Varel shifted against the sheets, then shifted again. He punched the pillow and moved up, and grimaced when he did. His arm throbbed. Which was only to be expected, of course, since there'd been a crossbow bolt through it not all that many hours before. He was too much of an old campaigner to be surprised by the pain -- not the immediate punch that was almost too sharp and sudden to be understood, and not this lingering ache, low and persistent.
That didn't mean he had to like it, though.
At least he was in his own bed, not a cot in the infirmary. The Vigil's infirmary was quite a pleasant place these days, clean-scrubbed and with white-washed walls, well lit by large windows, but it also contained a very talkative mage who was happy to share his opinions on everything while cutting up elfroot in a rather lackadaisical manner.
Anders had been particularly eager to share his opinions on the warden-commander. "And it seems someone told him it was important to keep the roads safe," he'd said, waving his knife in the air. "So of course he thinks that means that he personally has to keep the roads safe. Every single one of them."
Varel's faint interjection, "But we have patrols," might as well have remained unspoken.
"Honestly, I've been up and down every miserable little byway in the entire arling, and do you want to know something, seneschal?" Anders attacked the elfroot with renewed vigor. "They all have bandits on them! Or darkspawn. Or wolves. Or angry dwarves. We never did find out what the dwarves were so angry about, they just attacked out of nowhere, grar. Is that normal? I thought dwarves were friendlier." He sniffed. "Maybe I can ask Sigrun about it. Or Oghren, but I bet he'll just fart at me."
Of course, Varel knew that if anyone could take care of himself, it was the warden-commander. He might be an elf, and a mage, and an Orlesian, of all things, and he looked to be barely out of his teens, but he was undoubtedly very competent. Was, in fact, the most overwhelmingly powerful primal mage Varel had ever seen, or heard tell of. All the same, when Anders started to say something about small but vicious dragonlings jumping them out of the blue, Varel might have been a little alarmed, but just then Nathaniel Howe had come to call Anders away, and as soon as the infirmary was empty, Varel left.
And here he was, comfortable in his own bed, or he would have been, if his arm had let him be comfortable anywhere. He had a small glass of brandy on the bedside table, and there was a soothing lack of blond mages with knives.
He couldn't stop thinking about the commander out on the roads of Amaranthine, being attacked by dragonlings. Because the commander, as Anders hadn't said but Varel was well aware, had the habit of going out on his own whenever he felt like it. Varel had always figured it was just a way to get away from talkative mages and surly Howes and drunken dwarves for a while, Maker knew a man might need that, but now he had a vision of a slim and unassuming figure in plain robes walking along, actively looking for trouble, and then there'd be a dragon...
Or at least a dragonling. Amaranthine had been home to dragons in times past; there were many stories about that. The idea that the dragons might be coming back was unwelcome, to say the least. The people of Amaranthine had enough other trouble to deal with, since the darkspawn were still ravaging the land even though the Blight was ended. The commander ought to give all his attention to the darkspawn menace, not go about looking for dragonlings to fight.
It sounded like reckless behavior, and Varel's impression of the commander was not an impression of a particularly reckless person. On the contrary, the commander appeared to be quiet, reserved, efficient, and pragmatic.
Then again, Varel was the first to admit that he didn't know the commander all that well. He would have been happy to say that it was because the commander hadn't been at the Vigil very long, which was true enough, but he suspected that it had more to do with the commander's personality. The commander wasn't the kind of person who showed his feelings easily, or shared anything about himself that wasn't obvious and public knowledge. Elf, mage, Orlesian: everyone knew that.
But Varel was the man's seneschal, and theoretically his right hand. He should know more. Looking down at his bandages, he thought he wasn't much of a right hand at the moment, not with his entire arm wrapped up in linen. Anders might have been a little too enthusiastic, there.
When he looked at the place of his injury, he thought he could see, still, the crossbow quarrel embedded in his flesh. He knew this impression would fade with time. The first time he'd taken a wound in battle, he'd spent weeks afterwards touching his shoulder, just to feel that he didn't actually have a sword stuck there. The pain had faded long before he could break himself of the gesture.
A knock on the door brought him back to the here and now. Varel frowned. No one would be coming to see him in his quarters at this hour, certainly not anyone who would knock. The servants knew he preferred his privacy once the door was closed, and he hadn't asked for anything to be brought to him. Garevel wouldn't knock, and would probably have started talking about something important-to-him at the other end of the hallway, so he'd be in mid-sentence when he stormed in. Woolsey wouldn't knock, either; the time she'd come in to find him undressed had been quite embarrassing for him, but not for her. She'd simply turned her back and announced her errand to the wall in a crisp voice, while he'd struggled with his shirt laces.
"Come," Varel called reluctantly, thinking if this was Anders about to scold him for leaving the infirmary, he'd get up just so he could throw the mage out.
But it wasn't. The door opened the merest crack, and the warden-commander slipped inside. Varel blinked at the unexpected sight. The commander was in his very plainest robes, and against the grey and tan, his copper hair fell loose about his shoulders and gleamed in the candlelight. He crossed the room with light steps and sat down on the side of Varel's bed, rather than in the chair a little distance away. Elyon Andras, Commander of the Grey in Ferelden and arl of all Amaranthine, knew how to make his presence felt, but a lot of the time, he kept that presence muted. Right then, he was just a straight-backed young elven man in a simple outfit, but Varel couldn't forget his titles or his authority.
"Thank you," the commander said. "You took a crossbow bolt meant for me. I am grateful."
"You said that before," Varel said, and then grimaced, because that was not a gracious way to respond to one's commander's honest gratitude. He was bewildered, though. "I mean, that's my job. To protect you. So I'm glad I could do it."
He was, too, despite the pain. Enough dark things had been done by Amaranthine soldiers in Rendon Howe's name; maybe a bit of untainted loyalty to this unlikely new arl would at least begin to make up for it.
A smile passed over the commander's face, as fast as the crossbow bolt had been. Most of the time he looked very serious; Varel could count on one hand the number of smiles he'd had from the man. He wished this one could have been for something he'd actually meant to be amusing.
"I am grateful," the commander said. "But I wish you would remember that I can take care of myself." He had the faintest possible accent, more like an undertone in his voice than anything else, but when he spoke more emphatically about something, that undertone was more pronounced.
So to speak. Varel wondered if his wandering mind had just made a pun. Between the pain and the brandy, he had to admit he wasn't at his sharpest right then. That was probably the only explanation for why he went on to say, "Yes, commander, but you don't look it."
The commander grew a little more still, then moved again. When he tilted his head to the side, the point of one ear stuck out through his hair. "Surely a man your age must have worked with elves before," he said, his voice just a shade too even to sound entirely natural.
"That's not--" Varel tried to marshal his thoughts. "Commander, you don't wear armor, you're about half my size, and probably about half my age, too." Or less. Not that that had anything to do with, well, with anything. Really. "And you're my commanding officer. Of course I'll try to protect you."
That got him a considering gaze out of long, slightly tilted grey eyes. "The empress didn't send a child here, seneschal."
"No! No, that's not what I meant to imply." Varel figured he had just somehow managed to insult both his Orlesian commander and the empress of Orlais. His arm throbbed, as if to underscore the tactlessness. At least the empress wasn't here, but his commander was sitting on the edge of his bed looking a little tight-lipped. "I'm sorry, commander. I didn't mean to offend you. I'm an old campaigner, not a diplomat."
"And you're in pain," the commander said calmly. "Didn't Anders give you something for that?"
"Oh, he did," Varel said. "The healing itself did plenty. And he gave me some herbal drink to take later on if I felt any pain."
The commander looked at the bedside table, which held a candle and a jar of armor polish and the glass of brandy. "An invisible herbal drink, it would appear."
"Er." Varel shrugged, then flinched, because the shrug moved his arm a lot more than he'd planned, then tried to suppress a sound of pain at the flinch. He could probably have used the herbal drink right then. "To tell you the truth, commander," he got out between his teeth, "I don't like stuff that makes my head fuzzy."
The commander looked at the glass of brandy again, at Varel's face, and said nothing in a fairly pointed way. At least, Varel thought it was pointed. He wished the commander's face weren't so blighted hard to read. Maybe that was how people were trained to act in Orlais, at least in the empress's court. He remembered vividly the masks worn by Orlesian military commanders and nobility during their conquest of Ferelden; he knew masks were still the fashion in Orlais. Maybe making your face into just another mask was necessary to survive court politics. The commander's face was a very pretty mask, but that didn't make it any easier to interpret.
"Hold still, please," the commander said. A ball of warm green light danced in his upturned palm. Varel watched, fascinated, as the commander turned his hand and put it on Varel's aching arm, and that green light sank into him and spread out. At first it burned a little, like dipping his arm in too-hot water; then the heat became a soothing warmth, curling into the throbbing wrongness in his arm and taking it away.
"Thank you," he said hoarsely. He kept forgetting that the commander knew a bit of healing as well, and was just as powerful using that as he was using his more destructive magics.
"Anders did all the difficult work," the commander said absently, staring at Varel's arm with a tiny frown between his thin, straight brows, apparently seeing straight through the bandages. "But I thought I would speed things up a little for you."
A second wave of the same shade of green followed, not quite as sharp as the first. Its comforting warmth seemed to spread all through Varel's body, like an unexpected caress, and just as unexpectedly, he found himself responding in a way that really wasn't seemly, given their respective positions.
Varel squirmed a little and used his uninjured arm to adjust the bedding a bit, so that the blanket draped more loosely, and with any luck less revealingly, about his groin. This was an entirely new problem for him; he'd never grown hard from healing before, not even when he was younger and more easily stirred. He was very glad that he hadn't reacted like this to Anders's touch. Anders most definitely wasn't his type.
But the warden-commander, well. He shouldn't be Varel's type. Elyon Andras was very young, and very beautiful, and very much Varel's commander, and not a person he should have lustful thoughts about for a number of reasons, and most definitely a person he found extremely attractive. He tried to think about something else. "That's very kind of you, commander," he said, keeping his voice gruff, "but you really shouldn't squander your abilities on me. I'll be fine in a day or two, I promise you."
"I'll spend my power how I like," the commander said, sounding a bit more firm than usual, though still quite calm. "Healing is one of the very few things I can do with my magic that actually helps people. I enjoy doing it."
"I see," Varel said. He didn't see, though, not really. This skill at healing was useful, of course it was, but not the main reason why people would rather stand behind the commander than behind a stone wall in case the darkspawn attacked again. "But commander, all the other things you can do... You help people. Protect them."
Varel had known that since the first time he saw the new commander, slim form almost overshadowed by Anders's height and brash manner, poor Mhairi's armored strength, the sweep of Oghren's huge blade. Overshadowed until he smote the darkspawn with ice and lightning, seemingly blasting the sky wide open with the power leaping from his hands, and saved Varel's life.
"That's not a common view," the commander said. "People are more likely to fear what a mage can do, even if he should happen to be on their side." His eyes met Varel's, still unreadable. "Aren't you afraid I'll bring the roof down on our heads, or use blood magic to make you obey my every command?"
Varel chuckled. "If you brought the roof down on our heads, that would hurt you as much as me," he pointed out. "Master Voldrik would be furious, too. And you're my arl and commanding officer. I already do obey you."
"When it suits you," the commander said, but not in a tone of voice that made it a criticism. "I have to admit I'd as soon keep the roof where it belongs. Voldrik's finally a little happier with me after I found him some granite, and I'd prefer to keep it that way." He tugged down the sleeves of the robe about his wrists, and Varel watched the unnecessary gesture in some fascination. The commander never fidgeted. Then he looked up, and now his eyes were sharper than before, intent. "But if you have no fear of magic, why did my healing make you uncomfortable?"
"Oh, that!" Varel tried to laugh, but the sound stuck in his throat. "That was nothing, commander. Please don't concern yourself with it." The commander's eyes didn't release him. "I was just a little stiff from lying so still for too long." Then he wished he hadn't used the word stiff.
"So it had nothing to do with the magic, or a concern that I might lose control of it."
"No!" Varel said at once, but he could hear the falseness in his own voice. It had a lot to do with the magic, after all, although it wasn't the commander who he felt might lose control of anything.
Evidently the commander could hear it, too. Everything about him shut down, and Varel wondered how he could have thought the commander remote and expressionless before. Now he had an ice statue sitting on the edge of the bed. "I see." The commander gathered himself to rise. "I won't bother you again, seneschal."
"Wait," Varel said, putting a hand on the commander's arm and wincing, because apparently too-quick movements still hurt a bit, but he really didn't care. He'd made the commander look like that, and that was wrong. "I think you misunderstood me. Or, well, I lied to you. The thing is..."
The commander's eyes were still icy and distant, but he'd stopped moving. "Yes?" he said, barely inflecting the word enough to make it a question and tell Varel to continue.
And this was definitely embarrassing, but he couldn't let the commander walk out of here thinking that everyone in the arling was afraid of his magic. Maybe everyone else was, though Varel didn't think so -- Woolsey, for one, didn't appear to be afraid of anything whatsoever -- but the idea that Varel was could at least be exposed as a misunderstanding.
"I wasn't scared of your magic, commander," he said. "I just... reacted a bit strongly to it, you might say." Varel tried to keep a bluff, no-nonsense tone to his voice, the way he'd have spoken to another soldier, implying that his reaction wasn't that unusual. "Seems your healing is strong enough to encourage my body into thinking it's younger than it is. Especially some parts."
Now the commander's eyes on him were more thoughtful than anything else. "You're hardly ancient and decrepit," he said unexpectedly. "Not any part of you, I should think."
"Er," Varel said. He had no intention of discussing intimate matters, and their relationship to a man's age, with his commander. None at all. "Well, you know how it is when a man gets on a bit in years." He looked at the commander's beautiful young face. "Or I suppose you don't know."
"No," the commander agreed, "but I believe I'd like to know." Varel blinked. The commander put a hand on his arm again, a strong, slim hand with uncommonly well-kept nails. "Unless you object."
"I'm not certain I know what we're talking about, commander," Varel admitted. "Do you really want to make a study of how healing affects older men? No offense intended, but you have more important things to concern yourself with."
"Not older men in general, no." Cool grey eyes met his, and that hand stayed on his arm. "Just this man in particular."
This couldn't be what it sounded like, Varel thought. It just couldn't. The commander was entirely too young and beautiful and unapproachable. He also had a habit of being obscure and elliptical in his speech, leaving everything he said open to interpretation. Varel thought that was probably an Orlesian courtier thing, too. Another kind of mask. It must be important to them not to give too much away.
"You'll have to forgive me, commander," he said. "I'm a plain soldier and I like plain speech. What do you want of me?"
"To bring you a bit of relief," the commander said, "if you'll allow me." Another warm pulse of healing energy spread from his hand on Varel's arm out through Varel's entire body, making him feel younger and stronger than he had in years, truth be told. Harder, too. He probably needed another blanket now if he were to have any chance to hide his reaction. Several blankets. "How does that make you feel?"
"Like I need a bit of time alone," Varel gritted out. There was definitely no relief in having the commander so close. And now the commander took his hand away from Varel's arm again.
"Would you prefer that?" he asked, voice as flat and neutral as it could be. "I understand that some humans do, in fact, find elves unattractive. And many Fereldans find Orlesians loathsome."
"Are you." Varel cleared his throat. If one of them was going to speak plainly, it would clearly have to be him. It was probably useless to expect the commander to give up the habit of Orlesian obscurity. "Are you asking me if I find you attractive, commander?" No, he couldn't stop there, either. "Because I do. Very much so."
That made the commander's eyes meet his again, and this time Varel thought he was starting to learn how to read those tiny non-expressions. Surprise, that was it. Hard to believe that the commander would be surprised that anyone would find him attractive -- Varel would be more surprised, personally, if someone didn't -- but maybe the surprise was for the idea that it would be said bluntly and out loud.
Orlesians, Varel thought, exasperated and at the same time oddly fond. No doubt they'd have talked in circles around the matter for a few hours more.
"I'm pleased to hear that," the commander said. "You won't object, then, if I relieve your discomfort."
"Er, no?" Varel said, still not completely, entirely sure what this was leading up to, because it seemed so unlikely that--
The commander pulled the blanket and sheet away, leaving Varel exposed down to mid-thigh. His smallclothes did nothing to hide the state he was in. Varel had always been a big man, in every sense of the word. He was fully erect now, with all that green energy still tingling through him. Before he could think of anything else to say, the commander's hand was on him in a warm and steady grip, squeezing gently, as if to get the measure of him.
Varel groaned. So that really was what they'd been talking about, then. The commander's other hand deftly undid a side tie and pulled the smallclothes away, which meant the touch between them was skin on skin now, warm and intimate. The commander's hand was quite smooth, certainly free of the sword calluses that hardened Varel's own palms.
"Since you value plain speaking," the commander said, "I'll tell you there's something I've wanted to do for some time now. But you must let me know if you don't like it." With those words, he bent forward and licked a hot, wet swipe across the head of Varel's cock, then took it in his mouth. All Varel could see, lying very nearly flat as he was, was the back of the commander's head and its shining fall of copper hair, but he most definitely felt those sweet lips stretch around his girth, felt the tongue swirling, teasing and tasting, and he groaned again. Let the commander know if he didn't like it, would he? In a hundred years or so, perhaps.
"Maker, that's," he said incoherently. "Yes." The soft suction around the head was delicious, and the commander's hand kept on squeezing and stroking the shaft. Varel just wished he could see it. He dropped his head back against the pillow, closed his eyes, and pictured it in his mind instead: the commander's mouth open wide, lips and tongue working hard. "Oh, yes."
Then the commander, damn him, stopped. Varel looked down to see clear grey eyes, though his gaze was irresistibly drawn to the spit-shiny lips instead. "I'm sorry," the commander said, "did you mean yes, you're letting me know you don't like it?"
The commander was teasing him. Varel hadn't thought the commander was capable of such a thing. Then again, he'd never thought the commander would suck his cock, either. "No," he said. "No, that's not what I meant. I like it." He tried to look stern rather than pleasure-dazed and craving more. "You must know I like it."
"I just wanted to be certain," the commander said calmly, and then moved up onto the bed, kneeling astride Varel's legs without getting his robes either tangled up or bunched, which had to be a magic all its own. His hand had maintained the same firm grip, and now he lifted Varel's cock to stand straight up, and bent to take it in his mouth again.
And now, Varel could definitely see. He could see how the commander had to work to take him in, a trickle of saliva escaping to run hot down the shaft and meet the commander's pumping hand. He could see, when the commander pulled back a little, how the commander's tongue slicked the head in long swipes, licking up every early drop that spilled from his eager body. And he could see, when the commander pushed down again and tilted his head a little, how the head of his cock pushed against the commander's cheek from the inside. That sight in particular sent a jolt down his spine.
Varel was resigned to teeth, always had been, because there was no way anyone could suck him and keep their teeth completely out of the way, not if they had teeth. Which he certainly preferred his lovers to have. The occasional gentle graze, he thought, could be quite pleasurable.
The commander most assuredly had teeth; Varel had seen them, white and sharp and even. He could feel them, too, but not in a bad way. The steady suction of the commander's mouth was soft and wet and wonderful, taking Varel in deeper and deeper, until his cock pressed against the back of the commander's throat and the commander made a low choking sound. He didn't stop, though, just moved his head back a tiny bit and then did it again, pressing down and choking.
"Don't," Varel said, his voice a bit rusty, "I mean, you can't, and that angle, don't hurt yourself."
The commander pulled back. "I like it," he said, in that matter-of-fact way of his, and then went back to sucking. He didn't gag when Varel's cock hit the back of his throat again, just made that same little choking sound. Varel really didn't want to choke his partner, let alone choke his commander, but he wasn't the one doing it; the commander was in control, sucking steadily and taking Varel as deep into his mouth as possible, again and again.
It felt so good. It felt incredibly good. Varel couldn't take his eyes off the sight of his own cock steadied by the commander's long-fingered hand and disappearing into the commander's mouth, the way the commander's cheeks were hollowed out by the suction and his cheekbones stood out more markedly in contrast. The commander's own eyes were closed as he sucked, dark copper lashes trembling, and for some reason Varel found that sight almost unbearably enticing.
If he'd been a younger man, Varel knew, he'd have gone off already. At his age, though, the pleasure built more slowly and lasted longer. He could feel it gathering heavily in his hips, at the base of his spine, in his balls. Then the commander brought his free hand up to caress Varel's balls, rolling them against his smooth palm, and Varel groaned. He was resolved to keep still, to let everything happen at the commander's pace, but the tension that grew in his body had its own demands.
When the commander's tongue fluttered just right against the underside of his cock, Varel couldn't keep his eyes open any more, and his hips jerked up. He heard the commander choke again, but the grip on his shaft remained steady, the wonderful suction never let up, and release tore through him like the bursting of a dam. Varel spent himself in jerky, heavy pulses, while the commander swallowed and swallowed and swallowed.
The aftermath of that staggering pleasure left him weak and dazed, and Varel lay unmoving, feeling the commander's hands and mouth slow and gentle, and then finally release him. One last swift, warm touch -- did the commander really press his lips against the head of Varel's cock in the lightest of kisses? That seemed even more unbelievable, somehow, than what had just passed between them. Varel struggled to open his eyes again, but it wasn't until the commander's weight moved away and the blankets were pulled up and tucked around him that he managed it. There the commander was, standing at his bedside, hair and robes perfectly ordered, as always. But the commander's mouth... the lips were reddened, a little swollen, and as Varel watched, the commander's tongue darted out quickly, as if licking away a lingering taste.
"You should sleep now," the commander said, calm and colorless, as if he hadn't had Varel's cock in his mouth just moments ago. "Give the healing a chance to work."
"Yes, but commander," Varel said. This one-sided encounter didn't sit right with him. "I should, I mean, for you..."
The commander shook his head. "Sleep," he said again, and while his voice wasn't precisely cold, it was very firm. He went to the door. "You'll feel better tomorrow. Thank you again for what you did for me, seneschal."
Then he was gone, door closing behind him, and Varel blew out the deep breath he'd drawn to say something. If the commander had just sucked him to say thank you for saving his life, that was wrong. Even if it had felt spectacular. That didn't seem quite right, though, as an explanation. Nothing about the commander's cool, measured manner had ever suggested flirtation or the bartering of favors. Maybe they did these things differently in Orlais, but Varel couldn't believe it was that different.
He wanted to think more about the question, but he did feel fuzzy-headed and sleepy now, in a much more pleasant way than what either the brandy or any elfroot-heavy herbal drink could have done for him. Instead of the dull throb of pain from before, his body hummed with a low note of relaxation. Varel chuckled to himself in quiet disbelief. A beautiful young man had come into his room and sucked him off. That seemed more like an idle fantasy than anything else. The beautiful young man had been his undemonstrative and impassive commander: with that, the fantasy went from idle to implausible.
Yet it had happened. Implausible, but clearly not impossible. Varel knew, now, what the commander's lips and tongue felt like on his cock. He stretched out his uninjured arm and pinched out the candle. Quite how he'd look the commander in the face tomorrow, he had no idea, but for now, he'd better do as the man had told him, and sleep. And he wasn't going to dream about that sound the commander made with his mouth full of cock, either.
As it turned out, Varel didn't see the commander the next day. He woke up a couple of hours later than he usually would, feeling nothing more than a mild twinge, as if his wound had been days in the healing rather than just overnight, so of course he got up, and managed to get through most of his morning routine undisturbed. It wasn't until he was on his way to get breakfast that Anders caught him just outside the kitchens. "You were supposed to be resting quietly in the infirmary," the mage said accusingly. "This is not resting quietly. Or the infirmary, come to that."
"Don't like infirmaries much," Varel said. "I just came down here to get something to eat." He tried to edge around Anders. The mage was one of the few men in the keep who could nearly match Varel for height, but he was thin as a fence-rail, and really shouldn't need to take up as much space as he apparently did.
"Me too," Anders said cheerfully. "Something for me and something for Ser Pounce-a-Lot. I think the cook likes him better than me." He held the kitchen door open for Varel, and Varel stepped inside with Anders on his heels.
"Oh, it's you again, is it," Mistress Hansa the cook said. Varel was confused by her words at first, but she was looking at Anders, not at him, as sternly as she could manage. "Come to cadge more food? A bottomless pit, that's what you are."
"A Grey Warden, that's what I am," Anders said with an attempt at dignity. "I'll have you know it takes a lot more than just a crust of bread in the morning to fight darkspawn."
The cook snorted. "That was my best freshly-baked loaf!"
"A crust of delicious bread," Anders amended. "Really, it was excellent bread! You're the Amaranthine queen of bread-making! I'm just hungry again, I guess. All this wardening really takes it out of you."
"Tell that to the commander," the cook said. "He don't eat enough to keep a cat alive, and he's a Grey Warden, same as you."
Varel frowned, because that had been explained to him several times over: wardens needed a lot of food to fuel their bodies and keep the taint in check. It was worst right after the Joining, when new wardens seemed able to eat their own weight at every meal, but a warden kept a healthy appetite for the rest of his life. If the commander wasn't eating properly, something would have to be done about that.
"On the subject of keeping cats alive," Anders said, cocking his head to one side with a bright, ingratiating smile, "do you happen to have a tasty morsel or two laid aside for my adorable little kitty?"
"I might," the cook said. "And I'm not letting you have it. He knows to come down here for his food, same as you." She jabbed her ladle in their direction. "Now sit down, the pair of you, and I'll have the porridge ready for you in a minute."
"Porridge," Anders said, with a certain lack of enthusiasm. "Yum." He looked at Varel. "Well, things could be a lot worse. At the Pearl, they fed me the stale canapes that the customers didn't want the night before... Let me get a look at that arm of yours while we wait." He ruthlessly pushed Varel down on a chair and began to roll up the sleeve of his shirt. "At least you didn't put your armor on today."
"I hope I won't need it here with Mistress Hansa," Varel said. "She's unlikely to take a kitchen knife to me."
No matter how much better he felt, struggling with the heavy weight of the plate and mail on his own had seemed inadvisable, and he hadn't been able to think of anyone who would help him with no questions asked, rather than running to the infirmary and tattling to Anders instead. Everyone on the Vigil's staff was prone to at least consider their orders before obeying them, and most of the time, Varel thought that was just as well; he wanted people serving the wardens who could think for themselves, because anything could happen here, and likely they'd need to, at some point.
That was because of Rendon Howe, Varel knew that. Questioning Rendon Howe's orders had been a bad idea, but obeying them had turned out to be an even worse one, and everyone at the Vigil carried that knowledge with them. The new people were all just brightly confident that they would never have done those things, that they would never come to do any such things; the old people, the people who had been Howe's staff and soldiers, knew how easy it was, and had a different kind of resolve, grimmer but even more bone-deep certain.
Anders, having gotten the sleeve out of the way and the bandages off, stared in disbelief at Varel's arm. "You're not secretly a mage, are you? Because this looks as though you've been healing yourself all night."
"The commander stopped by last night," Varel said. "He did some healing." That certainly wasn't all the commander had done, not by a long shot, but he wasn't going to go into that now, not to Anders, and definitely not with Hansa listening.
"I'll say he did." Anders poked at Varel's arm with an elfroot-stained finger. "Well, I can't improve on this. Looks like you'll barely have a scar to boast of later. And this is where I saved the commander's life," he said in a gruff voice that was presumably an imitation of Varel, though it sounded a lot like his Oghren-voice, "only you can't see it because he fixed it to keep me from talking about it. But I did!"
"I was happy to be able to do it," Varel said. "I don't need a scar to show for it." He had enough of those, anyway.
Anders wrinkled his nose. "You really mean that, don't you. You're all loyal and devoted and earnest about it, too. I wish I understood what makes people--"
He was interrupted by the cook slapping down two porridge bowls in front of them. Varel's had a pat of butter on top. "Eat it while it's hot," she said.
"Hey!" Anders gestured to his own bowl. "How come I don't rate any butter?"
Mistress Hansa crossed her arms and sniffed. "The commander's a nice boy," she said, "even if he happens to be an Orlesian." She looked at Varel. "And the old arl never liked elves about the place, least not where he could see them, but I don't have nothing against them. You did a good thing yesterday, for him and for us all. Now eat up, both of you."
Varel knew better than to argue with that tone of voice, so he picked up his spoon and set to it. Anders muttered under his breath that he'd been there yesterday, too, and he didn't have anything against the commander, and he definitely didn't have a problem with the commander being either an elf or an Orlesian, and he didn't like butter on his porridge anyway. Then he started eating, too. At the other end of the table, Hansa started to cut up some of the early apples for pies, her wickedly sharp little knife flashing as fast as any rogue's.
Maybe it was the food, or maybe it was the morning that made him more clear-headed, but Varel found himself starting to think about yesterday's attack as he sat there. He wasn't entirely surprised that Bann Esmerelle had gathered discontented nobles to her cause, or even that she'd hired assassins, that they'd all made an attempt on the commander's life. Elf, mage, Orlesian. The commander wasn't likely to be popular with people who thought any one of those three was a good reason not to make someone arl of Amaranthine. And then there was the warden thing, too.
But what Varel hadn't given any real thought to before was what Bann Esmerelle had expected to be the result of a successful attack. Had she seen herself as the new arl? What would she have told King Alistair about the commander's death, to get him to confirm her in that position? It wasn't as though the arling would have been left leaderless. The king had made the arling over to the Grey Wardens. Even if the commander were killed, there'd still be a few wardens left at the Vigil.
One of them, Varel realized, Rendon Howe's son.
When Varel was scraping the last of the porridge from the bottom of his bowl, Garevel came into the kitchen with his hands full of papers. "There you are!" he said to Varel. "Look, I think there's something wrong with these recruitment records. Some people have the wrong dates listed, and some turn up in two places." He put the papers down on the kitchen table; from the thump, Varel guessed there was a ledger at the bottom. "And some of the keep staff is in my muster roll, as if they were soldiers."
"That doesn't sound good," Varel said. He pushed his empty porridge bowl aside."I suppose it means the payroll is in a bit of a state, too."
Garevel nodded. "We need to compare our records and get this straightened out as fast as possible," he threw a quick glance at the kitchen door, "before Woolsey hears about it."
"Aaaand I think this is my cue to leave," Anders said, filching a few apple slices and melting away.
"This can't be right," Varel said, frowning down at the list in front of him. "It says Danella joined up in Harvestmere last year. She's been here since--"
"I know!" Garevel said. "And look at this!" He scrabbled at another piece of paper. "There's a discrepancy for the soldiers who came here from the garrison at West Hill. We only got two men transferring in, and here it says--"
The kitchen door opened again. "Gentlemen." Woolsey looked at the pair of them. Garevel visibly slumped. "I understand there's a problem with the payroll for the Vigil's soldiers. You'll need my help sorting it out." She came forward with briskly measured steps.
"Not at my kitchen table!" Hansa said. "You've got offices. Now that you've finished your breakfast, seneschal, be off with you! And take all those nasty, dirty papers with you."
"My office, then," Varel said, stealing an apple slice just as Anders had. The cook glared at him but said nothing. "We can compare records there." He stole one more apple slice. "Mistress Hansa, I know I don't need to tell you not to mention this to anyone."
"As if I would," she huffed. "But if it says somewhere that I'm a soldier, let me know so I can get a good laugh."
Varel spent the rest of the day in his office, where the three of them went over every scrap of paper that seemed to have anything to do with employment records. There were a surprising number of them; the Orlesian wardens, when they took over, had started fresh with their own Orlesian system, but it hadn't taken them long to put everything back in Varel's hands again, and he had gone back to the way he favored, but of course he'd been working off their records and the records of Howe's last seneschal, which had been based on Varel's own old records from before he was demoted.
There were too many gaps, where information could either vanish or be inserted. And it seemed both those things had happened.
"There's a bit of money missing here," Woolsey said. "Did the previous seneschal take it for himself, do you think?"
"He's dead, so you can't ask him," Varel said. "More likely to have gone to cover some hushed-up doing of Howe's, though."
She lifted a brow at him. "Surely the arl would have no need to hide what he did with his own money. It could just be written down as a personal expense."
Varel chuckled, but with no humor in it. "The old arl did a lot of questionable things that you're not likely to find any written record of. He had good reason to hide some matters from the crown, I daresay, as well as from his own family."
"But it's not that well hidden." Woolsey shook her head, apparently disapproving of this badly-done duplicity. "Any competent treasurer could have discovered this malfeasance."
"Yes," Varel said, refraining from pointing out that neither one of them would know about this had Garevel not come forward with his records. "But there's nothing to say where the missing money went, and that's probably what was important to Rendon. He liked to keep his secrets to himself as much as he could."
The missing money Woolsey spoke of was a relatively trifling sum, and didn't bother Varel as much as the missing people: those who vanished between one set of records and the next, without any note that they'd ended their employment, or any sign that someone else had been hired in their place. He recognized a few of those names, too. Outspoken people, men and women who'd disapproved of the way Rendon Howe made increasingly disturbing choices. People whose absence Varel should have noticed before now.
Varel knew the commander had found several prisoners locked away deep in the Vigil's cellars, in prison cells Varel hadn't even known about, to his shock and shame. Only a few had been rescued, still living and sane, and none of those had been familiar, but Varel hadn't been able to bring himself to check the faces of those who had died from torture, starvation, and the taint, though he knew he should have. Now he wondered if he would have known some of them.
He also realized how lucky he'd been, himself. Imprisoned, yes, sentenced to execution, yes. But he hadn't been executed, and he'd been imprisoned in the regular dungeon, where everyone knew about him and he'd been swiftly released once Rendon Howe was dead. The hidden prisoners were a different matter -- Varel didn't know how they'd survived for as long as they had, what arrangements Howe had made for feeding them. No one had come forward to admit knowledge of them, either after Howe's death or after the commander had found and freed them.
The corpses had been collected and burned, though, and there had to be some kind of written record of that, at least. Maybe the soldiers doing the work had recognized them, or even if they hadn't, been thoughtful enough to write down some kind of identifying information.
"I don't like this," Varel said. "There shouldn't be people missing."
"There shouldn't be people added," Woolsey said. "And I intend to find out why there are."
Mistress Hansa sent up a maid with a pot of tea, and then another pot of tea, and eventually a platter of bread stuffed with spiced pork and onion, and half a fresh apple pie, which was a treat. They kept working all the long afternoon, and Garevel was starting to look a little tired, though Woolsey was apparently ready to keep going into the night. That's when Anders came in, though, clapping his hands briskly together. "I don't suppose you thought about opening a window in here?" he said. "Honestly, it's stuffier in this room than in the tower library. So terribly sorry to disturb you, but that man is still my patient," he pointed at Varel, "and I'm pretty sure he's worked enough for today."
"You said yourself I was doing much better than you expected," Varel said.
"Oh, absolutely!" Anders leaned back against the doorframe. "And I suppose if you want to work yourself into a relapse instead, there's nothing I can do about it. I'm sure if you end up dead face down in a ledger, the commander will just appoint another seneschal."
"Varel's tough as an old boot," Garevel said bracingly. "It takes more than a little thing like this to wear him out." Underneath that bracing tone, he himself looked about ready to end up face down either in a ledger or in his tea mug, though.
"I think we all could use a bit of rest and some dinner," Varel said. "What do you say, Mistress Woolsey?"
"Certainly." She picked up two ledgers from the table and tucked them under one arm. "I'll take a closer look at these after dinner, and we can start creating a correct muster roll of the Vigil's soldiers tomorrow, captain."
"Yes," Garevel said, all the brace gone out of him.
They all went down with Anders to the dining hall which had once been the place where the Howe family entertained guests. Now it was much less formal and more crowded, since both the wardens and the larger part of the keep's staff gathered there for meals three times a day, with some of the senior soldiers joining in now and then, though otherwise they ate out in the mess hall with the guards in the garrison.
Varel supposed there would have to be some other arrangement made once the recruitment of wardens really got going, and wardens and staff didn't all fit in one room any longer. Probably the kitchens would need to promote an additional under-cook, to take care of the meals for the soldiers' barracks, as well as taking on more scullions. At least they had plenty of fancy dishes to eat on. Rendon Howe hadn't cared much, but his wife had been a bit of a collector.
For now, though, this casual, comfortable arrangement worked very well. Varel had to smile a little when he saw Sigrun and the senior laundress sitting side by side, eating with single-minded intensity, both of them ignoring Oghren, who was waving a tankard in one hand and saying something about the door of his room always standing open.
"You should talk to my brother about that," Voldrik Glavonak said. "He actually trained as a carpenter for a little while, when he was going through a rebellious phase."
The laundress shook her head. "Carpentry don't sound that rebellious to me. Not compared to blowing things up."
"Carpentry is a human thing," Sigrun said. "It's rebellious if you're a dwarf."
"Dwarves don't make things out of wood," Voldrik agreed. "It's said some of the artisans in Cadash used it for ornamentation sometimes, but since that thaigh fell to the darkspawn, no one else has picked up the practice. Anyway, if there's something wrong with your door, Oghren, my brother can probably try to fix it for you."
"Ehehe, that's not actually what I meant," Oghren mumbled. "I was just saying that my door's always open to a hot and willing legionnaire..."
"If I see any, I'll let them know," Voldrik said.
Oghren set his tankard down with a clank and a slosh, and jerked his thumb at Sigrun. "What, are you tryin' to say she's not hot?"
"No," Voldrik said, and stopped there, very deliberately.
The laundress started giggling. So did Sigrun, leaning a little against her. They made a pretty sight, Varel thought, all laughter and pigtails. Apparently Voldrik thought so, too, to judge by the slight smile on his face.
Varel sat down next to Woolsey and grabbed a plate from the stack in the middle of the table. He snagged a couple of forks, too, and handled one politely to Woolsey. This was the fancy Howe silverware, he noted, with a bear worked into the top of the handle. Woolsey looked at it, less than impressed, to judge by her eyes. She turned to Voldrik. "I take it your brother grew tired of carpentry."
"Oh, he did." Voldrik shook his head. "He decided he'd rather be a smith and his own man, after all, than some human's apprentice. The carpenter didn't want to let him go at first, but after Dworkin blew up the carpentry shop a couple of times, he realized Dworkin was just too much trouble to keep around."
Dinner was more pork and early apples and onions and bread, though cooked and spiced a bit differently. Varel reminded himself that compared to the army's iron rations, this was a feast, and now that the Vigil's farmers were starting to bring in their harvest, of course they'd be eating one thing for a few days, and then another thing for a few days after that, when the next delivery came. He'd have the whole fall and winter to get tired of apples and onions. Maybe he could even have apple sauce with his porridge tomorrow.
People came and went, eating and talking. Varel kept a slow pace, but even though he stayed for quite a long time, long enough to go through three different sets of dining companions, the commander never showed. Varel wanted to talk to him, but not enough to go deliberately looking for the man; a casual meeting in the dining hall would be better.
Finally he gave up on pushing the last piece of onion around on his plate and rose to his feet, stepping aside to let his seat be claimed by Maverlies, who had a smut on her nose and looked tired after a long shift. She was still working, with men brought in from the nearest village as well as staff from the keep, to clear out the deeper levels of the cellars and sort out what could be salvaged and what was too damaged by age, by explosions, or by darkspawn.
Varel left the dining hall and went into the kitchen, where the cook was sitting down at the kitchen table, sipping at a mug of something hot. "Don't get up," he said when she seemed about to move. "I just wanted to ask you something. I didn't see the commander in there. Did he have his dinner early?"
Mistress Hansa shook her head. "Working in his office, he is. I'm hoping he'll want something sent up to him, at least."
"You should send something up even if he doesn't ask for it," Varel said. "Man's got to eat."
Cupping her hands around the mug, Hansa shook her head again. "He's polite about the food," she said. "But I've never seen such a picky eater in all my days. Two bites here, one bite there, it just plain takes the heart out of me."
Varel looked in what he thought was the right cabinet, and was pleased to find mugs there; he got one for himself and filled it out of the teapot. When he sat down across from Hansa, she splashed something from a small flask into his mug without asking. "Tell me you didn't get that from Oghren," Varel said, but he drank without waiting for an answer. It wasn't tea, it was some kind of herb tisane, and the addition from the flask made the taste deeper and sweeter. "Is that Rendon Howe's best brandy?"
Hansa sniffed. "Well, he's not around to miss it."
"Send this up to the commander," Varel said.
She looked doubtful. "The brandy? I don't think he's much of a drinker."
Varel shook his head and gestured to his mug. "This herb stuff, with a splash of brandy in. Bit of bread to go with it."
"Well, if you say so." Hansa took another sip out of her own mug while she thought about it. "Don't seem much of a dinner to offer the Commander of the Grey, though." She made a face. "He's probably used to all those fancy Orlesian dishes."
"This is Ferelden," Varel said. Anyone who wanted fancy Orlesian dishes was out of luck. "But I reckon we could try to send him a little food at a time, if he doesn't show up for meals. Maybe some cold apple pie later, if there's any left over." He sighed. "I can tell you, I wasn't trained to deal with Grey Wardens who don't eat properly."
"I wasn't trained to deal with any Grey Wardens at all," Hansa said tartly. "You know Howe hated 'em mortal bad. Them and just about everyone else that wasn't his precious self." She paused, an arrested look creeping into her eyes. "D'you remember when the old arl's mother-in-law visited here and she got sick?"
"Do I," Varel snorted. Rendon Howe had not been happy. Bad enough that his mother-in-law came visiting in the first place, but then for her to take ill, and linger, and rule the keep from her sickbed... with the able assistance of her daughter, of course. "We had to move our arms practice away from the keep so the sound wouldn't disturb her."
"Everyone in here went on tiptoe," Hansa agreed. "I don't know what-all I had to make to tempt her appetite, possets and sops, and when the hens started laying that year she got every single egg. Dainty meals, but lots and lots of them. You think that's what the commander needs?"
"Seems to me he wouldn't take well to possets," Varel said. It wouldn't do to treat the commander like an invalid, after all. He certainly wasn't that. "But if you let him have just a small something, often enough, that ought to do it."
"I'll do that, then." Hansa nodded resolutely. "It was fair breaking my heart the way he seemed to eat less the bigger meals I tried to put his way. All the other wardens, you give them food and it's gone." She snorted. "Most of the soldiers, too."
"A fighting man gets hungry, mistress, you know that." Varel drank some more. The heat from the tisane and the brandy spread comfortably through his body. He moved his injured arm, and was happy to feel no more than a twinge.
"That's what they keep telling me," Hansa said, not sounding very convinced. She poked at Varel's arm, the uninjured one. "You'd better get to your room now, get a good night's rest. Or else I'll have that pesky mage in here again to say he's looking at your wound, when really he's stealing all the dainties lying around for his cat."
"If he tries to tell you the cat likes brandy," Varel said, "he's a liar." He drained his mug and stood up. "I'll go to the hall for breakfast tomorrow, then."
Mistress Hansa made a rude sound. "You're always welcome here," she said. "It's him that's the menace." She got to her feet, too, and got out a small round tray and started to plunk things down on it: a tea mug, a plate with just a little bread and cheese. Varel nodded approvingly to himself before he left. They'd get the commander eating properly again.
It wasn't late. In fact, it was still early in the evening. All the same, Varel felt tired enough when he got back to his room that he actually got himself ready for bed and crawled in.
He was sure he wouldn't be able to sleep, not at this hour, and not when the bed was full of memories of the commander's hands and mouth, and the very faint scent rising from the commander's hair. Varel had spent the whole day thinking about other things, but now that he was lying down in the same place again, it all came back to him. He'd surely be thinking about that all night.
Then he closed his eyes, and was out like a light.
The next day, Varel woke at his accustomed hour, and resolutely did not think about his dreams, which certainly hadn't featured the commander, and in which the commander had in no way made that sweet choked sound again. (And again. And...) His arm was moving very nearly as usual, and he barely felt anything when he got dressed, but he still decided to leave off the armor for the time being. He got to have his tea and porridge undisturbed, this time, and he didn't get apple sauce on his porridge, no, but chopped-up apple remains and even a tiny drizzle of honey. He smiled at Mistress Hansa, and she smiled back and nodded at a small bowl with chopped apples and nuts and a small dollop of porridge and a more generous helping of honey. That was for the commander, then. Good.
After breakfast, he went to his office and found Garevel and Woolsey already there, facing off across a table spread with even more papers and ledgers than Varel remembered from the day before. "I can't just stop the payments," Garevel said. "The soldiers want their money. We'd have a revolt on our hands."
"I'm not asking you to suspend payments indefinitely," Woolsey said. "Merely until we can get the current payroll into proper order. They will only miss one payday, I should think. Perhaps two, if matters turn out to be more complicated than we have anticipated."
"The men won't stand for it," Garevel said. "They've been through enough when the old arl died and they couldn't get a copper until Rullens paid them out of his own pocket. Once the Orlesian wardens took over, we got things in order again, barely. The situation down in the barracks is still volatile. What do you expect me to tell them?"
"Tell them the truth," Varel said. He walked into the room and shut the door behind him. "Tell them Rendon Howe left a mess behind that we've only just discovered, and you have complete faith that loyal men can wait another week for their money while we make sure that the king gets his due and the Vigil gets her due. Tell them we'll wait for our pay, too, same as them. Tell them their dead comrades wouldn't want to see false payments made in their names."
"But no one's drawing payments in their names," Garevel said.
Varel shook his head. "You don't have to say that."
Garevel looked startled, then thoughtful. Woolsey smiled a tiny smile. "You have a more subtle and manipulative mind than I have given you credit for previously, seneschal," she said.
"If that's a compliment," Varel said, "I could probably do without it. Now, has anyone compared that list of dead prisoners you brought with the names of missing soldiers and Vigil staff?"
"No," Garevel said, appalled all over again. "Maker, it never occurred to me. You think that's what Howe did with..." He trailed off, seemingly unwilling to put it into words.
"Here," Woolsey said, gathering up a few books and sheafs of paper and putting them in front of a chair by the table. "You've been here the longest, seneschal, so you have the greatest chance, out of the three of us, to identify people."
"Yes," Varel said glumly. He wasn't looking forward to it.
Whoever had written the list of dead prisoners removed from the Vigil's cellars had deplorable handwriting, crabbed and uneven. After a couple of hours, Varel felt as though he was wearing a badly fitting helmet and someone was trying to fix it with a hammer while it was still on his head. He straightened up and rolled his shoulders, then got to his feet, meaning to take a turn around the room.
The window in his office looked out over the soldiers' barracks and the smaller practice yard, and he saw when he got there that Sigrun and the young Howe were sparring together. Varel had never seen Nathaniel Howe try to fight with daggers, since he normally favored the bow, and it was clear that Sigrun was much better at it. She seemed to be teaching him some move or other; they drew apart, then did it in tandem, the dwarf woman and the stocky human male mirrors of each other for a moment despite their differences in size and build.
Varel looked more closely at Nathaniel Howe. He looked less surly than usual. That was an improvement, and made him resemble his father less, even with the nose. Delilah Howe was a pleasant-enough-looking girl, but young Thomas was really the one who'd gotten all the looks in the family. Not that it had done him much good.
Someone whistled, the sound sharp enough to reach Varel through the window. That had to be Anders, sitting to one side and watching them, back against a tree and long legs stretched out on the grass. Sigrun said something to him, and he shook his head, waving one arm in a warding-off gesture.
Varel walked over to the other end of the room. He was just in time to meet a maid with a fresh teapot, and took it from her with a word of thanks. Turning back to the table, he poured fresh mugs for himself and Woolsey; Garevel shook his head when Varel gestured with the teapot. Varel knew he should get back to work, but he was drawn to take just one more look out the window.
When he did, he saw that the commander had turned up, and Anders was on his feet now, facing him; Sigrun and Nathaniel Howe had moved off to one side. The air in front of the commander shimmered, rippled, and when Anders raised his hands and threw a bolt of pure magic that way, it slid off this shimmering air without doing any harm, and the commander remained unruffled. They did it again, several times, and the bolts from Anders seemed to grow in intensity, but still couldn't touch the commander.
After one particularly striking bolt dissipated into tiny sparks, they paused for a moment. Anders said something, and that shimmer in the air rose around him instead. The commander raised a hand, and fire gathered around his fingers. Then he drew his arm back and threw the fire at Anders.
Anders yelped. Varel didn't need to hear it in order to know it. The shimmer in the air vanished abruptly as Anders dropped flat to the ground, and the fire passed over him and hit one of the bushes, uprooting it completely and setting every leaf ablaze. Sigrun danced from one foot to the other in glee. Anders rolled over on his back and lifted up a careful hand, apparently testing the air temperature.
Then the groundskeeper popped up out of nowhere, yelling and waving his arms, pointing accusingly at the bush. The commander nodded, and with another gesture, he encased the burning bush in ice, making sure the fire went out. Groundskeeper Samuel didn't look completely mollified, particularly as Sigrun came bouncing up and pointed to another bush, apparently trying to get the commander to set fire to that one instead. Nathaniel Howe came after her, shaking his head, one hand out to try to hold her back.
Varel chuckled. These Grey Wardens that the commander was collecting were an odd bunch, much more so than the group of Orlesians that had come to the Vigil before. The Orlesian wardens had been decent enough, though maybe a bit stiff. And Orlesian. Though Varel supposed they couldn't help that, being from Orlais and all. He thought the commander would probably have had an easier time with them, but not nearly as interesting.
"Seneschal," Woolsey said, calm and even. He could never get her to use his name. "Are you getting anywhere with those lists?"
"Unfortunately, yes," Varel said, turning away from the window with only the tiniest sting of reluctance and coming back to the table. "I've been able to put names to some of these nameless dead." And he wasn't happy about it. "Soldiers who went to Ostagar with me."
Woolsey raised an eyebrow. "I was under the impression that Rendon Howe never went to Ostagar," she said.
"He didn't," Garevel said. "But he sent Varel there, with the most loyal of the men, to get them out of the way. He probably hoped they'd all die there."
"Some of us did," Varel said. He'd gotten his men safely through the few initial skirmishes they'd taken part in, and had somehow ended up in charge of a very mixed group -- his own Amaranthine soldiers, some ragtag militiamen from Lothering who'd lost their own captain, a couple of people from another southern village he couldn't even remember the name of, who'd seen darkspawn in their fields and run south to join the army instead of north to get away.
But the main battle had been another matter. In his memory, it was nothing but a nightmare of rain and fire and darkspawn stench. So many had died there, and he'd barely managed to get a few of his men off that battlefield alive. It had taken them quite some time to cross the country again and get back to Vigil's Keep. And once they were there, Varel got to hear about what Rendon Howe had done instead of coming to fight by the side of his king.
In retrospect, going in to see the arl and shouting at him about the betrayal of the Couslands and the slaughter at Highever might not have been the most sensible choice, but after Ostagar and the long trek back north, Varel hadn't been feeling very sensible.
So he'd ended up imprisoned, the public face of dissent. Others with him had just vanished instead, in as un-public a manner as possible, from what he could tell now, long afterwards.
"We were told they deserted," Garevel said darkly. "The ones that came home with you. That Ostagar made them lose their nerve."
"Ostagar was enough to try anyone's nerve." Varel stared out at the sunlit practice yard, seeing fire and rain. "But we survived that." He couldn't identify every one of those men as someone described on the list, and he hoped that meant a couple of them really had deserted.
"You've identified some of the dead, then," Woolsey said. There was no sympathy in her voice, nothing beyond the factual statement, and Varel was grateful for that. He wanted no sympathy over Ostagar. "Are you finished with the lists, or do you need more time?"
Varel turned back to the room. "I'd like to go over them again with a few people -- Mistress Hansa the cook and Samuel the groundskeeper, because they've both been here a long time, and they know, or knew, some parts of the Vigil's staff better than I do."
Woolsey looked consideringly at him. "Will that really be necessary?"
"Yes," Varel said. He met her eyes. "We owe it to ourselves, as well as the memories of the dead, to be as thorough as we can about identifying them. Dying in Rendon Howe's secret prison cells might not be the most glorious way to return to the Maker, but I think we can restore some of their honor if we can separate any actual criminals in the cells from those who were imprisoned at Howe's whim."
"Might make all the difference to their families," Garevel put in. Yes, he'd understand about a thing like that.
"I was lucky," Varel said; going through these lists, he had begun to realize just how lucky. He doubted he would find any actual criminals. With people imprisoned for provable wrongdoing, there'd be no need to hide them away in secret cells.
"Varel was the one everyone knew about," Garevel said. "But it seems he wasn't the only one."
"I owe it to them." Varel was sure of that much. Others had died, and he'd been spared. Oh, he'd been kept back for a showy execution, he knew that, something that would dissuade others from even thinking about protesting Rendon Howe's actions. But he was alive because of that, and he couldn't help but feel that the others had died in his place. He'd fought so hard to keep them alive and bring them home, and then they'd met this other horrible end.
"Very well." Woolsey nodded."But it also seems urgent to me to find out how much money the Vigil has cheated the crown out of."
Garevel made a whimpering sound. Varel decided to let that stand for both of them. "What do you mean, mistress?" he said.
"These inflated numbers were used in all calculations," she said, gesturing to a packet of what was, judging by the seals, the Vigil's correspondence with the crown.
"Could just be an accident," Garevel said. "With the records being such a mess."
Woolsey didn't look entirely convinced by that idea. Varel admitted to himself that he wasn't, either. It seemed he'd been more right than he'd known to claim that payments were being made in the wrong names, and the king not given his due.
At midday, they went downstairs for lunch, which was a fried mess of onions, apples, and pork. Varel devoutly hoped it was the end of that particular set of leftovers. Not bad, if a bit greasy. With bread to balance it out, it made a decent meal. He had a feeling it wouldn't be to the commander's taste at all, though.
Varel didn't see the commander at lunch, or any of the wardens. Woolsey didn't let anyone linger over the meal, but had them out of their seats and on their way back to Varel's office as soon as they'd swallowed the last bite on their plates. Varel and Garevel traded swift, resigned glances. Woolsey worked twice as hard herself as she made anyone else work, so it was hard to complain about her expectations. She didn't make them do anything she wouldn't do herself.
They were at the door of Varel's office when the commander stepped out into the hallway. "A word with you, seneschal, if you please," he said.
"Of course," Varel said, taking two steps towards the commander before he could even think about it. He glanced back over his shoulder at the others, and they just nodded, Garevel opening the door and ushering Woolsey inside.
So Varel followed the commander into his office, a smaller and more awkward room than his own -- the commander had insisted that the rooms be switched around, because he didn't anticipate spending much time here. Which had been true enough so far, but Varel couldn't help looking around and thinking that the Commander of the Grey needed something better, something that fit the dignity of his title. There'd be visitors, after all, nobles and guild leaders and representatives of the crown, and the commander's office needed to be impressive enough for them.
And it wasn't as if, in the usual course of things, Varel spent a great deal of time in his office either.
"I know you're busy," the commander said, "but I should like to hear from you what you and Mistress Woolsey and Captain Garevel are working so hard on."
"Yes, commander." Varel took up an at-ease stance, legs apart, hands behind his back. "I apologize. We should have reported things to you right away."
The commander gave him a level look. "Sit down, please," he said. "You're looming."
Varel glanced around. There was only one chair in the room, pushed in under the desk, and the commander himself was leaning against the desk's edge. Which put the top of his head rather lower than Varel's collarbone, but there was nothing to be done about that. "Yes, commander," Varel said without moving. "We're going through the records of the Vigil's soldiers and staff. Garevel came to me yesterday and said there was a problem with the recruitment records, and I discovered that employment records for the keep also have several errors."
The commander lifted an elegant dark-copper eyebrow. "And what kind of errors are these?"
"Well." Varel shifted his weight a little. "There's malicious errors, and then there's either lazy or greedy errors. Probably greedy, truth be told. The problem is that record-keeping has been a sketchy business over the last few years." He cleared his throat. "Anything that was written down under the last years of Rendon Howe's rule can't be completely trusted. The seneschal then was Howe's creature, and likely wrote what he was told."
"I don't suppose we can ask him," the commander said.
"No. He went with Howe to Denerim, and died there. After that, no one kept up the records at all for a while. The Orlesian wardens, when they came, had their own system. Garevel and I have both tried to go back to the way we did things before." Varel shook his head. "I'm sorry, commander, it's all a bit of a mess."
"So it would seem." The commander still sounded cool and collected. "You said people had disappeared. Are those the malicious errors?"
Varel nodded. "Best as I can tell, yes. Rendon Howe had his little ways when it came to getting rid of those who didn't agree with him. Some of the people who have gone missing between one set of records and the next may just have given up on the Vigil and gone back to their farm, and no one bothered to note it down properly. But I've identified, from the descriptions of dead prisoners, soldiers who came back from Ostagar with me."
The commander looked up. "I didn't know you were at Ostagar."
Varel shrugged. "Rendon Howe sent some of us down that way before he took the better part of his soldiers to Highever. We thought we were lucky to survive, those of us that did, but it seems being back at the Vigil again wasn't particularly safe for any of us. For anyone. There were a lot more prisoners down in the cellars than any records could account for."
"Most of those prisoners were dead," the commander said. "Or driven mad by starvation and the taint, trapped in their cells." His lips tightened. "The other Orlesian wardens who came here before me never investigated why those people were held prisoner? Or did they even discover the prisoners' existence at all?"
"I don't reckon they had the time," Varel said. "None of us did. There was a lot to be sorted out here at the Vigil." Whoever had been bringing the prisoners food and water had never mentioned it, and must have died in the darkspawn attack, leaving the prisoners locked away and forgotten. Varel hadn't known about them. He stared at the hem of the commander's robe, wondering how it could be so perfectly clean-looking after that practice session down in the yard. Wondering how it could be so perfectly clean when they were talking about such unclean things. "But you're right, I should have taken the time."
"They should have taken the time. The blame does not rest solely on you." The commander looked even more tight-lipped. "And I should have come here earlier, rather than allow myself to stay for yet another event at court. The empress's birthday masquerade was not worth even one lost life."
"Oh, I'm sure she doesn't think that!" Varel tried to keep the bitterness out of his joke, but he had a feeling he wasn't all that successful.
"No, she probably doesn't." The commander's voice was so even, Varel almost didn't notice that this was, in fact, agreement with his criticism of the empress. And it wasn't fair. The responsibility rested on Varel, not on either the empress or the commander. Regardless of what the commander said. "And the greedy errors?"
"Well, they could as well be just laziness, to be fair about it. Woolsey may be able to straighten out the paperwork, but she can't read the minds of dead men." Varel shrugged cautiously, pleased to feel nothing in his arm when he did. "With recruitment records for the Vigil's soldiers in such a mess, it's hard to tell where the errors first crept in, but Garevel discovered that some soldiers are listed twice, or written down as recruited on the wrong date, or coming from two different places."
"But they can't be getting paid twice," the commander said calmly. "I feel quite sure that someone would have noticed that long before now."
"Oh, yes," Varel agreed. "No, the problem is... You do know that the wardens got a bit of support from the crown of Ferelden when Amaranthine was given to them?"
"But surely the arling is self-supporting." The commander frowned just a tiny bit, enough to make a thin line mar the perfection of his smooth brow. Varel bit his tongue for even noticing. "I know Mistress Woolsey tells me repeatedly that the financial situation is grim, but it can't be so grim that the crown would need to step in on behalf of the wardens."
"Not precisely, no," Varel said."King Alistair was a warden before he was crowned, and I reckon he wants to show how much the wardens mean to him, even now. And the Vigil's garrison was very small after everything that happened this spring. Howe brought a lot of soldiers with him to Denerim, and most of them died there."
"If they fell defending the city against the darkspawn," the commander said, "they deserve all honor."
"That's the report we got." Varel shifted a little. "So the king presented a bonus to every soldier who chose to stay and serve the wardens. He also exempted the Vigil itself from certain taxes and levies, based on the reported numbers of people here. There's a lot more soldiers listed as being recruited than actually are in the barracks, and it seems likely the Vigil got a bonus for every one."
"And presumably this bonus went into someone's pocket, rather than into the coffers of the Vigil," the commander said. He sounded just as calm as before, and Varel wondered if this kind of thing was more common in Orlais. "But this must have happened after Rendon Howe was dead and the arling already given to the wardens. Who was responsible, at the Vigil, for maintaining the muster roll?"
"That would have been Captain Rullens," Varel said. "Garevel's predecessor. He died not that long ago -- took a small injury in arms practice, but it went septic, and he never told anyone until it was too late."
"I see." The commander's face gave nothing away, of course.
"Very popular with the men," Varel went on. "Morale would likely go down if this became public knowledge, him being dishonest like that. When payments were suspended after Rendon Howe died, Rullens paid the men out of his own pocket. Might have been why he decided to make a little extra off the crown's bonus payments, afterwards. He cheated the crown, yes, but he never cheated his men, and that's what they'll remember."
"I see no need to make an announcement," the commander said. "Better to keep this as discreet as possible. The Vigil has seen enough trouble. Excess crown bonuses will have to be paid back, of course. I'm certain Mistress Woolsey can handle the fiscal aspect." Before Varel could decide whether he was relieved or annoyed by this attitude, the commander's voice sharpened. "But I'm concerned by your story of missing people and unidentified prisoners. Can I trust you to investigate the matter, seneschal?"
"Of course." Varel straightened. He, too, felt this was the most important matter that had come to light since Garevel had brought up his concerns, and it pleased him that the commander seemed to take the same view. The money was less of an issue, no matter what Woolsey would say. "I'll give it my full attention, commander."
"There's another matter I'd like to discuss," Varel said cautiously. The commander looked at him. "Have you spoken to Nathaniel Howe about Bann Esmerelle's attack on you?"
"A little," the commander said. His eyes were clear and sharp. "He had nothing to do with it, seneschal. He hardly knows anyone in the arling these days, having been away for so long, and he was never particularly friendly with Bann Esmerelle, from what I can discover."
"He seems to have grown into a strong young man," Varel said neutrally. He remembered vividly how difficult Nathaniel Howe had been to capture. "Strong-minded, too. I don't think the king would take the arling away from the wardens, even if Bann Esmerelle had succeeded. But he's a warden and a Howe. Some might think that's as close as they can get to having the old order back."
The commander gave a single nod. "I know. I do believe Nathaniel Howe can be trusted, having given his word. He is intent on proving himself different from his father."
"Can't blame him for that," Varel said. "No one in their right mind would want to be like Rendon Howe. I just hope he's not more like him than he thinks he is."
"I've asked Nathaniel to keep an eye on the nobles for me," the commander said calmly, "and of course I'm keeping watch on his sister, although her removal of herself from arling politics seems genuine enough."
"Yes," Varel said, thinking about Delilah Howe as a little girl. "She's not likely to start up a conspiracy of her own."
"Nor is Nathaniel, I feel." And the commander was no stranger to the notion of plots and conspiracies. He was from Orlais, Varel reminded himself unnecessarily. He knew an intrigue when he saw it. "But it would have made sense, as you implied, for the nobles who rebelled to choose him as the figurehead of their cause. He says they never even contacted him."
Varel frowned. "Bann Esmerelle was not a naive woman," he said. "She must have known King Alistair wouldn't simply go back on his word, take the arling away from the wardens again, and give it to her."
"If I were to be killed," the commander said slowly, "the way matters stand now, there is a good chance that Nathaniel Howe would, in fact, be left commanding the Grey Wardens in Ferelden, and thus the Vigil. Anders doesn't want command, Sigrun is still too green, and no one in their right mind would put Oghren in charge of anything."
"You mean there'd be no need to contact him," Varel said. "Until afterwards."
"Just so," the commander said. "He would see it as his duty to remain in charge, rather than let any replacement sent from Orlais take over, and he'd look favorably on his father's old cronies." The commander shook his head. "Or so they might think, until they actually spoke to him."
"You put a great deal of trust in the young Howe, commander," Varel said. He wouldn't have described the commander as the trusting sort, either. "Didn't he come here to kill you originally?"
"So he said," the commander said, unruffled. "Since then, he has fought at my back in several difficult situations, when he could easily have stepped aside and left me open to injury or worse." Dragonlings, Varel thought. "He has a very strongly developed sense of honor. Yes, I believe he can be trusted."
"Then I'll take your word for it, commander." Varel drew himself up. That hadn't gone too badly. "Thank you for listening to me."
"Of course I listen to you. Your advice on matters concerning the arling is invaluable." The commander straightened, too, stepping away from the desk. "Now, show me your arm." Varel stopped where he was, taken aback. "Anders told me he didn't look at your wound this morning."
"It's fine, commander," Varel said. He waggled his arm in the air to show just how fine it was. "There's really no need for you to concern yourself about it."
"I'm glad to hear that," the commander said impassively. "Now show me."
Varel rolled up his sleeve, and the commander came up next to him and took his arm in both hands, turning it this way and that. His fingers prodded gently at the muscles as he tested Varel's range of movement. "It's fine," Varel said again. The commander's fingertips were warm and sure against his skin.
"Yes, excellent," the commander said. This time, when he held up one hand, the glowing light that danced in his palm was a clear, light blue. "Your body will easily be able to heal the rest on its own." Despite the words, he turned his hand and sank that glowing energy into Varel's arm.
It felt good. Gentler than the green glow from the night before last, but still powerful. Varel could feel his body answer to the commander's touch again, could feel a lingering tension in his arm begin to ease. And another kind of tension between his legs begin to grow.
He didn't have a blanket to shield himself with this time, not that it had done him much good when he'd been in his bed. Maybe it was a response to the magic, or maybe it was just the commander, so close that Varel's breath stirred the hair on his bent head. Having the commander so close made Varel feel like a great clumsy brute, and reminded him yet again of how short and slight his commander really was. The commander had a great deal of presence when he chose, despite his unassuming appearance, and could fill a room from wall to wall with no more than a glance from his cool grey eyes, but the top of his head didn't quite clear Varel's shoulder, no matter how straight and upright he stood. He was short and slender even for an elf, and Varel knew he himself was tall and brawny for a human. The commander looked as though Varel could break him in two without any particular effort, though the mage robes were a reminder that no, he really couldn't.
"Thank you, commander," Varel said, taking a step backwards and hitting the door with his shoulders. "If that's all, I'll just be going now."
The commander hadn't let go of Varel's arm, simply followed when Varel moved, as though it were part of a dance they'd rehearsed. Now he turned his face up, beautiful and close, and looked imperturbably at Varel. "No, that's not all," he said. "You appear to be experiencing the same unexpected reaction to magic once again." His tone wasn't mocking, held nothing but a calm statement of fact, but Varel felt his cheeks heat a little, just the same. "If you will allow me?"
"Commander," Varel said, which wasn't much of an answer. He was startled to see the commander go down on his knees, with the same smooth elegance he did everything else, and then reach for the fastening of Varel's trousers. The commander's hands, deft and sure, drew out Varel's cock, and the warm certainty of that touch made Varel grow fully hard. He tried to tell himself he should step back again, as if he could walk through the thick wood of the door from sheer willpower, but he couldn't move, or, indeed, look away from the commander, who pressed his lips against the head of Varel's cock and let it part them and slide slowly deeper and deeper into the wet heat of the commander's mouth.
Varel groaned in shocked pleasure. He hadn't let himself think too much about what had passed between them, the night before last, because a man shouldn't think about his commanding officer like that, and also, it was a sure way not to get any work done. Now, though, he could not escape the knowledge that the commander's mouth was precisely as amazing as he remembered, and seeing it stretched wide around his cock was an even more stunning sight from this angle.
The slow, deliberate way that the commander sucked him was deeply arousing to Varel; there was time to feel every agonizing nuance of lips and tongue stroking over him. He bumped against the back of the commander's throat, and would have drawn back, if the door hadn't been in the way. The commander made that tiny choked sound that haunted Varel's dreams, and then he shifted a little on his knees and pressed forward, sliding his tongue out around the underside of the shaft, fitting his throat slowly but surely around Varel's cock, like coaxing an arm into a tight sleeve, or a sword into a new-made sheath.
The sensation was indescribable. A starburst of splintery lights filled Varel's head, and he couldn't tell if he'd hit it against the door in pure startlement or if this was a reaction to the intense pleasure washing over him. No one had done this to him before. Tried, yes, tried and failed, and Varel still had rather horrible memories of a fellow soldier throwing up on his legs, but there was no room for such thoughts when the commander took him in deeper and deeper until Varel could feel, incredibly, that high-arched nose pressing into his pubic hair.
When the commander took one of Varel's hands in his and slid it into his hair, Varel didn't think about it, he just let his fingers wrap easily around the curve of the commander's skull. A moment later, the commander grasped his hip and urged him forward, and then Varel did draw a breath of sharp disbelief, because surely the commander couldn't be telling Varel to fuck his mouth.
One more tug, though, a choked moan when Varel shifted in response, and then the commander dropped his hand from Varel's hip again, let both arms fall by his sides, so that Varel was left in complete control, with his hand on the back of the commander's head and his cock, by all the dissonant verses of the chant, down the commander's throat.
Varel was a good soldier. He knew how to give orders, and he knew how to take orders, particularly orders that offered him exactly what he wanted. So he thrust, slowly and steadily, feeling the commander's throat ripple around the head of his cock, feeling the commander's tongue press up against his shaft, a slick rasp of sensation. The sounds coming from the commander were pure encouragement, and every one of them went straight to Varel's balls, little jolts of increasing desire.
The commander's eyes were closed, delicate lids seemingly dragged down by the weight of the long lashes, and there was a faint flush in his cheeks. Varel pulled back to let the commander breathe, and when he hesitated for just a moment about thrusting deep again, the commander moaned and pushed forward a little, offering himself. That might be more than any man could resist; it was definitely more than Varel could resist, and so he rocked his hips obediently and sank into that sweet tight throat, letting his cock take what was offered.
Fucking the commander's mouth and throat was an incredible experience. The commander had given himself up to Varel's control, yielding sweetly to every thrust, but he wasn't passive by any means. He moved into the steady pumping motion of Varel's hips, meeting each deep thrust, sucking and swallowing, taking Varel's cock in as deep as it would go and still making those little moans of enticement and approval.
Varel thought he would never be able to stop. This was a pleasure beyond anything he'd ever known, and hearing his partner take it, crave it, want more, made his pulse beat even faster. He kept his head enough to pull back regularly and let the commander breathe, but he always pushed back in, his hand keeping the commander's head tilted back at the perfect angle.
When his balls drew tight and his thoughts began to jump like the sparks from a smith's forge, Varel thrust in deep and stayed there, feeling his cock throb deep in the commander's throat, and then he was coming like a hammer blow, hard, shattering.
The commander's hands came up to rest on his hips then, steadying him, which Varel was grateful for, and pressing back a little to make sure that Varel was leaning his weight against the door, not slumping forward over the commander. Varel was fully occupied with breathing, but he did manage to keep his eyes open, so he saw the commander pull back slowly and, yes, press a kiss to the head of Varel's cock before tucking it away gently and fastening Varel's trousers again.
Varel still had one hand in the commander's hair, and he wanted to pull his fingers through the soft strands, feeling it run like silk against his skin. But the commander stood up, and Varel let his grip fall away.
"You had better get back to work," the commander said, and although the words were deeply prosaic and spoken in his usual cool manner, his voice was a husky rasp, wrecked by what they had just done. The commander's lips were reddened, and when he turned his head a little, Varel could see that he had half-dried tear tracks on his skin, showing that his eyes had watered and spilled over.
"Commander," Varel said, lifting his hand again. He had no very clear idea of what he wanted to do, besides grasp the lithe form of his commander and pull him close, but the commander stepped aside, reached around Varel, and opened the door. Varel just about staggered backwards.
"Thank you again for your efforts on behalf of the Vigil's staff and soldiers," the commander said, and Varel wondered if it was possible for anyone to hear that voice, like velvet ripped to jagged pieces, and not know just what the commander had been doing. "Your work is greatly appreciated."
"But commander," Varel said. He stared at the commander, who would have been immaculate if it hadn't been for that slightly swollen mouth, those drying marks on his face. The beautiful gleaming tangle of his hair, where Varel's hands had just been buried. He acted as if everything about him were pristine and untouched. Varel wanted to change that. "Please let me do something for you, commander."
Varel would happily have been more explicit, but he was out in the hallway now, pushed from the room by the force of the commander's personality, and anyone could come along at any moment. Anyone could have come along at any moment before, and opened the unlocked door behind Varel's back, he realized, to see the commander with Varel's cock down his throat.
"That won't be necessary," the commander said. His face was back to the usual smooth mask, despite the signs on it of what had just happened; they seemed accidental, like spilled paint. And his voice was even harder to read like this, Varel realized, when any uneven note or tremor was likely due to pure physical after-effects and had nothing to do with the commander's emotional control. "I won't keep you from your duties any longer, seneschal. I'm very grateful for your hard work."
The commander stepped back and closed the door in Varel's face. Varel drew a deep breath, ready to open that door again and say something, even if he didn't know what, when he heard the rattle and click of a key turning in the lock. The commander had ensured his privacy.
All the same, Varel lifted a hand and put it against the polished wood. He didn't knock, just stood there and tried to get his bearings. He wasn't sure what had just happened.
Well, the commander had just sucked him off. For the second time. Cool, remote, untouchable Warden-Commander Elyon Andras had gone to his knees for Varel, had encouraged Varel to fuck his mouth, had taken Varel down his throat. The memory of the incredible pleasure he'd just experienced brought a pleasant twinge to Varel's balls.
But the commander was still untouchable. He wouldn't let Varel reciprocate in any way, it seemed. The first time, he'd left Varel's room. This second time, he'd thrown Varel out and locked himself in. And both times, Varel acknowledged with a scowl, he'd said thank you, as if he'd just expressed his gratitude for something Varel had done.
The first time, Varel had decided he was wrong about that, because the commander wasn't the kind of man who would thank someone with a blowjob for saving his life. But that had been because the commander didn't give the impression of ever trading his mouth for favors or services, and... wasn't that what had just happened?
Varel scowled even harder. Had the commander just discovered what seemed like the right way to handle him? Give the old seneschal a touch of magic to make his cock think it's young again, give him a decent suck, and he'll do anything.
That couldn't be right. He didn't want it to be right. But Varel wasn't sure what else to make of it. He wanted to touch the commander, very badly, wanted to find out what was underneath the robes, touch and taste the silky skin he'd only caught glimpses of, but it seemed the commander didn't want that. Could be that the commander found Varel unattractive, much as he'd suggested once that Varel might find him -- or any elf -- unattractive. Could be that was why the commander only satisfied Varel's desires, and appeared to have none of his own.
Varel leaned against the door and listened, hoping for something, anything, the rustle of clothing, the stir of movements and faster breaths, any sign that the commander was not unmoved and had decided to take matters into his own hands. But there was only silence.
He turned away and strode down the hallway. It wasn't all that far to his own office; Varel stopped outside that door instead and made sure his trousers were indeed properly fastened and his shirt tucked in as neatly as it should be. There was one long copper hair on his right thigh, and he plucked it away and rubbed it between his fingers for a moment before dropping it on the floor.
When he opened the door, he saw Woolsey and Garevel bent over the books, just as before. Garevel looked up and nodded; Woolsey considered him a little longer, until Varel began to wonder if she could somehow see the commander's touch on him. But all she said was, "There is tea on the sideboard, seneschal."
Varel went over there and poured into the one empty mug left for him. A delicate cloud of steam rose into the air; the tea was still hot. He brought his mug to the table and took his accustomed seat. Garevel muttered something and flung his pen down. "I can't get these numbers to add up!"
"I have told you before to leave the numbers to me," Woolsey said.
"Yes, but if we're to have any hope of getting this done before next payday--"
"That certainly won't happen if I need to do all your work over as well as my own," Woolsey said briskly.
Garevel leaned back in his chair, and Varel could see him consider an angry retort, then bite it back. Good. Garevel was young to be captain of the guard, his appointment a hurried necessity when Rullens had died so suddenly, but he was growing into the work, rather than letting it overwhelm him. Instead of snapping pointlessly at Woolsey -- snapping at Woolsey was always pointless -- he turned to Varel. "Did the commander have any new instructions for us?"
"No," Varel said, taking care that his own voice wouldn't give anything away, either. "No, he just wanted a report on the work we're doing here. Wanted to know what we were so busy with."
Garevel looked annoyed and resigned at the same time. "I should have known we couldn't keep anything from him. He's too sharp."
Woolsey straightened in her seat, a contrast to Garevel's tired slouch. "Perhaps I should reassure the commander," she said, "that none of the Vigil's apparent financial irregularities are due to my work, and that they will be straightened out as soon as possible." She actually looked as close to concerned as Varel had ever seen her.
"I wouldn't worry about it," he said. "I told the commander there was money in the wrong places, but he didn't seem that fussed about it. Seems to believe you'll work it out so we can make it right, Woolsey."
She sniffed. "Of course I will."
Varel glanced over at Garevel. "The commander was more concerned about the missing people and the identity of the nameless prisoners. Seems to me we'd better make that our priority here."
"Right!" That made Garevel straighten up. "Of course we will." He held up a slightly tea-stained sheet of paper. "I'm looking at the list of what Rendon Howe sent for from Denerim, including people, and comparing that with the tally of people who came back."
Too few had come back, Varel knew. The Vigil's garrison had been seriously depleted by the time he was released from his imprisonment. Barracks still stood empty down in the soldiers' yard. There was no way of telling, either, if the lost soldiers had fallen on some nefarious business of Howe's, or later, when he was dead and darkspawn invaded the city. Better to think they'd died defending Denerim against the darkspawn, anyway. The soldiers who came back had mostly reported their fellows as fallen in that battle; Varel couldn't blame them, and he certainly wasn't about to argue with them.
"They're likely dead if they didn't come back," he said, leaving aside the question of where and how. "What about Highever?"
"The better part of the soldiers went there," Garevel said slowly. "It's only chance and some bad sausages kept me from being one of them. And then they came straight back here, before going with Howe to Denerim."
"Yes, but Howe must have left people in Highever," Varel said, "to hold the Cousland castle, and then to take charge when the teyrnir was made over to him."
"I don't suppose Fergus Cousland wants to do us any favors," Garevel said, "but maybe there's someone in Highever who can tell us how many Howe soldiers fell when he took back the castle, at least."
Varel rubbed his forehead. "We should have done this a long time ago," he said. "I've been too ashamed of what the old arl did, but those soldiers were our people, and they did what they were commanded to do. We should at least know their fates."
"Yes," Garevel agreed. "We can write a letter to Highever, and even one to Denerim, I suppose -- though I don't even know if we should be writing to the new arl of Denerim, or the steward of the estate--"
"Denerim's more of a mess, but less of a problem," Varel said. "We've got reports of who died there, but no one's spoken of what happened at Highever, and who was left behind at the castle, living or dead. We can start by talking to the soldiers who went there and came back."
He and Garevel looked at each other. "They won't want to," Garevel said. "Down in the barracks, nobody ever even mentions it, not after that fight when Jermyn lost a tooth."
"Yes." Varel sighed. "We've been too used to feeling shame and keeping quiet. But we have to get a clear idea of what happened to the Vigil's soldiers. If they're dead, where they died, or if they were locked up somewhere, even. And I want to know about the people who went missing here at the Vigil, too." He weighed the papers in his hand. "I want to know who those prisoners were."
Woolsey cleared her throat. "I can deal with the matter of misappropriated monies," she said. "All I need is a clear tally of how many soldiers the Vigil has at present, and how many have actually joined up, or left, in the time since the king deeded Amaranthine to the wardens. I believe we are working to resolve those matters as best we can." She nodded to Garevel.
"Then I'll deal with the prisoners," Varel said, "and I could use Garevel's help about Highever. But the keep doesn't run itself, and I know for a fact that the barracks don't, either."
"No," Garevel said, "and I hope my part in the work here doesn't take much longer, because I have things to do that I can't keep putting off on others." He looked at Varel. "About Highever... I think it's better if you talk to the men. That way it will be clearer to them that this isn't a matter of ordinary military discipline. I'll get you some names of people I think are level-headed enough to handle it."
Varel nodded. He could see the shape of the days to come, and he didn't much like it, but it had to be done. "There's no need to rush on my account," he said. "I'll be busy talking to Hansa and Samuel, and trying to catch up with the everyday business of the past couple of days." He rubbed his forehead again. The headache was still there. "Maker, and there's still all that mess with Bann Esmerelle to deal with."
"My impression was that Bann Esmerelle is dead," Woolsey said, dismissing that lady and her treasonous plot with a small, one-shouldered shrug.
"Very dead," Varel agreed. "And so are the nobles who followed her. But I have to arrange what happens to their bodies, and make sure that their heirs swear fealty to the commander instead, and hopefully are more honest about it."
"They'll be afraid of him after this," Garevel said. "Just as well, too. The nobles had no respect for the Orlesians who were here before. They'll learn to be a bit more wary of this one." Something about the way he said it suggested that he'd learned to be a bit more wary of the commander, himself.
"It would be more to the point," Woolsey said, "if they could learn to pay their taxes promptly. Horror stories about the wicked Commander of the Grey won't help restore the arling's finances to what they should be."
"Oh, he's not that bad," Varel protested. Garevel and Woolsey looked at him. "Would you really call him wicked?"
"I would not," Woolsey said, gathering her papers together. "But it has not escaped my notice that the people of Amaranthine have some reservations about the commander, for several reasons."
"No one was happy with the idea of Orlesians in charge," Garevel said. "And this Orlesian is a mage. And an elf. Bann Esmerelle had her own reasons for doing what she did, but I don't think she'd've gotten so many to follow her if they hadn't been unhappy that an Orlesian and a mage and an elf had authority over them."
"No, I don't reckon she would have." Varel had admittedly had doubts himself, finding out that he would have to work with Orlesian wardens and under an Orlesian commander. The Orlesian wardens hadn't been so bad, though. And the commander... Varel felt a wholly unexpected rush of protectiveness, as fierce and embarrassing as it was unnecessary, and tried to suppress it. The commander certainly did not need Varel to fight his battles for him.
"But the commander has done a great deal to help Amaranthine," Woolsey said. "The trade routes are safe again, and both the Vigil's market and the Amaranthine shops are doing very well. And when the roads are safer, so is the countryside and its farms. No doubt the people of the arling will notice that the commander's policies are to their advantage."
"Well, they might," Garevel said, "but I doubt it."
"People see what they want to see," Varel agreed.
"Yes, but they also see the money in their hands," Woolsey said. "If the commander makes Amaranthine rich again, I imagine the arling will forgive him worse sins than being an Orlesian."
She stood up, and Garevel and Varel followed her example. "I'll let you know about the ones you need to talk to," Garevel said, "within a day or two." He shifted his shoulders, adjusting the fit of the mailshirt he insisted on wearing even for this work. "For now, I have to figure out the best way to tell the men that their wages will be delayed."
"At least there's still food," Varel said. "Speaking of which, I'd better go talk to Mistress Hansa. She'll be relieved to know she won't be sent out on scouting duty."
"She'd be safe from that even if I found her on the rolls," Garevel said. "None of the scouts I do have can cook worth a damn."