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