Athenril was in a sour mood.
These things happened, not with alarming frequency—Athenril was for the most part even-keeled, which was why Leto preferred to work with her—but they lacked a certain predictability, appearing without warning like a Kirkwall summer storm. Leto crossed his arms over his chest and waited, watched as she toyed with some reclaimed contraband on her desk, scowling at it, as though it was the source of her annoyance.
Clearly, it wasn’t.
It never was. The little things took shape or form that Leto saw no reason to analyze further beyond the basics: that they were a cipher, a projection, and at least Athenril was not scowling at him. Yet.
That could change as quickly as the weather in Lowtown, the air blown in over the docks suddenly shifting sultry and thick from Darktown’s sewers. That had no name—no chokedamp to fear—beyond simply night in the alienage, all its smells and its discomforts.
After so much of it, they were accustomed to the way it went. But they were never truly comfortable, and that was the difference.
‘Now, listen—it’s just a simple recon job, all right?’ Athenril said. It was remarkable how quick her poor humor could switch to something wry, almost a joke, despite the gravity of her orders. But each job had its dangers; Athenril was never truly laughing at anything—or at least, she never found it as funny as she could pretend to. ‘Nothing over the top. Oh, don’t give me that look, Fenris. Just because you’re my best man in the field doesn’t mean you don’t also…stick out. Unless you haven’t noticed?’
Leto weathered the name as he knew he must, the moniker standing slim between his dire hovel in the alienage—Varania’s pointless welcoming touches, wilting flowers on the window-ledge, her ruthlessness with soot and dust—and this, his day job, better known as his night job, or rather the only job someone like him was able to keep. Watching Athenril pace always awakened his instincts to prowl; the twitching in his joints and muscles outweighed that other, deeper pulse, and even small distractions had their uses, at the proper place and time.
‘Perhaps I am the wrong man for the job, then,’ Leto suggested.
Athenril fixed him with one of her hard stares—not at all piercing, but neither was it particularly forgiving, either. Other men balked under that look, not certain how to classify its intent; Leto had known it for years. It was as much a part of life as the gates around the alienage at night—to keep the elves safe, they said, but those elves themselves knew better than to believe every line they were told. Gates of that sort had a double purpose; what they kept out was just as important as what they kept in.
‘You’re in a mood today,’ Athenril said.
She was also in a mood, far more than Leto. He’d even noted that before.
Judiciously, he said nothing.
‘…But,’ Athenril continued, as they’d both known she would, ‘just because it seems simple doesn’t mean it will be. You know that. I know that. Anyone worth anything in this blighted city knows it. The easier it looks, the worse it’s gonna be. That’s Kirkwall for you, and I’m not taking any chances. I just need some surveillance—surveillance that doesn’t get distracted by the first well-endowed Fereldan to walk by showing too much up-top. The place is crawling with pests. Carta, Coterie, templars: you name it. And don’t ask me why a hole in the wall free clinic in Darktown means so much to these idiots. If I wasted my time with all the whys I’ve got, I’d be rotting in a ditch instead of talking to you. Remarkable how similar those two feel sometimes, though.’ Leto offered her a gesture to continue. She liked to talk. She also liked to pinch the indistinct bridge of her nose and sigh, which she did then, signaling it was soon time for briefing to be over, for action to begin. ‘Humans, right? Don’t even have the decency to be dependable. Like qunari. Or even dwarves.’
‘A free clinic in Darktown,’ Leto agreed.
Athenril shot him another look, this one barbed as an arrow, but not without its own affections. She always had said the reason she liked him so much—aside from how useful the magical fisting thing was, that he had a gift and didn’t shy away from the blood and guts of using it like most people—was that he was the only bastard in her hire who had the instincts for picking the one useful sentence out of so much clap-trap.
Plus, she sometimes added, with her sly smile, no teeth, training a guy like you to be my kind of useful? I wouldn’t trade it for the world.
There was some of that meaning in her eyes now, the barest of light catching hard as chipped glass. Beneath that, she was tired; Leto knew from experience that she’d been on her feet nearing two full days without rest, and she was looking to end this ‘pleasant chat’ and grab some shut-eye. For however long it lasted.
Usually, it didn’t.
‘No fights,’ Athenril added. ‘Nothing to call attention to us monitoring the situation, either. All right? I just want to know what’s going on there, ‘cause it’s gotta be something. Something that isn’t free,’ she added. ‘Nobody cares if there’s no profit involved.’
‘And we care,’ Leto agreed.
Athenril nodded once, sharp. ‘Which means there’s profit involved. Your cut’ll be the same as always. Rent paid in full, and anyone asking questions about you gets their tongues cut out.’ She paused. ‘Not too many of those lately, Fenris. Maybe you might consider a different form of payment someday? Like…real coin?’
‘No,’ Leto replied.
Unlike so many others, she didn’t pause, or anticipate a further thank you.
‘Oh well.’ Athenril shrugged. ‘Your loss, anyway. Pleasure doing business with you, as always.’ She didn’t show Leto out; he already knew the way of it.
Beyond Athenril’s corner of the market, tucked into half-affected safety nearby the Blooming Rose, a late sun shifted over the Hightown buildings in narrow slants, and Leto headed straight for the stairs into lower climes, where no one looked twice at an armored elf.
There were some who believed Darktown worse than the alienage proper, and some who believed there was nowhere in Kirkwall worse than the alienage. Leto had little stake in which assessment was marked commonly victorious; that there was a competition at all said everything it needed to. Both were dank, wretched, vile—in their separate ways, to their separate detriment.
With the influx of Fereldan refugees—the Blight, as Leto understood it, driving them from home, into this unwelcoming place—it was arguably better for the elves these days, at least by comparison.
But that was only if anyone wished to waste his breath arguing about it.
Leto saw no reason to measure his circumstances against another’s. That both were unpleasant was sufficient judgment enough. He had also been granted the means with which to better himself—to avoid making the situation worse—while so many were less fortunate. And, likewise, so many refused the agency to want anything for themselves at all.
It wasn’t all personal action; there was even less purpose. Leto still recalled his arrival some ten years back: crouched between barrels of stinking fish in the hold of a merchant galleon, a stowaway half-starved with a body still desperate to heal, his sister’s thin arms wrapped around his shoulders—though she was too wary to use her magic to help him beyond the feverish embrace. Athenril called him a wounded animal when she saw him, and so he was, in part because he felt like nothing more than one.
He also recalled Varania’s fear, etched tight in every corner of her face as it swam uneven above him, searching for any sign that her brother yet lived.
Her brother, as she knew him—and not the man he’d chosen to become, apparently of his own free will.
But her brother had not lived, not in the way she’d hoped. Leto remembered very little, just their mother’s laughter and, eventually, Varania’s healing touch. Beyond that, he remembered only pain.
‘Pain’s good for you,’ Athenril had said. She was younger then, hungry, just as dangerous. ‘It’s how you choose to work that pain that…might not be so good. So, do you want to work for me or not, kid?’
Leto balked at the idea of being called something that small by anyone when the pain was still so big, but he had no other choice. ‘The name is…Fenris,’ he’d told her, a memorized invective. Someone he never was, but would soon become.
If only to protect Varania, who—from Minrathous to Kirkwall—had protected him.
Long walks from Hightown to Darktown at times inspired not nostalgia, but prolonged bouts of thinking. Thoughts and remembrance were too tightly bound together; Leto made certain of that, from dawn until dusk, through every lone-man job and thankless smuggler’s patrol. He reminded himself of everything he knew—not everything Varania had told him, but everything his own brain could recall—and that way prevented himself from ever losing it again. From waking in the dark with no recognition behind his eyes, that look of despair on Varania’s face.
He’d chosen this life for himself—a truth imparted to him by Varania, and not carried within the uncertain depths and hidden recesses of his treacherous mind. He’d fought for the markings that he bore even now, for the chance to free his sister and mother from a life of servitude. His master, Danarius, had performed the ritual personally.
That much, Leto did remember. In fact, he might never—should never—forget his master’s face, just as he knew Danarius would never forget his. That was what Athenril did not understand—why Leto’s preferred form of payment was so important to this day.
Ten years was a long time, but not long enough for two ex-slaves to become complacent with their circumstances. If there had been nothing remarkable about either of them, Leto might have thought it safe to assume they were well and truly free.
Sadly, as Athenril was so fond of observing, Varania and Leto were not simple fugitives from Tevinter. They were an apostate and a mercenary—Leto’s understanding of his intended place in the world stood on shaky legs, like a vase on an unsteady pedestal, but it dangers, by contrast, were always certain.
Danarius had never imparted his plans, only his lyrium. Presumably, there hadn’t been time. And before any of it was made clear, before the fresh wounds had chance enough to heal, the attack on the mansion had come—white-hot flames and arcane horrors rising from the streets, a magister looking to duel where he thought he’d take the advantage. For the first time in his very long life, Danarius had been caught unawares—and it was Varania, not Leto, who’d used the commotion to their advantage, Varania who’d slipped into the house undetected, retrieving her brother from the dungeons, dragging him with her into the dirty side-streets. It was a bravery Leto still did not understand, no matter his own sacrifices—what Varania, despite the obvious hypocrisy, called foolishness.
As though she was not equally foolish.
In the end, Leto’s new master had only been his for a bare handful of days. In that short amount of time, he’d still managed to leave his mark—beyond what Leto bore on his skin, he also carried the memory of a new name: Fenris, the little wolf.
Of course, he remembered that.
It served Leto well as a false front, a title made for intimidation, born to sow fear in the hearts of his enemies.
At least, that was what Athenril said. She had no reason to see the name for what it was—something granted to a pet by its former master. But Leto was not so lofty-minded that he would discard something of use simply because he found it distasteful.
He couldn’t afford that selfishness. Not when he had his sister to think of.
In truth, it was Athenril’s mention of templars that had firmed Leto’s resolve to visit this clinic in the first place. When they’d first arrived in Kirkwall, he’d never imagined it would prove to be nearly as dangerous for Varania as the Imperium itself. Some days, it seemed that hiding in the alienage was never enough—an elf named Huon had been dragged out of his home just shortly after Leto and Varania’s arrival, and such an event was not uncommon in the time since.
Varania had watched it happen from the window, knuckles white against the sill. When Leto covered her hand with his own, he marveled at the difference—that she did not recoil at the raised markings burnt into his dark flesh. There was some reaction between them, for magic and lyrium were bound together just the same as lyrium and Fenris’s blood were bound, but it did not hurt when it was her.
What did sting was the accompanying flash—how noticeable it was—which was why the curtains were always drawn over their windows, why Varania’s flowers on the windowsill always died.
But whoever manned the seat of power with the templars did not ignore elves the way most humans saw fit to. That made them dangerous. As with all dangers, Leto needed to monitor them as closely as he could.
Understanding an enemy gave him a tactical advantage. And he needed to understand why this run-down clinic in the middle of nowhere—worse than nowhere; it was Darktown, after all—was so important to so many different factions. That there was no coin involved only meant there was some deeper reason, and Athenril’s instincts, like her knives, were always keen.
After years of living in Ferelden, Anders knew that the loyalty of the natives was often strongest—for whatever reason—when it was put to the test. That wasn’t to say Fereldans were ever complacent; no one so fond of dogs and ale and cheese could ever count complacency amongst their strong suits. They were a rowdy people at the best of times, often injuring themselves in bar fights or street brawls or even in the comfort of their own homes.
When they had their own homes.
In Darktown, they had only shanties, tents propped up on makeshift poles, broken crates and empty barrels to store their dwindling effects. They injured themselves just as much, though, with more gusto than ever—as though injury itself, pain itself, would remind them they were still actually alive.
Anders understood the impulse about as much as he didn’t understand it. He found he was capable, without actively seeking out physical harm, of reminding himself not only that he was living, but where he was living, which sometimes seemed more important than any other detail. It happened daily, often hourly, whenever the door to the clinic opened and some belching green smell rolled in like smog, followed by a woman carrying a sick child or a man leaning, bloody, against a friend, the ashen pallor of each new face demanding sympathy and care and an answering recoil in Anders’s stomach.
No; it wasn’t always like that. Sometimes, he sat up reading with a little girl, late into the night, distracting her from fear and sadness, doing all the voices, while she especially liked the grumpy dwarf and the beautiful pirate queen. In those moments, it did seem worth it, even if it took the most complicated route to get there.
But, since life was never an assortment of its finest moments, there was all the rest to consider. Daily. Hourly. The door to the clinic opening, the green smell, the belching smog, some fresh tragedy—never a chance of running out of them, not so much as there was a chance of running out on them.
Anders pressed his fingertips into the small of his lower back, stretching the aching muscle there, turning from side to side and waiting for the perfect moment of privacy to sneak in a bit of a heal for himself. It wouldn’t be much; just a little hint of warmth to soothe the stiffness—bending over poorly built cots all day was even more painful than sleeping on the road, on the run—and it was sometimes necessary to better oneself in order to better everyone else.
Despite Karl’s opinion that all healing efforts should be siphoned into doing unto others first, of course, and unto oneself never.
Somehow, Karl always caught Anders at it; he had uncanny timing, which served them well fleeing the templars of the Fereldan Circle, but these days made itself known in other, less pertinent, more infuriating moments. Moments like this one, when Anders’s back really hurt, and all he wanted was to sit in a dark, empty corner, no one asking him for elfroot or bandages or to look at their boy’s nascent rash. He wanted to put his feet up and hold a cup of proper tea, not brown Darktown water already hot straight from the pump, and close his eyes and take a deep breath of air that didn’t have some indescribable texture.
Anders glanced around the room. It was suitably crowded. Karl was in the back, on secret business, which Anders knew about only in hushed whispers and his own, private nightmares. He took a deep breath, arcane heat flaring at his fingertips, pressed gingerly, lovingly, against his own hip.
And who would heal the healer? That was the real question these people should have asked themselves—right after Why didn’t I flee to Antiva instead of this blighted place?
But this time, it wasn’t Karl who interrupted him. Instead, it was Lirene, one of those indefatigable Fereldan women who never let anything stand in their way. She saw too much, some might say, but it was an impressive talent; so was the silence of her step, the way she fell into place beside Anders like a very wide shadow, startling him out of his healing spell.
‘Don’t look up,’ she said, in that pointed voice so many used around here, the dreadful, serious one Anders was never going to be able to get used to, ‘but there’s someone casing this place. Wearing armor.’
‘Again?’ Anders sighed, dropping his empty hands to his sides and trying not to fidget. ‘Really, Lirene, I’m starting to think you should only tell me when there aren’t people wearing armor casing the place. Now that would be unusual, something to take note of.’
‘I would’ve told Karl,’ Lirene continued, sounding a bit tart, ‘but he’s indisposed at the moment. And someone needs to know.’
Someone, Anders thought. And somehow, that someone was always him.
‘What do you expect me to do about it, Lirene?’ Anders asked. Despite the way it sounded—whiny, petulant, tinged with back-pain, thoroughly obtuse—he was, for once, honestly curious. ‘Go out there and fight him, man to healer?’
Lirene snorted. ‘Sometimes all a man needs is to know he’s being watched.’
‘And sometimes,’ Anders replied, ‘not knowing makes him so much happier.’ He paused to wind the bandages around his wrists a bit tighter—one had come loose during his half-jump of surprise, and fluttered like a lover’s token against the back of his hand—then glanced toward the door, hoping it was more subtle than it felt.
‘And here I thought I told you not to look up.’ Lirene took him by the arm, steering him behind a moss-eaten stanchion. ‘It isn’t the templars, at least. Unless they’ve started hiring elves, and discontinued those bloody awful helmets.’
‘Oh, no, Lirene,’ Anders replied. ‘They’d never do that. How would they know who they were when they looked in the mirror?’
‘I can always get some of the boys to take care of it,’ Lirene continued, apparently used to dealing with the blithely uncooperative. ‘If that’s what you want.’
Anders sighed, wishing—not for the first time—that blood magic came without a price, that he had certain, untenable, time-stopping powers, that he could go about his business privately while everyone else stood frozen in place. Some days, that felt like the only way he’d ever catch up.
But that was the sort of ability granted only to demons, and men fool enough to make deals with them. Anders wasn’t quite that far gone. At least, not yet.
He’d be there soon, if people didn’t stop treating him like he was the one in charge here, when in fact the whole clinic had been Karl’s idea, Karl’s front while he established his secret work at the behest of an old friend currently trying, Maker bless him, to make Kirkwall better. Anders was merely along for the ride—along for the freedom, as it were—and he didn’t have the stomach for all these difficult decisions.
Nor did he have the back for them. A twinge of muscle reminded him of that, and he realized all too late that he was grimacing violently into Lirene’s face.
Grudgingly, he relaxed the muscles of his jaw, and went over what limited knowledge he’d gleaned from a few scant months of living in Kirkwall’s underworld. As far as he knew, the templars did not hire elves. Anders had been granted the dubious privilege of knowing a great many templars in his life, and all of them had been human, for better or worse. An elf also ruled out Carta involvement, since those were all dwarves, and Anders couldn’t imagine them expanding their interests so widely so fast, at least not before a few good stories were written about it as fair warning.
That left the Coterie, or some other, smaller outfit that hadn’t yet made its interests known. After all, the one certainty in Kirkwall was that there’d always be another gang vying for control of the streets. Information was traded like currency in Lowtown; after all the interest shown regarding the clinic, Anders could only presume they were the next hot topic of choice, the mystery of their operations concealed only by the impassive wall of Fereldan loyalty that stood between them and being sold out.
Anders was proud of that loyalty, in his own way. He couldn’t count himself a member of its forces—not truly—but the Fereldans had as good as made him one of their own. Every now and then even an apostate needed to belong to something, even if that something smelled of mud and dog and festering wounds.
‘No,’ Anders sad. He stepped away, mourning the crick in his back. It would just get worse the longer he left it; wasn’t he was always warning his patients of the very same danger? ‘That won’t be necessary—I’ll take care of it. Thank you, Lirene.’
‘And we’ll soon see if anyone’s welcome,’ Lirene replied.
For Anders, taking care of it was synonymous with going outside to sniff nervously around. He hadn’t been serious when he’d offered to chase the interested party off through physical means, but if their current unwanted company was looking to attack, they’d have done so already.
No; Lirene’s instincts were usually spot-on. They had another lurker on their hands. Blowing their cover would be the best way to get them to leave—letting them know that they weren’t as sneaky as they imagined would shame them into trotting off, hopefully to tell their employer just how dreadful it was in Darktown’s free clinic. No unsung heroes there—certainly not wealthy ones—but rather an unparalleled collection of the down, the dirty and the destitute.
People so often made the mistake of imagining most Fereldans were stupid; no doubt it had something to do with the mud and the dogs again, but Lirene was the sort who did so love proving people wrong.
Anders was starting to love it, too, if only because Darktown offered few clear triumphs, and ‘feeling smarter than other people’ was one of them.
Outside the clinic, he was greeted with the usual gathering of foul-mouthed children on the landing by the stairs, one of them reciting a joyfully lewd rhyme about the viscount, and either a drunk or a possessed pile of rags was sleeping up against the clinic’s far wall. However, there was no sign of an elf, armored or otherwise.
Anders liked to think his powers of observation had improved since he’d come to Kirkwall. He knew what to look for now, and how to tell by the shiver down his spine when he was being watched. He recognized, implicitly, the glint of sunlight off burnished armor, the soft clank of greaves as someone knelt in the soil, the hiss of a sword being drawn from its scabbard: these were all sounds an apostate had to memorize, to recognize in an instant if he wished to maintain his life and his freedom.
Anders was quite fond of both.
Yet there was none of that in the immediate vicinity. Elves were small, but they were not invisible—last Anders had checked—and the ones who wore armor made just as much noise as everyone else. The longer Anders stood in front of the door, feeling like an idiot as the children stopped their play-time to stare at the funny man with the feathered shoulders, the more certain he became.
If there ever had been someone watching the clinic, they were long gone now.
‘Wonderful,’ Anders muttered. He reached up to douse the lamp over the door, just to be on the safe side. Now that they didn’t know what they were dealing with—now that there was yet another spy out there, one with motivations Anders had no current means of discerning—it made sense to close down for the day.
Karl didn’t like to take chances. He was serious about his other work, even more serious than he was about his precious clinic.
Karl was heading out of the back room when Anders returned inside, bearing the long metal lantern snuffer in one hand, the other tucked in a deep, empty pocket. Despite the serious matters they’d been discussing, both Karl and his associate were smiling.
‘Closing early?’ Malcolm asked, rubbing a hand over his graying beard. Anders had always found it peculiar that both Karl and his oldest friend had chosen to cultivate such similar facial hair. It made Anders feel like the odd man out—though not so much that he’d ever thought of growing one himself.
It was one thing to make that decision, to grow anything more assertive than simple stubble—it meant something, signified a definitive choice, and Anders wasn’t ready to be that person yet.
That person: an apostate in Darktown with gray streaks in his beard.
There were far too many of those already.
‘You know how it is.’ Anders mustered a sampling from his wealth of cheerful tones, the ones that always—without fail—made templars hate him even more than they already did. He liked to personalize that antagonism, although with Malcolm, it was never easy to tell what he thought. The beard, Anders suspected, had something to do with that: it hid his mouth, the flash of his teeth, whether he was scowling or grinning or a little bit of both. ‘You invite a Fereldan in for supper, he stays for breakfast. We have to set up rules. Boundaries. Otherwise I’d never have anything to eat at all, ha ha, and that makes me rather cranky. Oh, and also—there was someone lurking outside the clinic. Wearing lots of armor. So there’s that, too.’
‘Again?’ Karl clapped Malcolm on the shoulder; there was something meaningful about the gesture, some agreement they’d come to in that Private Business Room in the back, some resolve they were currently sharing even as they said nothing to each other. ‘Really, Anders, I’m starting to think you should only tell me when—’
‘—when there aren’t people wearing armor casing the place?’ Anders concluded for him, with only a hint of a question. If ever there was a sign he’d been with Karl for too long, their penchant for finishing one another’s sentences was it. ‘That’s exactly what I said to Lirene when she pointed it out. Awful busybody, that woman.’
‘Completely invaluable,’ Malcolm agreed.
Anders made a face—he called it his Malcolm face, the one he reserved for moments just like this one. ‘Yes. Exactly what I meant. Not what I said, but I’m so glad you know me better.’
‘Templar?’ Karl asked. Anders shook his head. ‘Carta? Coterie?’
‘Just trying to keep us on our toes, I suspect,’ Anders said. ‘Elf. Armored elf. Fun, isn’t it? You’d almost think we were doing something dangerous, risking our lives for smelly wounds and no profit. Not to mention the body odor—’
‘I’ll look into it, if you’d like,’ Malcolm offered, already halfway out the door.
‘Don’t put yourself out on our accounts,’ Karl said. ‘Really. I insist.’
‘If he doesn’t,’ Anders muttered, ‘then who will? No one, that’s who. And someone’s always better than—’
‘I’ll see what I can have my boys do,’ Malcolm said. He left with a wave for both of them, jaunty and cheerful, and Anders paused where he stood to lean back into the push of his thumbs at the base of his spine, while Karl lit their smallest lamp, just enough to send light through the empty room. Enormous shadows were cast between the pillars, splaying over the floor; Anders spread his fingers wide, and tried, sneakily, to send a few bursts of healing magic into his joints, just before Karl straightened and caught him at it.
Anders smiled weakly. Karl rolled his eyes.
And it was all right, because it was always all right.
‘His boys.’ Now it was Anders’s turn to roll his eyes, perching on a nearby cot and reaching for freshly-washed bandages that were in need of rolling. Karl, he decided, looked distant—not troubled, but thoughtful, which was about as troubled as Karl ever allowed himself to get. Anders busied himself with the busiest work of all, something quick for his fingers to make short shrift of. Every now and then, he had to remind himself why it was so important to be useful. ‘Sometimes I wonder if Malcolm Hawke isn’t as dangerous as the Coterie already. Don’t you wonder that sometimes, Karl?’
‘There’s a difference,’ Karl insisted, ‘between what he does, and what they do.’
Anders shrugged. ‘So you say. But all I’m saying is, it might be nice if that difference could see its way toward being a little more obvious once in a while.’
‘Better that it isn’t obvious at all,’ Karl said. He was obviously in one of his moods.
Anders twisted clean cotton around his fingers. Everything smelled of elfroot here, in this one, blessed corner of the clinic. ‘No need to be so gloomy,’ he said, plopping the bandage in the crate beside him—all things in their proper place. ‘How about some delicious stewed rat for dinner? That always cheers you up.’
Leto had nothing to report to Athenril, save that the prime constituents of the clinic—its customers, if they could be termed as such, when no money ever exchanged hands—were many in number, and those who ran it very few.
‘A dirty man,’ Leto said. ‘He wears feathers on his shoulders and suffers a bad back. With that many patients, I’m sure there were others—not currently present. There were children outside, and no other guard. But I was…conspicuous. When they discovered my presence, I left.’
‘Without any useful information,’ Athenril added.
It was not a question, as so many of her statements might have been.
‘There was nothing there,’ Leto said. ‘It was simply a free clinic.’
At some point between meeting with her that morning and standing before her now—when the sun was low enough to see the red lanterns lit—Athenril had managed some sleep. Fresh energy meant fresh anxiety in her world, always some new detail to determine.
Leto waited for what came next.
‘Nothing is simply anything in this city, and you know it.’ Ah. And there it was. ‘Who does anything for free around here? No one, that’s who. And they’re not about to start, either. Fine; I’ll put some of my other boys on it during the day, have you check it out tonight. That is, if you’re not too late for dinner. You know—if you can spare me and your sister the time.’
‘I will do what I must,’ Leto said, which was what Athenril had already known he would say.
There were times when Athenril commented that it wasn’t his markings but rather his attitude—and she said it just like that, with emphasis, neither compliment nor insult—that made him such an exemplary employee. He worked twice as hard as the other men, and for less compensation afterward.
That quality would have made him an anomaly anywhere else—someone to be suspicious of. In Athenril’s world, small as it sometimes was, it made him invaluable. Athenril already knew it was her ever-strengthening network of spies that kept Leto and Varania safe, so there was nothing for her to do but enjoy the spoils of her lucky recruitment.
‘Try doing what you can for a change,’ Athenril suggested, her eyes suddenly keen over the high collar of her armor. ‘Instead of what you think you have to do. I’m sure your sister would appreciate it.’
Leto stiffened at the mention of Varania—at the implication there was something he hadn’t already done to improve her quality of life. It was difficult for a mage in Kirkwall and, arguably, even more so for an apostate there, one with no intention of ever turning herself over to the Circle. They’d witnessed terrible things enough in Tevinter, so long ago, but nothing Leto had seen in this city gave him reason to believe the Circle of Magi would be any better comfort for anyone, much less his sister.
It was just another prison. And they’d seen enough of those for one lifetime.
The alienage, at least, opened its gates during the day. And that was something, even if it was no more than a half-hearted gesture.
‘…Whatever is necessary,’ Leto amended.
He could tell from Athenril’s well-timed sigh that it wasn’t the correction she’d been looking for.
But that was Athenril’s concern, not his. She troubled herself with such matters; it was her business to invade everyone else’s business. She might have been incapable of putting it aside even when there was no profit in it, but she was also capable of seeing reason, of setting aside personal grievances to focus on more important matters. Which extended, as far as she was concerned, only to safety in large amounts of coin.
‘All right, Fenris.’ Athenril leaned back against one of the sturdy, well-made crates that comprised her offices in Hightown. ‘Just don’t get sloppy, all right? You burn with a double-wick, eventually your lamp’s going to run out of oil. Happens to good people all the time. I don’t want to see it happen to you.’
Leto cracked his shoulder, swiveling the joint as he stretched his arm, fingers flexing beneath their sharp armor. His usefulness was directly tied to his continued health; he required no reminder of that particular truth. It was simply good business that Athenril would not be able to provide protection to someone in the outfit who couldn’t bear his own weight.
The warning was fair, but not necessary. Leto had no intention of letting the work overwhelm him.
‘I’ll visit the clinic,’ he promised, straightening in order to leave. It was a long walk from Hightown to the depths of the alienage, and the sun was already beginning to set. Varania would worry, even if she never gave voice to those concerns. It was all the more important not to give her a reason, because of her silence. ‘But I promise you, Athenril, there is nothing there worth your time. It’s just a free organization—possibly run by a madman.’
‘What free organizations aren’t run by madmen, I wonder?’ Athenril asked. Then, she laughed at her own joke, a high, sharp sound whose humor faded almost the instant it made itself known, though the echoes of it followed Leto down the steps to Lowtown.
People were always laughing at him—usually when he hadn’t said anything amusing in the slightest.
As expected, Varania was waiting with dinner when Leto crossed the threshold, ducking his head below the low lintel, one hand—still gauntleted—pressed to the rain-soft wood.
Their dining table was a sad affair, cobbled together from one that had been thrown out by some other family, half-burned in the last big summer fire. Fires were always a problem in the alienage; the houses were built so close together that the flames leapt eagerly from one building to the next with little consideration for whoever remained within, and if they occurred at night, the rate of casualties raised exponentially.
The gates meant no one found the bodies until morning. It was a convenient arrangement for the rest of Kirkwall, and one Leto despised despite—or because of—its convenience.
But Varania had done her best with their table. She’d put an old book beneath the shortest leg to stop it from rocking, and she’d set a wilted bouquet of someone else’s discarded flowers in a chipped mug in the center. It was the best she could do under the circumstances, and yet somehow more depressing than if she’d attempted nothing at all.
‘You’re late.’ Varania untied the dirty apron from around her waist, folding it carefully over the nearest chair. ‘You aren’t working?’
‘No,’ Leto said.
Varania’s expression sharpened. She’d assumed, Leto realized all too slowly, that his reply was for both statements, and considering each was an outright lie—one a mistake, the other an obfuscation of further information—she disapproved twice as much as ever.
Leto sighed. He didn’t bother to remove his gauntlets, nor the vambraces, nor the greaves, nor the pauldrons—pieces of armor that Athenril had supplied him with early on, worn, dark leather his body and muscles had grown into over time. They didn’t interfere with eating, simply because there was nothing at the table Leto could ruin.
‘I am late,’ Leto clarified. ‘And I am not working now, but later on.’
Varania wiped her hands against the apron, holding tight to the back of her chair. She wasn’t mollified, Leto decided; it had been one of those days for his sister as well as his employer.
Perhaps it was something in the air.
‘Might as well get it over with, then,’ Varania said. She no longer paused for Leto to hold her chair out for her, one small gesture of their life before it began, irreparably, to change. At some point—Leto couldn’t determine when—either he’d stopped offering, or she’d stopped waiting. She’d certainly stopped accepting, which was unavoidable now, as much as it was familiar.
Leto sat. Familiar smells rose off his plate. The day had been long, but hot, not the sort of temperature or hard work that inspired hunger, and Varania moved something—a vegetable, too brown to determine its origin or its name—from one side of her bowl to the next, over the crust of her bread.
‘Ah,’ Leto said, where some other brother might have suggested the food looked delicious—it did not—or he was glad to see her again—he was.
Varania offered nothing in return.
Athenril, at least, spoke, and spoke often. Her voice was neither soothing nor distracting; it simply was, and presented itself freely, to fill whatever petty silences she saw fit to abolish. Sometimes, she cultivated them, just like this, but they glanced off Leto’s armor whenever he recalled the name she used, Fenris—the name he’d offered her so many years ago, wounded and afraid.
But Leto was implied here, in the room with the singe on the table, two cots in the corner: one neatly made, the other mostly untouched. That latter was Leto’s; his work had him out most nights, though he smoothed and tucked the sheets whenever he did wake from that corner beneath the boarded-up window, while Varania worked early with Nyssa, selling wares no one wanted, wares they could also barely afford.
It was Leto’s duty to impart some information about his day during what little time they shared together. He knew that. Varania had done so the night before, speaking of what was sold and what was stolen; when Leto once offered to protect the stall, she’d shouted at him not to waste his precious time, or Athenril’s precious time, though he still passed by more often than necessary, finding excuses, keeping an eye on troublesome urchins with dirty faces and quick fingers.
Leto cleared his throat. Varania paused, a forkful of something in her mouth, and made a face.
Neither of them could pretend they liked her cooking.
‘I patrolled a free clinic in Darktown today,’ Leto began. ‘It was dirty. It was not dangerous.’
‘Not dangerous?’ Varania snorted, mouth full, before she swallowed, choking down whatever burnt thing she was eating without grimacing. ‘Everything in Darktown is dangerous.’
That was true. But Leto didn’t know how to agree.
‘Besides,’ Varania continued, attacking her meal with renewed vigor, ‘there’s only one free clinic in Darktown I know of, and to say it isn’t dangerous… Do you really think I’m that much of a fool, Leto? Of course it’s dangerous. There’s nothing safe about it.’
Leto tightened his fingers against the stiff, weather-cracked leather on his thighs. I do not think you are a fool, Varania, he thought, but there were other, more pressing issues in her statement that were also more pertinent, not to mention easier. At least when it came to addressing them. ‘You know of this…clinic?’ he asked.
‘Every apostate does, for one thing.’ Varania paused; her eyes narrowed, combative, the same look she wore whenever she’d caught an orphan wrist-deep in Nyssa’s moneybox. ‘Why were you there, anyway? Why does Athenril care about a few apostates in Darktown healing the refugees for free?’
There was something about it that Leto had also found bothersome, troubling, though one of his better qualities—so Athenril always said—was that he refused to ask the obvious questions, especially when they were so irrelevant to getting the job done. And quickly. And without complaint.
‘I did not ask,’ Leto admitted.
Varania sighed. When she looked away, Leto knew he’d disappointed her. ‘Right. Of course. Because you never ask. Who do I watch and who do I kill, and never why am I doing this, because that’s not something anyone but you can answer.’
Leto knew why he was doing it. He didn’t think, however, that Varania would appreciate the answer.
‘Have you been to this clinic?’ he demanded. He found he sounded accusatory, and Varania, of course, responded in kind.
‘What if I have?’ she asked. ‘Nyssa sent supplies there once. I’m her errand girl; I don’t ask my employers questions, either. Can’t afford to be fired, now can I?’
Leto made a noise of frustration. Varania arched her brow. It was more exasperating than most conversations they had, not at all helped by the overpowering smell of the Tevinter dish—one that, Varania had never explained, or never had to explain, was their mother’s recipe, though Leto did not remember and also did not like the taste of it. Leto felt a sense of danger compounded by the knowledge that he didn’t understand the hidden feelings behind their words—not yet—and Varania knew it, but did not wish to make it better.
That was difficult, in all senses of the word.
‘What else do you know of this place?’ Leto asked.
Varania looked away, somewhere over his shoulder, refusing to meet him eye-to-eye. ‘Are you asking? Or is Athenril?’
‘It does not matter,’ Leto told her.
‘Only you would think that,’ Varania replied.
Leto scraped a gray mushroom off his crust of bread, plucking it up with his fingers and putting it quickly in his mouth. He was never swift enough to escape Varania’s gaze, but she was long past the point of scolding him for his poor table manners. Bread was filling, better than burnt vegetables for an empty stomach, and despite Athenril’s concerns, Leto did know how to look after himself. And his sister—in some manner of speaking.
Varania drummed her slim, pale fingers against the table. She was waiting for something, a reason only Leto could give her. She was only going to be disappointed.
Leto cleared his throat, licking the crumbs from the corner of his mouth. ‘I am asking,’ he said, finally.
Sometimes, in matters of family, it was important to make certain concessions. He knew that.
And it didn’t matter to Athenril what Varania knew of the clinic—not in the same way as it mattered to her what Fenris had learned. It certainly wasn’t Athenril’s concern that Varania might become too interested in the affairs of other apostates, or that she might follow in their footsteps.
Leto still remembered Huon’s departure, the grand show of it all, Nyssa weeping despite herself, where everyone was forced to watch it.
‘They do good work, Leto.’ Varania scowled at the tip of a blackened carrot, letting it plop from her spoon to the bowl below. Then she rose, pushing back her chair with an indignant scrape. ‘Every apostate should be so lucky—using their abilities to help people, instead of cowering in the shadows.’ She reached across the table for Leto’s bowl. He did not protest its confiscation. ‘If you had any sort of a conscience at all, you’d leave them be.’
‘If they had any sense, they would not operate so obviously,’ Leto replied, bristling against the rebuke. ‘Athenril was hardly the first to take notice of them, and I doubt she’ll be the last.’
Varania’s fingers slipped on the bowls, bringing them down harder than she’d meant to in the sink. They clanked, but were too rough-hewn to break. She squared her thin shoulders, keeping her back to Leto while she scrubbed her fingers red with cheap, harsh soap, and dirty water from their only bucket. ‘There are always dangers in living as you are—in living free,’ she muttered. ‘Some people just choose not to jump at every shadow that darkens their doorstep.’
Leto rubbed at an itch on the back of his neck, wincing as the armor scraped too sharply against his skin, between the lines of lyrium that ridged over bone and above muscle. It was growing late. Athenril’s boys would be finished their cursory surveillance already, and preparing themselves to leave soon enough.
The opportunity to stop at home for dinner should have been restful—Leto should have been more reluctant to leave.
Instead, Leto’s skin hummed with excess energy; he was anxious to get out, and anxious to finish his work, so they could put the matter of this clinic behind them once and for all. It was a point of contention between them now, for whatever reason; Leto wanted it done. Perhaps, when it was over, Varania would stop looking at him as though he was a templar, one of the aforementioned shadows darkening her doorstep.
‘Speak to Nyssa about how gratifying it is to live freely,’ Leto suggested, rising from his chair. It was a cruel cut, but sometimes one had to be cold in order to keep the things that mattered most safe from fresh hurt and fresh harm. ‘I’m sure she has a few thoughts on the subject.’
‘Leto,’ Varania said, but he was already moving out the door.
Outside, the night air was warm and damp with the smell of rotting garbage. Leto shook out his shoulders, touching the pommel of his sword at his back to reassure himself of its position there. The image of Varania standing alone at the sink rose in his mind, the harsh set of her mouth and her wide, worried eyes. He banished it from his thoughts.
She had turned her back on him first. Such distinctions never made a difference unless one was dealing with their siblings, but there it was, and Leto felt her eyes on him all the way past the gates, just before they shuddered shut beneath the darkened sky.
The passage from day to night was particularly depressing in Darktown, because Anders could rarely tell the difference between where one ended and the other began.
Living underground meant coming to terms with a dearth of natural light. In the summer, it could be considered something of a blessing, but there were days when Anders thought he would kill a man just to feel the sun on his face, or a breeze in his hair—to take a jaunty stroll around Hightown, without looking over his shoulder every step of the way.
Karl felt those breezes all the time, of course, because Karl was in the business of sneaking naughty Circle mages out through the sewer passages to the Wounded Coast. Fresh air was like mother’s milk to some people—sometimes Karl even came back from his nightly excursions with sand in the cracks of his boots. Real sand, still wet from a gentle seaside shower.
Anders had never cared much for nature, but that was before he’d known he’d never get to see it again. And ‘nature’ was more than ‘deep mushrooms growing in the dirt stacked up between rotting planks,’ something Darktown had plenty of, on both counts.
Karl saw fit to leave Anders with stewardship of the clinic during his absences, rather than taking him along; being left behind was a blessing on the one hand, the cowardly hand, and a burden on the other, lonely hand. Playing clinic sentinel was boring on most nights and—like when the mines had caved in a few weeks earlier, just after Satinalia, nearly causing as much damage to the local Fereldans as the Blight itself—hideously exhausting on others.
This night, Anders was almost certainly being watched. Again. And it was all too easy to spot the observer, his white hair shimmering like a seed-pod in the lantern-light.
At first glance, through the narrow slots of the clinic door, Anders had to wonder why an old man cared one way or the other what a lone apostate healer was doing in his empty clinic after supper. The lantern wasn’t even lit. Anders wondered how much clearer he could make it for people—a sign reading NO ONE WITHIN, PLEASE RECONSIDER THE IMMEDIACY OF YOUR EMERGENCY would mean nothing to needy visitors, if only because most of the clinic’s patients wouldn’t have been able to read it.
An Ostagar veteran with a dying wife, perhaps; a grandfather desperate to coax life back into the one bright light in all of Kirkwall, a granddaughter taken by chokedamp fever. It could have been anyone, save for the lone detail of armor spiked across narrow shoulders, something Anders picked up on after a great deal of squinting through the rotten wood, with his cheek pressed up against a moldy board, handkerchief acting as barrier between his nose and the stench—and armor meant it was no one nearly so innocent.
It might be the same guard from before, Anders supposed, pulling away from the door to pace the length of the clinic, back aching, from cot to lonely cot. Or it might be some new busy-body—Anders didn’t see that it mattered which. It was someone sniffing around, interested in their business; when Karl returned, with or without Malcolm at his side, there’d be questions asked, noses followed by blades inserted in their private business, and that, as Anders understood it, was a bad thing.
As though everyone didn’t think them peculiar enough, offering something for free in the Free Marches.
Anders wondered, sadly, why it was that most places never lived up to their names—nowhere that sounded nice, at least—while other, meaner places, wretched swamps like the Blackmarsh, always did. Some trick of the Maker’s, no doubt, part of his dark sense of humor.
All that was funnier when you were immortal, when there wasn’t anything to fear because nothing ever ended, not for you, and Anders failed to appreciate the punchline as he knelt once again beside the door, squinting and peering into the smoky darkness.
There he was: the clinic’s unwanted company, out of the way of the only lit lantern in close vicinity, shifting his weight from one foot to the next. His armor, not glinting at all—unlike his hair, and something glittering pale and white whenever he shifted just so, a bright flash where his throat should have been—didn’t inspire the same sort of fear as if it had been polished silverite, something a bit more relatable, a bit more like a templar’s regular outfit. But it was spiky, beaten leather, not friendly at all, and Anders took up his pacing once more, wishing Fereldan loyalty also involved a bit of Fereldan omniscience.
If only Lirene had thought to pass by. She’d soon take care of things. There was no staying when Lirene wanted you to go—no going when she wanted you to stay, either, but that was beside the point—and Anders didn’t like being alone at the best of times, much less during crises.
Decision-making was so much more fun when there was someone beside you to confirm or deny the choices you picked. Karl, for example, knew how to exude confidence through that brand of easy certainty.
Anders, on the other hand—cowardly hand and lonely hand both—had only the remnants of his soggy dinner and an empty clinic and a stranger in armor to keep him company, none of which inspired any sort of certainty at all, much less an easy one.
Anders tried to reassure himself with the knowledge that, wherever Karl was now, it was probably less pleasant than Anders’s current situation. Just as volatile, just as uncertain, with a bit more violent templars and weeping Gallows mages and dung-heaped sewers to trawl through. As nice as it was to know he wasn’t the worst off, he also knew he wasn’t better off.
Sometimes, that made all the difference.
More than anything, it was the waiting Anders hated. Waiting for Karl to return, waiting for good news, waiting for templars not to appear and bang the door down with their heavy gauntlets—and now, waiting for this mysterious figure of dutiful vigilance to make the first move, or really, any move at all, beyond the shift of his weight from one side to the other. Anders knew he wasn’t doing anything of real interest inside the clinic, unless one counted eating stale bread and sipping foul tea; perhaps, he concluded, his unannounced visitor might like to see that for himself.
Anders rested his hand on the latch of the door. He questioned his motivations, the wisdom in his actions. It was a rare impulse, one he seldom indulged in, mostly because he always found himself lacking. At least, he liked to think doing the wrong thing could occasionally be better than doing nothing at all.
And it was better than waiting.
Anything was better than waiting.
Anders fingers twitched against the mottled wood. He made a face, then forced himself to smile, unhinging the latch and throwing the door open.
‘My,’ he said, leaning in the doorway, avoiding a stain of something just over the threshold—blood or vomit, it was difficult to tell, both in the dark and from a distance, though on closer inspection it did seem to be chunky—while he crossed one boot over the other, heel against ankle. ‘What a lovely evening, isn’t it? And me with absolutely nothing at all to do. Nothing to rob inside, either,’ he added, pitching his voice louder. ‘Unless you’re in the market for cots! We have plenty of those in this sanctum of healing and salvation. But most of them are broken—so there’s nothing to vandalize, because that job’s already been done for you. …Have you ever considered looting a Hightown mansion? I hear those are much better.’
Silence met his efforts. Anders held his ground, but that didn’t preclude feeling foolish at the same time, which he did.
Just because he wasn’t dealing with a templar didn’t mean it wasn’t someone dangerous. The armor seemed to point to that, and Anders realized—too late to do anything about it, but there it was—that he might have been antagonizing a member of the Coterie, or simply some lone-operating lunatic.
Kirkwall did seem the sort of place that encouraged mass-murderers.
‘…Unless that’s just your favorite spot to stand,’ Anders added, cheeks hot with a combination of plucky nerves and downright terror, and also, a touch of personal embarrassment. ‘Watching nobody in an empty clinic all evening… That sounds like even more fun than living in an empty clinic all evening. Are you sure you wouldn’t prefer to intimidate someone else?’
Someone coughed in the distance, and the armored man melted free from the shadows, like a brittle shade manifesting from nothing more substantial than air. It wasn’t a shade, though—too many separate, distinct limbs for that, not to mention an actual face—but rather an elf, with pointy ears and everything. Perhaps it was the same elf Lirene had warned Anders about that afternoon, although the idea that he’d uncovered something important enough for a second visit when presumably he’d finished casing the place earlier did nothing to set Anders’s mind at ease.
‘Hello,’ Anders said, feeling reckless now that he’d caught the intruder outside of his unfriendly shadows. He glanced around, just quick enough to ascertain that there was no one nearby who might help him if the elf turned out to be violent—no one save for the local drunk, who was even less useful than no one, snoring beneath the awning of a broken-down cart.
Wonderful. Where were all the Fereldans when you needed them? They were always underfoot until it might be useful, and then—without warning—they all but disappeared, as though there wasn’t a single refugee living in Darktown.
Anders took a thoughtful step backward, one hand pressed against the doorjamb for support. ‘I feel obligated to inform you I am rather popular with the locals around here. Just…as fair warning. So if you do me harm, you’ll have a mess of sweaty, angry Fereldans on your case, most of them infectious, all of them annoying, every last one demanding to know what you’ve done with my body and also—probably—if you’re going to heal their bumps and bruises for them once I’m…disposed of. So you see, it’s all far more trouble than I’m worth. More trouble than you’re being paid to deal with, I’m almost positive,’ he added, making an educated stab toward what he hoped might be the truth.
There came a point in any conversation when it was always better to fall silent and let the other party draw his own conclusions about the topic out loud, after which he wasn’t able to revise them. Anders was fairly certain he’d passed that point some minutes back, but he paused anyway, finally, keeping close watch on the elf as he began his approach.
No—that couldn’t be right. His approach?
But he was drawing closer, not leaving, which hadn’t been part of Anders’s plan at all—the exact opposite of his plan, in fact—and wasn’t that just prime evidence that some people had all the luck, while others had none? For the first time, Anders was actively trying to repulse someone, and instead they responded by furthering their advances, rather than mounting a well-advised retreat.
Anders fumbled for his staff behind the door, then froze. He’d been keeping a sharp eye on the stranger before, but now, as he came nearer, Anders knew he was outright staring. He was unlike any elf Anders had ever seen, shoulders small beneath his spiked pauldrons, limbs sinewy with shifting muscle, and, perhaps most importantly, covered from head to toe in white lyrium tattoos. That was what Anders focused on the most, though he also noticed the elf’s eyes were green beneath his narrowed brows, his gauntlets carved into points like the talons wielded by a bird of prey.
Anders had never seen an assassin up close before, but he did suspect he might have been looking at one right then. His only comfort was in knowing this absolutely wasn’t a templar, despite all the lyrium, and it absolutely wasn’t someone hired by the templars, since this was miles beyond their usual scope of limited imagination.
‘Mage,’ the elf said. Judging by the pommel Anders could see over his shoulder, he was carrying an absolutely enormous sword. ‘Apostate.’ He paused again. ‘…Healer.’
‘Say it louder, why don’t you?’ Anders asked. If he was going to die, he might as well go out with a cut of razor-sharp wit. ‘I’m not sure the Grand Cleric could hear you from up in Hightown.’
To his surprise, the elf paused. His mouth twitched into something approximating a scowl; then, he glanced over his shoulder, as though he truly hadn’t considered the impact of his words.
No one who wasn’t a mage ever did.
Anders took the opportunity to examine him further for clues, though all he found was sharper armor. Which meant he wasn’t Coterie—they all matched, and they didn’t have spikes on their pauldrons, either.
A personal touch, then; a private entrepreneur, or rather their hired man, who hadn’t made their interests known until now. Someone rich, too; the elf was worth ten times his body-weight in lyrium alone. And then there was the sword, another important detail, not one Anders was likely to forget any time soon. It was just so large, so very obvious, not one of the simple broadswords a templar carried, far too enormous to be swung one-handed. In fact, there was a point at which the blade’s size nearly became comical—because the elf was so lithe, and his weapon so much his opposite—before it all came round to unfunny again, when Anders recalled he was the only person there, and his company did seem the sort to have good aim.
‘Have you come to kill me?’ Anders asked, while thinking, many times over, please say no.
‘No,’ the elf replied.
Anders didn’t relax. How could he? Lantern light was glinting off the tip of the blade, somewhere low, beneath the elf’s knees, and the rush of lyrium—curious, heady, distracting, not to mention the exact same stuff templars used to subdue mages just like Anders all the bloody time—wasn’t helping the distant build of his unwieldy panic. Just as unwieldy as that sword, in fact, but not nearly so helpful in a pinch.
‘Are you sure about that?’ Anders asked. ‘I think, if you are… I think I’d rather know. No—no, that’s a lie, I wouldn’t rather know. I’ve changed my mind, and I don’t want to see it coming. I don’t want to die either, not even the slightest bit, but if I have to, then I really don’t want to be prepared for it. Just standing here in the doorway to this awful clinic cringing, waiting for the blow—that’s no way to go, now is it?’
‘I am not here to kill you,’ the elf insisted, and even had the decency—or the audacity—to seem baffled by the assumption. Then, that furrow of his brow was gone, banished with all the other shadows that hardened his face: the long, oblique ones slanting across the side of his jaw and throat, and the countless others in miniature, sliding alongside the lyrium veins that wove beautiful, terrible patterns over his chin and neck.
Anders rubbed at the stubble on his own skin, tracing the shape of his jaw, where the tattoo might lie—tucked just beneath the swell of his lower lip. Then, the elf caught him at it—not self-consciously, but with something that seemed dangerously close to a snarl—and Anders dropped his hand at once, putting it out of sight and, hopefully, out of mind.
‘I don’t suppose you could tell me why you are here, though,’ Anders ventured. He almost stepped in the puddle, and retracted his foot a mere second before it descended in the wrong place with an embarrassing squelch. ‘…Ah. Barebones, condemning silence. Just what I thought. Excellent.’
After that, silence really did fall, a twitchy sort—or maybe that was just the elf—while Anders fought the urge to mimic each movement, the sway of his body from side to side. It was hypnotic, almost, distractingly so, and Anders wondered how—out of the two of them—the elf with the armor and the sword was the one who felt he had the right to act uncomfortable.
‘Well,’ Anders said. His staff was just there, behind the second door, hidden in the darkness, ready and waiting for him to make use of it; he could have reached out for it, but that would have been a clear act of obvious aggression, and he wasn’t prepared to go that far. Not tonight. Not with no witnesses, and his back hurting, and Karl doing all the real work, while probably not wanting to return to a pile of blasted rubble and a butchered friend in the center of the carnage.
Instead, Anders crossed his arms over his chest, and tried to look casual, the opposite of aggressive, certainly more defensive than offensive. Or so he hoped. ‘That’s it, then, is it? Nothing to report on here—as you can see for yourself. Just a lonely healer—by your own admission—who talks too much. Annoying? That’s nothing I haven’t heard before. But important…? Hardly. No guards, no companions, no one to protect me when people like you come around. But all that’s because there isn’t anything to protect. So you can tell that to your employer, whoever he is, and tell him to stop wasting your time, while you’re at it.’
The elf’s lips seemed to twitch—not a snarl, though the expression was too sheathed in uneven, half-hearted light for Anders to tell what else it was—before he looked away, having decided Anders was no more worth his time than he was worth expending any real energy or wariness. It would have been the perfect opportunity for a braver, more reckless man to launch his attack.
But Anders’s lack of bravery hindered the scope of his recklessness; it always had. He no more wanted to launch an attack than he wanted to march up to Knight-Commander Meredith herself and tell her the situation with the Gallows was untenable, and also, she looked very silly in that armored headband.
It did look ridiculous, especially at certain angles. But Anders had always favored his life over the truth—which was why Karl had started a mage revolution in Kirkwall while Anders was merely tagging along for the ride.
In all honesty, he’d more than half expected the elf to leave. While he certainly seemed dangerous, and carried a large sword, he also didn’t appear inclined to do Anders or the clinic any immediate, physical harm. It was actually encouraging, as Anders really didn’t want to have to explain to Karl why he was returning home to a burnt out shell of his former hovel.
At least it might have made things cleaner. Fire did have a sanitizing effect.
When the elf did not leave—when instead he let out a sudden breath, like a blacksmith’s bellows being squeezed too quick and too tight—Anders startled, nearly tripping over the doorjamb. Large, green eyes were fixed on him once more, demanding answers where Anders was already certain he had none.
Anyway, wasn’t it the privilege of the surveillance target to ask the questions about why he was under surveillance? Anything else just seemed unfair.
‘Have you noticed another elf about?’ The words left the elf’s mouth slowly, reminding Anders of whenever he dredged his boots out of thick, cloying, Fereldan mud. ‘Near your clinic—or inside of it?’
‘I’ve noticed you,’ Anders said. It was too easy a reply, and probably not the one his armored elf friend was looking for, but Anders had never been able to resist a straight line.
In fact, that tendency probably had something to do with his immense unpopularity back home, in even the townships without direct chantry influence.
The elf frowned, pink mouth turning harsh as he drew his lips into an even flatter line. ‘No. Not me. We are not all alike, despite what most shemlen seem to believe.’ He paused. It didn’t last. There was something more he wanted; Anders found himself intrigued, despite his better judgment, of which he had very little in the first place. ‘…She would be a woman. Shorter, with red hair.’ He passed a hand over his own, white as thistledown, demonstrating the obvious difference.
Now that was interesting. A friend, perhaps—or something more. People came to the clinic all the time asking after their loved ones, but it was normally Fereldans, separated on the boats and hoping for a reunion—or, less heart-warming, wondering if the love of their life had been stepping out on them with a handsome raider or someone at the Rose, picking up a few unfortunate, itchy diseases only the free clinic could cure.
But as far as Anders knew, they hadn’t treated very many elves. And no gingers—Anders would have remembered one of those.
‘No,’ Anders admitted. When he had an unpleasant answer to give, he found it was better to get it over with straightaway. Silences, for whatever reason, tended to breed hope, and hope always bred disappointment. ‘I can’t say that I have. But it’s still possible the lady-friend you’re looking for was here at some point. With the amount of traffic we get, sometimes they all start to bleed together after a while. Shameful, isn’t it?’ Anders cleared his throat, remembering he wasn’t talking to a friend—and also, that the elf still bore his massive sword. ‘Is she a—friend of yours? I could keep my eyes open. Can’t break confidentiality, of course, but then, since you look like you could break so many of my bones—’
‘No,’ the elf said, far too quickly. He looked away, shoulders twitching together against an invisible onslaught. ‘That won’t be necessary.’
Just as Anders was beginning to wonder whether he oughtn’t invite the elf in for tea—to quell the last of his potentially murderous impulses, perhaps with a bit of elfroot slipped in to make him drowsy and warm and less violent—he turned on his bare heel and started off without so much as a backward glance, certainly without the courtesy of a thank you or even a goodbye.
‘Wait—’ Anders called, clearly self-destructive, at this point. ‘If you change your mind, you can ask for Anders. That’s me, most days of the week. And I’m always here, rain or shine. …Not that a pesky little thing like weather makes much of a difference down in this place.’
The elf froze; even at a distance, Anders could see him bristle, like a cat in the corner whose tail had been trodden on. He looked over his shoulder, eyebrows disappearing beneath the fall of his hair. For a moment, it seemed he wouldn’t answer.
Then his lip curled, eyes turning ground-ward.
Bare feet were always a mistake in Darktown. Anders could have warned him about that, though he didn’t seem the sort inclined to listen.
‘I am called Fenris,’ he said finally, something dark coloring his voice. Anders leaned against the doorframe, fingers stilling atop a plucked thread at his wear-worn elbow, while Fenris resumed his retreat through the muck and slumbering drunkards that made up most of Darktown’s streets. If they could even be called streets, anymore, since they were primarily made of sewage.
Anders watched him leave, studying the slender line of his back, the flicker of white where the lyrium tattoos appeared between the gaps in his armor. In Kirkwall, it was possible to see something new every day, despite the routine horrors that it presented, casually, as though every calamity should in fact be considered commonplace.
Fenris, Anders decided at last, seemed more like a threat than a name.
But at least it was something to go on.
It had been a mistake to mention Varania at all.
Leto’s sister had instincts similar to Athenril’s; they were just as sharp, just as merciless, and despite its seeming implausibility, she would know, somehow and some day, that her health, her whereabouts, her actions, had been inquired after. That it was her own brother conducting the inquiry would make that revelation worse, not better.
She, like Leto, did not appreciate feeling followed.
Varania had her reasons; they both did. Leto knew it was a mistake to trespass on them, and the information he’d received for his efforts—unhelpful as it was, threadbare as the healer’s funny coat—offered him little consolation. Whether or not Varania had actually been there was unclear; Leto knew no more than when he’d visited, and also, was troubled by what he’d given away in that moment of personal indulgence.
Curiosity was not his ideal weapon. It undid his defenses as quickly as it gave away his hand, weakening his offense just as neatly, and Athenril would have called him on it, were she not otherwise distracted by current news.
‘Well, the templars are spitting mad,’ she said, picking some invisible part of her lunch from out of her teeth. She was pacing, as well, back and forth between two empty crates; on top of those crates was a collection of forged papers, the contents of which Leto could barely make out, only a few familiar letters Varania had tried, once, to teach him. But remembrance of any kind was not his strong suit. When they attempted to learn together, they argued even worse than ever, and soon they abandoned the project as pointless. Which it was.
Leto looked away from the forgeries, over Athenril’s shoulder, to the distant, pale sky.
In Hightown, it was possible to believe—if one did not know better—that the sky was clear and the sun bright in each of Kirkwall’s districts. But it was not; low smog hung in the air today throughout Lowtown, and in Darktown, the sun couldn’t be seen at all.
‘All right, I know that look,’ Athenril continued. ‘‘When aren’t the templars spitting mad, Athenril?’ But this time I’m guessing they might just have reason to be. Four Gallows mages busted out last night, Fenris. Four’s a big number. Not when it comes to sovereigns, but people…’
Leto thought of the reactions such an event would bring: templars patrolling the streets double-time, the glint of their armor far more noticeable—and far more effective—than any the city guardsmen wore. Templars did not like to overlook anyone; they liked to lose what they had not overlooked even less. This would cause trouble, though for the time being, Athenril saw only new difficulties presented in keeping her business alive and well, the unpredicted interference in passing contraband through the sewers.
Once the balance of the city was upset, it swung with uneven keel for some time afterward, while all the underlings scrambled to adjust to added muscle in the streets.
‘And to think,’ Athenril concluded, shaking her head with a low whistle, ‘that it all happened before I saw it coming. Must’ve been while I was sleeping.’
‘And when was that?’ Leto asked.
Athenril shrugged. ‘Everything here changes while you blink, Fenris. Couple of hours pass while you’re dreaming, and you barely recognize the place.’ Her eyes were bright, expression taut; Leto folded his arms and waited for her understanding to become his understanding. ‘But something tells me it’s not quite as mysterious as it all seems. What can you tell me about the clinic last night?’
‘It was kept dark and near empty,’ Leto repeated. He had wondered when she would ask him for further information, slim as it was, personal as it had become, and none of it useful. ‘Again, I saw only one healer, the same as before. He attempted to make conversation, and I—’ Athenril arched a brow. ‘—I am not conspicuous,’ Leto concluded, while Athenril stopped her pacing, and indulged in an ungainly snort.
‘No,’ she agreed. ‘And you’re not a conversationalist, either. That’s fine. I don’t hire you to talk. But you talked with him anyway, huh?’
‘It was unavoidable,’ Leto said, though he was far from proud of it.
‘Right. Whatever. You had a nice chat with the one idiot running an entire clinic for every refugee in Darktown.’ Athenril shooed someone else away, a hired hand depositing goods and eager for payment; he lingered like a shadow in the back of Leto’s mind, not forgotten, since there was always the possibility he might do something rash.
Men, Leto had learned early, would sacrifice anything for money. Family, friends, honor—even limbs. That need made them careless, impatient, not to mention gave them delusions of immortality, and there had been more than one occasion in which Athenril required unforeseen protection against her own hired muscle.
Leto never hesitated. What he owed her was not simply his life, but Varania’s, and that compounded debt into necessity.
‘Aside from how well your little assignment didn’t work out,’ Athenril continued, ‘the numbers don’t add up. I’ve heard there are two healers down there, but you’ve only ever seen one. Now, unless something’s gone wrong with your eyes I don’t know about—’
‘There has not,’ Leto assured her.
‘—then what I want to know is: where was the other healer last night?’ Athenril let that sink in. When Leto understood her meaning at last, she arched a brow and nodded, once, for impact’s sake. ‘And there you go. Hey, I don’t stay alive by not thinking all the time, all right? This isn’t a coincidence. Free clinic starts up out of nowhere, everybody’s got a stake in it somehow, and now somebody’s sneaking mages out of the Gallows, right out from underneath the Knight-Commander’s nose. It all adds up, and there’s money in it somewhere. Reward money.’
‘…For returning the escaped mages,’ Leto said. Just to be sure.
Athenril watched him, more closely than ever. He did not enjoy scrutiny, but he’d learned—after so much practice—to weather it. ‘You have a problem with that, Fenris?’ she asked.
He’d wondered at that very question before, more than enough times to know he had no answer for it.
‘What would you have me do?’ he said instead, while Varania’s words haunted him, as they so often did. What he chose to question out loud, and what he did not.
‘Something like this, you’ve got to get in at ground level—before the Coterie gets a whiff of the money involved.’ Athenril tugged at one of her leather vambraces, bare fingers wiggling in the midday sun. ‘You follow me?’
‘You want to get in on liberating mages from the Gallows?’ Leto asked. Just saying the words sent a trickle of distaste down his spine.
The unswerving gaze of Knight Commander Meredith and her templars chafed him more than Athenril could ever know, but that did not mean he was eager to draw their ire.
There was more than his own selfish pride to contend with. Actions, just like words, could be committed in the name of a cause and still amount to nothing in the end. Varania’s safety came before their shared desire for freedom; living hidden in Kirkwall was still a step up from living as slaves in the Imperium.
‘Hey—I know that look, all right?’ Athenril held up her hands to ward off his ill-tempered gaze. ‘If you’re not interested, I can always find someone else to do the trick. Someone sloppy, who’ll probably wash up on the docks with his throat cut three days from now, but I’d hate to put you out. Make you…uncomfortable.’
Leto frowned a second time, deeper than the first. He’d been with Athenril long enough to know when she’d turned to sarcasm. Normally, it was brought on by too little sleep, or a string of profitless jobs—the usual pests that plagued her, along with guardsmen, coterie, Carta, and other senseless fools, always in abundance. Her outfit was able to negotiate quicker deals by not having higher-ups to deal with, a bureaucracy of cutthroats—but in the end she was still an independent contractor in a city with two large underworld organizations already vying for control.
That had to lead to some headaches.
These politics—illegitimate as they were—had never been Leto’s concern, but Athenril’s continued prosperity was. If she had no work for him, then he would be forced to look elsewhere.
And, he was beginning to suspect, at some recent point he’d become too old for that.
It was already difficult enough to find employers willing to hire an elf, especially without recommendation, especially without history. An employee who lacked credentials would always be met with a lack of trust.
Leto had little doubt about the quality of life he and Varania would enjoy if Athenril’s competitors managed to muscle her out.
He scratched an idle itch at his elbow, along a vein of lyrium and dipping just beneath the tight line of leather. What Athenril did not factor in to her equation was the impression he’d made on the healer—it had been a poor one, but not entirely insurmountable. No one spoke that much to a person they’d made up their mind to hate, and the mage—this Anders—had been full to the brim with redundant conversation.
Perhaps he was lonely, or a little mad, but that changed nothing. He would be Leto’s connection into the organization—and a fine one, at that, if simultaneously loquacious.
‘It cannot be traced back to us,’ Leto said finally. He swallowed, mouth dry as he hoped he would not be forced to elaborate. They had no company now; no one had interrupted them since Athenril’s latest lackey, although Leto was wary of every distant burst of laughter and coarse conversation, always mindful of the possibility that others might be lurking nearby. A man learned quickly in Kirkwall to cast his hearing a bit longer than his shadow. At any moment, another smuggler might turn up, tossing Athenril her cut before squandering his at the Rose.
That was why Athenril did business so close to the brothel. It kept her associates coming back for more.
But Leto didn’t need any strangers overhearing valuable information: that he had a sister, one who’d be worth some coin, if her situation was whispered into the right ears.
He’d cut those ears off before he’d let them take her, but it was prudent to avoid that kind of trouble altogether.
In Kirkwall, tongues always wagged. And gossip had the unfortunate habit of spreading.
Athenril’s face eased into a smile. It didn’t touch her eyes—but then, such expressions rarely did. ‘Why Fenris,’ she said, crossing her arms in satisfaction, ‘you know I think you’re better than that. In fact, you’re the best I’ve got, which is why I’m putting you on such a difficult job. It’ll be a gamble, but the best ones always pay off. In this business, you’ve got to take risks if you want to come out on top.’
She rapped her knuckles against the side of a crate, mimicking the elvhen habit of touching their vhenadhal for luck.
Leto felt like telling her to gamble with her own safety and not Varania’s, but he let the impulse fade. They had few enough allies in Kirkwall as it was, without him angering the best of the lot.
Now it seemed he was tasked with making one more. Recalling the way the healer—Anders—had reacted to his appearance, Leto realized he would have to make some minimal changes if he wanted to be taken more seriously.
And if he had any luck left at all, Anders would not ask after the red-haired elf Leto had been thoughtless enough to mention in the first place.
The first thing Leto shed was the sword. It lay across his untouched cot, joined by the threatening spikes of his leather pauldrons, a detail wrought for intimidation Leto knew he could do without them both. Varania would see the sword when she returned from Nyssa’s stall in the evening, and she would of course wonder at his reasons for leaving it behind, but she wouldn’t have to worry, at the very least.
They both knew that Leto didn’t need a weapon to do damage. That was his curse and his gift, the preternatural strength burned into his muscle by his final master—just before they’d fled his distracted clutches. If matters took a turn for the worse, Leto was always confident in his ability to defend himself.
And it would help his cause if he did not approach the clinic like he was heading into battle.
That was what had tripped him up the first time. Leto never repeated a mistake—not if he could help it.
He was not the sort of hired hand who felt as though he was naked without his armor; he’d always chosen to keep it light, as speed was his greatest ally. That, and—as Athenril did so enjoy calling it—the magical fisting thing. What such a phrase lacked in severity was compensated for only by Athenril’s tone; the words might have been in jest, but their intent wasn’t. Leto allowed it for that reason alone, and he never once questioned the clear usefulness of this talent, just as he never questioned its obvious burden.
He stuck out. Even amongst a collection of wretched city elves, scabrous and unclean, he had never fit in, though their backhanded whispers and obvious chit-chat were the least of his concerns. So were oblique looks or even outright staring.
A gaze, he told himself, was not a sword or an arrow. It did not hurt.
It was only when that conspicuousness made him an obvious mark that it posed any real problem, and Leto dealt with that by being Fenris—Athenril’s greatest living weapon, her favorite man on the scene. As for the rest, he preferred to operate in the darkness for a reason, and not simply because he needed no lamp to light his way through the shadows.
Leto paused on his way past the vhenadhal, feeling no desire to touch it, nor bow his head to the candles lit by its knotted trunk. Some other members of the alienage—for whom he did and did not feel any real affinity—were doing so, on their way home from their petty jobs and dalliances, allowing themselves to close their eyes and smell, beyond even the brack and brine, the hint of incense and melting wax, the memory of earth and woodlands that reminded them of a home they’d never truly known.
It should have meant more to him than it ever did.
At times, returning from a long day—dried blood stiffening the cracks in his leather chest-piece—Leto caught Varania there, with Nyssa or some other nameless companion or, more often, alone, searching for meaning in the action, in the roots. If it gave her peace, then Leto was grateful for it. They had accepted her, these people, presumably their people, but for all Leto understood their helplessness he could not commit himself to it in the same way.
Despite the templars’ rigorous actions in the past few years, some apostates yet remained; that the elves of Kirkwall were consigned to this separate place and ignored for it did help, in the occasional way. They had not been dragged, to the tears of their few remaining family members or beaten lovers, to serve their time in the Gallows proper, and Leto told himself it was not these people he was betraying.
Athenril felt no ties to anyone. It was, as she pointed out so often, the only key to maintaining her success.
Then, with a huff of breath—nothing more than hot air in hot air—Fenris turned his back on the scene, the glow of the candles and the sharp red burn of the incense, and left the place behind, only his purpose and Darktown ahead of him.
There was a child in Anders’s lap.
‘More,’ it said, demanded, really, a thick line of something runny streaking the dirt between its nose and upper lip. It had a face—and a body—so covered in filth and grime that Anders could no more determine its sex than he could its age. Anders bounced it on his knee a bit higher, dangerously high, while—behind a fall of dirty tarpaulin stretched between two rickety poles—Karl tended to its mother, and Anders tried to drown out the noises she was making by whatever means possible.
Those means, for better or ill, were reading the moppet the nearest book to hand.
‘‘Guardsman Jeven,’’ Anders began, enjoying the role of stubborn ginger warrior far too much, ‘‘I cannot condone your methods or your means. But if you stand your ground here, prepare to meet justice at the edge of my blade!’ While Aveline Vallen’s voice rang clear as the forge-hammer through the halls of the Viscount’s Keep, her fellow guardsmen—none of whom had half the strength she possessed in her smallest finger—refused to involve themselves in her bravado or her affairs…’
Hard in Hightown wasn’t appropriate for a child of any age—probably not for some adults, considering the amount of prudishness Anders had encountered in his lifetime—but neither was listening to a parent weep. Anders had chosen the lesser of two obvious evils; he could only hope, when the mother convalesced, she didn’t discover the deviance her son-or-daughter had been exposed to. And at a healer’s hand, no less.
At least she couldn’t withhold payment. Because, of course, no one paid anyone around here, save for in the occasional cup of hot tea and warm buns from Lirene, which found their way into the clinic regardless of rousing success or crushing defeat.
‘More,’ the child demanded, as though Anders wasn’t trying to do just that, and would have continued so much better, if only he wasn’t constantly being interrupted by a certain someone.
‘Yes, I am reading more,’ Anders agreed. ‘Very astute observation. However, this isn’t a combined effort, you know. One person reads; the other listens. No participation from the audience; I’m afraid it’s not that kind of story.’
‘More bouncing,’ the child explained. It seemed to think that part of its ordinance was painfully obvious, and for a moment Anders felt embarrassed, cornered, defeated by a creature less than one-fifth his age.
‘Fine then.’ Anders sniffed, flipping the pages. ‘We’ll just read the bit about Guardsman Aveline meeting the dashing apostate in the sewers, the bit with all the giant spiders, and see how you like it then, with their wiggly legs and their sharp, deadly pincers—’
The child squealed in delight while Anders abandoned the book, and his pride, and any last shreds of dignity. And the sound of the little snot laughing drowned out any other noises—of pain, perhaps, ragged and tremulous beyond the equally ragged and tremulous partition.
Hard in Hightown itself fell to the ground; the child kicked Anders in the shin, laughed in his face, then scampered off into parts unknown, an obvious invitation to play some sort of hiding-and-seeking game.
‘Here,’ a deep voice said, returning the book to Anders’s line of vision.
‘Thank you,’ Anders muttered, brushing some of the dust off the jacket before his fingers found purchase. ‘At least someone around here has some manners.’
‘Indeed,’ the voice muttered, as dark hands—veined with lyrium, not cracked with mining dust—slipped out of Anders’s sight.
With a rising sense of foreboding, he looked up—tearing off the bandage quickly, as it were—and into the face of the elf who’d dogged the clinic just yesterday. Fenris was the name he’d left behind, along with a legacy of anxious dreams and twitching at shadows.
Anders had mentioned his first visit to Karl, but not his second.
It had been far too strange an encounter; Anders himself didn’t know what to make of it, let alone how to report the specifics to someone else. And especially not Karl, who didn’t have the time to sleep or eat these days, much less contemplate great elvhen mysteries.
‘Just couldn’t stay away, could you?’ Anders said. He wiped his hands against his thighs and set the book aside, doing everything he could not to feel like a tortoise retreating into its shell. For one, his robes weren’t large enough for that; they’d probably tear. And, unfortunately, the feathers at his shoulders didn’t puff up to hide his face whenever he was feeling nervous. ‘You’re…inside. Not that it’s hard to get in, when we’re open—I suppose you worked out how to use the door at last?’
The elf grunted, a bare expulsion of breath, but nothing more.
Anders realized, a beat off his usual timing, that was all he was going to get. ‘…But as you can see for yourself, I really wasn’t lying when I said we had nothing to steal,’ he added. From somewhere in the distance—although not distant enough for Anders’s comfort—his new best friend the violently dirty child let out a wicked giggle. ‘Unless you’re in the market for a few urchins? We’ve loads of those.’ He lowered his voice, leaning in, which i brought him that much closer to the elf—such proximity made Fenris recoil, but Anders couldn’t stop himself. As per usual. ‘I have it on good authority that most of their parents wouldn’t even miss them.’
Fenris’s mouth twitched to one side, a neat furrow forming between his heavy brows as he tried to suss out whether Anders was having him on. So not much of a sense of humor, there—Anders filed that information away for later, not that it would prevent him from making all ill-advised jokes in the future.
But at least he’d know what to expect.
In truth, Fenris’s appearance marked the most interesting thing that had happened to him that day. Despite Anders’s current behavior—which, as always, fell somewhere in the realm of ‘abominable’—he wasn’t actually looking to scare Fenris off immediately. He liked interesting things, interesting people, and Fenris’s eyes were the color of deep shade in the forest, darker still than the night before. There was also an intriguing uncertainty to his posture, the way he clutched at one elbow, shifting his weight from his left foot to the right, same as when he was on official patrol.
Anders wondered whether it all had something to do with the ginger he’d mentioned previously. They’d seen hide nor hair of her yet, although Anders hadn’t thought to ask Karl or Malcolm about any redheaded elves hanging about. Both his colleagues would have been far too interested in the origin of the question; none of them liked it much when Anders didn’t have a ready answer for them.
‘Sooo,’ Anders began brightly.
Fenris startled, as though Anders had loosed a bolt of lightning at his toes instead of initiating a simple conversation. Then he frowned—at himself, presumably—before squaring his shoulders.
He wasn’t wearing the pauldrons today, Anders noted, but somehow, he didn’t look any less intimidating without them.
‘I—wish to make myself available for work,’ Fenris said.
There it was, then, and with no further prompting. No the weather certainly is sultry down here or what is that tremendous smell; are you by any chance keeping dead bodies in the back for compost?
Surely there was no one else mad enough to work in Karl’s clinic without any promise of monetary recompense. Just Karl, the apostate with all the plans, and Anders, the apostate without a clue.
Anders blinked. He peered around Fenris’s un-spiked shoulder, to see just how long Karl planned on dawdling with the urchin’s mother. Strangely enough, he both wanted assistance in this conversation while at the same time wishing to keep it entirely to himself.
When everyone complained about his contrary nature, Anders wished they understood a little more about how deeply he suffered from it.
‘I see,’ Anders said, unable to glean anything useful from Karl’s demeanor, which was calm and unhurried as always, broad back to them, washing his hands in a nearby bucket. Then, Anders couldn’t help looking Fenris up and down, noting his lack of enormous sword that afternoon, or even any weapon, despite the continued presence of his armored gauntlets. It seemed he’d made some sort of effort to appear less threatening, although even Fenris seemed a bit confused as to what impression he was trying to give off. ‘That’s…very helpful of you, Fenris. I’d never have guessed you were a healer—although I suppose that’s the idea, isn’t it? I never thought of dressing up like a warrior, myself… But then, I haven’t the back for carrying around two-handed swords, so maybe that’s why?’
Pale light shimmered beneath Fenris’s skin, gleaming along the lyrium markings that marred his dark flesh. The sharp, unexpected tang of pure magic directly from the Fade made Anders’s skin feel warm, the arcane power within him responding to something it recognized in another. His pulse rose rapidly, pounding like a templar’s armored footsteps within his chest.
‘I am no mage,’ Fenris murmured. His hand clenched into a fist, and he shook it out, flexing his steel-tipped fingers.
Anders swallowed. The lyrium’s song was already fading, but its suddenness had made it difficult for him to breathe, much less concentrate.
‘Yes,’ he managed, after a moment. ‘I believe you.’
Without further provocation, Anders stood, nodding toward the back of the room and hoping Fenris would have the wherewithal to follow. This didn’t seem like a conversation it would be prudent to have in front of the clinic patients, whose second favorite pastime—the first being ‘bleeding out all over the sawdust’—was indulging in ludicrous gossip.
Anders trusted them all as much as he needed to, but the value of lyrium was inestimable these days, what with the prices being constantly run up by clever smugglers. And if anyone got even a whiff of the idea that an elf was walking around with the viscount’s fortune twice over tattooed onto his body, he’d be skinned and left for dead by morning. It was just good business.
Part of working for the poor was knowing exactly what they were capable of—or really, what anyone was capable of, when he was that desperate. Anders did no one any favors by pretending otherwise, least of all himself.
There was a small room in the back of the clinic; that was where Anders slept, and where Karl was supposed to sleep, a few narrow cots and a table for meals Anders took alone, cups of tea he drank alone, reading he did alone in the darkness, squinting hard by the flickering light of a single, decrepit candle. He only had a certain amount of time each night before the candle ran down to the well-measured cut in the wick, at which point Anders stumbled across the room and fell into his bed and lay awake with his eyes focused on the bed-frame above him, waiting for Karl to return from his latest daring escapade.
Or not return—something that was bound to happen eventually, according to even the best gambler’s odds.
But Anders didn’t like to think of that.
In the daytime, the room was actually somewhat bright, with real ventilation, a slim grate in the high wall far above letting in light and air—the latter not necessarily fresh, but at least it was something to breathe. Anders gestured for Fenris to sit in that shaft of authentic sunlight, but Fenris remained standing, arms still crossed over his chest, occasionally pulsing with a nervous glow.
‘All right, well, I’m going to sit,’ Anders said, ‘because that’s the normal thing to do in this situation—the decent thing, really—and I so rarely get a chance to.’
‘You were sitting before,’ Fenris pointed out.
Anders sniffed. ‘But I was also bouncing,’ he explained. ‘Hardly relaxing. Or easy—I think that child eats rocks for supper. You wouldn’t think someone so scrawny could be quite so heavy… Maybe it’s just that I don’t like being poked by so many obvious bones.’
Even after he settled himself into the chair, and popped the angry joint in his lower back, Anders didn’t feel more comfortable—probably because Fenris was currently looming over him, and the memory of his sword, his armor, the reality of his gauntlets, were still all too real. Anders glanced up, then down again, staring at the cracked backs of his own, bare fingers, before stealing a quick peek at the dull shine on Fenris’s finger-guards.
‘Look,’ Anders said, ‘it’s not as though we have…papers for this sort of thing. Something to sign, anything official. People don’t generally join up. They don’t want to, you see, because doing so would be awful for them.’
There was also the little issue of the clinic’s night-time business, its work on-the-side and on-the-sly; that made things even more difficult, but Anders wasn’t so lonely—so desperate for conversation with adults, who weren’t runny with snot or begging him to bounce them on one knee like a wild bronto—that he’d bring all that up.
Karl’s secrecy was torture at the best of times, even when Anders had no one to spill all those secrets to, but it also had its reasons. Whenever Anders thought about Karl being trapped in the Gallows for all his efforts, for all his brazen acts of kindness, his throat closed up, much the same way it did with each surge of distant lyrium.
Lyrium always reminded him of templars. Templars always reminded him of why he hated templars. And so on.
‘…Besides which,’ Anders added, casting a nervous gaze to the door, wondering when Karl would indulge in his impeccable timing and rescue him from this awkward anti-recruitment speech, ‘since you aren’t a healer, I’m not sure what you could expect do here. Unless you’re good with children—but I find that people who wear mean gauntlets all the time generally aren’t. Just an observation, not a judgment. Please don’t hurt me with your claws.’
Fenris tutted and twitched the claws in question; Anders hoped he was doing the right thing by driving him off. Or trying to drive him off. Perhaps he needed to mention there was no pretty ginger elf for miles around, and if he was looking for one, he might try the alienage, or—at the very least—the Dalish encampment rumored to be at the base of Sundermount.
‘I am informed that there has been…trouble, here,’ Fenris explained.
‘Can’t imagine what gave you that idea,’ Anders replied. ‘Was it all the bleeding people? The screams of agony? The distinct lack of anything but dust and garbage in the donation box?’
‘Kirkwall is no safe place for apostates,’ Fenris added, with a dark, private look that seemed to mean something just as personal as it was unreadable. ‘All that stands between you and the Gallows is the rivalry between Carta and Coterie. Even now, they fight one another for the right to turn you in, and for whatever reward they will gain by doing so.’
‘Now, don’t discount the sturdy wall of bluff Fereldan supporters,’ Anders said. His voice didn’t sound as hopeful as he’d wanted it to.
‘No.’ Fenris’s fingers twitched again. ‘They stand only for themselves. That is the way of it, in Kirkwall.’
Now it was Anders’s turn to feel his fingers twitch, weary, against the edge of the table, which he was gripping far too hard. He eased the clench of his white knuckles, and rubbed at the stubble along his jaw, a tidy motion to keep his hands busy. ‘That’s a lovely life-view you have, Fenris. True, of course—painfully true. But did you have to say it out loud? Couldn’t we have all just gone on pretending it isn’t that dire?’
‘Anders,’ Karl said from the doorway, a familiar voice heard always at just the right moment, ‘you know how I hate hearing that word before lunchtime.’ The latch fell shut, and Anders turned gratefully—and the whole situation was as absurd as it seemed, but no longer as lonely.
‘Hello, Karl,’ he said. ‘This is the elf I was telling you about. He likes to say depressing things and carry big swords and volunteer in free clinics. Apparently.’
‘I was not volunteering to work in the clinic,’ Fenris clarified, folding his arms again, neatly, in front of his chest. Anders thought he could almost hear his armor resettling, like a beetle’s carapace closing over its vulnerable wings.
Fenris hadn’t been relaxed with him, but there was a difference between that patrolling distance and the way he behaved now, even more brittle, in front of a new stranger. But Anders hadn’t ever been the man to put people at ease—that had always been Karl’s duty, and while it was admittedly satisfying to see their roles reversed for once, it was also far beyond Anders’s scope, his comprehension.
It just didn’t make sense.
‘No?’ Karl passed a hand over his graying beard, pausing to rub his palm against the sharpest point, thumb on stiff bristles. ‘That would make a great deal more sense than what Anders just told me, I must admit. There’s no shortage of people who aren’t volunteering to work in the clinic. In fact, you’ll find them in droves just outside this door.’
Anders had to turn away to hide the smile tugging at the corner of his mouth, hiding his hiccup of a giggle with a cough. Normally he didn’t care to conceal the fact that he was laughing at someone, but Fenris seemed even more sensitive than most, just like cats always knew—and their moods always soured—whenever someone thought they were funny. And Anders was still possessed of enough self-preservation that he didn’t want to anger the dangerous elf with the mean-looking gauntlets.
Karl could afford to do it, because Karl wasn’t afraid of anything.
‘You will find more than those waiting for you in droves outside, if you know where to look,’ Fenris said. Karl’s attempts at humor had either gone right over his head, or he’d chosen to ignore them completely. ‘The Carta has taken a vested interest in your presence here—through no actions of your own, but solely because their chief competitor, the Coterie, has had eyes on you since the beginning. Attention breeds more of the same, and in a place like this, the price for talking will quickly become more attractive than a held tongue and a clear conscience.’
‘Ah,’ Anders said, not altogether certain of where he was leading.
‘We don’t respond well to threats,’ Karl added, as though he thought Fenris was speaking prophetically. As though all this was actually a bit of strong-arming, and Anders was the only one who hadn’t noticed. ‘I doubt we’d have lasted too long in this particular spot, if we did.’
Fenris huffed, pinching the bridge of his straightforwardly elvhen nose. Anders wondered it didn’t hurt, considering the armor on his fingers. Then again, warriors like Fenris were so blithe when it came to pain, their own—or someone else’s.
‘It is not a threat,’ Fenris muttered. When he lowered his hand, he seemed weary—or perhaps it was merely the heat. Darktown in summer could be troublesome for newcomers—cold at night and hot during the day, and always smelling of rotten, fetid things that had cooked too long next to too many bodies. The back room, at least, was as clean as Anders could manage it, but even then, it was far from ideal. ‘I have assessed your situation and found it precarious. It was not my intent to volunteer services in the clinic, but rather as a bodyguard.’
He paused, letting his words drift through the humid air like lazy flies, waiting from them to reach their intended target. Karl made a noise of interest in the back of his throat while Anders was still trying to wrap his mind around the idea.
All he could think about were templar swords and templar steel, and how enormous Fenris’s weapon had been—what a difference it would make, standing between Karl and Malcolm when they needed it most.
Fenris moved like a warrior. Anders had treated enough of them to know the signs, the wary instincts that caused a man to look for exits in every room before he entered it, the distance he kept between himself and other people—just enough to fend off any unexpected blow, if one came.
In Kirkwall—at least according to Hard in Hightown—one always did.
And of course, he was right—the odds were bad. It was never an even battle when mages came up against templars in close range, especially if they couldn’t risk drawing attention with some powerful spell, one that would also be equally dangerous to all parties in the cramped sewer tunnels. What the mage underground needed was a few good swords.
It wasn’t something Anders had ever found the voice to discuss with Karl, certainly not with Malcolm, but now the offer had landed practically in their laps. The least they could do was bounce it around a bit, see how it all worked out.
Not that Fenris had offered to help with the mage underground. All he knew about—presumably, hopefully—was the clinic at its front. But anyone with the skill to keep any amount of trouble off their backs was a welcome presence, and not having to worry about the clinic’s troubles would give them more time to focus on their real work.
Karl should have been thrilled. But he didn’t look it.
‘That’s very generous of you,’ he said. ‘I feel obligated to point out that volunteering would be exactly the right term. We run a free clinic here, without the resources to pay someone of your caliber. It’d be beneath your considerable skills, I’m sure.’
Fenris smiled; it was a funny expression, lips stiff and pursed. It looked as though he’d tasted something sour. In Darktown, that was never out of the question. ‘I am an elf. Perhaps you know something of this already from your time in this city, but there is very little work that can be considered beneath us.’ He licked his lips to wet them, glancing toward Anders before he continued. ‘…Your cause is one that I support. It is—personal to me.’
‘Oh,’ Anders said, realization blossoming like a burst of blood against clean bandages. ‘It’s the redhead, isn’t it? The one you were looking for—she’s a ginger apostate. Those are always the best.’
Karl arched a brow; Fenris did the opposite, something dark marring the handsome lines of his face. If Anders thought he’d soured before, he’d been wrong. This was far worse, a curdling look, a refusal of all sentiment, followed by a burden of scrutiny that made Anders’s fingers twitch, reaching for a staff that wasn’t there.
If looks could kill, Anders thought, then that one would have been an outright assault. Not even a good-natured fist-fight, either, but a throat-slitting.
‘That is none of your concern,’ Fenris said at last, turning away with a curt nod in Karl’s direction. When he moved, the air itself thickened and strained, pulled after the force of his tension, and when he paused in the doorway, one sharp hand on the frame, Anders felt gravity itself cease and desist, uncertain, hazy as the heat before a summer storm. ‘Your position is precarious here,’ he concluded, without turning around to look at them. ‘These are no ordinary templars.’
Then, just like that, he was gone, striding between the refugees, moving past Lirene—who shot Anders so dark a look it felt like a firebolt square in the chest.
‘Well, Anders,’ Karl said, shutting the door once more. ‘Care to tell me what all that was about?’
‘If only I could,’ Anders replied, and sank deeper into his chair, the way he used to when he’d been a very naughty apprentice.
The second apostate did not trust him. But so long as he did not act on his mistrust, the second apostate did not need to trust him.
Leto shared with Athenril what more he knew, that there were two healers instead of one—‘Multiplying, huh?’ Athenril asked. ‘Go figure. Just like any other Darktown vermin, I guess; and I’m betting there’s even more stashed away in there somewhere.’—then returned home, too tired to allow himself whatever petty guilt might plague him after such a day as this one.
Varania was there and waiting for him, thankfully; whenever she was not, Leto’s mood changed in an instant, and he paced the length of the floor, blaming himself as much without words as blamed her with them.
But that evening, Varania was not home late. Rather, she was there in the kitchen, in the midst of beating something until it was inedible. Leto offered to help her, and, despite some initial resistance, she chose to accept.
‘Well, you’re good with sharp things, anyway,’ she said with a sigh. ‘But you’re going to have to take those stupid gloves off first. After all, the potatoes only get mashed once.’
Once, Leto suspected, was often one time too many; Varania had a strong arm, ruthless with tubers, and by the time she was finished with her vigorous task, they were the same color as the crumbling mortar between the limestone slabs of the old Hightown estates. They were the same consistency, as well, dry and heavy, but also separated in distinct pieces where they should have been, as far as Leto knew, a cohesive paste.
‘Maybe it needs more water,’ Varania said, scowling down at the bowl.
‘No,’ Leto said, too quickly. He cleared his throat and held onto his spoon the same determined way he’d held their cutting knife. At least the spoon was not also broken. ‘…No,’ he repeated, more slowly. ‘It is fine as it is. It is…acceptable.’
‘The least you could do, sometimes, for my sake,’ Varania pointed out, ‘is pretend like it’s not my fault. Or cook yourself, maybe, since you’re so good at everything. Now there’s an idea.’
‘If I cooked, it would not be acceptable,’ Leto told her.
Varania snorted. She always snorted now, rather than laughed. ‘All right; fair point,’ she agreed.
After that, she ate. The food would let her sleep better, without the frustrating noises her stomach once made when Leto was smaller, when he destroyed—unkindly; he learned that slowly enough—each opportunity she’d had at holding her own honest day-job. He had thought, at the time, there was no opportunity worthy of her talents. Now she made coin for herself, without Leto’s sabotage, and brought home vegetables; they were never appetizing, always dirty, rarely worth even what little she paid for them, but they were hers, and both were able to share them.
Something, Leto was certain, was always dependable, in that it was always more than nothing.
No matter how vile the aftertaste.
‘So,’ Varania said. They sat on the floor by their beds, Varania holding a spool of stiff thread, Leto licking the tip before sliding it through the eye of the needle. Then, Varania held the torn hem of her dress while Leto mended it, and did not think of the pretty frocks the ladies at the Rose wore, the ones with gold trim and tight bodices and sleeves that puffed, gauzy, at the shoulders.
Varania would have looked fine in one of those, to match the color of her hair, but she also looked fine here, as far from the scope of the Gallows as any apostate could get.
‘So,’ Leto agreed.
Varania rolled her eyes. ‘I was going to ask what you did today.’
‘Nothing of importance,’ Leto replied.
‘And that’s why you left all your armor behind.’ Varania snorted again. This time, it wasn’t meant to be a laugh at all, or anything other than stubbornness. ‘Nice of you not to tell me. It isn’t as though my life is boring enough already.’
‘Boring is acceptable,’ Leto told her.
‘Right,’ Varania said. ‘Just like my dinners are acceptable. Leto, that’s the word you use when you’re trying not to make me angry.’
And yet she was angry despite all that. Leto wondered why she would not try—if she saw it so clearly—not to be angry, but her gaze was bright, her mouth without a simple waver of her bottom lip, anger without a trace of sadness, and her words made it difficult to sew in an even line.
‘I cannot tell you, Varania.’ Fenris looped the thread beneath his last stitch, hiding his knot in the seam of Varania’s skirt hem. ‘It will only lead to trouble, in the end.’
But trouble was the only certainty he could promise her, the one thing their separate gifts had ensured them. Even with Tevinter worlds away, they could never outrun what was in their own flesh and blood.
The next morning, Leto rose early to visit the clinic. They might not have come to any specific agreement about his services, but Leto also knew they never would, if he was the one to let them unravel now. And he’d experienced enough of life in Kirkwall to understand that no one came looking for a dirty elf in the alienage.
So it was up to him to make the first overture—to put himself to work, even when he wasn’t certain that work would ever be appreciated.
The apostates did not seem structured enough, prepared enough, to know or recognize their needs. Leto hadn’t been required to lie in order to wend his way into their organization—which was well enough, as lying had never been his strong suit. He only had to speak the truth—a truth they were already aware of—and trust the truth would speak for him.
Upsetting the balance of power in Kirkwall would take more than two mages and a few broken crates. They couldn’t possibly hope to fend off the templars alone.
As he passed through the morning mists—making his way through Lowtown’s detestable hexes, where the miners were beginning to stir from their stupor in the shadow of the Hanged Man—Leto reminded himself that this was just a job, a transaction, what he did for the sake of having some purpose, one that was also secure. He could not afford to compromise Varania’s safety on a whim, if only because the Knight Commander’s chokehold on the city made him feel as if he was back in Tevinter with a magister’s collar around his throat.
Leto stretched his fingers in his gauntlets, and popped a protesting joint in his shoulder as he felt the soothing iron weight of his sword at his back. Today, he was through with making overtures. A bodyguard—or, in this case, a clinic-guard—was unfriendly, not to be interrupted or even spoken to. A guard needed a weapon, but more than that, it was important to cultivate the right aura, to make an impression only a weapon could.
Skill in combat was one thing, but a true warrior took enough care to see that he would not have to fight at all.
No one stopped him as he passed through Darktown, though he felt the eyes of the Coterie barker boring into his back, not missing a beat as she called out her wares. She’d marked him the first time he’d passed through this way, and no doubt the second, the third, and now the fourth.
How many chances would he be given before they started asking questions?
It was a fleeting concern, but nothing more substantial than that. Leto already knew he could handle any number of brawling thugs the Coterie sent his way; for all their power in the city they had always lacked imagination, one of the gravest sins an underworld crime outfit could commit. They did their work well enough, and slit their fair share of throats in back-alleys, but that was not all it took to frighten those who knew better what fears deserved what energies.
The lantern was already lit above the clinic’s double doors as Leto passed, not without some difficulty, around the body of a slumbering drunk at the top of the stair. Neither of the healers was visible from this vantage point, but there was a short line already backed out one side of the building, crowd and clinic equally in shambles, one man clutching his blood-soaked arm, and a woman with a dirty bandage wrapped around her head.
They did not seem poised to cause any trouble.
Leto leaned back against the wall, choosing a position where he could monitor the clinic from all angles. Eventually, someone would remark on his arrival to Anders—one of his network of Fereldans, who knew trouble, at least, if they knew anything—and that would confirm what Leto needed it to.
It would become clear soon enough that Leto’s offer had been made in earnest. All he had to do was wait for its meaning to take shape and form, for the Coterie barker to pass his presence on to a few handy thugs, and for trouble to erupt—as it always did, in this part of the city.
It might take days for tensions to come to a head. It might only take hours. Either way, Leto was prepared to wait, leaned against a dirty wall, pretending to watch the unfurled leaves of some hardy breed of deep mushroom, blossoming without fanfare in the corner of the stair.
Time passed. So, too, did the frequenters of the clinic. Leto knew that one woman in particular was wary of him; she did not seem to mind it when he caught her at her own waiting game, coming to observe his inoffensive stance, his obvious armor and even more obvious weapon, whenever she appeared to empty a bucket at the clinic’s front door.
A second time—drying her hands on a rag—she openly met his gaze, and Leto returned it for as long as he felt was necessary, before he looked away.
These Fereldans were even more difficult than Athenril said.
Yet there were many who said mages were difficult—just as many who said elves were difficult. Each had his own reason for that appraisal. Leto found that everyone had it within himself to be stubborn no matter who they were, dwarf or qunari, raider or self-satisfied Hightown armor merchant who refused to pay his dues. It was not what they were that made them ornery, but rather who they were. That quality was common these days; either it helped or it hindered, but more often than not, it got people killed.
When Leto looked again, the woman was gone. The doorway was crowded flush with some new, squabbling family, a few screaming urchins—Anders had mentioned something about them just the other day—all of whom were trying to enter the clinic at the same time. As though none of them could stand to be first just as little as they could tolerate being last.
Then, they passed within, and the door shut behind them. Leto glanced up and down the long alley, toward the hint of sunlight, and back into the wicked darkness.
‘You,’ Anders’s voice said, sounding not nearly as inconspicuous as it did self-satisfied, if also clever, ‘are making Lirene nervous.’
‘I have no idea who that is,’ Leto replied. He refused to give the healer the pleasure of having caught him not unawares, but rather aware of everything else—and not the tousle-headed man sneaking up on him, wearing that ridiculous excuse for a coat.
‘And here I was beginning to think everyone in Kirkwall knew who Lirene was. That’s what she’d have you believe, anyway.’ Anders paused, scuffing the toe of his dusty boot along the ground, watching it more closely than any potential threats, with his hands clasped behind his back. ‘But suffice it to say, when Lirene is nervous, she makes sure I’m nervous. And I don’t like being nervous.’
‘You have every reason to be nervous,’ Leto informed him. He considered adding a further instruction not to sway about like that, so bustling and so obvious, but it was not his place. He let it rest, like so many other forgotten things, deep and buried and still.
‘…Because there’s a dangerous elf of mystery obsessed with our clinic?’ Anders asked.
Leto tutted. Anders was in his way. It was not so easy to concentrate on the breadth and scope of his constant, fidgety movement, and consider what enemies might at any moment emerge above the rise of the nearby stair as he had to make it look.
‘No,’ Leto said.
Anders’s face fell. He brought it closer, squinting, peering, even going cross-eyed before he took a step back. It forced Leto to rearrange the brunt of his focus.
This did not bode well for further interactions.
‘That’s better,’ Anders said, somehow satisfied by this unfortunate turn of events. As though he thought it preferable that Leto was now completely distracted. ‘You’re supposed to look at people while you talk to them, you know. Or…while they talk to you and you say the occasional unhappy sentence that—what else?—makes them even more nervous than ever.’
‘I am not the source of your concern,’ Leto said. It was his first outright lie, and it didn’t sit well with him.
But Anders seemed content with his own personal interpretation of the expression Leto wore, all too readily, for anyone to see. ‘Maybe not,’ Anders agreed. ‘But you are here. …Why are you here, Fenris?’
Leto could not bring himself to believe the inanity of the conversation. ‘I told you as much already,’ he said.
That should have been the end of it.
It was not.
‘It’s just rather hard to believe,’ Anders continued, undaunted and unstoppable, ‘that this is what you’d choose to do with your time. Even doing nothing’s better than doing this. In fact,’ he added, stepping closer, a bit sly of tone and mouth, ‘I like to think nothing’s the best you can ever do. It’s all just a race to see who can get the most nothing done first. Glorious, blissful, eternal nothing. Don’t you agree?’
‘I do not,’ Leto replied.
Anders rubbed at the scruff on the side of his cheek. Up close, he was not as dirty as he seemed—not as dirty as the others, at least—but there was something about the feathers that made Leto wrinkle his nose and anticipate a sneeze.
‘No,’ Anders agreed sadly. ‘You don’t seem a nothing sort of person, at that. Don’t get me wrong—I appreciate it. I appreciate all the somethings in the world who make it possible for the nothings like me to continue as they are, not being chopped to a fine mince by templars. But Lirene doesn’t, I’m afraid, and she’s making the patients agitated. Or at least, she’s making me agitated, and I’m making the patients agitated, and since you’re making her agitated—do you see what I’m getting at, here? The complicated train of consequence? This web we’re weaving?’
‘Stop talking,’ Leto suggested, no longer able to hold his tongue.
‘No,’ Anders said. ‘Impossible. Never been done. Sorry. Next idea?’
‘Talk to someone else,’ Leto offered.
It was not, he had to admit, more infuriating than some of his more circular conversations with Varania, but only because he did not care about it in so personal a way. But it was equally roundabout, equally without end, and Leto’s fingers twitched where he clenched them, tight against his palms.
In the midst of it all, just over the fluttering feather shoulder before him, a flicker of red hair caught his attention, against the brown miasma of muck and garbage. Varania was not the only person in Kirkwall with that shade of hair—just this morning, the clinic had treated a man with a beard so rich and red that it appeared to be consuming half his face—but she was always the first that leapt to Leto’s mind, the first he thought of, and also, the last.
Surely she wouldn’t, he told himself, before he was forced to revise his assessment as the redhead drew closer.
Surely, she would.
There was no mistaking the purpose of that stride, someone who would allow neither potholes nor drunks to stand in her way. Besides which, she was clad in the same shabby dress she’d owned for over five years now, the same shabby dress Leto had tried, and failed, to mend on many occasions.
They shared more than blood. Leto knew they had the same keen instincts for battle, though Varana’s were made all the more dangerous because she had no outlet to release them—no petty smugglers nor pompous street-thugs to bear the brunt of her arcane fire.
With the same hand so capable of wreaking destruction and havoc—not just on an enemy, but also upon supper—Varania curled her fingers in a high, easy wave.
‘Hello, brother,’ she called from the stairs. Leto stiffened, feeling his skin draw tight over the bone.
If he was lucky, Anders would have taken the hint and retreated back inside. He was not welcome here.
But—as time and the fates had proven consistently enough—Leto was not lucky. Even while holding his breath, listening to the thrum of his pulse run brittle through his body, he knew Anders was still there, ever lingering, like one of the diseases he was meant to treat. Leto felt the tickle of absurd gray feathers against his arm as the apostate moved, lifting his hand in well-matched greeting.
‘Your brother?’ Anders repeated, relishing the word, as though he thought it pertinent information—his gossip to keep. Leto hadn’t been given cause to wonder about the healer’s family until now, whether he had one, or whether he merely enjoyed greeting other people’s with such enthusiasm. Some were the type. Before Leto could turn away—his warrior’s reflexes faltering in a moment of pure betrayal—Anders caught his gaze. His eyes—the precise clay color of the mud below their feet—were sparkling, as though gold could ever be hidden in so much dirt. ‘Fenris—Fenris, look! It’s the ginger apostate you were asking about. And guess what: I think I’ve found her.’
‘Hrk,’ Leto said, which was not a word. His throat was too dry to form them properly, his jaw too stiff, his tongue too heavy. If only Anders did not seem so fond of remembering personal details that had been shared in a moment of distraction, of worry that Varania would neither understood nor appreciate.
There was that luck again. Or rather, there was its absence.
Leto felt caught the same as if he’d blundered across one of the Coterie’s well-laid fire traps—only it was worse, because this one had been sprung by his own sister. His limbs might as well have been wrapped in the thick, gluey strands spider-silk some of the sharpest blades in Kirkwall had difficulty sundering, and his bare feet stuck to the ground with equal clumsiness, an equal force of burden. Despite the face it wore, Leto knew it was a trap he himself had laid—albeit an unwitting one.
Varania would never have resorted to these tactics if he hadn’t forced her hand—the same hand waving at him now, slim and fair, and always so clever.
It was not reasonable for one sibling to have all the information and the other to have none. Yet it was an imbalance that Leto had cultivated, despite recognizing there would one day be consequences for these, as with all other, actions.
‘I brought you your lunch,’ Varania added, when he said nothing at all; she even deigned to smile as she drew close with them at last. The drunk at the top of the stair did not bother her; nor did the rotting plank, nor the slippery tendrils of some hardy vine. And the ruse was a fine one—for she was holding a small bundle of food, wrapped twice over in a patterned handkerchief with a hole at the corner.
So this deception had props involved. Leto could not avoid being impressed.
His sister thought things through to the bitter end.
‘Oh, my; how kind of you,’ Anders said. He was not uncomfortable in the slightest when it came to picking up the slack in a conversation that should have remained between siblings. He’d be reaching out to take the lunch for himself next; Leto was certain of it. Although if he did that, his stomach soon learn from such a grave mistake. ‘You know, I was just wondering to myself whether Fenris here would take a break to eat—he looks so thin, you see, and it wouldn’t do much for our clinic’s reputation if our own guard fainted dead away at the door.’
‘That would be terrible,’ Varania agreed, while Leto reached out stiffly to relieve her of her burden. When their eyes met over his lunch, he could almost see a twinkle of amusement in her gaze. If there had ever been any doubt in his mind, it was immediately swept away, like gutter-dirt after a rainstorm. She knew exactly what she was doing—and always had, for that matter. It was the one thing in this city Leto could trust. ‘But then again, he can be so stubborn whenever he starts a new job. I think it’s because he wants to make a good impression.’
‘Dear…sister,’ Leto said, poking his upper lip with his tongue to keep it from curling. This was still salvageable. Anders had seen Varania’s face now, that was true, and he also knew Leto’s sister was an apostate—but he did not yet know her name. Nor Leto’s real one, for that matter. It was a small detail, what some called a trifle, but Leto sank his claws into it all the same. Having nothing meant he quickly learned to hold onto even the tiniest of advantages. ‘You are too kind. To what do I owe the…honor?’
‘Aren’t you even going to introduce me?’ Anders asked.
Varania tutted. Before Leto could speak—his hands otherwise occupied with his lunch, just as Varania had planned—she’d slipped an arm beneath Anders’s elbow, normal shoulder to feathered one. ‘Really, brother,’ she said. Then, it was as though Leto was no longer with them, as she patted one of the useless bandages wrapped at Anders’s wrist. ‘He’s so bent on business, you see—he’ll be no use to us at all. So… Why don’t you show me the clinic I’ve heard so much about? I can’t think of a better introduction, and I’m so interested in the work you do.’
‘Well…’ Anders admitted, rubbing at his cheek, a scritching noise that seemed, at the very least, appropriately abashed. ‘I’d like to do that. Really—it’s not as though pretty women are just lining up to get the tour of the place. Some women do line up, but I learned a long time ago not to cross Fereldan husbands. They’re very…territorial. Something to do with the dogs and the mud and the ale—but when isn’t it?’
Leto cleared his throat. He gestured, with his expression, for this to end, for Anders to release his sister, for him to run, now, and perhaps make it through the day with his life and his feathers. If he was clever enough to comprehend the hint, and swift enough to act on it, Leto would not have to drown him.
‘…Buuut,’ Anders continued, clever and swift, ‘something tells me that, if I do that, I’m going to find out just how sharp those claws your brother’s wearing are.’
‘Him?’ Leto did not enjoy the tone Varania employed to reference him so casually. He bristled, and observed the dirt at his sister’s feet. ‘Don’t worry about that. He’s like a baby nug—all squealing, and no bite.’
Anders laughed—he still had the decency to seem nervous, which was exactly the state he deserved. It showed keen understanding, well-placed fear, if nothing else. ‘Good one! Very good one,’ he murmured. He spared a glance for Leto’s sword, which Leto turned to give him better view of. ‘But, again, seeing as how baby nugs are just adorable and don’t come shaped like massive blades of doom—’
‘Anders,’ called a man’s voice from within, thankfully cutting the story short before it ever truly began. It was a deep voice, Leto determined, not without kindness; but it was also weary, nestled amongst so much clamor it could not hope to remain in one untattered piece for long. ‘As wonderful as it is that you’re finally making friends, I dare say you’re needed inside. Unless, of course, you’ve decided to stop being a healer…?’
It seemed, Leto gathered—though he was still observing the ground, scowling at it as Varania’s toes wiggled upon the dust—that the words were capable of doing what Leto’s had not. They changed Anders, or at least how he held himself, the stiffness in his back not gone but altered, like some alley animal perking at the distant cry of an ally.
‘Fereldans actually have more bones in their bodies than anyone else in Thedas,’ Anders murmured, by means of farewell, attempting—all elbows—to extricate himself from Varania’s relentless grasp. He was no potato that needed mashing, Leto wished to explain, but as always, he knew that Varania appreciated little interference. That statement would make her angrier—more so than she already was. ‘That’s how they have so many to break, you see. And they like to do it nowhere better than here, in Kirkwall, so I’m afraid that tour really is going to have to wait until later.’
‘Hardly,’ Varania replied. Once again, Leto could not fathom—and could not appreciate—her tone. ‘I’m sure you could use another set of hands around the place. Am I right?’
‘We could use about ten more sets of hands around the place, usually,’ Anders admitted. Then, he caught Leto staring at him, and attempted—unsuccessfully—to appear innocent.
He was not innocent. He was the opposite of that, with blood-stains upon his coat and dust in his feathers, unshaven, unpredictable, and likely unhinged.
No one who ran a sinking ship like this one could be trusted.
Leto hadn’t yet panicked. It was too early for that, though when he thought of Athenril’s plan, her sudden interest in apostates and the clinic, and his own purpose guarding the accursed place, a throb of lyrium-heat rushed against the life-vein at his throat. Anders glanced his way; their eyes met in an awkward moment, before he pretended to be innocent again, a farce that mocked the very ideals he sought to emulate.
‘…By which I mean we’re grossly over-staffed, at present,’ Anders amended quickly. ‘Shameful, really, how many people show up on an hourly basis, all clamoring to assist—’
‘—then I suppose I’m just another willing volunteer, so let’s move,’ Varania suggested, tugging him toward the clinic proper.
Leto thought he saw Anders cast a helpless glance his way—helpless, but also delighted, and that undid any potentially charitable thoughts Leto might have otherwise spared for him.
It was impossible to say no to Varania. And not just because she was Leto’s sister.
Then, they left him behind, Varania swept up into the world that did not deserve her, a world Leto did not understand. ‘I’ll see you soon, brother!’ she told him, laughing, and never knew how his heart shut with the same heaviness as the boarded-up door behind her.
Varania, Anders had come to understand, really wouldn’t take no for an answer.
An outright refusal was out of the question; it would be rude, not to mention inappropriate, not to mention the fall of Fenris’s shadow, which currently hung over all their interactions like a blade about to drop on Anders’s sensitive neck. He knew Fenris was waiting, just outside the clinic door, staring twin holes through the rotten wood, contemplating what physical harm he’d visit upon Anders’s person if his precious ginger apostate—ginger apostate sister; the sister part was now the most important—stepped outside for a breather looking at all like someone had just refused her numerous invitations to dinner.
‘The truth is, Varania,’ Anders told her, holding one end of the bandage around a freshly un-broken ankle, while Varania held the other end and Karl traded gentle words with their patient, ‘after all the disgusting things I see by the minute, I don’t have much of an appetite anymore. And if you serve me something delicious, and I find myself incapable of eating it—well, I just want to spare you the pain you’d feel, that’s all. It’s nothing personal. Darktown has ruined my life: there, I said it.’
‘You won’t really have to worry about the food being all that delicious,’ Varania promised. She was quick, dexterous, and had good instincts. The ankle was bandaged in no time, Varania leaning back on her crate, eager to move onto the next. Lucky for her a next was always forthcoming. ‘If Darktown hadn’t ruined your life already, my cooking probably would.’
‘Ahhh,’ Anders said, noncommittally. He prayed for a snot-nosed urchin to attack him, demanding the steamy conclusion to Hard in Hightown, one that would ruin him for society at large, but would thoroughly prepare him for fun.
But all of them were gone for the day, preparing for dinners with their families.
Anders glanced around the clinic ; when his gaze resettled on Varania, she was staring at him—with the same unwavering intensity Fenris had shown while he’d insisted, beyond all reason, on becoming the clinic’s official bodyguard.
Anders rubbed at the back of his neck, damp with sweat, short hairs curling at the top. ‘So…tell me again how bad the food is?’ he asked.
‘Inedible, basically,’ Varania replied.
‘…And you promise your brother isn’t going to murder me and bury the body underneath your fancy alienage tree?’ Anders added.
It never hurt to ask.
‘I can promise that if he tries, he’ll sincerely regret it,’ Varania said. Something about the dry humor in her tone sent a cool shiver down Anders’s spine. A look as tart as the one she was wearing could have curdled milk.
Anders didn’t doubt for one instant that she was capable of inflicting fraternal vengeance without mercy or pause. Somehow, even without a weapon, Varania managed to be just as intimidating as her brother. The only real difference seemed to be that she was slightly more vocal, and slightly less tattooed.
‘What time shall I arrive?’ Anders asked, offering a dazzling smile, rather than giving voice to his litany of concerns.
If he’d learned anything in his time as an apostate living in Kirkwall, it was how to take the path of least resistance, then exploit it for the greater good. If he did go missing, he could always depend on Karl to come up with a heroic lie surrounding the circumstances of his untimely death.
But at this point, Anders had decided, he’d take any excuse at all just to get out of Darktown.
Unfortunately, Anders had forgotten exactly how depressing an alienage could be, especially at the height of summer. The air was always thick underground, but this cramped hex in Lowtown—hidden away from all the rest, like a secret no one wanted to keep—wasn’t faring much better. Its inhabitants were limp, sweaty folk; some clustered around the fancy elvhen tree to light a candle, while others lurked in shallow alleys—not so promising as alleys; more like mere alcoves, really—leaning against barrels, shirtless and cowled against the last, limpid rays of the evening sun.
‘It’s just this way,’ Varania said, leading him through the open courtyard.
Anders tried not to feel too out of place. But, since everyone was staring at him with open mistrust under a cracked veneer of outright loathing, that proved difficult.
Varania, either unaffected or simply unaware, strode purposefully past a young woman begging in the street, while Anders attempted to do the same. Failing to avoid eye contact had always been his downfall; it was especially difficult while staring at the varied sights and smells. Mange-ridden cats prowled near a merchant’s stall, making their nightly nests in heaps of bug-encircled rags—but Varania’s path never took them near enough for Anders to get a proper look.
It was a pity the cats were so dirty. It was impossible to tell whether any of them were tabbies.
‘And here we are.’ Varania stopped short in front of what appeared to be—as far as Anders could tell—an abandoned mine shaft buried beneath some well-placed rubble. He smoothed a stray lock of hair behind his ear, waving a fat fly away from his cheek, peering into the shadows beyond the rusty door.
‘…Which is where, exactly?’ he asked.
Varania fished a key out of her pocket. ‘Why, it’s home sweet piss-hole, of course.’
Anders blinked, attempting to uncover some finer quality about the place, but saw nothing beyond the crumbling foundations and boarded windows. He half-expected Fenris to be lying in wait, broadsword laid across his lap and a scowl set across his features, having known all along they’d be giving him the slip—but when Varania pushed the door open and stepped inside, he wasn’t standing sentinel.
Sadly, his absence didn’t provide the relief Anders had hoped it might. He was still coming eventually. This was still his home.
Or piss-hole. In this part of Kirkwall, no one could tell the difference.
Once they were inside, Varania put Anders to work immediately. It’d been ages since he’d chopped his own stringy vegetables, but he did feel more secure in Fenris’s house with a knife in his hand. The building’s lone room was—for the time being—mercifully empty, and Anders found a soothing rhythm in all the fussy preparatory work that went into planning a meal. It was all the repetition of chopping and straining and stirring until the food became inedible, something for his hands to do while his mind wandered elsewhere.
He enjoyed that side of things rather more than he enjoyed eating the food once it was cooked. Anders couldn’t remember the last good meal he’d had, but he knew he hadn’t eaten it in Kirkwall. The misery of the place seeped into the soil, and everything that grew from the ground came out tasting of that misery. Just like the air, and the water, and so on.
The sun was already setting by the time Anders heard a rustle at the door, the sound of a bolt sliding loose. His hands stilled, the constant movement he’d nurtured coming to a grinding halt, like a rusty bolt being thrown into dwarven clockwork.
Surely that wasn’t a normal reaction.
Then again, Fenris wasn’t a normal elf.
‘He’s early.’ Varania’s slim brows lifted in surprise, and it was unexpected to see Fenris’s expressions worn so easily on her face. For all they were related, they didn’t share as many physical similarities as they might have—it was all in the familiarity of a glance, a hunch of the shoulders or a resettling of weight from one foot to the other. They moved the same, and frowned the same, and were so obviously family. Then, Anders realized he was smiling, and bit his lower lip to stop it at once. ‘You must really have him rattled.’
‘Credit where it’s due,’ Anders said. His hands shook only slightly as he set down a wooden bowl filled with salad in name only. It appeared to have the exact color and consistency of solid death. ‘Don’t discount your part in it. We worked together on that one.’
‘Hm,’ Varania said. She lit a candle with the tip of her finger, illuminating a sly smile. ‘I suppose we did.’
Anders had been expecting that all along—since she was the ginger apostate sister—but it was never unwelcome to be reminded, and so obviously, that he was amongst friends.
Sort of. As far as any ginger apostate sister could be considered a friend, with Fenris always on the other side of the door.
Still, that was the thing about mages. They might not have had anything else in common, but the burden they shared, the arcane promises from the Fade and the condemnation from the entire rest of Thedas, did have a habit of forging unlikely bonds. It always made Anders feel welcome to know someone else could understand that, at least, and he watched fondly as the candle flared to life, just an instant before the door opened.
Fenris appeared in the doorway, still shouldering his sword in what Anders couldn’t help but consider a meaningful fashion.
‘You brought him to our home,’ Fenris said.
It didn’t seem like a question.
Anders wished there was a potted plant—or some large piece of furniture, or really anything—to step behind, while Varania fielded the conversation with all the experience and loving, familial care that she had, and Anders didn’t. Even though Fenris was obviously talking about him, he didn’t seem to think it was necessary to look at anyone other than his sister, and Anders was more than happy to let them sort things out the way they usually did.
Hopefully without killing any wayward apostates in the process. Or maiming them. Or inviting bloodshed at all—Anders got enough of that in the clinic already.
‘I’ll just check on the thingies in the whatsit, shall I?’ Anders said. Then, because he had no tactical prowess whatsoever, he turned his back on the deadly elf with the spiky armor and the huge weapon, poking into a burnt-out pot with a clumsy wooden spoon to stir its contents, try to salvage dinner, and also eavesdrop on the ensuing conversation.
It was, he had to admit, much more exciting than spending the night in the back room of the clinic, losing to himself at cards.
‘And he’s still better than anything you’ve brought back with you,’ Varania replied, both of them nobly ignoring that Anders was there at all—despite the simple fact that they were, in fact, talking about him. Anders heard Varania’s skirts swish as she crossed the room, followed by the clack of bowls being set on the table, a staccato beat that made him jump each time.
Being the unspoken ogre in the room was never pretty.
Anders snuck a little extra salt into the roiling stew before him. It was the exact texture and consistency as fresh, hot tar; he contemplated adding some water to it, then realized there were some things even a healer couldn’t hope to fix. He let it be, surrendered to its primal state, and bent to check on his biscuits instead.
‘That is beside the point, Varania.’ Now it was Fenris’s turn to pace, the floorboards creaking, the meaningful thud of his sword against the back of his thighs as he moved, distracting Anders just long enough for him to burn his finger on a hot pan. He shook it out, then sucked at the hurt, not daring to glance back over his shoulder. His imagination was more than able-bodied enough to supply the grim visage of the proceedings.
‘You don’t have to stay, if you don’t like it,’ Varania said, and Fenris followed the statement with a noise of such powerful frustration that Anders, despite all better judgment, knew he had to interfere.
He was a healer. Most of the time, he couldn’t prevent massacres—only lessen the damage once they’d been committed. It was rare indeed when he was given the opportunity to head things off at the pass, and this time, he had a secret weapon up his sleeve. Or rather, in his pan. Or rather, in Varania’s pan—but all those details were beside the point.
‘Look everyone!’ Anders said, turning around at last. ‘I made biscuits.’
Everyone did look—all two of them—staring with equally piercing green gazes that would have made a lesser man disappear through the floorboards. But Anders was so beyond the point of being a lesser man that he’d come right out the other side again, into blithely-unaware-man territory. He smiled, wide, while Fenris stared at him like he was Varania’s bubbling tar-stew.
‘They’re golden brown,’ Anders added, setting the pan down gingerly on the table. There was no problem in the Thedas, he’d once told Karl, that a few golden biscuits couldn’t solve, to which Karl had replied, I’d be a happy man if that was true, Anders. That statement only applied, however, should certain involved parties actually sit down to eat them. The biscuits had no power on their own. They had to be ingested first, the most important part of the spell. ‘…And if you let them cool for too long they make better doorstops than anything, so how about we all just dig in? What do you say, Fenris?’
‘It doesn’t matter what he thinks—because I say they look delicious,’ Varania said. Her smile was strained. Anders thought he saw her eye twitch, a flash of teeth, the straining of the muscle in her jaw. ‘So much better than the nug-slop I make. Isn’t that right, brother?’
Fenris appeared trapped by the pitfalls of the question. Anders felt for him; he really did. He also wished he’d put the sword aside and sit down like he wasn’t about to snap.
Wiping his hands on the same burnt rag he’d used to carry the pan to the table, Anders felt it was time to start serving biscuits; their smell was filling the tragic hovel, beating back those other, sultry scents, compounded by the sticky mess that was currently boiling over the edge of the pot in Varania’s makeshift hearth. Anders dropped a biscuit onto Varania’s plate—‘Beautiful women first, of course,’ he said, at which point Fenris actually growled like a wounded cat—then did the same for Fenris, and, finally, for himself. Varania sat; Anders also sat; there were no napkins, and Fenris was on the verge of growling again, and when Anders picked up his fork he noticed it was missing two tines.
Home sweet piss-hole indeed, he thought to himself, then sighed. The margin between Darktown and the alienage wasn’t so wide as he’d allowed himself to imagine. It was hard to go on feeling so aggressively sorry for himself when other people had it nearly as bad as he did.
It was the nearly that mattered most—or so he thought; Anders wasn’t an elf, and Fenris wasn’t an apostate, but Varania—born under an unlucky moon, no doubt—had been gifted with both those traits at birth. Now, at least, Fenris’s talk of personal reasons for his otherwise unfathomable decisions made a great deal more sense. Anders could tell Karl with a clear conscience that they’d be safe in trusting their new ally, because he had a sister to protect.
Anders chanced another spare look Fenris’s way to find him lifting his biscuit in both hands like a scavenging animal—as though he was afraid someone would appear at any moment to snatch it away from him. He sniffed it; his eyes widened, and his jaw relaxed.
The scent of fresh-baked goods could disarm even the most determined frowns.
Anders realized he was staring, but he had put a lot of effort into making the biscuits. He deserved to know whether they were enjoyable—or at least if they rated better than nug-slop.
‘Hm,’ Fenris said. He helped himself to an ample bite, tongue darting out to test the heat of the crust.
Varania cleared her throat, and Anders sat hurriedly back in his chair, busying himself with a chipped cup of thankfully clear water.
‘Do you like them?’ Anders asked, helpless as always at the prospect of gathering fresh compliments.
Fenris paused in demolishing his biscuit. Really, that ought to have been answer enough. But Anders liked to hear things; he liked to be told outright rather than through a tangled web of inference.
‘They are…sufficient,’ Fenris acknowledged, after a moment’s thought.
Varania rolled her eyes. ‘I don’t think my brother can express a preference, honestly. I’ve never heard him do it before. Sometimes I wonder whether he even knows what he likes or what he doesn’t.’
‘Ah,’ Anders said, which seemed the only safe reply to make under the circumstances. Fenris cast him an oblique look across the table, but the intensity of the sound beneath it was muffled by warm, flaky dough, which softened its impact considerably.
‘As you can see, we’re lacking in dinner conversation,’ Varania added. She rose from her seat to fetch the stew from the hearth, now that it had bubbled past the point of recognition, and also edible flavor. ‘So. Did you enjoy yourself at the clinic today, brother? I know I did.’
Fenris—biscuit gone, no longer mollified—twitched his fingers against the table’s surface, the same way a spider clicked its mandibles together just before it ate its squirming prey. He didn’t quite have the hang of friendly teasing between siblings. Either that, or he just didn’t like it very much. Then, his gaze rose unexpectedly toward Anders, who felt transfixed, as though an arrow had passed through his body and pinned him to the wall at his back.
He’d always thought of green as a gentle color, meant for spring and rolling meadows and sun-dappled leaves in the forest’s shadowy heat, but clearly he’d been mistaken. Just as nature could so often turn treacherous at the drop of a cowl, so too could a pair of green eyes.
Silence, and that gaze. It was too much—more like a graveside vigil than a family meal.
‘We’re very grateful for your help,’ Anders said, voice cracking on the last syllable. He took a sip from his cup, grimacing as it wet his throat. Water wasn’t supposed to have an aftertaste, but Anders could barely remember a time when it didn’t. ‘What I said before—I was lying when I implied we have people lining up to join us. We have people lined up for our services, of course, but that’s not really the same thing. Having another healer around made a real difference—not to mention knowing we had eyes on the door. Karl won’t admit it—why am I always surrounded by stubborn people, I wonder?—but I suppose this is me trying to make up for that, in the hope that you won’t come to your senses and decide to quit tomorrow.’
Anders laughed weakly, inviting Varania and Fenris to join in on the joke.
They didn’t. Perhaps it was just one of those things, lost in translation between human and elvhen senses of humor.
‘Hmm,’ Anders said, agreeing with himself, wiping a bit of laughter from the twitchy corner of his eye, and stuffed his mouth full of biscuit so he wouldn’t feel pressured to speak further. At least until he’d chewed and swallowed.
So few people were willing to defy the templars, even those who had mage relatives. Anders recalled one of Malcolm’s more depressing stories—about how his cousin-by-marriage had allowed her son to be dragged away to the Fereldan Circle years ago. And the Amells were a prominent family in Kirkwall, second only to the viscount in power.
Instead of using that power—exercising it for the safety and well-being of their family, perhaps even changing the system itself—they’d allowed it to dwindle to avoid admitting their stake in so burdensome a heritage.
It was a story Karl was fond of repeating, in the scant, slanting hours of evening light that marked their transition from idiot clinic workers to roving mage revolutionaries. No one, Karl concluded—and Anders knew it, too—would stand for an apostate unless they were one.
But Fenris defied that theory. He even had the giant sword to prove it.
It was a shame they couldn’t trust anyone these days, enough to speak to him about the other side of their business; Anders had a feeling Fenris might invest his strengths there, as well. And those strengths were considerable. They meant something real, in a place so often without meaning.
Varania cleared her throat again, the noise she made whenever Anders was staring too long at her brother. Which, by his count, had happened far too much at this dinner alone.
Flushing, Anders busied himself with checking his feathers for idle crumbs. ‘The mark of a good biscuit,’ he said, swallowing and wiping the corners of his mouth with the tip of his thumb, ‘is how flaky it is. Unfortunately, that also makes it a bit too messy for good first impressions. …Does anyone want seconds?’
‘Anything to keep from eating my stew.’ Varania landed the pot with a dull thud in the center of the table. All three of them leaned forward, peering into its depths, each of them trying not to be the first to flinch.
‘It looks…’ Anders began.
Fenris coughed, almost politely, into his curved hand. ‘Yes,’ he agreed.
‘Just come out and say it, then.’ Varania scowled at last, drawing away from the fumes, waving her fingers through the thick smoke in an attempt to clear it. ‘It looks like something even a dwarf wouldn’t eat.’
Then, because he was a madman, and did so like torturing himself—if his lone vigil at the clinic was any proof of that—Fenris held out his bowl.
‘No,’ Varania said. ‘You don’t have to humor me like that.’
‘I will not waste it,’ Fenris replied. ‘I do not mind.’
It was sweet—touching, even. Something only family would do for family. Despite all the stories Anders had heard, tales of refugees selling out sisters to the red lantern district for some extra coin or Hightown nobles selling out children to the Knight-Commander and her templars in the Gallows, he knew there was something to be said for blood after all. Even if it so often ended up all over his coat.
‘I’ll have some too,’ Anders suggested, momentarily carried away by the spirit of charity in the room.
Varania snorted—another sound that reminded Anders of Fenris, a dry cough or chuckle or grunt; it was so difficult to tell which, what with all the elvhen subtlety it possessed. ‘Fine,’ she said. ‘Suit yourself. But when you’re getting rid of it at both ends later, don’t say I didn’t warn you.’
‘Sister,’ Fenris warned.
‘Brother,’ Varania replied, before the dull squelch and dry clack of her stew hit his bowl with a pointed clump, and Anders wished he hadn’t been quite so charitable, after all.
To say that it was strange to have another person in their house was an understatement so vast that Leto no longer found the need to contemplate it. It simply was, enormous and awkward and chuckling at odd intervals in the guttering candlelight, smelling of biscuits and elfroot and clean bandages, with a flyaway lock of hair pressed against the corner of its brow. Of his brow, Leto amended, and glanced away, to the stain on the far wall, where Varania had once thrown a bowl of stew in anger, and neither of them, in their stubbornness, had ever decided to clean it.
Leto saw no reason to be ashamed of this place they called home—they did not refer to it as such often, in any case—like some other, more prideful individual might. There was nothing within, which meant there was nothing to steal, and should anyone be foolish enough not to realize the necessity for that state of affairs then they were too foolish to consider in the first place.
It was important, surrounded by so many who had so little, to have nothing at all. In that sense, one avoided cultivating jealousy—jealousy, which was attention; attention, which Leto did not want.
There were two beds, more comfortable than sleeping on the floor or in an alley, and the hinges of the door were left un-oiled so that they would make noise, if someone chose to open them in the night. Whenever the thatching above them broke, Leto fixed it at once, and that was all they needed.
A good, solid roof was more important than anything else.
But Leto recognized there were times when Varania wished for more—the smell of biscuits baking, perhaps, or a detail less intangible, like fresh flowers actually unfurling their petals in an uncracked vase. Still, what he gave her was more important than those little things. If she did not see it clearly, she would at least benefit from it, invisible as it was.
Across the table, Anders leaned back into his chair with a sigh—the thump of his palm against cloth and flesh and stiff metal buckles as he patted his stomach—followed by a more prominent creak. He wobbled—the chair was treacherous, and since they had no visitors, Leto had not felt any pressing need to fix it—then steadied himself against the table, running his potion-stained fingers along the burnt edge of wood before him, its black-creased whorls, the hole in the ragged knot.
Leto waited for the question that was sure to come—about the state of the kitchen, the dining room, the bedroom and the guest room, all of them together, and how anyone could live this way, some inane chatter that missed the point entirely. But Anders merely sighed a second time, and glanced—almost reluctantly—at the candle beside him, the loose, melted wax running along the rough-beaten metal.
‘It’s late,’ he said.
Leto wondered if all the entertaining of guests and visitors involved indulging such obvious and pointless statements. No one should offer the truth as though it was a topic of conversation, as though it required acknowledgment in order to maintain its pertinence.
‘You just want to get off without cleaning the dishes afterward,’ Varania said, inexplicably fond. ‘I’d know an excuse like that from hexes away. My brother uses it all the time. It’s late,’ she added, voice suddenly pitched low, and Leto raised a brow when he realized who she was imitating. ‘And then, off he goes, not realizing how hard it is to scrub dried stew off everything.’
‘Brothers,’ Anders agreed, sparing a look of gentle apology for Leto, when it was neither warranted nor appreciated. ‘Not that I’d know. I don’t have one, myself. But I’ve always imagined—which I like to think is halfway toward reality already.’
‘It is not,’ Leto muttered.
‘Brother,’ Varania said. Then, not without a certain touch of slyness, too much formality, reminding Leto of all the things they were not meant to be to one another, ‘Fenris.’
The name was not hers to use. She never called him that, not even when she was angry. The way she said it, with that arch of her brow, reminded Leto of why they were here—why they were all here, Anders included in that estimation, and why Leto had been at the clinic, and why Varania was now entangled in this mess.
The mess itself, so much stickier than her stew, festered and roiled just below the surface, still hot, and still a point of interest.
Leto clenched his jaw. Varania patted the back of Anders’s hand.
‘…But,’ she concluded, ‘since you did so much work on supper, and yours was the only food any of us could eat tonight, I’ll spare you. This time. Oh, and don’t worry about getting back to the clinic. My brother will take you. He is your guard, after all. I’d say it’s the least he can do.’
‘Not the least,’ Leto said, because that was the truth. The least he could do was see Anders to the door, and no further than that. No—the least he could do was remain seated, while Anders showed himself out without further fanfare.
There was always, Leto had discovered, less. Just as there was always more—but the former was generally a more pertinent distinction.
But if less was all he deigned to offer, then he’d be cleaning bowls of Varania’s stew off the walls later. For reasons he couldn’t predict or entirely understand, his sister was clearly fond of the healer. Perhaps she saw something of herself in his plight; that was not for Leto to guess. Sometimes, he could only accept and obey her wishes, and hope to keep the weight of the burden they now shared from settling on her shoulders.
Already, what had seemed like a simple job was growing more tangled by the hour.
Leto had no desire to speak with Athenril about the work she’d assigned him. If he kept a tight hold on the situation, there would be no need to admit he was out of his depth, caught in such an ungainly snare.
‘…If you’re sure that’s all right.’ Anders’s eyes darted between them like a mouse’s, when it was confronted by two cats. With those feathers, he looked more like a dirty pigeon—which Leto knew from experience were all gristle beneath the down.
‘It isn’t far,’ Leto replied. He turned away, adjusting the fall of his sword at his back. It was light work, but the metal was still heavy enough that his shoulders ached after a full day of wearing it. Swinging the weapon employed different muscles, but there had been no cause to fight today in Darktown.
Even if those urchins and their rhymes did grow tiresome.
‘If you hurry, you’ll be able to make it back before the gates close,’ Varania added. There was a clatter of dishes as she piled everything together into one tall stack. That was how she’d broken their set the first time; she and Leto had spent a cold winter’s day with the pieces spread out on the floor, a bottle of runny glue between them and two artless brushes as they fit the plates back together, crack to crack. It was not a fond memory—it was more a cold one—but at the same time, it was not altogether unpleasant. ‘Although my brother’s been known to climb them if he gets home past curfew—so you see, there’s a reason why he’s so skinny after all. It isn’t all about my cooking.’
Anders laughed, though his eyes, crinkling at the corners, were on Leto in the shadows, not on Varania by the slop sink, and there was something about the curve of his lips that seemed familiar. It was Varania’s fondness, Leto realized, only turned in his direction, while he could yet see it—and not coming from the one person who still had reason to indulge that fondness, either.
The healer did not fear him, then. Anders liked him—or was amused by him; those two were different beasts—and Leto couldn’t begin to imagine why.
He was not the sort of person who amused others, much less himself. Athenril had told him that much on countless occasions.
‘Come,’ Leto said, beckoning with a flick of his fingers. Candlelight glinted off the tips. He did not relish the prospect of leaving Varania in the house at such a late hour, but there was nothing else to be done, and he knew she could look after herself in a pinch.
That did not mean he had to be comfortable with the idea, however.
‘Coming at once,’ Anders agreed, scrambling out of his chair with one of his absurd smiles: wide and scruffy, as though he believed he’d spent the evening with the closest of friends, rather than a prickly pair of alienage elves. ‘Thank you again for your hospitality. Perhaps I might return the favor sometime? Although we don’t have what you could call a kitchen in the back… Mostly we eat standing up—bread and cheese and mold, that sort of thing. If you’re careful to pinch off the mold first, it’s actually surprisingly satisfying. The fuzzy green bits lend it such a piquant flavor—’
‘Come now,’ Leto amended. Before he could think better of it, he latched one hand around Anders’s bandaged wrist, tugging him toward the door with a forcefulness mere words never accomplished.
Some people just couldn’t take a hint.
‘Take care, brother,’ Varania called after them as she loaded their dishes into the small sink. ‘I’ll see you back at the clinic tomorrow, Anders. Now that I have a job, I won’t be so late this time. In fact, I might even get there before my brother.’
Varania already had a job, Leto wanted to remind her—and one that paid, however minimally—but that was a conversation for another time.
Working with Nyssa might not have been fulfilling, but it kept her safe. There was no reason for her to endanger her life and her freedom by sewing cuts and mending bones for fools who’d call her knife-ear and trade her in at the first flash of copper. She was an elf, and not a Fereldan, and whatever meager loyalty they had for one of their own—apostate or otherwise—they would not show for her.
That much, even in so uncertain a city as Kirkwall, remained a true constant.
Leto had all the makings of a foul mood as they strode out into the darkened alienage courtyard, many-colored candles glittering amidst the vhenadahl’s roots. But a full belly went a long way toward soothing his less generous feelings, and it was difficult to work up a proper head of steam when the fragrant scent of biscuits still hung heavy in his nose, caught somewhere on the sharp spikes of his pauldrons.
‘I’d compliment your sister’s cooking, but I have this crazy idea that she’s not your favorite topic of discussion,’ Anders offered, because he so abhorred a silence, keeping pace with Leto as they passed the tree and left it behind them. His shoulders were broader than the shabby coat made them appear from a distance, and he had longer legs than Leto had first noticed.
Good. It would not be a tedious trip.
‘Are you in the habit of lying?’ Leto asked. They made their way up the narrow steps leading from—but more often to—the alienage, Anders a half-pace behind as Leto kept his eyes open for the city guard. They were not doing anything illegal, and yet the guard so often found reason to harass elves simply for walking freely through Lowtown. The desire to avoid unwanted attention was as keen as ever—all the more so now that Leto had a new apostate at his heels. ‘My sister has many talents, but cooking has never been one of them. She’d be the first to tell you that.’
Anders’s smile darted quickly across his face, like a pulled seam drawing taut in the fabric. ‘Well—perhaps I thought you’d like discussing her real talents even less.’
That was not something to smile about.
A few guards, their uniforms obvious even in the moonlight, shifted around a familiar corner in the neighboring hex, just beyond the popular Hanged Man. Kirkwall’s city guardsmen could always be counted on to patrol that area with especial vigor; whenever it was too cold, or too hot, too early or too late for their patrol, they dipped in through the swinging door for something to eat and, more importantly, something to drink, leaving the streets empty, save for its thugs.
At Leto’s shoulder, Anders peered forward, feathers tickling a bare stretch of skin on the back of his upper arm, between two straps of comfortable leather. He twitched, while Anders attempted—and did not succeed—to understand what Leto was looking at, or rather, what it was he saw.
‘…Guards,’ Leto said. He despised the indulgence of it, but it was better than letting Anders become distracted by his own hapless line of questioning. ‘I am an elf, armored and not alone. The sword you took such offense to earlier will have the same effect on them. They will take issue with it—tell me I must return to my proper place, the alienage, especially at this hour. Then, when I refuse, they will try to…‘rough me up,’ and I will harm them, and it will prove troublesome.’
‘Oh.’ Anders breathed against the back of Leto’s neck. ‘All that from peering around a corner?’
‘I have had experience in this matter,’ Leto replied.
Anders, at least, possessed the wherewithal to lower his voice. ‘I’ve had experiences too,’ he murmured. ‘Some bad, some good, but none of them’s ever been enough for me to learn from them, apparently.’
‘Ah,’ Leto said. He allowed his tone to carry the full weight of his opinions on the matter; it was pointless to elaborate. And Anders seemed to catch the meaning of it readily enough, clasping his hands behind the small of his back, biting his lower lip—almost like an urchin himself, caught by its parent while sharing a particularly unfunny rhyming couplet with its friends.
‘All right,’ Anders said. ‘So you’re not impressed by my witticisms. I was only half-joking, you know. I mean, I must be doing something right, since I haven’t been caught yet.’
‘You depend too much on circumstance,’ Leto informed him.
‘Not just circumstance.’ Anders stepped double-time to keep up, while Leto led them through an alternate hex, around the back of the Hanged Man, into which a collection of sweat-stinking raiders were currently spilling their guts. It was an argument or it was camaraderie—amongst such people, Leto never cared to tell, partly because he never could—but either way it was violent, and equally distracted. No one noticed them as they slipped through the shadows, unimportant to revelry, strangers in the night. ‘Also friends. Very patient friends. Very difficult friends, too, but I give them as much as I get, so I figure it’s all even.’
They stopped again, just across the main stretch of the Lowtown bazaar. But all was still in the empty marketplace—it was as Leto expected, most of that evening’s patrol spending their time and training and someone else’s ill-earned coin on drinks within the taproom.
‘I don’t see any guards, Fenris,’ Anders whispered.
Leto’s skin prickled, remembering the brush of warm breath beneath his ear and the tickle of feather-tips above his elbow. ‘That is because there are none,’ he replied, voice taut as one of Athenril’s arching-rogue’s bowstrings. He shook the feeling off, but was unable to shake Anders off, too—he was as determined as a shadow at noon, though he was far more talkative.
That made all the difference.
As a whole, persistence was an admiral trait—when applied in its proper place, with adequate purpose and sensible jurisdiction. This was directionless, ambling, ridiculous, and Leto took the steps from Lowtown more quickly, without sparing a single glance for the waters beneath, the thick swish of the algae in one of the sewers passing deep underground as they took the long way back to Darktown.
‘Don’t you think it’s funny?’ Anders asked. He didn’t sound breathless, long, human legs making quick work of their long, human strides. ‘That you’re a guard guarding me from other guards—while they don’t guard anything at all?’
‘I don’t,’ Leto replied.
‘No,’ Anders agreed. ‘I didn’t think you would.’
The obvious question—then why did you ask it?—remained unspoken.
‘Which leads me to wonder, really, what you do think is funny,’ Anders continued. ‘Obviously funny things are out of the question. Do you laugh at inappropriate moments? Do you enjoy ghastly puns? Are you the sort who giggles uncontrollably at violence? I hope not,’ Anders added, coming out in front for a moment, tugging at a poorly-mended hole in his sleeve. ‘I never get along with people like that. I find them a bit too scary.’
‘I don’t…’ Leto began. It felt familiar; he’d said it before, and recently, and Anders was the type to notice, the type to care. It shouldn’t matter. It didn’t matter. ‘…There is little reason to laugh in Kirkwall.’
‘Don’t tell me you don’t laugh at all,’ Anders said.
So Leto told him nothing.
The way to Darktown from Lowtown was more complicated than it should have been—more complicated than the way to Hightown, ironically—winding through a system of back-alleys and bilge-wrecked gutters, the occasional drunk reaching out to them for agreement in a lonely debate, or a Fereldan woman dressed scantly, with nervous, scouring eyes. Sometimes there were boys, as well, with tears in their trousers and dirt in their hair.
Anders kept his head down. Perhaps he believed his words would act as shield between the truth of the city and some better place—a place that did not, in Leto’s understanding, exist at all.
But there seemed to be some other reason for Anders’s chatter, not just to guard him against the dark. Living in Darktown already, surely he was used to that state of affairs, to shadow upon more shadow, so strong it no longer needed the reassurance of light.
It was something personal, then. Almost as though he wished to say something else, and settled for saying all these other, lesser words instead.
There was no time to consider it. They came out through a twisted passageway and onto the stairs below the clinic, its doors closed up above, nothing between them but a long stretch of narrow shadow in the unlit street. Anders squinted into the darkness; Leto saw him pass his hand over his face, a quiet motion, at last pushing that hair back off his skin and behind his ear.
It didn’t stay there. It listened about as little as Anders himself.
Leto opened his mouth to draw some closure from their evening stroll, but Anders kept that hand in place, holding it still and tense in the air just over Leto’s chestpiece.
There, by the left side of the clinic door, one of the shadows moved. Without any light to guide them, shadows could not achieve that on their own. Leto reached for his sword, and felt the distant pull of arcane fire along his skin, while something sparked, muted but still there, at Anders’s fingertips.
Leto knew there would never be a spell cast that did not draw upon his lyrium, but it put them at a disadvantage nonetheless: two glowing fools who should have known better, who should have stayed hidden in the dark.
Leto, at least, was accustomed to being inconspicuous everywhere he went. Because of who he was, and also what he was, though both were different shades of heaviness.
‘Well,’ an unfamiliar voice announced, their shadow-swathed stranger too talkative to be a Coterie or Carta assassin, ‘this sort of hesitation will never do. If you’re going to cast, cast—because if I was here to kill you, I’d have done it already.’
If I was here to kill you, I’d have done it already.
Anders knew only one man with the stones to make such a claim in the middle of Darktown, and what was worse, he recognized the voice that went with it. That Malcolm Hawke was here this late instead of with his loving wife and many well-dressed children was an ill-omen indeed, and Anders quenched the spark in his fingertips. Bright lanterns drew listeners like moths to a flame; in the dark, the hazy glimmer of Fenris’s skin seemed all the more obvious.
He cracked his neck, and the lyrium light extinguished.
‘To what do I owe the pleasure?’ Anders asked, realizing it was up to him to bridge the gap, since Karl wasn’t conveniently there to do it for them. ‘Did one of your ‘boys’ twist an ankle? I’d be happy to take a look at it, but as you can see, we happen to be closed at the minute, so you’ll have to come back in the morning—’
Malcolm sighed, a soft huff as he shifted free from the shadows that concealed him. Light from someone’s distant cooking fire shifted over his troubled features, the dark beard and the long, thin braid that framed one side of his face.
Whenever Anders saw it, he was overcome with the inappropriate urge to give it a tug.
It was nothing personal, of course. Most of Anders’s strong desires were inexplicable, and also involved tugging on things he shouldn’t.
‘We’ve got trouble.’ Malcolm crossed his arms. He was wearing some sort of house robe set, the color of faded brick with purple embroidery. It looked like a present—a gift picked out by a wife or daughter. When he’d left the estate, he hadn’t thought to change; either that, or there’d been no chance, no time. ‘Down at the docks—near the docks—one of Selby’s tunnels. That boy we were supposed to deliver? Someone sold him out. If the templars find Karl, it could throw the entire operation—not to mention what they’ll do to him.’
In a far-off alley, someone let out a shout that turned into a laugh. The sound bolted through Anders like a jagged cut of lightning from a calm sky.
Karl was on a job tonight. He was already in position, and Malcolm had come here to warn him—but he’d come too late.
‘I only just got wind of it,’ Malcolm added, as though he’d read Anders’s mind. Anders wouldn’t put it past him. The man’s instincts were too good; he had to be a blood mage of some sort. ‘Had to drag my ass out of dinner with the seneschal to get here, which means I should be kissing your fingers in gratitude. Leandra will have a boot in my ass before morning, though.’
Fenris fidgeted at Anders’s side. Anders could feel the gentle scrape of spiked pauldrons where they rubbed against a few stray feathers at his shoulder. Fenris was no scholar, clearly, but he was cleverer than most people might give him credit for. It seemed impossible that he wouldn’t guess at what they were discussing, since—for the first time in his life—Malcolm Hawke had chosen not to be frustratingly circumspect.
Fenris drew in a sharp, warning breath; Anders could hear the faint creak of his metal gauntlets flexing in the dark.
Even he knew this was inappropriate.
‘Ah…’ Anders said, mind whirring too quickly to simply accept what Malcolm was saying, its dangers and its immediacy and, most of all, its demands. He knew that Fenris suffered many of the same burdens they faced, but his first instinct was always to cultivate deniability. A lifetime of living outside the bounds of the law was a difficult habit to break, and Karl’s lessons were impossible to forget. ‘Our operation…? You mean the clinic, of course. And you’re quite right! I can’t imagine it would run very well without Karl!’
‘There’s no time for this,’ Malcolm said. He tugged at the smaller braid on the right side of his face, a clear gesture of annoyance. Anders wondered whether his hair had really been that long, once, and whether he’d had to cut it off when he entered fine Kirkwall society. ‘If you dawdle here, the templars will find Karl, and he’ll be made Tranquil. They’re spitting mad, you know.’ He cast a look in Fenris’s direction, dark eyes sizing the elf up in a mere glance. ‘I’ve seen you around the clinic. …Are you in the habit of spending time with people you don’t trust, Anders?’
Anders swallowed, which was not an answer, moving his gaze in turn toward Fenris. The elf did nothing to make himself look more trustworthy. Any other person might have smiled, or at least softened their terrifying face somewhat, so as to reassure Anders he wasn’t about to risk everything on the wrong man.
But not Fenris. He merely stared back, eyes impassive in the dark, mouth a thin blade-slash where he’d pressed his lips tightly together, an expression that didn’t even need to be a frown to get its point across. It was exactly the face he’d made during dinner, glowering at Anders over the biscuits while stuffing one into his mouth. But there was honesty in that expression, too—more honesty than Anders was used to seeing in anyone.
Also, he already knew how Fenris felt about the templars.
‘Come with us,’ Anders suggested. Perhaps it was foolish—no, it was definitely foolish—but Fenris had just as much at risk as the rest of them. It was only fair to give him the chance to fight against his oppressors, or his sister’s oppressors—which in his rare case gave him more incentive, not less.
Now that Malcolm had made the decision to trust Fenris for all of them, Anders could afford to be a little embarrassed that he hadn’t been the one to think of it first.
Fenris didn’t hesitate; he didn’t seem the sort to hesitate. Nor was he the sort to allow confusion to stop him, though this sudden breadth of trust did bring him up short. Anders’s pulse was racing too quickly to note with any specificity all the small things that were familiar to him now—the twitch of Fenris’s lips, and the answering twitch of his fingers clacking against his metal-clad palm.
‘There’s no time,’ Malcolm repeated, and started off toward a side-alley. With or without them, Anders supposed. Malcolm was the type.
Anders cast one last pleading glance in Fenris’s direction, then followed Karl’s oldest friend—because Karl deserved it, and that was at last more important than all of Anders’s misgivings. Even combined.
Fenris’s footfalls made no sound behind him, bare feet against the dirt-packed ground, but Anders knew he was following because he could hear and feel the tide of lyrium he brought with him as he moved. That wasn’t the sort to hesitate, either, though it did flicker, enough to reveal its owner’s uncertainty.
At least, Anders told himself—as badly as he never wanted Karl’s dangerous life in Kirkwall to come to this—he wasn’t headed into the underground alone. Malcolm was with him, and Fenris, and Fenris’s very big sword. And Malcolm’s staff, nestled behind a pile of rubble—and Anders’s staff, too, which Malcolm tossed his way, and Anders caught with only a slim fumble, just as they disappeared into the shadows.
‘Not exactly the team I would have chosen,’ Malcolm murmured. There were some people who managed to maintain a humorous calm despite whatever hideous trap they were about to walk into, with full knowledge of its pitfalls and snares. Anders had always wanted to be one of those people; he tried his best not to analyze it, but that was the source of all his terrible, ill-timed puns. Malcolm, on the other hand, was that person, naturally so, without having the decency to work at it, or even break a sweat while he opened trap doors in narrow cul-de-sacs and cracked a few jokes, not even breathless. ‘But I don’t mind the lyrium-elf with the beastly weapon being on our side, either. Kirkwall—the city of pinches.’
His voice, at least, sounded grim. So did the rusty squeal of the trap-door as he wrenched it open, then propped it up with the base of his staff.
‘Junior members of the party first; I insist,’ he said, and there was some urgency beneath the suggestion, while Anders suspected Malcolm thought all the joking around was for their sake, not his own.
He wanted to tell the man there was no point, that Fenris didn’t laugh at anything—and if he started now, Anders was going to be so displeased—but Fenris moved past him, mean and slinky as an alley-cat on the prowl after-hours, heading straight for the tunnel.
Attempting any sort of real-life justice makes for curious bedfellows, Karl had said once, over a cup of hot tea. He’d looked weary, and Anders had been trying to read the latest Hard in Hightown at the time—Hard Another Day, it was called—so he hadn’t considered it, beyond the base understanding, the general agreement, a distracted wiggle of his fingers and a vague bob of his head.
This was what Karl had meant: scrabbling after an elf, slipping down a greasy rope-ladder in the dark, nearly losing a boot to a squelch of dark sewage, without light, without hope, without any sort of promise this would all work out—a prospect that seemed unlikely, even despite their unexpected ally.
Anders scrambled for purchase; his fingers closed around something sharp and spiny, realizing only a split-second later that it was Fenris’s hand, his arm held steady, not wobbling in the slightest when Anders leaned against him.
Then, there was a dull thud beside them, a whoosh of displaced, wet air as Malcolm dropped into the tunnel—he was a tunnel-dropping expert, of course. That was followed by the muted clang of the manhole falling shut again above them, and a crackling wisp of light, too scant to see faces by, just bright enough to light the way ahead.
Anders didn’t want to think about how many times Malcolm had done this before. He also didn’t want to think about what he was stepping in, the wet ooze working its way through the crack in the heel of his boot and soaking his poor sock, and whatever stretched before them, what might happen to Karl if they were too slow or the smells made them all faint before they were even halfway to his side.
Also, he was still clutching Fenris’s finger-guards, and the palm of his hand was starting to hurt.
‘This way, and without too much commentary on the state of Kirkwall’s sewers, if you please,’ Malcolm suggested. Anders relinquished his crushing grip—as crushing as a mage’s grip ever could be—and stumbled after him, feet sloshing through ankle-deep sewer water as he went.
If Fenris realized he was now barefoot in all of Kirkwall’s natural—and unnatural—refuse, he said nothing.
He was taking this guard thing seriously. Anders thought he could understand it better now—that the mage in question might have been his sister, just like the wild bastard of a hero in question was the closest thing Anders had to a brother—and it was possibly the anxiety of the moment, how overwhelmed Anders suddenly felt by everything, but he indulged in a feeling of wet-eyed gratitude. Not just for Fenris, either, but for Malcolm, whose steady shoulders and equally steady magic lit the way for them—Malcolm, who never once stumbled over something sticky and obscene.
Karl would be all right, Anders told himself. Karl was always all right. He had impeccable timing, after all.
Anders contemplated bracing himself against the narrow tunnel walls, guiding his way over rough-cut, sweating limestone, but when he did so one-handed, slime clung to his fingertips, and he drew them away as if they’d been burned. Maybe they had been. Maybe Kirkwall slime was capable of burning people, for all Anders knew.
It was the little details, the familiar, the recognizable and the disgusting, that kept Anders’s focus from ricocheting off the walls—or burying themselves in the acid coating streaked over the stone, any potentially useful thoughts lost to him forever amidst the muck. His breathing sounded ragged to his own ears, and he searched for equilibrium, finding it at last in the distant heartbeat of the lyrium—Fenris, no longer at his back, but coming out in front, a bleak shadow between Malcolm’s light and Anders’s face, the light itself glinting off the tattoos and making them glow in the blackness.
Anders stumbled forward. Of the three of them, he was making the most noise, but his hand was no longer shaking in its grip around his staff.
Surely that had to mean something.
At the very least, Karl might be proud of him. He hadn’t even stopped, or asked why, or shied away; he’d just done, acted without pause, because Karl had taught him well, or because he was an idiot, or because their friendship meant more than he’d ever known. Or because he’d always been capable of this, despite not wanting to be capable of anything, beyond a few stiff drinks and a few more pretty bar-wenches.
It did mean something. Anders just wasn’t sure of what that something was—not yet.
He also wasn’t sure if he was hearing things—until Malcolm stopped short and extinguished his pale flame, and Fenris’s lyrium flared, once, in warning.
Useful talent, that.
‘…Smugglers, from the sound of it.’ Malcolm’s whispered voice housed something weary, something close to a sigh. Not at all defeated, Anders thought, and almost affectionate, in the most raw and natural sense, equal parts fond as parts annoyed. ‘Ah, Kirkwall. It’s always something. Wouldn’t want them getting in the way, now would we?’
Fenris stepped forward, reaching back to wrap an armored hand around the long pommel of his sword. ‘We have little time for diversions,’ he repeated, as though he’d absorbed Malcolm’s immediacy through that thick leather armor.
Then again, Anders had long suspected that Fenris was the sort who liked to hurry others onward.
‘No—I’ll handle them,’ Malcolm said, creeping forward along the slimy rock face. He glanced over his shoulder, and Anders felt glad his expression couldn’t be read in the dark. He felt like a child losing its favorite blanket, empty-handed and insecure. He even reached out after Malcolm’s disappearing shadow, before realizing his foolishness, and wiping his palm against the front of his coat. ‘You two head on—we haven’t the time for distractions, and the rendezvous point is just past that outcropping. There aren’t any diverging tunnels after that, so I’d say it’s impossible for you to get lost no matter how hard you try. Just head them off, and I’ll catch up with you once I’ve finished with this lot.’
Anders didn’t like the sound of that, didn’t want their most experienced ally leaving them to deal with the real trouble, but what could he do? Any time they wasted arguing was time Karl couldn’t afford. Fenris had been the one to point that out. How could Anders accept any less?
‘All right,’ Anders whispered. He drew away from the wall, peering around the corner before he veered off to the left. He didn’t look back for Malcolm, but he felt the hum of lyrium-song in the hollows of his bones as Fenris followed after.
This line-up was all wrong. Anders wasn’t made to be a leader, but he’d had the duties thrust upon him nonetheless. It wasn’t the sort of expectation he could drop like a mug of scalding tea.
Instead, he squeezed through the narrow crevice in the rocky passage Malcolm had pointed out, then waited, bedraggled, for Fenris on the other side.
Lucky thing he was so thin—otherwise he’d have never have made it with that sword on his back. Karl himself often complained that he wouldn’t fit through the gap anymore if Lirene kept inviting him over for supper, and the reason they continued to use this tunnel at all was because it was impassable for broad, bulky templars in full regalia to follow them past a certain point. Likewise, it was never a problem for most mages, slender adults and gawky children, only the hems of their robes tearing on the walls.
‘Through here.’ Fenris strode ahead, the light from his skin reflecting double in his eyes. He glanced at Anders as they passed one another, and the memory of arcane fire stirred in Anders’s chest.
It was up to Anders to light their way, now that Malcolm had been waylaid for another purpose.
He cupped his hand around the flame and did his best not to think about the trouble that might be lying in wait as they hurried along, pale flickers lapping at his fingertips. Here, at least, there was less sewage; Anders’s boots fell against packed earth, and there were little green ferns growing out of the floor, springing fully-formed from the shells of broken down crates.
These were the channels that smugglers had favored in the old days, before the cave-in at the end had made this route less than ideal for carting stolen lyrium out of the city.
Anders held the light in his hand aloft and kept his eyes on Fenris’s back, the gentle swing of his sword where it settled between his shoulders, the tip resting somewhere between his knees. Later, when they had time to talk, Anders would have to come up with some way to thank him—if there was any way to thank someone for risking his life.
He was also going to have to come up with a suitable apology for Varania, and that would be even more impossible.
Just as the tricky concept of time and distance began to blur together in one restless cloud of anxious nothing, Fenris halted. Anders had to work quickly not to blunder into him, extinguishing the lamp in his hand and shaking out his wrist.
In the distance, another lantern was wobbling just beyond the edge of the tunnel. Anders could hear whispers, and the faint scrabble of boots on rock.
‘Karl,’ Anders murmured, and Fenris hissed at him.
‘Follow me,’ he whispered, breath as gentle as a dockyard’s summer breeze.
Fenris moved like a spider down the narrow corridor, pace deliberate but swift. Anders nearly had to jog in order to maintain the same pace, but he was keeping a sharp ear open for templars all the same. Between their own footsteps, he thought he could hear something metallic, the scrape of armor on rock as their assailants fought their way toward them. Just the faintest clamor, but Anders’s ears had been trained to recognize that much.
The mouth of the tunnel spat them out into an open space, low ceiling but wide walls, dark save for the weakening halo of light Anders glimpsed from behind a solid crate.
That settled it. Templars did not hide themselves when confronted with an elf and a mage; it would have destroyed their reputation.
‘Karl?’ Anders repeated, louder this time.
‘Anders…?’ Karl answered, as though he didn’t dare believe it. A familiar, graying head popped up like an aged daisy from behind the crate; next to him, Anders saw the blond crown of someone else’s brow shimmer in the lantern-light, likely belonging to their downy target. ‘And here I was, expecting templars. I’d almost thought we were done for.’
‘You told me you had everything under control,’ said a plaintive voice, muted through the rotten wood, giving way to a whine Anders felt and commiserated with in the most primal possible sense. ‘You said we were going to be fine!’
‘And so we are,’ Karl replied. He rose to his feet, relinquishing the advantage of their hidden location. If he was distressed by Fenris’s presence, wandering around the cave to examine for structural weaknesses, he didn’t let on—though Anders did see the moment when Karl noticed, when the lines of worry beneath his beard turned to something tart and arch. Anders shrugged. ‘…Though we do have the templars on our heels, I’m afraid. But four against five makes for much better odds.’
‘Three and a half, really,’ Anders said, peering over the edge of the crate to observe their company. He was young, still growing, all awkward elbows and the shifting features of a face that didn’t yet know what it wanted to be when it grew up. Anders offered him a wave, and he stared in return, as though Anders had pincers for fingers.
It was the moment of calm before the actual storm—a feint, for lack of a better term, just enough hope lit in a heart that should have remained wary to the last. Anders wondered if Karl hadn’t been wrong, if Malcolm hadn’t been misinformed—if the templars hadn’t been tipped off, or if they were lost somewhere in the tunnels, sweating beneath their silverite, the sun-shields doing nothing to speed their progress.
But Anders should have known better.
The templars always came.
It was an extension of the inevitable, a life Anders supposed he’d always know. His own, without fail, despite hope, eventually extinguishing the need or the possibility for hope at all.
He heard it in the distance, a real clang, the hiss of a sword unsheathed, metal upon metal, heavy-armored gauntlets resting upon polished hilts. Anders tried to remind himself of what he knew, what Karl said about the odds, Malcolm somewhere in the tunnels beyond—a rogue element, who might tip the scales at the last second. If he managed to deal with his smugglers, first.
Then, there was only the hum of lyrium, the shout of orders, the organized clang of bootfalls and a blast at the narrow entrance, nestled amidst rock and more rock. When the dust cleared, the light from Karl’s lantern glinted across the brow of a square helm, the flat eye-slit cut beneath, before he extinguished it.
After that, there was chaos.
Anders’s first instinct was to dive behind the crates, which he did, still holding his staff steady despite the rest—it was the one thing he could cling to, something solid and real. Slim help in close quarters, perhaps, when he didn’t want to set all his allies on fire alongside his enemies, but it was the difference between being sliced in two and not being sliced in two. He didn’t drop it.
‘Afraid?’ he asked the lad, noting the curious shape of his nose, the pale color of his almost elvhen eyes.
‘Yes,’ the lad replied, ashamed of what he was admitting, but unable to avoid the truth of it.
That was the one thing—beyond the sparkle in their fingers—they all had in common. Maybe the fear meant more than the magic, after all.
‘Me too,’ Anders said. ‘But that’s templars for you.’
One of Karl’s force spells knocked the first two templars back; Anders watched as they staggered, dazed, bashing into one another like dwarven twelve-pins. His fingers tightened against the splintering wood, frozen—for a disgraceful moment—exactly where he was: crouched behind a stack of old crates, amidst a collection of blossoming tubers, which were far better at eking out their existence than he was at his.
Anders’s breath caught in his throat; at least he was shielding the young apostate from the force of the blast, from the clatter of armor as it went flying, from swords dropped and blunt air reeling even more hot and even more pungent toward them, shattering the rotten wood like an armored fist. The entire tunnel around them shuddered from the impact; dust and bits of dirt loosened from above and fell onto their heads, and Anders brought up an arcane shield around them at last, even knowing the spell would draw attention to them.
He’d done enough—or rather, he’d done too little. Now, the lad was safe beneath the awning of his spell, and the others were free to act.
And hopefully, they wouldn’t tear the sewers to pieces with them.
There was a narrow window of time for defeating this current group of templars and escaping the next; templars always had backup, and they also had to consider how obvious the fight was, rumbling just below the city streets. Someone would notice, eager to catch a copper or two for being the quickest to spread the news.
They were trapped in the deep, in the darkness, Kirkwall’s garbage amidst more garbage.
Karl was good, but no one was good enough to take out five templars in quick order like that. Reinforcements would be coming, soon, which meant that Anders had to leave the shelter of his arcane shield and pitch in.
He swallowed, steadying the spell, reaching forward to pull himself to his feet. His knees did feel as though they were made of water, but surely they wouldn’t fail him now. If his back twinged in protest, he didn’t even feel it—the force of his blood racing hot through his veins covering those smaller sensations, the ones he made such a big deal of in order to mimic, without danger, this adrenaline rush. Feeling this alive.
But he was just a fraction too slow—because before Karl could rally himself for another spell, and before Anders could send a quick flash of lightning through the second rank, frying them where they stood, Fenris was there, all sword and spikes and snarls, brighter than the brightest light in all of Kirkwall, like the white-blue heat at the center of a flame.
Anders’s mouth hung open. Karl sagged against the neighboring rock to catch his breath. Fenris’s sword swung in a wide arc, scattering his enemies like lesser men cut through soft butter for their bread.
Malcolm, in his infinite wisdom, had been right. He’d taken a gamble on an unknown variable for the safety of his friend, the efficiency of these proceedings, and the templars hadn’t once been prepared for a physical assault, or a close-ranged attack.
One scrambled on the floor to reach his shield. Anders stopped him where he was, the crackle of chain-lightning electrifying his armor, making him twitch in place before he finally stilled. Not dead—just very warm, and very disoriented, brains feeling as scrambled as Anders’s biscuit-dough.
Fenris knocked them down; Anders kept them down. And Karl moved to grab the lad, gesturing toward their secret exit.
‘This way,’ he hissed, amidst the moans of the fallen templars—no more pretty a sound in all of Thedas, Anders was beginning to suspect.
Fenris was still glowing, a ghost made entirely of lyrium, too bright to look at, not to mention too hot to touch.
The last tickle of lightning passed through Anders’s fingertips. His hair was all on-end, frazzled from the pure static of it, so much expended in such close quarters. But lightning was easier to contain than fire, and also particularly good for dealing with fools who clad themselves in so much metal—stubborn bastards to the last, sacrificing common sense for templar fashion.
‘Fenris,’ Anders said.
For a moment, he thought it wouldn’t work. It wasn’t the right name, or at least, it wasn’t one Fenris recognized. Instead he remained where he was, body still as a statue, though the lyrium was alive with movement, pulsing and flowing—the words, and Anders’s voice, couldn’t break through the Fade itself, and he wondered if Fenris would just stand sentinel forever, met with wave after wave of approaching templars until the Knight-Commander herself squared off against him.
They couldn’t do that. They didn’t have the time; Anders didn’t have the energy left, or the patience. He also couldn’t leave Fenris where he was, especially since he was here because of them in the first place.
Anders thought of what Varania would say, and shielded his eyes against the lyrium light with the palm of his free hand. It gave him a bit of a shock, skin on skin, and he shivered all the way down to the base of his spine, the center of his belly.
‘Fenris,’ he said again, louder. He reached out, and touched his arm, where the glpwing skin was bare between two strips of dark leather.
There was electricity in that touch, too.
The spell fell. Fenris turned to look at him—no longer staring at the bodies ranged by his feet, the dents in the armor swallowed by shadow as the light of Fenris’s body winked out.
‘Come on,’ Anders said, gesturing with his staff. Fenris shied away from it, face hard and accusatory—or maybe that was just the effect of the darkness.
Then, he nodded, and followed Karl into the tunnels, with Anders bringing up the rear. Always behind everyone else—only this time, it meant more than his usual reluctance: that there were people to protect, and only he was meant to do it.
Even when they found themselves surrounded once more by fresh air, Leto did not feel free again.
Instead, his freedom—though he knew this was not the truth, only how he felt—had been left amongst the fallen templars, a sundered and separate body itself, the casualty of an offensive he’d no more intended than he could now understand.
It had happened. It was the height of foolishness. And now he was somewhere near the Wounded Coast, the smell of sea-water more fresh and more vile than the unrecognizable bilge that baked in the sunlight by the Kirkwall docks. The stench and scope reminded him of the long, feverish boat trip Varania had secured for them—in a manner of speaking—from Treviso all the way to the City of Chains itself.
They should have known by the name they’d be happier somewhere else. Now, it seemed too cruel a coincidence that two fugitives from Tevinter would make port in a city once famous for cultivating magister slaves.
Then again, that was in keeping with Leto’s usual streak of uncommon luck.
Luck, too, seemed to dictate that, while Leto had not been born a mage, he would forever be surrounded by apostates. He’d been surprised to recognize the boy—Arianni’s son, and one she took great pains to conceal from the rest of the alienage. Leto had always assumed it was more to do with Feynriel’s half-human blood than anything; those who were neither one thing nor the other always had it the hardest, especially when there was so little to be had, and Feynriel’s features made him an easy mark: eyes set too widely for their size, ears pointed but small and flat like a human’s, and even the bridge of his nose hadn’t made up its mind to be straight or bent, human or elvhen. Sometimes, Leto was struck with the absurd urge to press a finger against Feynriel’s brow and force it into a decision, to be one thing or the other, and not some uncommon combination of neither and both.
Feynriel took no notice of Leto’s pointed attention, toeing instead at the sand with a wretched crook to his mouth. The apostate Karl had helped him out of the tunnel one-handed, but beyond that gesture left him to his thoughts, clouded as they were, in order to check the shoreline for any unwanted guests.
As though Leto had not taken care of all the templars, in one way or another, without a man left to give chase.
Almost killing an enemy took far more skill than murdering him outright, but Leto knew the way of that challenge, inside and out.
Despite his private feelings, which insisted all templars deserved whatever they got for running down frightened apostates in the dead of night, he couldn’t afford to be reckless. The Knight-Commander would grow even more ruthless if she began to lose her troops in the heat of battle.
And so they kept their lives. Not everyone was so lucky.
Leto hadn’t yet allowed himself to think of Varania in conjunction with this fresh offense, but a flood of memories came rushing down the pike at last, and he was not equal to their force, could not hope to stem the tide or dam the flow. He thought of their weary strides as they ran from Minrathous, with no destination but away in their minds, and no food at all in their bellies; he remembered the look on Varania’s face when they’d boarded the ship, the clutch of her hands in relief when the coastline disappeared altogether for a few, precious days. Leto had been ill below deck for most of the voyage, taken with fever and pain, allowing no one to touch him lest the burning in his skin prove contagious; he’d imagined the fire might score him from the inside out, from bone to muscle to flesh to skin, leaving Varania with nothing but a pouch of ashes in place of a brother.
It hadn’t. They’d lived through their journey, the steady bob of the waves beneath the hull of the ship a mockery of each racing heartbeat, the storm they harbored within.
Now, he watched a new apostate take his first steps along the coastline, uncertain as Varania had been of her freedom. That freedom was still as fragile as sand, and quick to slip through tightened fingers at any moment.
‘Wait—I know you,’ Feynriel said.
The sudden noise startled Anders, who’d leaned close enough to Leto that his breath gusted in a faint eddy at the side of his neck. It ran cool over the lyrium veins, then hot against his skin, and the sensation was a distraction, but not altogether an unpleasant one, as all distractions should have been.
Leto lifted his gaze, hand flexing around the sword still gripped in his clutch. He hadn’t expected to be recognized, but as Athenril was always reminding him, he was conspicuous. No matter where he went, ‘Fenris’ had the distinction of not passing completely unseen, like so many of his brethren.
He had yet to decide whether it was a boon or a curse.
As with most things, it seemed to be a little of both.
‘And I know you,’ Leto replied, when it became clear neither Karl nor Anders was going to intervene, deciding it wasn’t their place to steer the conversation back to their own interests. Why they were lingering here was a question he hadn’t yet formed, though he felt its impulse, unsteady in the swell of each idle breath.
There was no one to meet Feynriel—surely they didn’t plan to turn him loose outright.
He was older than Varania had been when they’d left home, by a good few years. But that meant nothing; she’d been far too young for such responsibility, and so was he.
‘Yes—you’re from the alienage. I’ve seen you there.’ Feynriel stepped closer, wet sand crunching beneath his soft leather boots. If Leto squinted, he could see twin reflections of his sharp silhouette in Feynriel’s eyes; Leto shifted his focus to somewhere else, Feynriel’s hair cast silver beneath the fall of moonlight. Someone, no doubt his mother, had taken the care to braid it back for him. ‘You chased off that man who was bothering my mother.’ Leto glanced away. It was true, but Feynriel had been no more than a boy at the time; he had no reason to remember such a mundane detail, casual and not unexpected, merely one more day in alienage life. ‘…Are you like me? Are…you a mage?’
Next to Leto, Anders let out a feeble chuckle. It was not a helpful reply.
‘I am not,’ Leto admitted. His skin prickled, the same as when he accidentally stuck himself with the sewing needle, crouched by some ragged tear he was meant to mend. It gave him the urge to pace, but unnecessary movement would only draw attention to their location.
They were conspicuous here. Not just Leto.
But despite being surrounded by apostates—or perhaps because he was surrounded by them—Leto stood out the most, a dull shimmer underneath a placid moon.
The answer to Feynriel’s question was perhaps more complicated than he believed. Leto could not betray Varania’s secret, but the real reason for his place amongst the others was something he no longer cared to admit—not even to himself. This was not the sort of work one dropped into on a whim, not a back-alley skirmish nor an elvhen girl harried by some fool drunk.
Leto needed a reason for everything, and yet he did not have a single one.
‘Fenris is a friend,’ Anders explained, sudden in the silence—the bare hint of a smile in his voice, too, one that Leto didn’t appreciate. He felt something ghost over his skin, and realized a moment later it was Anders’s hand, wary of the complications of armor, and also the complications of lyrium-riddled flesh. It never descended completely, but Leto felt it there all the same. ‘A friend with a very big sword, which I’ve always felt is the best sort of friend to have, really.’
‘Now, Anders,’ Karl replied dryly, ‘just because the staff is more subtle doesn’t mean you can count it out completely.’
‘But you have to admit, Karl,’ Anders said, ‘he was magnificent.’
From so close a stance, Leto could feel Anders’s skin grow warm. He wondered at it, even glancing its way—then wished he had not, upon seeing the sly quirk of Anders’s lips, the question in his eyes. More questions, when what Leto needed was more—or even any—answers.
He did not require praise for a job well done when that job was necessary. Instinct was not intended for compliments, especially when that instinct was wrong.
‘Ah,’ Leto said, and looked quickly away.
‘Our success back there’s all very well and good,’ Feynriel muttered, ‘if it can be called a success, but what are we going to do now? What am I supposed to do out here?’
The tone of his voice, set on the uneven slant of a shivering whine, recalled some of the difficulties Arianni faced, some of the difficulties Feynriel himself presented. He was at an age—Leto barely remembered being that age himself, but he remembered Varania at that age, the stubbornness that somehow, despite its not inconsiderable strength, intensified daily. That was when the most plates had been broken. That was the source of so many familiar food stains on the wall, above Leto’s bed, beside the slop-sink, near the boarded up window, and so on.
‘I mean, we can’t just stand here waiting,’ Feynriel added, shuffling through the damp sand, arms wrapped tightly around himself to fend off an invisible chill. ‘They’re bound to find us, and take me in, and then I’ll never be free. You— You have to take me to the Dalish.’
‘The Dalish?’ A fresh voice caused Leto’s alarm to flare—and the lyrium followed suit—but he did recognize it, and it was only that small detail that kept Malcolm Hawke from being the latest victim in the evening’s carnage. ‘Now why would you want to do a damn fool thing like that?’
Leto eased his posture, though he watched carefully as the man tugged himself from the mouth of the tunnel, nimble and incautious, brushing sand off his robe. It appeared incongruous, soft red velvet tinted dark as a shadow in the moonlight, without even a blood stain to inform them of his luck in other endeavors.
‘Always a grand entrance,’ Karl muttered.
Leto looked Anders’s way once more. Anders caught him at it—of course—and shrugged.
‘Apostates,’ he said. ‘We don’t have much, so we have to be dramatic.’
‘So I see,’ Leto replied.
Hawke fished his staff out of the darkness behind him, then leaned against it—perhaps to catch his breath, or perhaps to look self-satisfied. It was difficult to determine which, and Leto saw no reason to try. At least the tunnels were not crawling with templars—not yet, though by dawn’s first light, they would be—and their latest annoyances were nothing more than that: annoyances. Troublesome as they were, Leto knew the difference between a buzzing fly and a lion’s roar.
He frowned at Hawke nonetheless.
‘Such a grand welcome for a man soon to be murdered by his wife.’ Hawke shook his head, flicking the braid over his shoulder. ‘No mercy amongst apostates—that should be the phrase. I would have joined you sooner, but it seems you’ve all gone mad without me. The Dalish, Feynriel? Really?’
‘I have nowhere else to go,’ Feynriel replied, stubborn to a fault. Leto recognized the set of his jaw too easily. He soured despite himself. ‘I had to run away. My mother is no better than the templars—she wanted to turn me in.’
‘If you believe that,’ Leto informed him, ‘then you are the worst kind of fool there is.’
‘What I think Fenris is trying to say,’ Anders added quickly, ‘is…well, I’m not sure what it is. But probably something nice about your mother. Isn’t that right, Fenris?’
Leto sheathed his sword, eyes not leaving Feynriel’s face. ‘I said what I meant. That is all.’
From the mouth of the tunnels, Hawke let out a quick, deep laugh. ‘This is rich,’ he said. ‘Better than the Satinalia shows I’ve been forced to sit through in my time. Right then. Feynriel, don’t be an ass; elf, don’t scare the boy with that sword; and Karl, do you think you might take the lad on? Teach him a few things? Things beyond how to frolic in the woods and calm the Halla with a well-timed glance and all that—things that are actually useful to actual people in the actual Free Marches.’
Leto snorted. He had no ties to the Dalish; it was late—or early—and though he knew there was no humor in the situation, there was something about the image that was…accurate.
Hawke’s eyes flashed in the shadows. Karl sighed. Anders shifted, an anxious indulgence, one that drew upon Leto to do the same, though it all seemed ludicrous now.
He shuffled away, putting some distance between himself and the press of Anders’s broad shoulders beneath their tickling feathers, though despite the space Leto still felt his presence, something warm in the lingering dark.
He did not know what to make of it.
‘Sounds cozy,’ Karl said at last. ‘Now what about…this?’
It took Leto a moment to realize what he meant—that his gesture, a broad, work-creased palm and steady fingers—was for Leto, their unexpected ally, the one who did not fit in and rather stood out. Leto held his ground despite the scrutiny, challenging it, though Karl’s expression wasn’t necessarily combative.
It was better to prepare first, to take chances never. Leto’s best defenses were offensive by their very nature.
‘I’ll take care of it,’ Hawke promised. ‘I know him. I can vouch for him.’
‘You do?’ Karl asked, at the same time as Anders made a startled sound.
‘…You do?’ Anders repeated, a clarification of that sound, as though he thought it necessary.
Leto’s eyes narrowed. Something was amiss.
‘All that for another time.’ Hawke waved his hand, not dangerous, but it might have been. There was entirely too much of it now, words that were untrue, motions that obscured other, more pertinent details. ‘Take the lad back to the clinic. He’ll appreciate a hot cup of what you Darktowners call tea and some shut-eye. Anders, too, for that matter.’
‘It’s true,’ Anders agreed, lightly, though there was a crease around his eyes that suggested he felt anything but light.
It didn’t matter; Leto noticed it, then discarded it, still watching Hawke warily.
‘Will we see you again soon?’ Anders asked. He was lingering. Leto despised lingering. ‘I know it’s not exactly the best night we could have shown you, but…’
‘Come on, Anders,’ Karl said. He drew the others away down the coast, three unprotected mages, one dragging his bootheels in long, deep rakes through the wet sand. Leto watched them go, a sudden breeze rifling the feathers gathered at Anders’s shoulders, tangling his loose hair.
‘Now,’ Hawke said, and there were only two of them, the distance whisper of the waves against the shore. ‘I think we need to talk.’
Malcolm Hawke, as it transpired, knew Athenril. And so it all made sense.
‘Normally I’m against smugglers, not for them,’ Hawke explained. He leaned comfortably against a stray boulder, its surface pitted from the ravages of salt and sand. ‘But Athenril did one of my boys a favor back when he ran afoul of some mercenaries, and she’s a decent sort. Never handles lyrium. Smart woman.’
Leto nodded, the steel tip of his index finger digging into his elbow. He wasn’t interested in understanding the connection between Hawke and his employer, although it didn’t surprise him there was one. There was always some implausible explanation, and Athenril’s reach stretched over the city like a fine spider’s web, the filaments near invisible, but always sticky and resilient. He never knew when he’d run into one, and by then it was too late.
The more he spoke with Hawke, the more it seemed that he was a man with a wide reach, too.
‘I did wonder to myself what an elf of your caliber would be doing slumming it in Darktown,’ Hawke continued, unbothered by Leto’s silence. He tugged at the bottom of his long braid, toying with it, like a child playing with a loose thread, weaving it around his forefinger. Leto could see the rest of his short hair cropped close to his skull, mostly dark, some white at the left temple. It wasn’t a Kirkwall style, but neither was it Fereldan. A man of mysterious origins, then—or perhaps he merely enjoyed keeping others guessing. ‘And don’t give me the excuse that it’s only a small step down from the alienage or some rot like that. You’re well beyond the average city elf.’
‘What makes you say that?’ Leto asked stiffly. His body felt as rigid as a creaking block of ice, as though Hawke had frozen him with a well-timed blast.
He might yet. There was no telling why he wished to linger behind with Leto alone.
Without company, there were no witnesses. The leather of Leto’s scabbard scraped the leather of his pauldrons.
Hawke’s eyebrows disappeared beneath the fall of his dark hair. Despite everything he was, Leto found himself missing Anders—who’d never made him feel like a scuttling beetle about to be crushed beneath the cracked sole of an apostate’s boot.
‘You mean aside from the heaps of pure lyrium sown into your skin like a poor joke of an investment?’ Hawke asked finally. He lifted a hand to examine his nails in the dark. ‘Oh, nothing. Nothing at all. I have a fantastic imagination, Fenris, and I suppose it gets the better of me at times.’
Leto tutted, a deeper sound of displeasure just beneath. At last he could no longer fight the urge to pace, tracking light footprints through the wet sand. It stuck between his toes, cool water running over the bare skin of his feet as the tide rose. That sensation, the cool and salty smell that came with it, and the heat of his own flesh did nothing to clear his head, although it was marginally better than slogging through Darktown’s sewers.
‘If you’ve something to say to me,’ Leto began, drawing close enough that he would not have to raise his voice, ‘then come out with it. Otherwise you waste both our time.’
‘Waste is so unforgiveable,’ Hawke agreed. Despite the menace inherent in this meeting—he knew Athenril, and had heard the name Fenris, and there was likely more beneath that still—his posture was lazy, his demeanor affable. Yet Leto knew that a friendly bargain was, in fact, a contradiction in terms. ‘And I’ve the aforementioned wife to get home to, my subsequent beheading, yes—I’m sure it’s all very dull to you.’ He crossed his arms behind his head, stretching until Leto heard a joint pop. ‘To business, then. Don’t think I don’t appreciate a man who knows how to be straightforward. Thedas does take all kinds. Here’s the long and short of it: I know why you’re here. And let me be the first to tell you, in case you haven’t worked it out for yourself—betraying us is a profitless ambition.’
Leto’s throat-plate was strangling him. He’d known, almost from the beginning—when Athenril had first suggested the plan—that it might come to this. Rich families had apostates in their midst the same as anyone else, but the margin between the poor and the wealthy was especially wide in Kirkwall. Nine times out of ten, the families they assisted would have nothing in the way of reward money—Arianni, for example, had no coin at all—and that was if they found themselves in a rewarding mood in the first place.
Most who were related to mages did not.
The Circle was still the most commonly-approved method of dealing with magic. It was, in fact, the only method. And there was no guarantee someone wouldn’t decide to turn the lot of them in at once, rescuers and their charges, for a chance at some more decent reward.
If that someone wasn’t Athenril first. There was always that possibility, too.
‘I am not—’ Leto refused to falter, and instead cast his gaze to the surf, an unhappy swell cresting in his chest, mirroring the rise and fall of distant waves. He was not a born liar. He did not share Athenril’s skill in masking the truth, avoiding it, manipulating it, or changing it for his purposes. ‘…I do not desire coin for this endeavor,’ he concluded.
That was the truth. There were so many times when the truth was all he had.
‘You may not,’ Hawke admitted. ‘But your boss—smart woman that she is—obviously does. Not a bad sort, like I said, but she didn’t get to where she is by being generous. She’ll expect some results at the end of all this, Fenris. And you’re going to be the jetsam caught between the rocks if you don’t come up with a good plan in advance.’
A lone gull let out a strangled cry from somewhere above them. Morning was approaching, swifter than Leto wanted to believe it would. There was no excuse that would make his night-long absence right with Varania. He would have to offer her the truth, as well, while already knowing it might not suffice.
‘I assume you have a recommendation,’ Leto said. It was a feint, the quick charge in battle, taken on the bare chance that he understood enough about his opponent.
Hawke was a man who liked to be in charge. He would not draw attention to a problem unless he’d already discovered the solution to it. They were not dueling, but Leto’s instincts took him always first to the fight, the desperate scrabble in the alleyway or the far-flung blows of combat in the sewers.
As in those battles, Leto had to trust in himself and his armor, since there was nothing and no one else.
Hawke sighed, but it was merely a puff of air, with no deeper meaning behind the sound. ‘Everyone’s always saying that to me, you know. I’ve solved problems for all of Kirkwall twice over, now. I know what you’re thinking: it’s a wonder they haven’t put me in charge of things. Well, officially, anyway. This dwarf I know likes to think they will one day, but I keep telling him: Kirkwall isn’t the same in real life as it is in his stories.’ He laughed, white teeth flashing in a sharp grin over his own joke. He reminded Leto of the trained dogs from Fereldan, the ones with fine collars and clever eyes. He let Hawke have the moment. ‘But it just so happens that I do know of some work that’ll turn you a profit—much more reliable coin. You’ll get Athenril off your back, and have all the time in the world to throw yourself between templars and the soft, vulnerable mages of the city. That seems to be what you’re most interested in, at present. Am I wrong?’
He was not wrong.
‘Hm,’ Leto said.
Hawke accepted it, whatever he thought it meant, whatever it did mean. It was just as much his guess as it was Leto’s. ‘The moment I saw you outside the clinic and told Lirene about you, I knew you’d be an asset,’ Hawke continued. ‘Any sword in a storm—isn’t that what they say?’
‘No,’ Leto replied, when what he meant was that it didn’t matter what they did say.
‘No matter.’ Hawke stood, reaching for his staff, a purpose that always made Leto tense and reach for his own weapon. Just because a gesture seemed innocent didn’t mean there wasn’t always another instinct behind it. Hawke noticed, and tossed the staff from one hand to the other, revealing not its secrets but its weight, as well as his intentions with it. A careless, idle reaction. He meant no harm—at least, not of the physical sort. The corner he’d backed Leto into was with words alone, and a logic behind those words. Implications didn’t wound, but they did confound, injure and hamper a limping prey. ‘So long as the lyrium’s out of this city, I don’t much care where it goes. And I promised my wife I’d be around more—retire from the old business, as it were; spend more time with the dog and the family—so it’s not as though I want to be the one fussing with the buyers, getting rid of the stuff. Doesn’t that sound like a lovely deal? Athenril gets what she wants; you get what you want; my wife gets what she wants; and I get what my wife wants. And the mage underground gets what it needs. Someone with personal stake. Someone with a giant sword.’
‘Is that my defining trait now?’ Leto asked.
He was better used to being the elf, knife-ears, or some other amalgamation of qualities, foreign to the city, foreign even to himself. What others saw in him was not always how he thought of himself—though mostly, they were right, and he was wrong.
Hawke grinned again, that flashy thing, familiar to Leto because any man playing diamondback always wore it just before he bluffed. ‘When you’re amongst mages? Of course it is.’
After that, he drew close, watching the water rise along the coast. Leto glanced over their shoulders, though no sound came from within the tunnels, not even from a distance. If the templars were busy elsewhere—redirecting their attentions to a battle they could win—then they had even less reason to dally.
The least important step in any deal, as far as Leto was concerned, was the tedious conversation that preceded it, everyone sidling toward what they wanted, approaching it from no straight angle, refusing to put all their cards flat on the table. There was too much opportunity for confusion that way, not to mention cheating.
‘I will protect the interests of the mage underground as I can,’ Leto said, ‘while Athenril protects your interests in maintaining some control over the smugglers. Do I understand your meaning?’
‘You do,’ Hawke confirmed. ‘And isn’t it miraculous how it took me so long to say something you managed in only one breath?’
‘Miraculous,’ Leto repeated.
That was not the first word he would have used to describe it.
‘What of your friends?’ Leto asked, as Hawke led them along the shore, brick and brack and bits of broken shell trailed through the pale sand. ‘They will have…questions.’
‘I’ll handle that,’ Hawke promised. He drew aside a fall of leaves along a nearby cavern wall, another secret of Kirkwall and its Free Marches, another slaving tunnel set into the earth itself. Leto scowled at it, then followed him within, ducking his head under the low pass. ‘But for now, it’s better not to let Karl know you might have been working for someone else to begin with. The man’s good at what he does, but he has issues enough with trust already. Wouldn’t want to get on his bad side after your first day, now would you?’
‘Any further than I already am,’ Leto agreed.
Hawke chuckled, deep in his chest. He stretched, arms high, fingers brushing the rocky ceiling above, and popped another joint in his neck; then, he covered a yawn with the sewer-stained flat of his hand. So he wasn’t afraid to get dirty, despite the velvet.
Leto had known lesser allies, at least.
It was the first morning of the first day of the rest of Anders’s life—not as a hapless clinic grunt, covered in the blood and sweat and all the other charming excreta produced by his clamorous patients, but as a renegade, a nighttime agent, a rebel of the sewers and the Wounded Coast.
An idiot, in other words. A lunatic. A brave person, who sacrificed his own personal comfort and all his best reading hours for the sake of strangers.
And also, for his friends.
The stranger had become less of a stranger overnight; the friend, less of a friend. But only because Anders had seen too much of the former in the time since his rescue, while he’d seen far too little of the latter—what with Karl busying himself, as always, rising before the rest, setting out bandages and elfroot, while Feynriel pulled the covers of his cot up over his head and moaned bloody murder at the first sign of sunlight.
‘I hate everything,’ Feynriel said. ‘I’m supposed to be with the Dalish right now, not in…Darktown.’
‘Actually,’ Anders replied, fidgeting nervously with the tea-kettle, ‘you do realize there’d be more sunlight if you were with the Dalish, don’t you? Just checking.’
‘It’s not the sunlight I mind.’ Feynriel’s voice was muffled from beneath the shabby fabric of his coverlet. Actually, Anders amended, it wasn’t a coverlet, but a burlap sack repurposed for his sleeping pleasure. ‘It’s the smell.’
Anders, who’d felt so much sympathy for him the night before, had lost the thread of that camaraderie now. As much as he liked to discuss the aromas that greeted and abused him on a daily basis, he knew that Feynriel would only complain more, given the encouragement.
And all Anders could think about now was the specter of neighboring templars. It had been a month or so since the last raid on the clinic; they were due for a new one any day now, and when it came, it would feel far too pointed, too personal.
Too much like vengeance.
Anders gulped, and Feynriel let out a pathetic whine, just as Anders realized he was spilling his tea on the table while he poured it.
‘Well, there’s some tea on the table—literally—if you feel like lapping it up at any point,’ Anders told the lump that was the lad that was the proof their great rescue success. ‘But Karl needs my help, and I’m not a comforting person, and you’re annoying me, so I’ll see you later, unless you decide to strangle yourself with the sheets, in which case I suppose I won’t.’
He marched out without so much as a backward glance. Feynriel had been through a trying experience last night, but so had Anders, and they were both old enough that they could make their own decisions on how to cope with it. One of them was hiding under the covers; the other was trying, and perhaps failing, to face the day.
Anders certainly wouldn’t be bouncing a surly half-elvhen teenager on his knee to cheer him up. Although Feynriel was probably at a more appropriate age to be reading Hard in Hightown than any of the urchins currently underfoot.
As expected, Karl was in the large room they used as their infirmary, picking his way through their noteworthy collection of broken crates. The cots had started disappearing, of late; apparently the gratitude of Fereldan refugees didn’t extend to minding their sticky fingers at the prospect of improving their beds.
Anders coughed lightly, and Karl paused where he was, unfurling a roll of fresh bandages next to a bottle of homemade elfroot potion.
‘You’ve been giving the lad a hard time, haven’t you?’ Karl asked. His tone wasn’t accusatory, but at the same time, it seemed he’d already made up his mind about the answer to his question. ‘I think it might be best to go a little easier on him—don’t you?’
‘I don’t see why I should,’ Anders replied. He sat down on the edge of a cot, grimacing when it buckled, then held under his weight. Everything in this place was either in shambles, or on the cusp of shambles, and it was all filthy. Feynriel had been right on that account; disappointment made everyone all sharp corners. Instead of waking in a verdant glade to the sound of chipper sparrows singing in the sunlight, the poor boy had found himself here, in Kirkwall’s stinking arsehole with no home to return to.
Sometimes, Anders felt like hiding under the covers, himself.
‘He reminds me of you, actually,’ Karl added. He turned away, pointedly folding one of Lirene’s newly laundered sheets, while Anders dealt with the near-fatal blow of that evaluation.
‘I beg your pardon?’ he asked, knocking the heel of his hand against his temple. ‘Sorry—I must still have some sand in my ears. Did you know I had sand in my ears, Karl? No, you didn’t, because you never asked. But still, the sand remains, and that must account for why I misheard you so dreadfully just now. Did you say he reminds you of me? Surely a pronoun’s gone missing somewhere in there.’
Karl let out a wheeze, his back jerking, a fine tremble in the broad musculature. It was all too clear from the set of his shoulders that he was laughing, but Anders let himself believe that for a moment he might be choking instead.
‘I hate you,’ Anders announced. That would set Karl right, let him know who was being a traitor here. And it was an awful betrayal. Anders had risked life and limb to save Karl and Karl’s wretched burden of charity, and all he got in return was mockery, an unfavorable comparison, and sand in his ears. ‘Also: your beard looks like a stray cat’s backside.’
With any luck, Karl would understand what it meant. That Anders had been worried; that he meant a great deal to some people, who didn’t want to lose him now. Or ever.
‘Really, Anders,’ Karl said. When he looked over his shoulder, his cheeks were red, and the sheet was folded neatly in his hands. ‘Are you listening to yourself?’
‘That isn’t fair.’ Anders stretched his legs out in front of him, crossing them at the ankle in the hopes he’d trip Karl on his way to the laundry basket, and send him sprawling into their sturdiest cot. No one should be so dignified all the time. It was downright cruel for everyone who wasn’t. ‘Don’t you remember? The sand. Besides which, I’ve had a very difficult night. I was chased and nearly captured by templars. I had to trek home through the mud and the sewers and the other things in the sewers. I hate everything, and—ohhh.’
The realization hit him square between the eyes, much like a low-hanging beam. He did sound like Feynriel, at the very least. But Anders didn’t like being wrong, so he chose to pretend his revelation had never happened.
Karl was still exaggerating matters. Anders was much better now than he’d been at Feynriel’s age.
‘‘Oh’ indeed,’ Karl said. A fond smile twitched at the corners of his mouth. Anders saw it before he could quash it—one of the advantages of being young and foolish meant he still had his lightning-quick reflexes. Not to mention a pair of eyes that didn’t require spectacles.
Then, Karl patted the lumps in the sheets, a neat pile before him, and Anders stretched out his hands to do the same, used to helping in little ways because he never did in the really big ones.
‘…So I suppose he’ll be staying here until further notice.’ Anders rubbed the back of his neck with his free hand, where a few loose strands of hair were tickling the warm skin. ‘No problem at all—I’ll just tell Varania we’ve found her a wonderful new assistant. She’ll soon whip him into shape—’
‘You’ll tell me what?’ asked a familiar voice, from the closest door.
‘Varania!’ Anders said, straightening. ‘What a coincidence—we were just talking about you.’
‘I knew that,’ Varania replied, ‘because I heard you, didn’t I?’
‘Ah,’ Anders agreed weakly, looking to Karl for assistance
But Karl had already abandoned him, laundry basked held by its rough-hemp handles in both hands, moving off through the clinic and leaving Anders alone to deal with his own messes, his own acquaintances, and of course his own problems. Whatever they might prove to be, and in short order.
At least Varania wasn’t a templar. She definitely didn’t have the build for it, though there were times when her body language did read like armor. Anders was reminded of the swish of templar skirts when she bore down on him, the glint of sunlight off a sun-shield crest as she crossed her arms over her chest.
‘Well?’ she asked. ‘Where is he? Where’s my brother?’
Sometimes, a man had only two paths: tell someone the truth and have them beat you soundly about the head, or tell someone an obvious lie and still have them beat you soundly about the head.
Anders scooted away along his crate, feeling the wood splinter and tear at his trousers, trying to put distance between them as he fumbled for which, of his two piss-poor options, he wanted to choose. The former was so obvious; the latter was so depressing.
‘Good question,’ Anders said. ‘I couldn’t quite tell you. He might have run off with a Hightown noble sometime around dawn, though—not a bad man necessarily, just a bit smug, but then he’s probably rich, so think about all the nice things you’ll get out of the equation. It could be worse. It could be a dwarf or something equally disturbing—’
‘Look,’ Varania said, ‘you might be fun to have around, but there’s one thing I don’t joke about.’
‘Yes, of course,’ Anders agreed.
‘And that’s family,’ Varania added.
Anders saw now that she wasn’t necessarily mad, just tired and taut with lines of worry, the deep shadows beneath her eyes that suggested she hadn’t slept a wink the night before. Anders had slept a few winks—only a bare few—and his dreams hadn’t been pleasant, but then, he didn’t have family to worry about, one person whose whereabouts remained hauntingly unknown. Fenris didn’t seem the type to skip out on his own sister—obviously, or he would have done it long before—but he also didn’t seem the type who’d appreciate having his acts of mercy explained to the one person who probably deserved to hear about them most.
Family was such a tricky thing. Feynriel’s mother doing all she could to save him while Feynriel himself did all he could to remain frustratingly unmoved; Fenris rescuing mages in the sewers while Varania assumed he was off doing terrible, mercenary things—and despite the blood that bound them, no one was really able to see each other’s favors for their faults. Maybe they never would.
Anders was almost jealous of that tenuous ability—the fact that they stayed together anyway, and that had to mean more than what they didn’t understand—except for the part where he really wasn’t. His relationship with Karl was far more honest, or at least more understandable; whenever Anders said I hate you, Karl always knew what it meant.
‘He’s fine,’ Anders assured her. Two little words that would have to be enough—that didn’t even begin to scratch the surface of everything Anders knew, everything he’d seen. The gratitude he felt, for example, that there was anyone in this wretched city willing to risk his own neck for a mage’s safety. How inspiring it was, and how beautiful, even—not to mention how much of the brother he saw in the sister’s eyes, wary and mistrustful and stubborn and a little sad, a little ready to start a fight over nothing at all.
‘Fine.’ Varania rolled the word around in her mouth as though it tasted like one of her stews—something she couldn’t yet bring herself to swallow, something she’d never be able to convince herself to like.
Then, she flopped down onto the crate at Anders’s side, digging her nails into her arms, staring unhappily at the far wall.
‘He’s such an idiot,’ she said.
‘Most people are,’ Anders pointed out.
‘Not nearly as bad as my brother, though,’ Varania insisted. She scuffed the heel of her bare foot along the ground, then winced, and kicked the offending pebble all the way across the room, where it skittered into a stanchion, rebounded half-way, and disappeared beneath the shadow of a nearby cot.
‘You showed that rock,’ Anders murmured.
Varania sniffed. ‘Thank you. I did.’
‘Very impressive,’ Anders added, and Varania almost smiled.
The expression didn’t last; in Darktown, it never did, undone by other shadows, other memories. But the corners of her lips did twitch, and the tension in her jaw eased, while she drummed ceaseless, restless fingers into the crook of her elbow.
‘He’s probably off with that woman,’ she muttered, glancing away. Anders knew the impulse, the desire to hide every last glint of light that actually meant something, and he leaned after her, not knowing where to put his hands or how to comfort her, how to heal this hurt, of all things.
‘Ah,’ Anders said again, not for the first time that conversation. Then, with a bit less good-natured charity, he added, ‘…What woman?’
‘It’s not important.’ Varania reached up to scratch the back of her neck, to tuck a few flyaway hairs into the tight knot of her bun with, Anders thought privately, what looked like a painful vengeance. ‘Just—an old friend. Something like that, anyway. I don’t even know if he thinks he’s doing the right thing anymore or if he doesn’t care what he’s doing.’
‘Oh,’ Anders said, his voice softening, even though he really wished it wouldn’t, ‘he’s doing the right thing.’
Varania turned to face him—they were too close now, staring into each other’s eyes, trying to pull back, to gain the distance necessary to focus. Anders blinked, and Varania did the same, comically absurd from her current angle.
‘You can’t know that,’ Varania insisted.
But Anders did—without even the barest, tattered doubt. It was something to cling to—the pulse of lyrium in the darkness, when all other lights went out.
Then, Anders shook his head, flicking hair off his brow and out of his eyes, resisting the urge to laugh at himself.
‘Here,’ Varania said, and pushed the hair back for him, with two competent, straightforward fingers.
‘Varania,’ Fenris said from the doorway.
Both of them jumped.
Later, Anders would recall the twin spots of color high on Varania’s cheeks—but in the moment, all Anders could see was the shadow Fenris’s body cast as he stalked toward them both, reaching for Varania’s hand, catching her wrist with the sharp tips of his armored gauntlets. Varania hissed, then shouted in surprise, and Fenris pulled back, as though the touch of her skin against his leathers had sparked a fire, or as though she had rent his skin instead of the other way around.
‘I’m going to help Karl,’ Varania announced, all the worry banished from her face. It was closed off now, like Karl boarded the clinic doors after nightfall, or like the city guard drew shut the alienage gates. Not even the faintest light, the palest memory of her worry remained—not healed at all, but kicked beneath the other feelings, no longer even lying in wait.
‘Varania—’ Fenris began, but to his credit, he didn’t reach after her, and she didn’t turn to face him, either.
After that heartwarming scene, what could Anders do but offer Fenris lunch—and give him an excuse to stick around, which was obviously what he wanted.
More importantly than that, it was also what Anders wanted.
He hadn’t been lying when he’d described the usual fare in the clinic—they were lucky if green mold made an appearance for a spot of color amidst all the brown, and Anders could pretend it was exotic Orlesian spicing even as he picked it off and wiped his hands on his coat—but it was early in the week, and Malcolm had left behind a few bountiful crates from his latest smuggling job, stacked behind the door. His personal contribution to the clinic, since he couldn’t spare his valuable time to their endeavor.
Karl never touched them, claiming Malcolm’s tastes were too rich for his blood, and more importantly his stomach, but Anders had no such qualms; he’d always suspected he had the tastes and the belly of a wealthier man.
This time, there was a wheel of cheese, and tins of expensive Rivaini caviar, a bottle of red wine, and what looked like spicy Antivan sausage. Together with a loaf of bread Karl had probably procured to coax out their wretched new charge later on, it made for a decent spread, far more decent than anyone in Darktown saw, save for in their dreams.
Of course, the food hardly mattered when Anders couldn’t chase the fish-hooked frown from his dining companion’s face. But it did help improve Anders’s expression, at least. He spread a clean, checkered sheet over one of their yet-unbroken crates in the back, tugging over two stools, only one of which needed a roll of dirty bandage linen to prop up its wobbly leg. Their makeshift table looked a little bare, and Lirene would kill him if he spilled on her laundry, but Anders was reasonably sure he could convince her that any stains had come from one of her precious refugees, and not food at all. It was remarkable how much red caviar looked like blood on cotton.
Then—not fool enough to waste time staring at the food, knowing full well how quickly it might be snatched out from under his nose—he tore into the bread and sausage, helpfully leaving Karl’s pocketknife in the wheel of cheese should Fenris decide to help himself.
Instead, Fenris drummed his fingers against the table’s surface, staring it down like he thought the tins of caviar were a cleverly disguised weapon. Perhaps he imagined they contained qunari gaatlok, or a rogue’s miasmic poison. As though Anders would go to all this trouble, only to ensnare him now with so little subtlety.
Then again, it might have nothing to do with Anders at all. Fenris, Anders decided, was brooding over his sister, intrepid as Lirene in her own way—wading through the afternoon’s patients without so much as a glance spared for either of them. It was her help in the clinic that allowed Anders to be here at all, supping, so her presence didn’t chafe him the same way.
Then again, she wasn’t his sister.
‘Help yourself,’ Anders suggested, in his most casual and generous manner. Fenris didn’t have to know where this food had come from in order to enjoy it. Certain apostates, like Malcolm Hawke, showed up at the end of things to look dashing and waylay their party, but other apostates shared their food, with a smile and a graceful wave of the hand, and a clean linen napkin tucked into their collar.
The comparison had to prove favorable.
Fenris blinked, seemed to recognize the food for what it was, then picked at the loaf of bread with his sharp talons. He lifted a spongy white piece to his mouth—barely more than a scrap—and passed it between his lips.
The brittle, distant look in his eyes suggested his mind was still elsewhere. Possibly always elsewhere. Anders imagined light glinting off a spider’s armored carapace, none of it managing to pierce through.
That was all right. Light wasn’t as stubborn as Anders was.
‘Quite the, ah, adventure last night, wasn’t it?’ Anders added. The sausage had an unexpected bite of heat at the end, making him reach for the wine crammed in amongst the straw at the bottom of the crate. He peeled the bright wax off the stopper with his thumb, catching himself before he used his teeth to remove the cork.
‘‘Adventure,’’ Fenris repeated. He blinked languidly in Anders’s direction, like a cat whose nap had been interrupted by someone else’s insignificant life getting in the way. Anders wondered whether Fenris had managed to sleep at all the night before, and where he’d managed to get it, if he hadn’t stopped back home for a quick nap and a stone-cold biscuit.
Then again, Varania had mentioned a woman. Anders’s thumb slipped on the bottle, thumbnail cutting into the soft cork as he tore it free. He was so occupied in his struggle—both with the wine, and trying not to feel sorry for himself—that it took him a moment to notice the sudden sharpening of Fenris’s gaze, green eyes turned with interest toward Anders at last.
Or at least, toward what Anders was holding.
‘A very good adventure, actually.’ Anders felt heat spread over his skin beneath the collar of his coat. He relished this exact kind of scrutiny—other people didn’t like to be watched as they performed difficult tasks, but Anders would take any attention he inspired. He wanted all of it, mostly the good, but the bad too, if there wasn’t any other vintage available. ‘By which I mean the kind with a happy ending. If you hadn’t come along, I could be referring to it as a massacre right now. Puts things into perspective, doesn’t it? Which is a rather long way of saying: thank you. Are you…thirsty?’ Anders added. There was a note of hope in his voice; working hard to please a difficult guest meant the satisfaction that came at the end was far sweeter, more worthwhile.
Anders didn’t believe in hard work, and he didn’t have a great deal of patience, but the way Fenris was looking at the wine went a long way toward persuading him of its value.
‘Because you look thirsty,’ he added, setting the bottle down on the table. ‘I don’t think we have glasses for the wine, although I could always get a few empty potions bottles if you—’
‘That would be unnecessary.’ Fenris waved his sharp hand, then reached for the bottle, fingers closing about the slim neck. Anders watched as the tips clacked on the glass, as Fenris shifted forward, as he claimed it for himself and brought it to his lips. He drank, deeply, throat bobbing beneath the paled lines of lyrium—which meant no more in daylight, dim as they were, than any other, darker tattoo of vallaslin.
But Anders knew what they were capable of, had seen and felt the burst of blue heat in the still air of the sewer tunnel, and he leaned his chin on his hand, the prickle of unshaven hair rubbing at the heel of his palm while he watched.
The books he read—Hard in Hightown, for example, not exactly the most unbiased of sources, but still the most information he had on warriors in general, as a fascinating and separate species—never went into great detail about their swordsmen in repose. The action scenes were of course far more interesting than the drab, the day-to-day, what a fighter chose to eat and how he chose to eat it.
Or, in this case, what he chose to drink: the tilt of his chin, the deep swallow, and the shadows beneath his jaw; his long neck and graceful hands, and the glint of light across the dark-blown glass of the wine bottle.
Anders hastily picked a bit of sausage out from between his teeth as Fenris set the bottle down on the crate, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. He didn’t release it, not yet, one sharp-armored elbow resting upon his thigh as he leaned forward and held on.
‘Was it good?’ Anders asked. ‘It certainly looked good.’
Fenris didn’t appear to grasp the other, more important meaning in the question. ‘It was passable,’ he replied.
‘I had no idea you were a connoisseur, Fenris,’ Anders added, casting a glance across their table for something that wouldn’t prove difficult—or messy—to eat. There was the cheese, but it had such an impertinent smell—like soured smallclothes on a dedicated drunk—and the sausage, while apt, was too obvious, and right out of the question. The bread was safe, but boring, and Anders didn’t want to be flicking crumbs off his shoulders and lap while he was trying, however unsuccessfully, to flirt.
He stared at the sausage again, weighing the lewd with the necessary, then supposed—at least for the sake of the urchins, and Lirene, and propriety, and Karl, and Varania, and everyone else—he might just go with the caviar, and began his struggle with the tin.
‘I am not a—’ Fenris paused. ‘…It is better for drinking than most water in the lower city,’ he concluded at last. ‘Safer. Not as poisonous.’
Then, to prove his point, he drank again. The wine was the only thing that distracted him from his sister—which was, of course, why people drank in the first place. Elves, dwarves, humans—it was all the same, except for qunari, but they obviously didn’t count.
‘I prefer whiskey, myself,’ Anders said. The latch on the tin snapped off and he rolled the thin-hammered metal back, each rosy egg like a salty jewel within. He licked the taste from his thumb, staring at Fenris the whole time, but Fenris only had eyes for his bottle, an appreciative gaze that made Anders wish he’d been made of blown glass and full of red Antivan liquor. ‘Anything that numbs the brain and the heart at the same time. Nothing that pretends I’m not doing my body a great disservice.’
‘Pfaugh,’ Fenris muttered.
The situation was rapidly spiraling out of control.
‘Caviar?’ Anders asked.
‘I find the taste of fish repulsive,’ Fenris said.
Anders froze, bread and caviar halfway to his mouth. He wanted, very badly, to eat the delicious and expensive food before him, but he didn’t want his mouth to taste—as Fenris put it—repulsive. That was the opposite of what he wanted, in fact. That the word even factored into their proceedings at all was a disturbing turn of events.
‘What do you like the taste of, Fenris?’ Anders asked.
Fenris snorted. He gestured with the bottle, the deeper shift of burn-dark liquid within splashing against the side.
‘…I’ll just have a taste of that wine, then,’ Anders said, setting the poor caviar down for later, unless some hungry, unappreciative child wandered by, tricky and desperate, with sticky fingers and an enormous stomach, to relieve him of it. That was always the risk a man had to be prepared to take in Darktown. Not to mention the risk Anders was taking by drinking on the job.
But it was only a little wine, and Fenris had made it look delicious. Karl had Varania to help him; Anders had sacrificed enough comfort lately, deserved a reward.
He also wanted his fingers around that bottleneck, pressed up between the armored guards on Fenris’s fingers, bare skin along each stiff joint. There was never a time when licking his lips just over a bottle-head didn’t work for him. The technique was a failsafe. It had never betrayed him before.
Fenris relinquished his grip reluctantly; his gloves did scrape against Anders’s thumb, the metal very cool, but he pulled his hand back quickly and flexed it, one knuckle curved against the corner of his mouth. Anders licked his lips just over the bottle-head, breathing in the aroma, tasting it on his tongue and in the air.
Fenris rolled his eyes. ‘All that is unnecessary,’ he said. ‘The wine is hardly so fine a vintage.’
Anders breathed out, a heavy gust just a shade short of a disgusted sigh.
‘It is not that poor a vintage, either,’ Fenris added. ‘It is passable, as I said. And you prefer whiskey. Will you drink or not?’
‘Now more than ever,’ Anders mumbled against the glass. Once he did—taking a deep pull, without the grace and sinew of Fenris’s little display—it burned the back of his throat, with an added kick to the base of his tongue, making his eyes water as he fought off a cough.
When he lowered the bottle, Fenris was watching him, with all the calculated interest a falcon trained on a field mouse. It wasn’t the notice Anders had hoped for, but at least it was no longer directed toward the wine instead of him.
The contents of his stomach rolled over, like a lazy mabari in the dank Darktown air.
‘Well?’ Fenris asked, startling Anders out of staring back, which he’d imagined was the whole point of the exercise. Eyes meeting eyes across the distance, over the cheese…
‘What?’ Anders asked. ‘Is it dribbling down my chin?’
Fenris pursed his lips, almost like an aborted smile. Idle hope stirred in the recesses of Anders’s chest, a lance of silver lightning bolting through his black despair. Liquor always made things better, warming the stomach and the chest. It was one of life’s universal truths—one of the few that applied in Kirkwall the same as everywhere else.
‘It is not,’ Fenris said. His eyes darted back to the bottle in Anders’s hand, but at least he didn’t reach out to take it. ‘What do you make of it?’
‘Oh.’ Anders sat up straighter on the crate, a humiliated warmth seeping into his skin. It was less pleasant than the other kind of warmth, born from the fine combination of good wine and sitting so near to someone so attractive. Anders stared dumbly at the bottle, attempting to formulate an opinion from the peeling label. ‘Yes—well, you’re right. It’s rather a heady…mixture…bright but not overpoweringly acidic, and…it’s…got good legs?’
Fenris cleared his throat. When Anders raised his eyes, he was using Karl’s pocketknife to slice the sausage into neat, round medallions.
‘Passable,’ Fenris agreed. ‘I have had it before.’
‘Have you?’ Anders leaned forward, seizing on this new piece of information the way he wanted to seize that sausage. ‘So you are a connoisseur?’
‘I drink,’ Fenris corrected. He tore off another hunk of bread in his claws, fitting a round of meat in the center of it like a makeshift sandwich. There was something charmingly domestic about his actions—he was someone who had an idea of what lunch was supposed to look like, but with none of the knowledge or wherewithal to make it properly. Anders’s fingers tightened around the smooth neck of the bottle, keen to watch for once without being observed in return. ‘I recognize the label-work. Antivan.’ Fenris bit the corner of his lip, steel-tipped fingers covering his mouth in what Anders realized was a reaction to the sausage’s spice. Then, his expression hardened, as though he thought hot foods were an enemy that could be overcome with willpower alone.
‘I had no idea there was a surplus of Antivan wine in Lowtown,’ Anders murmured. His sympathies got the better of him, coaxing him to pass the bottle back.
Fenris coughed, clearing his throat. Out of some stubborn impulse, he didn’t touch the wine, but instead wiped his eyes where they were streaming.
‘It is…imported,’ Fenris said. Something in the tone of his voice along with that particular euphemism made Anders feel like they were speaking in secret code.
Which was more than he was expecting out of this lunch, considering how poorly it’d been going for him earlier.
Fenris, it seemed, was not immune to making a comeback.
‘Imported,’ Anders repeated, just to be sure they were on the same page. He traced the checkered pattern of the cloth over the crate, fingers dragging idly along the border between red and white squares. ‘Do you know, Fenris—that almost sounds illegal?’
‘It does,’ Fenris agreed. When Anders met his eyes, they were lidded, with a newfound warmth nestled in the deep green. ‘Though no more than anything else I’ve done in recent days.’ He rested his chin on one armored fist, knuckles digging in at the hard line of his delicate jaw. Then, he pointed to the sausage. ‘Do not eat any more of that. It is dangerous.’
‘Yes, I quite agree,’ Anders said, barely edging out a giggle. Then, the reality of Fenris’s words trickled in, and he couldn’t very well ignore them. That was always the way of things. Whenever something was going particularly well, he had to find just the right angle to ruin it. ‘Listen—Fenris—’
‘I am listening already.’ Fenris did reach for the wine then, taking another long swallow that burnt Anders’s throat just watching it.
He wouldn’t appreciate what Anders was going to say next. But Anders said it anyway.
‘Varania only came because she was worried about you.’ He nudged the bread and caviar further away from him with his pinky finger, hands clasped on the crate. ‘When a person engages in so many illegal activities and then gives his family no information about where he’s going or what he’s doing—when he’s gone all night, and Kirkwall is what it is, you’ve seen it for yourself—well, I imagine it can be slightly worrisome. For the people who worry about such things, I mean. It might cause them some distress, since after all, they care about you.’
Fenris’s brows lowered, narrowing to form a deep crevasse just above the bridge of his nose. ‘Is that what she told you?’
‘Well, no,’ Anders admitted. ‘Not in so many words. But I’m a healer. I talk to all kinds of people, usually when they’re worried, and I have an intuition for these things, you see. Even if they aren’t any of my business. Especially when they aren’t.’
‘She does not worry,’ Fenris corrected him. ‘She…becomes angry.’
‘Angry’s just one way of showing that you’re worried,’ Anders said.
Fenris affixed the sausage with a burning look, even though it was fiery enough already. ‘No,’ he replied.
‘Yes,’ Anders insisted, walking his fore- and index-finger across the table, closer and closer to Fenris’s hand each time.
‘What did she tell you?’ Fenris asked. He never knew where to look—first the bottle, then the sausage, and now Anders’s face instead of his fingers. ‘If she mentioned Athenril…’
‘Athenril.’ Anders tilted his head to the side, tapping his lower lip with his thumb. Fenris glowered at him, even as he swiped the tip over the swell of his mouth, impervious to all Anders’s best advances. Then, Anders understood the reason why; he soured as quickly as milk in the summer, the little bowls he left out at night for stray cats curdled toxic by morning. ‘Oh. You mean your lady-friend, don’t you?’
‘My…employer,’ Fenris corrected him again.
Anders wrinkled his nose. Fenris was doing the same, though it was because of the sausage, the caviar, the topic, and Anders’s sudden lack of purpose, his thumb at the corner of his frown not like a secret smile at all.
It didn’t sound as dangerous as lady-friend.
‘Your employer?’ Anders repeated.
Fenris waved a brusque hand. ‘Unimportant,’ he said. ‘I work for her, but also here, now. It is only business.’
‘And you aren’t the sort to mix business with pleasure, are you, Fenris?’ Anders asked.
‘No,’ Fenris agreed, taking another deep pull of the wine, while Anders polished off the bread, and pretended he didn’t hear Karl calling for his assistance—working with the last bare threads of pleasure before he returned to face the day.
Sometimes, he felt as though he was rolling a great big rock up the steepest peak of Sundermount—gaining an inch only to lose a mile—but Fenris stood guard outside the clinic until evening, and Anders could feel the warmth of the wine along with the heat of his perspiration, the scent and the taste just on the tip of his tongue, like an unshared secret.
Athenril appreciated Leto’s incentive.
‘Honestly, Fenris? I never thought I’d live to see the day,’ she said, in those exact words, one brow arched so high it nearly disappeared beneath the fall of her bangs.
It was not Leto’s cleverness to be prideful of; it was not his idea. It was another man’s, and a fine one at that, but that man was not there to take the credit for it. And Leto refused to accept the compliment as though it belonged to him—though he would profit more from Athenril’s good mood than he would from the goods she was now assured of taking.
That left the clinic to guard, on no sleep, which Leto did—although he was plagued by the taste of sausage underneath the more pleasant liquid refreshment that accompanied it. The flavors would not leave him, just as troublesome as the look on Anders’s face from time to unpredictable time, the way he was constantly touching some little thing, his own cheek or his indeterminate beard, a feather on his pauldron or a hole in the tablecloth. Close or far, it hardly mattered; it was distracting no matter where it was, a source of constant displeasure, refusing to accept anything less than someone’s full attention.
Even now, he was engaged in it, somewhere deep within the clinic, fussing with the bristle upon his jaw or toying with the cord that pretended to bind his hair. It did a poor job of it, that much was certain.
Leto did not have time for all those meddling details. The alleys were narrower than ever—they had a way of closing in on their inhabitants, especially when there was fresh gossip to spread through the undercity. And the Coterie barker had ceased to make noise some hour ago, while the silence she left behind was not insignificant.
There was some noise to replace it—there was always some noise, especially with so many urchins underfoot, unaware of how foolish it was to play at rivalry, unaware of how soon their games would turn to real antagonism, how many enemies they would make before they knew the way of it—but it was not the same noise. It was not the noise Leto needed to hear.
In other words, there was more than just urchins underfoot. Or afoot. Whichever the proper saying was.
Leto did not care, whatever the difference.
The gossip itself was natural—refugees whispering about the Knight-Commander’s latest proclamations, which meant nothing so long as they were unsuccessful. But they would not be unsuccessful forever. The templars had more funding, more resources than Leto could imagine. They had a clever leader at their helm in Meredith, her cleverness just as important a factor as her ruthlessness in turn.
Watching Varania move past the clinic doors—one of them propped open with a broken crate, the light of the lantern flickering meaningfully across the splintered wood and casting deep fingers of shadow within—caused Hightown and Darktown to narrow to a single point, resting heavy and crowded over the space where Leto stood.
The longer nothing happened, the sooner one could anticipate something would. Time, Leto felt, was always wasting in this manner.
The denizens of the clinic had harried their templar adversaries long enough. The Coterie barker was there for a reason, not to sell appropriated lots or seized holdings, but to watch, and to wait, and to inform.
Leto appreciated that very little. He should have taken her down while he had the chance—though he knew it would have meant nothing at all, only that some other would have taken her place to continue in her absence.
That—ceaseless, unrelenting and without mercy—was Kirkwall.
A child skittered past him, barely higher than his knee, clutching a bloated leather skein in its arms. It was followed by countless friends, all seeking to defeat him in the ensuing skirmish. To take his prize, which in fact meant nothing.
Leto had never indulged in such pastimes. His childhood memories of Tevinter were hazy at best, but no children played in the streets there. Instead, the magisters dueled in open combat, killing one another for no other reason than because they could.
That was what passed for sport in the Imperium: the weak being consumed by the powerful.
A few paces away, the child tripped over a stone wedged into the road. His companions fell on him like ravening wolves, kicking and pawing with their dirty hands, greedy for the chance to touch the prize for themselves, not realizing they would be the ones hunted next after the torch—the skein—was passed.
Leto widened his stance, fighting the urge to lean against the rotting wall at his back. The added weight would no doubt cause it to collapse, but more than that, there was no excuse for lying down on the job. Lack of sleep and a rare full stomach had conspired to lull him into a more relaxed state than usual, but Leto would not allow that to affect his work.
Inside the clinic, Varania was performing her duties admirably, despite the bruise-dark circles under her eyes. Leto took responsibility for those shadows, the way he bore every line in her face upon his back. They were his fault, for treating his sister like a stranger—for not being able to restore the memories of her that would make everything fall into place.
He tongued at a cut on the inside of his cheek, wincing at the sting of spice from his lunch’s fine sausage.
Movement two alleys down caught his attention, and Leto straightened, feeling new energy course through his veins. The Coterie barker was joined by another of her ilk, recognizable for their matching rogue’s armor, black cloth and dark leather. They bent their heads together in a whisper, then—a fatal flaw in circumspection—the blond woman glanced toward the clinic doors.
The moments before a battle were always clearest in Leto’s mind. He never knew whether it was the lyrium, or if he’d always been this way, trained from birth for fighting and little else. There was nothing Leto felt as suited to; nothing was ever as natural as the pommel of a sword in his grip. Time slowed to a crawl, giving him the luxury of noting every detail of the grounds: the children still scrapping in the corner; a few men barking to one another over an ebbing fire; the dirt steady beneath Leto’s feet. There was no immediate adversary for him to confront—no reason to draw his sword from its sheath—but Leto had fought for Athenril before, and he knew the look of a trap before it snapped its steel jaws shut over his ankle or roared hot fire and burning grease over his skin.
Smugglers were always knifing each other in the back, leaving an ambush in place of a rare shipment from Rivain. Eventually, Leto had grown to recognize the look of betrayal.
It had taken him even longer to learn how not to react to it.
Most lost their control. Most recognized it for what it was—danger in spades—and ran outright. But that alerted any enemy to panic; panic was no defense, certainly no offense, and never reaped any reward other than death.
Instead, Leto cast his attention toward the children, feigning annoyance at their continued brawl. An exasperated guard was often a distracted one, and the youthful shrieking could be heard, Leto was sure, from every corner of Darktown. It was not so difficult an act to endure—not so impossible to believe that he would be absorbed by this disruption to the exclusion of all else.
Leto was not a gifted actor, nor was he a liar. But some talents were nurtured by nothing more than the seeds of necessity.
Varania’s secrets were worth the struggle.
Once he’d registered his irritation with enough focus to be suitably convincing, Leto turned on his heel, passing beneath the lantern and through the open clinic door, waving a hand for the children to scatter.
The scene within was much as he’d ever allowed himself to imagine: Varania was unspooling a length of bandages for Karl, her hair wisping loose around her face, while Anders bent low, hands pressed to a man’s bloody shoulder, the swell of healing magic plucking at the lyrium in Leto’s skin like an archer plucked at the bowstring. If Leto watched closely, he could see the flash of blue light swell beneath Anders’s palms, blood smearing his wrists and fingers.
Leto’s markings pulsed in reply and he twitched, scratching the back of his neck, impatient.
They hadn’t the time. But Leto hadn’t the means to interrupt the tableau.
It was Feynriel who noticed him first, tucked away on a cot and nearly invisible but for the crook of his wide mouth. Either he had no skill in healing, or he hadn’t yet embraced a life that did not involve the Dalish.
‘I thought you said you weren’t a healer,’ the lad muttered. The look on his face turned stubborn from its misery, as though determined to find someone with less cause to be in the clinic than himself. ‘You don’t look injured, either. What are you doing here?’
Leto didn’t have the time to answer that—in more ways than one.
‘Fenris?’ Anders asked. He straightened, and almost wiped his hands on the front of his coat, before he came to his senses, and froze. There was something hopeful about his posture, and therefore inappropriate.
Leto cleared his throat. There were too many witnesses here for his comfort, men and women he did not trust, who had no cause to overlook the knife-ear closing their wounds and soothing their stomachs. He would have to gamble—and he so detested the notion—that the population of Darktown enjoyed the comforts of a free clinic more than they would enjoy the reward for turning its apostates in.
‘You must leave,’ Leto said, refusing to make the sentiment sound gentle or nice. It was neither. There was also no reason to outline the sordid details of why, although there was no doubt in his mind that Anders would demand them anyway. ‘I cannot explain. Close the clinic and go—all of you, now.’
He expected Varania would protest. Karl Thekla looked as though he might before Varania had the chance. Feynriel made a noise of contempt, but it was frightened, and Leto recognized it—because Varania had made it so often, scoffing at those things that terrified her most. Perhaps the technique worked. Perhaps it didn’t.
Leto had never thought to ask.
Anders sought his face for explanation, but there was something else in his eyes, wary and tight, whatever burnished color beneath the heavier brown all but extinguished by the shadow of worry. He didn’t scoff, but he did wring his bloody hands, bandages soaked, as he glanced somewhere over Leto’s shoulder.
But it was not anything that had to be sought. It would always come, whether or not they marked its approach.
You can’t understand, Leto, Varania had told him once. She meant a great many things by it, but in particular she meant how an apostate feared a templar—though Leto sometimes believed he did understand this, of all things, whenever he felt Danarius’s shadow fall over them anew. The hand of Tevinter as far as the so-called Free Marches, in the laughter of a visiting magister or rumors of a slaving galleon in the docks.
Yet if they all stood and did nothing, they would be caught. By Coterie spies or the templars they sent—either would be equally unpleasant.
Someone had to begin, though Leto knew he would stand between them and whatever hire-swords came their way, if it proved necessary.
Varania was here. And he should never have let her come.
‘This way,’ Lirene said, a brusque voice and a quick step, wiping her hands on her apron as she unstrung it. Leto recognized her—the Fereldan woman who did not trust him, perhaps because he was an elf, perhaps because he would have been a trespasser in this place whether or not his ears were pointed at the tips. He was no mage, after all, nor was he a patient.
Once again, he was neither one thing nor its other, and so belonged nowhere. Not even with his sister.
Lirene moved past him, offering Anders the apron to clean himself on, while Karl began to move, and Varania too. Feynriel, like Leto, stood dumb at the center, and Anders’s latest patient moaned and cursed Andraste, the Maker, and anyone else who would listen that the job on his shoulder was only half-done.
Leto wanted to hush him. Lirene did it for him.
The woman reminded Leto of a mutt that once lived behind the Hanged Man, guarding her starved pups with more ferocity than the skin and bones and stillborn deserved. But there was more than just bark to her. She and Karl packed the elfroot potions and all empty bottles into a crate, and Anders gripped Feynriel’s elbow with one hand, guiding him toward the back.
‘I shall stay here,’ Leto informed them.
‘Be safe,’ Anders said, with a rasp of a chuckle. As though that had not always been the plan.
Leto looked to Varania for confirmation; she said nothing, but their eyes met, and she nodded, wiping her hands on her skirts, ruining her dress with blood. Then, they disappeared into a back room, which Leto did not need to know led to a tunnel, that tunnel to the sewers, those sewers to a bare ghost of freedom, someplace else to crouch and wait and hide. The thought of Varania, skirts in her hands, bare feet in all the refuse the city tried to bury, made the bile rise with the bitter taste of Antivan spice on Leto’s tongue.
But the Fereldans were already leaving, scattering, abandoning the place, and Leto allowed himself to shuffle out with them into the alleyway—to lie in wait, however long it took, and to bear witness, because it was neither the time nor the place to interfere.
In the end it was templars who did the dirty work, not Coterie sell-swords.
Leto stood aside, unnoticed in the shadows, and watched them as they tore the clinic down, smashing cots and empty boxes without realizing it served no real purpose. They used the pommels of their swords and the blunt ends of their shields to break open the lock on the donation box, sending the flimsy, beaten metal skittering out the door and into the street. it was a warning, nothing more; a reminder of who was strongest and who was weak, who meant everything and who meant nothing, and a bare outlet to their frustrations. They had been pushed beyond their capacity for self-respect for too long, and now they destroyed what they could in return, scattering bloody sheets over the floor and kicking twin holes through the right-hand door.
Leto was not alone in his surveillance. A few of Darktown’s urchins, without parents to caution them, crouched by the wall at his feet, peering around the corner to observe the pointless massacre of even these unwanted objects. They would learn from it—some would recognize the injustice, but the majority would understand only the act of vengeance itself, the violence in deprivation, how to destroy when one could no longer build. They would join the Coterie, Leto supposed, if they lived that long—if the chokedamp did not prevent their future recruitment—and this was what they’d know, was all they’d know, having seen no other way to be.
It was true that he could have stopped it, but for what purpose? The templars had their run of the place, and in the end, the pounding in their blood would be satisfied, their heads heavy when they hit the pillow. They would sleep easy. The sacrifice was one Karl and Anders had made willingly, in order to come away with their lives, and so Leto respected their decision by allowing it to continue uninterrupted.
At last, the final splintering of wood and deep laughter ended. A few templars attempted to rough up the neighboring drunk, holding him by the front of his shirt and shaking him hard enough that words might come out, but he breathed into their faces while his eyes rolled up into his head. They found nothing they wanted.
They were finished, and so they left.
Leto did not linger there in the shadows for longer than he had to, nor did he observe the wreckage the templars left behind. He knew the way of it. He’d seen it countless times before, in every summer riot or fire-day looting in the alienage, all things lost to the chaos of too many hands.
He could not dally, because he needed to be with his sister.
Lirene came to find him—a woman far smarter than she looked; still a woman who did not trust him—and they did not bother with the tunnels, just a city elf and a Fereldan refugee strolling through the streets of Lowtown in the humid dusk.
They drew no attention because they represented both what Kirkwall resented most and ignored best. If the common man pretended the Fereldan refugees were not crowding the streets of Darktown, and that there were no elves starving in the alienage, that all mages were held safe in the Gallows, then Kirkwall could seem a decent city to live in.
If they wished to lie to themselves, then that was their burden. Leto would not allow himself to be troubled by it.
Lirene did not regale him with inane chatter on their way above ground, inventing conversation that was no more necessary than it was appreciated, and Leto was grateful for the silence. Similarly, she did not see fit to pepper him with questions about what he’d seen, and how many templars there had been, and what did it all mean?
The templars had come and gone; they would come again. It was as simple as that, though few people saw anything unpleasant as simple. They wanted to deny it, and so confused it on purpose.
But Lirene already knew. That, too, Leto appreciated, though he was steeling himself against the two people he knew would not be so considerate, wetting his throat in preparation for answering their demands.
Until a recent point, it had always been Varania—and Varania alone—whose demands were made, and often met, sometimes too late or sometimes with too little acknowledgement. What Leto did not know was what it meant that he thought of Anders now, the back of his neck prickling in equal parts anticipation and dread.
Questions, questions. Always so many of them, especially when those asking knew the answers already.
Lirene’s guidance led them to a crowded storefront near Lowtown’s bazaar. It was the furthest hex from the alienage, but Leto had traveled there often enough before, to steal goods for their home, an iron skillet and the knife that never rusted, while Varania shopped for vegetables and tried to haggle. No one looked twice at an elf, and in his earlier days, Leto had used every advantage he possessed in order to give Varania what she needed.
Now he was too conspicuous for such endeavors. As he grew older, he was forced to be smarter.
‘They’re in the back,’ Lirene muttered to him as they entered the store. She lifted her hand to greet a pregnant women in a stained, gray dress, the seams near to bursting at her hips, but passed easily through the nattering crowd. Obviously, she expected to be followed.
Leto did his best to ignore the sudden press of noise, the commotion that had nothing to do with him or his current cause. They were more Fereldans, judging by their accents, and they seemed more interested in gossiping with one another than partaking of Lirene’s wares or doing good business with her. Perhaps they were just relieved to have a roof over their heads for a scant few hours. Leto couldn’t know their thoughts, and did not presume to guess.
Behind the counter and down a narrow cellar corridor, Lirene unlocked the door to a wide storeroom, damp and cool. There was a flickering oil-lamp lit at its center, swinging in the stale air from a chain at the ceiling. Amidst the wood casks and crates, Leto could see the clinic’s fugitive apostates: his sister was perched primly on the end of a barrel, playing a game of cards with Feynriel and Karl, while Anders was huddled atop what looked like a pair of old rugs rolled up end-to-end. He worried at the blood-stained bandages on his wrist, twisting them over and over beneath his long, white fingers, undoing them thread by thread.
Either cards upset him, or he didn’t like dank cellars. Or there was something else, something less superficial, that bothered him.
Speculation was meaningless.
At the noise of Lirene’s key in the lock, all four faces turned toward the open door. Leto saw a smile twitch over Varania’s mouth, hidden in the flickering lamp-light. It might have been a shadow, at that. Anders tried to get up too quickly, and stumbled over the carpet at his feet, kicking up a cloud of dust with his equally dusty boots.
‘Brother,’ Varania said.
‘You’re all right,’ Anders murmured.
As though that had not always been the plan.
Leto made a noise of confirmation in his throat, and stood his ground even as Anders advanced toward him. His first instinct was still to twitch away, but Lirene stood at his back, and there were barrels on every side; trapped as he was, he could see no clear exit. A clever maneuver. Just like Fereldans to orchestrate it.
Walking into a room—no matter how deep below ground it was—with no immediate path of escape was not acceptable. This business with mages and templars had him off his instincts.
The look on Anders’s face as he approached—eyes bright in the dim lamp-light, mouth hard against the dark scruff on his face—was inscrutable, almost feverish. Leto never bothered to guess at the inner workings of other people’s minds, but Anders was a difficult one to ignore.
What Leto didn’t understand was what had provoked this reaction now. Surely the safety of his clinic, to say nothing of his own personal comfort, was of more consequence than whether or not a city elf had been roughed up by a few templars. Such interludes could be no more than second nature to him now; they had all known such a visit was coming.
They didn’t have to like it, but they could hardly be surprised by the inevitable.
Leto reminded himself that Anders was illogical. He drank wine he didn’t prefer on the job, and wore feathers despite how quickly they picked up dust, and refused to choose whether or not he actually wanted a beard.
‘I am all right,’ Leto confirmed, because he could feel Anders’s eyes on him still, staring outright now that he’d closed the distance between them. It seemed a waste of breath to state the obvious. Couldn’t Anders see it for himself? Or feel it—if he must—with his healing magic?
‘Sure; you’re fine. Of course you’re fine,’ Varania said. ‘You always are. But what about the clinic?’
Leto cocked his head to the side, glancing Karl’s way—Karl, who seemed resigned to whatever ill news Leto may have brought back with him, and Feynriel, who accepted each fresh pronouncement like a physical blow.
Feynriel was still too young. He hadn’t yet learned the way of things—how to wear his skin as armor in the face of outright hatred or even cool indifference. That sort of tempered strength came only with time and experience, and the experiences were usually bad ones, just like this one.
And yet it could have been so much worse.
‘The clinic still stands,’ Leto replied, knowing that would mean something. Something small, but something they could keep. ‘The damage was mostly within—some supplies have been ruined. The lock on the donation box is broken, as are some of the cots.’
‘Oh no,’ Anders murmured. ‘The donation box. I hope they didn’t take anything. Our precious collection of Fereldan dust…’
He made a noise, like a giggle or a hiccup, and Varania joined him with a snort. It was her snort of laughter, not of derision. The sound was familiar in the darkness that was not familiar—though it might as well have been any other cellar in Kirkwall. Leto had crouched in his fair share, waiting to turn loot over to Athenril for the satisfaction of a job well done, the comfort of his security bartered for another’s.
He supposed Anders was laughing, too—in his own way. There was little to laugh about, but both his sister and the healer were contrary. They laughed when they should not; their laughter refused to be laughter at all.
Leto shook his head. He could not tolerate the twisting of Anders’s fingers much longer—the quickness he remembered from lunch gone, no teasing dance remaining, nothing light or coy about his hands at all.
‘The damage within is not inconsiderable,’ Leto added. ‘It will require work. There is no guarantee they will not return—on the contrary, we all know they will—so to repair what is broken will only see it broken again, whenever they decide to visit next.’
‘It’s only furniture,’ Karl said.
‘Not even good furniture,’ Anders added, staring at his boots, or the stain beside them on the stone floor.
‘It could have been us; that’s what I mean,’ Karl continued.
‘But it wasn’t.’ Anders scuffed one toe in a slow circle around the other. Leto had to remind himself not to ask why, that he did not care why. ‘Because Fenris warned us.’
‘Yes,’ Karl agreed. There was a long pause.
Leto cleared his throat, sensing more words were to come—all of them unnecessary, as though gratitude had any place in business, as though it had been about the others as much as it had been about Varania, or as much as it was always about Varania. There was never a time Leto could forget her face—never a time he allowed himself to do so again, and so all things returned to her in the end. Her comfort, her fears, her longings.
The sound of Anders’s boot scuffing along sawdust made itself known with a loud scrape. He looked up, all eyes, a quirk of a smile at the corner of his mouth, where he was always resting his thumb, rubbing at the neighboring stubble. The smile itself imitated that gesture. It was its natural cousin.
He was—of all things—about to say thank you.
‘The cots will need to be rebuilt,’ Leto told them quickly, to destroy whatever momentum had formed on that front. The only way to show someone you had not done a thing for the pleasure of appreciation was to avoid mention of it in the first place. ‘And the torn blankets are in need of mending. I have some experience in this—’
‘It’s true,’ Varania added. Always so helpful. ‘You can barely see his little stitches. Look, right here—that’s where he sewed my skirts back up again—’
‘Oh, yes, I can see it,’ Anders agreed. ‘It’s all in his hands.’
‘My hands.’ Leto stared at them, palms flat and facing inward, fingers curled. They were empty, but armored; he knew what else they were capable of, the opposite of mending anything. When he held a needle between a thumb and forefinger, feeling the cool press of slim metal on his skin, he felt like a giant and a fool. Yet he also felt like a young boy, crouched in some narrow corner, attending menial tasks while the others laughed at him. This was not a memory he was certain of; he only thought he had it. Sometimes, it came back to him in the night, in dreams, and he woke in a tangle of sheets, eyes wide, searching the stillness for the sound of Varania’s breathing.
‘Exactly there,’ Anders said. ‘The way you’re holding them now—I mean, aside from the claws, those are their own story for another day, and another stuffy hideaway cellar—it’s obvious you know how to use them.’
But it was not obvious, Leto thought.
This time, it was Karl who cleared his throat. Leto saw Feynriel wince at the sound, and Anders’s lashes flutter, his lips purse as he mocked the very institution of innocence. What absolution or proof of that innocence he sought by staring at the ceiling so intently, Leto would never know.
‘Well then,’ Karl said, ‘now that I have your attention, I suppose we’ll have to give it time to clear out before we return. Lirene, my dear, would you mind terribly if we borrowed your cellar for the night?’
‘If you don’t mind sharing it with the rats, it’s all yours,’ Lirene replied.
‘Not at all,’ Anders said. ‘The rats are always the best part. They keep us from getting lonely and sometimes we light little fires and tell stories about cheese in the warm glow…’
Varania snorted again. Leto turned away to observe the bare wall. Lirene left them to attend to the shop, and so they hid together, because hiding was the only place any of them belonged.
‘You’re embarrassing,’ Feynriel told Anders, while Karl settled down on a crate, and even gestured for Leto to deal himself in on their game of cards. With nothing to bet, the stakes lacked their usual urgency, and Leto wondered how he didn’t already know if his sister was a sore loser, or a gracious one.
He had his suspicions. But they were not entirely charitable.
‘What are you smiling at?’ Varania asked him.
Leto observed his cards. They were neither good nor bad, indeterminately so, but something he might yet work with. ‘I am not smiling,’ he replied.
‘I’m not embarrassing,’ Anders protested, at nearly the same time.
‘Honestly, Feynriel, you have no idea how bad he can get,’ Karl said, while Varania settled in on his right and Anders on his left, all of them prepared to get no sleep once more.
In the morning they returned to the clinic. It was as Leto said, and as he remembered, though certain items were missing—wood, mostly, no doubt long since used for the fires that littered the refugee camps at night. Anders did his best to gather the missing legs of their already unimpressive cots, only to exclaim upon completing the task that they were now an uneven number.
‘This won’t do at all,’ he muttered, setting the pieces out in an uneven column at Leto’s feet. Their construction was idle and haphazard, one leg lying atop the other balanced on a third, as though he thought it quaint, or better than simple. ‘Eleven legs, Fenris. Eleven. You can’t build four cots with eleven legs. The math just doesn’t add up.’ Anders sighed, rolling his shoulders in a shrug of defeat. ‘No, it’s all wrong; we’ll never fix it now. Might as well give up before we start.’
‘They will not multiply the more you draw attention to them,’ Leto reasoned.
‘Not even if I put the peggy-bits next to the parts with holes in them?’ Anders asked, momentarily distracted from his state of mourning.
That was better. There was no sense in crying over split furniture, after all.
Leto eyed the remains of a broken crate, mentally fitting its small planks in proper formation to fashion an additional cot-leg. It would serve, as long as he had the right tools to size it down.
When he looked back over his shoulder, Anders was doing something strange with his face. His lower lip protruded, pink and damp, while his warm eyes had grown unreasonably wide; there was something familiar about the expression, although at first, Leto couldn’t place it. He’d seen it more often on smaller, even fuzzier faces—the starving hounds and dirty cats of Lowtown begging for scraps in every abandoned alley, despite how empty-handed their marks were, how indiscriminate and ill-placed their attentions.
Did he want something?
‘Why are you looking at me like that?’ Leto demanded.
‘You didn’t pay attention to my joke,’ Anders said, drawing some new line through the dirt with his toe. ‘You know how I feel about jokes, Fenris. They’re all I have.’ A crooked smile tugged at the corner of his mouth, spoiling the effect of his pout. Its magic held no sway over Leto, broken or unbroken. ‘Jokes, and an uneven number of cot legs.’
Leto grumbled under his breath, words that neither finished nor even began, formless and displeased. Whatever distraction Anders was attempting to deploy, it was dangerously close to working, and Leto couldn’t allow himself to become like these apostates—who approached everything at a wide angle, rather than head on, with no clear berth.
‘I’ll need some tools,’ he said. ‘A hammer, nails…and something to pry apart the crates that are now beyond repair.’
‘So, all of them, then?’ Anders asked.
‘Hm,’ Leto agreed.
He set about his business.
Soon enough, there was a clatter from the far corner of the room, and Feynriel let out a yelp. Karl emerged to check on the state of his wayward apprentice, half-buried beneath a fallen shelf littered with broken glass—the remains of their homemade elfroot potions, judging by the sharp, green smell that hung heavy in the air. Varania approached from the other side, neatly stepping over the gutted remains of a broken barrel, refusing to be mindful of the shattered glass on the floor beneath her feet.
There was a mess of torn fabric in her arms, blankets and sheets rent apart at the seams.
‘Don’t forget a needle and thread,’ she added. There was fresh music in her voice—a low, pleasant quality that Leto had never heard at home.
Varania was enjoying this. Not the destruction of the clinic, but the camaraderie that came after. The act of fixing something, even this already tattered purpose.
Anders rocked back on his heels, shifting his weight as his eyebrows raised. Another pointed look. He had a library of them, each one more confounding than the last. ‘Do you really know how to use all those things?’ he asked, and it seemed an obvious question—or at least, it had an obvious answer.
Leto would not have requested the necessary tools if he did not know how to wield them.
‘I do,’ Leto said. He held a broken board in one hand, inspecting its splintered edge.
‘That’s incredibly useful of you, Fenris,’ Anders continued, crouching beside him and gathering the cot legs gingerly against his chest. ‘Are you just…good at everything, then? Because I don’t know why you’re wasting your time down here. Everyone should have someone like you around the place—someone around to take care of all the really important things.’ He paused, smoothing back a loose lock of hair that wisped free of his fingers the moment he’d moved them, streaking dirt across his jaw and cheek and the shell of his ear. ‘Except they can’t have you, because we saw you first. I’m sure that’s a rule somewhere.’
Leto wished he would stand properly. Looking down at Anders was beginning to strain his neck, and it seemed awkward to look over him, much as Leto sometimes wanted to.
‘We’ll start with the furniture,’ he said, with a final glance spared for Varania. That way, she would not feel overlooked, herself. ‘Once we have managed that, then—’
‘Then this place needs a good scrubbing, top to bottom,’ Varania finished for him. ‘You know how I can’t stand a mess.’
Leto thought of the stains on their walls, the chaos of unwashed dishes in the sink, and the rust on the bucket, her oft-unmade bed. She could stand that—or perhaps stubbornness allowed her to stand it.
Stubbornness allowed a great many things.
‘Actually, some of that might be original to the architecture,’ Anders admitted. He rubbed his thumb along the corner of his mouth, hair bristling against the pads of his fingers. It was not an unpleasant sound. In one crooked arm, he cradled the splintered pegs like a basket of kittens. ‘Some of it might even be alive. We tried to clean when we first got here, and Karl was attacked by the ceiling mold. It had arms and waving tentacles—isn’t that right, Karl?’
‘We’ll get you your tools,’ Karl replied. Leto saw that ignoring Anders was a skill that required some years of practice, and many gray hairs. ‘Spread the word that the clinic’s closed in the meantime. Those Fereldans will simply have to stop injuring themselves until we’re back on our feet.’
From Karl’s side, Feynriel clicked his tongue against his teeth. ‘Good luck on that ever happening.’
The bustle of hard work continued afresh and with renewed vigor, the tinkle of glass and the scrape of a stiff old broom, some further commotion by the crooked shelves: Feynriel’s yelp of protest and another crash, Varania’s low snort humming with unrepentant amusement. They all did what they must—some better than others, but even Anders was attempting, however poorly, to fit the legs back in their proper place, sucking on one finger to remove a splinter from the flesh.
The crate Leto had been eyeing was nearby, and he plucked it up easily enough, breaking it down into smaller hunks of manageable lumber.
Leto was no healer, but he could mend wood and metal, and sew cloth to cloth as though it had never been torn. These weren’t the talents he was often called upon to use, but he was needed here.
Perhaps, for the time being, that was enough.
Anders had always dreamed of having a large, handsome manservant around to do his heavy lifting. Of course, that dream had involved broad shoulders, a bit of a beard, and full abdominal nudity—and it remained where all of Anders’s dreams belonged: squirreled away in the Fade, but never brought into the light.
Now that he had a manservant—a surly elf built like the sharp, rusted pikes they used as railing in the Lowtown hexes—it wasn’t at all like he’d imagined.
Of course not.
Watching Fenris work was no less mesmerizing than watching Fenris fight. There was no glow upon his flesh, no flash of intransigent lyrium through his skin as he faded, translucent, broad sword arcing to scatter a templar formation. But there was sweat, infinitesimal beads that gathered at the nape of his neck, darkening his hair to soft gray, and dappling his brow. He worked hard to restore the clinic to its former splendor, harder than Anders himself.
Anders would have felt guilty over it, but he was far too busy enjoying the view.
There was also the matter of his back, which—after a full day of fetching nails and bringing water and holding frames steady and running their lone hammer between Karl and Fenris and Varania and Karl again—no longer felt like a back at all, but rather a dwarven forge, or the broken planks of the crate Fenris had at last turned into cot parts, in a shower of sawdust and elvhen determination.
When they were finished—those items that were now beyond the scope of repair bundled into a far corner, a mended tarp drawn over the corpse of what they could neither replace nor rebuild—they sat amidst the new-old beds beside the torn sheets. All of them sewed like Chantry sisters, until their hands were stiff and cramping, and Anders’s right hip made a terrifying pop every time he shifted to bring feeling back to his miserable arse.
‘Stop making that noise,’ Feynriel muttered. ‘It sounds like you’re breaking.’
‘I am breaking,’ Anders replied, starchy, rubbing at his back with his free hand to keep from attacking the lad with a needle. ‘That’s what happens when you’re old.’
‘When you’re old and always avoided morning constitutionals.’ Karl licked his thread, diving back into the pile. ‘Despite the kindly advice of a concerned friend.’
‘Oh, yes,’ Anders agreed. ‘I should have followed you through well-meaning jogs around Lake Calenhad with templars hot on our heels every time you suggested it.’
‘Take care,’ Fenris told him, reaching over to fuss with his sheet, where Anders had sewn two corners together without realizing.
Varania’s stitches were wide and careless; Karl’s were neat, if blunt; Feynriel’s were nonexistent, because he was still under the impression that all this was beneath his Dalish highness; Anders’s never fell in a straight line, no matter how hard he tried. Due to his many distractions, he always made the fabric pucker and bunch. But Fenris’s managed to be dainty and precise; he bit his lower lip each time he tied off the thread and folded the cotton, smoothing his hand over the top, patting down the lumps.
‘Your back troubles you,’ Fenris said later, while Karl made supper and Anders fetched more water for tea. Even the taste of it, like mildew on a dirty rag, would be welcome now; a dry throat and an empty stomach would accept even the worst of culinary abuses.
‘Feynriel troubles me,’ Anders replied, holding the bucket while Fenris pumped. ‘My back isn’t so much trouble as it is constant agony.’
‘You are a healer,’ Fenris said.
Anders staggered under the weight of his water. Aside from being browner than any other liquid, the stuff that came out of the Darktown pumps was also heavier. ‘I am,’ he agreed.
Fenris tched at him. ‘Then heal yourself,’ he suggested.
As though it was ever that easy.
Anders did heal himself that night in the back, the door locked and bolted, a chair and a crate pushed against it, while everyone crowded onto the private bunks usually reserved for runaway apostates who needed a place to lie low for a while. Fenris was there, and that would have been glorious, but so was Feynriel, and that was significantly less glorious. Also, Fenris didn’t undress or even remove his pauldrons as he readied himself for bed, sitting instead on the mattress below Varania’s with his elbows on his thighs, his hands clasped together, his back bent.
Anders shifted and twisted in place, resting his palms against the troublesome ball-joint. It was the one thing he knew how to do—though healing couldn’t fix everything, not the broken boxes outside the door or the templar bootprints stamped against the wall, the knowledge that they’d come before and they’d come again and no matter what they’d never stop coming.
But it was something, like a crate and a chair set against a bolted door, a barrier between himself and other, inevitable, constant pain. Warmth seeped from his fingertips and through his flesh; he heard Feynriel snort and shift and roll over, the rustling of Varania’s rough sheets, and the clack of Fenris’s finger-guards as he clenched his hands together.
Anders glanced his way. Fenris was watching him.
It was nice to be watched once in a while, when that watching didn’t involve outright surveillance. When it came honestly, curiously, a personal act, and not because the person involved was a Coterie assassin or a templar informant. Anders rubbed the heel of his palm against the stiff cloth, feeling the patch Karl had sewn on after a run-in with a Carta thug, while Fenris swallowed, and stared at him across the distance, watching Anders perform this simple act far more successfully than he’d helped hammer bent nails into old wood.
The art of healing seemed to fascinate him—the magic, or rather, the wielding of magic—as though he hadn’t watched Varania weave small spells countless times before. And maybe he hadn’t; maybe they kept it as separate as possible, one birthright from the other, just as they kept themselves separate.
Anders wanted to ask about it; he knew it was important to understand it, or at least to try, but he also knew Fenris might not have been able to explain it. There were some truths that simply existed as they were because a person didn’t know how to articulate them, much less change them—and so they remained that way forever. It wasn’t ideal, but at least it was familiar.
The pain in Anders’s back was starting to fade, but Fenris was still watching him, lyrium pulled toward the little blossoms of fresh, clean magic. That interest fed the spell, which swelled into muscle and knit deep into bone, a bloom of heat buried somewhere low in Anders’s stomach.
Anders soothed his touch down over his hip, then finally rested his hands in his lap. There was nothing left to heal; he felt good, maybe even too good, a state that couldn’t be trusted in this part of the city. He opened his mouth, but Fenris lifted a finger to his lips to hush him, then pointed to the bunk above, where Varania was snoring.
The sound wasn’t as noticeable as Karl’s ursine rumbles—just an even, peaceful rhythm, and a reminder of how tired they all were.
The others were sleeping. Despite the company, Anders somehow managed to feel lonely when the candle burned down to the cut in the wick—knowing there were friends nearby, but still not able to reach out and touch them in the abundant dark.
After that, business continued as it had to—as it always would, despite the occasional debris that stood in its way, the roadblocks and diversions meaning so little in the end. There were always Fereldans in need of healing in Kirkwall; there were always mages in need of freeing, too, and neither had their obvious rewards.
The refugees came pouring back into the clinic the next day—when it opened, just a hair later than usual—as though there’d never been any danger; what was free always outweighed what was risky, and in a pinch, they could always scatter.
Anders shouldn’t have been the least surprised.
Malcolm came around to visit them—to see, as he put it, if they were all in one piece, elf ears still on elf heads and apostate noses still on apostate faces. ‘Everyone who wears boots is still wearing boots, and everyone who doesn’t isn’t,’ Malcolm concluded, not at all concerned for poor Karl’s well-being, when he was getting on in years, and far beyond the capacity for managing such excitement. ‘At least there are some things a man can rely on. Lovely toes, Fenris.’
At least he hadn’t said it about Varania. Anders felt himself bristling all the same.
For a time, they were forced to lie low, themselves, just like wanted apostates lurking in the back room of the clinic, troubled sleep wearing thin despite how little they were doing wrong. It was crowded, and it took a while for anyone to get used to Karl’s snoring—though Feynriel was the only one who complained about it. Anders felt for them, but he didn’t mind the company.
And if Fenris and Varania missed the alienage, they never let on.
Sometimes in the night, when sleep eluded him, Anders listened to the faint rumble of other people breathing near him in the dark: Varania’s almost-snoring, Fenris’s occasional twitch and jerk beneath the covers, and even Feynriel’s soft little grumbles, dreams that couldn’t possibly have been less appealing than the real life he hated so much. They were all separate sounds, distinct to their owners, but each meant the same thing—Anders wasn’t alone, not even at night.
It was an improvement over his usual state, tossing and turning and tangled in the sheets, stubbornly waiting up to hear Karl’s footsteps cross the threshold—unable to rest until he knew that everything was all right, at least for one more night.
But the extra company wasn’t a balm to Karl’s spirits. He abided Feynriel—because of some latent sense of responsibility, no doubt; he’d always had too much of that—and he even seemed to like the boy, a development that was, primarily, baffling. Varania, too, was tolerated, both for her healing touch as well as her way of parting crowds with a few, tart words.
If she and Lirene ever teamed up for the greater good, they’d be unstoppable. A dark trickle of dread dripped down Anders’s spine—like rusty rainwater from the leak in the ceiling—whenever he thought about it.
Karl’s wariness, then, must have been centered around the one member of the party who wasn’t an apostate—just an elf with the poor luck of having been born into the same family as one.
Fenris didn’t seem to notice, and if he did, it was likely that he didn’t care. Maybe he was so accustomed to wariness—his own and everyone else’s—that he no longer noticed its daily presence. Once again, Karl’s people skills were impeccable; of course he’d chosen to ignore the one person who wasn’t anxious to make a good impression.
Without paying close attention, it would have been easy to assume Fenris didn’t care one way or the other about impressions, good or bad.
But Anders paid a great deal of close attention. Trapped in the clinic as they were, with Lirene running their errands and Malcolm providing a few crates here and there of ‘imported’ food to keep them on their feet, there wasn’t much else to do. Except for heal—but that was beside the point, something Anders took for granted now, same as breathing.
The endless stream of festering Fereldan gouges and broken Fereldan bones occupied his hands, but Fenris was always in the corner of his vision, the hum of his lyrium poignant beneath wailing patients and screaming children. There was an anxiety to his movements, an uncertainty Anders had learned to recognize from hours of patient observance. Fenris would work himself into knots over the simplest of things; he’d paced the length of the clinic three times before offering to splint a bone so Varania could set it.
Those weren’t the actions of someone who didn’t care. No; Fenris seemed to care so much that it stopped him up tight like a cork in an Antivan bottle. When it came to the clinic, he was so keen on not doing the wrong thing that he seemed to think doing nothing at all was preferable.
Anders paused where he was, straightening over a low cot—the legs filed down so they’d all be even, one of Fenris’s ideas—to rub his lower back, and spot Fenris in the crowd.
He was pacing even now, displaying a restlessness they all felt. When he passed Anders by, his armored fingers clicked like the inner workings of an oiled dwarven clock, meant for one purpose and set, stubbornly, to performing another.
So it was something of a blessing when Malcolm dropped a few liberal hints in the clinic’s lap later that evening. ‘I’d handle them myself, but the wife’s been on me like the beard on a dwarf after our last little escapade,’ he explained, without even the self-consciousness impulse to laugh at his own good joke. ‘She thinks I’m setting a bad example for the children, letting them think you can slip out of important dinners, then come back hours later stinking of the Wounded Coast. My eldest is at an impressionable age, you see. Twenty-something was a bad set of years for me, for example, and that’s all Leandra remembers.’
Fenris snorted, which was as eloquent as anyone could be in the face of Malcolm’s high-spirited prattle. Anders took it for a sound of dismissal, but Fenris was right there at his shoulder, the first to crowd in as Karl and Feynriel perused Malcolm’s delivery.
‘So he’s a courier now,’ Anders said. ‘What doesn’t that man do?’
Most of the letters were messages from the good Mistress Selby, culled from the dockyards and Lowtown; there was nothing from the Gallows—mercifully, since the memory of the templars’ visit to the clinic was still too near—but there were plenty of apostates with family in Kirkwall, and some of them had even been clever enough to mention their plight in front of the influential Malcolm Hawke.
‘We’ll have to close the clinic tonight,’ Karl said.
Sometimes, the tenor of his voice verged too close to weary. Anders knew when Karl was tired because he simply stopped pretending that he wasn’t.
He was getting too old for this. And it wasn’t as though his wayward protégé Feynriel was going to take up the mantle any time soon. Neither of them seemed capable of heading the clinic’s true business much longer, and it was impossible for Anders to ignore where that left him. Resentment and refusal—so much like a well-timed ice spell—prickled over his skin, freezing through the stiff muscles at his back. He’d never asked for that sort of responsibility. There was no guarantee he’d even be any good at it. Just the memory of the templars’ footsteps, heavy boots pounding after them in the sewers and the clank of their armor echoing off the tunnel walls, made him feel like a little boy again. A little boy with an old body and a treacherous back—too much experience with running, rather than too little.
His tongue was dry as an old, dirty rag in his mouth.
Someone rested their hand on his shoulder, cool metal fingertips contracting amidst the feathers. Slowly, Anders felt himself start to thaw.
‘Don’t look too excited, Anders,’ Karl said. The weariness was gone, banished and replaced with familiar acidity.
The fine wrinkles at the corners of Karl’s eyes always made Anders smile, and the twitch of Fenris’s fingers—so familiar to him now—against his collarbone made him flush. ‘Excitement? Oh, no. That’s just the remnants of Malcolm’s blighted Antivan sausage from lunch,’ Anders said. When he reached to cover Fenris’s hand with his own, Fenris retracted it immediately—as though he knew and denied the gesture’s importance, or as though he refused to acknowledge what he’d done with simple contact, skin on skin. Or skin on steel and leather, in this case, with fluffy feathers all around them, an unusually pleasant combination of textures.
‘I’m excited,’ Varania said, pushing hair behind one sharp ear, someone else’s blood staining her cheek.
‘Yes,’ Feynriel agreed. ‘That’s because you’re crazy.’
‘I’ll let Selby know,’ Lirene concluded, while Anders rubbed at the side of his neck and watched Fenris disappear, without purpose, into a distant corner of the clinic, urchins scattering in his wake.
‘Anders,’ Karl warned.
Anders shrugged, fingers lingering against his skin. It wasn’t the touch he’d wanted—his life was an unflagging sequence of near-adequate replacements—but it was warm. Possibly because his palms were hot with the lingering arcane, or simply pulsing with nerves.
‘Like I’d listen to you, now that I know you’re so reckless,’ he said, sniffing pointedly.
‘Like you ever listened to me to begin with,’ Karl replied.
Malcolm Hawke was a clever man, and because of his cleverness, Athenril was now the happiest elf Leto had ever seen.
‘You keep these coming, Fenris,’ Athenril told him, touching the chest of repurposed contraband with the same reverence certain Fereldan mothers reserved for their convalescent offspring, ‘and you can bet I’ll be smiling from now until the next Blight comes along. Did anyone ever tell you you’re like a good luck charm?’
Leto kept his mouth from twitching at the preposterous idea. It was not a joke in the same way all things were these days, levied at the most inappropriate moment. All his companions were humorous to a fault, and banter was tossed from healer to healer regardless of the circumstances—after an ill-conceived supper complete with warm Antivan brandy, or in the aftermath of a cave-in at the Bone Pit, or as a ward against some catastrophe equally dramatic and equally frequent.
‘No,’ Leto admitted. ‘They have not ever told me…that.’
‘Good,’ Athenril replied. ‘Means I get to keep you all to myself.’
She did not, however, get to keep him to herself; whether or not she believed she did was no longer of consequence. She allowed it, which was the difference between what she said and what she knew, since whatever Leto sought to do for himself was now more profitable on her end than if he had not taken the initiative.
As curious as she was, Athenril knew when to avoid asking the big questions.
But as appreciative as Leto was of her business acumen, he was wary of other details, especially Hawke’s cleverness. The most profitable skills were always the most dangerous, and Hawke was not the only man who reaped the rewards—who tempted the fates—with his natural instinct for danger. Leto was never sure if he ought to thank the man for tipping them off, as it were, or to prevent him from ever entering the clinic again, with all his jobs and his quips and his cleverness.
He put them all in harm’s way. He put Varania in harm’s way, and the confounding original members of the clinic, and even Feynriel—who remained behind in the clinic proper while his elders snuck through wet tunnels, like rats leading more rats to the relative comforts and so-called freedom of the Wounded Coast.
Leto hadn’t the skills of persuasion necessary to convince Varania to stay behind with Feynriel. She, in turn, had no skills when it came to waiting, nothing to occupy the burden of her free time. She must have known her brother was defeated—she must have recognized his defeat—before he even tried, only once, to speak to her about the matter.
In the shadows of the clinic, beside a narrow curtain, while she watched a slumbering child—one who would turn on her some day, like all wild animals bit the hand that tried to heal their oldest pain—he opened his mouth, and all Varania had to do was look at him.
They said nothing further on the subject. During their first excursion, shepherding two apostates even younger than Feynriel through the sewers, Varania was there, holding a staff Hawke had procured for her.
Seeing her with it was more of an assault on Leto’s person than the ambush that never came. When they parted ways with the children, Varania twirled the staff in her hands, running her fingers over the smooth wood and the metal clinch, the place where it was most natural to grip the weapon.
‘And here I wanted the chance to use this,’ she said, digging it deep into the sand, leaving behind a little hole. It was swallowed up by the wind and the tide, and Leto himself, who kicked dirt in to fill the empty space and obscure all traces of their presence on the shore.
He was there by her side to look after her—he could not fail in that. His personal stake in the matter was now obvious, to anyone with eyes, but Karl did not wish to mention it, and Anders did not know how to mention it, and Leto accepted both forms of deterrence equally.
He did not want it mentioned.
‘Don’t look so sour,’ Varania added, somewhere over his shoulder. At least she was still speaking to him. They’d spent an entire summer not speaking some years back, and it was not an experience Leto wished to repeat. ‘It’s not as though I complained when you picked up your sword.’
It was not the same, and it was also not true. Varania had complained, in her own way, a combination of eternal silences and loud clangs. More broken bowls, more stains, more frustration. Nothing with an outlet; blame without end.
Without further remark—or further incident—they returned to the clinic, where Feynriel was waiting for them. ‘I can’t take much more of this,’ he warned, and his bottom lip trembled to reinforce his claim.
‘You can’t take much more of it?’ Anders asked. ‘What about us? We’re the ones who were actually doing something. And by the way—I know those are your chocolate stains on my copy of Hard in Hightown With a Vengeance.’
‘Has someone been eating my chocolate again?’ Karl asked mildly.
It was all too much, and at the same time not enough. Varania’s staff was committed to the same hiding hole as the others, as though she was the same as the others, or one of them now—whatever it was she had decided, whatever it was that Leto could not prevent. He watched as Anders bent low to place his atop hers, then rearrange the straw and the burlap and the crate in the proper place.
It was so little that stood between them and the truth, such a shabby, small detail.
It was also not enough. It would likely never be.
Leto did not allow himself to think often about what it meant that they’d fled a city of magic for a city of chains. None of the countryside they’d seen along the way had ever seemed far enough, distant spires and rooftops glittering off the shoreline as the galleon made its laborious jouney down the coast. Varania had stood at Leto’s elbow in the final days, the fresh air blowing fever-stink from his skin, watching what Leto watched, and offering commentary on the places she’d learned off the captain’s map: Rialto and Bastion, then Wycome, Hercinia and Ostwick. When they’d passed the narrow strait that would take them to Kirkwall, she’d commented slyly that they could jump ship and swim to Brandel’s Reach, an island notorious for pirates and raiders.
It was not the first time she’d betrayed an inclination for these reckless impulses. And at that time, Leto had felt that darkness—unable to trust the magic in his own flesh and blood, unable to trust his sister. He’d seen it not as a part of her, but as a reminder of Tevinter.
As though they needed more of those, when Leto’s had been seared into his very flesh.
In time, he’d come to realize that Varania was still only his sister, always half a stranger, always the one thing he truly knew—and the magic was a part of her, just like the lyrium in Leto’s veins. He trusted her as he had never thought to trust anyone else. Even Athenril, ten years later, was held at an arm’s length. She was not family, no matter how much she had done for them, no matter how much he had done for her.
The mages of the clinic also should have been kept at bay. They were apostates working outside the law, always against it, poor as dirt and often covered in the same. There was no reason for Varania to trust them at last with her most valued secret—and even less reason for Leto to allow it.
Leto blinked, once. But those feelings, those memories, remained.
Anders dusted the straw from his hands. He’d missed a piece, and it caught in his hair when he moved to smooth the lank, curling lock back from his temple. Leto bit down on a sigh of exasperation.
It was a wonder to him how apostates could be so indecisive in the way they handled their shared gift. Feynriel was afraid, and Karl worn out and worn down; Varania would accept neither counsel nor advice on how best to conceal herself, while Anders seemed all too keen on concealment. He accepted Leto’s sword; he, unlike Varania, was content to swathe himself in the shadows at Leto’s back.
It was not an easy camouflage, but it did not always chafe.
Leto wondered briefly at the difference, then allowed the thought to pass, drifting down the gulley of his mind, before it disappeared like a leaf into a storm drain.
‘Come with me.’ The suddenness of Varania’s voice—always the same tone, a familiar command that made Leto straighten in place—startled him from his thoughts, and Feynriel from his barrel-perch. ‘I think I have the solution to your problem, Feynriel.’
‘Is it more chocolate?’ Feynriel looked hopeful, but his wide eyes were always wary. The boy was smart enough to fear Leto’s sister—though too many times he did not seem to know why he feared her.
‘No,’ Varania said, wiping her hands on her skirts. ‘It’s a purpose.’
‘Oh.’ Feynriel’s face fell flat. ‘Lucky me.’
‘There’s no reason to look so sour about it.’ Leto could see the lantern-light sparkling in Varania’s eyes, far too bright for any mere reflection. She was enjoying herself. Here, among strangers, and not the elves they’d known all their lives, she was smiling, repeating their words, and lending each new meaning. ‘I’d say it’s high time you learned how to heal, Feynriel. At the very least, we’d best learn now whether or not you’ve even got a knack for it. You can’t expect Karl to do all the heavy lifting for himself, can you? What would your mother say? Do you want to be ungracious forever? He’s your host, and you’re helping yourself to his hospitality—not to mention his snacks. I’d say it’s the least you can do—and we should all aspire to do more than the very least, anyway.’
Feynriel cast about in search of help, some lure from his store of sullen words with which to keep from drowning. Leto could have told him it was pointless. There was no arguing with Varania when she was in high spirits.
Sometimes he doubted their relation, knowing she had such a gift with words, and him not at all, but there was another explanation—when Varania had been born, she’d taken all the speeches, just like she’d taken all the magic.
To this day, he wasn’t sure whether she’d been doubly cursed, or only cursed by half. And still, he would have given up more for her, if more was ever less of a burden.
‘It’s just a little healing,’ Varania chided, sliding her arm through Feynriel’s as she all but dragged him toward the back room. ‘You’d think I said we were going to shoot fireballs at each other. No—that’ll come later, I suspect. When you least expect it. Come on, and make yourself useful.’
‘Karl—’ Feynriel began. But he was through the door with a yelp, no match for Varania’s strategies, and the latch fell shut neatly behind them, all further protests muffled deep within.
Anders shivered, feathers jostling like a bird puffing itself up in a draft. He’d seated himself on a crate nearby, close enough that Leto could feel the brush of those absurd pauldrons against his leg every time Anders moved his shoulder.
There were plenty of other seats about, and in more advantageous positions.
Leto chose to remain standing.
‘Well,’ Anders said. He was always the first to speak, even when Leto observed that he had nothing to offer to the conversation. Just a well or an ah, some little word that meant no more than the interruption it provided. Its presence was everything, its substance inconsequential. ‘That was bracing. Are we sure she isn’t going to try and put him into tonight’s stew?’
‘It would not improve the flavor,’ Leto replied.
Karl’s mouth twisted beneath his gray beard, attempting and failing to hold off a smile. Sometimes, the impulse was the failure. Leto had learned that here, and also, how not to mind it. ‘Malcolm will be by soon. At least we’ll have some good news for him this time.’
‘All our fingers and toes,’ Anders agreed, wiggling the former. And probably the latter, too, but that remained unseen, beyond the scuffle of his heels against the floor. ‘Humans wearing boots and elves not wearing boots and Feynriel for supper—and all is right with our little world.’
‘Except no one put away the elfroot before we left,’ Karl added. ‘I specifically remember asking someone to put away the elfroot.’
‘Poor someone,’ Anders said. ‘So maligned. So very put upon. And currently in trouble—I wouldn’t want to be him for all the sovereigns in the viscount’s treasury, I tell you.’
‘Hmm,’ Karl said. A meaningful sound.
Anders stretched. Leto heard the pop at the small of his back, and noted the placement of his hands, thumbs digging deep into sore muscle. The sight made him frown—because it served to remind him of all the little things they could no more fix than heal, their place in the world, and their helplessness.
‘I shall do it,’ Leto offered, before Anders could stand, before his body could make any further noises. It was enough that his mouth made so much noise already. He did not need the help.
The boxes all had their proper place; Leto stacked them in the storeroom, no more than a cool corner of the clinic room proper, noting each of Karl’s hidden grunts as he bent low to lift the rest, muted somewhere in his chest, and that precise feeling of Anders’s eyes tracking their every movement. Anders was always watching, and yet, Leto surmised, he saw so little.
But it was not Leto’s concern what he looked for—what he did see, or why he wished to see it.
There was little enough privacy in this place already. They knew far too much about each other, while at the same time they knew not enough.
Frustration of that sort only bred more frustration. Leto appreciated these tasks because, once started, they could be finished. Moving boxes from one place to the next, no matter how many boxes there were, at least had a beginning and an end, a point of conclusion, a time to move on.
‘Just what I always wanted.’ Anders sighed, leaning back against the wall. Leto did not choose to watch him, and focused instead on the uneven coloring of the wood in the box levied just beneath his nose, the smell of elfroot that made his lip curl and the back of his throat sting. It was a particularly powerful batch. ‘Two handsome men doing all my heavy lifting for me. Perhaps I died somewhere in the sewers and this is my reward for a life hard-lived.’
Leto snorted, letting the box drop atop the one before it, a heavy jingle of bottles and shuffle of cotton-wrapped tubers and dried fronds.
‘…And then you laugh at the thought of my untimely demise,’ Anders added, shaking his head. ‘So I suppose it’s not a good dream after all.’ He reached up to the back of his neck, slim fingers pressed under the collar of his jacket, a rustle of feathers signaling some deeper shiver, while he rubbed at the muscle there next. As though there was nothing his own hands could do that would satisfy him, or bring him the peace of body necessary to sit still.
He required healing. Leto had seen enough of that particular need to know when it was in high demand; it required neither wail nor whimper, for there were times when it was quieter than anything, as subtle as the sound of the lamp being extinguished over the clinic door. Those requests that were not made out loud seemed more pertinent, somehow, than their more clamorous brothers.
Leto turned to find Karl; surely he would sense it, too, with all his experience, his skilled hand and his attention to such fine detail. But Karl was gone, the sound of a door shut elsewhere in the back of the clinic. There were no more boxes to move, no more chores to be done, the end that Leto had sought giving rise instead to some new and indistinct beginning, without clear purpose.
Perhaps Leto had missed something.
There were little quips that seemed to rankle more than the more obvious ones, here; Leto had enough experience with Varania to know that offense could be taken before it was meant, long before, and the most unintentional or unnoticed of slights festered so much more than any outright wounds. Leto wondered if that was what had just transpired, and Karl had left to be alone with it, though he could see no possible reason for how or why.
And still, Anders dug his fingers into the back of his neck, head bowed, hair in such disarray that it was infuriating to look at him. The way his coat fell open in the front—the way his hair parted over the back of his neck, just above the bone, his fingertips carding against his scalp. And the gentle pull of weary magic beneath the touch, where in the end simple, strong fingers would have done just as much good, from hands that were not so weary.
Varania would not have accepted the help—she would have brushed it off, recognizing the refusal needed no commentary, though there were times when she offered some anyway. She had done so much for Leto that he could not possibly hope to repay her—and, frustrating as she was, she refused to let him try. This edge to her personality kept him at arm’s length, prevented him from crossing the distance, even when they were bent close, working together on some petty task.
She wished for things to be equal. And she policed the boundaries of that wish far better than any of Kirkwall’s city guardsmen protected their territory.
Leto took a step forward. He saw Anders’s hands still, his shoulders swell, his back rising and falling with a deep breath. All the little feathers shivered with him. It indicated something, but like all the fine print in one of Malcolm Hawke’s stolen property deeds or shipping ledgers, Leto could not parse it.
The clinic room was dark, littered with many obstacles. But Leto knew the way by heart, and avoided each cot and barrel—even the one Feynriel had moved from its familiar place earlier that day, scooting closer to watch and listen as Anders read one of his dreadful stories to a rapt audience of dirty children and one equally dirty old man.
It was easy to do this, Leto realized, not without some surprise. It was as simple as taking the steps he already knew, a skill he had no reason to forget.
Except the gloves—their sharp-tipped metal, meant not to heal but to rend—were in the way.
They always were.
It was the difference between who he was and who they were. And, he supposed, it was not only that difference that confounded him, but also the anticipation of a denial that had not yet come. It would; it always did. Anticipation was the prime defense—and sometimes offense, as well.
To cross all that distance, only to be stopped at the last moment by so insubstantial a detail, was another story, one that Leto had always lived. He curled his fingers against his palms, listening to the sound Anders’s hands made on his own skin, before he was able to gesture openly through the darkness.
It began as something other than how it ended. But gestures at nothing in the dark were not of use to anyone.
They, too, needed purpose.
Leto caught the palm of his right gauntlet with his armored fingertips, dragging it off with a whisper of metal and leather. Anders’s shoulders stiffened when he heard it, though he did not lift his head. The silence in the room was palpable, thick as the layers of dust along the top shelves, the ones even Karl did not bother to clean, and all the more noticeable because Anders had not once spoken to ruin it.
Perhaps, being an apostate, had had some basic understanding of the smaller magics, like the kind that existed in shadowed rooms between two people who lived together but did not know each other. Or perhaps it was merely a coincidence. These mysteries had no answers, and therefore there was no point in seeking them out.
Instead, Leto’s fingers crept through the still air to Anders’s neck, bare knuckles rubbing against the softer, healer’s touch.
‘Move,’ he suggested, voice thin—as though it, too, was caked with dust. ‘Your hands are tired.’
Anders appeared to have been waiting for that suggestion all along. His arms dropped to his sides, dead weights without tension or muscle, and he leaned into the touch with unmasked longing, like the foolish alienage kittens that rumbled in affection whenever anyone glanced their way. The noise he made was not a purr but close, a wordless hum of gratitude, murmured appreciation that never gave form to its obvious intent.
That was acceptable. Leto had never shared Anders’s need to make everything into a topic of conversation. More importantly, he would not have known what to say in reply, the explanation for his actions nor the proof that he was capable of this. His fingers traveled along the bony ridge of Anders’s spine instead, slipping to one side where the muscles in his shoulders knotted, hand fitting nimbly beneath the open fall of his collar.
Though his heartbeat quickened, the lyrium in Leto’s skin felt muted, not coaxed to life by the threat of danger, nor the presence of an obvious spell. There was nothing more arcane than the mundane in the room between them, and no Fade magic to blame.
‘Hmngh.’ Anders exhaled a gust of warm air, hands scrabbling for purchase. There was a stained support column in front of them, but without any head for tactics, Anders reached back instead, fingers hooking through the leather straps of Leto’s armor. It made the angle difficult, but Leto merely adjusted his grip, shifting from loosened shoulders to that troublesome joint at Anders’s lower back.
Progress was hindered by the sudden thickness of the quilted coat between them.
This was unprecedented, uncharacteristic, and untoward. Leto knew that, just as he knew there would be questions if Varania and Feynriel saw fit to return early from their lessons—or if Hawke took it into his head to arrive early, or if Karl appeared without warning from his secret room, stealing silence and bitter chocolate and meager peace however he could find it. But Anders moaned when Leto’s fingers dug in hard at the tightened muscle, the one that plagued him so often, and he tugged Leto closer—not only allowing his help, but encouraging it.
It was not a contract. It was not payment rendered for services offered. It was free, without indenture, help in its purest form.
No one had ever allowed Leto’s help; no one had ever made it so clear to him the ways in which he could help, so that he never had to waste time blundering about the issue, getting everything wrong.
Even now, Anders’s fingers climbed higher between the plates and leather that fashioned Leto’s armor, one hand at his elbow, thumb kneading the bare skin of his forearm. He was not shy when it came to his desires, what he did and did not like, what he allowed himself to need—and despite the coyness in his words, Leto never had to guess at where they stood with one another, because it was all there. Too fancy for some, too close for comfort, and occasionally worth notice. Or gratitude.
‘If you will not heal yourself, then you must find other solutions to the problem,’ Leto instructed, working his fingers in patient, deep circles. Anders writhed against them. His skin felt flushed, the nape of his neck damp with sweat. ‘This stubborn martyrdom aids no one, and it does not suit you.’
‘Maker,’ Anders murmured. He shook his head, stray wisps of hair flying loose. They cast shadows over his ears, the stubble beneath at his jaw, the vulnerable pulse at his throat. Leto pressed his knuckles against a particularly stubborn knot, and Anders’s fingers tightened at his arm. ‘Ah!—anything but martyrdom. Please don’t stop.’
The thought had not once entered Leto’s mind. For all his self-control, the care he took to maintain the peace of his body like any other sheathed weapon, he was no longer certain what he was capable of.
So this was what it meant to be…carried away.
He recognized the momentum, the pull of that treacherous tide, but could no longer sense where he ended and impulse began, where structure lost form and will itself weakened.
Worse than that, he did not believe he minded.
He felt as though he had been struck over the head by Varania’s best skillet, deaf and blind to everything but the sounds Anders was making, the curve of Anders’s back as he bucked against Leto’s hands, pressing closer than Leto had ever allowed anyone to get. That was in part due to his circumstances—how he kept himself at bay—as much as it was how others chose to keep their distance.
‘Fenris,’ Anders muttered, and the sound of that name hummed in Leto’s ears, a sour note despite the sweet tone.
It had not mattered before, because Fenris was a name for employers, and his time with the apostates had always been for work. A lifetime of work, perhaps, but he had seen it as his duty, and treated it as such.
Now, it had changed, a stranger in their midst, the name of someone who would never put his hands to someone else’s stiff back and seek to ease his suffering.
Leto swallowed, and the lump that was rising in his throat went down.
‘That is not my name,’ he said.
Anders’s breath hitched; his fingers stilled. He, too, was still for a moment—an uncommon moment of stillness—before he crooked his neck. His face remained hidden by his hair as he turned to look over his shoulder. It was impossible to believe he saw anything that way, but he made no move to push the hair out of his eyes, or release his hold, or better his position, or even seek advantage. A natural impulse for anyone else, but some could not be taught that instinct, apparently.
‘…Beg pardon?’ he asked at last.
‘That is not my name,’ Leto repeated, the lull of the mood allowing him to be more than customarily obliging.
‘Yes, that’s what I thought you said.’ Anders breathed again, and Leto was aware of all the sounds because of how it changed the position of his body, how his back swelled, how the rhythm of his heartbeat thrummed along his spine. ‘That’s…unexpected. And…awkward, come to think of it—that is how you introduced yourself, isn’t it? Am I just…pronouncing it wrong? Some sort of Dalish thing I didn’t—’
‘It is not Dalish,’ Leto said. If he did not speak quickly, this derailment might well continue forever, or at least until the first light of morning. ‘It is the name I use for business. Fenris—the name my master gave me.’
‘That’s…unpleasant,’ Anders replied. He did not seem on the verge of moving elsewhere. ‘I’ve been calling you that all this time?’
‘It is neither pleasant nor unpleasant.’ Leto felt the shift of muscle beneath a poorly-mended seam and the patch just below. Anders was not tensing, but neither was he relaxing, and the latter was the very source of what ailed him. ‘I said as much: it was for business.’
Anders paused. Leto remembered all the quirks of those pauses, the way his head inclined—which it did—and the way he licked his lips—there, no doubt of it, but fully hidden by the fall of his hair. With his clumsiness, he had undone the loose cord that held it back.
No wonder it was such a mess.
‘So this…’ Anders paused again. His tone was something new, that same elusive teasing, but higher and deeper at intervals, and also breathless. ‘…isn’t business,’ he concluded.
That revelation should not have been as surprising as it was. ‘No,’ Leto confirmed.
Then, more silence. Leto considered it, the rhythm returning to his fingers. It seemed Anders wanted more, which Leto gave, digging his knuckles in alongside the bone, eliciting a whimper—but a questioning one.
‘Ah,’ Leto said, understanding. ‘…The name is unimportant.’
‘Is it?’ Anders asked. His hold was tighter than ever now, too slim to be painful, but Leto felt it elicit a response nonetheless, a pleasant ache against his skin. ‘After all—you brought it up.’
‘Names,’ Leto muttered. They were unimportant, but also used as leverage when you least wished. He regretted bringing it up at all now, a curious flush at his throat. ‘Leto,’ he said, though it was stupid to speak one’s own name at any point, especially so long past introductions. ‘That is…’
‘…what Varania calls you,’ Anders supplied.
‘Yes,’ Leto said. ‘When she is not…displeased, in some way. By something. For whatever reason.’
Anders made one of his noises, of understanding and of pleasure both; he tossed his head, and some of the hair moved off his cheek, caught behind his ear or against the back of his neck, along his jaw, at his brow. Leto’s hands were busy; he could not brush it away, though he harbored the will to do so. Perhaps at a later point, when he was able, he would do it—and do it well enough that it would no longer seek, of its own, contrary volition, to disobey.
‘What is it?’ Leto asked.
‘Nothing important,’ Anders began. ‘It’s just that—’
But Leto was not meant to have his answer—nor a reprieve from his ill luck. There was, of course, a sudden noise at the door, and all the eased pain in Anders’s back returned as he stiffened, despite Leto’s touch. So, too, did the muscles Leto used most commonly, his fingers seizing around nothing more dangerous than a fistful of feathers to guard them both, while he was reminded that nothing was private anywhere in Kirkwall—but sometimes least of all here.
‘Interrupting something, am I?’ Hawke asked from the doorway. ‘Too bad I wasn’t a little more stealthy, then. I tried to come as late as possible—even took a few strolls around Darktown first—but the scenery doesn’t agree with my digestion, and you’ll have to forgive me, since the wife served quail for supper. You know how difficult quail is on the stomach, don’t you?’
‘I do not,’ Leto replied.
‘Is it as difficult as you?’ Anders asked, at the same instant, and by the same instinct.
There was no spell to break—not of the noticeable kind, in any case—but Leto was forced to discontinue his ministrations and reclaim his weapon, just as Karl appeared, and Varania and Feynriel after him, and the room was crowded with jostling elbows and laughter and explanation, and whispers and caution and business.
There was nothing to hide from them, nothing to confess, because nothing had happened behind their backs. At least, it was not something that could be put into words.
It was there despite that, sequestered in each look Anders cast Leto’s way, knowledge coupled with curiosity—a hazardous combination. Leto did not know how to answer it with words, much less without them.
The others were distracted by the excitement, carried away as they so often became, and it proved beneficial—this time—that Hawke was such an interruption, so accustomed to being the center of attention. He put his feet up on a nearby barrel, crossing his hands behind his head, and gossiped with Karl, and complimented Varania, while Anders continued to stare twin holes through the air, a gaze Leto could no more acknowledge than he could forget.
Leto shifted, the only one standing, as though that could redistribute the weight of what he carried. Hawke yawned noisily, covering his mouth with one hand.
‘So,’ he said, ‘not to make this all about me or anything, but…. You haven’t happened to see my son around the place, have you?’
Karl nearly choked on a cough. ‘I wasn’t aware a son was the sort of thing you can misplace, Malcolm.’
‘No,’ Hawke agreed. ‘But a son is the sort of thing with legs and a brain—or rather, half of one—that can run off when he wants to, spouting nonsense about joining either the free clinic in Darktown or the Mage Underground, whichever he finds first. I didn’t feel like telling him he could land two birds with one stone—we all have to figure these things out for ourselves. Don’t we?’
A candle-flame of curiosity flickered in Leto’s chest, too warm to be ignored, too bright to be snuffed out. Hawke’s son was an apostate, yet another who seemed bent on putting adventure above his own safety.
Perhaps it had something to do with the water in Kirkwall, or something even deeper than that, below earth and stone. Leto did not suggest it; speaking would have brought all the attention in the room around from Hawke to him, and he was still grappling with the attention of one man, Anders’s eyes keen and bright in his peripheral vision.
Leto wanted to ask him what it meant, but their time alone was lost, vanished beneath the burden of duty, as so many of the other important matters in Leto’s life. He found Varania’s gaze across the room instead, and held it. She had been interrupted too, all her life, and from more important pastimes than kneading an apostate’s sore back.
‘Well, brother,’ Varania said. Her dark lips parted to reveal a pearl-string of white teeth, a hungry smile. ‘I suppose we’d better get started.’
For the first time in a long time, Leto did not have to ask his sister what she meant.
Malcolm Hawke’s son had a flair for the dramatic—which was hardly a surprise, considering the stock he’d simmered in.
For the first few minutes of Malcolm’s timely interruption, it was all Anders could do not to throw the man out, cursing the name of all things Hawke. That he didn’t deserved more praise than anyone knew and, for once, more praise than Anders cared to mention.
Malcolm dined regularly with the viscount; if he wanted, he could have all of Kirkwall’s city guard out crawling the docks and poking in storm drains for the misplaced fruit of his loins. Could have, save for one measly detail: the young man was an apostate, and that made him a chip off the well-bearded block, half the age of his father but just as troublesome, and just as much a thorn in Anders’s side, carrying on the time-honored family tradition.
And Malcolm, who had too much experience with these things, believed only apostates could deal with more apostates—even when the problem was a domestic one, better solved by the guard captain dragging the young man back home by the ear. His magic was a well-kept secret; as far as Anders was concerned, there was no reason to involve the clinic at all, and likewise no reason to interrupt a moment that, until now, had only ever featured largely in his best of dreams.
The memory of Fenris’s fingers—now Leto’s fingers, but still possessed of the same strength and the same intuitions—rubbing an insistent trail down Anders’s spine was a brand on his mind, not to mention lingering heat against his muscle. His skin still ached with the sweetness of that touch, offered freely, and without any begging.
Though Anders might have been about to beg, all things considered.
He’d never forgive Malcolm for bringing about its untimely end.
But, as Karl had so helpfully pointed out, the clinic workers knew all the best places to look for runaway mages—it was their specialty, along with broken bones—and it apparently it was vital to get started immediately, before anyone learned Malcolm’s son was missing. Before the templars got wind of anyone asking around about free mages was the unspoken subtext there; Anders had worked with Karl long enough that he didn’t need to hear it said aloud.
Karl was always willing to help Malcolm out of a pinch, large or small. One day, Anders might understand why, since mere friendship couldn’t possibly offer so much for so long.
Until then, he was at the mercy of Karl’s whims—which was how he found himself wandering the long, dirty hexes of Lowtown with Leto at his side, just a pace behind and ever-watchful for the bright flashes of orange kerchiefs that marked the city guards.
Varania and Feynriel had taken the docks, while Karl took ship to the Gallows, to speak to a contact of his there in case the situation took a turn for the worst. Malcolm was somewhere else—hiding from his wife, Anders imagined; charming legions of Fereldan refugees; drinking in the Hanged Man nearby; charming Orlesians, tattooing pirates, and dancing with the Knight-Commander all at the same time. With so much on his mind—so many talents, and so many side-projects—it made sense that he’d lose something as important as a son.
At least the man had a blind spot somewhere, and not just when it came to other people’s comforts.
Or other people’s private massages.
Anders brushed his hand along his back, not quite the same path as the one he still felt—not wanting to override the memory just yet, or distract his tingling flesh with new feeling to supersede the old. Somewhere in the alley, he heard a kitten meow, followed by the squeak of a rat; across the Lowtown bazaar the light and noise of the Hanged Man was bright, the taproom housing the only fools in Kirkwall still awake, save for the weary members of the Mage Underground.
‘Guards,’ Fenris said.
Leto, Anders corrected himself. He leaned against the wall, repeating the name, something far too delicate for bluff Fereldan sensibilities, and not nearly as intimidating as the other one. Anders recognized Fenris better, but Leto was the truth.
‘And a kitten,’ Anders agreed. ‘And a rat.’ Then, he cringed at Leto’s silence. ‘Sorry. I thought we were…playing a game. Naming all the things we can see, that sort of fun.’
One of Leto’s dark brows—the left one—quirked. But, still being himself no matter what name he went by, he said nothing, finding it all too ridiculous to respond to.
It occurred to Anders that they were alone at last—not in the way they might be, next to a comfortable fire, without so many rats and kittens and guards about. It also occurred to him that he was once again destroying himself through his own contrary nature, happier now that he wasn’t alone in the clinic, yet still wanting everyone to disappear for convenient amounts of time whenever he saw fit to wink them away.
People didn’t work like that—they blundered in and out of other lives without any grace, felicity or consideration—and no amount of wishing would make it so. But practicality was the opposite of wishes. Anders had never stopped wishing for so paltry a reason as common sense, and he didn’t intend to start this late in the game.
Beyond their corner of the shadowy hex, the clanking of armor grew louder, loud enough to drown out some raucous ballad being sung inside the Hanged Man. Anders tried to determine whether or not it was guard armor or templar armor, while Leto stared into the common ground, holding so still and so brittle Anders wondered if a simple touch wouldn’t shatter him.
A simple touch. Yes; that was what they needed. Because Leto was all business again despite the name, and Anders could feel potential slipping through his fingers, stalled momentum threatening to disperse completely in the humid Lowtown air.
Anders held his breath. The steely bootfalls faded into the distance, but the meowing and squeaking didn’t, and Anders undid the top-most buckle at his collar, feeling a faint breeze against his warm skin as he fanned himself with his fingers.
‘Leto,’ Anders said, low and urgent. It was a mistake, and a selfish one, a distraction Karl would never have allowed, worthy of another quirked brow and even a taut, disapproving mouth. But everyone deserved to be a little selfish a little bit of the time—or so Anders believed—in order to make them remember who they were, that they had a better nature beneath the guilty one.
Leto twitched in response, but it did attract his attention. Anders sought anything compromising—or even encouraging—in his eyes, but they were the same as ever.
‘Andraste’s bloody bodice rippers,’ Anders muttered, and reached forward, and pulled Leto close against him.
In Hard in Hightown: Cast Free or Die Hard, whenever the hero pulled his lover close, she swooned into his arms and turned her face up toward his, at just the perfect angle for this kiss. Since the entire thrust of the subplot was about a dangerous, sewer-trawling mage, Anders had imagined himself reenacting the climactic scene countless times over—the swell of desire, the crash of the waves, his lover in his arms at last.
Lowtown had no ocean—the neighboring docks didn’t count—but the rat beneath their feet gave a defiant squeak to commemorate the moment.
In keeping with the theme of disappointment, Leto was not the sort to swoon. He came forward, but twisted in surprise when Anders’s mouth pressed against his, lips parting to demand an explanation for this asinine behavior. He never quite got there; instead, a shiver rippled through his body as Anders slipped him his tongue.
In for a copper, in for a sovereign, as Karl was so fond of saying. Except that Anders didn’t want to think about Karl now, the frown he’d be wearing if he saw two of his comrades dilly-dallying in their search for Malcolm’s wayward son.
There was no explanation for this behavior—or at least, nothing that could be said in words. But Anders had felt the heat of Leto’s touch on his skin since their time together in the clinic, and Leto had watched him after that, green eyes burning with a question he wouldn’t ask. That said it all, at least until Anders’s tongue was free for other pursuits.
Patience had never been Anders’s greatest ally. He didn’t like mysteries, either. If Leto wouldn’t ask, then Anders would have to do it for him. He favored any answer over none at all.
He was about to pull back, to offer some of this reasoning aloud, when he felt Leto’s hands move.
Anders froze in place, all awkward instinct and eager heat in the pit of his belly. He’d done the same when, in the first weeks of the clinic’s opening, he’d been trying to earn himself a pet from the collection of scraggly neighborhood cats. Leto wasn’t an animal, of course, but he shared a stray’s mentality: grudging trust could be built around the simple principle of no sudden movements.
There was an entire battalion of clattering templar bootsteps in Anders’s chest, heart hammering against his ribcage. Sharp fingers dug in against Anders’s pauldrons, crushing the hollow spines of countless feathers as Leto held on, rather than using his grip for leverage to push away. He was at exactly the right height for Anders to kiss, but he didn’t seem to know how to move his mouth, or how to breathe through his nose, or anything.
Slowly, Anders tilted his head, guiding Leto into a more favorable angle. His hand rose to the base of Leto’s neck, fingers tracing the ridged line of his armor, the warm skin above it. Leto made a low sound in the back of his throat, not displeased, but curious. He released his death grip on Anders’s shoulders, at least, hands slithering beneath the parted lapels of his coat where the soft cotton shirt was faded with age and warm with body heat, stained with sweat. Anders held still, stroking Leto’s hair where it grew soft and short at the back of his neck. He could feel the drag of metal-tipped fingers at his shirt, their touch feather-light as they pulled at the worn fabric, tickling his skin.
It was Anders’s turn to shudder—from his nose to his toes. Leto halted at once, the fluid motion of his limbs jerking to a sudden stop. His index finger twitched against Anders’s chest; feeling daring in a way he hadn’t recovered since he was a much younger man in the tower in Ferelden, Anders cover the spiny, armored back of Leto’s hand with his palm.
‘It’s all right,’ he murmured, the words obscured against Leto’s lips, no more than a cheery rumble—Anders’s tongue occupied with a purpose more interesting than speaking.
Leto made a sound—almost a grunt—that indicated he probably disagreed with every last inch of that assessment. But Anders felt him nod, and the next thing he knew they were moving, Leto thrusting him back against the wall of their narrow alcove, dust and dirt and ancient plaster crumbling on impact. Anders was long past listening for the kitten or the rat, for the guards or the sea shanty, the fears and indulgences of Lowtown at night. He took care not to let his head crack open over the stone—and then he was back at Leto’s mouth, lost to the greedy push of those lips and the slick, clever darting of his tongue.
Leto had either been holding back—that wasn’t like him—or he’d been studying all Anders’s best moves with the express purpose of turning them against him. That didn’t seem fair. Kissing a warrior was more difficult than Hard In Hightown liked to pretend, and that warrior was the time-hardened Ser Aveline, scourge of the city streets.
Anders’s noise of protest came out as a hiccup of pleasure, a sigh caught on something ragged, more pleasure than anything else. He shaped the course of Leto’s armor with clumsy hands, fingers brushing over each strap, the architectural points that were purely for show, and the alluring buckles that might make the whole outfit fall to pieces. He ran his thumb over the warm metal hidden at Leto’s hip, the shape of something that could undo his trousers, though this was neither the time nor the place—even if that had never stopped Anders before.
Tugging at things he shouldn’t: it was the story of Anders’s life. Tugging in Lowtown, they’d call it, a cheap pastiche of the nobler tales.
At any moment, another guard could pass by. At any moment, a run-off from the Hanged Man might decide to take a piss in this very alleyway, and nothing killed the mood like the grunt and the splatter and the slither of trouser laces. But if Anders had learned anything from his time in Kirkwall, it was to take what moments he could while he could take them. There was no guarantee they’d ever get a chance like this again—no reason why they wouldn’t be interrupted in the clinic by Karl, or Feynriel, or Leto’s own sister.
Danger and distraction were the only constants.
It had to be now. Anders didn’t know how he’d landed himself in this position—Leto’s lips at his throat, Leto’s hands clawing at his shirt as he dragged it loose from the hem of Anders’s trousers—but stopping was no real option at all.
Malcolm would know, which meant Karl would know, and Varania would catch on quickly enough, and Feynriel would ask questions about it until someone blurted it out in a fit of frustration—and Malcolm’s son, whom Anders had only met once by accident, in passing, a scruff of dark hair like Malcolm in miniature, would pick up on it, and all of Kirkwall after him, the gossip spreading like the summer fires, or the chokedamp, or fever amidst Fereldans when the weather turned cold. And everyone would care before they stopped caring, and none of it mattered, because the city was so fickle, a dark past and a darker future, with one bright light at the center, signifying the present.
Anders chuckled at himself—all the growing up he’d done, and all the growing up he had left to do, and how ludicrous it was that he was willing to do so much good on the one hand, while using the other to be so selfish. But Malcolm’s son could wait—all of Kirkwall would have to wait—while Anders felt skin and metal skirt along his belly, at the hairs that darkened and spread beneath his naval, Leto’s fingers curious and sharp and capable of so many different impulses, his touch offering so many different assaults.
It was a messy thing, the sort of satisfaction one sought and received in a back alley near the local taproom, a tangle of hair and a scrape teeth, of eager mouths and half-clothed erections. One of Leto’s thighs slid between Anders’s legs while Anders’s hands offered Leto whatever they could through the stiff leather of his armored trousers, rubbing at the length of his cock and tasting—eyes shut, throat tight—each hindered, labored sound he made into each new kiss, each shock of his body as it bucked forward, and bucked Anders back into the wall.
Anders was dizzy when he came, but not so dizzy as Leto—whose bowed head and pale hair made him seem so young, too delicate for Anders’s touch. He held the air behind Leto’s head instead, listening to him breathe, feeling him clutch at his hips, and wondering who was holding whom up. Or if it even mattered, when neither of them fell.
Then, Leto let out a final uneven breath, his shoulders bracing, his palm finding the wall. Anders allowed himself to card his fingers through Leto’s hair at last, and tried not to interpret the ensuing shiver, the flare of lyrium alongside the pulse in Leto’s throat.
Anders kissed that pulse. Leto allowed it. The skin was warm against Anders’s lips, Leto’s jaw tightening, both their faces hidden from one another.
It was vulnerable, stupid, completely immature; no wonder Leto looked so young, and Anders almost felt young in return, before his back began to ache, and his cheeks began to flush, all the way up to the tips of his ears. He attempted to redo some of the loose buckles on Leto’s armor, not distracting himself with the slide of his fingertips along leather, while Leto patted a loose button against Anders’s belly, the jumping muscle just beneath.
‘Ah,’ Anders breathed. It wasn’t a word, but it had form, and he had to turn his face up toward the sky—toward what little he could see of it, beneath the Lowtown smog, between the cracked Lowtown rooftops—in order to catch his breath. So it was louder than he anticipated, louder than he planned or wanted.
Their new friend the nosy rat squeaked.
‘Ah,’ Leto agreed.
Now that the action was stillness again, he didn’t know where to put his hands or how to bend his arms. His voice, by contrast, was buried in Anders’s throat, not loosed to the sky, and muffled by feathers all around. Feathers he didn’t even seem to like much, though Anders couldn’t understand why.
Anders smoothed them down, and touched the tip of Leto’s ear by accident, and Leto shivered anew, pulling back at last, long nose to short one, breath against breath.
There was a feather on his cheek. Anders brushed it away.
He could see by Leto’s expression—or lack of one, really—that he didn’t know what to do, not with himself, and not with this, and certainly not with Anders. Anders should have known, but those green eyes always thwarted him, and he enjoyed being thwarted by them far too much to fight back. He was staring, probably cross-eyed, happy enough to be lost, to do nothing for this shortest of whiles, while everyone else ran around trying to fix everything that was broken.
Finally, Leto cupped his hand against Anders’s hip, sliding his touch around to the small of his back. It was a question, and at last, Anders had a decent answer, honest and true.
‘It hurts,’ he replied. ‘But for once, it was actually worth it.’
When they returned to the clinic—smelling of Lowtown through and through, Anders missing important feathers, one of Leto’s buckles fitted with the wrong leather strap—it was empty-handed, though they had spent extra time prowling all the ditches and inspecting all the rusted pikes for signs of Malcolm’s son. But they soon discovered he wasn’t out there in Lowtown because—what else?—he was back with the others in the clinic, cheerful and rosy and flushed, trying to teach Karl the lyrics to a song Anders only half-remembered.
Whatever they’d been singing in the Hanged Man that night was catchy.
‘It’s about a dusky Rivaini pirate queen and her twenty-seven conquests,’ Malcolm’s son was in the midst of explaining, just a slight slur in his voice. He looked cheerful. Runaway drunks usually were, in the first twenty-four hours. After that, it was all tears and nostalgia, missing the good old days of not having to sleep in dirty clinics. Anders had been through the appropriate stages himself countless times, enough to know it better than the back of his freckled hand. ‘Who doesn’t like dusky Rivaini pirate queens capable of twenty-seven conquests?’
‘Tell me something,’ Varania replied. ‘Did your crazy father drop you on your head when it was still baby-soft?’
‘My crazy father probably juggled me,’ Malcolm’s son replied. ‘I’m Garrett, by the way. And you are an elvhen vision.’
‘I’ve never been accused of that before,’ Varania said, but she averted her eyes, and there were twin spots of high color on her cheeks, skin warmed by more than the clinic’s humid damp.
‘You’re drunk,’ Feynriel accused. On any other occasion, the high scandal in his voice would have sent Anders into fits of laughter. Tonight, he merely smoothed his hand down the front of his coat, toying with a loose thread, remembering how it had been loosened.
‘Am I?’ Garrett asked. ‘That’s a wonderful deduction, young man. Does that explain why your face looks so peculiar up close? No, I— I think there really is something wrong with your nose.’
At Anders’s side, Leto made a low noise, approximating a growl, like a well-trained mabari about to rip out a trespasser’s throat. Fondness pooled deep in Anders’s chest, unfurling like the round, green leaves of fresh deathroot that grew in Darktown. He didn’t move to hold Leto back, since if he wanted to do the younger Hawke any real harm, there would have been no stopping him.
Leto’s bark, Anders was beginning to realize, was not always an accurate measure of his bite. It was just that it appeared to be, and sometimes, that was all the warning it needed to provide.
The great big sword helped.
‘More elves, is it?’ Garrett asked, attention lured by the noise. He was the spitting image of his father, sweat-streaked bangs across his wide brow, and a red scrape over the bridge of his nose, like he’d been in a bar brawl earlier in the evening. It didn’t seem to bother him; he didn’t even seem to notice it. ‘Father didn’t mention the clinic had such an impressive retinue. That is a lot of feathers.’
‘Yes, feathers,’ Leto agreed. ‘And what of it?’
‘As you can see, we’re full to the brim, at present,’ Anders found himself saying. Leto’s body was lithe and warm at his back, the loose comfort of his posture banished now that there was a new stranger in their midst. Ander used to be that stranger. It shouldn’t have surprised him that he wasn’t anymore, but somehow, it did. ‘Normally we’d appreciate the sacrifice, but you’ll find we haven’t the beds to spare. Not to mention there’s the matter of your father to contend with. In fact, I’m going to go hide under one of the aforementioned beds right now.’
‘Father’s a bloody hypocrite if he thinks he can go on leaving me at dinner with the viscount’s son while he runs off to have adventures.’ Garrett leaned back on his stool, muffling a satisfied belch. ‘I don’t need a bed. I’ll sleep on the ground.’
Anders rolled his eyes. Varania stood, sweeping the dust off her dark skirts.
‘I’m sure that won’t be necessary.’ Her gaze passed over Garrett to Leto, a wicked smile tugging at the sharp corners of her mouth. ‘We’ll find some way to accommodate you for the night—even if some of us have to share.’
Anders coughed, a sudden, inconvenient tickle scoring his throat as Varania blew past them. His ears felt pink, his cheeks warm. Varania already knew—she’d seen it on Leto’s face, or in the guilty, hopeful set of Anders’s shoulders, or in the half-buckled belt-loop—and so it was only a matter of time before everyone else knew, too.
Anders was never much good at keeping secrets. He already spent so much time, so much energy, holding the most important one close to his heart, and nothing else seemed as important when one had magic to hide.
‘Varania,’ Leto said. ‘Dear sister.’ When she didn’t stop, he turned after her, allowing his shoulder to brush Anders’s feathers as he passed by.
With anyone else, it might not have meant anything, but Leto’s gestures were never careless. Anders touched his coat, feeling the ruined feathers there, the uneven weave and unraveling knots, and the shiver of skin beneath.
Karl was staring at him. Anders lifted his nose, tilting his chin up with as much dignity as he could muster.
‘He’s your crazy friend,’ Anders said, thinking of Malcolm, diverting Karl’s attention somewhere less pertinent. ‘At least you can tell him we didn’t find his eldest son dead in a ditch somewhere.’
‘Me?’ Garrett grunted with amusement. ‘Not likely.’
Just over his shoulder, Karl rolled his eyes. Another one, the expression seemed to say, and Why am I always in charge of these reckless lunatics? As though Karl wasn’t the most reckless lunatic of them all.
But Anders’s mood was already buoyant, soaring like an arrow fired from the highest peak at Sundermount, disappearing somewhere in the clouds above. If Garrett wouldn’t leave, then that was his business; he’d learn soon enough what a grave mistake he’d made, or he wouldn’t learn, and neither outcome was more or less preferable than its counterpart.
It was surprising, that was all. They were starting to get a reputation.
Anders couldn’t help but be reminded of the last man they hadn’t been able to shake loose of the clinic, the stubborn elf who’d dogged their footsteps from the shadows, lurking like mold in the corner of every room. That had worked out better than Anders could have hoped—and he couldn’t begrudge someone else the chance at that same serendipitous pleasure, weeks of flirtation and a blissful fumble in a narrow hex.
Judging by the way Garrett looked at Varania, those events were already set in motion. Anders could no more turn the hand of fate than he could improve his own luck.
But he could follow Leto into the back room, and weasel his way into sharing a bed that evening, which was exactly what he planned on doing.
Athenril was already in a fine mood when Leto signed over his latest cache from Hawke: a few choice crates of Orlesian poisons and Orlesian facial creams, the latter fetching a steeper price these days on the market than the former.
‘Guess I’ll have to be sure not to mix up the labeling on these babies,’ Athenril said, brushing a lock of ginger hair from her eyes. Her smile was swift as her daggers, there in an instant, then gone like a wisp of miasmic smoke. ‘I can hear the criers now: Strange Plague Takes Down Hightown Noblewomen. Eligible Bachelors, Return to Orlais.’
Leto had examined the seals on both shipments carefully, to avoid exactly that kind of mix-up. He couldn’t read, but that was no excuse for being careless. Also, the facial creams stank where the poisons did not. It was the easy way to keep them separate. ‘That will not happen,’ he assured her.
‘No?’ Athenril gave him a sharp look, but there was no probing in it. ‘You’d better be careful, Fenris. I thought I almost saw a smile there.’
‘A trick of the light,’ Leto suggested.
‘Right,’ Athenril said. ‘It does get so bright up here in Hightown—remarkable our elvhen eyes can see anything at all.’
Now and then, Leto caught himself on his way down, taking the wrong set of stairs—the one that would lead him to Lowtown rather than Darktown, his abandoned hovel in the alienage rather than his back room in the clinic. Varania said she visited the place, but only once, to find children living there, alone with a litter of cats, some faint light flickering behind the boarded windows.
While Athenril’s attentions were turned to protecting the clinic, now, or rather her interests within it, Leto also knew she would not allow anyone to take those children without some difficulty. Because, she’d once explained, they’re our damn future, whether we like it or not.
There were some in Kirkwall who knew how to look after their own.
That evening, still bright on the heels of late summer, Leto took the wrong set of stairs, to meet Anders at the Hanged Man in Lowtown.
For whatever reason, Anders wished to go, and thought it necessary to invite the one person in the clinic who would not enjoy going with him. And, also for whatever reason, Leto accepted the invitation—if only to keep Anders safe from the taproom brawls that so fascinated him despite how little he belonged in one. It was certainly not to drink the slop they called ale in that place, but Anders mentioned something about the importance of company over ambiance, and so Leto planned on attending.
‘Think of it as a romantic outing,’ Anders had explained, just that morning, though the Hanged Man itself was by no means romantic, or truly anything other than disgusting. ‘Or at least—the closest thing to one we can afford.’
Still, the others would not be there, Feynriel to pretend that he was gagging, or Karl’s watchful eyes constantly appraising, while Anders refused to do anything other than linger too close, promising certain distractions with his body.
That fact alone made it appealing.
The alienage was not a convenient stop along his way; Leto felt no need to return there, to pass through the gates he’d never allowed to hold him in once the sun set over the Gallows. He had lived there—he had always accepted that—and so had his sister, but it had never been theirs, just one more passing port, despite also being a protracted stay.
If Varania chose to move on to Hightown next—she always had such clear destinations, such firm goals and lofty ambitions—by following the eldest of Hawke’s children there, then the shadow of her heritage would still reach for her, all the way across the hexes, longer in scope than the distance between Minrathous and the City of Chains.
But she would not allow it to stop her. That was admirable—and also foreign, since Leto had ever worked to be that determined, whereas for Varania, it came naturally.
Perhaps it was the difference between lyrium in the skin and magic in the blood.
Leto shook his head, ignoring a nearby beggar with his palm upturned, neither of them having anything to offer the other. Like the refugees, Leto had no house at all—just a crowded room in the back of an equally crowded clinic, where he was held separate from his peers, in the heart of Kirkwall’s most obvious dangers, as well as its most obvious smells.
Once again, he and Varania had left one unpleasant life behind in exchange for another—but this time, they had not done it alone. They had no more improved their location than they had improved their fortunes, not to mention their luck.
Yet somehow, it did seem better this way.