.

“So you have.”

Silver light flared out of Anders’s eyes as he charged at Marcus. Magic flowed from his fingers; Marcus tried to match it, but Anders had acted too swiftly. The healer clasped his hands around Marcus’s head and did … something. Max hadn’t seen a spell like that before, and wasn’t quite sure what to call it, but Marcus collapsed to the floor, instantly dead.

“Well. That was anticlimactic,” Dorian sighed. “I thought that bastard would be harder to kill.”

“So did I. Hey, Justice. Wondered if you’d make an appearance,” Hawke said, looking down at Marcus’s body with grim satisfaction.

“I’ve told you, it’s not like he’s a voice in my head who pops out from time to … oh, never mind,” Anders huffed as he began searching Marcus’s pockets.

Every Templar instinct Max had started ringing alarm bells. “Wait a minute. You’ve got a demon in there?!”

“He’s a spirit of Justice. Or maybe Vengeance. It’s hard to tell sometimes.” Anders glared up at him. “Do you really want to debate this right now? If you go back to your time and stop Danarius, I’ll probably never even meet him and you can avoid the whole issue.”

Max really wanted to know the rest of that story. Or, on second thought, maybe he didn’t; he was unnerved enough as it was. But either way Anders had a point. “You’re right. Come on, let’s find that amulet.”

“Did a Templar just tell me I was right?” Anders whispered to Hawke as they started the search.

“I’m as surprised as you are,” she replied.

“Um. Guys?”

Every hair on Max’s body stood at attention as he turned his head towards Varric.

The dwarf racked his shotgun. “We’ve got incoming.”

Max barely had time to wonder where Zevran had gone when four red lyrium guards poured through the outer door.

Max reached for his sword and moved forward, ready to fight, but was stopped short when Hawke snapped, “Focus on the amulet, Trevelyan. We’ll handle these assholes.”

“Max! Over here!”

Dorian’s voice snapped Max back to their quest. He ran to the other man’s side and watched as he lifted the lid on an intricate wooden box. A green glow spilled out onto the desk as Dorian removed Marcus’s amulet.

“Oh, thank the Maker,” Max breathed.

In the outside room, he could hear the sounds of battle. Varric’s shotgun fired; magic soared through the air.

Then, suddenly, silence fell, and a laugh floated through the room.

“Oh, children. Could you not come up with a better plan on your second try?”

Max knew who it had to be even before Dorian’s face drained of blood. “Danarius,” the altus whispered. “Maker. I need time for the spell.”

“Do what you need to do. I’ll watch your back,” Max promised.

Sword in hand, Max ran to the door that separated Marcus’s bedroom and office, leaping over Marcus’s corpse as he did. He planted himself just behind the doorway, ready to fight anyone who tried to interrupt Dorian, but what he saw in the next room froze his blood.

The red lyrium guards had fallen, but two more figures stood in the hallway. One was a battered older man in a high-collared black suit. His grey beard was thinning and grizzled, and a web of burn and scar tissue surrounded his empty left eye socket. Despite his awful appearance, the man looked deeply pleased by the scene spread in front of him. Even with the missing eye Max immediately recognized Danarius.

The other figure was Fenris Leto.

It took Max a moment to realize that it was the Detective—and then a moment more to fully understand what was different. The Detective now bore a second set of lyrium tattoos, a jagged and asymmetrical network of veins that cut across his handsome face like lightning bolts. The new tattoos shone pure red, their light dwarfing the faint silver glow from his first set. His hair, too, now bore red streaks, and as he stared into the room, his eyes glowed like fire. He clutched a massive sword in his right hand, bearing its weight as easily as a toothpick.

“Did you really think I would not be prepared for this eventuality, Ms. Hawke?” Danarius chortled as Fenris stepped into the room.

Hawke held her ground, but her eyes were wide and her breath was coming fast. Her eyes were focused firmly on the elf, and Max could see tears starting to form at the corners.

“Perhaps you think your former plaything will remember you,” Danarius continued as Fenris advanced on silent feet. “Do you know this woman, my little wolf?”

In a blur of red light, Fenris crossed the room in what seemed like a single step. His hand was around Hawke’s throat before anyone could react.

Fenris’s lip curled upwards as he looked at her. “She is our enemy. Shall I kill her for you, master?”

A visible shudder ran through Hawke’s body as she looked into those glowing eyes.

“Hm. No, Fenris. Stay your hand for now,” Danarius continued, his tone horribly casual. “There are more things I wish to learn from Juliet Hawke. And I have payment to extract for the loss of my eye.”

Hawke clenched her fists, pulling on her magic. At Hawke’s side, Varric took aim, Bianca’s barrel pointed straight at the Detective. Magic swirled around Anders as his eyes glowed silver.

But it was Zevran Arainai who made the first move.

With cold, indifferent precision, the assassin stepped out of the shadows, placed the barrel of his gun to the back of Fenris’s head, and fired.

No!

Hawke and Danarius seemed to scream the word in unison. But both were too late. Max recognized the shot; it hit the part of the brain that granted instant death, before the body could even form a reflex. Fenris’s body collapsed and spilled to the ground in a tangle of limbs.

Danarius turned towards Zevran; lightning split the room, engulfing the assassin in a painful cascade of electricity. “You knife-eared trash!” the magister howled as the spell intensified.

Hawke flung her hands forward and struck Danarius with a vicious physical blast of magic, a blow that should have shattered the man’s bones. Danarius moved to block it, but was not entirely successful; he was lifted off his feet and flung against the opposite wall. Zevran collapsed on the floor, not moving. His clothing was in tatters and a brutal network of burns covered his face and torso. One look at Anders’s face told Max that there was no hope—Zevran had killed Fenris at the cost of his own life.

“This is your fault,” Hawke snarled, advancing on the magister. “Fenris is dead because you did this to him. ” This time fire leapt from her hands, swirling towards Danarius in a blistering tornado. Max could feel the heat even from where he stood.

But when the spell faded, Danarius sat unharmed, a glittering sphere of magic encasing him. An empty lyrium vial lay beside him.

The magister pushed himself to his feet and chortled, wiping a trail of glittering red lyrium from his lower lip. His eyes glowed red with the power of the substance. “Is that the best you can do, Juliet Hawke?”

“There’s one of you and five of us. How long do you think you’ll last without Fenris to protect you?” A new spell began growing between Hawke’s hands.

Then Max heard the echo of footsteps coming down the hall.

Danarius beamed from behind his glittering shield. “Would you care to count again, my dear?”

The footsteps grew louder and more numerous.

The magister began to back away. “I’ll enjoy dealing with what’s left of your pathetic rabble once my pets are through. But for now, I will bid you farewell.” He smiled at Hawke. “Perhaps I will allow you to take your plaything’s place at my side. Contemplate that as you fail for the second time.”

“Get back here, you bastard!” Hawke screamed.

“Hawke, no!” Anders made a futile grab for her as she ran out of the room, pursuing her enemy.

“Oh, fuck,” Varric swore. The dwarf launched himself into the hallway after Hawke, his shotgun already firing.

Magic filled the room as Anders cast one of the largest spells Max had ever witnessed in person. It was a shield, glowing and silver-white, and it covered the doorway in front of Anders.

Beyond it, Max could see a crowd of red lyrium guards take their places.

Anders turned his head to Max. His eyes shone with bright, pure light, and Max could hear Justice’s voice when he spoke. “I will buy you what time I can,” the spirit promised. “Use it well.”

“Max!”

Max spun around to see the amulet spinning rapidly in the air before Dorian. “I’ve done it!” the altus shouted as a portal began growing in front of him.

“Do I have time to help Anders?” Max glanced behind his shoulder in agony. The guards were throwing themselves against Anders’s shield, snarling with frustration; the apostate was clenching his hands grimly, hanging on, but Max’s Templar senses told him that the spell could only take a few more blows.

“No.” Dorian reached out and grabbed Max’s hand firmly in his as the portal expanded. Max felt the tug of its magic and closed his eyes as Dorian leapt within, his hand still clasped around Max’s.

The last thing Max heard was the guards chortling in triumph as Anders’s shield fell—and a scream of pain from the hallway that sounded like Juliet Hawke.

 


 

The green light seemed to last only a moment this time—or perhaps that was just the effects of Max’s adrenaline and terror. But before he knew it, he was falling from the portal and crashing to yet another street. This time he landed face-up, staring right into a blue sky.

That was encouraging. The sky had been blue the day they left … hadn’t it? Maker, it feels like a lifetime ago.

Had that other future come apart now? Had it dissolved before the red lyrium guards reached Anders? In time to save Hawke from Danarius’s wrath?

Max didn’t have much more time to contemplate the sky’s color, or wonder exactly what had happened in the place that he left. Seconds later Dorian fell from the portal and landed directly on top of him, driving the breath from his lungs in an undignified “oooof!” Above them, the portal closed with an elegant snap.

Max couldn’t help noticing how solid and warm Dorian’s body felt against his. Or how close his mouth would be if Max leaned his head up to kiss it. From the startled look in his dark eyes, Dorian was probably thinking something similar.

“I. Ah. My apologies,” the altus said, rolling away and scrambling to stand. “I really did not mean to land us in quite such a compromising position.”

Max grinned up at him as Dorian offered a helping hand. “Hey, I wasn’t complaining. Maker’s balls, Pavus. You did it.”

“Let’s not celebrate just yet,” Dorian cautioned. “After all, I’ve only done this once. And the fact that I had to cast the spell in a different location than the one we left complicated things.”

“Whenever we are, the buildings are still standing and I don’t see any red lyrium. I think it’s an improvement,” Max said optimistically as they walked down the street.

Dorian’s face brightened. “I see my motorcycle. That’s a good sign.”

The street outside Three Nugs was quiet and placid, and Max’s hopes rose as he pushed open the door to the little coffee shop. Mei will be behind the counter, I’ll order a mocha latte, and then we’ll figure out what to do next.

That thought was dashed to pieces as soon as Max stepped inside.

Half a dozen very confused-looking patrons were standing around, their eyes wide and their mouths open. Mei was nowhere to be seen.

“What in the Maker’s name …” Dorian began.

One of the young women crossed her arms angrily. “Well, I hope you weren’t coming here for coffee. They just arrested our barista and took her out in handcuffs.”

Chapter Text

Dorian watched Max’s face drain of blood as he took in the young woman’s words. “Who arrested her?” the Templar demanded.

“Two guys. They said they were here under orders from Meredith Stannard. She said she didn’t do anything wrong, they said she’s a mage and arrested her anyway,” the young woman replied. “Damn. I listened to that press conference earlier, but I didn’t think they were just going to start hauling people off for doing nothing.”

Then you didn’t listen very closely, Dorian thought.

One of the young woman’s friends tilted her head towards Mei’s station. “What is a mage even doing working in a coffee shop, anyway?”

Without another word Max spun on his heel and rushed out of Three Nugs. Dorian jumped, startled, then hurried to follow.

He caught up with Max when the other man was only a few paces from his sedan. “Where are you going?” he demanded.

“I’m going to get Mei back,” Max snarled. He slid his hands into his pockets, then cursed. “Shit! I think I left my keys in the future.”

Well, there’s a sentence you don’t hear every day.

Dorian took a deep breath as Max continued the search for his keys. “I don’t think that’s a good idea, Max.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Max. Think. I know you’re worried about Mei. But we can’t afford to have you arrested,” Dorian hissed. “I’ve only been in this city for a few weeks. You’re the one with connections. You’re the one they’ll listen to. We have to stop the attacks tomorrow—and whatever else comes, we know Mei survives them.”

Max gaped at him. “So we’re just going to let her sit in a cell in the Guard house while Danarius raises an army to burn the place to the ground?”

“No, of course not. But we need to pick the right moment to get her out,” Dorian said, squeezing the other man’s shoulder. “And we also need to stop Danarius. So where do we start?”

Max took a deep breath. Then another one. “Normally I’d say with the Templars. But based on what we just saw, the Templars won’t do anything. Aveline Vallen wouldn’t just sit on her hands, but Meredith’s presence complicates things. If Meredith gets wind of this she’ll just start arresting people at random. And I don’t know how to get a message to Aveline without putting Meredith on alert.”

He paused and blinked. “Wait. Yes, I do. We’re going to Tabris Investigations.”

 


 

Varric turned the television off with a disgusted look on his face. “So. That was a fun press conference.”

“Yeah. When do you think they start fitting Meredith for her Supreme Leader tiara?” Hawke cracked weakly. But Naia could see the strain on her friend’s face. Naia felt it too. She’d started the day so happy, but the afterglow of her night with Zev and the relief she’d felt at seeing Shianni improved was quickly fading.

Maker, this is a mess.

Naia reached for Juliet’s shoulder and gave it a supportive squeeze. Juliet turned over her shoulder and tried to smile. “Hey, I know how to keep my head down. I’m more worried about Anders.”

“Why, thank you. I am also more worried about Anders,” the healer said. He scowled at the now-silent television, as if he could glare a hole in Meredith’s head from a distance.

Hawke chuckled. Then her face fell. “You don’t think they’d try to arrest Mei, do you? They know she used to be an Enchanter.”

The five of them exchanged uneasy looks. “It would be foolish to spend manpower on arresting those who have done no harm,” Zevran said after a moment. “However, little in the past week has led me to trust the wisdom of Councilwoman Stannard’s leadership. She reminds me of a bulldozer. All power, very little finesse.”

Hawke dropped her head into her hands. “Fuck. We should have gone after Danarius when we had the chance.”

“We’ll get him.” Naia tried to sound more confident than she felt. She kept thinking and rethinking the events at the shelter. If she’d only made her move while Zevran carried Shianni out …

I could have finished him.

Or he could have finished me.

Naia stood abruptly. “I think we need snacks. Who wants what?”

The busy work of writing down orders and collecting money took Naia’s mind off of Danarius for a good ten minutes. But she had not even finished shrugging her coat on when the door burst open.

Two men stepped into the reception room. One was someone Naia didn’t recognize, a handsome dark-skinned man with a carefully curled mustache. The other was, of all people, Knight-Captain Trevelyan. Both men looked extremely rumpled. There was a large tear in the shoulder of the Knight-Captain’s red sweater, and the newcomer’s hair was messy and askew. Naia suspected that was unusual for this man.

“Knight-Captain,” Naia said cautiously. Please tell me he’s not here for Anders. “This is, um, a surprise. What’s going on?”

The handsome Templar looked at her for a moment, then flashed her one of the biggest smiles Naia had ever seen.

The newcomer stepped forward and extended his hand. “You must be Naia Tabris. Believe me when I tell you it is a singular pleasure to make your acquaintance.”

Naia accepted the handshake with raised eyebrows. “I. Um. Thanks?”

“Naia, this is Dorian Pavus. And call me Max.” The Templar looked over at the other people in the room and drew in a deep breath. “We’ve got something insane to tell you.”

*

“Just so I’ve got this straight.” Varric leaned back in his chair, his eyebrows raised halfway to his hairline. “You went a year into the future. The future is very bad. And now we have twenty-four hours to stop Danarius from wiping out the entire Denerim Guard and the City Council?”

Max Trevelyan nodded. The big Templar was resting his elbows on his knees; it was an oddly vulnerable position. He looked tired, Naia thought. Tired and worried. And he hadn’t even blinked an eye at Anders’s presence.

“How bad are we talking?” Juliet asked, her voice skeptical.

Dorian and Max exchanged a glance. “Extremely bad?” Dorian offered. “Danarius has evidently been experimenting with a new form of lyrium that makes people go insane and destroys everything it touches.”

“Is it red, by any chance?” Varric asked.

Max raised his eyebrows. “It is. How did you know?”

“Oh, shit,” the dwarf sighed. “I’ve come across that stuff before. Yeah, it’s bad.”

Naia wrinkled her brow. “And what exactly were the rest of us doing in this future?”

Another one of those looks passed between the two men. This one seemed even more loaded than the last one.

“I think maybe we’d rather not know that, Sparks,” Varric said after a long pause.

“You were all fighting Danarius, I will tell you that much,” Dorian said. “But … it seemed a losing battle.”

A leaden feeling settled in Naia’s stomach. “Oh.”

She drummed her fingers on her knee and cast her eyes around the room. They fell on her bulletin board, the one she’d been using to track the mages’ crime spree. Pulling her shoulders back with resolve, she stood, walked over to the board, and pinned a new sheet of paper to it.

“OK. So we know that the mages strike the Guard house tomorrow.” She wrote that down with a thick black marker. “We know they use a ton of lyrium to make the attack succeed.” She wrote that down too. “And we know after that, they move on to the Council building.” That became point #3. “All right. What can we stop, and how?”

“We should tell the Guard-Captain what’s going on,” Hawke said. “I don’t trust Meredith with this information, but Aveline Vallen? She’ll do everything she can to protect her people.”

Max nodded. “I had the same thought. Naia, I know you’re consulting for the Guard. Do you think you could get a message to her? Tell her we have information indicating that Danarius is planning an attack?”

Naia grinned. “Absolutely. On it.”

“What about the lyrium supply?” Varric offered. “If we can find it and swipe it before they collect it, that would make them a hell of a lot easier to fight off.”

Max snapped his fingers. “Varania. If anyone knows where the lyrium is being kept, she will. And I’ve finally got a translator, with a fancy Tevinter title to boot.” He clapped Dorian on the shoulder. “How do you feel about sneaking into the Circle?”

“Better than I feel about the prospect of her answering my questions,” Dorian said honestly. “A magister’s apprentice is intensely loyal to his or her master. While she will respect my rank, she will not feel any more obligated to answer my questions than she would feel answering yours.”

Varric tapped a thoughtful finger against his knee. “What about Mei? She tore Varania’s spells to shreds, from what I can tell. Could Varania be afraid of her?”

“Afraid, I’m not sure. But if Mei bested her in combat, that will likely be meaningful to her,” Dorian said thoughtfully. “It’s worth a try.”

“So it sounds like step one is getting a warning to Aveline, and step two is breaking Mei out of the Guard’s holding cells.” Hawke grinned. “I volunteer for step two.”

“No way,” Naia said quickly. “I don’t want you within a hundred yards of Meredith. Besides, a jailbreak has my name written all over it.”

“A two-man team would be advisable, no?” Zevran suggested.

Naia shook her head. “I’m known around the Guard. No one will ask complicated questions about why I’m there. Other faces would draw more attention than we can afford right now.”

Zevran’s eyebrows drew together, but he nodded in acceptance. Varric and Juliet just shrugged; they’d expected this from her. Dorian and Max, however, exchanged another one of those damn looks.

Apparently I’ve got a pretty big stake in preventing that future, Naia thought as her stomach twisted.

Max swung his head back to her. His dark eyes were filled with worry, but he took a deep breath and sat up in the chair. “OK. It’s a good plan. Dorian and I will wait for Mei in a car a few blocks away.” He swallowed hard. “But if you run into Samson or Alrik, watch yourself. Those two are bad news.”

Naia nodded. “Got it. Warn Guard-Captain Vallen, avoid shem ex-Templars, break Mei out quietly, find getaway car.” She looked over at Hawke. “Now here’s a really awkward question. Do we involve Fenris?”

Hawke’s eyes closed—but they flew open almost as soon as her lids touched. “Yes,” she said firmly. “He’ll help you. However he feels about magic, he knows Meredith overstepped today.” Her jaw clenched. “He has to.”

 


 

Alistair was beginning to realize that it was not going to be possible to ignore the argument happening at the front of the room.

“Councilwoman, we simply do not have the structure or the resources to imprison an unknown number of mages for an indefinite amount of time.” Guard-Captain Vallen’s voice was growing louder and more annoyed with every word. “Did it even occur to you to consult …”

“My authority in this situation is clear, Guard-Captain,” Meredith snapped. “I have made my decision. You will see to it that those arrested are restrained appropriately. We will discuss more permanent cells later.” She waved a dismissive hand and turned away from Aveline, signaling her desire to end the conversation.

“Oh, we will, will we? Just how long do you intend for these ‘emergency powers’ to last, Councilwoman?” Aveline challenged, walking around the other woman to face her again.

“As long as they are necessary to protect this city,” Meredith spat.

This reminds me of that puzzle where an unstoppable force meets an immovable object , Alistair thought, rubbing the bridge of his nose. He was cheering for Guard-Captain Vallen, of course, but the problem was that Aveline was trying to use logic and sensible reasons to support her points. It didn’t seem like Meredith was interested in either of those things.

He noticed that Cullen Rutherford was also pretending to ignore the argument. The older man looked more and more uncomfortable with each passing word. Alistair had never expected to see the intimidating Agent Rutherford looking so ill at ease. He wondered if Cullen was starting to regret joining forces with Meredith, or if he was just frustrated that the Guard-Captain wasn’t knuckling under as easily as they’d hoped.

Fenris Leto chose that moment to re-enter the room, coffee in hand. The elven detective looked over at the argument and let out a resigned but silent sigh as he took the seat next to Alistair’s.

“Did I miss anything productive?” he murmured.

“They’re kind of going in circles,” Alistair replied.

He was about to ask if Fenris had any idea what they were supposed to do next when Samson and Alrik entered the room.

Alistair knew by looking at them that he wasn’t going to like whatever they had to say. Samson looked pretty much like he always did—pale and miserable—but Alrik had a smirk that Alistair didn’t trust.

Meredith turned towards them. “Well?”

“Both tips were good.” Alrik’s chest puffed out in pride. “Found an elf who’s been peddling her magic as a healer. The barista’s the big prize, though. She’s a former Enchanter from the Circle named Mei Surana.”

Alistair’s jaw dropped open.

“I’d bet anything she knows where Amell is,” the ex-Templar continued with an ugly smile on his face. “Just say the word and I’ll have her in an interrogation room.”

“I can handle this, Councilwoman.” Cullen’s tenor voice was tight and nervous, but he squared his shoulders as he turned to Meredith. “I—I worked alongside Ms. Surana. I doubt she is involved, but perhaps she might trust a more familiar face?”

Meredith considered this, then nodded. “You have my leave to question her, Mr. Rutherford. But do not offer her any legal protections until we know the full extent of her involvement.”

Cullen nodded, then rushed from the room.

Alrik was visibly disappointed. Samson didn’t seem to care one way or the other, though. He sat down at a nearby table with a heavy thump. “Hope Rutherford can handle that one. I remember her—she’s tough. Never thought she was the type to escape from the Circle.”

“She’s not!”

Alistair was out of his chair and standing before he quite knew what he was doing. “She resigned her license and left the Circle legally,” he informed Samson. “After saving my life. Twice. That’s who we’re arresting first? You can’t be serious.” He directed that last comment at Meredith, who unfortunately looked very serious indeed.

Beside him, Fenris stood. “I must add my objection. Ms. Surana captured Danarius’s apprentice only days ago. Surely it cannot be a good idea to imprison people whom we know are not Danarius’s collaborators.”

“Councilwoman, you saw her at the Circle after the crisis,” Alistair pleaded. “You know Mei risked her life to …”

“Ms. Surana chose to abandon the Circle and place the city at risk by living outside Templar supervision,” Meredith interrupted coldly. “She is being detained temporarily for her own protection, and for ours. If you object, you are welcome to leave my command.”

Alistair almost sat down. Meredith’s piercing green eyes were practically glaring holes in his head, and she just sounded so damn sure of herself. But then he remembered Mei rushing to his aid against Uldred, and how she’d offered to talk about his mother with him.

He summoned every ounce of bravery he had and met that green gaze head-on. “You know what? I do object, and I think I will leave your task force. Sounds like a splendid idea, actually.”

The shocked look on the Councilwoman’s face was absolutely priceless. Her head swung towards Aveline. “Guard-Captain, are you going to allow this insubordination in your ranks?” she asked, her voice cracking with rage.

Aveline crossed her arms. “You did offer Guardsman Guerrin the opportunity for reassignment, Councilwoman,” she said mildly. “He accepted. I see no insubordination.”

Meredith’s mouth curled in a snarl. For a moment she seemed at a loss for words, but before long she found her voice. “Get out of this room. All three of you.” She flung her arm out, pointing a single finger towards the door. “I have no need for those who question my methods or my motives. Detective, I expected better.”

Fenris inclined his head in a graceful, respectful, and yet utterly cutting bow. “As did I, Councilwoman.”

 


 

Mei shifted on the bench in her cell, trying to find a way to sit with her hands tied behind her back. Any position she chose seemed to either pull at her shoulders, or shove her forward into an oddly hunched-over position. Finally, she settled on turning her back to the bench’s shorter end and letting her hands dangle off the side. It wasn’t comfortable, exactly, but it was the best she’d come up with so far.

A brunette elf in the cell opposite hers was crying quietly, her head leaned against the brick wall of her cell. Mei almost called out to her, but thought better of it; perhaps the woman would not welcome a reminder that she could be seen.

What’s going to happen to us?

At least Alrik and Samson are gone. She thanked the Maker for small mercies.

She also thanked the Maker that she’d had time to cast the Arcane Warrior spell before Samson and Alrik put her in handcuffs. She wasn’t going to break out just yet, but she felt pleasantly confident that one good wrench of her hands would snap the handcuff chain in two.

The door to the holding area creaked open. Mei tensed and leapt to her feet, expecting to see Alrik. The menacing older man had mentioned “questioning” several times during the ride in the squad car; he was clearly looking forward to it.

But Cullen Rutherford walked through the door instead.

Mei felt her knees wobble as his golden eyes met hers. For just a second—one awful, wonderful second—it felt as if the past six months had never happened. As if she was standing in her Enchanter’s suit, looking at him in Templar silver, sharing a silent, secret glance with the man she loved.

But then reality came crashing back. Cullen was wearing black now, and she was in Three Nugs green, and he had betrayed her best friend.

“I’ll save you some time, Agent Rutherford,” she said coldly as he approached. “I don’t know where your magister is, or where Marcus Amell is. If I did, I would have told Max long ago and laughed while they were arrested.”

Cullen flinched. Unconsciously, he raised the clipboard in his hand, wielding it almost like a shield. “I know, Mei,” he said quietly. “I know you have nothing to do with this. I … I just came to say that this is only temporary, and you’ll be released as soon as …”

A red haze rose in Mei’s eyes; her limbs started shaking. She had the oddest sense of flying high above herself, too torn between nerves and anger to stop her next words.

“Shut up.”

Cullen’s jaw dropped. “What?”

“I said shut up! ” Mei snarled. “I don’t want hear a single Maker-blighted word out of your mouth, Cullen Rutherford.” She was shaking with the force of her rage. “Nothing you have to say would interest me in the slightest. You’re working with Meredith Stannard—no, you put her in charge, and you stabbed Max in the back to make it happen. Now she’s doing exactly what she’s always said she’d do: putting mages into cells for no reason besides existing.”

Cullen’s face hardened. “I did what I thought was right. I thought you’d understand.”

“You thought I’d understand? Oh, Maker help me,” Mei groaned, tilting her head up to the ceiling. “You thought I’d understand being shackled and thrown in a cell? You thought I’d understand you betraying a friend who’s gone out of his way to help me—and who, incidentally, has done nothing but help you?”

Her head snapped back up and she glared right at her former lover. His handsome face was pale with shock. Somehow that just made her angrier. How could he not have known she’d be furious with him?

“You always did have some sort of idea that I’m a saint, Cullen. Allow me to help you get over your delusion. I’m sorry for what you went through. I can’t imagine how awful it was in that prison, or how hard things have been for you since. But right now I don’t give a pile of nug crap about your reasons. I just want you out of my sight.”

To make her point, Mei spun on her heel, turning her back to him. She nearly fell—her balance was off thanks to the damned handcuffs—but she managed to steady herself just in time. She glared at the wall of her cell, silently daring him to say something more. But no words came.

When she turned around, he was gone.

Across the hallway, the other elf was blinking in astonishment, her eyes still red but her tears momentarily stilled. “Friend of yours?” she asked tentatively, a slight smile on her lips.

“Ex-boyfriend,” Mei admitted. “What did they grab you for?”

“I’m a nurse at a clinic in the alienage,” the woman sighed. “Sometimes I use a little magic to help patients. Apparently someone ratted me out.” She shook her head. “Maker help me. Who’s going to pick my kids up from school?”

Another tear ran out of her eyes, and Mei felt her rage bubble up all over again. But the woman choked back a sob and took a deep breath. “Figures they grabbed elves first, huh?”

Mei gritted her teeth. “Yeah. It figures.”

Damn you, Cullen.

 


 

Fenris’s heart should have been beating wildly. He should have been panicking. Danarius was in Denerim and he’d just been thrown off the only official force permitted to deal with him. Over a mage, nonetheless.

Instead, he felt nothing but sharp, calm clarity as he followed Aveline and Alistair down the hall to the Guard-Captain’s office. Meredith’s methods were going nowhere. Losing whatever support she offered was, in the end, no loss at all. Stopping him is my task.

Alistair mistook the reason for his silence. “Um. Detective? I’m really sorry. I thought I was only getting me thrown out,” the boy said sheepishly.

“You do not need to apologize,” Fenris replied. “You spoke the truth, as did I. The Councilwoman chose not to hear it.”

“The Councilwoman hears very little that she doesn’t want to hear.” The normally collected Guard-Captain practically spat those words as she marched down the hallway. “I’m starting to think that woman has cotton wool shoved into her ears at all times.”

“You know, that would explain some things,” Alistair said thoughtfully.

Fenris opened his mouth to ask what they were going to do next—for surely they would not simply leave things to Meredith—but paused in surprise when they turned the corner towards Aveline’s office.

Naia was standing next to Aveline’s door, her mouth twisted in frustration. The expression was instantly replaced with a smile when she spotted them.

“Just the people I wanted to see. Anyone in the mood to hear something insane?”

*

“Time travel,” Fenris said flatly.

Naia shrugged, her palms up in the air. “Look, I would have sent Dorian and Max to explain it, but Meredith would have thrown them into a basement cell or something.”

“You wish me to take the word of a Tevinter magister.” From what Naia had said this Dorian Pavus was an altus, not a magister, but Fenris didn’t particularly care about the distinction at the moment.

“Trevelyan backed him up,” the other elf insisted. “I believe them.”

“Max wouldn’t make up something like that.” Alistair looked worried. “Maker. You really think a bunch of mages are going to attack the Guard house tomorrow?”

“I think that’s the plan. We’re going to try and separate them from their lyrium supply—by completely legal means, Guard-Captain,” Naia added hastily.

Aveline arched an eyebrow. “Of course,” she deadpanned.

“But from what Max said about that future he visited, Danarius’s people make their move tomorrow and it gets ugly, fast.” Naia grimaced. “Once they’re done at the Guard house they move on to the Council building.”

Fenris sat back in his chair. “And the Templars offer no aid?”

“Max said no.” Naia scowled. “Apparently the guy who leads the Templars decides to let Denerim reap the rewards of Meredith’s bright idea. You could try calling him now, before the attack,” she offered. “Maybe the answer will be different.”

Aveline heaved a heavy sigh. “I know something of Templar politics from the time when I was married to one. So long as Meredith’s task force remains active and the Templars’ rights suspended, I would not expect the Lord Seeker to authorize help.”

“So it’s up to us.” Fenris could not help but admire the certainty in Alistair’s voice.

“I believe it is.” The Guard-Captain slowly looked at the three of them in turn, her face grave. Her gaze settled, in the end, on Naia. “You think this information credible?”

The elf nodded.

Aveline closed her eyes. “Maker help us.”

When she opened them again, she was looking straight at Fenris. “Officially, Detective, I have instructed you to return to work at the usual time tomorrow. Un officially, I think you should drive Ms. Tabris back to her office and go spend some time with your girlfriend.” She glanced over at Alistair. “Mr. Guerrin, I am afraid I must ask you to work some overtime. I know you cannot train a new group of Templars overnight, but you and I can pass along at least a few strategies for battling mages. We must do this, of course, without alerting the Councilwoman. I do not trust her reaction should she learn that we are preparing for an invasion.”

Naia looked over at Fenris. Though he liked the plan Aveline had outlined, Fenris didn’t quite trust the look in his friend’s eyes. There is more she has not told us.

But all she said was, “Got it, Guard-Captain. Come on, Fenris. We’ve got work to do.”

*

They were halfway down the stairwell when the other shoe dropped.

“We need to get Mei Surana on our way out,” said Naia—casually, as if she were reminding him to grab his jacket.

“You are proposing we free a prisoner from the Guard’s holding cells without authorization,” Fenris said flatly.

Naia shrugged. “Dorian thinks Varania will talk to her, and we need to know where they stashed the lyrium. Besides, it’s bullshit that she’s here.”

Every instinct Fenris had was telling him to argue the point. But had he not just gotten himself ejected from Meredith’s task force by arguing that Surana should not have been arrested?

He sighed. “Her imprisonment was unjust. And if she can help separate Danarius from his supply of lyrium, it must be done.”

“Just the kind of enthusiasm I was hoping for.” Naia grinned at him. There was a gleam in her eyes Fenris didn’t often see—not just her usual good cheer, but a rush of manic adrenaline that he suspected accompanied her less-than-legal activities. “Come on. Let’s go steal a mage.”

Fenris spent the journey down the stairwell wondering and worrying if Cullen would still be there, or if Samson and Alrik might have gone to question Mei. But there was only the tired-looking Guardsman on duty watching the cells.

Fortunately, Naia had a lie at the ready. “Councilwoman Stannard is concerned about the security of these cells. We’ll be moving …”

“No problem,” the Guardsman interrupted, looking warily at Fenris as he held out the keys to the cells. “Go on in.”

The cells were silent and mostly empty when they walked in. Mei was standing next to the bars of hers, watching the door warily. Her face relaxed when she realized it was him—and then grew puzzled when she spotted Naia beside him.

“Hi!” Naia said brightly. “We’re here to let you out.”

Surana raised her dark eyebrows. “Meredith changed her mind?”

“Um. No. I probably should have said ‘break you out,’” Naia admitted.

“Ah. I appreciate the thought,” the mage said wryly. “But I’m not sure I’m ready to be a fugitive just yet.” She shot Fenris a curious look. “How did she rope you into this?”

“There is a situation unfolding.” Fenris shot an uncomfortable look at the other prisoner in the room, a pale elven woman who was pretending not to listen. “As I understand it, Max Trevelyan said we would need you.” He forced himself to look into Surana’s eyes. “And even if that were not the case, you should not be here. You were imprisoned without cause.”

Surana’s eyes widened in surprise. “I see.” But then just as quickly, her eyes narrowed in a challenge. “And will you let her out as well?”

Fenris turned his head towards the other elf, who was now openly staring at them, her mouth hanging open. The woman was wearing pink and green scrubs; a nurse of some sort, clearly. Her eyes were rimmed with red and her face was pale, but her eyes had widened hopefully at Surana’s question. She did not look like the kind of person who had expected to see the inside of a cell that day. Her hands were tied behind her back, and Fenris felt an unexpected flash of an emotion he couldn’t quite name. It was something close to guilt.

“She’s a healer who exposed her powers by helping patients. If I don’t deserve to be here, neither does she,” Surana continued.

“It is not so simple,” Fenris growled, feeling himself grow annoyed. “You have earned my trust. I know nothing about this woman.”

The stranger’s face fell, the flicker of hope in her eyes vanishing as quickly as it had come.

“So the only mages worthy of freedom are the ones you personally know?” Surana retorted. “How unlucky for the ones who never meet you.”

Feeling off-balance, Fenris looked to Naia for support. He quickly saw he wouldn’t find it; his friend arched an eyebrow at him, as if to say “she has a point.” Even after Danarius’s attack, she would release an unknown mage into Denerim. She has worked too many years alongside Hawke, he thought with a silent sigh.

He did not have to wonder what Hawke would say if she were there.

If Danarius attacks tomorrow, as planned, this woman may well die.

With a sigh and a muttered curse in Tevene, Fenris reached for his keys.

As he opened the nurse’s cell, he could feel Naia’s eyes on him. He swung his head around to look at her. “What?”

She tilted her head. “I’m trying to think of a way to say ‘you’re doing the right thing’ that doesn’t sound condescending.”

He could not help a chuckle. “You would have picked the lock if I refused,” he pointed out.

“True.” Naia shrugged, a little smile on her lips. “But I don’t think that’s why you did it.”

It was not. But Fenris was not about to admit that out loud.