Chapter 1: In which Zevran meets the Warden, but not the other way around
It was remarkably easy for Zevran to sneak into Arl Howe’s keep in Denerim. The household staff wore plain tunics and trousers, the sort that could easily be purchased from one of the shabbier market stalls. He could have stolen them, of course, but he had a bit of coin—there was no sense in risking unwanted attention over a few coppers.
Once inside the keep, Zevran prepared himself to answer any queries about who he was or what he was doing there, but the humans who bustled past him barely seemed to notice his presence. An elf in drab clothing could go almost anywhere in a Ferelden keep, it seemed. Useful to know. It was not long before Zevran found himself in the Arl’s empty study, without ever having to answer a question about his presence.
While he waited for the Arl to return, he wondered what sort of man would order the assassination of Grey Wardens. Even in Antiva few had the desire to cross the Wardens, partly due to their fearsome reputation, partly out of instinctive respect for their purpose. And, if the rumors Zevran had heard in the Pearl earlier that day were any indication, the Darkspawn had already dealt the armies of Ferelden a crushing defeat. This was an odd time indeed to be killing those who were supposed to stand against a Blight.
The door opened.
Arl Rendon Howe was not quite what Zevran had expected. Howe was a middle-aged man with a long jaw and prominent nose. His leather armor was expensive, but it bore scratches and scuffs from battle—it was clearly not just for show.This was no fat, lazy nobleman too frightened to confront his enemies directly. Zevran recognized the calculating, detached look in the Arl’s eyes. He had seen it in the Crows who particularly enjoyed torturing their targets.
The Arl arched an eyebrow when he spotted Zevran, but registered no more surprise than that. “Ah. You came earlier than I expected.”
“The Crows send their regards, and their thanks for the business. I am Zevran, your lordship.” The elf made a bow.
“I did not ask your name,” the arl said dismissively, crossing to his desk. “I must tell my staff to be more suspicious of elven strangers, especially considering what happened to the last Arl’s family."
Zevran wanted to ask the story behind that comment, but he suspected Howe would not be forthcoming.
“Although for your price, I suppose I should be glad you come with at least a few useful skills,” the Arl continued as he sorted through a pile of papers.
The assassin chuckled to himself. He was not about to tell the Arl how little of the price he himself would keep, if he succeeded. “So. Tell me about my targets.”
“There are two of them.” The Arl pulled two sheets of parchment from the pile on his desk. “I doubt they shall be much trouble. Certainly not enough to demand such an extravagant fee.”
“But they are both Grey Wardens, no?” Zevran said matter-of-factly. He held out his hand for the papers. “You will need the best to deal with two heroes of legend. Especially ones who survived Ostagar when their brethren all died.”
The Arl barked out a cold little laugh. “I fear you will find the reality disappointing.” He tossed the parchments in front of Zevran. “It was a lucky accident that spared these two, a banal assignment away from the front lines. They fled the field when they saw the Darkspawn overwhelm that idiot Cailan.” He tapped a callused finger on one of the sheets. “This one. This one will be leading them.”
Zevran looked down at the sketch on the bounty announcement. A handsome human stared back at him, his ink eyes narrow and his mouth thin and grim.
“Alistair is his name,” the Arl informed him. “He is a former Templar and the senior Warden of the two—though that’s not saying much.”
The assassin made note of the man’s features, then pushed the parchment aside to reveal its companion. His eyes widened in astonishment when he beheld a sketch of an elven woman. An angry scar ran down the right side of her face; the artist had given her wild hair and an expression that bordered on a snarl. She looked almost witchlike.
“And here I thought all of Ferelden’s elves were slaving away over hot kettles or scrubbing floors,” he said, not bothering to conceal his surprise. “Her name?”
“Does it matter?” the Arl said acidly. “No one caught it. She was a new recruit at Ostagar, barely a Warden at all. They were last seen in Redcliffe. They have three companions that we know of: a Qunari, likely a mercenary, a red-haired woman who wields a bow, and a dark-haired woman who may be an apostate mage. Do not bother going out of your way to slay them. The Wardens are the priority.”
Zevran felt his stomach sink. Once, he would have been pleased with the news of such an easy assignment. Now he felt an odd sort of despair. He had taken this contract precisely because fighting Grey Wardens sounded so impossible—because it sounded like the kind of assignment that was likely to get him killed.
The reality, however, was that his contract was eminently fulfillable. He could make a suicidal run at them alone, he supposed, but even now Zevran was too proud to get himself killed through incompetence. He supposed all he could do was assemble some reasonable mercenaries and hope one of the Wardens might release him with a single, lucky blow. It would probably be this Alistair.
His eyes returned to the sketch of the nameless elven woman. The harsh expression made her features appear plain, not at all like his lovely Rinna’s. Nonetheless, he wondered if this woman too would beg for her life before she died.
Chapter 2: In which no one is quite sure why Zevran isn't dead
Naia woke with a tense ache knotting her temples. She wondered why she felt so lousy, and then it all came rushing back. Isolde’s blood opening the way to the Fade. Steady, gentle Alistair exploding in rage about the noblewoman’s death. Naia exploding right back, telling him to either pull his weight and make decisions too or keep his mouth shut. They’d barely shared a word since then that wasn’t “look behind you” or “watch out, arrows!”
Oh, and then there was her bizarre decision to take an assassin—one hired to kill her and Alistair—along for the increasingly hellish ride.
I’m so glad everyone looks to me for leadership. Yes. Great decisions I’ve been making.
Naia put a hand over her eyes and tried to convince herself that she could go back to sleep, but she heard the rustling from the rest of the camp. It was time to get up. With a sigh, she pushed aside her sleeping roll and began to pack up her tent. She had dismantled the structure and was tightening the straps to secure her tent poles when she heard footsteps off to her right—too light to be Sten’s, but too heavy to be one of the women or an elf.
“Morning, Alistair,” she said quietly. She glanced up at him briefly, but then pretended to busy herself with her packing.
“Morning, yes.” Alistair’s voice was bright, and a bit anxious. “Good? I’ll wait until we see how many Darkspawn try to stab us before noon.”
Despite herself, Naia felt her mouth quirk. “That seems wise.”
Alistair’s feet shifted in the dirt, and Naia looked up at him again. His shoulders were tense and his mouth was twisted; he looked like he'd slept about as much as she had these past few days. Finally, he blurted, “Naia, I’m sorry.”
Naia stood, meeting his eyes. Alistair's chest rose and fell with an unsteady breath before he continued. “I shouldn’t have screamed at you like that. It wasn’t fair. You did what you could in a terrible situation, and you saved Connor.”
“I’m sorry, too." Naia found herself blinking back tears. "Sorry about Lady Isolde, and sorry for what I said.”
“You weren’t entirely wrong.” Alistair sighed and ran a hand through his hair. “I have been standing idle, leaving the hard choices to you. I’ll admit it, I’ve been a bit useless.”
“Not entirely useless. If it wasn’t for you I’d be crushed in an ogre’s claws somewhere in that tower at Ostagar. Thanks for that, by the way.”
"Ah, yes. Thanks to me, you survive to be tormented by walking corpses, blood magic, mad regents, and obnoxious assassins. ‘You’re welcome’ seems a bit odd under the circumstances, but nonetheless, you’re welcome.” Alistair reached for her arm and gave it a friendly squeeze. “So. Ready to break camp?”
“I am. Hey, Zevran. Mind telling Leliana, Morrigan, and Sten that we’re headed for the Brecelian Forest?”
The signs hadn’t been much—a few moving leaves, a slight prickle at the back of her neck—and the spy’s identity was largely a guess, so Naia felt a bit smug when the elven assassin stepped out from the shadow of the trees. “Well spotted, Warden,” he said admiringly, with no trace of shame. “I will tell them.”
“Thanks. Oh. Could you also stop spying on me?” Naia crossed her arms and arched an eyebrow at him. “Next time I might throw a knife in your direction, and it would be really inconvenient to have to bury your body.”
The assassin laughed merrily. “I am flattered you would take the time, my Warden.” He bowed. “I am, as always, at your service.”
Naia fought the impulse to close her eyes—or bang her palm against her forehead. Such an excellent decision. Oh yes.
As Zevran moved away, Alistair stepped closer to her. “Are you sure bringing him along is a good idea?” he whispered.
Naia sighed. “Truthfully? No. Not even a tiny bit sure.”
The smart thing to do would have been to kill him back in the valley. She’d been ready to do it—but then he’d started talking. It had been the story about the slave markets that had done it. She couldn’t kill him with image of an elven child, bound and sold to the highest bidder, seared in the front of her mind.
Which was almost certainly what he’d anticipated. Andraste’s ass, he’s smart. He played me like a damn flute.
Zevran was an assassin—her assassin. Worse yet, Alistair’s assassin. As badly as they needed more people to fight alongside them, she knew she couldn’t trust him.
And yet, she believed his tale about wanting to leave the Crows. And part of her wondered if there was anything left of that elven child.
“I’m watching him,” she promised Alistair. “Closely.”
“Me too.” The other Warden crossed his arms. “I just hope it’s closely enough.”
Zevran realized two things shortly after he awoke following the failed attempt on the Wardens. First, Rendon Howe had been dead wrong about the leader of the Wardens’ little band. He saw the way all heads turned towards the elven woman, waiting for her to decide whether he lived or died; she, not Alistair, commanded this group.
Second, some part of him still wished to live.
He had little expectation that the revelation would mean anything, given that he was tied up by people he had just tried to kill. But he kept talking, watched for the stories that lit sympathy or curiosity in the Warden’s eyes, and somehow, he had convinced Naia Tabris to accept his pledge of service.
I am your man, without reservation.
The rest of the group, however, did not share that lack of reservations. They mostly gave him a wide berth as they walked the dusty path to the Brecelian Forest, though Leliana had been willing to talk with him—or, more accurately, scold him for asking inappropriate questions about her time in the Lothering Chantry. There was a story there, he was certain. Leliana knew rather a lot about the Crows for a rosy-cheeked Chantry sister. The rest took his measure from a distance, assessing him with quiet glances and—in Alistair’s case—outright glares.
And then there was the Warden herself.
Leliana had told him that Naia was raised in the Denerim alienage. She had apparently been a Warden for less than a day before the great battle at Ostagar—Howe had been correct about that much, at least. He was most curious about where Naia had learned to fight. There were rough edges to her technique, but she was fast and precise—his Crow masters would have been salivating over the chance to bring her into their ranks.
The Warden was talkative and curious. In the short time he’d been with the group, Zevran had heard her quiz Alistair about growing up with the Templars, ask Leliana about Orlais, and even try to probe Sten about the Qunari. She could sometimes seem very young, but then in a moment her face would grow silent and grim, and she’d stare into the distance and seem far older than her years.
He had been sincere in his oath when he swore it to her at the valley. Nonetheless, he couldn’t help but wonder if he ought to strike again, consistency not being something he usually found expedient. He still had a chance to return to the Crows in minimal disgrace if Alistair and Naia died now.
He was surprised to find that the idea held little appeal. His master’s cold dismissal of Rinna’s death still echoed in his ears. Why should we be angry? She was nothing to us. And neither are you, for all your arrogance and boasting. Remember that.
He was tired of being nothing. If the Warden could help him evade the Crows long enough to disappear, he would follow her.
"Zevran? Do you know anything about Dalish elves?”
Zevran was startled out of his thoughts by his new mistress’s voice, and he barely avoided stumbling. It had been years since anyone had successfully snuck up on him, and yet Naia had appeared by his side as if from nowhere. I cannot afford to be so distracted.
“Not much, I am afraid," he said smoothly, covering as best he could. "My mother was Dalish, but I was not born among them.”
“Why not?” Naia asked. That inquisitive look was back in her eyes. Zevran turned his face away from her, pretending to watch the road ahead.
“She fell in love with a woodcutter and followed him to Antiva. But he died, and she found herself working in a brothel to pay his debts. She died during my birth, I am afraid. All I ever knew of her people was a pair of Dalish gloves she left me—soft leather, handsomely embroidered. The other whores raised me, at least until I was old enough to put for sale on the slave markets.”
This was not an uncommon tale among the Crows, and in Antiva, the story would have garnered little reaction beyond a nod. Naia, however, had a different reaction. “Maker’s fucking balls, they raised you and then put you up for sale?”
Zevran looked over at her, startled. The Warden’s eyes were wide and angry, her expression indignant. He felt his brow furrow in confusion.
“The whores were not unkind,” he assured her, wondering if she had misunderstood. “I think a few of them regretted having to sell me. But I could fetch a price, and this is the usual thing done with children born in the brothels. It is … simply the way the world works.”
Naia shook her head angrily, her red braid swinging behind her. “It shouldn’t be. They should have found another way.”
The assassin chuckled. “You are amusingly naïve, aren’t you?”
“Call it what you want. I would say I have high standards.” The Warden seemed unbothered by his assessment of her.
“I see.” Zevran shrugged, uncomfortable for a reason he couldn’t quite identify. “Tell me, why ask about the Dalish? Do you know nothing of them yourself?”
She shook her head. “My friend Alarith has met some, but everything I know about them came from his stories. I don’t quite know what to expect, to tell the truth.”
Despite himself, Zevran felt a keen interest in seeing the Dalish for the first time. He had fantasized about running away to them as a child—he imagined almost all elven children did. Even though he had long since abandoned such silly wishes, he could not deny that the idea of meeting his mother’s people pleased him greatly.
Of course, he said none of this to the Warden.
They walked in uneasy silence for several paces more. Zevran found himself studying Naia out of the corner of his eye. She was not much like her picture. Oh, the features had been accurate enough, but the sketch had utterly failed to capture the intelligence in her green eyes or the lithe grace of her frame. In person, she was far from plain—in fact, she was strikingly attractive. Some would have thought her beauty marred by the livid scar running from her temple to her jaw, but Zevran personally felt that scars added to a woman’s mystique.
Then Naia broke the quiet. “What happened to the gloves? Your mother’s?”
“The Crows took them from me.” He had thought himself long past caring about his training, but he suddenly realized that he could remember every faded stitch of embroidery on those gloves. “We were not supposed to have personal things.”
Naia’s brows drew together, ever so slightly, but she said nothing; she just nodded and resumed her walk. Zevran was left with the disconcerting feeling that the Warden pitied him.
Chapter 3: In which Zevran and Naia are suspicious and go shopping
Naia sucked a silent breath through her teeth and clenched her fists as the flap to Zathrian’s tent swung shut. She wasn’t sure what she’d expected—the Keeper had managed to avoid or half-answer every single one of her questions about Witherfang since they’d arrived. But somehow today’s evasions felt especially insulting. They’d saved a Dalish hunter, found ironbark for the clan’s weapons, and survived an attack by talking werewolves—what more did Zathrian bloody want from her?
Another deep breath. I can’t afford to lose my temper here. We need them.
Even if they are a bunch of blasted stubborn prigs led by the biggest liar I’ve ever met.
Father, when I see you again, I’m going to apologize for all of those times I threatened to run away to the Dalish.
The other Dalish, at least, seemed less annoyed by her presence as she crossed the camp. One even gave her a wave—a friend of the hunter Deygan’s, she suspected. Still, she did not fully relax until she reached the little circle they had set up outside the ring of the main Dalish camp.
Leliana was coaxing a pile of sticks into flame when Naia stepped between the tents. She looked up with a smile—one that quickly faded when she saw Naia’s expression.
“Zathrian would not speak with you?”
“Oh, he said a lot.” Naia scowled. “He insisted that werewolves don’t talk, and then told me he had Keeper business to attend.”
“I suppose we cannot blame them for being suspicious of outsiders.” Leliana sighed. “We do not share a happy history, humans and elves. Still, I have been impressed. The Dalish are far less savage than I had thought.”
Naia felt herself prickle, even though she had been silently complaining about the Dalish for most of the day. “I’ll pass that along. I’m sure they’ll be glad to hear it.”
Leliana looked stricken. “I—oh dear. I did not mean to give offense.”
“I know,” Naia sighed. “It’s just—we can’t bloody win, elves. If you’re Dalish you’re a savage. Live in an alienage and you’re a criminal.”
“In Orlais there are many elves among the court,” Leliana offered. “Skilled elves are much in demand as servants. They can rise higher than many humans and become quite wealthy.” There was uncertainty on Leliana’s face as she said this, as if she knew that this would not impress Naia but was not quite sure why.
Naia took a deep breath. “But they’re still servants. They can’t rise unless some human makes a pet out of them.”
“I had not thought of it that way,” Leliana admitted with a little frown.
Of course not. Leliana was a friend, but she could be such a shem sometimes.
Movement in a little clearing to the side of their camp caught Naia’s eye. When she saw the flash of sunlight on metal she instinctively put her hand on her dagger—but then she realized it was only Zevran, training with his own daggers. The spring day was unseasonably warm and the assassin had removed his shirt, revealing a pattern of swirling tattoos over his right shoulder and down his chest and back.
He was clearly following a training exercise of some sort—the motions were smooth and elegant, designed to keep limbs loose and reflexes sharp. Naia watched as he moved, his muscles sliding underneath his olive skin, the tattoos drawing attention to the wiry definition of his arms and chest. Her breath caught a bit in spite of herself.
All right, he was an assassin, but she wasn’t blind.
Leliana followed her gaze. “Aha! See something you like?” she teased.
Naia turned her gaze away quickly. Maker, she had been staring. “I’m curious about his technique,” she said, only half lying. Her mother had been an excellent teacher, but she could tell Zevran’s training had been on another level entirely.
“Why not ask him?” There was more than a bit of teasing in Leliana’s voice. “Perhaps he would be willing to teach you.”
Naia felt a smile spread across her face. Some training sounded like just the way to shake off this day. “You know, I think I will.”
Zevran was coming to the end of his routine—an easy one, merely meant to stretch and soothe sore muscles—when he saw Naia approach the clearing from the camp. He pulled out of the final sequence to bow as she approached. “Ah, my Warden. How may I be of service?” He winked at her. “I have some suggestions, if you are interested.”
As he’d expected, Naia pretended she hadn’t caught his meaning. “Actually, I was wondering something about the way you fight. You can take down a target faster than anyone I’ve seen. Can you teach me?”
“No.” The word was out of Zevran’s mouth before he had really thought about it.
He saw Naia’s eyes widen in surprise. She looked a bit offended. “Please do not misunderstand,” he added quickly. “It is not a slight on your abilities. In fact, I think you would be quite a skilled assassin. But the Crows—the techniques are closely held secrets, and recruits are forbidden from discussing them.”
“You left the Crows, though,” Naia pointed out.
It was a good point. Zevran knew that the intelligent thing to do would be to ingratiate himself with the person sparing his life. But the idea of teaching Naia to do what he did made him feel oddly exposed. There would truly be no going back if he betrayed the Crows’ secrets. Not that he wanted to return. But nor was he ready for the Warden to own his loyalty—his life—so completely.
“Indeed I did,” he answered after a pause. “And I would rather not anger them further.”
It was a weak excuse. He expected her to insist, to remind him of his oath and order him to teach her. But she merely looked disappointed. “Well, it was just a thought.”
Then, to his surprise, she changed the subject. “So what do you think of the Dalish?”
Zevran chuckled. “They do not quite live up to what I imagined as a child. And you?”
The Warden shook her head ruefully. “In the alienage, we used to talk of the Dalish like—like heroes. I always assumed that if city elves ran into the Dalish we’d be embraced like long-lost children. But it turns out I’m just another outsider. I might as well be a shem. Maybe they’re just cautious because of everything that’s happened.” She sounded doubtful.
“Perhaps the hunters are. But Zathrian is hiding something,” Zevran said flatly. Naia gave him an odd look. “You disagree?”
“No, I don’t,” the other elf said with a sigh. “I was hoping I was imagining things. He was so vague when I asked him about Danyla, and when I told him the werewolves spoke to us he seemed almost angry at the idea. It could just be that he doesn’t trust us, but I can’t shake the feeling that there’s something about this mess that he doesn’t want anyone to know.”
Zevran was surprised but impressed at her wariness. I was too quick to think her naïve.
“But at least the hunters have stopped glaring holes in my head every time I pass. And I think Varathorn has managed to make something with that ironbark we found,” she went on, that familiar spark of optimism back in her voice. “Want to go see?”
“Why not? I am always interested in weapons.”
“Put on a shirt first?” Naia suggested, a little smile curving her mouth. “I don’t want to deal with hoards of swooning Dalish maidens fainting in our path.”
Zevran threw his head back and laughed. “Ah, such flattery! Not that you are wrong, of course.”
“I’m never wrong. It’s one of my best features,” Naia said. There was more than a hint of sarcasm in her voice; Zevran wondered if he’d inadvertently touched a nerve. But it was gone in a heartbeat. “Come on, I want to see if that ironbark was worth all the damn trouble.”
Varathorn’s gift was a sword, narrow and symmetrically curved in the Dalish style, lighter than a normal longsword but still too heavy to wield as a dagger. Zevran saw the weaponsmaster flinch when Naia said that Alistair would love it—but he did not protest outright at the idea of his weapon being given to a shemlen, and he continued to thank Naia for the supply she had secured.
“I cannot be as generous as I would like, but I will offer you a discount on anything else you want to buy,” Varathorn told them as his assistant wrapped the sword in a temporary sheath.
“How much for your elfroot?” Naia said immediately.
“How many bundles would you like?”
“Um. All of them, if we can afford it,” Naia admitted. “Maker, we go through potions.”
Zevran stepped away as the two of them began to haggle, running practiced hands over the hilts of Varathorn’s daggers. He admired the craftsmanship, but nothing on the table tempted him; his own weapons had been with him so long that they almost seemed like family.
He moved on to the leather, inhaling the smell with pleasure. The Dalish used different techniques to tan their leather goods; it was stronger but less supple than the buttery boots and coats that Zevran had admired back home in Antiva, and the scent was not quite the same. Still, it made him miss home.
And then one small item at the end of the table made his eyes go wide.
They were gloves—a utilitarian pair with only a bit of embroidery at the cuffs, clearly intended for a man. Something about them seemed incredibly familiar, but his mind was caught, unable to quite recall where he had seen something like this before.
It came to him in a rush when he picked them up. My mother’s gloves. The leather had not been so thick, and there had been more embroidery, but the cut of the fingers, the slight curve over the wrist, the careful paneling that enabled a hand to move almost as easily as it did when bare—it was all exactly as his mother’s gloves had been.
“Done,” he heard Naia say, pulling at her purse strings. “That is, if you throw in the gloves too.”
“You drive a hard bargain, Grey Warden,” Varathorn said with a dramatic mock sigh. “Done.”
Zevran stared at her as the weaponsmaster moved away to pack their herbs. There was only one pair of gloves on Varathorn’s table—the ones he was holding. He held them out to her. “I fear these are made for a man, my Warden.”
Naia gave him a look. “That’s good, since they’re for you.”
“I have gloves,” Zevran said, baffled. “I have not been wearing them of late, since it has been so warm, but—”
“But they have holes in the thumbs and a tear across the left palm. You can give them to Duncan to chew on. Maybe then he’ll stop stealing Morrigan’s shoes.” She chuckled. “Actually, don’t. Annoying Morrigan is a worthy goal.”
“You are giving me gloves,” Zevran said flatly. “What for?” Was she trying to buy his loyalty? Surely she does not think I would be so cheap as a pair of gloves.
The Warden looked at him as if he’d gone mad. “To wear. When it gets colder. To keep your hands warm. Do you really not want them?”
He almost said no—almost lied about his old gloves having sentimental value. But the idea of putting these gloves back on the table was too painful. “No, no. You are right. Mine are in poor condition. I will keep them.”
“You’re welcome?” Naia prompted teasingly.
Zevran shook his head, flustered. “I—thank you. I am sorry if I was graceless. I was merely startled.”
The Warden arched one eyebrow. “What, no one’s given you a gift before?”
"Not that I can recall, no.”
Surprise lit the Warden’s face, but she suppressed it quickly. Even so, Zevran felt foolish. He flashed her his most insolent grin. “At least, I have not received one from such a stunning woman. You must tell me how to thank you properly.”
Naia rolled her eyes, but she was smiling as she did. “Just enjoy them.”
Varathorn chose that moment to reappear. He handed the wrapped sword to Naia; she slung it over her shoulder and reached for the elfroot. Zevran followed her, the gloves in hand, as she walked back to their tents. He ran his thumb over the tiny stitches on the gloves with something like wonder.
For someone who prided himself on reading people, he suddenly felt as if he did not understand Naia Tabris at all.
Chapter 4: In which Naia plays matchmaker and Zevran has good advice
Zevran spent the next several days waiting for the other shoe to drop—for the Warden to test his loyalty, or call in whatever favor she thought she’d purchased, or find a way to punish him for refusing to train her. He knew this routine well from his time with the Guildmasters. Favors and kindness were the prelude to cruel requests; any insubordination would be paid back a thousandfold worse.
But nothing happened, and after a few days, he realized nothing would.
He was beginning to see that Naia did not lead by breaking others to her will. She simply barreled forward into challenges, assuming that those at her side would join her. To Zevran’s surprise, they did—even Morrigan and Sten, who grumbled regularly about her penchant for small, pointless causes. Zevran found the Warden’s impulsive helpfulness more than a little baffling, but he too walked into danger the moment she chose their battle.
Of course, some battles were stranger than others.
“What is she doing, exactly?” he asked Morrigan, staring across their little circle and into the main Dalish camp, where Naia was deep in conversation with a lanky Dalish redhead just barely out of girlhood.
Morrigan curled her lip. “Playing matchmaker to a pair of idiot teenagers. Or perhaps she’s rescuing a kitten. She moves so quickly from one ridiculous task to the next that I find it difficult to keep track.”
For perhaps the first time, Zevran felt a kinship with Morrigan. This also struck him as more than a little absurd. “Perhaps the boy has promised her some favor if she helps him win the girl’s heart?” he suggested.
“Oh, no,” Alistair said cheerfully, either unaware of their hostility or ignoring it. “She just heard Cammen sighing and offered to help.”
Zevran squinted a bit, trying to intuit what the two women were saying. Naia was talking rapidly, gesturing with her hands, her expressive face full of sincerity as she argued her point. The Dalish girl was shaking her head, her mouth set in a stubborn line.
“Fascinating. What do you make of this, my towering friend?” Zevran looked over at Sten, who was standing to the side of the camp with his arms crossed. It was his usual position.
Sten gave him a flat look. “There are werewolves to fight, and our battlemaster is assisting two children who are too foolish to mate without assistance. I choose not to acknowledge this is happening.”
That was the longest reply Zevran had ever gotten out of Sten. He felt oddly encouraged.
Suddenly, the Dalish girl pressed a hand to her mouth, her eyes wide. Naia nodded encouragingly. A moment later the girl was half-running to Cammen’s side, her hands extended. The boy stood, a wondering expression on his face, and took her hands with a brilliant grin.
Roughly ten minutes later, Naia marched back into camp looking very pleased with herself. “Success! At least one thing went right today,” she announced cheerfully.
“Oh, yes, how splendid.” Morrigan rolled her eyes. “We still lack an alliance with the Dalish, or a method of dealing with these werewolves, but now two virgins will now enjoy an inept night of lovemaking. This was certainly worth the time.”
“Hmmm, now there is a thought,” Zevran said, grinning at the Warden. “Perhaps you should have seduced the young man. That would be a favor worth performing for the young lady, no? Knock off the rough edges, so to speak?”
Naia sat down next to Alistair and shook her head. “I don’t think that’s a good idea,” she said seriously. “I’d ruin him for other women. I’m very good in bed.”
Alistair made an odd choking sound.
“What? There wasn’t much to do in the alienage. Had to pass the time somehow.” Naia giggled, her eyes alight with mischief as she watched her fellow Warden blush.
She was joking, Zevran could tell, but that didn’t stop him from imagining what the enthusiastic, athletic Warden would be like in bed. He felt his cock warm and harden as an image came into focus—the Warden, her red hair loose over her bare shoulders, grinning down at him as she straddled him, her smile bright with anticipation as she ran her hands over his bare chest, her eyes closing in pleasure as he returned the favor.
He flashed her a suggestive smile. “Indeed, my Warden? Perhaps you would be interested in putting that boast to the test? I prefer to confirm such claims firsthand.”
“You’ll just have to take my word for it.” Naia pulled something out of her pocket. “Anyway, Cammen gave me this book to say thank you.” She held up a little volume called the Tales of Iloren.
“A book. Congratulations.” Sten’s voice was thick with sarcasm.
“Aw, look, they’re kissing!” Alistair said suddenly. “Not that I’m, uh, watching. Oh Maker, I shouldn’t be watching, should I?” He turned his head.
Morrigan made a disgusted noise. “I am going to go lie down in my tent until the urge to vomit passes.”
Naia’s good mood was not destined to last long. The next day began well—the mad hermit, bizarrely, accepted Cammen’s book in trade for the Grand Oak’s acorn, which finally allowed them to pass through the barrier protecting the werewolves’ lair. The werewolves then made a stand in force in the empty, crumbling entryway of their stolen ruins.
Alistair and Sten charged into the fray, swords drawn, taking the worst of the attack. Naia and Zevran harassed the wolves, moving quickly, striking when one of them was distracted or in battle with one of the swordsmen. From a distance, Morrigan threw spells and Leliana shot arrows.
Naia had ventured far into the room, helping Alistair take down a particularly fast and clever wolf, when she heard a scream. She spun her head in time to see Leliana take a vicious bite to her thigh. Even from a distance Naia could see the blood well up as her friend began to collapse.
She started running, knowing she would not be there in time—but suddenly the wolf arched back, its spine covered in ice. As Morrigan’s spell bit into the creature, Zevran sprang forward, appearing as if out of nowhere. With one fast, precise strike, he slid his blade through the wolf’s ribs and stabbed it through the heart.
The assassin already had his hands pressed against Leliana’s thigh when Naia reached them, staunching the bleeding. “The bite missed the artery,” Zevran told the archer, his brow furrowed. “But I fear you may not be able to walk out of here.”
Leliana grimaced, her face white. “I have endured worse.”
Naia pulled bandages from her pack, moving to wrap Leliana’s leg. “The Dalish have skilled healers. We’ll get you back to their camp, just as soon as …”
“It is done.” Sten appeared at her side. “The wolves are slain. The large one, Swiftrunner, quit the battlefield when he saw they were defeated.”
“Then he must have reinforcements below,” Naia said, knotting the bandage tight. “But we’ve bought ourselves some time. Leliana, I’m going to send you and Alistair back to camp. Sten, Morrigan, Zevran, you and I …”
Her words were cut off by a rasping snarl from the opposite end of the room.
Four werewolves were stepping through the door at the far end of the entrance. Naia rose, her daggers in hand. Beside her, Alistair lifted his shield, stepping in front of Leliana, hiding her from view.
The wolves growled in response, but to Naia’s surprise, the group kept its distance. Then one of them—a slim, silvery creature—stepped forward.
“The Lady wishes to know if you will parley, elf.”
“Ooh, a trap. Tempting, but no,” Naia called across the room.
The snarling intensified. One wolf made as if to launch itself into battle, but the spokesman held out a twisted arm, preventing its companion from moving forward. “No trap. Our Lady does not wish more of our people hurt, and believes that you may not yet be aware of all you should know. She has sent us to make you this offer.” The creature’s lip curled back, revealing long, sharp teeth. “It will not be made again.”
Naia met its yellow eyes. “Is your Lady Witherfang?”
The wolf paused. “No,” it said after a beat. “Enough questions. Talk with her, peacefully. Or face us all in battle.”
Naia’s hands tightened on her daggers—but then an idea occurred to her. Slowly, deliberately, she sheathed her weapons.
“Tell your Lady I will speak with her.” Naia’s blood was still pounding in her temples, her limbs tense. She had to force herself to sound calm. “But my people need a moment to rest, and to discuss what we wish to know from the Lady.”
The wolves growled, rumbling their distrust, but their leader bowed his head. “That is acceptable. I will tell the Lady that you have agreed to her parley. You may meet us in the central chamber below.”
When the Lady’s messenger had left, Morrigan let out a loud sigh. “Do you really intend to talk with these creatures?”
Naia clenched her fists. “No. I intend to walk in that room and kill every fucking wolf I see. Starting with their Lady.”
Alistair blinked at her, startled by her vehemence. Sten merely nodded. Morrigan smiled approvingly, which Naia supposed should have been a bad sign. But Maker, she was too furious to care. She glanced over at Zevran, but he seemed to have no reaction to her declaration.
She took a deep breath. It didn’t help. “All right. Zevran and I will scout for traps. The rest of you should catch your breath while you can.”
Zevran trailed quietly behind her as she entered the stairwell. Her eyes were only half focused on the walls and steps. She tried to concentrate, but her heart was speeding and her head felt as if it might explode. A red haze of fury clouded her vision.
She had told Leliana to stay back, to take the highest ground she could find and shoot arrows from a distance. Her strategy had left her friend undefended when the wolf broke through their ranks.
They attacked us on sight when they thought we were helpless. Now that they know we’re a threat, they want to talk?
Fuck their parley.
Zevran’s voice interrupted her racing thoughts. “I believe the stairwell is safe, Grey Warden.” A pause. “Before we return to the others, might I have a word?”
Naia looked over. Zevran was watching her, his expression serious.
“What?” she snapped. If he flirts with me right now I’m going to stab him.
The assassin met her gaze calmly. “I think you should reconsider the parley. There may yet be use in speaking with this Lady.”
Naia blinked. What do you know, he actually wants to talk about the mission. Then she let out a bitter chuckle. “Talk to them? What fucking for, Zevran? I wanted to talk this out days ago. They said no. This is obviously a trap. And if the Lady isn’t Witherfang I’ll eat both my boots. They’re lying to us.”
“So is Zathrian.”
Naia opened her mouth, and then paused as his words sunk in, penetrating the fog of her anger.
Zevran continued. “Think on it. Zathrian wishes these creatures dead most desperately. He knows something about them—something he does not wish anyone else to know. I do not trust this Lady, but she could be our only chance to learn the truth.”
Slowly, for the first time since Leliana had been injured, the red haze drained. Naia closed her eyes and tilted her head back. “ Shit ,” she breathed as the pieces fell into place. “You’re right.”
She pulled her head back up and looked at him. Zevran seemed mildly surprised, as if he had not expected her to agree. “All right,” she said, nodding as her heartbeat slowed to its normal rate. “I’ll talk to her. But if this is a trap—”
“Then my blade will be drawn alongside yours. And I will throw in all of my best poisons.” The assassin flashed her a grin. “Now then. Shall we go take our first look at Witherfang?”
As they had suspected, Zathrian was hiding something.
It took yet another grueling battle to force the ancient elf to lift his curse, surrendering his life along with it. But their reward was one of the strangest and most memorable sights Zevran had ever seen—a group of former werewolves turned into humans, marveling at their new forms.
Swiftrunner, now a middle-aged human man with scraggly brown hair, thanked Naia most sincerely for her aid. The Warden accepted the thanks coldly, her mouth thin and tight. But her expression softened when thanks came from another quarter—a girl around fourteen, who had turned from one of the smallest werewolves into a fresh-faced youngster.
When the girl stepped back to join her clan mates, Naia turned her head to look at Zevran. “They should be thanking you, you know,” she said, her voice quiet.
Zevran blinked. Naia looked into the distance, her face thoughtful and disquiet. “I was set to kill them—to get revenge. Sort of like Zathrian. Maker, that’s a disturbing thought.” She shook her head with a little shudder. “But you talked me out of it. And now they’re free. So I’ll say it: Thank you.”
He did not entirely know what to make of that. “I am glad I was of service, my Warden,” he mumbled, turning his eyes back towards the reborn humans.
Chapter 5: In which Naia tells a story
With the Dalish alliance secured, Naia determined that they would go next to the Circle of Magi, another group that had signed a treaty with the Wardens long ago.
Naturally it turned out that the Circle was overrun with demons. They spent a rather frustrating day in the Fade before Naia brought them all out of it through sheer force of will. But at least they left with a promise of aid, and a new ally: a no-nonsense mage named Wynne with marvelous skill at healing wounds. A week later they found more demons in a tiny hamlet called Honnleath, along with a cranky stone giant named Shale.
Then it was on to Orzammar, third treaty in hand. It was around that time that Zevran noticed something strange. No one was watching him any more. They assigned him to take shifts guarding the camp at night; no one gave the food a skeptical look if he’d helped cook it.
It was several days before it occurred to him that their lack of suspicion gave him the perfect chance to strike. The thought came and went so quickly that it was barely there.
Somewhere around Orzammar, Zevran began to see a change in the Warden.
The quest to find Paragon Branka was not pleasant for anyone. Even Zevran, who had thought himself too cynical to be horrified by anything, had nightmares about the Brood Mother. While he himself would have wanted the Anvil of the Void, he was not surprised when the Warden sided with Caridin and destroyed it. Branka’s fate was sealed the moment Naia met Hespith. The Warden would never accept an ally who abandoned people who trusted her to the crushing dark of the Deep Roads. She made a more practical choice when she selected Bhelen as Orzammar’s King, but guilt haunted her eyes when Harrowmont was executed.
When he saw her again in the light of the surface, the Warden looked far older than her twenty-four years. She was still talkative, still optimistic, but when she thought no one was looking she would pinch the bridge of her nose and close her eyes, as if wishing this all away. Her sleep was poor; Zevran noticed that she volunteered for extra night watches, and that even when it was not her turn, she often walked the camp rather than rest in her tent.
The one thing that seemed to brighten her spirits was the decision to go to Denerim. Perhaps they could finally get the cure Eamon needed—and in the meantime, Naia would see her family.
Zevran probably should have been concerned about returning to Denerim. There was always the chance that he might be recognized, however remote. But he had to admit that being back in a city pleased him. The bustle of people, the smell of food cooking, the market stalls—the chaos was familiar and pleasant, though he did miss the smell of fish guts that hung over Antiva City. He did not particularly share the Warden’s eagerness to visit the Denerim alienage, however. From what little he had seen of Ferelden’s elves, he could not imagine it would be a pleasant place. But Naia had cousins there, and a father, and she had mentioned seeing them nearly every day since leaving Orzammar.
Zevran wondered what it would be like, to have people in his past he missed.
Naia could barely contain her impatience as Alistair and Zevran stopped in the market—Zevran to buy a sharpening stone, Alistair to replace torn socks that Wynne refused to repair any further. She was constantly shifting from foot to foot, her eyes widening in frustration if either man picked up a second object.
“Andraste’s ass, Alistair, they’re just socks, ” she wailed when her fellow Warden lifted two pairs to compare.
“Socks? Wait, these are socks? Oh, Maker, why didn’t you tell me sooner? I wanted a hat. Now I’ll have to start all over,” he shot back.
Zevran concealed a laugh as Naia groaned.
Finally, they were ready to leave the market. There was a lightness to the Warden’s step as she led them out of the commercial district, down a dustier and shabbier road than the others he’d seen in Denerim. But her steps slowed as she rounded a corner. A heavy gate barred the way.
A bored-looking guardsman stepped in front of her. “Alienage is closed.” It sounded as if he said this many times a day.
Naia blinked. “But I’m an elf. My family’s in there. Don’t you have to let me in?”
“Sorry.” The guardsman did not sound particularly sorry. “One of them killed the old arl’s son, and some of the boys didn’t take too kindly to a knife-ear taking out a noble. It all turned into a riot, and Arl Howe ordered it closed off for everyone’s protection. Just be thankful you’re on this side of the gate.”
At his side, Alistair put a hand on his sword. Zevran, too, felt himself grow tense. This wasn’t the kind of thing Naia was going to take lying down. He braced himself for her next words.
“I—oh.” She took two steps back, her face paling, then turned back to Alistair and Zev with a dazed expression. “I—I guess we can’t see them today.”
As she turned and walked away, Zevran stared after her, too stunned to follow. Admitting defeat, turning away from her goal? Who was this person? Alistair, too, looked concerned, but he obediently turned and started walking away from the alienage.
They were just past the central market when Zevran heard a quiet retching noise. Naia was vomiting her breakfast onto the street.
Alistair rushed to her side. “Maker! Are you ill?”
Naia shook her head, wiping her mouth with a shaking hand. “Not—not exactly. I just—something I ate, I guess. We need to keep moving. Come on.”
“Naia! We can wait a moment!” Alistair called futilely as the other Warden all but ran towards the city gate.
Zevran trailed behind, his curiosity piqued. He had a strong suspicion that the elf who had killed the Arl’s son was not locked behind the alienage gate.
Naia spent the rest of the afternoon with Zevran and Leliana, trying to find out as much as they could about what had happened in the alienage from a harried-looking guardsman named Sergeant Kylon who was walking a patrol in the market district. The news was not encouraging. Though Kylon knew only a little—the Arl’s men had been the ones to put down the riot—there had been deaths, and likely a fire.
When Naia asked Kylon if there might be a way into her home, he shook his head, pity visible on his weathered face. “The Arl gave strict orders that no one was to be allowed in or out. You could try to climb the walls, I suppose, or fight past the guard. But I get the sense that the Arl is watching for someone.” He gave Naia a meaningful look. “Whoever he’s looking for, things could get a lot worse for the elves if he finds out they’re in there.”
Naia nodded, looking sick.
That evening, back at the camp, Zevran noticed Naia trading Feddic a few copper coins for a bottle of whiskey. As soon as the night was quiet, her companions engaged in other activities, she snuck into the woods behind her tent, the bottle in hand.
Zevran followed quietly, an odd worry nagging at him. When he found her again, a good distance from the camp, she was sitting on the ground and pulling the cork from the bottle with her teeth. She spat it in the dirt and took a hard swig from the bottle. “I guess you had your revenge, Vaughan,” she said bitterly, raising the bottle to the empty night sky. “Rot and freeze in the hells.”
Something compelled him to speak. “If you are toasting invisible drinking companions, it may be time to put down the bottle.”
Naia looked over. Her mouth was twisted in agony and her eyes were lifeless; he had never seen her expressive face so devoid of feeling. “What did I tell you about spying on me?”
“I was merely out for a walk, my Warden. May I join you for a drink?”
“No.” She took another swig. “I’m not sharing. I’m drinking until the searing guilt goes away. You can stay if you want to hold my hair back when I throw up, though.”
Zevran closed the remaining distance between them and sat at her side. “So my suspicions were correct. You are the elf who killed the Arl’s son. May I ask what he did to earn your wrath?”
Naia went very still. When she spoke, he could barely hear her voice. “He raped my cousin Shianni. Him and two of his friends. They’re dead too.”
“And you feel guilt over their deaths?” Zevran asked disbelievingly.
“What? No! I—not exactly.” She paused, then the words tumbled from her mouth in a rush. “I should have done better. I should have known the shems would take it out on the alienage if Vaughan died. But he wouldn’t let her go, and I just—I was so angry !”
She sounded near tears. Zevran felt profoundly uncomfortable. He had been many things in his life, but never a shoulder to cry on. “Out of his depth” did not begin to describe his situation.
I should find Leliana. Or Alistair.
Instead, he found himself speaking. “Tell me what happened, from the beginning.”
The tale was a grim one. The Arl’s son had come to Naia’s alienage in search of easy victims among the elven women, but ran off when Naia’s cousin broke a bottle over his head. Evidently, bravery—and temper—ran in the family.
A day later, Bann Vaughan returned with reinforcements and kidnapped Naia, Shianni, and three others. One woman died at the hands of the Bann’s guards, but Naia’s cousin Soris had appeared with a stolen sword and saved her from a similar fate. The two of them fought their way to the Bann’s chambers only to find they were too late to prevent Shianni’s rape.
“I tried to reason with him. I offered to leave if he released Shianni and the others. He said he was keeping the other women and offered me forty sovereigns instead. I had to fight him to escape. That’s when I got this.” She ran a finger down the side of her face, tracing the long scar. “We dueled, he sliced my face open, and I stabbed him through the throat.” She punctuated that sentence with a fierce, pleased smile—a bloodthirsty look Zevran had never seen on her face before, not even in battle.
It faded quickly. “But it was a stupid thing to do. Whatever the shems did in the alienage, they did because of me.” She took a long swig, her face drawn and hard with misery.
Zevran waited until she lowered the bottle. “Tell me something, Naia. How long do you plan to continue this absurd fit of self-punishment?”
“Excuse me?” Naia said icily.
“The Arl’s son attacked you, hurt your family, and refused a very merciful offer that he frankly did not deserve. You did the only thing you could do to save yourself and your cousins. Blaming yourself for what happened afterwards is preposterous.”
Naia glared at him, her mouth open and her expression indignant. Zevran took the opportunity to snatch the bottle from her fingers and give it a cautious sniff. He recoiled at the smell, a combination of burned varnish and damp wood. With a disgusted grimace, he turned the bottle upside-down, letting the cheap whiskey tumble out into the dirt. “And I am not permitting you to drink any more of this vile beverage.”
“Hey!” Naia protested, making a grab for the bottle. Zevran held it out of her reach, shaking it to empty it faster.
“I will replace it with a bottle of Antivan spirits, or fine wine if I cannot find Antivan spirits in Ferelden,” he informed her, blocking her hands with his left forearm. “A woman as beautiful as you should be getting drunk on a much better class of liquor.”
Naia sat back and snorted. “Are you ever going to stop the empty flattery, Zev?”
“Empty, my Warden?” Zevran asked softly, dropping the bottle. He locked eyes with Naia, pleased to see that she was annoyed. Annoyed was much better than the helpless despair she’d started with. “Hardly empty. You are beautiful. That is a fact. A fact that you know quite well.”
The Warden rolled her eyes extravagantly. “Oh, do I, now?”
Zevran chuckled. “Come now, my dear Warden.” He held her gaze for a moment, then let his eyes drift down the length of her body, catching every lithe muscle and curve, not bothering to hide his admiration.
He gave her a slow smile as his eyes returned to hers. “Where was I? Oh yes. You are an observant woman. I am certain you have noticed that men enjoy looking at you—as do many women, come to think of it.”
The Warden was silent, her face unreadable. For a brief moment Zevran suspected he’d pushed his flirtation too far—but then suddenly Naia tilted her head to the side and gave the assassin a small, playful smile. “So are you saying that you enjoy looking at me, Zev?”
Zevran was momentarily too startled to reply. Naia saw the surprise on his face; her grin widened wickedly. “I suppose you must. Or do you stare at everyone the way you stare at me?”
From experience, Zevran knew this kind of conversation would likely end in one of two ways. She would either invite him into her bed or try to stab him. With Naia, he wasn’t sure which outcome was more likely.
“I do not. You are a rare creature, my Warden. But do you object? If you do not wish me to notice your charms, just say the word. I am a gentleman—all appearances to the contrary.”
The Warden paused for a moment, that odd, suggestive smile still playing on her lips. “A gentleman? Well, that’s a pity.”
She shifted her body then, leaning closer to him—almost as if she meant to kiss him. Her eyes held his with playful intensity. “By all means, Zevran, continue looking if you enjoy it. I don’t mind in the slightest. As long as you don’t mind me looking back, that is.”
Zevran raised his eyebrows. “I will certainly keep that in mind.”
For a moment he wondered if he should take the opportunity to close the distance between them and kiss her. But the opportunity passed too quickly. Naia arched an eyebrow at him, then pulled her legs underneath her and sprang to her feet.
“Good night, Zevran. You owe me a bottle of Antivan spirits.”
In the early days of their journey, as Naia adjusted to the new and unfamiliar weight on her shoulders, she learned that the only way she could stop thinking about everything that depended on her was to focus on the others—to help them where she could, even if she could only listen. Keeping her eye on their worries and fears helped her ignore her own.
She learned many surprising things about her companions. Serene Wynne was living on borrowed time. Leliana had been an assassin, and had survived torture and the cruelest sort of betrayal. Sten, for all his stoicism, carried guilt and shame with every step. Even Morrigan had her scars, largely left by her mother’s strange upbringing.
It was strange, though, to see herself reflected in their eyes. Wynne saw a girl in need of mentoring and the occasional lecture. Sten saw a leader, though his respect came slowly and had been hard-won. Morrigan saw … well, Naia wasn’t sure what Morrigan saw, but it apparently made the sorceress sneer a lot. Alistair and Leliana looked at her and saw a friend—and a hero. That second part was disconcerting, since the more choices Naia made, the more lives she took, the less heroic she felt.
The only person who seemed to really see her was Zevran.
Months after accepting him into their group, Naia still found the assassin a puzzle. He flirted with everyone shamelessly but provided startlingly good advice when things turned serious. He tried very hard to seem frivolous, but he had a gift for seeing straight through to a person’s core. He bragged cheerfully about a gruesome past—especially when Wynne tried to lecture him on his lack of morals—but when he told stories about the Crows, they seldom ended with him taking a life.
She teased him about that, once, after he told a story about falling naked into a river during a mission gone amusingly wrong. “You never seem to kill anyone in these stories. I’m starting to think you weren’t a very good assassin.”
He winked at her. “Ah, my Warden. I fear my tales of skill and success are not fit for such lovely ears.”
“Try me,” she said wryly. “Come on. Tell me—wait, I know. Tell me about the contract you had before mine. Your last mission for the Crows.”
His face went still, all humor gone. “I—that is not a pleasant story, Grey Warden. I would prefer to keep it to myself.”
Naia forced herself to change the subject. Zevran’s evasion had more than piqued her curiosity, but she understood the wish to keep painful things private.
The more they talked, the more she came to like him. And the more she liked him, the brighter that spark of attraction burned. She’d had a handful of affairs in the alienage; they had been enjoyable enough, but always a bit fumbling and awkward, and—given the lack of privacy in most alienage homes—over quickly.
She suspected things would be different with Zevran. Very different.
Then came the night outside Denerim, when she’d come within half a second of kissing him. She had only stopped herself when she felt the alcohol begin to flood her limbs and brain. Not even a Grey Warden could drink a full cup of whiskey in under thirty minutes without consequences, it seemed, and she didn’t want to embarrass herself. She managed to make it back to her tent before collapsing in a heap on top of her blankets, utterly unconscious.
She slept fitfully, and dreamed of the Archdemon.
She woke the next morning with a headache to go with the lingering terror of her dreams. After drinking most of her canteen of water and splashing the rest of it across her face, she emerged from her tent to find Zevran sitting no more than ten paces away, nonchalantly sharpening his left-hand dagger for the day ahead.
“Good morning, my Warden. I would ask how you are feeling, but I suspect I know.” He grinned at her, taking in the way she shielded her eyes from the morning sun, wincing at the light.
Naia sat down across from him and rubbed her forehead. “Yeah. Thanks for last night. I think if I’d had any more of that stuff I would probably be blind.”
She tried to find words to thank him for everything else he had done—for listening to her, for saying that it wasn’t her fault, for pulling her out of the despair she’d felt. For calling her beautiful and clearly meaning it. She wondered if she should tell him that she’d wanted to kiss him, and that part of her regretted not doing it.
But that was all too complicated to put into a coherent sentence, so she just said, “I’ll stay away from Bodahn’s whiskey from now on.”
“A wise choice.” Zevran returned his dagger to its sheath. “I believe we are camping here again tonight, yes?”
Naia nodded. “We still need to find Genitivi before we move on.”
“Good. There is a clearing nearby, ten minutes’ walk or so. Are you still interested in learning a few of my deadlier tricks?”
Naia felt her eyebrows rise. “I—yes. Definitely. But what about the Crows?”
Zevran shrugged. “It occurs to me that they are already angry at me, and if they catch up with me they can only kill me the once.” He arched a very suggestive eyebrow. “Besides, now that I know you do not mind, it will give me an opportunity to admire your form in closer quarters.”
Naia laughed, feeling a slight blush rise on her cheeks. “It’s a deal. I’ll meet you here after we get back from the city.”
They trained in the clearing for several hours that afternoon, until the warm sun had faded into dusk, stopping only for a bit of food halfway through. Zevran’s skills were even more useful than Naia had hoped. The Crows taught their pupils to do more than sneak and use poisons—in battle, Zev knew how to find a target’s weak spots and cause maximum damage with the first blow. Naia could think of at least a few opponents she wished she’d finished off a bit more quickly. The scar Vaughan had given her was itching again.
“You are quite good at this. I would suggest you seek out the Crows, but I suspect you have better options for your future employment.” Zevran was grinning as he packed up his poisons. He’d obviously enjoyed the lesson as much as she.
“So. Any more tricks to pass on?” Naia twirled her dagger idly in her right hand.
“Those are the basics of what I know, the things that have helped me most against the Darkspawn. But I do have something else for you.” Zevran pulled a small glass flask from the side of his bag. “As promised. Antivan spirits to replace the whiskey. I found them in a little shop in Denerim, much to my surprise.”
Naia took the bottle and held it up against the dying light. The liquid within was completely clear. “Are you sure? It looks like water.”
Zevran smiled and pulled out the cork. “Try it.”
Naia took a small, experimental sip. Definitely not water. The liquor had a slightly sweet taste, but it burned pleasantly as it slid over her tongue and down her throat. She met Zevran’s eyes and grinned. “All right. It’s better than the whiskey.” She held out the bottle invitingly.
Zevran accepted it and took a sip of his own. He closed his eyes in pleasure, a gesture Naia found oddly charming. It was nice to see Zev content, if even for a moment. “Ah. Now this reminds me of home. I can almost smell the leatherworks.”
“The leatherworks?” Naia asked, sitting down on a nearby log and taking another sip. They’d have to head back to camp before it was dark, but they could steal another few moments as the sun set.
“The room where I lived, when I was a young assassin with the Crows, was right down the street from a leather maker’s shop. I grew to love the smell.” Zevran sat down beside her and took a longer swig from the bottle.
“Do you think you’ll go back? Could you go back? It sounds like the Crows more or less run Antiva.”
“To tell the truth I have not thought much beyond the task before us,” Zevran said candidly. “But it would please me to see Antiva City again. There was a wonderful pair of boots that I had my eye on in that shop.”
“If you want boots, I saw some in the Denerim market. They were made from bearskin. Leliana said they looked like ratty blankets tied around a pair of hams.”
Zevran laughed. “I am sure they were appalling. But if you asked, I would wear them, wounds to my pride be damned. I have never said no to a beautiful woman.”
“You must have quite a history with women, then,” Naia teased.
To her surprise, her comment seemed to make Zevran uncomfortable. “Yes, I do have a rather extensive history,” he said after a short pause. “And it has not been restricted to women. Does that offend you?”
“No. Did you think it would?” Naia replied, surprised.
Her companion seemed to relax, ever so slightly. “No, I suppose not.” He took a long drink of the spirits. “The Crows prefer us to be flexible in such matters. Sharing a bed with the right person is often the only way to gain access to protected targets.”
Naia accepted the bottle from him and took a sip. “So you’re saying you left out my seduction training?”
Zevran laughed. “Perhaps I did. But somehow I think the Archdemon is immune to your charms, considerable though they are.”
The comment had been lighthearted, but Naia suddenly felt a rush of terror as the previous night’s dream came back to her.
The Archdemon swung its head and fixed its gaze on her. Its eyes seemed to burn through her armor and her flesh, seemed to see her right down to the bone. Whatever it saw, it appeared unimpressed. Lazily, almost as if it were bored, it swept a twisted claw at her …
“I meant to deliver you a compliment, but now you look so unhappy.”
Naia took a sharp, shallow breath, and shook her head as though that could dislodge the image. “No, I—it’s not you. I had a dream about the Archdemon last night.”
“Is that so odd?” Zevran asked, taking the bottle from her. “It must be on your mind a great deal.”
“It was a Grey Warden dream, Zev. It’s different. The Darkspawn can sense us, and we can sense them, especially in our sleep.” She knew she wasn’t explaining this well, but she babbled on. “It saw me. Looked right at me.”
And then it killed me, she added silently. I think I’m going to die. But how can they follow me if they know I won’t survive?
She brushed aside that thought by reclaiming the bottle from Zev and taking a large swallow. “Oh well. I suppose it would be too easy if I could end the Blight by batting my eyelashes at the Archdemon,” she quipped. “Maybe when this is over, you can finish my training. Who knows what I’ll be fighting next? A few seduction skills might come in handy.”
“To tell you the truth, my Grey Warden, I doubt you would need much in the way of training to entice a target into bed. A woman as stunning as you can usually just ask.”
In spite of her dark mood, Naia felt a laugh burble out. “That’s good advice.”
The words hung in the air between them for a moment as they sat side-by-side. Naia looked down at the spirits, but suddenly, she didn’t want more. She was making a decision and she wanted a clear head for it. This wasn’t the time for love or romance, not with almost-certain death hanging over her head, but Zev wouldn’t want those things anyway. Uncomplicated sex, on the other hand …
“You know, I think I should try it.”
“Hmm?” Zevran replied, looking at her with interest. “Try what?”
“Asking.” Naia set the bottle aside and moved closer to the other elf, sliding her arm behind his back, pressing her side against his. She could smell his scent, a mix of sweat and spice and leather. His eyes met hers, and she smiled slightly to hide a sudden flash of nervousness.
“For example, I might try asking you to join me in my tent. How do you think that would go?”
Zevran laughed softly under his breath. “What an interesting hypothetical. Why, I would say yes, of course. Provided we were planning on the same activity once inside.”
“Which would be …” she prompted, arching an eyebrow.
“It would involve the two of us, and no clothing.” Slowly, he raised his hand and stroked his fingertips across her cheek, gently running his thumb across her lower lip. Naia felt her breath quicken as she met his eyes. “And, I hope, a very long night.”
“Ah,” she said quietly, brushing his thumb with a light kiss. “Interesting.”
“So. Is this merely a philosophical discussion?” he asked, leaning closer. “I hope you are not so cruel.”
For an answer, Naia slid her hand into his hair and pulled his mouth to hers.
After so many weeks of imagining this, Naia had thought she was prepared, that she had some idea of what it would be like. She did not. Zevran’s kiss was warm and coaxing, his breath lightly scented with the Antivan spirits. It filled every fiber of her body with a warm hunger, a desperate need to bring him closer. She closed her eyes and gave in, losing herself to the moment, to the one thing she’d done in all these long months simply because she wanted it.
Some minutes later, Naia shivered as Zevran placed a lingering kiss against her neck, then trailed his lips upwards, his breath warm against her skin. “Any second thoughts, my Warden?” he whispered against her ear.
“Not unless you’re having them.”
His mouth found hers again and he pulled her close, his fingers finding the ties of her clothing. Naia caught his face between his hands and pulled him with her as she lay down on the ground, biting back a whimper as his weight settled on top of her. Want and need were the only things she could feel.
We’re not going to make it to my tent, she thought as the kiss resumed.
A snapping twig caught their attention.
Both elves instinctively reached for their weapons, then froze as they realized who had snapped the twig. Leliana and Duncan stood in their little clearing. Both of them looked rather startled.
Duncan panted happily and barked when he realized the person underneath Zevran was his mistress. Naia felt her cheeks flood red. “We, I, uh …”
“Oh dear,” said Leliana suddenly, her eyes snapping away from the two elves to stare into the distance. “I seem to have gone quite blind, and perhaps deaf as well. I see nothing at all in this clearing. How upsetting. Perhaps I ought to consult Wynne. Come, Duncan.”
And with that, the Orlesian turned on her heel and walked back towards camp.
Duncan remained where he was. “Go on, boy,” hissed Naia. Duncan panted once, then leapt up and followed Leliana.
Naia turned her attention back to Zevran, who was still lying on top of her, although he’d moved his hand to a less scandalous location. He chuckled as she met his eyes. “I fear we may have scandalized our dear Leliana,” he said, tracing one finger around the outline of her ear.
Naia laughed. “You’d be surprised. Leliana doesn’t scandalize easily.”
With a playful grin, she flipped their positions, pushing Zev onto his back, and brushed his mouth with a kiss. “I’m going back to my tent,” she whispered. “Wait a few minutes and then follow. I’m not risking any more interruptions.”
Zevran’s breath tickled her ear as he answered back. “I am yours to command, my Warden.”
Naia’s suspicions proved correct. It was very different with Zevran.
“Maker, Zev,” she gasped as he settled into the blankets beside her. She cringed at the sound of her voice, breathless and awestruck as a virgin’s. Stop that! You’re a Grey Warden, not some lovesick teenager.
She forced herself to regain control, and when she felt more confident, she turned on her side and smiled at the other elf. “I see your boasting wasn’t entirely empty,” she teased. There. That’s better.
Zevran smiled back. “Neither was yours, my Warden.” He winked at her. “So I am especially glad I did not disappoint.”
Blissfully sated, still riding the wave of physical pleasure, Naia rolled on her back and tucked her hands underneath her head, smiling a smug little grin up at her tent. She hadn’t felt this relaxed in—Maker, she couldn’t remember ever feeling this relaxed.
She felt Zevran shift at her side, sitting up in the dark, and she looked over at him. He was still watching her, but his smile had been replaced by a thoughtful expression, and an odd little line between his eyebrows.
She blinked. “What?”
“You’re thinking about something.”
“Thinking? Me? My dear Warden,” Zevran said archly. “You have entirely mistaken my character. I am wounded.”
“Don’t give me that, Zev,” she said wryly. “Out with it.”
His mouth opened, but for a moment he did not speak. “I suppose I am wondering something. As the priestess once said to the handsome actor: What now?”
Naia raised her eyebrows. “What do you mean?”
“I mean, what now? What are we to each other?”
Naia had to stop her mouth from dropping open in surprise. “I was going to ask you the same thing,” she lied, sitting up to look at him and pulling the blankets to her chest in a very belated fit of modesty. Does he think I’m going to expect flowers and poetry now that I’ve bedded him?
Her mind whirred as she tried to come up with a response. “Well, we’re friends, aren’t we?”
She couldn’t entirely interpret Zev’s expression, but when he spoke, he did not sound unhappy. “Yes, I would say that we are.”
“Then why should this change anything? Who’s to say friends can’t occasionally help each other relieve some tension?”
The assassin laughed under his breath. “Who, indeed?”
He fell quiet. Naia wondered if he was waiting for her to say something more, but she had no idea what. She felt as though she had accidentally stepped onto uneven ground and she wasn’t sure how to regain her footing.
Finally Zevran broke the silence. “I will not ask more of you than you want to give, Naia. If you wish this to be a single night, never repeated, simply say the word. But, if you should need to … relieve tension again, I would be most happy to offer my services.”
The nervous little knot in Naia’s stomach unwound itself. That’s the Zevran I know. “Careful what you promise, Zev. I’m trying to stop a Blight. I think I’m going to have a lot of tension to relieve in the next few weeks,” she said matter-of-factly.
She saw a flash of white teeth in the dark as Zevran smiled. “Is that so?”
He shifted his body, leaning forward to brush her lips with a light, seductive kiss. “I hope you will not think me selfish if I say I am glad to hear it,” he whispered against her mouth.
An E-rated version of this chapter exists. One day I may get brave and post it as a standalone. Or I might delete it, reformat my hard drive, and then burn my computer just to be safe. (Because those are obviously the only two options.)
Chapter 7: In which everyone has advice
The group spent a handful of days outside Denerim, staying in the same spot for once while they finished their business in the city’s capital. Naia was pleased when they obtained a solid lead on Brother Genitivi—perhaps they could finally cure Arl Eamon. They also tracked down Leliana’s former lover Marjolaine, who met (in Naia’s opinion) a richly deserved end. Alistair’s meeting with his sister Goldanna, however, did not go nearly as well. Naia had to restrain herself from punching the woman square in the nose. She tried not to look at the alienage gate, and had to fight the guilt that rose in her stomach every time she wondered whether her family was safe.
But for the first time in months, Naia had something to look forward to at night besides broken sleep and frightening dreams. Zevran was easygoing and skilled, able to make her laugh one moment and gasp in pleasure the next, and Naia drank him in like a woman who had been dying of thirst. While she had no illusions that their nights together were nearly as revelatory for him—she was no virgin, but her experience didn’t come close to his—she delighted in returning the favor, in watching his eyes close in pleasure and hearing him moan when she touched him.
Without ever really discussing it, the two of them agreed to keep their affair, if not secret, at least discreet. Zevran would return to his own tent in the middle of the night, sometimes sneaking out as Naia dozed off to sleep, though Naia suspected this was as much due to his own preference as their desire for privacy. During the day they tried to behave as if nothing had changed between them—although Zevran was not above whispering things in her ear that made her shiver and wish sunset wasn’t so far away.
She knew that their liaison would not be a secret forever, however. Normally Leliana would have seen the clues first, but the bard already knew and was keeping her silence about it. Eventually, though, the others would have to notice.
About a week after leaving for Haven, as their group trudged yet another long dirt road, Naia was only a little surprised when Morrigan fell in step beside her and gave her a knowing smirk.
“‘Tis cold in my tent,” she remarked. “How is it in yours?”
“I’ve been all right. Do you need another blanket?” Naia asked, keeping her voice deliberately indifferent.
“Ah, I am afraid that would not be enough. If only I had something more vigorous to keep me warm. As you do.”
Naia blinked innocently. “You want to borrow Zevran? Shouldn’t you be talking to him about this?”
Morrigan’s mouth dropped open in horror. “Absolutely not. How you bear his hands on your body is a mystery to me, ‘tis certain.”
“Oh. Is there someone else in camp you have your eye on?”
Naia tilted her head in feigned puzzlement. “Morrigan, I’m confused. Are you sure you don’t want another blanket?”
The sorceress made a disgusted noise in her throat. “These games of yours are not nearly so amusing as you think. Very well. I’ve noticed the assassin slipping into your tent at night. I simply wished to know if you’d insist on lying about your dalliance should I confront you.”
Naia shook her head. “I have nothing to hide, Morrigan. I’d appreciate it if you kept this to yourself—I’d rather avoid a lecture from Wynne. But I’m not embarrassed that you know.”
Morrigan’s brows raised high. “Indeed? Well. I believe I have misjudged you, Naia Tabris.”
Naia couldn’t hide an uneasy grimace. “Uh. Is that good or bad?”
“Hmm,” Morrigan responded thoughtfully, a smile playing about her lips. “Good, I imagine. I will keep your secret. I’ve no fondness for the old biddy’s lectures either. But tell me, do you ever wonder at the wisdom of bedding a man sent to kill you?”
With some surprise, Naia realized that she hadn’t thought much about that—and she probably should have, given that the Crows often seduced their targets. But it had been months since she’d thought of Zev as the assassin sent to kill her.
Morrigan was looking at her expectantly. Naia shrugged. “A lot of people have tried to kill me in the past year or so. I’ve learned not to take it personally.”
An hour later, Naia looked over her shoulder to see Leliana approaching her. Subtly, Naia slowed her steps, putting distance between the two women and the rest of the group so they could speak in relative privacy.
“I saw you talking to Morrigan,” the bard said quietly. “She looked most pleased with herself. I suppose she has realized you and Zevran are involved, yes?”
Naia nodded. “Everyone was going to figure it out at some point, I suppose. But I never thanked you for keeping what you saw a secret, did I? Thank you.”
“You are welcome.” Leliana gave her a warm smile—but Naia could see just a hint of a wobble around its edges.
“May I give you some advice?” the Orlesian blurted.
Naia bit back a sigh. “Depends. What’s the advice?”
“Please be careful.” Leliana’s face was serious and sad. “Zevran has been with us for some time now, and I do like him. But I placed my trust in the wrong person once. I would not wish the same for you.”
The worry on Leliana’s lovely features filled Naia with an odd sort of guilt. She reached out and gave her friend’s arm a gentle squeeze. “I know,” she said simply. “I’ll be careful, Leliana. I swear.”
“Good.” The bard’s serious expression suddenly turned playful. “Now then. How is he in bed?”
Naia threw her head back with a laugh. "I am not going to answer that!"
That evening, as Naia struggled to assemble her tent, Wynne appeared at her side. “You and Zevran seem quite inseparable these days,” the mage said tactfully.
Andraste’s tits, is this a joke? Naia drew a breath, holding her temper steady, then stood to face Wynne, her jaw set. “Say what you mean, Wynne. I’m out of patience today.”
“I—very well.” Wynne folded her arms and straightened her spine. “I will be blunt. I’ve realized that you’re sleeping together, and I wonder whether this the best thing for you and your mission.”
Naia sighed wearily. “You expect me to end it?”
“I think it would be wise, yes,”
“Why am I even talking to you about this?” Naia shook her head. “You don’t understand. You couldn’t possibly.”
“I beg to differ,” Wynne said sharply. “Let me see if I can make a guess at what you’re feeling. The task before you seems impossible. You feel drained by the constant expectations, the way everyone is watching you. He offers you comfort, companionship—and the more you think about it, the more it seems that you should be able to have a little fun. Does that seem about right?”
Naia’s jaw dropped in surprise. Wynne’s words had hit their target, and she knew that must have shown on her face. To her credit, the mage did not revel in it. Instead, she softened her voice. “I have a son, Naia. I was about your age, and I—there was a man in the Circle I liked a great deal. My son was taken from me while I was too weak to protest and given to strangers to raise. That was the price I paid for my comfort, for my fun.”
Wynne’s words held no self-pity, and yet, Naia’s heart ached for her. For the first time since the conversation had started, she met the mage’s eyes. “That wasn’t fair. Your son would have been lucky to know his mother,” she said softly. “But it’s different with me and Zevran, Wynne. For one thing, Wardens can’t have children. It’s the Taint.”
“That may be. But that was not exactly my point,” Wynne said gently. “These kinds of affairs may have consequences you often can’t anticipate—even when you think you are only having some fun. Furthermore, Zevran is a dangerous man.”
“You say that as if he’s the only one in the camp,” Naia protested. “I know he used to be an assassin, Wynne, but he’s fought by our side for months. Do you really think he would hurt me now?”
“I am uncertain. And that alone gives me pause.” Wynne crossed her arms. “Moreover, whether or not he still means to kill you, I do not believe Zevran is capable of true affection. You may think you do not want that affection now—but that is the sort of thing that often changes with time. I do not wish to see you hurt, Naia. The task before you is hard enough as it is.”
Naia pressed her lips together. “I appreciate your concern, Wynne. I do. But if you want me to say that I won’t spend any more time with Zev—well, I won’t lie to you.”
The mage smiled, resigned. “I have given you my advice. Do with it what you will. And be careful.”
Naia thought that would be an end to the conversations about Zevran, but as she walked away from Bodahn and Sandal’s wagon, a new rune glowing against the metal of her blade, Alistair approached her.
“Naia, can I talk to you?”
And Naia’s frayed self-possession finally snapped.
“Oh, great,” she hissed, throwing her hands up. “Go ahead, everyone else has had their say. I thought you’d be different, but you might as well have yours too. Let me guess. Zevran is dangerous. I’m being stupid and selfish, or wicked and vile and sinful.”
Alistair’s eyes went wide. “I—no! No, no, no. I would never think you were any of those things!” He waved his hands frantically for emphasis. “Look, Zevran wouldn’t be who I’d pick if I were a woman. I assume. I mean, it’s hard to know, isn’t it?” His expression grew thoughtful.
In spite of herself, Naia let out a little giggle. “Is it time to get you a pretty dress so you can dance the Remigold?”
Alistair pretended he hadn’t heard her. “Maker, what was I going to say?” He crossed his arms and tilted his head. “Oh, right. It had nothing to do with Zevran at all. I was thinking about what you said to me at Goldanna’s. You’re right, I need to stop letting everyone else make my decisions for me and go after what I want, for once.”
Naia grinned, momentarily forgetting her annoyance with this whole day. “Good for you, Alistair.”
He smiled back at her. “You know, at first I was upset about the way things went with Goldanna. But then I realized in a lot of ways I already have a sister. You. You’re a Warden like me, but it’s more than that. You’re … you.”
Naia was momentarily startled into silence as tears pricked at the back of her eyes. “Alistair, I think that’s the nicest thing anyone’s ever said to me. I never had a brother. I like the idea.”
The ex-Templar looked very pleased. “So, big sister, about Zevran—”
“Argh! Not listening, not listening!” Naia wailed, clapping her hands over her ears.
Alistair caught her wrists and pulled them away from her head. “I was just going to say that whatever is happening between the two of you, it sounds like the others have had quite a bit to say about it. And, well, I won’t. As your honorary brother, I will rip Zevran’s arms off if he hurts you. But otherwise I’m just here if you need me.”
Impulsively, Naia threw her arms around her fellow Warden and gave him a fierce hug. Alistair was large even for a shem; her head barely reached the middle of his chest.
He ruffled her hair affectionately. “All right, let’s not get all mushy. We’ve got an Urn to find, after all.”
All day, Zevran had watched their companions converse with Naia, one by one, and he wondered if their words would have any effect. He knew none of them were likely to have anything good to say about him sharing the Warden’s bed. He tried not to care. He had been sincere, or so he thought, when he told her that he would be content no matter when she decided to end their affair. But the idea of Naia refusing his company in the future was oddly unsettling.
Although there were opportunities to do so, he avoided catching Naia alone when they made camp. He did not want to press her—and more to the point, he wanted to see if she would seek him out.
After dinner, she did.
Naia sat down beside him with a weary sigh. Zevran smiled at her, quietly wondering if she intended to tell him that their affair was over. Instead, she turned to him with a tired half-smile on her face. “So. How many lectures did you get today?”
“Not a one,” Zevran replied. It was the truth, although the previous day, Wynne had informed him that Naia had higher purposes than his lust, Leliana had sweetly threatened to kill him if he hurt the Warden in any way, and Oghren had told him a series of lewd dwarven jokes about moaning statues. Several of the jokes had been quite funny.
“I got four. Well, only three, really. The last one was my fault, Alistair didn’t actually want to talk to me about you.”
“Four lectures! No wonder you look exhausted, my Warden.” Zevran moved closer to her, cautiously brushing a stray lock of hair away from her face and tucking it behind her ear.
“I think that’s more about the walking,” Naia murmured, closing her eyes in appreciation as Zevran’s fingers trailed down the side of her neck.
“Do you know what you need?”
“Hmm. I was thinking more along the lines of a massage.”
Naia’s eyes fluttered open. “After the day I’ve had, you had better be offering more than a massage,” she said with a little smile.
“Things might happen to move in that direction. If we are speaking of the same thing,” Zevran teased.
“I suspect we are,” the Warden said seductively. “Come on. Before Sten decides to tell me what the Qunari would do in this situation.”
Chapter 8: In which Zevran meets the family
The Ashes of Andraste, as it turned out, were not a myth. With Eamon restored and the Wardens’ alliances secured, the path forward became clear. They would have to return to Denerim and find a way to displace Loghain as Regent. Eamon called a Landsmeet, and the group returned to Denerim’s capital.
For a moment Naia entertained the hope that she might convince Loghain to stand with them, to allow the Wardens to fulfill their purpose and focus on the Darkspawn rather than some imagined threat from Orlais. Perhaps he regretted his choice at Ostagar now that he saw the danger they faced. But a meeting with the Teyrn and Arl Howe quickly crushed that thin little dream. Loghain firmly believed he was in the right, and Ferelden’s armies would never fight by their side so long as he led them.
It was becoming increasingly clear to Naia that putting someone they trusted on Ferelden’s throne was their only hope of defeating the Blight. Even after they rescued the Queen from Arl Howe’s estate, however, Naia was not sure that person was Anora Mac Tir. The Queen’s lie to Ser Cauthrien nearly got her and Alistair killed. Though she apologized after they escaped Fort Drakon, Naia couldn’t shake the suspicion that Anora had been trying to eliminate Maric’s heir.
But politics quickly fled from Naia’s mind when Anora told them that something was wrong among the elves. It was not the only problem in Denerim, of course, but Naia knew she could concentrate on nothing else until she saw her family.
“Yes. Please,” she said when the Queen asked if she should arrange for passage inside the alienage. “As soon as you can.”
As they stepped inside the alienage’s wooden gates, Naia heard Alistair draw his breath sharply. For the first time, Naia saw her home as an outsider would see it—the colorless shacks, the uneven cobblestone streets, the shabbily-dressed elves who would not meet their eyes. She glanced over her shoulder at her companions, wondering how they were taking this. Alistair looked horrified; Wynne, concerned; Zevran, almost angry.
“So. This is where you grew up?” her fellow Warden asked hesitantly.
Naia’s throat tightened; she swallowed hard. “It’s not usually this bad,” she lied.
But when she looked around again, she realized it wasn’t a lie. The alienage had always been poor and its homes somewhat ramshackle, but the piles of trash in the streets, the stains on the ground that looked suspiciously like old blood, the heavy boards over her father’s front window—those were new. Howe’s purge had taken a toll.
“Go home! There’s nothing in that house that will help you!”
Naia’s heart sped up at the sound of that voice. She began running, flying down the street, turning a corner, her eyes seeking the familiar red hair.
Shianni was standing in front of a white-haired elven couple dressed in rumpled clothing. The two were clinging to each other, their arms entwined, and Naia was somehow sure that both of them were ill.
“Arnas, Lia, listen to me,” Shianni said urgently. “Those shems aren’t here to help us. They dragged Valendrian away weeks ago. Where is his cure? Where is he now?”
“We have no choice, Shianni,” the elven woman said gently, her voice creaking with age and illness. “We’re too sick to refuse their treatment.”
“Bah. You’re being too soft on her, Lia,” Arnas growled. “Stand aside, girl. You’ve been howling for months at the only people offering us a scrap of help. You’ve caused enough trouble. Now get out of our way.”
Arnas brushed past Naia’s cousin, shoving his shoulder hard against hers as he did. Lia spared her an embarrassed glance, but continued arm in arm with her husband as they walked down the street.
Naia’s breath caught. Andraste’s ass, what’s happening here? She remembered Arnas and Lia—Arnas had always been crotchety, but he’d basically been a kind man. Why on earth was he treating Shianni that way?
Shianni watched the older couple go, her arms crossed defiantly. When Naia’s next step crunched in the gravel, she turned her head, her expression hard.
“I suppose you shems are here to help us too?” Shianni gave Wynne a particularly nasty look. “Don’t you have enough mages for your fake spells?”
She doesn’t recognize me, Naia thought. Of course she wouldn’t, under this helmet.
The Warden slowly pulled the hat off. “Shianni? It’s—it’s me,” she said hesitantly.
Shianni’s face went slack with shock. “Naia?”
For one awful moment, Naia thought Shianni was unhappy to see her. But her cousin’s face quickly lit with joy. “Maker’s breath, Naia! I can’t believe it’s really you!” she gasped, clapping her hands over her mouth. “We—we heard the Wardens were all killed at Ostagar. Valendrian even had a funeral for you. But you're here, you're actually here!” Tears glittered in her eyes. “Oh, Maker, I’m babbling, and what’s wrong with me?”
She ran forward and threw her arms around Naia in a fierce hug.
Naia dropped her helmet in the dirt and returned the hug just as fiercely. “It’s so good to see you,” she whispered.
When the two cousins stepped out of their embrace, Naia introduced each of her companions in turn. “Shianni, this is Wynne, a mage of the Ferelden Circle. This is Alistair—he’s a Warden too. And this is Zevran.”
She wasn’t quite sure how to introduce her elven companion. This is Zevran, he tried to kill me, but only once? This is Zevran, he’s seen me naked a lot recently?
She settled on, “He’s from Antiva.”
Zevran bowed. “Shianni. It is a pleasure to meet you at last. You are as lovely as your cousin.”
Shianni rolled her eyes. “Oh, really?”
“And just as bad at accepting compliments, I see,” Zevran added with a small smile.
Shianni raised an eyebrow. “What can I say, Tabris women are hard to please.”
To his great credit, Zevran kept his mouth shut at that.
“Shianni, what in the Maker’s name is going on here? I heard things were bad in the alienage, but they wouldn’t let me through the gate until now.”
“Bad? That’s an understatement. A lot has happened since your wedding.” Shianni looked around. “Come on. Let’s go to your father’s house. We should talk in private.”
Zevran had not expected to like the Denerim alienage, but it was slowly filling him with a helpless, simmering rage. Naia's home was small and comfortable, at least, and she clearly loved her family. But he could not imagine the spirited, clever Warden growing up in this dusty ghetto.
And then there was the small matter of the wedding Shianni had mentioned. Was Naia married ? Could the man’s tunic drying on the hearth belong to a husband she’d left behind? Not that he would have refused to share a married woman’s bed, of course, but—he would have thought she would tell him something like that.
Shianni offered the companions tea and Alistair cheerfully volunteered to help carry the mugs. When Wynne stepped aside to light the fire, Zevran and Naia were alone at the table—or, at least, as alone as two people could be in a house smaller than most of the rooms at the Pearl.
Finally, Zevran surrendered to his curiosity. “So. You had a wedding?” The words came out harsher than he’d intended.
Naia shook her head. “I was supposed to.”
“But you had not told me you were betrothed. What happened?”
Naia looked down at the table. “He died.”
Zevran hadn’t expected that. “I—I am sorry.”
“Thanks.” The Warden’s eyes were cold and far away; she ran her fingers down the scar Bann Vaughan had given her. Zevran took a deep breath as the pieces fell into place. Her betrothed had died in the attempt to save Naia and the other women.
Zevran found himself hating this place even more.
Shianni and Alistair placed a mismatched set of mugs down on the table, then Naia’s cousin sat down, her face grave. “Cousin, I’m not even sure where to start.”
“How about with why Soris has been living here?” Naia suggested, pointing to the tunic.
Shianni sighed. “His house was destroyed. After you left, a bunch of shems came through and rioted—set fire to things, beat up anyone who tried to stop them. Then Howe’s men came through, set a few more fires, arrested anyone who looked at them funny, and locked the gates behind them when they left. Soris stayed with Alarith for a while but a lot of people blamed him for what happened. They kept vandalizing Alarith’s store. Finally Soris came here.”
“They blame Soris?” the Warden asked incredulously. “Why not blame you, or me?”
“Oh, don’t worry. They do,” Shianni assured her, her mouth thinning in anger.
“Maker, how can they think this is your fault? Everyone here saw us get dragged away at swordpoint!” Naia’s voice was tight with fury.
Shianni snorted. “You might as well ask why no one but Soris and Nelaros came to help us. Why not the whole alienage? There should have been an army of angry elves storming that estate, not two young men who’d never held swords before.”
Zevran couldn’t help thinking Shianni had the right of it.
He almost didn’t hear it—the soft rustling sound, the hushed whispers. But suddenly, Zevran realized there was someone outside Naia’s home. “I think I hear voices,” he told the Warden quietly. “Is there a back door?”
Naia nodded absently, pointing to a narrow doorway near the bunk beds. Zevran slipped out into the dusty alleyway, expecting to see Tevinter guards, or even Loghain’s men.
Instead, two male elves about Naia’s age were standing in the street in front of Naia's house, whispering and suppressing laughter. “Come on, do it, Barrian!” the taller of the two urged. Zevran realized that the smaller man had a rock. Barrian laughed and pulled his arm back, taking aim at Cyrion’s one remaining window.
Zevran cleared his throat. “I would not, if I were you. The lady of the house is inside and she would be most unhappy.”
“Who, the drunk, Shianni? What would she do, toss an empty bottle at me?” sneered Barrian. Nonetheless, he lowered his arm. “And just who are you, anyway?”
“Ah, how rude of me. My name is Zevran. I am a friend of the family, so to speak. May I ask why you are vandalizing their home?” Slowly, casually, he stepped closer.
If the two men realized the danger they were in, they showed no sign. The taller one merely snorted. “Zevran, is it? You should keep better company. That lot are nothing but trouble. Soris nearly got us all killed with his little adventure in the arl’s estate.”
“I was under the impression that it was less an adventure than a rescue mission. Naia said he saved her and the other women from a rather unpleasant fate.” Another step closer, and another.
“Oh, you knew Naia, did you? She was the worst of them. Really, this is mostly her fault,” Barrian taunted, tossing the rock and catching it in his hand.
“Oh, indeed?” Zevran asked softly.
“Well, it’s not as if she was a virgin when she went in that place,” the taller elf said scornfully. “If she'd just given them what they wanted and kept her mouth shut, none of this would have …”
He didn’t get to finish his sentence. Zevran had closed the gap between himself and the other elves, so he punched the taller man, hard, in the stomach; the would-be vandal doubled over, gasping for breath. Another blow to the back of his head sent him sprawling into the dirt. Barrian tried to strike at him with the rock, but Zevran caught his wrist easily and twisted as hard as he could. The man cried out in pain as the stone dropped from his numb fingers.
Zevran caught the other elf by the throat and shoved him up against the nearest house. He gave Barrian a grim smile. “It might interest you to know, my friend, that Naia is alive and inside that house. May I recommend that you leave Soris and the Tabrises alone from now on?”
“What, I’m supposed to be scared of her?” Barrian said. He tried to sound disdainful, but the slight stammer in his voice betrayed him.
“A wise man would fear Naia Tabris, yes. But you are clearly a stupid man. So perhaps I can convince you to be afraid of me.” Zevran tightened his grip on Barrian’s throat and stepped closer. His next words came out as a low, furious growl. “If Naia’s house acquires so much as a new scratch, you had best hope that she finds you before I do. She might let you live.”
He stepped away abruptly, letting Barrian crumble to the ground. The elf picked himself up, shaking, then helped his friend to his feet. The two spared Zevran the briefest of terrified glances as they departed, moving as quickly as they could with their injuries.
It was then that Zevran noticed a third figure in the clearing in front of Naia’s home—another elf, young and handsome, but with tired eyes set in a haggard face. He looked like someone who had not slept much recently.
Zevran gave a quick bow. “You must be Soris.”
“How do you …?”
“The red hair. It seems to run in the family,” Zevran said, forcing his expression to be friendly. In truth, he could still feel his blood pounding in his ears. He wondered if this was how Oghren felt in the throes of a berserker fit. “My name is Zevran.”
“I caught that part. Actually, I caught all of it. Is—were you telling the truth? Is Naia really alive?” Soris said hesitantly, his expression almost desperately hopeful.
How had this gentle boy summoned the courage to invade the Arl’s estate? “She is indeed. She will be most happy to see you.”
Soris all but ran to the front door, but before he put his hand on the knob, he turned back to Zevran. “Hey, thanks for what you did. I guess Naia made some good friends out in the world.”
Zevran had no answer for that, but Soris seemed to expect none. The other elf pulled open the door. “Naia? Maker’s breath, is it really you?”
It was wonderful to see Soris again—and horrible. Naia could see every strain of the past months etched on his face. Soris had always been the sensitive one, the one who worried and fretted and felt things deeply. Having the entire alienage blame him for their devastation had taken a brutal toll.
And then Shianni told her the news that turned Naia’s blood to ice.
“Naia—the Tevinters have your father.”
Somehow, even though Naia felt as if her entire world might end in that moment, she forced herself to come up with a plan. She and Zevran would dress as alienage residents, conceal their knives, and try to gain entrance to the quarantine by feigning illness. They were young and strong-looking; Shianni was optimistic that the Tevinter “healers” would take the bait. From there, they could unlock the alley door for Alistair and Wynne and continue their investigation.
The rest of the group filed out of Cyrion’s house to give the two elves some privacy while they changed. Naia grabbed the first of her old garments that she found—they were mismatched, but she didn’t care—and then opened Cyrion’s chest, running numb fingers over the familiar fabrics. Finally, she found a tunic and trousers that seemed suitable.
“Here,” she said, trying not to cry as she handed the garments to Zev. “Don’t worry about taking care of these. The pants are old and he almost never wears the tunic. I don’t think he likes the embroidery.”
Zevran accepted them, his face serious. Silently, the two of them began stripping down, taking off their conspicuous armor, keeping only the weapons they could conceal underneath their clothing. For once, Zevran had nothing suggestive to say as they shed their armor. Indeed, he was averting his eyes politely, as if he had not seen every inch of her many times before.
But as the Warden laced up her old tunic, she heard him clear his throat. “Naia.”
She tilted her chin up uncertainly. Zevran’s eyes met hers. “Naia,” he repeated. “This is not your fault.”
Naia closed her eyes and nodded. “I know. I think. But oh, Maker, it feels like it is. It feels … I can’t even describe it. The shems think they can take us, do anything they want to us, and no one will stop them because no one important enough cares. And most of the time they're right.” She clenched her fists. “If they’ve done anything to my father—”
Zevran stepped forward and caught her hands in his. “Then they will pay for it.” His voice was dark and rough, and Naia knew he wasn’t just saying that to make her feel better. “Whatever they have done, we will stop them, and we will make them bitterly regret the moment they set foot in your home.”
That one small word— we —made Naia’s racing heart slow a bit. I am not alone this time. She was not locked in an Arl’s estate, weaponless and afraid, wondering if her family would even know she had died. She had blades of her own, skilled friends who would fight with her. She had Zevran, who always managed to show her a path through the darkness.
And then the oddest impulse seized her.
She wanted to step forward and hug Zevran. Not as a prelude to sex—just to hold him close, to take comfort in resting her head on his shoulder, to have him tighten his arms around her and hold her back, supporting her when she was afraid she couldn’t stand. She wanted it so badly that it almost hurt, so badly that for a moment she thought she might cry from the wanting.
Only one coherent thought rose from the scatterstorm of emotions in her brain.
Shit. Wynne was right.
Suddenly, her chest felt hollow; she had to remind herself to breathe. No. No, I’m just upset, she told herself, trying to shake aside that strange, aching feeling. Focus on the task at hand. We have to find my father.
Zevran was still looking at her, his hands still wrapped around hers. Slowly, Naia nodded—and then felt a grim smile form on her lips.
“Good. Let’s go make them pay.”
Chapter 9: In which offers are made and refused
As Shianni had predicted, the Tevinter “healers” shuttled Naia and Zevran into the quarantine with barely an inquiry about their supposed symptoms. Arnas glared daggers and made a bitter comment about waiting every day for a week for treatment. Naia simply dipped her head and hoped he would not recognize her and give the game away.
The soldier inside the makeshift clinic had a predatory gleam in his eyes as he took them in. But his face paled when he got a good look at Naia’s face.
“Fasta vass, you idiots! Haven’t you seen the posters? That’s the Grey Ward-”
He did not finish his sentence before Zevran’s blade found his throat.
When the guards were dispatched, Zev moved to unlock the alley door as Naia began searching the desk. She found stacks of ledgers filled with numbers and dates she could not make out in a hurry. Maybe if I bring this to Shianni—
But then her fingers found a loose page. A letter, dated only a few days ago.
Bring eight males and six females for the next shipment.
“Oh look, more people who wanted to kill us,” Alistair said wryly as he stepped inside, glancing down at the slain soldiers. “Sorry I didn’t get to meet them.”
Naia normally would have laughed, but she could only muster a faint smile. Alistair’s own good humor faded when he saw her face.
“What did you find?” Zevran asked, stepping to her side.
Naia swallowed hard as she passed him the letter. “They’re slavers.”
The slavers had left a trail of loss through the alienage. Apartments and homes were empty, their furniture upturned and broken. A terrified man in one of the tenements told them that the Tevinters brought through a parade of prisoners every few days, including children. He then refused to tell them more, fearing that he too would be taken.
“Coward,” Zevran spat as they walked away from him.
Naia felt sorry for the man. But she didn’t disagree with Zev.
In the short months since they had arrived in the alienage, the slavers had built a horrifyingly intricate shipping route that enabled them to take their prisoners out of Denerim unseen. But not even the Tevinters could equal the knowledge Naia had gained over a lifetime of exploring in the alienage, of mentally mapping every boltholes and alleys and place to hide that she could find. The group struck hard and fast, from places the slavers did not expect, breaking the operation apart piece by piece as the afternoon went on.
Every room cleared, every potential slave freed, made Naia a little more frightened.
Where is my father?
The winding path finally took them to a warehouse, one of the more valuable buildings in the alienage--it backed onto the Drakon river, and in good times was the source of shipping jobs for the elves. Naia’s limbs felt cold and numb as she pushed open the building’s door. If more were to be rescued, they would have to be in here.
This may be my last chance to find him.
Slowly, warily, she stepped onto a landing overlooking a wide, empty floor. A cluster of Tevinter soldiers and mages looked up at her, their eyes cold.
At the left and right sides of the room stood cages filled with elves.
Naia’s chest grew heavy with panic as she looked through them, looking for the familiar grey hair, that funny old-fashioned braid behind the ear.
Then motion from the lefthand cage caught her eye.
Cyrion Tabris stepped to the bars of the cage, his face white as he stared up at her. He looked like a man who was seeing his fondest wish and his worst fear realized in the same moment.
Naia realized, suddenly, that one of the mages was speaking.
“Here is my offer,” the man said, sounding for all the world as if he were haggling over pies in the Denerim market. “I have a letter with the seal of the Teyrn of Gwaren upon it, giving us permission to run our operation. For one hundred sovereigns, I will—”
“Shut up,” Naia snapped.
The man seemed genuinely offended. “I had hoped we could be civilized about this, Grey Warden.”
“You have my family and friends locked in cages,” Naia spat. “Fuck your civilized. ”
“I see,” the mage sighed. “Loghain did mention something about your, ah, unfortunate background. But surely you must be a pragmatist, Grey Warden. The fate of all Thedas rests on your shoulders. Would you risk that over a handful of—”
“I have a counteroffer,” Naia interrupted, as if he had not spoken. “Leave the documents, leave the elves, take your people, and get out. In return, I’ll stop the Blight from reaching your shores, and you get to leave Denerim with all of your limbs in their current places.”
She stared hard at the mage, wondering if the sheer force of her hatred might burn him. “Believe me when I say that’s the only offer you’re going to get.”
She could not conceal a pleased smile when the slaver reached for his staff.
Zevran had been impressed by the Warden’s skill in battle before, but in this fight, she was one of Leliana’s stories incarnate. Every swing of her enemies’ swords missed; every blow she struck hit true. She flowed like water through the fight, beautiful and invincible and utterly without mercy. Soon, the enemy’s forces were decimated to just Caladrius. The slaver was gasping for breath and saying something about surrender. Zevran strongly suspected the Warden would not be interested.
As Naia put an end to Caladrius, Zevran pulled his lockpicks out of his belt and set to work on the cages. The dazed-looking elves spilled out, barely glancing at the carnage around them before running for the door. Zevran wondered if they even realized who had saved them.
At least one man did.
An elf in his mid-fifties, iron-haired and tanned, was taking tentative steps towards the Warden. He reached out a hand but then paused. He looked as if he was afraid to touch her, as if he feared she might vanish if he did.
“Naia?” he asked softly. “Naia, can it really be …?”
Naia turned away from Caladrius’s body. Her daggers dropped from her hands as tears filled her eyes. Without another word, she flung herself forward, seizing her father in a bone-crushing hug. Blood from her armor smeared his tunic as she buried her face in his shoulder.
Cyrion didn’t seem to mind. Tears ran freely down his face as he rested his head against hers. “My little girl. My warrior. You came home.”
Even with the devastation in the alienage, Cyrion Tabris was a remarkably good host. He pulled his curtains to hide the broken windows and the sad view of the dusty streets; when he lit his candles and a fire in the hearth, suddenly his home felt cozy and almost cabin-like. Bottles of wine appeared from underneath floorboards; a meal was scraped together from the stock in Alarith’s store. Zevran realized, with some shock, that Cyrion was well-off by alienage standards.
“You really needn’t cook for us!” Wynne protested gently when Soris and Shianni returned from Alarith’s.
“It is the least, the very least, we could do.” When Wynne opened her mouth, Cyrion held up a hand to forestall further protests. “I insist. I have been trapped in a cage for the better part of two days. All I want now is to share a good meal with the people who got me out of it.”
Zevran winked at the mage. “My dear Wynne, we had best resign ourselves to a home-cooked meal,” he murmured under his breath. “It is as I told you. One glimpse of your magical bosom, and men simply cannot stop themselves from offering you their hospitality.”
Wynne made a disgusted noise and went to offer her help with the food.
While Soris and Wynne cooked and Shianni peppered Alistair with skeptical questions about the Landsmeet, Zevran watched from the corner as Cyrion tended to Naia. He was fretting quietly over a bruise on her brow, wiping the sweat and blood caked on her forehead to get a better look. Wynne could have healed the injury easily, of course, but that wasn’t really the point. Cyrion was watching Naia with such wonder in his expression, and Naia was looking back with such relief and joy in hers, that Zevran almost had to look away.
He had never felt so different from the Warden, or so distant from her.
As the meal drew close to being ready, Shianni and Soris found a tablecloth and bowls and spoons. Naia, grinning, began to pull a cork out of a wine bottle. Cyrion sat back in the house’s one armchair, clearly tired, but smiling contentedly at the scene.
Then a knock on the door startled all of them.
Cyrion moved instinctively to open it, but Naia caught his arm. “Ask who it is,” she whispered, her form suddenly tense.
“Hello?” Cyrion called. “Who’s there?”
“Just a visitor.” The voice was muffled, but Zevran detected a Marcher accent--an oddly familiar one. “I wish to speak to the Grey Warden. I believe she might be able to help me.”
The speaker’s identity struck Zevran like a blow to the stomach.
“ Braska, ” he swore, standing. “Naia. You must take your family to safety. That is no visitor.”
Wynne’s mouth pressed into a thin, angry line. “And just how do you know this, Zevran?”
“I know because he was once my friend.” Zevran swallowed. “His name is Taliesin, and I suspect he is here for me.”
He looked around the small room, at Shianni and Soris setting the table, at Cyrion still weary and pale from his ordeal. He looked over at Naia, finally home, finally with her family.
I cannot let Taliesin threaten them.
Perhaps he will go if he gets what he wants.
Zevran began to move towards the door, but suddenly, Naia was standing in his way. “What are you doing?” she demanded.
“I am giving Taliesin what he came for,” Zevran said simply. “I have always known I could not run from the Crows forever, my Warden. And Taliesin was a friend, once. Perhaps I can reason with him.” That was a lie, of course. Taliesin was more dangerous, not less, because of their old bond. “Let me pass. It is best if I deal with him alone.”
Naia shook her head. “No.”
Zevran had expected that. But he did not expect the chorus of voices that rose alongside hers.
“No!” Soris gasped.
“Don’t you bloody dare,” Shianni said, crossing her arms.
“Certainly not.” Cyrion stood beside his daughter. “I don’t care how dangerous your old friend is. I just watched the four of you cut down a roomful of slavers. There must be another way.”
Zevran opened his mouth to explain what he had to do—to convince the Tabris family that really, it was best if he dealt with Taliesin himself. But looking around the four stubborn faces, he found himself at a loss for words.
“There is another way,” Naia said confidently. “Wynne, take my family out the back door to Alarith’s. Alistair, you’re with me. Zevran, you wait in here while I try something. I’m going to see if we can lie our way out of this.”
“And if you cannot?” Zevran asked uncertainly.
“Then you join us outside and we get rid of them together.” Naia smiled. “Like my father just said, we’re very good at that.”
As Wynne escorted the Tabris family out the back door, Zevran stayed in the shadows while Naia and Alistair stepped out the front. Once all of the doors were shut, he crossed the room as quietly as he could and settled in by Cyrion’s one unbroken window, cautiously lifting a corner of the curtain.
For the first time in over a year, his eyes fell on Taliesin.
His fellow Crow stood on the broken path in front of Naia’s home, flanked by a small handful of mercenaries—Zevran counted three that he could see, but suspected Taliesin would have archers hiding in the shadows. He thought he spotted a new tattoo behind Taliesin’s left ear, but otherwise the other man was much the same as he’d been a year ago. That thought seemed almost unfathomable to Zevran. For him, that year had been a lifetime and more.
“I was beginning to think you were planning to ignore me, Grey Warden.” The Crow’s voice was cheerful, almost friendly. “I hope I did not come at a bad time?”
Naia crossed her arms. “Well, I’m about to have dinner with my family for the first time in a year, and I’m hungry. So yes, bad timing. What do you want?”
“Straight to the point. I think I like you, Grey Warden.” Taliesin grinned. “I’ll get to the point too. I want Zevran.”
Naia straightened, as if surprised by this request. Then, to Zevran’s surprise, she snorted with laughter. “Zevran?” she said boldly. “Zevran’s dead.”
Zevran could tell that this was not the response Taliesin had expected. “Indeed? And how did my friend come to meet such an end? I’d heard he was traveling with you.”
Naia arched an eyebrow and looked out at Taliesin with apparent amusement. “Oh, he was all flattery and charm at first. But the moment he had me naked, he tried to put a blade to my throat. It landed in his instead. I’m sorry about your friend, but surely you understand that I couldn’t let that sort of thing go unpunished.”
It was a brilliant story. Zevran almost believed it himself, and for a moment, he hoped Taliesin would too.
“Ah, that does sound like Zevran,” Taliesin said, shaking his head in mock regret. “I don’t suppose I might see his body, to verify your story?”
Naia shrugged. “We left it somewhere in the Brecelian Forest.”
“It was probably torn apart by werewolves,” Alistair added helpfully. “So, you know. Good luck looking and all that.”
“The Brecelian Forest, eh? But what about those who told me that they saw him in your company yesterday, in the Pearl and in the alienage?”
Naia didn’t miss a beat. “Paid informants saw him, you mean?” Taliesin gave a slight nod. “They lied to get your coin. Which you really should have known. Are you that desperate to believe he’s alive?”
Taliesin shrugged. “It does seem rather unbelievable. The idea of Zevran dead, I mean.”
Naia’s eyes narrowed cruelly. “Oh, dear. Are you one of the lovers he bragged about? I’m sorry. Would it help if I told you he whispered your name as he died?”
Her smile was perfectly vicious. Zevran shook his head in wonder. To think he’d ever thought her guileless or naïve. She was a better liar than he.
Taliesin studied Naia’s face for a long moment. Then a smile spread over his features. He began laughing, his head thrown back in genuine merriment. “By the Maker, you are clever, Grey Warden. I thought your reputation must be exaggerated and here I find that you exceed it. But let us stop this dance. I know that he lives, and I know that he travels with you. Where is Zevran?”
Zevran watched Taliesin’s men reach for their blades, and saw Taliesin’s own shoulders tense, preparing for battle. With a mixed sense of disappointment and relief, he opened the door.
“I am here, Taliesin.” He turned his head casually towards Naia as he stepped out into the dirt. “It was a valiant attempt, Warden, but he was lying about the informants. Taliesin stalks his targets personally. Isn’t that so, my friend?”
As quickly as he could, he shifted his gaze from Naia to Taliesin. I cannot let him know about her.
… know what?
Zevran shook aside that unwelcome thought. “So. Were you sent? Or did you volunteer?”
“I volunteered, of course!” Taliesin declared merrily. “I had to see this for myself. It’s worse than I imagined. The great Zevran, playing the faithful follower?” He tsk ’d his tongue. “I only wish I could have come sooner. You need to get back to Antiva, my friend. Let’s kill the Wardens and get on the next boat. We’ll think of a good story on the way home to explain your temporary lapse in judgment.”
“Ah.” Zevran sighed with mock regret. “I fear I must decline. You have not seen the Warden in battle, Taliesin. I can assure you that you are proposing suicide.”
Taliesin raised his eyebrows. “Zevran. Would you really abandon the Crows? I remember when you would spit on the corpses of those who betrayed us.” His upper lip curled in a cruel half-smile.
The memory of Rinna’s death flared in Zevran’s mind. Guilt and rage and despair boiled to the surface. He fought them back.
“I abandoned the Crows months ago, Taliesin,” he said quietly, all pretense of friendliness gone. “I will only tell you this once more. Walk away from this place. This is not a fight you can win.”
Zevran was disappointed, but not surprised, when Taliesin drew his knives.
The men who joined Taliesin’s attack were mere mercenaries, not Crows, and Zevran knew that his companions could dispatch them with ease. His concern was keeping Taliesin away from Naia. Fortunately, the Crow was far more interested in crossing blades with his former comrade. “The girl seems to know you well, Zevran,” he remarked, parrying Zevran’s initial strike.
“What can I say, she is most observant,” Zevran returned, slashing at Taliesin’s face with his left-hand dagger.
Taliesin dodged the blow and aimed for Zevran’s heart; the elf twisted away from the blade easily. For a while, all talk ceased as the two assassins fought. Taliesin had always been better at hand-to-hand combat, but Zevran’s months of battling the Darkspawn had improved his skills. He could tell Taliesin was surprised that the fight had not yet turned in his favor.
“You’ve gotten better, Zevran. It must be the company you keep. Do you know, that Warden reminds me a bit of Rinna. I wonder if she’ll beg for her life as well, when I kill her?”
Every fiber of Zevran’s being went cold.
“You will not get that chance.”
Zevran was not quite sure how, but somehow, his next strike stabbed Taliesin full in the chest.
Taliesin dropped to his knees, choking, blood bubbling up over his lips. The blow was fatal, but Zevran knew it would take some time for the assassin to die. Almost gently, he swept his dagger across Taliesin’s throat. His former friend collapsed on the dusty street.
Zevran knelt beside Taliesin’s body, torn between relief and sorrow. He looked into the wide, staring eyes, remembering when he had smiled to see Taliesin’s face. They both had once been such proud Crows, so certain of their skills, so pleased with their work for the Guild.
But Taliesin had not loved Rinna.
Was that, in the end, the difference between us?
He wondered if his old friend had ever regretted for a moment what they had done to Rinna. Then he wondered if he could have talked Taliesin into letting him go—into backing down from this fight so that Zevran could spare his old friend’s life. He knew, with a sad certainty, that the answer to both questions was no.
Gently, Zevran reached out his hand to close Taliesin’s eyes.
“I’m sorry, Zev.”
With a slight start, Zevran realized that the Warden had been watching him—from a respectful distance, but closely enough to see his reaction.
He stood, prepared to make a quip, to dismiss what had just happened. But the words caught in his throat. Finally, he managed, “I—I should return to the Arl’s estate, my Warden. I will ask Sergeant Kylon to deal with this unpleasantness.”
“Zev?” Naia asked softly, her eyebrows knotting together.
“Please offer my apologies to your family, and my thanks for their hospitality. But I should not be here.”
With those words hanging in the air, Zevran walked out of the alienage.
Zevran wound his way through the Denerim streets in a fog, only vaguely aware of his direction. He reserved a small corner of his mind for watching for other Crows—he suspected Taliesin had come alone, but he could not be sure—but no one he passed gave him so much as a second glance. Still, he spent the better part of an hour wandering Denerim’s market to see if he was being followed. As promised, he also notified Sergeant Kylon about the bodies in the alienage. It said something about the Sergeant’s job that he showed no surprise about this news. He just gave a weary sigh and waved the nearest Guardsmen over.
Finally, Zevran’s mind had cleared somewhat; he allowed himself to leave the bustle of the streets and return to the gate of the Arl’s estate.
Leliana was standing by the fountain in the Arl’s courtyard, her expression thoughtful as she hummed a little tune. She was out of her armor and in plain servant’s garb. Zevran remembered that Naia had asked her to investigate Anora, as far as she could without being noticed.
The bard’s face went white as she took in Zevran. “Oh, Maker. Where …”
“Safe,” Zevran assured her quickly. “They are having dinner with Naia’s family. I … encountered some unpleasantness. A former member of the Crows. I thought it best to let them have their meal in peace.”
Leliana’s lips parted. “I am sorry. The Crow—was he someone you know?”
Zevran stepped to the edge of the fountain. He stared into its waters as he tried to think of how to answer that. “Knew, and knew well. He was a friend. Or as close to that as I could have come, in the Crows.” He took a breath. “But no more. Taliesin is dead.”
When he looked over at Leliana, her face was sympathetic and sad. “Do you wish to talk about it? I, of all people, would understand.”
“So you would.” Zevran had not been there for the fight with Marjolaine, but he had seen Leliana’s face afterwards, seen the potent mixture of relief and guilt in her eyes. He himself felt little guilt—Taliesin had given them no choice—but his mind still swam with confusion as he tried to puzzle out what his old friend’s death meant. “I do not know what to feel. I regret that Taliesin could not be persuaded to leave well enough alone, but perhaps it has bought me some time. It will take months for the Crows to learn of what has happened in Ferelden. I could put quite a distance between myself and my last known location before they think to hunt me again.”
“Will you?” Leliana’s gentle voice was devoid of judgment.
The answer came easily. “No. I—I feel I must see this through. I would not abandon the Warden while her Archdemon still lives.” Would Naia’s awful nightmares finally cease, then? Of late, he had taken to waiting in her tent until the dreams came upon her so he could smooth her blankets when they passed. She needed her rest, and he did not want the cold to wake her.
He tried to reach for something like his usual insolent cheer. “Besides, if we succeed, we will become the stuff of your legends, no? Bards will sing of our heroism for generations to come. I would not miss the opportunity to have my name eternally on the lips of beautiful women.”
Leliana laughed. “I expected that would be your answer. I doubt any of us would leave her side now.”
“She does inspire loyalty,” Zevran said, uncomfortable with the questioning look in Leliana’s eyes. “I have often wondered how she does it. Does she merely smile that devastating smile at everyone, bewitching them at first glance?”
“Nothing so simple,” Leliana said dryly. “I think—it is hard to put into words.” Her brow knotted thoughtfully. “On the day I met her I think I must have sounded quite mad. A Chantry lay sister, covered in blood, insisting that the Maker had told me to follow the Wardens! But Naia offered her hand and welcomed me. All she saw was someone willing to put themselves in danger to help.” She smiled a bit, as if she thought she might have solved a puzzle. “I think perhaps that is her secret. Faith. Not in the Maker, but—but in us. She trusts us, and in turn, we work to earn that trust.”
“Do you love her?”
The question startled Zevran as soon as he asked it. He was unsure where it came from. But Leliana answered readily. “Yes, of course.” She raised an eyebrow at him. “Not, perhaps, in the way you mean. But as a friend, yes, I love her. She will always be very dear to me.”
She did not turn the question back on Zevran, for which he was grateful. Perhaps she would have, if the gate had not swung open at that moment.
“Now that was a proper Ferelden meal. Nicely boiled, even if the vegetables did still have some unpleasant crunch to them,” Alistair said cheerfully. He gave Leliana and Zevran a wave as he crossed the courtyard.
“Most people prefer them that way, Alistair,” Wynne said, shaking her head with a mix of affection and bafflement as they climbed the stairs to the building.
Zevran felt himself go still. Had Naia remained in the alienage? No—there she was, her helmet under one arm, the familiar red hair gleaming in the setting sun. She met his gaze and noticed his surprise; her eyebrows rose, puzzled.
“I had thought you might stay with your family tonight,” he said.
She shook her head. “I don’t think it’s safe just now. Best if we remain together.” Her mouth twitched. “Besides, I’m not exactly the most popular woman in the alienage at the moment, heroic slaver-killing aside. I’d like my father to keep his last window if he can.” She stepped forward to hug Leliana. “What did you learn about Anora?”
“She is much as she seems,” Leliana replied. “A smart woman, and a gifted politician. She would help you—so long as doing so served her own goals.”
Naia wrinkled her nose. “Which are?”
“At the moment, keeping her throne.” Leliana’s mouth thinned. “It may be difficult to convince her that you can help her do so more effectively than her father, I think. But I will tell you more later. I asked the Arl’s people to draw a bath for me and I find myself longing for it.”
Naia grinned. “Don’t ever let me keep you from a hot bath, Leliana. We’ll talk later.”
Was it Zevran’s imagination, or did Leliana wink at him as she left the courtyard?
Naia set her helmet down on the lip of the fountain and looked over at Zevran. “How are you?”
“Well enough. I apologize for leaving so abruptly. I …” he trailed off, not knowing how to explain himself.
Naia nodded with understanding anyway. “You needed to be alone. Don’t worry about it, Zev.” She smiled. “Soris said to say thank you. He wouldn’t tell me for what.”
Zevran chuckled. “Simply another act of heroic daring, my Warden. I would tell you the story but it would surely bore you.”
Naia rolled her eyes playfully. “Very well. Keep your secrets.”
“Ah yes, speaking of secrets.” It occurred to Zev that he ought to thank her for helping him with Taliesin, but an entirely different subject had found its way into their conversation. “You told me about Bann Vaughan. Why did you not tell me about your fiancé?”
The Warden’s shoulder slumped, and she swallowed uncomfortably. “I suppose I didn’t know what to say.” She dipped a finger in the fountain and flicked a drop onto the water’s surface, watching the concentric circles spread from the point. “It was an arranged marriage. I complained about it from the moment my father told me he’d purchased me a husband—that’s how it works in the alienage, my father paid my fiancé’s family because Nelaros was the one moving to our alienage. I didn’t want to get married, but my father wanted so badly for me to settle down. I think he was worried that I would end up like my mother.”
She seemed at a loss for words, so Zevran prompted, “He did not want to lose you as well.”
Naia nodded, relieved. “Exactly. And I didn’t want to lose him either, so I finally gave in and agreed. I met Nelaros that morning. We’d barely exchanged a few pleasantries before the priestess arrived. And then Vaughan and his men showed up. Nelaros was the only other person who came with Soris to the palace. I don’t think he’d ever held a sword.”
Tears came to her eyes; she scrubbed them away angrily with the back of her hand. “I barely knew him. I don’t know if I have a right to mourn him. But he was a good man and he died because of me.”
“He died because of Bann Vaughan. You know that,” Zevran responded sharply.
Naia crossed her arms, hugging them to her chest. “Indeed? I could have refused the marriage, instead of giving in like a coward. Nelaros should never have been in our alienage that day.”
Zevran looked at her helplessly, unsure of how to comfort her—and abruptly, that helplessness turned into frustration, and then into anger.
“Enough! The way you punish yourself for things other people do is infuriating,” he snapped.
Naia turned her head to him, her eyes narrowing in anger, but his words came too quickly for her to respond. “Do you want to know what it means to be responsible for a death, my Warden? I watched Taliesin kill the woman I loved. Not only did I do nothing to stop it—I told him to do it, and rejected her when she begged for her life.”
He watched Naia’s face as she processed this story. Her mouth hung open slightly and her green eyes were wide; she seemed stunned.
She will hate me now. How could she not?
He looked away, turned his gaze back to the fountain, unable to watch her further. But then, finally, she spoke.
“Was that your last mission for the Crows, the one you wouldn’t tell me about?”
He nodded, his eyes still fixed on the water.
“Will you tell me now?”
He chanced a glance to the side. Naia had stepped closer to him and was watching him with concern. “You don’t have to,” she added gently. “If you’d rather be alone—”
Zevran shook his head. “No. You helped me with Taliesin. You have a right, I think, to know.”
He told the story as best he could, though it seemed as if every word cut deeper into his chest. He told her how Rinna’s beautiful eyes and her cool, deadly confidence had won his heart, despite the Crows’ efforts to turn that heart to stone. He shook his head in self-recrimination when he explained how proud he had been to win the merchant’s contract, how excited to work with the two closest to him.
Then came the discovery that the merchant had knowledge of their mission and their identities. Rinna was not the spy, but she had been cleverly framed—and he and Taliesin had done what any good Crows would do if they thought a team member had betrayed them.
Mi amor, Zevran, she had pleaded.
And he had not saved her.
He realized, after a moment, that there was silence in the courtyard. When he looked over at Naia, there were tears on her cheeks—not for the dead stranger who might have been her husband, but for a girl she’d never met, and for him. “Zevran, I’m so sorry,” she whispered.
His eyes met hers. “No one else in the Crows bid on the contract that brought me to Ferelden, you know. I took it because I wanted to die. And what better way than to throw myself at Grey Wardens? You can imagine my surprise when you spared my life.”
Naia’s brows drew together, worried. “Maker, Zev. Is that still what you want?”
He shook his head. “No. I want …”
Braska , what did he want? It had been so long since he had admitted to wanting anything besides a clean kill and an enthusiastic bedmate.
“I want to start over,” he said finally. “To live a life away from the one I was sold into. And because of you, I have that chance. I owe you a great deal.”
Naia’s expression was sad and sympathetic and compassionate all at once. “You don’t owe me anything, Zev. I can’t count the times you’ve helped me. I—I’m really glad you’re with us.”
Tentatively, as if she thought he might pull away, she stepped towards him and put her arms around him.
The embrace was gentle, undemanding, completely unlike any contact he’d ever had with another person. Awkwardly, Zevran put his arms around her and held her, soaking in the comfort she offered.
And he realized that everything he’d felt for Rinna—the constant wish to be near her, the quiet fear of losing her, the anger when she hurt and the joy when she smiled at him, all of the things he’d once thought himself incapable of feeling—he was feeling again, for this woman. If Rinna had been everything he’d thought he wanted, Naia was everything he’d assumed he could never have. His fondness for her wasn’t gratitude for her mercy, or admiration for her skills, or lust. He wanted more from her than kindness and camaraderie, even more than the pleasure of sharing her bed.
And it terrified him.
Breaking away from the embrace was almost physically painful. “I—we should both get some sleep. We have a Landsmeet tomorrow, no?”
Naia sighed. “We do, at that. I think I might follow Leliana’s example and ask for a bath.” She tilted her head at him. “You probably want to be alone. But you’re welcome to join me, if you like.”
For the first time since they had begun their liaison, Zevran almost said no. But then the idea of watching the Warden walk away from him made his breath stop in his chest.
He chuckled to hide his moment of indecision. “Hmmm. I could return to a cold and lonely bedroom, or share a bath with a beautiful woman. Let me think.”
As Naia grinned at him, he reached for her hand and raised it to his lips. “I am yours.”
Afterwards, alone in his bedroom, Zevran came to a decision.
He would fulfill his oath to Naia, stand by her side until the Archdemon lay dead. And then he would leave.
He could not stay with her. Whatever he felt, she could not possibly return those feelings—he knew that she cared for him, the way she cared for all those who followed her, but she had given him no indication that she saw their affair as anything other than a bit of fun between comrades-at-arms. And he could not risk failing her as he had failed Rinna. She deserved better than that. Better than him.
Yet something nagged at him, a sense that even if he helped her defeat the Blight, his debt to her would not be cleared.
Finally, he settled on a solution. He reached into a hidden pocket in his traveling pack, one stitched into the lining and carefully concealed. After a moment, his fingers found the narrow opening and he pulled out a little scrap of cloth. Slowly, he unwrapped it to reveal a jeweled earring, wrought handsomely in yellow gold.
He held it up in the candlelight, watching it sparkle. He had kept it close for years, and it made him a little sad to think of parting with it, but it was the only fitting gift he could think of for Naia. She could wear it or sell it as she pleased, but perhaps if she kept it she might remember him now and again.
With that decided, he finally slept.
OK, please don't kill me!
That is the end of this story, but NOT the end of Naia and Zev. This is a companion piece to an older fic I wrote (actually, the very first fic I ever wrote!) which is now the second part in this series. Read it here: http://archiveofourown.org/works/3108065/chapters/6733673
Also! If you can't get enough Tabris/Zevran, I'm working on an AU that imagines Naia and Zev in an urban fantasy version of Denerim: http://archiveofourown.org/works/9445127/chapters/21369887