The Antivan Crows burned away Zevran’s soulmark long before he was old enough to read it.
Later in his life, he accepted their logic. A soulmate was a weakness: a handy shortcut to your heart, a waiting target on the back of your head. All just conveniently written on your skin, readily available for exploitation by your enemies.
Furthermore, seduction was also far easier when you didn’t have another person’s name on your wrist. In fact, he had a successful run of marks that he beguiled with a tragic tale of how he himself had burnt the name away, after the person in question died, so many years before their time.
Not having a soulmark was a blessing, in his line of work. It was hard to do many things, when you felt tethered to another. When it was only your soul you tarnished, it all felt much more straightforward.
What Zevran didn’t realise - until much later - was that the Crows did not invent this technique. It was a practice originally cultivated by the Circles. Mages had their soulmates erased, lest the connection make them yearn too much for the world outside tower walls.
The first time he saw her, it was like getting hit by a bolt of lightning.
In fact, it was exactly like getting hit by a bolt of lightning. A cloud of tempestuous purple energy rose from her outstretched hands to meet him, and he was pretty certain that this was the cause of nearly all subsequent confusion.
He lay on the ground afterward, stupefied and stunned, while they all stood around examining him. He wondered exactly what had possessed him to take on a woman whose party of five people and one dog could wipe out a contingency of seventeen mercenaries. Wasn’t that… a Qunari fighter, and... and a golem? He was pretty certain no one had mentioned long dead constructs of legend in his contract. The Crows would likely have charged far more, and put in a clause about requisitioning the artefact afterwards, if that was the case.
“Now Shale, please don’t stomp the nice assassin’s face until after the interrogation,” came a tart, imperious voice that was entirely at odds with the woman that walked into his view. She was an unassuming thing: ruddy-skinned, short, and fat, with spectacles perched upon her flat, broad nose. Her jaw was red and puffy on one side, and a fresh cut lined her forehead, but otherwise she was unharmed. Dressed in thick woolen skirts and a purple tunic that added even more chunkiness to her figure, with a thick mane of chocolate brown hair that the points of her ears only just managed to peak out of, Nydhalan Surana looked less like a Grey Warden and more like a peasant who would raise chickens in a little cottage at the edge of a wood.
Well. It was time to save his skin, and if she looked like that, it should be relatively easy. Zevran summoned his most winning smile, and said, “ooh, you’re a rather aggressive little minx, aren’t you? And lovely too.”
Behind her, the tall, blonde Warden sputtered. Zevran couldn’t help but think that this was rather offensive to his companion: Zev was of the opinion that all women should be treated as beautiful, even when they were not. But then, Nydhalan Surana was suddenly snorting with laughter as well, wrinkling her nose and causing her glasses to slip on her face.
“Maker,” she scoffed, covering her mouth with her hand, “I think that’s the first time I’ve ever been referred to as a ‘minx’, and I can tell you for free that I hope it’s the very last. I still have stress dreams about the overdue library books under my bed. Pretty sure I couldn’t be a minx even if I tried.”
Zevran valiantly tried to recover the situation while the group cackled. “Then, I will call you whatever you like, and tell you whatever you want.”
“Goodness, then this will prove to be an incredibly unproductive interrogation.”
“Please. Let me save you some time: my name is Zevran, Zev to my friends,” for some reason, she locked up at that, so he decided not to push the ‘friends’ angle, too much. “I am a member of the Antivan Crows, brought here for the sole purpose of killing the remaining Grey Wardens. That is you, of course, which means I have failed, spectacularly.”
Nydhalan looked down at him like he’d grown an extra head - it really shouldn’t have surprised her that he was contracted to kill her, given that she’d also been there for it happening. “...Zevran?” she asked, sounding his name out uncertainly.
“Yes,” he replied. “Zevran Arainai.”
Her face was carefully impassive, in that way that immediately told him she was fighting a reaction. “Perhaps… you’ve heard of me?” he hazarded, though he couldn’t quite guess how.
“No,” she said, abruptly, dusting down her skirts in a picture of nonchalance. “But I’ve heard of the Antivan Crows. I thought they were famous for, well, being… good assassins?”
“Ouch! Is that what you Fereldans do? Mock your prisoners? Such cruelty, for one so young.”
“Err… does this... usually work for you? Patronising people, and passing it off as flirting? I swear, if you call me a ‘minx’ again, your face gets immediately smushed.” With a dismissive wave of her hand, she looked up at the golem, whose face crunched and cracked and rearranged itself into something pleased. Then she looked down at him again, “who sent you, if you’re feeling in such a giving mood?”
“A rather taciturn fellow in the capital: Loghain, I believe. Rather sullen looking - terrible skin-care regime. Clearly gets very little sleep. I have no idea what his issue is with you. The usual, I imagine. You threaten his power, yes?”
“I mean, we’re trying our best,” Nydhalan muttered, adjusting her glasses. “I don’t suppose you have a vested interest in Alistair and I’s untimely demise, beyond the money I imagine was involved?”
“No, I’m hardly loyal to him. I was contracted to perform a service.”
“One you very much failed at.”
He winced and pantomimed a sting, watching as her face remained stoically unimpressed. “Yes, yes, I am well and truly defeated. No need to rub it in.”
“I’m guessing there’s no way that fucking up this badly ends well for you?”
“Not particularly,” he shrugged, then groaned in pain. “I mean, I rather expected it all to have ended already.”
“What can I say? I’m also very generous, and I do it without the innuendo, even. So now what? You’re bartering for... a next chapter?”
“Always, my lovely girl. Always.”
“Alright, that’s enough of that…” said the other Warden, his voice holding an edge.
“Oh really, Alistair, save the effort of posturing, I know he doesn’t mean any of it,” Nydhalan said pragmatically, patting her protector’s arm. She glanced down at Zevran again, “If we let you go, will you try again?”
“I mean, you let me go, you prove yourself extremely foolish, and that would certainly encourage a second attempt. But I have bigger things to worry about - I have exhausted the coin advanced me, and apparently you can take out a band of seventeen people no problem, which doesn’t bode well for a band of… well. One. I’m dead - or I should be, both in terms of what you should be doing with me right now, and in Loghain and the Crows’ eyes should I return empty-handed. It certainly makes me question how dedicated I am to this particular job.”
“Oh, my heart bleeds,” she said dryly. “Does this impending existential crisis lead to you… I don’t know, not wanting to kill people?”
“I’ve never really wanted to kill people, honestly. Have you always wanted to be a mage? You don’t get much of a choice in these things, when your body is bought or owned by another.”
“Maker’s breath!” she gave a slightly goofy, buck-toothed smile, then, like she found him amusing. Zevran knew he was amusing, just not normally in a way people found easy to mock. But... he supposed being mocked was one step further away from being dead.
The Warden continued, “you know, before I did some proper research, most of what I knew about the Antivan Crows came from trashy romance novels, and it’s actually proving to be my most accurate source material. Are all you Crows overtly sexual men with mysteriously tragic backstories? Or did Loghain rent you out special?”
Zevran wondered exactly what these romance novels contained - if she’d been reading them, that implied she was interested in their contents, and in men like him, despite his current overtures falling on deaf ears. “You’re correct, of course,” he said, taking a blind swing and hoping for luck to be on his side, “I’ve read all those novels, too, as part of my Crow training. We get taught to recite our tragic backstories by rote whenever we find ourselves in life or death situations, or up against formidable women.”
Nydhalan Surana actually… chuckled, then. It was an adorable, if slightly horsey, sound, that ended in a snort. So, she would not accept ‘lovely’, but ‘formidable’ was agreeable. Zevran found himself grinning in response, but that very act seemed to sober her up, her face falling back into indifference.
“Truly, the Crows aren’t so bad,” he added, hastily, “they keep one well supplied. Wine, women, men. Whatever you happen to fancy. Though the whole severance package is garbage. If you were considering joining, I’d think twice about it.”
“Well,” she replied, “you should see what the Grey Wardens have in place. Not even the luxury of a swift, professional death for us, just infertility and a terminal illness. We do, however, have a dog.” She reached down and affectionately ruffled her mabari’s head.
“You are not giving the best sales pitch, my dear. In fact, it surprises me that you are giving it at all.”
“I’m just, you know… speeding this along,” the mage gestured between them, “you don’t want to attempt killing me and Ali again, but you die if you don’t fulfil your contract. I’m assuming you’ve come up with a magical third option that you’re just desperate to tell me about.”
“Well, you are correct, again - I am quite fond of living. And you are obviously thoroughly difficult to kill, which means you are the sort to give the Crows pause. So. Let me serve you, instead. I’m suddenly very repentant about my terrible life choices, and the only way you get out of this profession is if you sign up with someone they can’t touch. Someone... like you.”
Alistair tilted his head, “...Um…?”
“Alistair makes an excellent point,” Nydhalan said, not really allowing the boy to speak. “You understand, your references leave a lot to be desired. As things currently stand, your success rate, to me, is at zero.”
“He also tried to kill us!”
“Yes, Alistair, we were all there.”
“Then... why are we even having this conversation?”
“Because he’s not a darkspawn, and he’s obviously not a threat to our life,” she replied, “the ethics of the situation are suddenly a lot more complex.”
“I’d say it’s still very simple,” the gollum observed, looking at Zevran’s… well, his head.
Zevran hastily waved his hands in surrender, hopefully signaling his refusal to being squashed. “I very much want to live, my beautiful Warden foe, and you will quickly discover just how tenacious I can be when meeting my goals. I can protect myself, as well as you - not that, admittedly, you seem to need much help. Let me be of use to you. I am skilled in many things, from fighting to stealth to picking locks. I could also warn you should the Crows strike out again, make another attempt now that you’ve tarnished their honour and taken their best man from them?”
Zevran could tell she looked a little unconvinced, so he added, “I could also just stand around and look pretty, if you prefer. Warm your bed? Fend of unwanted suitors? Provide dramatic readings of your lovely books? No?”
“Well, if you were looking for a professional niche even more useless than an assassin who can’t kill,” she sighed, “then I suppose offering to fend off suitors for a woman without any certainly works.”
“Excellent - I’m glad to hear it! That means less competition for me,” he said, and found he was only half joking. He smirked at his own predictable ways: he supposed he’d always relished a challenge. “There are worse things in life than serving the whims of a deadly sex goddess, I suppose.”
“Oh, do fuck off,” she sighed, while Alistair choked again behind her. The swear sounded vaguely ridiculous in her posh accent. “You were really doing so well, until then.”
“The first thing you’ll learn about working with me, dear Warden - I always take risks,” Zevran winked, “and they always pay off.”
“Clearly…” said Alistair, glancing meaningfully around the corpse-filled clearing.
“I got to meet your lovely leader, did I not? I’m already considering it my step up in the world.”
Nydhalan looked around at her party. “Well, you lot: thoughts? Feelings? Comments and/or critiques?”
“The Antivan Crows are very well known,” the red-head woman behind her said thoughtfully, “if he truly is one, he must have some of the talents he claims.”
“And we already have Alistair,” pointed out an arch voice from the left, where a beautiful, porcelain skinned woman with an even fancier accent than Surana stood, picking at her nails. “‘Tis not like we can set the bar any lower for incompetence.”
While Alistair made a noise of protest, Nydhalan didn’t seem to hear the comment. She had clearly opened the discussion to the group in order to take the opportunity to stare at him. It was a type of stare he was very used to: assessing, distrustful, calculating. The one that weighed up the pros and cons of his person. But something was soft in her expression. He couldn’t work out if it was her glasses, or just the natural set of her face, but it wasn’t anywhere near as mercenary as it would’ve been had a Crow delivered it. When she finally noticed him noticing her stare and caught his gaze, something tightened in her face and she hurriedly looked away.
Ah, he thought, not quite a formidable as she likes to pretend.
“...I accept your offer,” she said, suddenly. Her words were sure, but her expression was wary, like she thought it was a decision she’d regret. “Of service. Not all the other ridiculous garbage and especially not the prostitution. But… you can come with us.”
“You really think we should take an assassin with us? Because he’s asked nicely and called you a sex goddess?”
“Goodness! Yes, Alistair, one blatantly theatrical flirtation while I’m the only thing standing between him and death’s door, and I’ve completely forgotten that he tried to kill me all of five minutes ago! Instead I’ve decided to just throw caution, and my maidenhead, to the wind!” she exclaimed, impatiently, though Zevran was pleased to notice she wasn’t quite as unruffled as she acted, with a blush colouring both cheeks. “Why, my brain is completely in service to my vagina! Just this morning, one look at Morrigan’s undercarriage caused me to drop my entire breakfast - oh wait, wasn’t that you...?”
“Yes, yes, fine!” Alistair all but squeaked, squirming in his shiny armour. Zevran grinned. He quite liked his Warden.
His Warden? Where had that thought come from?
“The fact is, regardless of how awful he obviously is at ambushes, Leliana is right: the Crows are actually quite a prestigious order,” Nydhalan continued, almost like she was rationalising the decision for herself. “I’m not about to look an expensive gift-assassin in the mouth - I remain very much in favour of all my murder getting done by proxy. The more people with pointy things between me and the enemy, the better. And look at how many knives the nice man has! If I hadn’t knocked him unconscious almost immediately, I’m sure he’d have made good use of them.”
“If there was a sign we were desperate, I think it just knocked on our door and said hello,” Alistair muttered.
“Honestly, I rather think you were at that point when Duncan knocked on my door and said hello, and look how well that’s turned out for us all,” Nydhalan said with a sigh. Zevran thought that she was being a little unfair on herself - the impact of her spell had floored him instantaneously, and he’d fought and killed mages before.
“Shale, no smushing today,” she said, as the golem moved back with a disappointed, crunching sound. She looked down at him, pushed her glasses up her nose decisively, and then held out her hand. He reached up and clasped it - her hands were papery soft, again at odds with her rustic appearance.
Driven by some impulse he couldn’t explain, he smoothed his thumb across her knuckles, and she raised an eyebrow, entirely unimpressed, before tugging him to his feet with an unladylike grunt. She dropped his hand almost immediately and wiped it on her skirts, like it was dirty.
Her meaty chunk of a dog growled at him, hackles raising. She silenced it with a single look, “down, Cathaire.”
Not the warmest welcome. Still, Zevran was not one to take disdain to heart. He’d win them both over, yet. “I hereby pledge my oath of loyalty to you, lovely Nydhalan,” he said, rolling the beautiful syllables of her name as he made a courtly bow in her direction, “until such a time as you choose to release me from it. I am your man, without reservation… this I swear.”
Nydhalan had gone bright red and wide-eyed at this pronouncement, which seemed to have more effect on her than all of his compliments combined. Zevran avidly watched her mortified and flustered reaction play out across her face, almost as if she didn’t know what to do with herself. Perhaps she had… a taste for fealty, and liked to be served? She certainly had a bossy enough tone to warrant it, and there were plenty of romance novels in the world that would feed such a complex.
But the illusion - nay, the incipient fantasy - was shattered almost immediately, when Alistair let out a snort, “Nydhalan? Your name is ‘Nydhalan’?!”
“What a lovely name!” gasped Leliana. “Why don’t you use it? It’s so beautiful.”
“That is not my name,” the Warden said suddenly, her voice horrified. “I mean, yes, it is, but only because the mage who named me got a bit carried away with her new elven foundling and decided she wanted to give it a culturally appropriate name, and then for some fucking reason chose one from one of those awful Elvhenan Mystery Plays. Never mind that they plucked me out of a slum in Jader, and a name like ‘Lucy’ would’ve served just as well.”
“I’m… afraid I am mistaken, then,” Zevran said. “I was called out on a contract for Nydhalan Surana.”
“Please stop saying that,” she said, visibly shuddering, “it’s not… Nydhalan.”
She looked him directly in the eyes, and now he was close to her, he noticed for the first time that they were bright, moss green, that seemed almost familiar, like something he’d glimpsed in a dream.
“It’s just Nyd.”
“...Ned?” he said, with a little despair. It was a far less pleasant sounding name for a person.
“Pretty much.” The mage said with a shrug. She scratched her nose, pushed up her glasses again in a gesture he now realised was a nervous habit. “And just so you know - if you try running away, or perhaps killing me in my bedroll? Shale is our guard… and she doesn’t actually sleep.”