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a storyteller's got to believe their own story (or no one will)

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“A letter just arrived from Skyhold, Lady Seeker,” Dessa, Cassandra’s assistant, says as she comes into their makeshift office. Cassandra is relatively certain it was a storage room before King Alistair gave it over to her use, but that doesn’t much matter. She’s nearly done with her duties in Denerim anyway. The last thing to do is secure a suitable headquarters for the Seekers she will be leaving in the city. With some help from Dessa, who Josephine had recommended to her, Cassandra has nearly finished negotiations with the Arl of Denerim and one of his banns for an appropriate space.

She takes the letter from Dessa and settles back in her chair. It is addressed to her in Cullen’s hand. He is not much for correspondence, so she can only assume it’s important.

Cassandra,

Enclosed is a letter from Varric regarding a situation in Kirkwall. I’m sending a complement of our remaining Templars per his request, but you may want to consider a trip there before you return to Orlais.

Stasia bids me tell you that you are greatly missed, and that the gates of Skyhold will always be open to you. I can only echo her sentiments.

Regards,

Cullen

Cassandra is torn between smiling and frowning as she opens the enclosed letter.

Curly,

Things have gotten weird since I got back. Aveline is handling it and keeping everyone safe, don’t worry, but abominations keep showing up and she’s having trouble tracing where they’re coming from, or why. We could probably use some of your best Templars here. Things have been pretty quiet here for a while and there’s a lot of fear in the air now.

Drinks are on me the next time I’m there or you’re here.

Varric

Cassandra frowns. She intended to make a trip to Kirkwall, but not yet. But she would not feel right ignoring such a summons, even if it hadn’t been specifically meant for her. The dwarf, whatever else one might say about him, is second to none in his knowledge of the Free Marches. Even Leliana - Divine Victoria, she corrects herself - doesn’t have access to many more ears and mouths.

That Varric didn’t see fit to write her directly stings more than she cares to admit. She squares her shoulders.

“Dessa, when negotiations are finished, we will be going to Kirkwall instead of Val Royeaux. Please make the proper arrangements.”

“Yes, Lady Seeker,” Dessa replies. “Straightaway.”

There. That is all she can do about the matter at present—there is still business she must settle in Denerim before they depart. Cassandra sets the letter aside and turns her mind firmly to other things. She spends the next several days immersed in discussions with various royal advisors, wishing the whole time for Josephine’s presence beside her. Negotiations have never been her forte, but if she is to rebuild the Seekers, they are a necessary evil, and she refuses to give them anything less than her best effort.

It doesn’t stop her from turning it over in her mind later. Kirkwall does not need any more trouble, and she will do everything in her power to stop it. The fact that this is happening now, rather than before Corypheus was defeated, is…concerning, to say the least. She finds herself musing at odd hours, worrying at the matter like a loose tooth. Why didn’t Varric contact her? Is this not the kind of question the Seekers are bound to answer? By the time they both left Skyhold, she’d thought they’d put aside their differences, thought they were something like friends. Now, she’s not so sure anymore.

At long last, the negotiations draw to a close, and Cassandra is satisfied with the outcome. She’s already sent off a raven to the Divine, asking as delicately as possible about the state of the new College of Enchanters in the Free Marches, but has received no reply. The only thing left is to leave. She stares at the boat in front of them which will be her home for the next two weeks. It’s nice, she supposes. As boats go.

A phrase teases at the edges of her memory. The greatest boat in the history of boats, she thinks, and the corner of her lips pulls upward. Beside her, Dessa looks much less sanguine about the experience.

“Have you sailed before?” Cassandra asks.

“No, Lady Cassandra,” Dessa replies.

“I thought as much. I’ve found most people grow accustomed to it within a few days. And we will have comfortable accommodations, if nothing else,” Cassandra tries to assure her.

“Of course, Lady Seeker,” Dessa says, though Cassandra can tell that she is not entirely convinced. Well. The girl will have to adjust. The reformed Seekers haven’t chosen an easy path, though the Inquisition’s considerable sway has opened doors. Cassandra cannot be anything but grateful.

At any rate, she has a pile of books she hasn’t had time to look at, so she’s almost looking forward to the journey, if only for the fact that she’ll be able to read.

//

When the dust settled, the tradesman got a good look at his rescuer. She looked like a victorious goddess standing over the bodies of her enemies. In one hand, she held a finely-crafted obsidian longsword, the wyvern’s blood still dripping from the blade. Her other hand grasped a shield decorated with the crest of the half-moon: the symbol of the Order of Lethara. Her hair curled around her face in a nimbus as black as her blade, and her expression was fierce enough to make him take a step back.

“Thank you, my lady,” he managed to say. “I would surely be dead if not for your bravery.”

She fixed him with a hard look. “It was a foolish thing to do, traveling these roads alone.”

“But not for you?”

The warrior maiden scoffed. “Clearly, no. Also I am not traveling, my post is nearby.”

“Who did you offend to get a post all the way out here?” the tradesman asked before he could think better of it.

“I am a shield-maiden of the goddess Lethara,” she replied. “I go where I am called to serve.” Her frown was like a roll of thunder on a sunny summer day.

“I’d get another job,” the tradesman said. “But that’s just me. Ashric Bartas, at your service.”

//

Varric is going to shoot the next person who walks into his office and adds another piece of paper to the already-towering pile on his desk. Bianca is within arm’s reach, as always. It would be easy. Damn the guild, damn his fellow merchants, damn his editor, and damn Aveline and Bethany for good measure, because notes from both of them have gotten lost twice under the ever-growing pile of shit.

“Varric, are you here?” he hears Daisy ask from the doorway. He raises his hand to wave. “Oh!” she exclaims and rounds the desk. “I didn’t see you there.”

“Hard to see anything beyond this mountain of crap,” Varric says, blowing out a disgusted breath. “It’s like I never left.”

“It’s probably worse,” Merrill says thoughtfully. “Don’t you think? It usually is.”

Varric laughs. “I probably shouldn’t complain. There’s no longer a hole in the sky, for one.”

“Yes, that’s definitely better,” Merrill agrees. “And it’s been over a month since anyone tried to seize control of the city! That’s good, too.”

Varric suppresses a snort. “Lucky us. Wish Hawke was in town, though.”

Merrill nods, eyes wide. “Did you ever hear back from your friend?”

“Curly is sending some people,” he replies. Merrill makes her worried face and he reaches out to squeeze her arm. “I trust them,” he assures her. “And I trust Cullen. He’s…different. Than the last time you saw him.”

“I suppose the whole world is different, now,” Merrill says.

“Some of it’s even better,” he grumbles. “Not Kirkwall, of course. I - did you need something, Daisy?”

“No, I just came to say hello,” she says. “I was in the neighborhood. You could come walk with me if you like.”

Varric sighs. “Love to, Daisy, but these letters aren’t going to answer themselves.”

“Wouldn’t that be nice if they could? It would probably cause a fair bit of trouble, though. For you. You don’t deserve trouble. I’ll see you soon, Varric.” Merrill leans down to kiss his cheek and swoops out of his office as quickly as she’d appeared.

He smiles at her back. It really is good to be home. Things may not be the same and he does miss Skyhold, but things…make sense here. Well. For given values of sense, he amends, picking up a random piece of parchment. It appears to be a request from someone in the Merchant’s Guild. It’s frustratingly vague in its requests, though - demands, more like. Sometimes he manages to forget how much he hates them. Not recently, though. Certainly not since Bianca showed up back in his life. But they’re helping the reconstruction efforts, in their own self-serving way. He has to get over his knee-jerk reaction to them.

He has to get over a lot of things. The hole in the sky is gone, and that’s probably as big a sign as he needs that since the world isn’t ending, things need to change. He’s never thought of himself as being fearful of change, but he also knows he’s really good at lying to himself. He settles in to compose a calculated response. After finishing that, working on his latest serial will seem like a walk in the park.

Actually, he’s had more fun writing it than he has anything else in a long time. It had started as a way to clear the cobwebs while he edited his chronicle of the Inquisitor. He hadn’t even expected to publish it, really. But he’s never written a serial so quickly, and it doesn’t really escape his notice why.

//

“What are you doing out here, Mr. Bartas?” the shield-maiden asked suspiciously. “The shrine is the only thing here.”

Ashric shrugged. “I’m a businessman—a servant of the goddess of Commerce, you could say. I go where I’m called, too.” She snorted, and he shrugged again. “I got a map from a contact. It had a shortcut marked. Either I’m terrible at maps, or they wanted me dead.”

“The latter seems likely,” she said, with a frown. “Do you have the map?”

Ashric reached into his coat and pulled the roll of parchment out of his breast pocket. “For what it’s worth, milady.”

“Not a lady anymore, just an acolyte.”

“So you were a lady,” Ashric said. “Interesting.”

“It is not relevant,” she said, sheathing her sword.

“No, but I’m curious. You haven’t even told me your name.”

She sighed. “You may call me Sister Minerva, Mr. Bartas. May I borrow your map? I believe this matter needs to be brought to the attention of my Revered Mother.”

“Listen, if this guy really is trying to get me killed, I should come with you,” Ashric said.

“The swamps are very dangerous,” Minerva said. “Truly, the wyverns are just the beginning. You would do better to return to the road and travel back to Hightower.”

“Not on your life, Sister,” he replied.

She sighed heavily. “Fine. But be prepared for anything and if we are attacked, fall back behind me.”

“Of course, Sister,” Ashric said. His hand slipped to his belt, checking that both of his daggers were still in place. The wyvern had taken him by surprise. He wouldn’t make the same mistake twice.

At least Minerva was a pleasure to follow.

//

Cassandra Pentaghast hates loose ends, and Kirkwall feels like one big loose end. She supposes it’s just as well that she’s here now, rather than later.

Kirkwall’s docks are still much as she remembers them. A few more buildings have been rebuilt, but they still stink of fish and she still wants to get up above them as fast as she can. She has visited Kirkwall in the past, but it had been before Hawke had even made her home in the city. When she had come to… speak with Varric, Kirkwall had still been utterly shattered by the actions of the mage Anders, and everything that had followed.

Varric…loves this place, as incomprehensible as it seems. It’s been a long time since Cassandra could claim to love something like that. Varric seems to have a talent for it.

She shakes her head as Dessa arranges for their luggage to be taken up to the inn where they’ll be staying. The first stop Cassandra intends to make is Provisional Viscount Bran’s office, and then Guard Captain Aveline’s. Cassandra suspects that the Guard Captain will be able to give her the most valuable insight into the situation, and into what help the Seekers might be. She also suspects that if she attempted to take any action without Captain Aveline’s permission, it would end… poorly.

Perhaps she can avoid unnecessarily bringing her presence to Varric’s attention that way. If nothing else, perhaps he will prefer to hear it from a friend, rather than one of his many contacts. If he hasn’t heard already. She puts him from her mind, wondering which Templars Cullen sent. Most of them have already pledged to join the Seekers, but a few remained with the Inquisition. She trusts Cullen to have chosen well.

Very well, she’s stalling. To the Viscount’s keep with her.

She and Dessa make their way up. She’d nearly forgotten all the stairs in Kirkwall. Lowtown doesn’t look too much better than the docks. She’s unsurprised that Hightown shows little mark of what happened. At least outwardly, she reminds herself. And there’s still empty sky where the Chantry used to be. Still, there is a different feeling in the air than there had been during her last visit. The Inquisition has changed much around Thedas, Cassandra knows this. Much, and not enough, as evidenced by her errand today. Despite how she might try, Stasia cannot be all things to all people at all times.

Cassandra walks into the Viscount’s Keep and up still more stairs to the provisional viscount’s offices. Bran’s secretary is an older woman with an impressively tidy desk. She fixes Cassandra with a look that has steel behind it. “Do you have an appointment?”

“I do not,” Cassandra replies, “but if you could announce Lady Seeker Pentaghast, I will wait.”

The woman’s eyes go wide and she finally takes in the heraldry on Cassandra’s armor. “I’ll tell Provisional Viscount Bran you’re here right away, my lady.”

“Thank you,” Cassandra says. The woman disappears through an elaborately-carved wooden doorway and she and Dessa share a small smirk. Cassandra can’t deny that there’s a certain satisfaction in seeing people scurry to do her bidding.

A few moments later, the door opens again, and a man with reddish hair strides out. “Lady Seeker,” he says, sketching a bow. “Welcome to Kirkwall.”

“Thank you,” Cassandra says politely. “If I may have a moment of your time?”

“Of course, Lady Seeker,” he says, though he’s clearly not pleased about it. “Please, step into my office.” She inclines her head and follows him inside.

“I am here for two reasons,” she says when he closes the door. “One, to offer assistance to your Guard Captain in her current investigations and two, to establish an outpost of the Seekers of Truth in Kirkwall in the absence of the Templar Order.”

Bran nods, clearly unsurprised by this information. “Your people have been in contact. I hope you can understand, Lady Seeker, why I am hesitant to allow a military force to establish themselves inside the city.”

“Completely,” Cassandra replies. “However, I believe you also have a unique perspective on why this particular group serves your best interests.”

He inclines his head. “I suppose so.”

“Divine Victoria is committed to reform, but not blind to the threats by and to mages. The veil is thin here,” she says. “And the Seekers are best equipped to handle both magical threats and any remaining former Templars who might still subscribe to Knight-Commander Meredith’s extreme ideology.”

To his credit, Bran doesn’t even attempt to deny that such an issue exists. “Very well,” he replies. “We can discuss a suitable base of operations for your Seekers.”

“At a later date,” Cassandra interrupts. “The other business is more urgent, and what brought me to Kirkwall at this time. Have no Templars arrived from Skyhold yet?”

“Guard-Captain Aveline tells me they were delayed by an issue at the port they were departing from,” he replies.

“An unfortunate coincidence,” Cassandra replies, although she has seen enough to know that there are very few true coincidences.

“And you are merely one Seeker,” he replies.

“Is that not enough?” she says shortly, standing. “I assume the guard quarters have not been moved?”

“They have not, Lady Seeker,” he says. “Do make an appointment with my secretary for the discussion of your order’s more permanent quarters.”

“Certainly. Thank you, serah. I shall leave my assistant to settle matters with your secretary.” Cassandra inclines her head and takes her leave, stopping in the antechamber to issue murmured instructions to Dessa.

She makes her way across to the City Guard barracks. The office door stands open, so she goes inside. Guard-Captain Aveline is at her desk, head bent over several stacks of papers.

“Guard-Captain Vallen?” Cassandra asks. “May I speak to you?”

She looks up and Cassandra knows she recognizes her immediately. “Lady Seeker Pentaghast,” she says. “We weren’t expecting you.”

Cassandra inclines her head. “Commander Cullen forwarded Varric’s letter to me. As I intended to come to Kirkwall on Seeker business anyway, I decided to come now and offer you my services. The Viscount says the Inquisition’s Templars have not arrived yet.”

Vallen stands. “No, they haven’t. How much did Varric’s letter explain about the situation?”

“Not enough, unfortunately. So I am here.”

“Just you?” Vallen asks.

“Am I not enough?” Cassandra replies.

Vallen smiles wryly at that. “If Varric is to be believed, I suppose you are.”

A small part of Cassandra wants to ask for news of Varric. Cassandra is aware in the general sense that he is helping to coordinate the rebuilding of the city’s infrastructure, but she has been too occupied with her own rebuilding efforts to learn more. At least, that is what she tells herself. “Then please tell me what I can do to assist,” Cassandra replies.

Vallen pushes a stack of paper to the edge of the desk. “These are all the reports that are relevant. Both the incidents themselves and any other suspicious activity magical activity between the Wounded Coast and Sundermount.”

“What is your assessment?” Cassandra asks.

“Just rebels who slipped between the cracks. But we have a lot of cracks in Kirkwall, and we don’t need help making more.”

“If you do not mind,” Cassandra says and nods toward the guest chair. “I would like to read through them here.”

“Of course. Let me know if I can provide any clarification.”

As she reads, she finds that many of the reports are annotated in a familiar hand. “Is he in residence?” she asks casually.

“Varric? He comes around the barracks a few days a week. Over for dinner every Friday night,” she says.

“I imagine he is very pleased to be home,” Cassandra offers.

“I imagine you’re right,” Vallen replies. The woman is nothing but polite, but still Cassandra has to work not to squirm. It’s not a sensation she’s accustomed to experiencing much anymore.

She forces herself to focus on the reports in front of her. The activity seems to center mostly on the Wounded Coast. Slaver caverns, one of Varric’s notes reads, with a small hand-drawn map. It helpfully has a spider sketched beside it.

Slaver caverns that rebel mages attempting to hide could have taken up residence in. To have foiled the Guard Captain for this long, they would be talented ones. By the time she has finished poring over the reports, Cassandra has the bare bones of a plan of action. She needs assistance, though. That much is clear.

“Seeker, did you honestly think you could step foot in this city without me hearing about it?”

Cassandra starts, eyes going to the doorway, where—of course—Varric himself is leaning against the frame. “I thought no such thing,” she protests. “I am here at the request of Commander Rutherford. As such I’ve come to precisely the appropriate party.”

Varric laughs. “I think if you said Curly’s name like that to his face, he might actually turn puce. And he sent you, did he? I thought he was sending Templars.”

“He forwarded the message to me, Varric,” Cassandra says with a sigh. “Because he knew I intended to come here anyway and he thought I could help.”

“Well, he’s not wrong,” Varric says. “Not that Aveline’s guards aren’t doing fine work,” he adds, inclining his head towards the guard-captain. “But this is above their pay grade.”

“As I’ve seen,” she replies, tapping the reports.

“So, any ideas yet, Lady Seeker?” he asks with a look she can’t quite read.

“Some,” she replies. “But I will need to investigate further.”

“I’m afraid I can’t spare any of the guard,” Vallen says.

“I would not expect it, Guard-Captain. I am perfectly content to conduct these investigations alone until the Templars arrive.”

“Like hell,” Varric replies disgustedly.

“Varric—”

“I know every inch of this city and the surrounding areas and we already know how to fight together,” Varric says. “You’re stuck with me. Remember that time you dragged me to Haven? This is like that, except opposite.”

Cassandra takes a deep breath. “I… you’re right. Thank you,” she adds, because in truth, she is grateful. She’s somewhat surprised that he would volunteer. For Kirkwall, she supposes.

“Hey, Red, can we take those reports? They won’t leave my office, I promise,” Varric asks.

Vallen makes a face at him. “If you lose a single one, I’ll string you up,” she says, but even Cassandra can tell it’s a hollow threat.

“I’ll make sure they don’t get swallowed by the Guild requests. Maybe put them on a separate table,” Varric promises.

Cassandra catches the tail end of a fond smile that Vallen stifles behind her hand.That is something no one could miss while reading The Tale of the Champion. Varric may have embellished many of the details, but the affection between the Champion and her associates had clearly not needed any embellishment. It makes her miss Stasia and Cullen all the more.

She gathers up the reports, and gets to her feet. “Thank you for your time, Guard-Captain.”

“Thank you for your assistance, Lady Seeker.” Vallen looks to Varric. “And you, I suppose, Varric.”

“Of course, Aveline,” he says. “See you at dinner. Remind your husband he still owes me three sovereigns.”

“So,” Cassandra says, as they make their way back towards Hightown, “your… office?”

“You’re gonna love it, Seeker,” Varric says.

“Somehow I doubt that,” Cassandra retorts.

“Come now, Seeker,” he says. “Have a little faith in me.”

//

Sister Minerva knew her way around the swamps. Ashric was almost glad of the wyvern attack: on his own, he probably still would have gotten completely turned around. She was fearless and, apparently, tireless. He’d given up asking if they were almost out of the swamp, because she just made a thoroughly disgusted noise after the first time.

Ashric, on the other hand, was huffing and puffing trying to keep up with her. He was a city dwarf—he avoided nature whenever possible, and appreciated it when nature had the courtesy to return him the favor. Twice some sort of swamp beastling had tried to lunch on them, and the shieldmaiden had dispatched them easily. Ashric hadn’t even had the chance to unsheathe his weapons.

She stopped twice to consult Ashric’s map; on both occasions, her frown had deepened. “Someone dislikes you very much, Messere Bartas.”

He sighed. “I’m not even surprised by this shit anymore.”

“Why take the map at all?” she asked, sounding honestly curious.

“Bad decisions comprise roughly seventy percent of my personality,” Ashric told her unrepentantly.

“Perhaps it would behoove you to consider things more carefully in the future,” she said. “Unless you have a death wish.”

“Death’s no good for business,” Ashric said.

Another one of those sharp-toothed lizards appeared from around the corner of a rock, and Sister Minerva huffed and drew her sword. “Depends what business you are in.” Lizard dispatched as handily as the first few, the sister finally turned to Ashric. “The King’s Road is just ahead.”

“Can’t say I’ll cry about that,” Ashric said, sheathing his unused blades.

“Nor will I,” Sister Minerva said.

“Honestly, I can’t imagine you crying about anything,” Ashric said. He couldn’t claim to be surprised when the sister didn’t respond, instead striding through a clearing in the low scrub. “Wait. How far is your shrine from here?” he asked. “I need to know where to send the thank-you gift.”

“Far enough,” she replied. “Do not trouble yourself.”

“I just don’t want you to think I’m impolite. What if I need rescuing again someday?” He offered her his most charming smile. “My gratitude might take so many forms: fine woolen fabrics, illuminated books of verse, spices, the finest chocolates…”

“Well, if you insist,” she said, clearly trying to keep the interest out of her voice. Ashric grinned to himself. He took pride in being able to read people, and pleasure in his readings being proven correct. “Anyone in this district will know where to find the Shrine of Lethara.”

“But I’m not anyone in the district,” he replied. “I’m from Lawrick and I usually like to stay there.”

He could tell she was working herself up to a reply. Unfortunately, that was when they broke through the last line of trees before the Kings Road, and came face to face with the bandits.

//

She looks tired, Varric thinks, stealing glances at the Seeker as she matches his steps out of the Keep. Seeing her here in his city is honestly enough to make him twitch with repressed memories, but - she looks tired. He knows, vaguely, what she’s been up to since she left Skyhold. He knows she’s been rebuilding the Seekers. He’d thought she’d be thriving. Maybe it’s just the sea voyage he knows isn’t far behind her.

They’d docked this morning, and one of his informants had been in his office with the news five minutes later. He’d spent the next five minutes - maybe longer - staring fixedly at the wall by his door. He’s always known he’d probably see her again, but he hadn’t really counted on it being now. He supposes he should have realized Curly would pass on his letter. And he can admit that having the Seeker here makes him feel better about Kirkwall’s chances against the abominations.

It really burns him, though, that Kirkwall’s next champion has come in the form of Cassandra Pentaghast.

Fuck, he misses Hawke. She’s sent a few brief notes, but it’s not enough and he’s pretty much worried sick about her. He knows that even if he hadn’t contacted her, she would have come to the Inquisition anyway when word got out about Corypheus, but some days he regrets writing that letter more than just about anything.

Beating Corypheus—and killing the bastard, this time—wasn’t ever going to be the end of things, but Varric had hoped that they would at least get a breather.

He sighs. “Heard from anyone but Curly lately?” he asks Cassandra.

“Sera sent me a note recently,” Cassandra says. “Well, calling it a note would be generous. It was more a series of crude drawings. I think she is doing well.” Varric chuckles: he’s received a few similar “notes.”

“That was nice of her. Anyone else?”

“Blackwall has officially been made a Warden,” she says. “He seems…content.”

“Good,” Varric says, and he means it. “Fuck knows the Wardens could use good men like him right now.”

Cassandra doesn’t answer right away, and he checks to see if she’s making a face. She is. It’s a very familiar face. She really doesn’t like it when people lie to her. “It is good he’s found purpose,” she finally says.

“And how has your purpose been treating you, Seeker?” Varric asks.

“Some cities are more reluctant than others to hosting an arm of the order,” she says with a sigh. “But I have not met any real resistance. And Cullen has been helpful in identifying candidates.”

“Glad to hear it,” he says. He genuinely hopes her plan works better than the previous system. Not that it’s a high bar, exactly.

She unbends enough to give him a smile. It shouldn’t feel like as much of a victory as it does.

They make their way through the market and start down the steps into Lowtown. Varric keeps a watchful eye out; there are plenty of people left in this city with good reason to hate the Templars. The heraldry on her armor may be different, but she moves like a soldier.

They get to the newly rebuilt Hanged Man without incident and he leads her up to his suite of rooms. He has to laugh at the noise she makes. “Seeker, just be glad you didn’t ever step foot in the old Hanged Man.”

“I have heard enough of your stories to feel as though I had,” Cassandra says. She steps carefully over a sleeping drunk in the hallway just outside his door. Varric would laugh, if he didn’t think Cassandra would react with some sort of violence. Her face is carefully blank. She’s trying so hard. Actually, it’s sort of - no. She’s never done anything sweet in her life.

He opens the door, gestures for her to go inside, then closes it behind them. “I’ve got a little information here that is more…circumstantial,” he says. “Shit Aveline can’t put in her reports yet because it’s rumors that someone told someone, who told me about some guy who was in the wrong place at the right time.”

“I am familiar with the concept,” Cassandra says, dryly.

“It’s what I’m good at,” Varric points out.

“I know, Varric,” she says with a small sigh. “Show me what you have.”

He walks over to his desk and sweeps aside a stack of Guild correspondence. Some of the pieces of parchment drift down onto the floor. He doesn’t particularly care.

Cassandra looks vaguely startled, but quickly composes herself, settling gingerly onto a chair. He tries not to stare as she reads through his notes about this whole mess. He distracts himself by at least trying to sort through the piles on his desk, but this just unearths his latest manuscript, which he immediately buries under another pile of letters, sneaking a look up at the Seeker to check if she’d seen.

She’s not paying attention. She is, in fact, tapping the edge of a piece of parchment against her lower lip as she reads. He’d never imagined her being so casual in his presence. Not staring is difficult. Maybe he’s been underestimating the impact of what they’ve been through together.

Abruptly Cassandra says, “I’m sensing that you don’t believe these attacks are truly the work of isolated apostates.” Now, she looks up.

“No,” Varric says slowly. “Why would they? They’re free now. Some exceptionally cold revenge might account for one or two, but this isn’t one or two.”

“Then who, or what, do you think it is?” she asks.

“That, I’m not entirely certain about,” he replies. “But I don’t think any of it’s a coincidence. I don’t think it’s just because the Veil is thinner here or whatever it is you might say.”

She pauses, clearly considering. “I… would not say that. I have seen more than enough weaknesses in the Veil—I am familiar with the effects. There is something different here. Where do you think we should start our explorations?” she continues.

“The Wounded Coast,” he replies immediately. “If we close our eyes and ignore the stench of rotting fish, we can pretend it’s the Western Approach.”

“Tomorrow,” Cassandra says, and it isn’t a question.

Varric just nods. “Bianca and I will be ready.”

“How gratifying, that Bianca is so eager,” she replies dryly, but her expression seems pinched underneath the words.

“She always is, Seeker,” he says lightly. “The only action she’s gotten since we got back is shooting petty thieves in the leg.”

It isn’t strictly true—Kirkwall is still Kirkwall—but it has the calculated effect of making the Seeker huff out something like a laugh.

“How appropriately bloodthirsty.”

“We all have our hobbies. Bianca’s is making sure the Lowtown merchants aren’t robbed out of business,” Varric says.

Cassandra holds up the sheaf of reports. “May I hold on to these tonight? Also, do you have a map of the city?”

“Are you planning on running off to the Wounded Coast on your own?” Varric asks, fishing a map from a drawer.

“No, Varric,” she says with a sigh.

“Good, because if you did that, I’d find a way to make your life miserable. You know I can,” he says.

“I am aware,” she replies, lips quirking up.

“Where are you staying?” he asks.

“Andraste’s Grace,” she replies.

Varric laughs. “So, about as far from the Blooming Rose as you can get and still be in Hightown.”

“The Blooming Rose was full up,” Cassandra says, perfectly straight-faced.

“Such a shame, I would have bought you dinner there. They have an excellent tart.” Varric steeples his fingers and meets her eyes unblinkingly. When she breaks and laughs first, he’s pretty sure it feels better than defeating Corypheus once and for all.

//

“Behind me!” shouted the sister, drawing her sword and moving into a fighting stance. The bandits were about ten paces in front of them; Ashric counted seven, all armed. Not for the first time, he regretted not carrying a bow. But he dropped his pack and drew his daggers anyway, falling into position slightly behind and to the side.

She might be the best fighter he’d ever seen, but she still couldn’t take on seven bandits by herself. Not that he didn’t think she intended to try.

Luckily, they appeared to be unprepared for how good she was. And Ashric had been doing this as long as several of them had probably been alive. He picked off the less skilled of the lot while she took on the bigger, braver assholes. It worked better than he expected.

“Nice moves,” he called, when the last of the bandits had fallen.

“I am a shieldmaiden,” she replied, shrugging and cleaning her sword on someone’s cloak.

“True enough,” he said as he cleaned off his blades.

“You were helpful,” she replied.

“I’m from Lawrick,” he said, with a shrug of his own. People who couldn’t defend themselves didn’t last long in Lawrick.

“So were they, perhaps,” she replied, turning over a bandit with her toe. “These are not local louts.”

“Huh,” Ashric said. “That’s…suspicious.”

Minerva crouched down beside one of the bodies. “They were clearly expecting someone,” she said. “It does not appear that they were expecting what they received, however.”

“Neither was I,” Ashric said admiringly.

She glanced at him. “I have been training since I was young. Clearly, they have not.”

“The promise of coin makes people do a lot of stupid things,” Ashric said. He crouched down and started checking the nearest bandit’s pockets. The sister made a disgusted noise, but relented when he started stacking their weapons. “For your shrine.”

She inclined her head and pretended not to notice when he put the coin they were carrying in his own pockets.

One of the bandits had a nicer sword than the others, and slightly better armor. On a hunch, Ashric rummaged around in his cloak. “There we go,” he murmured, as he drew out a piece of folded parchment.

Sister Minerva crowded close. “What is it?”

“Appears to be instructions from the man I got the map from,” Ashric said. “Though, he doesn’t seem to be the one in charge.”

“So you were the target,” Minerva said. “Do the instructions say why?”

Ashric laughed. “Course not, that would be too easy.”

“Are you often the target of nefarious plots?” she asked dubiously.

He shrugged. “It’s a job hazard. Though I grant you, they’re not usually this complex. Normally it’s just a rival merchant hiring thugs to try and rough me up in an alleyway.”

“I fear you’ve stumbled into more than that this time, Mr. Bartas.”

“That’s just my shitty luck,” he said with a laugh. Ashric was already formulating a plan—there was no name on the orders, of course, but he knew people who knew how to reveal secrets hidden in ink and parchment. Minerva was busy bundling the collected weapons. “You know, this looks like it’s my problem. I can just go back to Lawrick and bring it up with the authorities there,” he said. He gave her his most charming smile—the kind he used to seal business deals and cheat at cards.

She looked torn. “I feel…called to help you.”

Ashric tilted his head. “Called? Like…for real called?”

The sister frowned. “It is rarely that straightforward, Mr. Bartas.”

“Try,” he replied.

“My conscience tells me to help you,” she said. “I feel I cannot ignore that.”

“Don’t you have a shrine to guard?” he asked.

She scowled. “We used to help those in need,” she said. “That was the purpose of our order.” There was real passion behind her words, and Ashric could tell that this was something she believed un-shakingly. He didn’t think he’d ever had that kind of faith in anything.

“Well, I’m not what you might call devout, Sister.”

“That is not a requirement Lethara makes of anyone,” the sister said. “Except her shieldmaidens.”

The right thing to do here—well, the smart thing—was to keep talking. To convince the sister to go back to her shrine. “I’ll be fine,” he protested. “What’s one little ambush? I probably would’ve gotten away.”

She crossed her arms and lifted an eyebrow.

“Okay, I’d probably have been slaughtered,” he allowed. “But maybe not. I’m smart enough to run away from fights I can’t win.”

//

Cassandra spends the rest of the evening scouring the reports she’d received from Varric and the Guard-Captain, attempting to commit them them to memory. She’d have plenty of things for Dessa to start cross-referencing tomorrow as well.

Varric seems to have settled back into Kirkwall life. Cassandra doesn’t want to think about how that makes her feel. She is grateful for his assistance, as much as her first instinct had been to rebuff it. It is, unfortunately, an unavoidable reminder that it was she who took him away from it for so long. She sighs. She needs food and perhaps a stroll around Hightown. The map Varric had given her is detailed—and amusingly annotated—but it will be good to solidify her knowledge of the city’s geography.

She can hear Varric’s voice in her head. “All of Hawke’s misadventures usually started with a walk around Kirkwall.” She has her sword and her wits, though. She’s not terribly afraid of whatever Hightown cutpurses might try. Dessa had elected to stay in their rooms, but Cassandra has certainly seen worse than Kirkwall. She makes sure her sword is securely at her side before heading down to the inn’s dining area.

It’s fairly quiet at this time of the evening. Andraste’s Grace is a pleasant inn, which is why she’d picked it. “Lady Seeker Pentaghast,” the serving woman says with a small curtsy. “Can I get you some dinner, milady?”

“Yes, thank you.” Cassandra takes a seat at a table in the corner, with a clear view of the door. A serving girl delivers a tankard of ale. Cassandra nods her thanks and takes a sip. It’s better than expected.

As she drinks, she watches. This inn caters mostly to merchants, or Chantry functionaries such as herself. She sees no one else from the Chantry. She knows the Divine intends to build a new Chantry soon, so she’s somewhat surprised at the lack. But then, the missing Chantry is still a scar in Hightown’s skyline. Perhaps it isn’t so surprising.

Thinking of it, Cassandra feels a fresh stab of fury at the mage responsible for the attack. She can’t imagine being in Varric’s position, knowing someone you cared for did such a horrible thing. The situation in Kirkwall had been… horrifying. They still feel it, she thinks. Perhaps they always will.

The serving girl brings her meal and Cassandra eats. The food is good, but her mind is elsewhere. In one corner of the room, a bard starts plucking at the strings of a lyre. Cassandra’s lips twitch. It’s a familiar tune. Sera is going to murder Halewell if she ever finds out that song has spread to the Free Marches. She suspects Varric may have had a hand in it. Ah, Varric. Actually, she has no doubt.

She may actually kill him herself, come to think of it. She’s never going to get that blasted song out of her head now.

After she has finished her meal, she steps out into the Kirkwall twilight. The sun hasn’t set yet, but it has dipped below the city walls, which amounts to much the same. The lamps are blazing, and while the Hightown streets are well-lit, there are more than a few pockets of shadow. People are still milling around in the squares. She’s relatively certain Kirkwall is not a city that every truly sleeps.

She makes her way towards the market square. Guard-Captain Vallen’s patrols cross her path occasionally. They all nod respectfully, so clearly they were made aware of exactly who she is. She asks one a few questions, but her walk is mostly quiet. She has to laugh. In The Tale of the Champion, Hawke fought some form of ruffian anytime she stepped outside at night.

Varric would have an answer for that, too. She can imagine the quirk of Varric’s lips and his shrug.“Just Hawke’s special kind of luck, Seeker.”

Perhaps she shouldn’t be so good at hearing his voice inside her head, but she is. If she’s honest, he’s been there narrating her actions since she left Skyhold. Perhaps before that, even. It’s certainly not something she’d want him to know, insufferable man.

Here in the dark on the quiet streets of Kirkwall, she can admit to herself that she missed him. At Skyhold, he’d been a constant presence. An outsized presence, even, the kind someone like Cassandra can only imagine being. Oh, people offer her respect and deference, but Varric is beloved by all who meet him. He has a way of understanding people—something Cassandra has always struggled with.

She thinks he understands her as well, and that’s not something she’s sure she wants. Except this is a lie. The problem, she thinks, is that he understands her and doesn’t seem to like her much. Still. Cassandra has never needed praise or approval. She had seen enough, in Nevarra, of what life was like when one was constantly working to obtain the favor of others. There are so few people whose approval Cassandra desires. Stasia. Cullen. Leliana, even when they disagree. To her great disappointment, Varric also features on this list.

She sighs. She’s growing maudlin and Kirkwall darker by the minute. She begins retracing her steps, noting in an academic sort of way that the stairs leading to Lowtown are in the next square. Lowtown, and the Hanged Man, where Varric is no doubt in his element, holding court and telling tales. She…could. Dessa would never miss her.

But what would she do? Show up and have an ale and sit by herself in a corner? No. She will go back to her own inn, and re-read the reports, and meet Varric tomorrow as planned. Being responsible is…lonely. Yet another reason she misses Skyhold. She could even share a drink with Sera sometimes if the mood struck her. But she has chosen her path. This trip is an aberration from it, that is all.

Well, in one sense it is her duty to be here. The fact that she is more eager to do it because it might please Varric means she probably needs to go find the nearest chapel and ask the Maker for forgiveness.

Dessa is still working at her small desk when Cassandra returns. “Lady Seeker, I have some of these files annotated,” she says.

“Thank you, Dessa,” she murmurs. “I will review them in my room.”

“Of course, my lady.” Dessa hands her a stack of parchment.

Cassandra takes a moment to remove her armor and change into something soft and comfortable. She sits on the bed with several stacks of paper and tries to read the reports. Eventually, she gives up and retrieves the latest chapter of the serial she’s been reading. Minerva’s problems seem more interesting than hers anyway.

She’s dismayed to realize that she’s very nearly reached the conclusion of this installment. She’ll have to once again face the periodic indignity of going into a bookshop and asking for the next Ivan Skylander serial. She knows from experience that the Kirkwall bookseller most likely to have the titles she wants is also a horrible busybody. Perhaps she could send Dessa to acquire it.

That might also be more of an embarrassment than it’s worth. But she has to know why Minerva decided to leave the shrine. She feels…rather a lot of kinship with Sister Minerva. It’s almost unnerving. But then, finding connections with the characters in these tales has always been one of the reasons she loves them. That, and it’s a very effective way to lose herself for a short time. She needs that tonight. Tomorrow, she’ll go back to the business at hand with a clear head.

//

“Don’t you need to tell somebody that you’re leaving your post?”

Sister Minerva didn’t reply; she had stopped replying some time ago. She also hadn’t replied to inquiries about her friends or her personal belongings; he seemed to have acquired a bodyguard with very little to say.

He talked enough for both of them, truth be told. Mostly because silence punctuated only by their footsteps and the sounds of nature started giving him the creeps. They weren’t even traveling along the King’s Road, thanks to the damn bandits. So there was plenty to comment on, like farms. And livestock. And trees.

So many trees. He hated trees. The sooner they got back to Lawrick, the better.

Minerva, despite not being a stellar conversationalist, was a great hunter, so they ate well, roasting game over a small fire and taking turns sleeping in Ashric’s tent at night. Honestly, he was pretty bad at keeping watch. If only because every noise sounded like a threat to him. Luckily, he’d only woken up Minerva for no reason once. He passed the time by planning the elaborate revenge he was going to get against whoever had set up him.

Around the fire that night, eating roasted potatoes Ashric had liberated from a field, he stretched out against his bedroll and asked, “Want to hear my elaborate revenge plan, Sister?”

She lifted an eyebrow at him. “I’m sure it’s a terrible plan.”

“How do you know?” he asked, mock-affronted. “I’m great at plans.”

“Tell me, how you were planning to kill the wyvern that was about to kill you when we met?”

“Well, I wasn’t planning on killing it, I was planning on running very fast.”

She smirked. “Fair enough. Do, tell me your plan. Is it talking the person to death?”

“I considered that,” he said. “A man has to know his own strengths.”

“And you do,” she said, nodding.

“I wouldn’t be where I am today if I didn’t,” he said, then looked around. “In a figurative sense, of course.”

“Of course,” she agreed. Her lips didn’t so much as twitch, but Ashric had a feeling that she was laughing at him, regardless. He liked her laugh. He wished she’d do more of it.

He launched into his plan, watching Sister Minerva’s face as he talked. He found himself improvising, just to try and get a rise out of her. “This part’s a little bit sketchy still,” he admitted, “but I was considering goats. Goats seem like they’ll really fit the theme I’m working.”

“Tell me more,” she said, raising an eyebrow.

He grinned. “Like goats, do you, Sister? So do I. But a whole bunch of them in an office full of paperwork and correspondence? Way less charming.”

“At least the goats could make good use of the paperwork,” the sister said.

“You’re not much for bureaucracy, huh?” asked Ashric.

“It has its uses,” Minerva replied, tone clipped. “Time wasting, for one.”

Ashric laughed. “You’re right about that. I try to avoid it whenever possible.”

“I can’t imagine that being easy, in your line of work.”

“It helps if you can pay an assistant,” he replied.

“Of course,” Sister Minerva said with a sniff.

“How much paperwork does a Sister have to do, anyway?” Ashric asked

“More than you might think,” she said. She pushed the coals of the fire with a stick. “Don’t get any ideas,” she told him dourly. “My penmanship is atrocious.”

Ashric laughed. “Fine, fine. I can’t even imagine the piles waiting for me when I get back. It’ll be a nightmare. Maybe I should just stay out here.” Her snort made it clear what she thought about that prospect. “You’re probably right,” he sighed. “Perhaps I’ll just enlist you to hack my excess correspondence to bits.”

“Burning it would probably be more efficient,” Minerva said, poking the fire again.

“But not as satisfying,” Ashric countered. “Hacking and then burning?”

“Perhaps you need the services of those goats,” she suggested.

Ashric made a face. “The smell, though.”

“Perhaps leave your paperwork in your enemy’s office with the goats before you shut them in?”

“I like the way you think, Sister.”

She merely smiled and kept polishing her armor.

//

Varric makes his way up to Hightown far earlier than he would normally prefer to even be outside his rooms at the Hanged Man. He hadn’t slept particularly well. Too much on his mind, imagine that. At any rate, he knows Cassandra will be up and ready to get to work. It’ll make for a nice change from all the damn paperwork.

It’s still strange to walk through the market square and not see the same faces. Varric’s not sure he’ll ever adjust completely. He doesn’t blame anyone for getting the hell out, though. Hell, if he’s honest, he needed to as well. At least for a while. Enough time has passed that he doesn’t feel quite so raw, gearing up to head to the Wounded Coast without Hawke right there with him. He still misses her, though. The jokes, the teasing, the little embellishments she likes to add to his stories (as if they’d needed any.)

He hopes Broody has caught up to her by now, even though the thought of him being so close to Tevinter is a little nerve-wracking. He laughs at himself a little bit. Broody can take care of himself. So can Hawke, for that matter. Tevinter, should they wander, won’t know what hit it.

He arrives at the inn just as Marisol serves breakfast. He smiles at his own good timing. He doesn’t see the Seeker yet, but he knows from experience that she’s probably been awake since before dawn. She’s probably upstairs working. Or perhaps stealing a moment to read.

Learning that Lady Seeker Cassandra Pentaghast, Right Hand of the Divine, likes to read, and specifically, likes to read his books, was the moment his opinion on her began to turn around. Or, well. Maybe it just was the moment when he’d admitted to himself that she wasn’t exactly what he’d thought she was. Also, he’s not above being flattered by praise, even reluctant in delivery.

He orders himself some breakfast and keep an eye on the stairs. A few minutes later, he sees a face that he recognizes from Skyhold. Not Cassandra, but one of Lady Josephine’s diplomatic staff. Dessa, he thinks her name was. She sees him, too, and her mouth makes an “O” of surprise.

“Ser Tethras,” she says, “we had no idea you were waiting.”

“It’s Varric, Dessa,” he says. “And don’t worry about it. I didn’t even know I was coming straight here until I walked out my door.”

“I will inform the Lady Seeker,” Dessa says, turning.

Varric almost stops her. He wants to see that moment of surprise. He’d really like to go upstairs and - well, no. They’re not that close. He sighs and takes a bite of food.

Cassandra herself appears a few minutes later, crossing over to his table with a steady stride. “This is earlier than I expected you, Varric,” she says.

Varric shrugs. “I woke up.”

“Bright-eyed and ready to face the day, I see.”

“As always, Seeker.”

She sits across from him and orders her own food. It feels oddly…comfortable. It isn’t as though they’ve never shared a table before. But there is no throne, no courtyard, no bustling scouts, no Curly or Stasia to intervene. He pours her coffee and she passes him the butter, all without speaking a word to each other. She doesn’t look tired, exactly, but… It’s probably a bad idea, but that’s never stopped him before. He takes a shot: “Up late reading, Seeker?”

Her lips tighten, then quirk. “Sadly, I have run out of installments of my latest serial.”

“That’s a shame, Seeker,” he says. He means it sincerely, though he knows she’ll probably not take it that way.

“This time, at least, it is not your doing,” she says, as she pours more tea out of the waiting carafe.

“You have a new favorite? I think I may shed a tear,” he says, laying a hand over his heart.

She rolls her eyes. “A new author,” she says. “I don’t know why I even picked up the first volume, but I’ve been enjoying it.”

He thinks about asking more questions, but decides that really would be pushing his luck. “I’ll soldier through the disappointment,” he says, accepting a fresh cup of tea.

She smirks and drinks her coffee. Varric smiles into his toast.

Dessa reappears a few minutes later. “Lady Seeker, a message arrived for you at the port last night.”

Cassandra takes it, looking grave. “Thank you, Dessa.”

He watches her face as she reads. “You know, Seeker,” he says when she finishes. “If you wanted to work on your tells, you could just read while I tell you exactly what your face tells me as you go.”

The look she gives him next leaves absolutely no doubt as to what she’s thinking. “Perhaps some other time,” she says coolly. “Have you finished eating?”

“Just about,” he replies and takes his time with his last piece of toast. It’s too damn fun not to try and get a rise out of her. He’s terrible, but he knows it and enjoys it.

When Varric finishes, Cassandra huffs.

“Ready, Seeker,” he says and slings Bianca over his back. He throws a few coins down on the table—more than enough to cover both their meals, and a bit more, besides.

Cassandra retrieves her weapons from the corner and looks at him steadily. “Lead on, Varric.”

He smiles as they walk back out into the sunshine. This feels better than being stuck behind his desk with only his correspondence for company. As they walk through Hightown towards the Eastern Gates, Varric points out various points of interest, playing tour guide. It’s worth it for all the times Cassandra has to stifle a smile at one of his anecdotes.

“The Wounded Coast lives up to its name,” he says as they leave the city. “Mostly because everyone who goes there ends up wounded in one way or another.”

“And this certainly isn’t merely your distaste for nature talking,” Cassandra says dryly.

“Oh, no, it’s well documented. Wounds of all sorts. Bandits, pirates, slavers, Tal-Vashoth. Also chafing and sand in all the wrong places and too much nature, but all the other things too.”

“I will be on my guard,” Cassandra promises.

As if the Seeker would ever show annoyance at such simple physical irritations.

They get ambushed by a couple of bandits almost right away. Varric nearly laughs. It’s not a fair fight: the bandits clearly have no idea what they’re up against. It’s over in minutes, and Varric finds himself picking pockets leisurely while Cassandra stashes their weapons.

“Only a few gold pieces,” Varric says with a sigh. “Boring.”

“Not exactly the dire threat I was promised,” Cassandra replies.

“Maybe we’ll get lucky,” he laughs.

“Now we definitely won’t,” Cassandra says with a sigh.

They keep heading east, parallel to the rocky shore below. Cassandra looks around with interest.

“Were you actually here with Hawke as often as The Tale of the Champion implied?” she asks.

Varric pulls a face. “Trust me, if I could have set the whole book inside the city walls, I would have. But if it wasn’t one thing out here, it was another.”

This seems to be the cue for a small group of smugglers to appear. But they’re not attacking, they’re fleeing something.

“Well,” Varric says with a sigh. “We should probably go check that out.”

//

When they finally came into sight of Lawrick’s high city walls, Ashric breathed a sigh of relief. “Home sweet home.”

The sister looked less than impressed. “Those walls might stop a siege, but so would that smell.”

“Come now, Sister,” he said. “You can’t insult someone you just met. You save those for later.”

“It’s hardly an insult to state the facts,” argued Minerva, as they made their way up the rocky road that would lead them to the West Gate. It had only been a week ago that Ashric had left the city through that same passageway, but it felt longer.

“Be kind when you see my lodgings, then,” he sighed.

She huffed, but didn’t speak further. He lead her through the streets, noting how her eyes went wide at the sight of the market bookseller.

“When was the last time you left your swamp, Sister?”

“Ten years,” she murmured.

Ashric looked over his shoulder at her. “That’s a long damn time, Sister.”

“It isn’t as though I was completely isolated,” she said. “There were villages.”

“With what, a half dozen families in each?” he replied.

“Well, yes,” she said.

“That’s not an actual amount of people,” he said. He’d bet that there were three times as many people in the market square alone.

The sister shrugged. “As long as they’re not all attacking me.”

“That’s unlikely to happen,” he said. “Mostly. Just…we should maybe not go out at night.”

“You should already be watching your step,” said Minerva.

“Trust me, I am,” Ashric assured her. He was always on alert walking the streets of Lawrick. Even when drunk out of his mind, he had an eye on all possible exits and his daggers visible and accessible. Knowing that somebody in particular had it out for him didn’t change that much, really. Sister Minerva would see that quickly enough.

He loved Lawrick partly because it kept him on his toes. It was a stinking dirty-pile of a city, full of the worst that the world had to offer, but it was home.

He led her to the Merchant’s Rest without further comment. That her lip didn’t curl in distaste any more than it was already felt oddly like a victory. It was early enough in the day that the Merchant’s Rest was fairly quiet: just the usual drunks at their usual tables. The innkeeper greeted him politely, but no more, and Ashric’s shoulders went tight. Politeness from Jarvin usually meant trouble.

He saw the Sister’s hand come to rest on the pommel of her blade. She had clearly seen and understood the shift of his body. He’d admire that more if he wasn’t so concerned. His room was upstairs. He wondered what they’d find inside.

The door was closed, but there was something off about the handle—scratch marks around the lock that hadn’t been there a week before. His lips curled in a sneer. Picked, then.

“Mr. Bartas?” Sister Minerva murmured.

“Lock has been picked,” he said. “I’m betting whoever is in there isn’t waiting to hug us.”

She nodded once, shifting into a fighting stance and wrapping her fingers around the hilt of her sword. Ashric drew one of his daggers out of its sheath. Minerva hefted her shield and reached for the doorknob.

There was a sudden flurry of movement and Ashric only narrowly dodged an arrow that flew toward him. Minerva was already moving towards the source of the attack, shield raised. She had the assailant on the floor in seconds, sword at his throat. It was magnificent. Ashric would spend more time admiring it if he wasn’t so upset about the state of his rooms. He cursed up a blue streak as he looked around, before kicking at the body prone on the floor.

“Who sent you?” he demanded.

The man spat. “What’s it matter to you? You’re a dead man, Bartas.”

“But I’m not,” Ashric drawled. “And you will be, unless I tell this lovely lady to back down. So start talking.”

“Never!” the man spat.

“I really hope your wife or kid or mother already has the money,” Ashric said casually. “Otherwise, you’re going to die for nothing.” The man was trying to put on a brave face, but Ashric could see the real fear in his eyes, and Ashric had a feeling that it wasn’t just because of the blade at his throat. Whoever had hired him to do this was no small-time crook. So he made his offer. “Tell me who you need me to protect, then tell me what you know.”

“M-my dad, it’s just him with the little ones now. I can’t…” the man stuttered. Ashric sighed. Desperation made people do stupid things, and there were a lot of desperate people in Lawrick. Sister Minerva was looking at him with both eyebrows raised.

“I can protect them,” Ashric promised. “I might even be able to protect you if you help me out.”

His mind was already racing, scrolling through his mental file of all the big names in Lawrick’s underground who could inspire this kind of fear. Carta? No; was in good standing with them, all dues fully paid through the year. There were the crime lords, of course, but he couldn’t think of anything he’d done to piss one of them off recently.

“It’s a good deal,” the sister added in her softly accented voice. “I’d take it.”

Ashric knew he was going to take the deal before he agreed by the way his eyes went even more desperate and pleading. “It’s Ser Vaughan, Ser Bartas,” the man said.

“Bullshit,” Ashric replied. “He’s been dead ten years.”

“His son, Ser.”

Ashric narrowed his eyes. “I’m going to need you to give me more than that.”

“All I know,” the man said desperately.

“Who hired you?” Ashric asked.

“Barrett the Red said he had a job for me, promised it would be easy. Told me to come and toss the room—said you probably wouldn’t be coming back, anyway.”

“And the arrow you decided to fling at me?”

“If you were me, what would you have done?” the man asked.

“Fair enough,” Ashric said. He looked over at Minerva. “Let him up.”

She sniffed, but complied. Once they were standing, Ashric got a good look at the man. Boy, really. Couldn’t be more than twenty. “What’s your name, kid?” Ashric asked.

“Isaac.” The kid looked like hadn’t had a proper meal in a long time.

“Tell me what you were looking for here in my room, Isaac.”

“I was to find anything mentioning mines. I think they’re after something specific, but they didn’t say anything more to me,” he replied.

“Ser Vaughan, you said,” Ashric mused.

“That means something to you?” Sister Minerva inquired.

“I won the deed to a mine off Vaughan something like twenty years ago now,” Ashric explained. “It wasn’t even a very successful mine at the time. Just enough to be worth keeping operations going. I took it over and within two years, my miners found diamonds.” He saw the way the kid’s eyes went wide.

“Clearly not many,” Minerva said, looking around the relatively plain room.

He laughed. “Sister, most often, the people who look like they have money are the most in debt. I own this inn. Among others.”

This time, it was her eyes that went a little wide. But it didn’t last long. “So,” she murmured. “A mine?”

“Vaughan was nobility, though. The man had money. Why would losing the mine even matter?” Ashric mused.

“Well, as you said, perhaps he didn’t, perhaps he had debts,” Sister Minerva pointed out.

“If he did, he was quiet about them. Which means that if he did owe money, it was to somebody big.”

“Or perhaps there’s something else in the mine,” she offered.

“I don’t know,” Ashric said. “I haven’t found anything. You said his son was after me, kid?” Isaac nodded. “Maybe it’s just a case of the kid blaming me for his shitty life.” He looked to Isaac again. “You said Barrett the Red gave you the job?” The kid nodded. Ashric glanced at Sister Minerva. “Then I know our next stop.”

“And him?” Sister Minerva asked, nodding at Isaac.

Ashric looked the kid up and down. “Sure, why not? Makes it easier to keep an eye on him.”

//

By the time they’re two hours out of Kirkwall, Cassandra and Varric have taken care of three groups of bandits and a bear. She stopped pointing out the inconsistencies between the real and fictionalized Wounded Coasts after the bear.

“Sunshine got hurt pretty bad by a bear once. Was afraid of them after,” Varric said. “I didn’t want one of the book’s subjects to not be able to read it.”

“Is Bethany Hawke in Kirkwall?” Cassandra asks.

To her surprise, Varric doesn’t hesitate before saying, “Currently, yeah.”

“Do you think I might be able to meet her?” Cassandra asks, feeling faintly ridiculous.

The look on his face is similar to the one he wore when he gave her the advance copy of Swords and Shields. He’s smug and entirely too pleased with himself, but there’s something else too. “Of course,” he says. “I imagine you’ll meet most everyone still here at some point.”

“That would be… I would like that,” she says.

“I’d like it too,” he says easily.

She opens her mouth to respond when Cassandra feels a badly aimed spell whiz past the side of her head. She doesn’t bother yelling a warning: Varric is already firing a crossbow bolt. Cassandra falls back to cover both of them with her shield.

“Shit,” Varric mutters. “That spell was no joke.”

“No,” she replies. “I have to be closer to use my power.”

“You’ve got a shield and Bianca and I can cover what that can’t,” Varric says. “Looks like they’re using those stones up ahead as cover,” he adds.

She nods and advances, shield angled to deflect rogue spells. Varric keeps a pretty steady stream of crossbow bolts going in that direction and once she gets in range, she uses her seeker powers. Shrieks erupt from behind the stones. She hears Varric call out a familiar warning, and raises her shield—an instant later, she hears a vial shatter on the rocks, and flames explode outward from the spot.

Cassandra advances cautiously. She avoids the flames and uses her power again. There are three of them, she thinks.

Soon it’s two, thanks to Varric. She gets around the boulders and knocks the staff out of the closest mage’s hand and takes him down with her shield and a quick thrust of her blade. It’s then that she notices a body on the ground, tied with rope and squirming. She doesn’t have time to do more than notice when the second mage comes at her with the blade end of her staff. Her body knows the correct movements, shifting her stance and raising her shield.

This one is a skilled fighter, Cassandra thinks, but outnumbered. She uses her power again and lunges forward while the woman is incapacitated. Out of the corner of her eye, she sees Varric moving towards the captive.

Cassandra kicks her staff away. That won’t stop her from casting, but it will hinder her. While she’s distracted, Cassandra knocks into the woman with her shield and finally her sword makes contact. The mage rolls back, favoring her arm and cursing.

Varric steps up next to her, crossbow aimed. “Interested in talking?” he asks mildly.

She doesn’t respond, just raises her hands. Cassandra can feel the lightning spell forming as she plunges her blade through the woman’s chest.

“I guess that was a ‘no’,” Varric says.

“It is now,” Cassandra replies, disgusted.

There’s a noise and they both turn toward the captive, who is stirring. The man is young, probably no more than twenty, wearing simple armor. Varric appears to be out of patience, but he still manages to greet him politely.

“Who’re…” The kid looks around, confused. “Andraste’s tits, what happened?”

“We were hoping you could help us shed some light on the situation,” Varric says, gesturing to the fallen mages.

“I don’t know why they wanted me,” he replies.

“What happened when you were captured?” Cassandra asks, studying him.

“I was just gathering spindleweed for Master Emeric,” the man says, confusion and panic clear in his voice. “Then there was a shout, and then it was like being struck by lightning and I couldn’t move.”

“Where was this?” Varric asks.

“Near the path to Sundermount,” the kid replies. “How did I get here?”

Varric whistles. “That’s quite a ways. Where were our friends here headed, I wonder? And with a hostage, at that.”

A sacrifice, Cassandra thinks, and she knows Varric is thinking it, too—he’s simply too kind to say it when the young man already looks terrified. “We’ll return with you to the city,” Cassandra tells him.

He shakes his head. “But…I can’t just go back to the city and pretend this didn’t happen. What if they come back?”

“More than likely you were just in the wrong place at the wrong time,” Varric tells him. “But I don’t blame you for being nervous, considering. Just…don’t travel alone for a little while, until we can get this problem cleared up.”

The boy frowns, looking obstinate. “I want to help,” he insists. “I got kidnapped. I can’t just sit back and do nothing.”

“Kid, this is way above your pay grade,” Varric says.

The conversation is deeply familiar. Not for the first time, Cassandra wishes Stasia were here—she always had a talent for accepting the people who wanted to help the Inquisition and finding them a place.

He’s still frowning at them. “I’m a mage,” he says finally. “Couldn’t you use a mage?”

Varric looks up at Cassandra and she sighs. “Fine,” she says.

“What’s your name, kid?” Varric asks, unsheathing a dagger and using it to cut the young man’s bonds.

“Mikel,” he replies.

“Well, Mikel, I’m Varric Tethras and this is Lady Seeker Cassandra Pentaghast,” Varric says. Mikel’s eyes go saucer-wide.

“Not… oh, Maker, are you really? The ones from the tales?”

“Depends which tales,” Cassandra says wryly. Varric shoots her an amused look.

“My tales are all completely factual,” he says.

It’s a great deal more accurate to say that Varric’s tales have their beginnings in fact. Their very early beginnings. Cassandra sighs. “Well, Mikel, we should return to our lodgings and speak further. Perhaps you could look at a map and note for us where you were taken.”

He nods. “Anything.”

“How did they get you, anyway?” Varric asks as they walk back down the path.

“Stunned me while my back was turned,” Mikel says. “Lighting spell.”

“Yes, the woman had quite a hand with lightning,” Cassandra notes.

“I’m usually better than that,” he says, sounding annoyed. “I should have been paying better attention.”

“Why were you out picking spindleweed, anyway?” asks Varric.

“I help Master Emeric out with his stores in return for use of his equipment for my research.”

“What do you research?” Cassandra asks.

“I was trying to study the veil in and around Kirkwall,” Mikel replies. “But I don’t…I’m probably not experienced enough. None of my tests have been conclusive.”

Varric whistles. “That’s quite a project.” He and Cassandra share a speaking glance. Perhaps it wasn’t random after all. “Well, first off, we can probably get you help and the right equipment for that,” Varric says. “Second, does anyone else know what you’re doing?”

“I’m not an idiot,” says Mikel, bristling.

“No one said so,” Varric soothes. “But we can’t assume this was random until we’ve looked into all the possibilities.”

Mikel sighs. “I suppose that’s true.”

“These forces have been at play in Kirkwall for a long time,” Cassandra says. “I came to put this particular situation to rights.”

“A lot of folk have tried,” Mikel says.

“They haven’t been the Seeker,” Varric replies.

Mikel looks skeptical, which she cannot fault him for. “I’ve heard the tales…but they can’t possibly all be true.”

She smiles slightly. “They are not.”

“Seeker, you’re going to ruin my reputation,” Varric says, but there is no malice in it.

“And what of mine?” she replies, lips twitching despite herself.

“Seeker, you’re impressive regardless of whether or not the stories are completely true,” Varric replies.

Cassandra has heard more enough of Varric’s empty flattery to know that this… is something else. A true compliment, freely given. It’s a rather heady thing. She feels a warmth in her chest. She wants to say something, but she doesn’t know what. Thank you doesn’t seem right. “Back to Kirkwall. We can go through their things and see if there is anything new to be learned when we get there.”

//

After Ashric had arranged for a meal to be brought up to his rooms, he had a quiet word with one of his runners. He needed to talk to Barrett the Red. Barrett the Red was a bastard. The sort of bastard who would work for anyone if the coin was good. He was also the sort of bastard that would sell any one of his contracts out if the coin was better. He had another one of his people dispatched to keep an eye on the kid’s father’s house.

Sister Minerva listened in on these conversations unapologetically. She seemed fascinated and he didn’t particularly mind.

“I’d wager there’s more monsters here in Lawrick than there are in that swamp of yours, Sister,” Ashric said, once it was just the three of them in the room again. “Only difference is, the monsters here don’t have the decency to have fangs and claws. Not that you can see, anyway.”

“Lethara gives us eyes to see behind the masks of our supplicants,” the sister murmured.

Ashric raised an eyebrow. “Sounds useful. Maybe I’ll keep you around.”

When the food arrived, Ashric didn’t miss the wary look of hunger on Isaac’s face. Sister Minerva hung back, making a show of removing her vambraces before serving herself, and Ashric waved at Isaac.

“Guests first.”

“I…if you’re–”

“Kid,” Ashric says, “There is a lot of food here. Help us eat it.” Thankfully, the kid didn’t take much more convincing. Wonder how long its been since he had a real meal? Ashric wondered. Then he rolled his eyes at himself. Gods, but he was a sucker.

He filled his own plate and took it to his desk. He expected runners back before long. Still, if the kid was sticking with them for the time being, he would need to be fed. Possibly also outfitted in better armor.

The Sister was doing her best to draw the kid into a conversation, which Ashric appreciated. He’d only ever experienced her conversing with him, and it was a bit of a surprise to see that she could be rather charming. He didn’t know what to make of that. Perhaps she didn’t like him. Or perhaps she knew the kid needed a little more coddling than Ashric.

He supposed it didn’t really matter which was which. It had been her choice to come here, after all. He couldn’t deny her usefulness. Or her decorativeness, if he was being honest. He wondered again how a woman like that ended up out in the damn swamp. There was definitely a story there. Probably not a happy one, either. He hoped she’d tell him sooner or later.

Another runner appeared and he dealt with that. Sometimes, his need to be hands-on with his business affairs was damn annoying. After a week of sleeping in the swamp, he was looking forward to spending the night in his own bed. No more trading watches with the Sister. He was pretty sure being able to sleep through the whole night might be the best part. Assuming that his mysterious enemy didn’t decide to try anything while they slept. He was glad he had extra rooms. Owning an inn was useful in more ways than he ever anticipated.

He noticed that the kid was starting to list to the side a little. “Come on, Isaac, let’s find you a bed,” he said with a sympathetic smile.

Isaac sighed. “That would probably be best. This has been a strange day.”

Ashric laughed. “Hey, you’re telling me.”

“I’m sorry,” Isaac said. Whether he was serious or just figured it was expedient, Ashric still wasn’t sure. He was damn sure he was better than the alternative.

“Don’t worry about it, kid,” Ashric said. “Come on. I know there’s a free room across the way.”

Ashric was still half-sure the kid was going to sneak out the window during the night: he had someone watching the alley, just in case. He believed in covering all the bases.

Isaac muttered his thanks and Ashric nodded as the door closed. He went downstairs to inform the innkeep about the two newly occupied rooms, then went back up to his own. The sister was still sitting by the fire. There was a book in her hands, but she wasn’t reading it.

“Copper for your thoughts,” he said.

The corner of her mouth quirked up and he was struck by the desire to sit close to her and kiss that little smile. He shook his head. He wasn’t even surprised; he had a long history of being attracted to the worst possible people. People he could never have, people who hated him. He’d run the gamut. At least the Sister didn’t seem to hate him, though he wasn’t entirely certain she liked him at all. It wasn’t as though anything would come of it, anyway. Ashric was at least well-versed in dealing with inconveniences.

She looked up at him. “They probably aren’t worth that much. It is difficult to get books out to my post at times. I was enjoying having one in my hands.”

“Don’t they have you up and studying the Word every morning before dawn?” Ashric asked.

“That is not the same,” she said.

“Not that same at all,” he agreed. “Keep that one as long as you like.”

“Thank you,” she replied softly and sincerely.

“Least I can do to repay you for saving my ass out there in the swamps,” he said, waving it off.

She smiled unexpectedly. “I was also promised chocolates.”

Ashric grinned. “That is a promise I can keep.”

He returned to his desk—a week away meant all the usual paperwork to catch up on, nevermind the attempts on his life. Lighting it all on fire would be satisfying, if ultimately pointless. It would just pile up again in a week and he’d be back where he started. He opened one of the drawers and drew out a box. He’d bought it just before he left on a whim.

“Here’s a start on that promise, anyway,” said Ashric, looking over at Minerva and waving the box.

Eyes lighting up, she took it and lifted the lid. “Lovely, Mr. Bartas.”

He smiled. “Got them from a chocolatier up near the Guild offices. Best shop in town.” He watched as she delicately picked up a chocolate and took a bite. “See? The city isn’t all bad,” Ashric said, grinning at the expression on her face.

“I did not say so,” she murmured.

“You thought it,” he says. He watched her look at the box, clearly wanting another. “Sister,” he said, “eat as many as you want. I’ll keep you in chocolate.”

He probably ought to have been worried at how much he meant that, given the circumstances. Still, as he went back to his work it was pleasant to hear the occasional rustle of chocolate wrappers in between her page turns. He hadn’t had anything like companionship in too long, he thought. Not since his best friend left the city.

But that was a whole different can of worms that he didn’t feel like dealing with right now. In contrast, the paperwork on his desk was actually starting to look inviting.

//

One of the innkeepers downstairs politely directs Cassandra and her sword to a back courtyard where she can do her morning exercises. It’s early, but she needs this time to clear her head. Varric will arrive soon enough and they’ll start their day.

She hopes that their investigations today will be more fruitful than the day before. There had been no more young mages to rescue, but quite a few more dead ends. Mikel hadn’t had any luck with his research, either. It was a frustrating day and she’s pleased it’s behind them.

She takes her body through the long-familiar motions, seeking her equilibrium. It is difficult to find in the close air of the courtyard, though this little place is unexpectedly charming. Kirkwall is warm, even in the early morning. Certainly warmer than Skyhold or Denerim. But the rising heat isn’t the only thing on her mind.

It is… better than she had expected it to be, working with Varric again. She’s always been impressed with his competence, but she’s beginning to understand the breadth and depth of his operations. When she interrogated him, he’d been careful to never say too much about himself. In fact, he’d only told her about what happened to his brother under duress. Despite what he says, Varric enjoys telling stories about others far more than he likes talking about himself.

Of course, Cassandra understands that, though she lacks the talent for telling stories as well. She takes a deep breath and closes her eyes. She needs focus.

She repeats each motion again and again, until her muscles are loose and her stance is sure, until the sun is finally beginning to appear above the Eastern wall. As soon as she stops, she hears the chink of a door, and a serving girl appears with a washbasin. “For you, milady.”

“Thank you,” Cassandra murmurs and splashes water on her face, then uses the cloth to swipe over her arms and neck. Yes, that’s much better, she thinks.

A moment later, Dessa appears at the door. “Another batch of correspondence has arrived for you, my lady. And Ser Tethras is waiting.”

Cassandra picks up her shield and heads inside. She goes up the backstairs so as to avoid the public areas so she can dress properly first. When she descends the stairs into the dining room a few minutes later, she sees Varric seated at one of the long tables, a plate at his elbow, chatting with one of the young waitresses. She’s bright pink and smiling.

Cassandra huffs. Always the flirt. With everyone but her. She goes to sit across from him.

“Good morning, Seeker,” he says, turning his smile towards her. She ignores the way that her own lips want to pull upward in response. He certainly won’t expect her smile.

“Varric,” she says. “Where is Mikel?”

“I tried to rouse him, but he decided breakfast was the enemy and that he would meet us in Lowtown later.” Her apprehension must show on her face, because he waves a placating hand and adds, “Don’t worry, Seeker; I’ve got eyes on him.”

“Of course you have,” she murmurs. “Well, breakfast is not myenemy.”

Varric smiles. “Not mine, either.”

The waitress returns with two full plates and a carafe filled with hot, strong-smelling coffee. She’s not blushing anymore, but Cassandra still feels a twinge of annoyance. She’s being ridiculous and she knows that, but knowing doesn’t help her stop feeling annoyed.

She carefully schools her expression—a skill taught to her from childhood, and one of the few she hadn’t left behind when she’d left Nevarra. It is frequently useful. She eats for a minute or two in silence before asking politely, “Plans for today?”

“I figured we’d go see Sunshine. She might be able to help Mikel too,” Varric says. Despite herself, Cassandra’s eyes go a bit wide. Varric smiles. “That okay?”

“Of course,” she replies and is relieved when breakfast comes. She’s oddly nervous about meeting Bethany Hawke. It is not just that she is a character in a book that Cassandra enjoys, but she is also Varric’s friend. Cassandra finds that she wants, very much, for Varric’s friends to… Approve of her.

She has every reason to expect they won’t, of course. The Guard-Captain seemed to not…despise her, but Cassandra doesn’t expect the others to have the same understanding. She wonders how many times Aveline Vallen has wanted to arrest the damn dwarf.

“Something funny, Seeker?” Varric asks, and Cassandra realizes that she is smiling after all.

“The prospect of meeting another woman who might tell me the truth about you, Varric,” she replies promptly.

Varric laughs. “I’m sure Sunshine has all sorts of stories she could tell.”

They don’t linger long over breakfast; Cassandra, at least, is too eager to begin the day’s work. She shoulders her arms and waits for Varric by the door, following him out into the streets. They go down the many stairs to Lowtown, where they find Mikel waiting near one of the market stalls. He doesn’t look particularly awake. Cassandra and Varric share a smile.

“You sure about that ‘breakfast is the enemy’ thing, kid?” he asks.

“Being kidnapped is tiring!” Mikel protests, clearly trying to suppress a yawn.

“So is celebrating your return late into the night,” Cassandra hazards.

He has the good grace to look sheepish. “I suppose you’re right, Lady Seeker.”

Cassandra smiles. “I do not blame you.”

“And if you have to duck away for a quick nap, we understand,” Varric adds, a laugh in his voice. “Follow me, you two. We have business to attend to.”

They follow Varric out of the market and down through the narrow alleys until he stops in front of a door and knocks. There’s no response for a long moment, and Cassandra takes the opportunity to get a better look at their surroundings. The building they’re standing in front of is in much better repair than its neighbors, though not in obvious ways. She sees someone’s hand in that - whether it’s Hawke’s or Varric’s, she’s not sure. Perhaps both. She’s certain Varric probably does much to keep Bethany safe regardless.

The door opens and the face that appears is half familiar. “Varric!” she says with a warm smile.

“Hey there, Sunshine,” Varric says, voice warm. “I brought some new friends.”

“I see that,” she says with a smile. “This must be Lady Seeker Pentaghast?”

Cassandra nods, smiling. “It is good to meet you, Miss Hawke.”

“Bethany, please. Otherwise everything gets horribly muddled.”

“It’s an honor,” Cassandra says, wondering what Varric has said to make her so instantly recognizable.

“And this young man is Mikel. We’ll tell you his story inside,” Varric adds.

Bethany ushers them into her home. “Would you like some tea? Fenris sent me a lovely tea set and I haven’t been able to use it yet.”

Varric looks to Cassandra, who says, “Tea would be lovely, thank you.” At least it will give her something to do with her hands.

Mikel looks…decidedly relieved. Cassandra holds in a smile and then wonders at herself. She supposes some of Stasia’s welcoming brand of trust wore off on her over the course of the fight against Corypheus.

Bethany’s house is small, but filled to the bursting and obviously well-loved. Her shelves are full of books and trinkets, and there is plenty of seating in the main room—Cassandra is absolutely sure that this house has been host to many gatherings of Hawke’s associates. It’s pleasant and homey and not what Cassandra would have expected - though perhaps that’s merely her knowledge of Hawke.

Bethany brings a tray with tea a minute later and serves them with a smile. “Now,” she murmurs. “I’m sure you’re not just here for tea.”

“Tea and, hopefully, putting a stop to the attacks,” Varric says. “A venture that could use your impeccable research skills, Sunshine.”

“Oh, how flattering. Tell me more,” Bethany smiles.

Varric laughs. “Mikel here has been trying to study the Veil around Kirkwall. We’ve sent for help from Stasia, who has a lot of research on the subject, but we thought if we could pinpoint where the Veil might be weakest, it could help.”

Bethany looks at Mikel. “Studying the Veil? With what method?”

“I have built a few tools, m’lady,” Mikel replies.

Bethany laughs and scrunched up her nose. “Bethany, please. People called my sister m’lady and that was strange enough.”

“Your sister?” Mikel asks, and Cassandra realizes that Mikel has no idea whose home he is sitting in.

“The Champion,” she says quietly.

“Oh!” he says. “Bethany. Right. Of course.”

Bethany, to her credit, shoulders past Mikel’s realization and back to the matter at hand. “Tell me more about these tools. What data are you collecting?”

"Veil variances based on stone samples,"Mikel replies. “I learned it from an old dwarf I know.”

“Fascinating,” she says. “I know there were some books on the subject in the Gallows library. I wonder if someone could get them?”

“I’m surprised that there might still be anything left in the Gallows,” Cassandra admits. “Surely the looters…?”

“After what happened to Meredith, not many were foolish enough to try their luck,” Varric says. “And the Templars and the Guard did a damn good job of keeping out the rest of the idiots.”

“We’ll talk to the Guard-Captain about it,” Cassandra says.

“I’m sure Aveline will be able to help. And the Inquisition’s templars took care of the red lyrium, so the Gallows should be safe again,” Bethany says. Mikel snorts, and then looks mortified, attempting to school his expression. “I know,” Bethany says. “Safe is a relative term.”

“Mikel was kidnapped,” Varric explains. “By mages. And well. I don’t believe in coincidences.”

Bethany sighs. “Neither do I. Not in this city, anyway.”

“The mages who kidnapped you– were they the same ones responsible for the attacks that have been happening?”

Mikel laughs. “Think this city is big enough for two unrelated groups of unhinged mages?”

“Unfortunately, yes, but I doubt that’s the case now,” Varric says.

“Did you recognize any of them?” Bethany asks. Mikel shakes his head no. “Hmm,” she murmurs. “And if you had no trouble waking him, they clearly didn’t use blood magic. Curious.”

“They may have been taking him somewhere specific,” Cassandra says.

“We’re working on finding it,” Varric says.

“There are lots of caves on the Coast. Who knows where they could lead at this point,” Bethany says.

“I know some people,” Varric says, and Cassandra can’t hold in a small chuckle. Of course. Varric casts a sidelong look at her and she smiles.

“Of course you do. The question is, are they reliable people?”

Bethany laughs at that, and Varric makes a mock-wounded gesture. “Most of my - okay, some of my - okay. Fine. These are some of the more trustworthy ones.”

Cassandra can’t help but laugh and the look Varric gives her makes her breath catch in her throat. It’s absurd, but… She can’t deny how good it feels, to be the recipient of that look. She is ridiculous, truly.

“All right, we’ll talk to them,” she says, still smiling.

“Sounds like our afternoon plans are sorted, then,” Varric says. “Sunshine, can we leave the kid with you? You can send that note about the book.”

Bethany nods and looks at Mikel. “He can show me his tools? I’m very curious about them.”

“Oh- of course,” Mikel stammers. “If you’d like.”

“Yes, please. Perhaps we can go this afternoon if we hear back from Aveline.” Mikel beams at her and Varric winks at Cassandra.

“More tea?” Bethany asks. “And Cassandra, perhaps you have some stories to tell of Varric’s time with the Inquisition? I’ve been dying to hear more, but you know he hates telling stories about himself.”

“I have no skill at it,” Cassandra protests.

“You’re better than you think, Seeker,” Varric tells her.

“And I’m sure you have plenty of material, given how much he’s told us about your adventures.” Bethany is pouring more tea as she speaks, and doesn’t see Cassandra’s expression.

Varric does. They lock eyes for a moment, and Cassandra aims for a more neutral face. Varric’s eyes crinkle at the corners and his lips quirk into a soft smile. Cassandra has to look away. A smile shouldn’t make her feel like this. He’s not a beautiful man, but his face is even more interesting as it is.

She drinks her tea. “I suppose I do have a few stories I could tell.”

“Excellent. The most embarrassing ones first, if you would,” Bethany says, and Varric fakes a groan.

Cassandra obliges with a few stories from their travels with Stasia. Bethany and Mikel both laugh, so she supposes she’s not such a terrible story teller. Varric interjects occasionally, in his own defense, although clearly Bethany doesn’t believe a word of his protests. It’s gratifying to have a Hawke on her side, Cassandra discovers with no small bit of amusement. She idly wonders what this conversation would be like if Bethany’s older sister were present. Probably much more raucous.

Finally, Varric sets his empty cup down on its saucer and says, “That’s it—we need to get out of here while I still have some shreds of my dignity left.”

“If you say so,” Cassandra smiles.

“Seeker, if I didn’t know better, I’d say you were teasing me,” Varric says.

Maybe she is, a bit, but she isn’t going to admit anything. Instead, she thanks Bethany for the tea. “Time to get to work, Varric,” she says archly.

“I’m always working,” Varric grumbles.

Bethany laughs. “We’ll see you later, then.”

“Shall we meet back here, or would you prefer elsewhere?” Cassandra asks her.

“There’s always the Hanged Man,” Varric offers, as he shoulders Bianca.

“Typical,” Bethany laughs.

“I’m just saying, it’s an option,” Varric says, raising his hands with a grin on his face.

“You’d best watch yourself, Seeker,” Bethany warns, standing to show them to the door. “Varric is trouble.”

“I am well aware,” Cassandra replies.

“I suppose you would be,” Bethany replies. “See you.”

Once they’re out in the street again, Varric says, “We’ll want to head for the docks.” There’s a smile in his voice.

“I am delighted,” Cassandra replies.

“Thought you might be,” he replies and leads her do the nearest staircase down to the lower level of the city. “Hey, I haven’t taken you to Darktown yet.”

“Well, we have much work to do,” Cassandra says. “I’m sure there will be time for that, yet.”

“No time like the present,” Varric replies cheerfully.

“I thought we were going to the docks,” she says.

“Which you have to go through to get to Darktown,” Varric says.

“Lead on, Varric,” she sighs.

He leads her down another flight of stairs. This one is much more narrow and if she thought the docks smelled, Darktown is worse. Much worse. “You stop noticing after a while,” Varric tells her. “Or maybe your sense of smell just gives up—also a possibility. This way.”

“You should give tours professionally,” Cassandra retorts.

Varric laughs. “The Provisional Viscount asked me to write a travel leaflet one time. I love Kirkwall, but even I couldn’t sell this place for travelers.”

He leads her through a broken doorway and down an extremely unsound set of stairs. They pass a merchant who eyes them warily, and a group of people who emphatically ignore them. She takes a moment to wonder what sorts of illegal items the merchant is selling before turning her attention back to Varric.

To the casual eye, she supposes Varric might seem relaxed. But she has fought with him for too long not to see the way he’s poised to react. Some tour, she thinks with a sigh, loosening her sword in its scabbard.

They walk through a narrow passage and when she comes out the other side, everything goes dark. Varric is at her right—she hears the click as he readies Bianca. She senses another burst of magic from the left, and raises her shield, deflecting a nasty lightning bolt. Varric curses, and Cassandra growls.

“Carta,” she hears him mutter. “Why is it always Carta?” She sees someone throw something toward them in her peripheral vision and tries to kick at it, but it’s too late. The gas is drifting up and into their lungs. The last thing she hears is Varric saying her name.

//

Morning in Lawrick wasn’t too different from any other time of the day. The high walls surrounding the city meant that sunrise and sunset were more theoretical than anything else, and it wasn’t as though you were less likely to have your pocket picked at midday than you were at midnight.

Ashric could admit he felt a bit of pride having a woman like Sister Minerva at his side as he walked. He felt practically untouchable. Not that most people tried to mess with him anyway, but still. He was a little surprised at how easily she was adjusting to the city; then again, he only knew that she’d been stuck in that swamp for the past ten years, not what her life had been before that.

“What’s happening in your book right now?” he asked.

“The Countess is running away,” she replied. “She should have years before.”

“You’re not worried that she doesn’t have any money, or any idea where she’s going?” Ashric asked, raising an eyebrow.

“She is a resourceful woman. We - they always find a way.”

Ashric smiled. “That they do. Now let’s go see if we can find my contact and ask some questions.”

Ashric knew every inch of the city, and he led the sister through back streets and little-used alleyways, trying to avoid attention. They only got bawdy or otherwise objectionable comments twice. Ashric didn’t mind so much, but they put a stormy expression on the sister’s face. It made her look even more like a sword-for-hire, especially in the cloak that hid the crest on her armor. Ashric figured they could use that to their advantage, and he didn’t say anything.

His contact was holed up in an even more rundown hovel than the last time Ashric had been down to see him. That didn’t necessarily bode well, but he was the only one Ashric could think of. “Keep your sword ready,” Ashric murmured, as they walked up to the doorway.

“Always,” she replied.

There was a stench when he pushed open the door and Ashric was pretty sure they were already too late.

Sure enough, there was a body in a pool of blood on the floor near the back of the hovel. Ashric swore. “Quick, search the place,” he urged.

She was already rifling through the drawers and looking all over the room. Ashric took a breath and reached over see if Kalter had anything on him.

“Poor bastard,” he murmured. Kalter had been scum, but that didn’t mean much in Lawrick, really. Everybody had to make a living. This one was - probably - on him.

“There’s nothing,” Sister Minerva said. “Not one bit of paper in the whole place.”

“Dammit. Nothing in his pockets, either.” Ashric stood up, looking around the hovel like the dirt floor and the moldy walls might offer up some sort of clue. Then he saw it - a smear of black mud on the door frame.

“Well, shit,” he said.

“What is it?” Sister Minerva asked.

“The Mark of the Many. They have a higher opinion of themselves than is warranted, but they can be dangerous.”

“Clearly,” Minerva said, nodding towards Kalter’s body. “Might they be working for Ser Vaughan?”

“Maybe. Dumb shits seem to flock together.” Ashric rolled his shoulders. “Let’s go.”

“Should we report his death to someone?” Minerva asked.

Ashric shook his head. “No one to care. I guarantee that somebody is already eyeing this place up—his body will be in the river by midday.”

“That’s so wrong,” Minerva frowned.

“That’s Lawrick,” he said with a shrug. “The rich and the powerful get buried and mourned, and the rest of us just disappear.”

“You’re not among the former?” Sister Minerva murmured.

“I have an elf friend who would say I am, without a doubt,” Ashric said. “I’ve never thought of myself that way. Never associated with those people. But I suppose at the end of the day, I probably am.”

Minerva looked at Kalter’s body. “He deserves the Rites, at least. I can give him that.”

“Quick ones,” Ashric urged.

Sister Minerva said a few words and made the requisite hand motions and then they were finally heading out the door. Ashric had his daggers ready—there was a chance someone had been watching the hovel—but nobody moved on them as they made their way back towards the tavern.

“What next?” the sister asked.

Ashric sighed. “I’m not sure.” He knew there had to be some thread that tied everything together. If he could find it, and follow it back, then the events of the past week would finally make sense. “It’s like a puzzle box,” he muttered.

“Surely someone in this blighted city knows what’s going on,” Minerva groused.

“Someone alive, even,” Ashric agreed. “I fear I’m not doing a great job as a tour guide,” he quipped.

She snorted. “What would a tour of Lawrick even entail?”

“Depends on the audience,” Ashric said, as they headed carefully up a set of stairs that looked half a second from falling apart. “Some would want to see the fancy buildings and the grand statues; some would just want a rundown of the best taverns.”

“What if one wanted both?” Minerva murmured.

“Well, I’d probably start somewhere in the middle and work around to my personal favorite places,” Ashric said. It was half a serious offer, despite his better judgement.

“If we can manage not to get attacked,” Sister Minerva actually chuckled.

“At this point, that’s not looking too good,” Ashric said with a smile. “But I’m willing to try.”

The fact that he liked the way she smiled at him after he said it was further proof that he was losing his mind.

But it made him feel something anyway. Hope, maybe. Wasn’t that a kick in the nuts.

“We can start now,” he suggested.

Of course, it was at that moment that he noticed the shadow in the upper window of the house they were passing. “What is it?” The sister asked, seeing him tense.

“Archer above us,” he murmured. She hummed, but he could see the shift in her stance, the way she was readying her shield. “There’s a passage in fifty feet,” Ashric told her. “We can get underground.”

She nodded and they kept moving. An arrow whizzed by his ear and he cursed. Another shadow appeared from around the corner of a building. “Ashric!” Minerva hissed, blocking an arrow with her shield.

“I see, sister,” he replied and ducked around to her other side. He drew a throwing dagger out from his belt and flicked it towards the shadow as he moved. He thought they made it to the passage unscathed, but when they got there he saw Minerva was limping. “What’s wrong?” he asked, trying to keep his tone steady.

“It’s nothing,” she replied, voice clipped. “We need to get to a more defensible location.”

“Trying,” he replied.

The passages were dark and labyrinthine but Ashric knew them well. He knew there was a passage up to the left that lead down into a wide room with lots of crates in it. That would be a good spot. He didn’t say anything: he just shifted his course, and trusted that Minerva would follow. He lit a few torches when they got there, scanning the cavernous room.

“Back there,” he pointed. There was a stack of crates providing good cover with enough gaps and ledges to make it easy to see.

Minerva nodded. She was definitely favoring her left leg. He let her go first. He couldn’t tell what she’d done, especially not in the dim light. He kept on eye on the doorway and one on Minerva. She was digging around in a pouch at her hip. As he watched, her fingers emerged clutching a small vial.

“Potion?” he murmured. “Need more?”

“I will be fine, Ashric,” she murmured.

“What happened?” he asked, crouching down beside her.

“An arrow grazed my leg. Painful, but not life-threatening.” Unless it was poisoned. But Ashric held back the statement. The sister wasn’t a green recruit. “Do these caverns lead anywhere?” she asked.

He nodded. “Old smuggler bolt holes, left over from before the Empire fell. The city’s full of them.”

“We should keep moving, then. Will you help me bind this?” She offered him a strip of fabric.

“Of course,” he replied and gently took her ankle into his lap. He worked quickly: the binding wasn’t going to win any awards, but it would do the job until they were able to get back to the tavern.

“Do you hear that?” Minerva muttered.

“Yeah, someone’s in the passage. Taking their damn time, though.”

“They must not know the tunnel,” Minerva said.

“I’d bet my life on it,” Ashric replied. “Possibly literally.”

“Let’s not tempt fate.” Minerva picked up her sword and shield, testing her weight on her leg and only grimacing slightly. “Lead on. I’ll cover you.”

Ashric kept his daggers ready in his hands. He moved forward, going at as slow of a pace as he was comfortable going. The tunnel branched twenty or so feet down, and he took the left fork. Minerva made a small noise of distress when it slanted downward. He frowned. He knew he’d be useless for her to lean on, but he hated knowing she was in pain. The best thing he could do for her was get her someplace safe. He tried to focus on that.

It soon became obvious that they were not being pursued, though that didn’t guarantee a clean exit from the tunnel either. This passage had at least two other exits besides the one they were heading toward, so hopefully they’d be stretched thin if they were trying to catch them at any one of them. Ashric hadn’t stayed alive this long in Lawrick by being a fool. Of course, people weren’t usually actively trying to kill him either. He didn’t particularly appreciate that they’d started trying. He also didn’t appreciate that they’d hurt other people in the process of trying to kill him.

He was going to find whoever was behind all of this. And once he had… Well. He was going to make damn sure that they never made trouble in this city again.

Minerva was moving more easily, it sounded like. Perhaps the potion was working. He finally saw natural light shining in from the exit and sighed with relief. It wasn’t safety, but it was a step in the right direction.

“All right, Minerva?” he asked softly.

“All right,” she replied. He crouched down and peered out into the light, blinking as his eyes adjusted. He didn’t see anyone. Of course, that didn’t mean they weren’t there, but it was a good sign.

Going back to the tavern was a risk—there was a better-than-average chance that it was being watched, as well. But he knew it was secure enough, thanks to the presence of his people. He had nowhere else he’d rather plot his next steps.

He spotted someone dash away out of the corner of his eye. Probably just a runner. They’d need to take a less direct route to the tavern. “C’mon, Sister,” he murmured. “Let’s get out of here.”

//

Varric returns to consciousness with an unpleasant rush of anxiety. “Cassandra,” he says before he even manages to open his eyes. She doesn’t answer.

When he does get his eyes open, the view doesn’t prove to be particularly illuminating. It’s dark—not quite pitch black, but definitely not light enough to see much of anything. The floor is cold dirt. He can see enough to see bars. That’s enough to start him worrying.

“Shit,” he mutters. “Shit, shit, shit.” If anything, that’s an understatement. His hands are bound behind his back, and he doesn’t feel Bianca’s familiar weight at his back. He needs to figure out if they managed to locate all of his hidden knives, which means getting his hands in front of him. He takes a breath and tries to squirm around, but that makes his head pound. “Cassandra,” he tries again.

Still no response. He strains his hearing; there’s something that might be rushing water in the distance, but no voices that he can pick out. He keeps trying to move, ignoring the pain. He curses the whole time until finally, he has his hands back in front of him. Thank the Maker Isabela taught them all how to do that. He has to take a breather once it’s done—Andraste’s flaming arsehole, his head hurts. Whatever had been used to knock them out was nasty stuff. When the pain stops making his vision sparkle, he feels around inside his boot for his small knife.

“Thank Andraste they’re stupid,” he mutters and pulls it out. It takes some doing, but he manages to cut through the bindings around his wrists. He keeps the rope close (it could come in handy later on) and sets about trying to get a better idea of what sort of place he’s being held in. He has a flint kit in a pouch in a small pocket in his coat. They missed that, too. He wishes he had a candle as well, but a few sparks will help him get his bearings, anyway. He takes a deep breath, then strikes the flint.

Cassandra is in the cell with him, minus her armor. She’s tied too, he sees when he crawls closer. “Cassandra,” he says again. She doesn’t so much as stir.

He shakes her shoulder, still nothing. She’s a heavy sleeper, but not usually to this extent. He supposes that it makes sense; if it was mages who captured them, they’d be extra cautious to keep a Seeker subdued. He’s a dwarf, and even if he’s spent half his life around mages, magic is beyond him. He can’t help her.

He has the feeling this magic is beyond most mages too, which is more than a little worrying. “Our damn luck,” he mutters.

He lays his fingers against her cheek for a moment. She feels hot. At this point, he can’t tell if it’s because his hands are cold or she’s feverish. He sighs. “Sorry, Seeker.” He cuts her bonds anyway.

He wishes he could tell where they were. He assumes they’re still somewhere in Darktown, but he honestly has no idea. He doesn’t even know what time of day it is. Or if it’s still the same day. Sunshine will know that something’s gone wrong. She knows where they were headed, roughly; she’ll get help, and come after them. Unless he can figure out a way to get them out of here. He’s glad they’re together, at least. He just wishes he knew where their things were. Bianca in particular.

“Well, let’s see what kind of cage they have us in,” he says. Even if Cassandra can’t hear him, it makes him feel better. He searches the floor of the cell with his hands for something flammable.

He finds some bits of straw, a couple of sticks, and what feels like a torn pair of trousers. He carefully doesn’t think about where those might have come from. They’ll burn. He spends a minute cutting and twisting a makeshift torch and uses his flint to light the trousers, glad of Kirkwall’s dryness.

The light from his torch shows that the room they’re in has stone walls. That’s…odd. For Darktown, anyway. Darktown is all rotting wood and dirt. “We must be deeper underground,” he muses. Maybe not Darktown after all.

He studies the stone more closely, feeling like a failure of a dwarf. The Stone means nothing to him and he’d give rather a lot to see the sun right about now. A few minutes go by, but nobody comes—whoever caught them isn’t keeping too close an eye on their prisoners, anyway. He has a feeling they’ve been largely abandoned, and why not? He’d be offended at them underestimating him, but he’s not sure he can actually get out of this. At least not with Cassandra, and there’s no way he’d leave her.

“If I were writing this, I’d probably add in some sort of timed trap,” he muses, settling back down next to Cassandra. “Sure, rising water is cliche, but it’s cliche for a reason.”

Cassandra would shout at him for that if she were awake. Just before he left Skyhold, he’d given her another chapter of Swords and Shields. There was a water trap at the end as a cliffhanger and she’d come to his room and yelled at him in the middle of the night. He’ll never tell her that he’d done it because he’d known how much she would hate it.

Swords and Shields isn’t the only thing she’d shout about, if she knew. He’d confess everything this second if she would just wake up.

At least she’s breathing. He settles by her side to think things over. The door to the cell is shut tight and he can’t pick it. If he got someone’s attention, maybe he could surprise them, but the possibility of there being more than one person is too great.

“Shit,” he mutters. For once in his life, Varric has no idea what to do.

He doesn’t feel particularly hungry or thirsty yet, which is good, but that could change within a few hours.

“I guess the only thing to do is to be ready, if anyone does come,” he says to Cassandra. “You know I’ll bite and kick if I have to,” he tells her.

She doesn’t reply and he sighs again. He reaches out and puts a hand on her shoulder just so he can feel her breathing.

Time passes—probably less than an hour. The torch burns out, leaving them in darkness again. Varric drifts off, only to be woken by a thick, distressed sound from Cassandra. She’s waking. Maybe.

“Cassandra,” Varric says. She doesn’t respond. “Come on, Seeker. I need you to wake up for me.” He gives her shoulder a shake. She makes the same noise, so he repeats her name, closer to her ear. “C’mon, Seeker,” he says. “I know you’re in there.”

Another blurry sound, but this time one that sounds like it could be his name.

“That’s it,” he murmurs. “Cass,” he says again, more urgently. “Try for me.” She lifts her head up an inch or two, then it drops back down. “No no no, none of that.” Varric keeps shaking her. “Cass, I need your help here.”

“Hurts, Varric,” she murmurs.

He reaches out and strokes his fingers through her hair. “I know, Seeker,” he murmurs. He slips his hand beneath her head to cradle it—he doesn’t want her to hurt herself. That’s the story he’s sticking to, anyway. “I need you,” he repeats. “This is some deep shit.”

She pushes slightly into his hands and he keeps stroking her head.

“You’re going to be so pissed off when you wake up properly,” he tells her. “Seriously—you’ll probably just punch a hole in this damn cell and we’ll be out of here in no time.” It would make things a lot easier, certainly.

“Where are we?” she murmurs.

“Not sure,” he replies. “Down far enough underground that I don’t like it at all.”

“Darktown?” she asks.

“Maybe. No idea how long we were out.” He’s concerned about her. More than three syllables without trailing off shouldn’t be such a problem for her.

“Hurt?” she asks.

“Me? Got my head knocked, but I’m all right. More worried about you,” he murmurs.

“Drugged,” she manages. “Or… magic? Everything is…”

“I don’t know. You tell me.”

“I can’t tell,” she replies and that’s bad. She should be able to tell.

“Okay,” he says, because it isn’t like there’s any use in panicking.

“So calm,” she whispers.

“I’m working at it,” he replies.

“Always a liar,” Cassandra murmurs, but it doesn’t sting.

“That’s me, Seeker. Professional, even.” He touches her cheek again. She’s still flushed. “Your powers, can you -”

“Not…now. Maybe soon?” She takes a deep breath, then another.

“Hey, I’m in no hurry,” he promises. “As long as nobody shows up to try and sacrifice us for blood magic, you can take your time.”

“Don’t,” she murmurs.

“Sorry,” he says and slides his fingers over her cheek. It’s a liberty that he’d usually never dream of taking. But these aren’t even close to usual circumstances.

“Varric?” she murmurs after another minute or two of silence. “Story?”

He chuckles. “What sort of story?” he asks.

“Tell me… how we will escape from here,” she says. Her eyes are closed, but her breath is steadier now, at least.

He takes a deep breath. “The rogue and the seeker were locked away deep beneath the ground.” She makes a noise that could possibly be a laugh, so he takes that as a good sign and keeps going. “It was dark and awful, just like all caves are dark and awful.”

This time the noise is definitely a laugh.

“There were probably rats. At least they wouldn’t starve.”

“Ugh,” Cassandra says. He smiles.

“They waited until someone came to check on them, then the rogue made his move.”

Ten minutes later, he has navigated the rogue and the seeker through a labyrinth of underground tunnels, over a bridge spanning a chasm into the Deep Roads, and finally to the the secret lair of whoever was responsible for their capture. Cassandra has chuckled gently a couple times. He considers that a win. The fact that her head is still in his lap probably means she still hasn’t come quite to her senses yet, though.

He’s kept half his attention on the passage outside the cell, but still nothing. Their captors must be extremely sure of themselves.

He adds a grandstanding villain’s speech to see if he can get her to laugh again. She does, a little fuller this time and he lets himself take a deep breath. Between the two of them, they will figure this out.

//

Sister Minerva managed to get back to her room at the inn under her own power, then collapsed into a chair as the maid trailing her deposited a tray with hot water and first aid supplies onto the desk. She’d been…somewhat deceptive about the severity of her wound and now she was starting to shake a bit, but even so it was hardly the worst injury she’d ever sustained.

Ashric was immediately behind the maid, looking severe with his concern. She certainly couldn’t hide anything from him any longer, not with her hands shaking like they were.

She sighed. Ashric had gone to check on the boy and to see about discreetly increasing security around the tavern. He studied the tray of first aid supplies with a narrow-eyed glare. “Minerva, is your leg worse?”

“Not worse,” she said honestly.

He tilted his head. “Worse than you told me?” he asked.

“I don’t need you to mother-hen me,” she told him. It was snappish—uncharitable of her, certainly. Unbecoming for a Sister of her Order.

“But that’s what I do,” Ashric protested.

She sighed. “I will mend,” she said. “With rest and some bandages.”

He scrubbed a hand over his face. He looked tired, and not merely the sort of tired that came from a few poor nights of sleep. He always did this, she realized - took on the problems of everyone he met.

“I could use some help with the bandages,” she said after a beat. “If you are amenable.”

“That, I can do.” Ashric settled onto a footstool and sighed when she unwrapped her leg. “Down in the tunnels I couldn’t tell it was like this.”

“We needed to get out of there,” she said. “And I could endure it.”

“You said it was a graze.” Ashric pointed at the deep cut on her calf. “I’m no doctor, but…”

“Of course not. A poultice and a few stitches are all that’s necessary.”

“Minerva,” he said low and full of concern.

“Ashric, please,” she murmured.

For a long moment, he looked as though he was about to speak again. But then he sighed, and reached for a cloth. He was gentle as he cleaned and treated the wound.

When he finished with the bandage, he didn’t move his hands from her leg, just looked up at her. “I feel like I should apologize,” he murmured.

“For what? Getting me hurt? That is very much part of my duties,” she replied.

“But I drug you into it,” he said. “Your duties are at some shrine in the middle of nowhere.”

She couldn’t hold in the bitter chuckle. “Yes. Because I was doing so much good at that shrine in the swamp.”

“But your calling -”

“I am merely human, Ashric,” Minerva murmured.

“Still, I—”

She put two fingers over his lips. “Hush. I have made my choice,” she said.

“I’m a shitty choice, Sister,” Ashric told her.

“I believe that is my prerogative.” She leaned down, replacing her fingers with a gentle kiss. She felt him gasp against her lips and then his hands moved from her leg to cup her cheeks. This was foolish, for so many reasons. It felt amazing. She hadn’t kissed anybody in…a long time. That it was Ashric Bartas was…surprising, given their initial meeting. She didn’t even know what possessed her to do it, except his face had been full of worry and his hands on her leg gentle. His kiss was gentle, too.

After a long moment, Ashric pulled back, but not far. “Minerva?” he murmured gently.

She didn’t know what to say, so she leaned in and kissed him again. If he’d been asking her a question, he seemed to accept the kiss as a response. He pushed himself up on his feet and leaned in. She let her hands settle on his waist. It was so nice to kiss someone. She felt a wave of giddiness well up inside her. She was still very much aware of the pain in her leg and the aches in her muscles from the battle. But this was exactly what her scattered emotions needed.

When they finally pulled apart, Ashric was staring at her with something like wonder. She wondered if he would make a joke—that seemed to be his way, when things became too serious.

“Do you have something to say?” she prompted.

“You’ve got me pretty well speechless, actually,” he replied.

She smiled. “So anytime I need you to shut up already, I should kiss you?”

“That would be a strategy,” he said, a smile blooming on his face.

“I will keep that in mind,” she promised.

“You should rest now,” he added. “This next part is just waiting for more word.”

She knew there would be no arguing, so she sighed and nodded. “Stay?”

“Sure, Minerva,” he promised. She smiled and lifted her legs up onto the bed with a grimace. Ashric rose and walked over to the chair by the fire. When he returned, he had her book in his hands. “Here,” he murmured, kissing her again and handing it to her.

He sat on the bed beside her and she curled toward his warmth. She knew that there ought to be words. There were a hundred reasons why this was foolish. But for the moment, she was more than content to simply sit here beside Ashric, sharing space, and dismiss the concerns of everything outside the room for a little while.

“I have to know, Sister,” he said after a while, “am I the first person you’ve kissed in -”

She poked him in the side and he yelped. “Yes, if you must know.”

“I’d ask what you could possibly be thinking, but I don’t want to push my luck.”

“Perhaps I’ll tell you. Eventually,” she chuckled.

“I can wait,” he said and plucked the book from her hands. “I’ll read to you?” he offered.

“That would be… very nice. I believe haven’t been read to for longer than I haven’t been kissed.”

He made himself comfortable and opened to her bookmark. He draped his arm over her, which was almost as nice as the kiss, and started reading. Without her bidding, she felt her eyes starting to close. She wanted to listen to Ashric read, but she could only hold off sleep for a few minutes. She fell asleep feeling more content than she had in a long, long time.

When Minerva awoke, some hours later, she was alone. Her book was tucked neatly beside her on the bed, a blanket draped over her legs. Her leg throbbed, but she felt surprisingly good apart from that. It was ridiculous—impossible—that she should still feel the phantom brush of Ashric’s lips against her own. And yet… It was still very much on her mind.

She wondered where Ashric went. Probably to his own rooms. Minerva looked at her hands and considered. She hadn’t said as much to Ashric, or to anyone, but in leaving her post without first consulting the Revered Mother, she had essentially forsaken her vows to the Sisterhood. There were extenuating circumstances, and Minerva knew that if she returned, Mother Ysolde would forgive her transgressions and offer absolution, with time and penance.

She wasn’t sure that what she was doing here couldn’t be more important, in the long run. Ashric wasn’t only one man. He was a force in this city. She knew it implicitly. Still, she felt compelled in a very real way to help him long before she ever decided she had any regard for him. It was the first time in a long while that she had felt that what she was doing could truly be called “helping”. And Ashric, well. He’d grown on her.

She laughed. More than that. She wondered how badly her leg would hurt if she put weight on it. It was probably time to check the poultice anyway.

She shifted back to the chair by the table. It hurt, but not as bad as she’d been preparing herself for. She unwrapped the bandage and looked at the damage. The potion had helped. The cut was deep, but not deep enough to require sutures. She redressed the wound and went gingerly in search of Ashric.

He sat at his desk looking intently at various papers in front of him. She smiled. The boy was in the room, too, seated in one of the chairs by the fire with his knees drawn up under his chin.

“You’re awake! And walking!” Ashric looked a mixture of pleased and concerned.

“I am fine, Ashric,” she said, smiling. “Did I sleep through the waiting you claimed we’d have to do?”

“There’s always more waiting to be done,” Ashric told her, returning her smile. “But Isaac did bring us some information from his friend Barrett the Red.”

“Excellent,” Minerva said. “Fill me in.”

“Apparently, Vaughan had promised to make Barrett a partner in his operations if Barrett does everything Vaughan wants him to,” Ashric explained.

“Barrett sent the bandits after you, too,” Isaac reported. “He knows people, Barrett does. All sorts.”

“I don’t doubt it,” Minerva commented sourly.

“So do I,” Ashric growled.

//

Cassandra’s head is pounding, but Varric’s fingers in her hair and voice are soothing in unexpected ways.

Or… perhaps not so unexpected, if Cassandra is being honest with herself. She is surprisingly foolish sometimes. Still, here in the dark, maybe she’s allowed to be a little foolish and appreciate his presence.

She can tell that she was hit by some sort of paralysis—no doubt their attackers were deciding to exercise extra caution with one who could turn their own powers against them. That only means they know who and what she is. However, they have underestimated her, she tells herself firmly. She still doesn’t feel like she can move, which is problematic, but she won’t be defeated like this.

“Varric,” she murmurs.

“Yeah, Cassandra?” he asks.

“I’m glad you’re with me,” she says.

He huffs out a laugh—surprised, perhaps. “We’ll figure this out,” he says.

“I must rely on you until I can move again,” she sighs.

“I know I work really hard to make it seem like I can’t be relied upon for anything, but my biggest secret is that’s a lie,” Varric says quietly.

Cassandra wonders if Varric thinks that she doesn’t already know that. She hasn’t gone out of her way to make it clear, perhaps, but… “I’ve known that particular secret for a long time,” she murmurs.

His hand stills for just a beat, and then he goes back to stroking her hair. “Well, good. I’ve got a plan. If they come back.”

“Tell me,” she requests. It will help her to focus on something.

“It involves them underestimating me, you should like it,” he says, and starts to explain. It’s…not a bad plan, considering their positions. It also involves her making as much noise as she can, which is not her preferred method of engaging in a fight, but if it will help him, help them, she’ll do it in a heartbeat.

“Of course, all of this does kind of depend on someone actually coming to check on us at some point,” Varric admits. “I’ve been awake at least an hour, probably more like two. I haven’t heard so much as a voice down the corridor.”

“They’ll come eventually, if only to check on me.”

“I hope so,” he says. “Because I don’t relish the idea of rotting in here.”

“That would be a poor ending to this tale,” Cassandra murmurs.

“You have so many good things left to do,” he replies. “And I…have things left to do.” She nods against his thigh, but even that motion hurts. “Besides that, if you disappear, the Inquisition might just march on Kirkwall. Aveline has enough on her plate.”

“Surely your Aveline could stop the Inquisition with a single glare,” Cassandra says, and Varric chuckles.

“She would certainly try.” He strokes her fringe again. “It will work out. Save your energy.”

“I can do little else,” she grouses, her voice still cracking and dry.

“Hopefully Sunshine and the kid had better luck than we did,” Varric says.

“Yes, hopefully.”

“If we don’t–”

“Hush,” she says. “We will get out. Somehow, some way.”

“The heroes always do,” Varric says after a moment.

“You should know,” she tells him.

“I’ve written enough books about them.”

“Your books end in tragedy more often than not,” Cassandra points out.

“Ah, but that’s because I’m terrible at writing endings,” Varric says.

“You would improve if you’d allow yourself to write a happy ending,” Cassandra huffs.

He laughs and traces the shell of her ear with his fingertips. “Tragedy sells, Seeker.”

Cassandra thinks about the serial she’s reading now: if there’s a tragic ending for Ashric and Minerva, she won’t be pleased. Unfortunately, as it isn’t Varric’s work, she cannot influence the outcome.

Thinking about the characters in her book is much easier than thinking about how Varric’s calluses feel when they rasp along her skin. She can’t decide if it would be better or worse if she actually felt like herself. Possibly worse.

She wonders what Varric is writing, these days. Perhaps he’s taking a stab at fictionalizing Stasia’s exploits by now. If anyone deserves to have their tale told to the masses, it’s Stasia.

Cassandra finds herself drifting. Varric’s hand on her shoulder keeps her anchored. He keeps talking as well. She concentrates on his voice. She can feel the edges of the fog in her mind starting to recede, bit by bit. He’s still the only thing that feels real, but it’s better than nothing.

There’s no light and no other sounds but the noises they’re making. It’s growing more and more disconcerting.

Which makes it all the more abrupt when they hear a deep rumbling noise from somewhere in the distance, and the ground beneath them trembles.

“That seems bad,” Varric mutters.

“Yes,” Cassandra says. She tries to push herself up, but she can’t seem to get up more than a few inches before she falls back into Varric’s lap. She curses.

“Now, now, Seeker,” Varric says, getting an arm around her torso and helping her sit up.

“Tell me there’s something around here that can serve as a weapon,” she grouses.

“Well, I’ve got a small dagger and my brawn, and we’ve got your brain,” he says, voice light.

“It will have to do,” Cassandra sighs. If she strains, she can hear the echoes of what are almost certainly shouts coming from the same direction as the strange noise. “Maker preserve us if they’ve created abominations,” she says.

“Yeah,” Varric says and stands. She feels him creep forward toward and hopes he’s fast enough, hopes his dagger is enough.

Another rumble sounds, closer this time. Cassandra clenches her fists. She is not good at waiting.

There’s a final loud boom right at the door, which bursts open, and Cassandra has to shut her eyes against the light.

“Andraste’s tits, Sunshine,” Varric says. “Couldn’t you have shouted that it was you? I nearly stabbed you.”

“Hello, Bethany, thanks for the rescue. Oh, it’s no trouble at all, Varric, really.” The dry response is punctuated by the crackle of a spell. Cassandra lets out a long breath.

“You don’t happen to have any healing potions?” Varric asks as he moves back to Cassandra’s side.

“Of course I do,” Bethany replies, in the tone of one being asked a ridiculous question.

“Well, the Seeker needs one. Hurry.”

Bethany kneels at her other side and helps her take the potion. She feels her aches, pains, and scrapes fade, but her head still feels heavy. So, this particular affliction is magical in nature. “Can you cast a dispelling circle?” Cassandra asks Bethany.

Bethany nods, reaching for the staff at her side. She casts the spell and Cassandra feels the same. She sighs and lets herself lean against Varric. “Blood magic,” she says. She sounds as tired as she feels.

“Damn,” Varric mutters. He looks to Bethany. “Who else is here?”

“Aveline is outside,” she murmurs back.

“Damn, I was hoping Daisy had come along,” Varric says.

“She stayed to keep an eye on your stray,” Bethany tells them. “C’mon, while they’re still distracted.”

“Daisy will fix you,” Varric murmurs to Cassandra, kissing her forehead absently before tugging her to her feet. Bethany slips under her other arm to steady her when Cassandra staggers. She has to lean more heavily on Bethany, but she keeps a hand on Varric’s shoulder.

“Where are we, anyway?” Varric asks.

“Slaver caverns, where else,” Bethany grumbles.

“If Fenris were here, it’d be just like old times,” Varric says lightly.

“I wish he was,” Bethany replies under her breath.

Bethany leads them down a long corridor and through a door that’s clearly been violently torn from its hinges.

Guard-Captain Aveline stands on the other side, sword still drawn. Cassandra counts four enemies in varying states of incapacitation on the ground around her. She’s also covered in unfortunately-familiar muck. She takes them in and moves forward. “Let’s get out of here, then.”

Varric chuckles.

Cassandra doesn’t entirely follow the winding series of tunnels that Aveline and Bethany lead them through, but eventually the air begins to take on a different quality, and soon she can see daylight up ahead. Varric looks much happier since they’d discovered Bianca stashed in a crate near their cell. Cassandra’s sword and shield were on one of the idiots who kidnapped them. The Guard-Captain carries them now, as she certainly can’t.

She isn’t particularly surprised when they emerge in a shallow cave on the Wounded Coast. “Lovely,” she says, and Aveline laughs in understanding.

“Clearly, you already know the ropes of Kirkwall, Lady Seeker,” she says.

“Varric’s tales leave an impression,” Cassandra replies.

“She’s one of my most faithful readers,” Varric says, sounding…less amused than fond.

“Research leads me to strange places,” Cassandra says.

Varric squeezes his arm around her waist. “I know your tastes, Seeker. You’d have found my books eventually.” She huffs, but does not argue.

“I like them too,” Bethany says brightly. “Especially the latest one.”

“Latest one?” Cassandra asks. As far as she knows, Varric hasn’t published anything in a while.

“It’s… a work in progress. Not finished yet,” Varric says. “Sunshine likes to steal my drafts. Isn’t that right?”

Bethany laughs. “Hush, Varric.”

“We can’t have the Seeker having some false impression of you,” Varric teases.

“I’m sure it’s far too late for that,” Aveline says. Cassandra flushes. She isn’t sure if Varric shared her fixation on Swords and Shields, and she will not be the one to bring it up.

“Don’t worry, Lady Cassandra,” Bethany murmurs beside her. “He’s had nothing but praise for you since he got back.”

That comes as something of a surprise, given the way she had treated Varric in the past. She sneaks a glance over at him. His expression tells her nothing. She tries not to sigh and concentrates on moving her feet forward.

They are less than an hour’s walk from the city gates, thank the Maker. Cassandra wants to stop and rest a few times, but she grits her teeth against the urge. She refuses. If she leans a little heavier on Varric, well, he doesn’t say anything.

“How did you track us down, anyway?” Varric asks, and Bethany launches into an explanation involving street urchins, a chantry lay-sister, and a nug. Cassandra doesn’t entirely follow it.

It’s probably not really important that she does. Like most of Varric’s stories, it’s completely improbable. Cassandra mentally apologizes for ever saying so.

“You’re full of shit,” Varric says.

Bethany laughs. “The truth is boring. We used Mikel’s instruments to pinpoint areas where the Veil was weak, and came to the most likely one first.”

“The bit with the street urchins and the nug was true,” Aveline adds.

“Kirkwall,” Cassandra sighs.

Varric laughs. “You get used to it.”

Cassandra has become used to many things, over the course of her life. Stasia has helped her come to terms with some of them. She wonders what her friend would say about this. She never particularly expected that she might get used to Kirkwall. But perhaps… perhaps it wasn’t such a strange notion, after all.

//

It took all of Ashric’s self-control not to jump to Minerva’s side when she came into his room. She was only limping a little and he knew she wouldn’t appreciate being coddled. Still, he didn’t like that she was limping at all. He’d seen that cut. It wasn’t good. But then, he was… biased. He could admit that. He was protective about a lot of things. Minerva had gone to the top of that list very quickly.

He still encouraged her to sit as soon as was feasible. The look she gave him said she knew exactly what he was doing. Only Isaac’s presence kept him from giving her a kiss for good measure. Well, Isaac’s presence and the fact that he wasn’t sure if, after some rest and her adrenaline being long gone, if she’d still actually want to kiss him.

He was still shocked that it had happened in the first place. Minerva was a force of nature, though, and she’d started it. If she started it again, he wouldn’t argue. Ashric was far more used to ill-advised tumbles—he couldn’t remember the last time he had simply kissed anyone. Not that this wasn’t ill-advised, per se. He didn’t know much about the Sisters, really. Was she even allowed to -

He shook his head. Not worth thinking about unless she told him.

There were other things to think about. Like the former business associate who was trying to have him killed, and apparently perfectly willing to drag other people into the mess.

Minerva was frowning into the fire. “How do we get to Vaughan, Ashric?”

“I’m still trying to work that out. He’s always got someone else doing his dirty work,” Ashric said with a sigh. Typical Lawrick nobility—it didn’t matter how many people got stepped on as long as you got what you were after.

“It seems the obvious path, however,” Minerva replied.

“Through them, I know,” Ashric said. “I just know that too often, people like him get people who have nothing to work for them, out of desperation. I’d hate to have anyone get caught in the crossfire.”

Isaac was conspicuously silent. Shit. He hadn’t meant to make the kid feel bad. Still, Isaac was a perfect example of what he was talking about. He had Isaac’s dad and young siblings in one of his safe houses—they would be fine. Ashric was willing to spend more than was wise to ensure it. Vaughan was not a problem Ashric could throw money at. He’d have to use his brain. Luckily he was sure he was richer than Vaughan in that specific.

“We will find a way, Ashric,” Minerva said confidently. “Perhaps with more of young Isaac’s help.”

“I can’t help anyone,” Isaac said, morosely. “Tried to help Father, and look how that turned out.”

“Not true, Isaac,” Ashric replied.

“Sure it is,” he said.

“You’re helping them right now.”

“No, you’re helping them,” Isaac said mulishly.

“Because of you,” Ashric said.

“If I hadn’t gone to Barrett looking for work, they wouldn’t be in trouble in the first place,” Isaac argued.

“You needed work,” Minerva said flatly.

“And if it hadn’t worked out this way, we wouldn’t know as much as we do,” Ashric added.

Isaac still looked unconvinced, but a moment later his shoulders loosened and he said, “Or Barrett would have hired someone who was actually good at shaking people down. That would have been bad luck for you.”

“There you go,” Ashric said. “Looking on the bright side of things.”

Minerva chuckled, a surprisingly bright sound in their room of frowning and questions. “Trust you to be so good-natured, Ashric.”

Ashric smiled at her. “I learned a long time ago that it’s more pleasant for me and more useful in the long run.”

“Too bad Vaughan doesn’t want to be pleasant about things,” Isaac said. “How can one business deal be enough to make him want to do all this?”

“People’s wants are rarely logical,” Minerva replied.

“Especially not when you’re already a brutal person who doesn’t mind stepping on anyone who gets in your way,” Ashric said.

“You’d have to get close to him, first,” Isaac said.

“He is the way he is, I think, because he is a big fish in a small pond,” Minerva mused. “Perhaps he needs to become the little fish.”

“How could we even do that?” Ashric asked.

“If he cannot pay people to maintain their loyalty, he’ll have nothing,” Minerva said.

“A cutthroat approach! Sister, I’m impressed.”

“I am more than my title,” she murmured.

“That, I always knew,” Ashric said.

“Liar,” she laughed.

She had definitely been smiling more since they’d arrived in Lawrick, even with the attempts on her life. He wanted to ask her about it…eventually. Maybe she’d just been lonely. He didn’t know. Right now, all he knew is that they had to stop Vaughan.

He needed to find something that he could use to take Vaughan down. It was time to twist some arms in the Guild. He hated dealing with them more than he hated almost anything, but there was nothing else to be done. Vaughan had picked the wrong dwarf to make an enemy of. Soon, he would find out what Ashric was capable of when you made him angry.

“I’m gonna go get something to eat,” Isaac said after a minute and slipped out the door. Ashric looked at Minerva.

“How do you feel?” he asked.

“Adequate,” she replied.

He raised an eyebrow. “Only adequate?”

“I will heal,” she promised, lips quirking up in a half-smile.

“I certainly hope so,” he replied with a wink. “You’re very indispensable.” Her smile widened. She moved to get up out of her chair, but he waved her down and got up and moved around his desk toward her. “Can I get you anything?” he asked.

“A drink, perhaps,” Minerva said after a pause.

He went to the pitcher, poured her a glass of water and took it to her. Taking a chance, he sat down beside her. “Minerva…” he started carefully.

She answered his question before he even managed to ask it by leaning against his side. He wasn’t used to this. She wasn’t the type of woman he was used to. He wrapped an arm around her shoulders and kissed her temple.

“I’m pretty damn glad that you saved me from that wyvern,” he said.

“You’re welcome,” Minerva murmured. She kissed his cheek and he turned to capture her lips with his.

She responded quickly, turning so she faced him more fully and reaching up to rest a hand on his shoulder.

It was a slow and careful kiss again, but no less warm. He couldn’t help the giddy smile that started to spread across his face. Kissing Minerva felt very much like being granted something precious. He thought it probably was.

Minerva pulled back and smiled at him. “You were worried, weren’t you?”

“I never worry,” Ashric lied. He just never admitted to it.

“I don’t think I believe you,” she said.

“You’re a little too perceptive, Sister,” Ashric said. “At this rate, I’ll be ruined.”

“Not by my hand,” she said, hiding a smile. He saw it anyway. He leaned in and kissed her again.

“Somehow, that’s actually reassuring.”

She laughed a little against his mouth. “I try,” she replied. “Tell me more about the guild you were talking about?”

“It’s the Merchant’s Guild. All the dwarves who do any business in the city are required to join or…face consequences,” Ashric explained. “They’ll have all the information we’d need to know. Even if Vaughan is a human.”

“For a price, I suppose,” Minerva said.

“Of some kind,” Ashric nodded.

“Would it be worth paying?” Minerva asked.

“Well, if it’s my life or their price, probably,” Ashric replied. Besides, he had a few favors he could call in. “How do you feel about meeting a few more dwarves?”

“Meeting this one has been rather successful, don’t you think?” she asked.

“Not sure I’m qualified to judge,” Ashric replied. “Also, I am not sure how you plan on meeting them, but I’m the jealous type.” He smiled to show it was merely teasing.

She laughed. “Don’t be ridiculous. I am glad to have the chance to help you solve this,” Minerva told him, fingertips tracing down his arm.

“You’ll give me a big head,” Ashric laughed.

“You already have a big head,” she said.

“Ouch,” he murmured, but he was grinning. It had been so damn long since he’d let something this close, let alone someone who could make him laugh. And Minerva barely knew him. “Let’s work out a plan with the kid,” he suggested.

//

Varric is more than a little bit relieved when they get to Merrill’s door. Cassandra is entirely too weak and Varric doesn’t think he’ll be able to breathe properly until she’s moving around like always.

Aveline doesn’t bother knocking—Merrill’s door is rarely ever locked, despite Varric’s best efforts. They usher Cassandra straight to what looks like the sturdiest chair in the place as Merrill hovers.

“We think it’s blood magic, Daisy,” Varric tells her. “Can you…do you think you can do something?” he asks.

“Of course I can,” she replies. Cassandra looks unhappy and Varric hates it, but there’s no other way.

Mikel is hovering near the table, which mostly covered with strange-looking devices that look like something out of Dagna’s workshop at Skyhold. Varric gives him what he hopes is an encouraging nod, but he can’t look away from the Seeker for too long.

“I know this spell,” Merrill says. “And I can break it, but I will have to…” she gestures at the dagger on her belt.

Varric looks to Cassandra. He won’t give permission for this—it has to be her choice.

Cassandra meets his eyes steadily, then looks to Bethany, who bites her lip and nods. Cassandra closes her eyes. “Varric, you bring me very strange places,” she murmurs.

He takes her hand. “But I don’t leave you in them.”

He hears Merrill moving around to their left, murmuring something to Sunshine, but he isn’t really paying attention. He trusts that they’ll do what needs to be done. Cassandra allows him to continue holding her hand. “Varric, this goes against everything I have worked against all my life,” she murmurs.

“I know,” he says. “Do you trust me?” Slowly, she nods. “Go ahead, Daisy,” Varric says, meeting his friend’s eyes. She slashes open her palm and lifts her hands. Varric hates this part, hates knowing what’s happening, but Daisy is stronger than anyone gives her credit for.

Merrill speaks, the words sharp in the stillness. Cassandra screws her eyes shut, and Varric wants to hold her, but ignorant of magic as he is, he’s too nervous to move. Daisy finishes her spell and Cassandra slumps over against him. Varric looks wildly to Merrill. “Daisy…”

“She’ll be fine,” she says brightly. “Next time she wakes up, she should feel normal.”

“Any idea how long she’ll be out?” he asks.

“A few minutes, perhaps,” Daisy dabs at the wound on her hand and goes to rummage for a potion. Varric kisses Cassandra’s temple and brings up a hand to stroke through her hair. He knows he’s in for a talking to about this with Sunshine, and Daisy once she’s cleaned up. He’s not leaving Cassandra until she wakes, though.

She starts stirring within a few minutes, just as Merrill said she would. Varric keeps his fingers running through her hair. He feels her tense, as she wakes up fully—taking stock of her situation.

He removes his hand from her hair, too, unsure of his welcome. “Varric?” she murmurs.

“Here, Seeker,” he replies. “How’re you feeling?”

“Better,” she says. She raises a hand to her head and touches it, gingerly. “I no longer feel as though I’ve been wrapped in wool.”

“Good,” he murmurs. “Good,” he repeats and lets out a breath. She sits up, movements careful, but she doesn’t move away. “Everything’s fine, Cassandra,” he murmurs.

Cassandra nods. “That is good. I…could use a meal, actually.”

Merrill looks apologetic. “I’m afraid my cupboards are a bit bare at the moment.”

“The Hanged Man isn’t far, if you’re feeling better,” Varric suggests.

Cassandra nods. “That sounds fine. In a few minutes.”

“Whatever they put on you, it was nasty,” Bethany says. “If we’re going to be dealing with them, we should try and figure out how to make sure that doesn’t happen again.”

“That’s your area, Sunshine,” Varric says. “But we’ll help however we can.”

“Normally, that spell leaves people completely unconscious,” Merrill says. “Your abilities as a Seeker must interfere with it somehow.”

“That’s probably why they hit her with it so hard,” Bethany muses.

“They knew it was their best chance,” Cassandra murmurs.

“And they still failed,” Varric says with a sigh. “Which means we’ve made them desperate.”

“Mikel, have you had any more luck with that scrying?” Bethany asks, looking over at the kid.

“Getting some weird readings from Sundermount,” he says.

Varric laughs tiredly. “Of course.”

“Well, it’ll keep until we’ve all eaten something,” Merrill announces. “I’m sure Aveline will want to know how everything went, anyhow.”

“I’ll send a note from the Hanged Man,” Varric says.

“Thank you,” Cassandra tells Merrill. Her voice is sincere and Varric wants to kiss her. Talk about things he never expected to happen. Bethany levels a look at him. Yeah, there’s definitely a conversation about this in his future. Andraste’s ass, he’s going to need a lot to drink tonight.

Merrill and Mikel stay in the alienage, but Bethany follows Varric and Cassandra - who is, thankfully, walking with her usual easy stride - to the Hanged Man. If he walks close enough to her that their arms brush periodically, well. She doesn’t say anything and neither does he.

It’s crowded tonight, so Varric doesn’t bother stopping in the tavern itself. Instead, he leads the party back to his own rooms. He puts a word in with one of the serving girls about having trays sent up. His instinct is to fuss over her, but he knows that would be useless. He does make sure she’s actually sitting, rather than pacing, though.

He leaves her and Sunshine talking—dangerous—and heads back to his desk to scrawl off a note to Aveline. In his search for a spare piece of parchment, his eye lands on a particular sheaf of ink-stained pages, and he remembers what he’d been working on last night.

His fictional dwarf didn’t even have to make the first move with his lady warrior. He’s still not entirely convinced that Cassandra likeshim that much, never mind either of them making any moves. The fact that he appears to be holding a stupid, ill-advised torch for the Seeker doesn’t change anything. Varric is the king of ill-advised torches. He thinks of Bianca and shakes his head. He misses her, he probably always will, but he’s beginning to suspect that he misses the idea of her more than anything else.

He finishes the note and dispatches it just as their food arrives. He catches himself watching Cassandra eat. He is so disgusted with himself. He’s becoming a parody.

He misses Hawke. She’d kick his ass and get him drunk and that would be that. He can get himself drunk easily enough, but it’s less fun without her.

“Varric, may I borrow you for a moment?” Bethany asks.

He really wasn’t expecting this quite yet. “Sure, Sunshine,” he sighs.

Cassandra looks bemused, but inclines her head to say she doesn’t mind. Varric allows Bethany to tow him down the steps and back into the tavern proper, all the way to the bar. “You already have a drink,” he points out, mostly to be an ass.

“I’m buying you one,” she says sweetly.

“I already have one too,” he says.

“You left it up in your room,” she points out and orders them drinks. “So,” Bethany says while they wait. “You and the Seeker, hm?”

“No,” Varric replies.

“Varric, I’ve known you for over a decade,” Bethany says. “I know when you’re lying to me. Plus, I’ve read your newest serial. Just because you’re not publishing it under your own name doesn’t mean you’re not as obvious as a druffalo in a chantry.”

“That is a beautiful turn of phrase,” Varric says grudgingly. “But - shit, Bethany.”

“My real name. You’re worked up.”

“Cassandra Pentaghast would never settle for the likes of me,” Varric says. “Not in a million years. And rightly so.”

“Varric…” Bethany starts.

“It’s better off staying in the book,” he says.

“What if you’re wrong?” Bethany asks.

“I know how this story goes, all right, Sunshine? Nowhere good.”

“Varric,” she sighs.

He shrugs. “I don’t know what to tell you.”

Bethany takes a long drink. “I can’t actually make you less of an idiot about this,” she says, finally. “But… I can tell you that you’re being an idiot.”

“You say idiot, I say self-preservation.”

Bethany sighs again. “Fine. Just…remember, she has a choice in this too. You don’t get to make it for her.” Varric snorts. Nobody could make Cassandra Pentaghast do anything that she didn’t want to do. “I know what you’re thinking,” Bethany says. “Keeping her at arm’s length is making a choice for her too.”

Varric huffs. “Your sister would just get me drunk and give me shit.”

“Yes, well, I’m not my sister, and if she saw what I saw today, I bet you ten sovereigns she’d give you the same talk,” Bethany retorts.

“We should get back up before the Seeker decides to come investigate what’s keeping us,” Varric says, draining his ale and turning.

Bethany says, “I’ll wait down here for Aveline.”

“Sunshine,” he says with a heavy sigh. “You’re like the little sister I never had. In every way.”

She laughs at him, which he deserves. He imagines how bad it would be if it were Hawke, too.

He shakes his head and makes his way back upstairs. He stands in the doorway and Cassandra lifts her head to smile at him. All the air leaves his lungs. Shit.

“The Guard Captain should be making an appearance soon,” he says, vaguely proud when it comes out of his mouth as intended. If his words desert him, he’s completely fucked.

Cassandra just smiles again. “So, this is where you live.”

“For…a lot of years now,” Varric replies. “It was pretty badly damaged when everything happened, but it’s looking pretty good now.”

“It is,” Cassandra agrees. “I admit, I almost feel as though I’ve been here a hundred times before, thanks to your tales.”

“Sometimes I think you’re the only one who’s really paying attention to me, Seeker,” he laughs. He stops abruptly. Hell, if that isn’t the truth. Maybe if Hawke were here…but she’s not. And Bianca is long gone.

He needs another drink.

“I am paying attention, yes,” she confirms quietly.

He forces himself to meet her eyes. Shit. Shit. The best way out of this is probably bluffing. But, dammit. He is out of lies. “Seeker, I either need to leave this room or I’m going to do something really stupid,” he says entirely too breathlessly.

“Perhaps you need a second opinion,” Cassandra suggests. “What are you considering doing?”

“Telling you would be a mistake all on its own,” Varric says, walking over and picking up his drink.

“Because you think I would disapprove, or because you’re afraid I’d encourage you?” she murmurs.

“Seeker, if you encouraged this, I would probably pass out from shock,” he said.

Cassandra inclines her head. “I would, perhaps, pay to see that,” she tells him, and there’s a small smile playing around her lips. He isn’t sure the last time he’s seen her smile like that. Maybe he never has. He wants to kiss her even more now. He’d been terrified for her just hours ago and now she’s here smiling at him like that and he can hardly breathe. If this was one of his tales, he would say something charming, and she would laugh, and he would move closer and…

He’s actually moving closer. This was not the plan. He’s not sure he has anything charming to say, though. His throat is dry and she’s still watching him with that smile. “Seeker, I would really like to kiss you right now,” he croaks. He wants to take the words back immediately, but he knows, better than most, that once a thing is said it’s said.

Cassandra is, unbelievably, still smiling. Her eyes are a little wide, but she’s still smiling. “If that is what you were considering doing,” she says, voice somewhat higher than usual. “I would tell you that it’s one of your better ideas.”

“I… must have something in my ear,” Varric says. “Because I can’t possibly have heard you say what I think I did.”

“Would you like me to repeat it?” she murmurs.

“I…you know what? Yes, yes I would like you to repeat it. Maybe go a little more slowly this time,” Varric says.

Cassandra inclines her head. “Of course.” She leans forward a little in her chair. “Come here and kiss me, please.”

He takes a breath and lets it out, and steps close enough that their knees would touch if either of them shifted even the slightest bit. He reaches up to cup her cheeks, thumbs brushing over them. “I feel like I need to ask if you’ve gone mad, Seeker,” he says.

“Not that I am aware of,” she says. “Varric -”

“Cassandra,” he says and presses his lips to hers.

He half expects her to pull back, to deck him if he’s lucky and stab him if he isn’t. She does neither. Instead, she lays a hand against his chest. Not pushing him away, just touching. He wraps his arms tightly around her shoulders and as they kiss, her arms slide around his waist.

“If you’re not crazy, then I must be,” Varric says. “Though, this is definitely one of my better hallucinations.”

“Shush,” Cassandra says, tracing the shell of his ear.

He breathes out and presses his forehead to hers. “Nothing else better happen to you. I don’t think my heart can take it.”

“I can’t promise that,” Cassandra tells him, but the words are gentle. She presses their foreheads together. “I didn’t particularly enjoy it, either.”

He laughs. “I guess not.”

“Varric,” she murmurs, her fingers flexing at his sides.

“Yeah, Seeker?” he asks.

“What is this?” she asks.

“I haven’t ruled out hallucination,” he replies. Because frankly, he’s having a hard time believing the evidence of his senses.

She chuckles. “That’s fair, I suppose.”

“I know we’ll need to talk,” he murmurs. “But Bethany and Aveline will be up soon and the kid could show up at any time.”

“Yes, of course,” Cassandra agrees, but she doesn’t move away.

Varric is afraid to stop touching her; the only thing that convinces him is that he knows dwarves don’t dream. Even when he manages to stop, he doesn’t move far from her. Bethany gives him a knowing look when she and Aveline come in the door.

“I hope you’re feeling better, Seeker,” Aveline says, inclining her head. “Bethany tells me that Merrill was able to do something about the spell they had you under, at least.”

“Yes, but I’m not keen to repeat either experience,” Cassandra replies.

“I understand completely,” Aveline says. Varric laughs. “I’ve increased the guard patrols along the coast,” Aveline says, settling into one of the chairs by the fire. “Reconnaissance only; they’re under strict orders not to engage.”

“Might want to extend that to Sundermount,” Varric says.

Aveline nods. “I’ll do that. Do we have any idea who these people are or what they’re trying to accomplish?”

“Whatever it is, they obviously didn’t want the Seeker nosing around in it,” Varric says. “They wouldn’t have gone through the trouble of setting that curse on her otherwise.”

“Think it’s related to the Inquisition, or the Divine?” Bethany asks.

Varric laughs. “If it is, they sure decided to mess with the wrong people. Neither Leliana nor Stasia would react well to this sort of thing.”

“There hasn’t been any sort of specific message,” Aveline says. “Just… Chaos.”

Cassandra makes a face. “I am just concerned that they were prepared with that spell.”

“Cullen’s Templars should be here soon, right?” Varric asks. “I think we need them at this point.”

“I agree,” Cassandra says. She looks thoughtful. “It seems… strange, that a group like this would be coy with their motivations. Usually there would be something to tell us what they are trying to achieve. So it’s not political. It’s personal.”

“But who’s the target?” Varric asks. “It started long before you arrived.”

“Maybe it isn’t a who,” Bethany suggests.

“What do you mean, Sunshine?” Varric asks.

“Maybe they just want to cause chaos,” she said. “There are always elements that stand to benefit.”

“Or perhaps the chaos is simply a distraction,” Cassandra says.

“From?” Aveline asks.

“That, I am not certain,” Cassandra replies.

“Whatever it is, it’s nothing any of my informants have picked up on,” Varric says. His glass is empty again. Damn.

Cassandra pushes hers over in front of him. He grins at her and takes a sip from the half-empty glass. “I don’t think we should make any more attempts to confront them until the Templars arrive,” Cassandra says.

“Agreed. I’d rather not have to break you out of any more slaver caverns,” Bethany says.

“Fine,” Aveline nods. “Patrols and no engagement.”

“If we are lucky, the Templars will arrive sooner, rather than later,” Cassandra says. “In the meantime, I suggest we focus on trying to uncover what the goal of the rebel mages might be.”

“We can map the locations of the veil discrepancies,” Bethany suggests.

Cassandra nods. “Varric, we should look at all the information your informants give you. Perhaps what once seemed unrelated will resolve into a pattern.”

“Well then,” Varric says, clapping his hands together. “I think I should call for another round.” He’s not quite ready to be alone with Cassandra just yet. Except for how he is. He’s not sure he can find any words for her yet. And isn’t that a joke? She just smiles at him, though.

Aveline and Bethany end up staying another hour, the four of them going over Aveline and Varric’s notes again to see if what little new knowledge they had might bring something new into focus. Then they leave, and Varric stares at Cassandra. His first thought is that she’s beautiful. His next is that he in no way deserves her.

“So…” he begins. Cassandra raises her brows, waiting. He has to laugh. “You’re not going to make this easy for me, are you?”

“Why would I start now?” she replies. Varric has to concede the point.

“Seeker,” he sighs, “stay?”

“Yes,” she replies promptly and a smile spreads across her face. “I will send word to my assistant, along with my report about today’s… adventures.”

“We should have done so before,” Varric says, fretting.

“It’s fine, Varric,” Cassandra murmurs. “She is both resourceful and knows how to keep herself busy.”

“I suppose she’d better be, working for you, Seeker.” As attempts at teasing go, it’s not his best. He’s had a rough day.

“Believe me, she was strongly vetted by the best - Josephine.”

“Ruffles would know a thing or two about picking the right people,” Varric says.

“She has an immense talent for it,” Cassandra agrees. She fixes him with a level look. “Are you having second thoughts about this, Varric?”

“I wasn’t even having first thoughts about this, to be fair,” Varric replies.

“Varric,” she says and he takes her hand and laces their fingers together.

“Seeker, I have never been so terrified in my life as I was this morning. And that’s saying something.”

“We have faced worse,” Cassandra notes.

“But you’re in my home this time, Seeker. And of all the shit we’ve done, I’ve never once seen you go down,” he murmurs. He’d been wrong before—he has words for her, but he has too many of them. “It just figures, you know? Come home, and someone else is out there fucking with the Veil and blood magic. Of course.”

She squeezes his hand. “I am sorry. Kirkwall does not deserve this.”

“It does make one wonder,” Varric says, though he doesn’t really mean it. Kirkwall has its faults—more than its fair share of them, actually—but it’s still his home. He sighs. “Fancy a trip downstairs to see if the musicians are any good tonight?”

“Varric,” she murmurs, a note of reproach in her tone. He sighs and runs a hand down his face.

“I’m sorry,” he says. “I don’t know how to…I loved Bianca for so long, it became habit. Wasn’t something I really had to think about. Even the bad parts were just…facts. I forgot how to feel like this, I think.”

Cassandra looks thoughtful. “I’m not… This is not something I’m terribly familiar with, either, Varric. If we are both stumbling, at least we are stumbling together.”

“Does that mean you don’t want to go downstairs?” Varric asks.

“I would rather stay here with you,” she tells him.

He reaches up to cup her cheek. “You know what? So would I.”

//

Ashric woke up half-convinced that everything that had happened the previous day was an ale-soaked hallucination. It had happened before, though perhaps not lately, so there was precedent. He went about his morning as usual until Minerva came in with the breakfast trays and tea and bent down to kiss him good morning.

Not a hallucination, then. And dwarves didn’t dream, so that was out.

“Good morning,” she smiled.

“You’re being domestic. I’m getting worried.”

Minerva laughed. “I can take the tray and leave if you prefer.”

“No no,” he said, getting up from his desk and gesturing to the table. “Shall we?”

He couldn’t help kissing her on his way to his chair. He felt like they were tempting fate somehow. As if, by finding something to be happy about, the world would snatch it away. He couldn’t bring himself to do anything but smile against her lips, though. “How’s your leg?” he asked.

“Improved,” she replied promptly. “Do not worry.”

“Glad to hear it,” he replied and poured the tea.

“What’s today’s plan?” Minerva asked. “More waiting?”

“Feeling up to a few social visits?” Ashric asked.

“Of course. What sort of social visits?” she replied.

“Oh, nothing too extreme. There’s a few members of the Guild who I’ve been meaning to call on. Nothing overtly dangerous,” he added. “Except for the insults flying around.”

She raised an eyebrow. “It’s my understanding that with the Guild, insults can be deadly.”

“Scared, Sister?” Ashric teased. “A wyvern-slayer like you?”

“Do I get to bring my sword?” she asked sweetly.

He laughed. “Sure. Just…try not to use it.”

She hummed what he thought was an affirmative. Once again, he marveled at just how quickly she had taken to things in Lawrick, after so many years stuck guarding the backwater villages in the swamps. He wanted to hear her life story more than ever. He’d get it out of her eventually, he supposed. And there was plenty about him she had no idea of.

A maid knocked on the door and carried in the Sister’s armor, carefully cleaned and polished. Minerva thanked her. She kept eating her breakfast, eyes checking her armor periodically.

“It’s nice to see you in regular clothes,” Ashric told her. “But I can tell you’d rather have your armor on.”

“I feel unbalanced without it,” she admitted.

“Not while fighting, surely,” he murmured. “Too well-trained.”

She shook her head. “More…I don’t feel naked without it, precisely, but like I’ve forgotten something important.”

“I understand the feeling,” Ashric said, thinking of how he felt without the familiar weight of the daggers at his belt. On second thought, perhaps he’d go to the guild meeting armed. It would project…an image. Though, perhaps just having an armed companion would be enough. They might get nervous of both of them were armed. Not that he minded them nervous, but he didn’t want them too nervous. Just nervous enough to talk, and to remember how many favors they owed him.

He finished his breakfast and went to his desk to make sure he had all the letters he might need. “All right,” he said after a few minutes. “I’m ready if you are.”

“Give me a moment,” she said, moving over to the table where her armor had been placed. Watching her put it on was nearly as pruriently satisfying as the reverse, it turned out. Those sorts of thoughts were the opposite of convenient, so he firmly put them out of his mind. Even if the idea wasn’t, apparently, as far-fetched as it had seemed yesterday morning, they still had work to do. He couldn’t wait for Minerva to experience the Guild firsthand. Some things had to be seen to be believed. She was terrible at modulating her expressions too. She would strike fear into their hearts and he looked forward to watching it.

“Can you help me with this?” Minerva asked, surprising him. He hadn’t though she would need any help with her armor, given how self-sufficient she was otherwise. Then he realized she was probably just asking because she wanted him to, and Ashric’s chest went tight and warm.

He helped her with the buckles. He managed to keep his hands steadier than he actually felt. Feeling brave, or maybe stupid, or maybe both, he pressed a kiss behind her ear when he’d finished.

She chuckled. “Later, perhaps.”

He smiled and let his hand rest on her waist for just a beat too long before forcing himself to pull away.

“Thank you, Ashric,” she said. “Now, let’s go see about your friends, hm?”

The inn wasn’t far from the guildhall, one of Ashric’s few concessions, so the walk was quick and they remained unmolested by the types of people who has been unfortunately ever-present. He wanted to hold Minerva’s hand as they walked, which was sappy and utterly ridiculous and would give the guild spies way more information about his personal life than he wanted them to have.

“With luck, Sister, all you’ll need to do is stand behind me and look menacing. They’ll have guards of their own, of course, but it’s not the guards we’ll have to intimidate.”

“Of course,” she murmured.

“I’m pretty good at getting them to see my way of things eventually, but they like to be stubborn,” he said. That was an understatement—the Guild took ‘stubborn’ to an art form. They arrived at the truly ostentatious front doors, and Minerva snorted. “I know,” Ashric said. “It doesn’t get better further in.”

It was one of the biggest places where Ashric’s views diverged from the Guild as a whole. Money was most useful when you didn’t flaunt it. Well, maybe a little. Ashric was fond of a bit of jewelry. Still, it wasn’t really the sort that made people say, “Damn, that dwarf must bring in the gold.” Ashric preferred to be underestimated.

The dwarves waiting for them in the audience hall were not going for understated. Ashric knew it was all crap. Sure, they could make things happen and they had money, but they were so focused on their ledgers that they didn’t see anything, not really. They focused so much on the details that they could never manage to see the big picture. Now, they were taking in Ashric and Minerva, and he was relatively sure they could see this big picture.They liked to think they were mysterious and unreadable, but Ashric could tell they were thrown off.

“Good morning,” he said, crossing his arms and pasting on his widest, falsest grin. “I believe we’re overdue for a review of my contracts. Among other things,” Ashric added. He was willing to concede a couple of things if they would give him the information he wanted.

“Welcome, Ser Bartas.” The dwarf who greeted him was Elias Faldharn, one of the Guild seneschals. Ashric had never liked him.

“Seneschal,” Ashric said, nodding. “Shall we adjourn to your office?”

Faldharn stared at him for a long moment, then gestured for Ashric to follow. Minerva stayed close behind. Ashric was sure that Faldharn had an idea of what this was about.

His personal office was as cluttered as the hall was grand, though the furnishings were still rich. Still, Ashric found he liked Faldharn better in here. Partly because he was willing to actually talk. “You’re a much-discussed dwarf, Ser Bartas. These days especially.”

“Yes, let’s discuss that,” Ashric drawled.

“We’re not involved,” Faldharn said.

“I’d figured that much out myself,” Ashric says. “But you know what’s going on. And who’s behind it.”

“I didn’t say that,” Faldharn protested.

“You didn’t have to,” Ashric retorted. He could see Minerva’s impassive glower out of the corner of his eye. It was impressive. “Do we need to discuss what I’ll do if you continue to withhold that information?”

“Do I need to remind you that you are on shaky ground with the Guild as it is, Ser Bartas?” Faldharn said. It was an empty threat and they both knew it. Ashric may not make them happy, but he benefited the Guild more than it was worth to them to make himangry. More angry than usual, anyway.

“Let’s skip the formalities, shall we?” Ashric asked, leaning back in his chair. “You make threats you have no intention of backing up; I pretend to be properly cowed and respectful, so you can act like you’re doing me a favor when you tell me what the hell is going on with the noble trying to kill me.”

Faldharn sighed. He clearly didn’t appreciate this, but his glance at Minerva displayed his nervousness as well. He pulled a sheaf of parchment from his desk. “We need you to come to the next Guild meeting, Bartas,” Fladharn said.

“Done,” Ashric replied. Faldharn seemed surprised he’d agreed so easily. But the painful boredom of a Guild meeting was worth it to get the information that could help him bring Vaughan down.

“To sponsor a reassessment of trade -”

“Stop,” Ashric said. “Just get me what I need.”

“If you do not follow through, Serah Bartas,” Faldharn said, “We will remember.” Not entirely an empty threat, that. But Ashric knew well enough how to handle himself.

Minerva made a quiet “hmmph” noise beside him. Faldharn twitched and Ashric held in a smile.

“Vaughan recently made a number of inquiries into your businesses and holdings.” Faldahrn slid the parchment across the desk. " The Guild keeps records of all such requests, of course."

“And what did the Guild provide him with?”

“Only what was required,” Faldahrn sniffed.

“Of course,” Ashric said, rolling his eyes. He looked over the parchment, searching for some kind of clue to Vaughan’s plans. Minerva was radiating curiosity next to him.

So the Guild hadn’t sold out his more…questionable pursuits. That was good. Still, there were plenty of things Vaughan might be after. “Why now?” he muttered to himself.

“Money,” Faldharn said sagely. “Isn’t it always?”

Ashric snorted and lifted his eyes to Faldharn’s. He wasn’t so bad. Sometimes. “Well, fair’s fair,” Ashric said. He pulled a different sheaf of parchment from his coat and set it on the table. “A formal inquiry into Vaughan’s business concerns.”

“I should have the relevant documents gathered by tomorrow,” Faldharn replied.

“Thank you,” Ashric replied. “A pleasure, as always.” It was Faldharn’s turn to snort.

“…You may want to inquire with the Corps of Miners,” Faldharn said, as though it were an afterthought.

“And what might that cost me?”

“You’d have to ask them that, wouldn’t you?” Faldharn said absently.

Ashric stood and offered his hand. He could follow the steps of the dance, when it suited him. Minerva stood as well, nodding her head seriously.

They made their way out of the building and when they were finally outside, Ashric took a deep breath. “Well. That went better than expected.”

“Ser Vaughan hasn’t made any friends in the Guild, it seems,” Minerva said.

“Unsurprising,” Ashric shrugged. “And stupid, but unsurprising.”

“Well, I’m sure we’ll make him regret that,” Minerva said.

Ashric cut a look at her. “Cutthroat, Sister.”

She rolled her eyes. “Merely stating facts.”

“So, really, this works in their favor,” Ashric said. “Every merchant in town is going to know they had a part in bringing down Vaughan.”

“You said that the last dealing you had with him involved the sale of a mine,” Minerva said. “I wonder if that’s why Ser Faldharn told us to speak to the Miner’s Corps?”

“Only one way to find out,” Ashric said cheerfully. He steered them in the direction of the Miner’s Corps offices. “Have I told you that I hate caves?” he asked. “Because I hate caves.”

“I suspect you would hate being killed by Ser Vaughan’s machinations even more,” Minerva said dryly.

“True,” Ashric mused. “But especially while in a cave.”

“We shall endeavor not to let that happen, then,” she said. “And why do you own a mine if you hate caves so much?”

“Hazards of doing business, Sister,” Ashric told her. “Now, let’s go see if we can get someone in the Corps to talk.”

//

Cassandra wakes up with a start, heart racing from whatever dream she had. She automatically takes stock of her surroundings, quickly discerning that she’s alone in the room. In… Varric’s room. Of course, she’s in Varric’s room. She’d decided to stay. She just wonders where he is. They’d talked a bit and traded kisses and slept and it had been more lovely than Cassandra had ever anticipated. It had been a very long time since anything had made Cassandra feel foolish and young. She thinks Varric does as well. She hopes. There are many things they should still talk about, but she feels good about their start. She’ll feel better when Varric comes back, though.

She sits up, mindful of the toll that yesterday’s battle and taken of her. Muscles protest, but nothing screams a warning.Her head still feels clear and despite their fatigue, all her muscles are moving when and how they should. Certainly an improvement on yesterday. The light coming in the high windows tells her that it’s later than she would normally sleep. No wonder Varric is already up and gone. There is a lot to do today, after all.

She’s buckling her gauntlets into place when Varric comes in the door balancing a tray that seems to contain tea and other breakfast items.

“Seeker,” he greets her.

“Varric,” she says, smile wreathing her face.

His answering smile makes her stomach flutter in ways it hasn’t in years. “You were supposed to still be asleep,” he says and sets the tray down on his table.

It’s on the tip of her tongue to apologize, of all the foolish things. Instead she merely inclines her head towards the tray. “Thank you.”

“My pleasure,” he replies, voice warm.

“Come here,” she demands and he laughs.

Sitting on the edge of his bed, it’s easy to pull him in to stand between her legs. He smirks at her the entire time, the insufferable man. “Something you want, Seeker?” he asks.

“I want you to kiss me,” she replies. “And to call me by my name.”

“Now, the first I can do,” Varric allows, and he proves it, pressing a kiss to her lips but pulling away far too quickly. “The second is going to be trickier.” He shrugs. “Nicknames are just what I do.”

Except for Bianca. “Varric -” Cassandra starts, haltingly.

He cups her cheeks. “Cassandra,” he murmurs, thumbs brushing over her cheekbones.

“Was that so difficult?” she asks, and kisses him before he can say another word. It’s beginning to dawn on her that this is a singularly effective strategy to make him stop talking. She has grown rather fond of listening to him talk, but sometimes… she laughs against his lips.

“That bad?” Varric asks her, though the smile in his eyes tells her that he’s joking.

“Not at all. It was a delighted laugh,” she smiles.

“You know, I never figured I’d do anything other than make you mad,” he says. “I could get used to making you happy.”

“You do,” she said. “You have. I thought that… Well. I thought that I was the one who wouldn’t be welcome.”

“Because you’ve attempted to murder me in the past?” he chuckles.

“I didn’t try to kill you,” she replies. He laughs and kisses her again. Eventually, she pulls herself back. “Since you were kind enough to bring breakfast…”

“Yes, kind, that’s me.” He steps back so she can stand.

“Varric,” she says. “You are one of the kindest people I’ve ever met.”

He looks rueful. “Yeah, well. A lot of good it does me, some days.”

“You let me know if you ever feel in need of a reward,” she murmurs.

He grins wide and hands her a cup of tea prepared just how she likes it. “I’ll keep that in mind.”

They breakfast together, as they have for the past several days, and it strikes Cassandra how ordinary it feels. She wants more of that. She’s never been particularly good at companionship, but after so much time spent with Varric, with the Inquisition, it doesn’t feel strange or uncomfortable. They’re quiet, simply eating and enjoying one another’s company. Cassandra thinks Varric enjoys it too. He doesn’t look at his desk more than once or twice.

He taps his fingers on the back of her hand as she reaches for the tea pot. “Yes, Varric?” she asks.

“You’re beautiful,” he tells her.

It’s instinct to deflect—she’d had enough of empty flattery as a young woman in Nevarra to last her a lifetime. But she bites it back. “Thank you,” she breathes. His smile widens and he hands her the sugar for her tea.

Eventually the platter empties, and their responsibilities outside this room become too much to ignore. Cassandra stands to put on her armor. She’s buckling her greaves when she looks up to see Varric watching her. The look he’s giving her is… Incendiary. She takes a slow breath. “Yes, Varric?”

“Let’s just say it’s going to be a very long day,” he says. She can’t help but agree.

Varric is on high alert the moment they step outside. Cassandra can tell by the set of his shoulders, how his hand is poised to reach for Bianca at any moment. Not that she herself isn’t scanning every shadow. They head back to Merrill’s. The mood is entirely different than it was the previous day, which for which Cassandra is grateful. For several reasons. As they walk, several people call greetings to Varric, which he answers amicably.

“You really do know everyone in the city,” she murmurs to him, and he shrugs.

“Not everyone.”

She suspects he means “not anymore.” She doesn’t really know what she could say to him. Home has never been a single place to her. Skyhold came closer to that than anywhere, but she adapted quickly enough once she left. The best thing she knows how to do for him is to help him now.

Merrill welcomes them with her characteristic amount of cheer.

“Thank you again for your assistance yesterday,” Cassandra tells her.

“You look much better today,” Merrill says brightly.

“I feel much better,” Cassandra smiles, with a sidelong look at Varric.

“Oh, good,” she says. “Can I offer you…I don’t really have anything but water, but if you would like water, I can give you some.”

Cassandra declines politely, noticing that the table shoved up against the wall is covered in equipment that hadn’t been there the day before.

“What’ve we got here?” Varric asks.

“Oh, Bethany and MIkel brought over some things,” Merrill explains. “They’re making a second trip.”

“Heard from our Guard Captain this morning?” Varric asks. Merrill shakes her head. “She’ll probably turn up later, then,” Varric says.

“Dessa should be arriving also—hopefully with news from Cullen’s templars,” Cassandra says. She needs the backup, Cassandra thinks. She’s still not at one hundred percent, and while Aveline is scarily competent…this is important. This is the first test of their new system for dealing with magical threats. She needs to make sure that it goes well, that it can work. The fact that this first test is happening in Kirkwall is both worrying and, Cassandra can admit, somewhat poetically appropriate. It feels a bit like she’s living in one of Varric’s stories.

She laughs Varric would probably say it was too obvious and that nobody would believe it. After the events of the previous day, she understands the temptation for disbelief.

“Varric, you ought to write this,” she laughs.

“What makes you think I’m not?” he asks just as Bethany and Mikel come through the door with arms full of more equipment. Cassandra steps out of the way of the table.

“Good morning, Lady Seeker,” Bethany greets her. “I hope you’re feeling better today.”

“Yes, thank you,” Cassandra murmurs. “Maker, this is a lot of equipment.”

“Studying the Veil is complicated,” Mikel pants. “I had to build most of it myself from spare parts.”

Cassandra wonders, not for the first time since meeting the boy, if introducing him to Dagna would be a wonderful idea or a terrible one. Varric would probably say it was both. Cullen would categorically forbid it, which makes Cassandra laugh out loud.

For now, she keeps herself out of the way and watches Mikel and Bethany set things up. “I’m serious,” she says to Varric idly. “I’d read it if I wasn’t living it.”

“Read what?” Bethany asks.

“This story,” Cassandra replies with a smile.

Varric chuckles. “The dashing dwarven rogue coming to the aid of the capable Chantry warrior, battling the forces of chaos? It… has a certain ring to it, I’ll grant you.” He’s smiling, but there’s something odd in his tone.

Bethany laughs. “Of course. I seem to recall reading something like that recently,” Bethany adds, raising an eyebrow at Varric.

Cassandra looks between them, puzzled—Varric hasn’t put out a new serial in several months, focused (so he claims) on editing his book about Stasia.

“Don’t know when you find the time, Sunshine,” Varric says.

“You know I always find the time to read what you write, Varric,” she replies. “Even when you’re writing it under a pseudonym.”

Varric is very good at keeping his expressions in check—Cassandra barely sees the look of… Frustration? Anger? Whatever Bethany’s words have made him feel, the evidence is gone as quickly as it had come.

“Varric?” she questions mildly.

“How about I show you later, Seeker?” he asks. “It will make more sense that way. And save me from being yelled at in public if you don’t like what you see.”

Before Cassandra can respond to that, Mikel says, “It’s picking something up!” They all snap to attention. “There seems to be a spot here in the city,” he says. “I can pinpoint closer to where if you give me more time.”

“What can I do?” Bethany asks, striding back over to the table.

Cassandra doesn’t understand a word of his answer. Bethany clearly does not have the same problem and immediately does as he asks. Later, Cassandra decides. She keeps an eye on the map of the city that the three of them, Merrill included, are fiddling with.

“There!” Mikel says when a splash of multi-colored light appears on the map. “The Crystal is calibrated. Just a moment more and it should give us a good idea of where to look.”

Cassandra catches Varric’s eye, and her confusion about what, exactly, is being done must be showing on her face. Varric shrugs. “Don’t look at me, Seeker. I’m just a simple dwarf.”

She snorts at that. He’s not simply anything. However, she’s glad someone else in the room is equally bemused. The three mages grow quiet as they watch the map. Cassandra tries to wait patiently. As much as she is trying not to be, she is hyper-aware of Varric beside her. He lays one gloved hand against her elbow for a moment. She regrets that she cannot feel the touch.

She sees Bethany look over her shoulder at them with a small smirk on her face.

“There!” says Merrill, pointing at the map. “Oh! Well, that’s interesting.”

Cassandra glances questioningly at Varric. “That’s…Hightown,” Varric says. “I don’t know why I didn’t expect that.”

“You’ve certainly spoken of it often enough,” Cassandra says absently, her mind only half on the words. “Could this mean that the rebels have someone powerful behind them? Or… wait. Where in Hightown, exactly?” She leans over to get a closer look at the map.

“Close enough to the Chantry that it probably hasn’t been rebuilt yet,” Varric says with a sigh. “And not somewhere someone would immediately look for mischief.”

“And the Veil is already thinner there, because of… Because of what happened,” Bethany says.

“Shit,” Varric sighs. "Well, it makes sense at least. “But it means someone with some influence is involved.”

“It always is,” Cassandra says with a sigh. “Follow the gold, always.”

“Well, I’m good at that, at least,” Varric says.

Bethany pats his shoulder. “You are. That’s nothing to sneer at.”

Varric sighs. “Yeah, yeah. Doesn’t mean I have to like it. Looks like a visit to the Merchant’s Guild is in order.”

Cassandra’s lips twitch upwards at the depth of disdain Varric manages to give the words. “Without Hawke here,” Cassandra starts, then glances apologetically at Bethany.

Bethany waves a hand. “My sister can be…highly visible.”

“That’s for damn sure,” Varric says, but his tone is warm.

“I just meant that Varric is the most influential person here, without the Champion.”

“Not even you, Lady Seeker?” Bethany asks, sounding amused.

“Not here,” Cassandra replies.

“Seeker, you’re not supposed to tell people that,” Varric says. “Hell, you’re not supposed to know.”

Cassandra laughs. “A certain Friend of Red Jenny gave you away.”

Mikel looks utterly bemused by the whole conversation. Merrill does too, though less so.

“Well, she made certain implications and then I did my own research,” Cassandra says. “You are very good at maintaining your persona.”

A sharp, brisk knocking on the door interrupts them. “That will be Aveline,” Merrill says, and she’s proven correct a moment later when the door opens to reveal the Guard Captain herself.

“Good morning,” she says formally. “Lady Seeker, your Templars should arrive on the evening tide.”

“That is very good to hear. Thank you, Guard Captain,” Cassandra says.

“Have you found anything?” Aveline asks.

Bethany beckons her over. “Look at this map.”

Aveline sighs when she sees it. “I’ve been meaning to send some guards to that area.”

“You’re spread thin,” Varric says, grimacing.

She nods. “Unfortunately.”

“You have done well, Guard Captain,” Cassandra tells her. “Particularly without Templar assistance.”

“Kirkwall has been through more than enough,” Aveline says. “I just want to see this done.”

Cassandra nods. She understands completely. “After this, there will be Seekers stationed in Kirkwall to handle this sort of thing,” Cassandra assures her.

“Um,” says Mikel, who is looking at the map again with a strange look on his face. “Something is- something is strange.”

“How so?” Varric asks.

“I…just come look,” he says. Bethany peers over his shoulder and curses.

“What?” Cassandra asks.

“It looks like the field is widening,” Bethany says, pointing at a line on the map.

“How fast?” Aveline asks grimly.

“Fast enough to be a problem,” Bethany replies. “They must be doing some sort of ritual. Any magic will affect the veil, but this seems…like more.”

Cassandra feels her blood running colder. She has seen more than enough rituals in her time, and here, in the middle of a city as large as Kirkwall… “We need to stop them.”

“We need more manpower,” Aveline says tightly.

“Without the Templars—” Varric starts.

“We cannot afford to wait for them,” Cassandra says.

“Seeker, they’re going to know we’re coming,” Varric says. “Hell, probably the reason they’re acting now is because of what happened yesterday. And that didn’t go too well for us, if you’ll remember.”

“We need every reinforcement we can muster, then. Including mages.” Cassandra glances at Bethany and Merrill.

“We can drum up a few more,” Bethany says.

“My guard is at your service,” Aveline says.

“We can’t walk in there blind,” Varric says. “We need at least some idea of what we’re up against.”

“I’ll send scouts,” Aveline says grimly. Varric frowns and Cassandra knows he’s worrying about what will happen to them.

Bethany is already in motion. “I’ll go and find us some help. You should stay here and keep an eye on that thing—it might be the only warning we get.”

Mikel nods seriously. “Of course.”

“The rest of us should go up to the Keep,” Aveline says. “It will be easier to move from there.”

“I’ll catch up with you,” Varric says, and Cassandra looks at him with surprise. “Somebody in this city has to know something,” he says, looking her in the eye. “We need all the information we can get.”

“I don’t like you going off on your own,” Cassandra frowns.

“I’ll be fine,” he assures her, “I’m pretty resourceful.”

It’s on the tip of her tongue to protest, but she forces herself to evaluate the situation tactically. Varric is right—she knows he’s right, damn him. If one of his contacts knows something, it could mean the difference between victory and a bloodbath.

“I’m a rogue,” Varric winks. “We’re always alright.”

She closes her eyes and breathes for a moment, then grabs the lapels of his coat and pulls him in for a kiss. “If anything happens to you after all this…” she says when she pulls back.

“Trust me, the feeling is very mutual,” Varric tells her, eyes dark. “I’ll be alright, Seeker. Count on it.”

“You’d better,” she says.

He nods and hefts Bianca up onto his back. “I’ll go to the Keep when I’m done.”

“One hour, Varric,” Aveline says.

He nods. Cassandra clenches her fists so she won’t grab her weapons and follow.

“Let’s go, Lady Seeker,” Aveline says. “I want to send those scouts as soon as possible. Merrill?” she asks.

“Mikel and I will see if we can learn anything else,” Merrill replies. “We’ll meet you in Hightown.”

Plans formed, Cassandra shoulders her weapons and shares a look with Aveline, who leads them out into the street. Lowtown is quiet in the heat of the day, though she expects things will pick up as they reach the market and the stairs to Hightown. Aveline has a quiet conversation with one of the guards they pass on the way, and the woman nods and disappears down a narrow alleyway.

Cassandra stays on alert, though Aveline knows these streets as well as her own name. They come out into the covered area of the Hightown Market. Everything looks and sounds normal. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that all is well. Cassandra keeps an eye on Aveline. They stop so Aveline can murmur to several guardsmen.

“Spread the word,” Aveline tells them. “I want everyone but a small complement back at the keep as soon as possible. Be discreet.” She repeats the instructions twice more as they make their way to the Keep. By the time they arrive at the barracks, a fair number of the Guard are assembled.

Cassandra keeps an eye out for a familiar crossbow. He doesn’t appear and she enters the Keep behind Aveline with a sigh and one last look over her shoulder.

Aveline wastes no time. Her guard is armed and organized into units. She calls the scouts forward. “I need two of you to go scout the area near where the Chantry used to be,” she says. “It will likely be extremely dangerous.” The two scouts snap off a crisp salute with no hesitation. Cassandra isn’t surprised—she knows that Aveline’s Guard were largely responsible for holding the city together after the uprising, and defending it against those who might exploit its weaknesses in the years that followed. But it is still heartening to see.

Cassandra takes her place with one of the units - the one, she notices, containing Aveline’s husband. “Lady Seeker,” Donnic murmurs with a nod.

“First Lieutenant,” she says, nodding back. Aveline is making her way through the ranks, dispensing orders. Cassandra doesn’t expect any special treatment. Despite that, Aveline clearly means for this unit to be the one leading the charge, depending on what the scouts uncover.

“This squad has the greatest degree of experience against mages in combat,” Donnic says. It isn’t a boast, simply a statement of fact.

Cassandra nods. “As do I.”

He chuckles. “I expect that’s true.”

She takes a closer look at the guards standing around her, and is surprised to note that at least three of them are carrying staffs. Then again, it is a different time. And Aveline has fought with mages for years. She is glad to see it. After all, her own opinion on mages began its transformation all those years ago when she and a group of mages saved Divine Beatrix.

“Form up,” Aveline calls. The guard fans out immediately. Cassandra follows, sword in hand. Varric still hasn’t arrived and Cassandra tries to remind herself that it hasn’t actually been that long.

They don’t all march together—Aveline sends each squad out along a different path. It’s too few minutes until Cassandra hears the unmistakable sound of fighting. She still wishes they knew more, wishes Varric were back, but they must protect Kirkwall.

“Be ready,” she calls, and they round the final corner before the square where the chantry once stood. At first, she doesn’t see anything. Then there’s an arc of fire through the air and she takes a breath and steels herself.

Despite the years that have passed since the chantry’s destruction, much of the rubble remains. A small force of rebel mages have clearly entrenched themselves among the broken pillars and shattered stones. “What do they think they’re doing?” she mutters.

“They’re desperate,” Donnic mutters beside her. “Just like everyone in this blasted city.”

“They’re covering something,” Aveline says.

“Then we find out what,” Cassandra says grimly.

“This is just a distraction,” a panting Varric says and he jogs up to her side.

“I have three units holding,” Aveline tells him. “What are we getting ourselves into, Varric?”

“Here? Nothing but trouble. The rest of them are in the tunnels.”

“How?” Cassandra asks.

“We can go down through Hawke’s mansion. There’s a passage that leads all the way to Darktown,” Aveline says.

There’s a sharp cry from the direction of the ruins, and a moment later Bethany and Merrill have reached them. Bethany’s staff is still glowing faintly. “Sunshine,” Varric says seriously, “we need to use the tunnel.”

“Of course,” she replies and the group of them takes off toward the Hawke mansion at a run. The squad Cassandra had been fighting with follows them. She wishes they could take more guardsmen, but probably they wouldn’t even fit.

Bethany opens the mansion and leads them past the dusty, covered furniture to the stairs leading down. It’s narrow and showing disuse, but still serviceable. “Varric, do you know where we’re going?” Aveline asks.

He nods. “You can follow me.”

They come out somewhere in Darktown and Varric leads them over toward a ladder going down further. Cassandra finds herself a little surprised at his silence. He doesn’t like being underground, she knows. She wishes she could do something. She supposes the best thing she can do for him is to end this as quickly as possible.

They go through the tunnels until they hear chanting coming from an open area. Cassandra hears something else, too—something that makes her blood run even colder. A strange singing hum, low and pervasive and horribly familiar. “Red lyrium,” she murmurs. No wonder Varric looks so unhappy.

“Curly’s people couldn’t get it all out of the Gallows,” Varric murmurs. “But how did it get down here.”

“It’s evil,” Bethany says, tightly. “Not surprised it found a way.”

“I’ll assign a few guardsmen to destroy any outcroppings they find,” Aveline says.

“It will never be truly gone, though,” Varric sighs. “Not from the Gallows, anyway. Someone should just burn that place to the ground.”

“Whatever this ritual is, it’s big,” Bethany says, staff at the ready. Cassandra can tell she wants to keep moving. So does Varric. So does Cassandra.

“A big blood magic ritual with red lyrium involved. Great,” Varric mutters. “Take care. Mages, do whatever you can to dampen and deflect their spells.”

They keep moving. Cassandra automatically finds herself striding to back up Varric. He looks up at her. “I’m glad you’re here, Seeker,” he tells her. “For a lot of reasons.”

Ever answer she can think of feels clumsy in her mouth. And this isn’t he time for such talk, anyway. So she simply says, “We will stop this. For Kirkwall.” She shudders as they round a corner and find more lyrium.

“Fuck,” Varric curses. “Let’s end this.”

There are eight mages in the cavern. Six of them are arranged in a circle around the largest of the chunks of red lyrium, clearly performing some sort of ritual. There is quite a lot of blood. Cassandra sees the slumped shadows of corpses at the far side of the cavern. The remaining two mages were clearly standing watch, and they’re firing off spells almost before Cassandra can take them in. Bethany is quick with a shield spell, though, and Cassandra wades in grimly, Bianca twanging at her back. She uses her Seeker powers and the mages closest to her are momentarily incapacitated. She, Aveline, and Donnic take advantage of it.

“We need to stop their spell!” Merrill shouts.

“How?” one of the mage guardswomen calls back.

“Like this,” Cassandra replies and bashes the head of one of the mages doing the ritual with her shield while Varric sends an exploding arrow right into their ritual implements. A massive wave of power surges through the room; Cassandra grits her teeth against it and presses forward, squaring off against another one of the rebel mages. Bethany’s shields are powerful but she can still feel the wash of a fireball as she dodges and darts forward to bash his staff. They have their own barriers, but barriers weaken and Cassandra has gotten extremely good at getting through them.

It becomes clear that one mage is the primary caster; she continues the spell, and the others are all attempting to defend her. Several fall in the effort, but not enough. Cassandra gathers her energies for a smite. The woman falters and Cassandra lunges forward with her sword.

“You can’t stop us,” the woman shouts, one hand snapping out and sending a bolt towards Cassandra. She gets her shield up in time to deflect it. It’s Varric that finally takes her down with a crossbow bolt through the temple.

She drops, her body breaking the bloody lines drawn on the floor. One of the other mages howls, and Cassandra feels the sickening pulse of the lyrium. She drops back to cover Varric. The remaining mages fight fiercely for as long as they can, but that is not long.

Out of the corner of her eye, she sees Merrill and Bethany doing something to the remaining runes. Cassandra slams her shield into a few red lyrium outcroppings. They shatter and she steps back, breathing hard. The air in the cavern is cloying, sticky.

The guardsmen are fanning out and checking bodies for signs of life. Varric is crouched in front of the leader’s body, opening the pouch she has at her belt. He unfolds some parchment and sighs. “Tevinter,” he sighs and looks up at her. “Maybe some of the last Venatori hold-outs? I don’t know.”

“We will find out,” Cassandra promises. She looks towards Merrill and Bethany. “Did any part of their ritual succeed?”

“We’ll need to make sure their circles are all properly closed,” Merrill replies.

Cassandra nods and reaches out to squeeze Varric’s shoulder. He reaches up to cover her hand with his.

“It’s over,” she murmurs. She feels his shoulder shake as he laughs, but the sound is hollow. “I hope you’re right about that, Seeker.”

“Varric,” she murmurs. He looks up at her and he looks so tired. She swallows.

“Can we get out of here?” he asks quietly.

“Somebody ought to go back and check in with Mikel,” Bethany says.

“I will,” Merrill says.

“I’ll send a guard with you,” Aveline replies.

“Guard Captain, I trust you can take care of the investigation?” Cassandra asks.

“Of course,” Aveline replies.

Normally, Cassandra would rail against the idea of leaving before the work was done. But Kirkwall has defenders of her own, and they have this situation well in hand. “Varric and I will… seek confirmation regarding the source of these threats,” Cassandra says. Varric nods, swinging Bianca up across his back. She wants so much to see the pinched expression leave his face.

“One of them had a letter addressed to a house in Hightown in their pocket,” Aveline offers. “Perhaps start there.” She offers the letter to Varric, who takes it and tucks it away.

“Seeker?” he asks, and she nods. He turns to leave, and she follows. She wants to touch his shoulder, but she’s strangely hesitant.

“Varric,” she murmurs when they’re away from the others and making their way back up through the corridors. “Are you all right?”

“I’ve been better,” Varric allows. “This whole damn mess is just… The more things change, you know?”

“Varric,” she says softly.

“No, Seeker…Cass. If it’s anyone who’s cursed, I guess it ought to be me. I can get a story out of it,” he sighs. This time, she reaches out to him and he stops walking.

“You are not cursed,” she says fiercely. “I won’t allow it.” They are both weary, and wounded, and covered in blood that, thank the Maker, is mostly not their own. And yet she still wants to kiss him. “I will not allow it,” she repeats softly.

That gets a slight smile out of him and she cups his cheek. He leans into her hand for a moment. “I’m glad you’re on my side, Seeker.”

“I have been for quite some time now,” she tells him, because honesty is something she can offer him freely. Something she’s happy to offer him, especially when it’s all she can.

He inclines his head with a smile. “I suppose you have been.”

They make their way back through the tunnels, emerging into the dusty quiet of the Hawke estate. Varric consults the letter, not that Cassandra thinks he needs to. His memory is never faulty, though it is occasionally selective. She stands close, resting a hand on his shoulder. He leans into her side.

“Come on,” he says. “Let’s pay a visit to Lord Lyon.”

“At your side as always,” she murmurs.

Varric laughs, “That’s my line, Seeker.”

“We can say it in turns,” Cassandra tells him and he squeezes her hand.

“I can live with that,” he replies and they walk out the door and into Hightown. There are no sounds of fighting, so Cassandra assumes the guard have taken care of the distraction.

“Do you truly think he will still be there?” she asks. “He must know of the mages’ failure.”

Varric shrugs. “Who knows? People are always stupider than you expect.”

“True enough,” she replies. “And if he’s gone, we can search the place for clues as to his whereabouts.” Truly, Cassandra hoped they would find this Lord Lyon in his estate. If only so she could introduce him to her shield. She wishes it very fervently.

They slip through the streets and Varric looks up at the mansion.

“Shall we go inside?” she asks.

“After you,” he replies.

The door is locked, of course. Varric could probably pick it, but there are more direct ways of opening a locked door, and Cassandra is in the mood to be direct. Kicking it in feels just about as good as anything has in a while.

When she’s done and standing in the foyer of the mansion breathing hard from exertion, she notices Varric looking at her. His expression makes her blush. Later, she thinks. For now, they have some burgling to do. Maybe more than burgling, if Lord Lyon is home. She’s pretty sure Varric is itching to let Bianca loose again.

The foyer is dark, and no-one comes running to see about the commotion. Interesting. Varric goes to rifle through the letters on the desk in the sitting room. Cassandra stalks around the edge of the room, checking every door. The house appears to be empty, but she doesn’t drop her guard. There are cobwebs on the ceiling, and the bookshelves are full, but dusty.

“I don’t think this home has been properly taken care of for quite some time,” she says.

“It’s Kirkwall,” Varric grumbles.

She rolls her eyes. “By which I mean, it doesn’t look like anyone has actually been in this house, Varric.”

“Well, I think they stood at the desk, at any rate,” Varric says holding up a sheaf of papers.

“Venatori?” she asks.

Varric nods. “We knew that. But let’s clear the rest of the house.” He shoves the papers into his jacket and follows her through the newest door.

It’s dark and unnaturally quiet. Cassandra keeps her shield up. The air in here is thick. There’s no sense in attempting to be stealthy, but Cassandra finds herself holding her breath, regardless.

“Somebody’s been here,” Varric says quietly, pointing at a clear trail in the dust.

“We know that,” Cassandra replies tightly.

“Well, now we really know that,” Varric murmurs.

They follow the trail through a door and up a narrow staircase. The trail ends at a closed door. Cassandra slips into a ready stance, gripping her shield a little tighter. She nods at Varric and reaches for the handle.

When they move inside the room, they find a man kneeling on a balcony overlooking the rubble of the Chantry. “I should have known,” he says.

“That you would fail?” Cassandra asks. He doesn’t appear to be armed, but she is no fool.

“That the Inquisition would find me,” he sighs.

“Then why fucking bother,” Varric asks, aiming Bianca at his head.

“Because everything started in this city,” says the man, who Cassandra assumes to be Lord Lyon.

“Oh, that’s a great reason,” Varric growls.

“Sometimes you must do what you feel is right, regardless of anything else,” Lyon says. He sounds almost serene.

“And you thought this was right?” Cassandra asks incredulously. She can’t help herself.

“He’s stalling,” Varric says.

“Shoot him,” Cassandra suggests.

“I was waiting for you to say that,” Varric says and pulls Bianca’s trigger.

Cassandra feels the hum of magic in the air, and is throwing out a dampening field before she can think. The crossbow bolt hits square between the man’s eyes. The magic leaves the room as the body slumps forward.

“Well,” Varric murmurs. “That’s that, then.” He doesn’t sound victorious. Cassandra doesn’t feel very victorious, either. She takes a deep breath as Varric does the same. “Let’s get out of here, Seeker,” he murmurs. “Aveline’s people can come finish up.”

She nods, letting her shield down and sliding her sword back into its sheath. The guards can clear the rest of the building.

They exit the mansion quietly. There are guards waiting outside and Cassandra has a quiet word with them and then she follows Varric back down to Lowtown. Around them, Kirkwall carries on. People go about their business, their lives. Cassandra feels inexpressibly tired. And if she feels like that, she knows it must be magnified even more for Varric.

Nobody at The Hanged Man says anything about their appearance, but then, that’s not entirely surprising.

Cassandra wouldn’t care if they were all staring as long as someone gave her a drink first. Varric stops at the bar and murmurs to the barkeep, then gestures for Cassandra to follow him. “They’ll send up some food and drink,” he says as he unlocks the door to his suite.

“And hot water, I hope,” Cassandra says.

“Of course,” Varric murmurs.

She takes off her greaves and the minute she drops her breastplate to the floor, Varric’s arms wrap around her waist.

“Shit,” he mumbles against her.

“It’s done,” she murmurs. She threads the fingers of one hand through his hair and slides the other around his shoulder.

“We hope,” he says.

“Cullen’s templars should arrive on the evening tide,” she reminds him. “Even if there are still loose ends… It is over.”

“It doesn’t feel done. It never does.”

“I know,” Cassandra replies and leans down to kiss Varric’s temple.

“Seeker,” he murmurs. And then, “Cass.” He tips his head up, and she meets him, pressing their lips together. His arms tighten even as his lips go soft.

His hands slide up and down her back and he presses closer. Cassandra forces herself to let go of the tension she’s been carrying for hours, to relax into Varric’s touch. There is a desperate quality in the way Varric kisses her. It’s so rare that it startles her, but she just stays still and allows him the freedom to clutch and cling. She maneuvers them toward the bed and sinks down. He immediately steps between her knees and starts kissing her again.

Cassandra has never had the knack for words of comfort. So she tries to show him, instead. That they are alive, that Kirkwall still stands, that her people remain strong. She lets him set the pace. And his pace is fast. His hands roam over her shoulders and back and up into her hair.

“Cass,” he murmurs, and she has no way of untangling the emotion that he puts into the word.

“Varric,” she murmurs back, meeting his eyes.

He swallows visibly and leans back in, mouth closing over hers, tongue sliding against her lips.

A knock at the door interrupts them. That will be their dinner, and hopefully hot water to help rid them both of blood and soot. Cassandra can’t help making a disappointed noise. Varric groans and presses his forehead against hers. “Same, Seeker.”

Still, he pulls away after a moment, turning towards the door. He greets the serving girl by name and helps her settle the tray on a table before shooing her decisively back out the door. He strips off his duster and several pieces of armor to stand in front of the washbasin. Cassandra sucks in a breath at the sight of him.

He half turns and throws her a wry smile. “I think my line is supposed to be, ‘See something you like’?”

“Yes,” she says succinctly.

He chuckles and gives her a look that makes her swallow hard. “I’m very glad to hear that.” She thinks that there’s an edge of self-deprecation in the words.

“Because of me, or because of you?” she asks, fascinated by a trickle of water on his forearm.

“Little from column a, little from column b,” he admits as he runs a cloth over his arms.

“Varric,” she says. “You needn’t worry. I am…very attracted to you.”

He wrings out the cloth over the bucket and holds it out to her. She shrugs out of her tunic and takes it. They’ve cleaned up side-by-side before. This shouldn’t feel that different, yet it does. There is a hum in the air between them, almost like the crackle of a spell waiting to be cast. Unlike the crackle of magic, this one caresses Cassandra’s skin in a delightful manner.

She leans into the touch, forgetting the cloth in her hand until Varric laughs in her ear and takes it from her again. “Let me,” he murmurs.

He lifts the cloth to her jawline. She sits still and closes her eyes. He slides it gently over her face and down her neck, hands gentle, but sure. “Have I told you how beautiful you are lately?” he murmurs.

She tilts her head, a bit of a challenge in the motion. Varric smirks.

“You are,” he says, sliding the cloth down her arm. “So beautiful it’s kind of intimidating.”

“You? Intimidated by me?” she asks incredulously, fighting back a blush. He laughs.

“I’m all bluster,” he says, warmly. And even though Cassandra knowsthat to be false, she still gets the sense that he isn’t lying.

“You’re all…something,” she laughs.

“I like being something,” Varric replies and slides the cloth over her arms and chest. Cassandra stops his hand, and his eyes flick to hers. The way he looks at her makes something within her ache. “Let me finish,” he says softly. “Then -”

“Yes,” she says and rests her hands on his waist. “Varric, yes.”

He takes his time, rinsing the cloth in the basin of warm water again and touching it to her collarbone. She thinks he’s finally switched from hesitant to teasing, and she’s glad. He leans in and kisses her throat and abandons the cloth to use his hands to cup her breasts. He presses close, dropping a kiss at the skin between them.

Cassandra sighs softly at how gentle he’s being. If she’d thought to imagine this, she doesn’t think she’d have imagined him like this. “Varric,” she breathes. She brings one hand up to cup his cheek.

She can feel him smile. “Yes, Seeker?”

“I’m not going to run away,” she tells him.

“Glad to hear it,” he replies.

His hands slide up and down her sides. It gives her room to investigate the clasps of his tunic. She smiles and undoes them all with a few swift motions, then pushes it off his shoulders. She’s used to seeing his chest, but not everything else that goes with it. Varric lets her look for precious few moments before tugging her closer again, so their bare skin is pressed together, and- “Oh,” she says, and Varric laughs into her throat. He kisses it gently.

“Oh what?”

“You feel good,” she replies and moves back, pulling his shoulders until he gets on the bed with her.

“Let’s explore that,” Varric suggests, dropping a trail of kisses down her collarbone.

“Yes, all right,” she murmurs. She slides her fingers into his hair as his mouth moves over her breasts. Varric’s hands are large and strong, and his mouth is gentle. Cassandra can only sigh at the sensation. It’s been a long time and part of her wants to speed things along, but she loves the attention he seems set on lavishing on her. But she also wants to return the favor. Her hands find the small of his back, then sweep down, fingertips dipping beneath the hem of his trousers.

He makes a pleased noise and holds still for her. His skin is warm and she’s suddenly desperate to have nothing between them. “May I?” she asks, hands hesitating. Maker, her heart is beating so quickly.

“Please.” His voice cracks.

She kisses him briefly, pleased he’s clearly just as affected as she is, and reaches for the laces to his trousers. She focuses on the sensations: the pull of the fastenings, the give of the cloth, the warmth of Varric’s skin.

She’s not…nervous. Oh no. That would be… She swallows. She isnervous. Ridiculously so. But she wants him like she hasn’t wanted anyone or anything in a long time.

His hands are still on her, sweeping up her sides. She lets that ground her. With his trousers unlaced, she can just slip one hand inside. She takes a breath and does, she traces the outline of Varric’s cock over his smalls, eyes on his face.

Varric’s eyes are hot. “Cass,” he murmurs, voice low.

“I’m not teasing,” she says automatically, then blushes.

He smiles. “Didn’t think you were.”

“Good,” she says, firmly. “Lift up.” Varric does, and she tugs his trousers down to his knees. She makes sure to take the smalls with them. He’s solid and well-built and the site of his cock makes her bite her lip and want. “Maker, it’s been too long,” she breathes.

He laughs. “I’ll take that as a compliment, Seeker.” Then his hands are are at her hips. “Do you the same favor?” he asks, and she’s nodding before she can even think.

She’s hard pressed not to purr like a stray cat at the touch. She laughs breathlessly at the thought and he shakes his head and smiles as he pushes her trousers down.

“You know,” he says. “I heard that conversation you had with Sera and I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Despite myself.”

“What conversat–about not wearing underpants?” Cassandra asks, staring at him.

“Maybe,” Varric allows, but the twitch of his lips gives him away.

She laughs. “I see. Well.”

“And look, here we are. Confirming that you were definitely telling the truth about that,” he says as she kicks them off her legs. And then Varric’s hand is curving around her waist, and pulling her towards him, and they are kissing again.

She gives in and runs her fingers through his hair again, like she’s wanted to do for so long. He makes a pleased noise against her mouth and rolls her onto her back and kissing his way down her throat. Even now, Varric does not stop talking—low murmurs against her skin, his breath hot on her collarbone, between her breasts.

“Beautiful,” he says.

“No,” she replies automatically, but she feels beautiful.

“You are,” he insists. “So damn beautiful.” He brushes his lips over the underside of her breast. Cassandra gasps at the sensation, and he seems to take that as direction. His kisses are suddenly everywhere, feather-light. She bites her lip and keeps her hands on his shoulders.

Varric whispers praise into the curve of her hip bone, and she gasps. “Shh,” he whispers distinctly before his lips slide over her curls.

Cassandra pulls in a deep, shuddery breath as he slides his tongue over her. It’s so much. Cassandra needs to hold on to something; one of her hands tangles in his hair. He hums, and she moans weakly. He sucks lightly on her clit and squeezes her hips.

“More,” she gasps. “Varric, please, more.” Varric hums again, an acknowledgement, and she has to close her eyes against the sensation. His thumbs circle and his lips go firmer. “Varric,” she gasps and he moves one hand from her hip and slides two fingers into her as he continues to suck. She is dangerously close to losing her words already. Not that she cares overly much. Varric has enough words for the both of them. Instead she moves, hips arcing up, hands searching, tangling in his hair, tracing his jaw.

His mouth and fingers keep moving at the same rate. She lets her fingers finally rest in his hair. He chuckles against her when he licks over her just so and her grip tightens enough to pull. He pulls away, just far enough to say, “Go ahead. I don’t mind.” There’s a smirk in his voice, and she feels perfectly justified in curling her fingers tougher and pulling him down again. She feels the sharp exhale. She thinks he’s pleased. She knows she is.

He puts his mouth back on her and does the same thing with his tongue. This time, she pulls his hair on purpose. And then he curls his fingers in just the right way to make her shake, and she gasps out a moan.

“Already?” he whispers against her skin, sounding amused. No, smug. Maker-damned dwarf.

“You have always been very good with your mouth,” she says, trying and failing not to sound breathless.

Varric laughs outright, punctuating the sound with a kiss to her inner thigh. “Isn’t that the truth,” he murmurs. “What if I want to join you, Princess?”

“Please,” she says. Begs, really.

“As you wish,” Varric says, and he presses one last kiss to her thigh before pulling away. Cassandra reaches for him immediately. His smile makes her breath catch and she pulls him up for a breathless kiss. She can feel the hard length of him against her, and she presses towards him and is rewarded with a gasp.

“Hurry,” she urges.

He chuckles and kisses her shoulder as he reaches down and guides himself into her. Cassandra exhales sharply, hands tightening in Varric’s hair. He kisses up her neck to her ear, whispers her name. She takes a breath and wraps her legs over his thighs.

“Cass,” he murmurs, and his voice is thick with emotion.

“Don’t stop now,” she protests helplessly.

“Don’t intend to,” he replies and starts moving his hips. It’s so much.

She rolls them over onto their sides so he can press even closer. He slides a hand over her side and presses his fingers between her shoulder blades as he thrusts. It’s been long enough that she’d almost forgotten how good this feels.

“Maker, Cassandra, you’re so fucking amazing,” Varric murmurs, voice hoarse. She wants to hear it again.

“Am I?” she asks and presses her lips to his neck.

Varric shifts, and reaches down with the hand not at her back, fingers finding her clit. Cassandra gasps, and Varric says, “Incredible.”

She’s not about to disagree. She bites her lip and closes her eyes. Everything feels so good, she can hardly stand it. She can feel her breaking point barreling towards her. His voice might just be the thing to do it.

“Seeker,” he says, fingers and cock still moving. “Cassandra.”

Her fingers curl and uncurl, and her feet slide against the blankets as she tries to find purchase, tries to brace herself, tries to hold fast for just a moment longer. “Varric,” she cries out roughly.

“Come for me, Cassandra,” he murmurs in her ear. “I want to feel it.”

It’s too much sensation from too many directions all at once, and Cassandra gasps out something very much like a sob as she comes, Varric’s cock and his clever fingers and his mouth holding her there until she is overwhelmed.

She shakes in his arms, breathing ragged. He murmurs her name, tells her how good she feels, how beautiful she is. She wants, through the haze of pleasure and the little shocks of too-much that are still making her gasp. She wants Varric to come. She wants to hear it. Gasping in a breath, she starts moving her hips again.

Varric moans for her and presses his forehead to her chest. He’s gasping and starting to shake but he’s still talking. Mostly it’s her name. She likes the sound of it in his mouth. She slides a hand up into his hair and presses her lips to the corner of his mouth as his hips pump. She can feel the tension in his body pulling him as tight as a bowstring.

“Varric,” she breathes. He thrusts his hips one more time and comes with a moan against her jaw. He buries his face in her neck, breathing hard, lips still forming the shapes of words. She thinks her grip might be too tight, but she can’t let go.

He takes a deep breath and pulls back far enough for their eyes to meet.

She waits, knowing that he must be about to speak again-- knowing that he must have words for this feeling that, to her, seems utterly indescribable.

Instead, he leans forward and kisses her. She sinks into it gratefully. Maybe he doesn’t have the words, either. That somehow makes her feel even better.

//

Varric isn’t used to feeling speechless. Words are his weapons, his armor. His last, and most crucial, protection. He feels utterly exposed, naked in every sense of the word. He runs his fingers through Cassandra’s hair. She makes a small noise, but doesn’t wake. She is curled around him, one arm around his waist, breath hot on his neck.

Cassandra. Shit, he’s still speechless. He swallows. He honestly never expected to fall for someone again, never mind her. Never mind her returning his feelings. He hadn’t even really known how to write it happening.

He thinks of the manuscript in his desk drawer, under someone else’s named because he couldn’t possibly have published it under his own. Maybe now he can finish it. Then again, maybe not. She’s even more likely than Aveline to maim him. He takes a breath and kisses her forehead.

“Sleep, Varric,” she murmurs.

Not asleep then. “Cass,” he rumbles. She doesn’t open her eyes, but he sees the corner of her lips lift into a smile. Her arm tightens around him. Apparently he’s not going anywhere. He doesn’t mind one bit. “If you insist, Seeker.”

Varric settles back, tracing a fingertip lightly along Cassandra’s bare hip.

He doesn’t know if he can sleep, but he can spend quite a bit more time touching her, especially if she’s feeling indulgent. He hopes she doesn’t stop feeling indulgent. She grumbles a little, and he trades his fingertip for the flag of his palm, soothing. Varric finds himself humming a bit under his breath, too. Embarrassing.

He thinks of Bianca, suddenly. Of the last time they’d been able to be together like this. It feels like it was a lifetime ago. In many ways, it was. He’s a different person now than he’d been back then. Hawke changed him. The Inquisition changed him. For the most part, he’s happy - or at least resigned - to being changed. He sighs and stops humming, slowing his breathing and letting himself relax again.

When he wakes, Cassandra’s head is no longer against his shoulder, but her hand still rests on his chest. He smiles up at the ceiling. The curtains are drawn, but there’s a decent amount of morning sunlight sneaking in at the edges. And Varric is…starving, first of all. Worked up an appetite, he thinks with a soft snort.

Cassandra doesn’t stir, not even when he lifts her hand and slips out of bed. He isn’t surprised, just like he isn’t surprised that they’d slept so late. Yesterday’s battles had taken their toll on them both. He smiles down at her. A big breakfast for two sounds like exactly the thing.

He dresses quietly and slips down the stairs to see what food is to be had. He nearly starts whistling on the stairs. He’d been right: it’s mid-morning, and the tavern is fairly empty, only a few of the usuals in their usual seats. Varric can’t quite keep a smug smile off his face. He gets an eyebrow raise from Corff when he asks for twice the usual amount of food, but nothing more.

Before he can turn and head back up the stairs, someone comes up beside him. “Ser Tethras?” It’s Cassandra’s aide: Dessa, he thinks.

“Yes?” he says politely.

“Ser Tethras, the Lady Seeker Cassandra’s note said she would be working from here today,” she says.

“Has something happened?” he asks, tensing.

Dessa shakes her head quickly. “The templars have the situation in hand, Ser Tethras.”

Relaxing, he chuckles. Cassandra certainly isn’t working right now. “She was still asleep, last I checked. I’ll make sure she comes down when she’s ready. For now, anything you want, put it on my tab,” he tells her.

Dessa inclines her head, a small smile tugging at her lips. “I was also asked to pass on a message from the Guard Captain.”

“This’ll be good,” Varric laughs. He unfolds the note as he walks back up the stairs.

Dwarf,

Things in the city have calmed down. According to Bethany and Merrill, so has the Veil. The mages who surrendered themselves after Lord Lyon’s death claim that the entire plan was intended to destabilize the city from within.

On that note, Bran would like to meet with you as soon as your schedule permits. I hear the nobles have a proposition for you, but he won’t say more.

Varric winces, then smirks. Hopefully he’s quite busy today.

He enters his suite to find Cassandra wrapped in a blanket, sitting at his desk. It’s… quite a picture. He’s torn between appreciation and approbation, because she’s holding a very familiar sheaf of ink-stained manuscript pages.

“I was looking for paper to send a note to Dessa,” Cassandra says slowly. “I wasn’t trying to- but. You wrote this?”

“I guess denying it would be pointless.”

“Varric,” she says. He can’t tell if she’s angry or not. “How does it end?”

Cassandra has read nearly all of Varric’s serials, often as they were being written. She’s never asked him to tell her the ending of any of them—he’d teased her for months by threatening to spoil what happened to the heroine in Swords and Shields. Cassandra, Varric knows, wants to see the whole story, not just the final chapter. That, more than anything, makes him answer her honestly.

“I have no idea.”

“That is unacceptable!” she protests.

“Well, I had a plan,” he explains, walking toward the desk. “It was a good one. Would make everyone cry.”

“A tragedy,” Cassandra says.

“I play to my strengths, Seeker,” Varric replies.

“Don’t you think they…deserve a happy ending?” she asks, accent thick.

He sets the tray down on the desk and slides an arm around her shoulders, kissing her temple. “You know, Seeker, maybe they do.”

Hours later, when the food tray has been picked over, and Dessa’s report has been given an answer, and they’ve fallen back into bed, Cassandra says, “You told me once that you didn’t see any point any point in writing under a false name.”

“I didn’t,” Varric agrees, “until I found something I couldn’t keep at arm’s length. So to speak.” He squeezes demonstratively and she squeaks. He grins. “And I knew you’d read it. I couldn’t give myself away like that. Not over something so stupid.”

She hums. “I’m…not sure I would have believed it, even if it had been your name on the cover.”

“I would have expected violence,” Varric says solemnly.

She laughs and shakes her head. “You are ridiculous, dwarf.”

“Well, obviously,” he agrees. He has no illusions there.

She laughs again and kisses his cheek, lacing their fingers together. “I admit, I… saw myself, in the shieldmaiden. Or I wanted to, at least.”

“I should hope so,” Varric replies.

“I don’t know how I didn’t figure it out. Ashric of Lawrick,” she says with a giggle.

“Not my best work,” he admits. “At first, I wasn’t even planning to publish it. But I figured out pretty quick that I couldn’t just bury it in the bottom drawer. It was either burn it, or send it to my agent with a bottle of good whiskey and an apology.”

“But it’s so -” Cassandra is looking at him with big, hopeful eyes.

He smiles and kisses her. “Written to be exactly the sort of thing you’d love.”

He’d always known he was writing it for Cassandra. Hell, if he’s being honest, he’d known she was going to end up reading it, his name on the cover or no. That’s why he couldn’t finish it - because he didn’t want to make her sad.

Maybe she’s right. Maybe Ashric and Minerva do deserve a happy ending. At the very least, he thinks, they deserve the chance.

“For you, Seeker,” he murmurs. Her smile makes his stomach swoop in ways it hasn’t in years and years. He’s still not entirely sure he has the words for what they’re doing. He supposes he’ll figure out how to string some together as they go along. He leans in to kiss her. There’s really nothing else he can do.

Maybe it’s not such a crazy hope to think that they can have a happy ending, too.