Alternative Origins Chapter Twenty-Seven

by artrald

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*

No guards on the alienage gate, so my hunch is right that it’s the keeper that closed it. And yes, there are back ways, but they might be bolted and all – it’s not quite the middle of the night, but it’s a good few hours after nightfall, and most of the back ways are someone’s cellar or someone’s roof or something impolite like that. And there’s still a spike missing on the top of the gate and the great iron studs on the thing make decent enough handholds. I drop down the other side easy and land noiseless like a cat.

My – no. What was my home is toward the outside of this mazy little place, my feet taking me around, left, left, right, without me really thinking. Not many on the streets this time of night. There’s light in the keeper’s window, but I’ll face him once I know for sure, besides, there will be a lot of people there and best not to burst in, yeah?

I should have slept first. I should’ve come here less stressed, less tired. Then I wouldn’t need to wipe my eyes and stand here a moment in front of my own front door till I wasn’t shaking so.

I knock.

The door opens a crack, all you can see is a sliver of face, one bright suspicious eye. Her hands are out of sight behind the door. They’re doing this at home? I guess I did just knock unexpected after dark.

“Onethara?” I say, quiet. Perhaps more uncertain than you’d imagine on your own front doorstep –

“Kallian! Onethara!” Shianni throws the door open as her face breaks into that ready smile and there’s a moment when she gets a first look at me in the firelight and there’s a moment when I interrupt her intake of breath by crossing the space between us and throwing my arms round her.

“Ow!” she says laughing. “Lethallan, you’re all spiky!” But she kisses me on the cheek and squeezes me tight anyway and I lift her off the ground a little bit like I used to do when we were kids and my cousin weighs nothing.

I make myself let go after a moment more, half a step inside as she closes the door. It’s Vairi and Chala – my aunt and aunt-in-law – in here right now doing the mending by the fire, and I’m greeted with slightly wide-eyed smiles and with the old words.

“And just look at you!” Shianni steps a little back to look at me properly. “Andraste save you, Kallian, y’look like -”

I try and smile right. “Ain’t on the run, save you asking. Tell you, tell you everything. Soon. Promise. Just, uh.” I look her in the eye. “My father-”

“Aye?” Half a step toward me she takes, I can see in her eyes, this is not going to be what I want to hear, and it steals my breath.

“A – a shem. Threatened him, trying to get under my skin. Uh. Is he-?”

Her eyes go wide, very wide, what-have-you-done wide. She shakes her head very slowly, not taking her eyes off mine for a second. “When?”

I will not crack. “After dark this evening.”

She frowns. “No, lethallan, he – I mean, we -” She stops, looks to her mother, who comes to stand beside her.

My little aunt looks up at me with sad eyes. “You’ve been out of the city for a few weeks, have you?”

Just get on and say it, Vairi, I’m a big girl. “Left the day I was arrested. Came back at dusk today.”

“There’s a sickness in the alienage, da’len. Started up a couple of weeks back. Doesn’t kill people, not that we’ve met, but it’s pretty miserable, they just sort of get weaker and colder and sleep a lot and they cough all the time. And if the humans found out?” She frowns. “All they ever need is a reason. It’s why the keeper called a curfew. Only – people have kept getting sick. We’ve tried-”

“And my da?” My voice is a little sharper than I guess you’d usually use to your aunt. “He’s sick? You s-said it didn’t-”

Shakes her head. “He didn’t catch it. But the day before yesterday?” Her voice is a little less steady. “He went out. He didn’t come back.”

I look at Shianni. “And when you followed him?”

Vairi’s about to respond with the whole no-daughter-of-mine thing, but Shianni touches her arm quietly. “Sorry, ma,” she says quietly. “Course we did. Him, the keeper, a few others, they’d been running a sort of hospice in one of the houses where the whole family was ill. Quiet, like. Caring for those who couldn’t or their families couldn’t, keeping it off the streets, keeping it quiet. Didn’t tell us, you know what he’s like. He went straight there, walking quick the whole way. Carrying money, he was. You know he took money with him, ma. And he didn’t come out.” She bites her lip. “Xaren had a peek after he’d been an hour. The lamp was lit, the fire was lit, the kettle was on the hearth. But nobody there.”

“Two days, you say? And just gone, and not like they meant to.” Think, don’t feel. “Many people been inside that house, since?”

She bites her lip. “Um, a few. Uncle Cyrion wasn’t the only one gone -”

My hand goes over my mouth. “Don’t tell me.”

“Uh-huh.” Quiet, her voice, businesslike. “The keeper, his granddaughter, all the people in the hospice, disappeared. The humans don’t know yet. We’ve had people out looking. Malla and Xaren were outside the whole time and they saw nothing.”

Deep breath. “People don’t just disappear.”

“Yeah?” She crosses her arms. “It’s three rooms, lethallan, and not that big, and it was full of people last week, and I’m telling you they ain’t there now, no sign of a struggle, no nothing.”

“‘Kay. I’ll see the place tonight, if you’ll help me, see what I can do. If it was any other night -” I make a frustrated noise. “If we’re still looking in the morning I can get us some -”

“No.” That’s Vairi, and she’s got her motherly voice on, the one that means you do what she says. “Kallian, it’s the middle of the night. You’ve been in the door one minute and you’re talking about going out again? Your eyes are bloodshot and you’re shaking like a rabbit and frankly, dear, you look terrible. When’d you last sleep in a good bed? Eat a proper meal? And you’re talking about going out into the darkness after Andraste only knows what.” Her eyes flash. “And you’ll find something. I know you: you’ll find something you think is what happened and maybe it’ll be right and maybe it won’t. But there’s something I see in your eyes, da’len, something I saw the last time I saw you. Murder. If you go out tonight then it will end in blood. Won’t it.”

I scowl. “If some son-of-a-shem has taken my father-”

“For crying out loud!” She gets in my face. “Wasn’t last time bad enough? You think it all stopped when some high-and-mighty lord took a shine to you, bought you out? You think the bigjobs cared that the People they hurt weren’t the ones that gutted their bann’s kid? You go out there with your -” she plucks at a strap of the armour I’m still wearing – “poacher’s garb and your pigstickers, and you gut yourself a few more humans in vengeance for my brother? And next time maybe the watch turn a blind eye to what happens next. Or maybe there’s too many of them. Maybe it’s a riot proper rather than just a bit of violence.” She pokes me in the chest with her finger. “We’re living on a knife’s edge, here, my girl. And in case it had escaped you, we have to live with whatever you choose to-”

Shianni’s voice, quiet, from behind her mother. “I’m right here, ma.”

My aunt narrows her eyes, takes a step to the side, turns round and she’s about to open her mouth.

“Don’t,” says Shianni. Goes past me looking neither left nor right, out the door, and I follow in her wake.

*

She doesn’t go far, just out of sight of the door, into the shadow of an alley, puts her back against the wall, rests her head against it. I fetch up beside her. Her eyes are dry, she’s not looking at me, just staring at nothing.

Silence, just stretching out.

“You all right?” I say, eventually, when it’s clear she ain’t going to talk.

“Bruises fade.” She looks sidelong at me. “She doesn’t mean to hurt, Kallian. We know people who suffered because you came for me.”

Hunch my shoulders. “You know I’d do it again.”

“You saved my life. Never got to tell you-”

“I knew what you meant to say-”

“I could see it in his eyes.” She shivers. “I wasn’t getting out of the bann’s house alive. None of us would’ve. I’ll not see you apologise for doing right and I’ll not stand by and see others do it for you. It’s like the Keeper said, if there’s shame in what happened, it’s not with us.”

I put an arm around her and she puts her head on my shoulder. “Missed you,” I say, and it’s true. Never been this long apart.

“Yeah.” Pause. “You coming back? For real?”

The archdemon takes that moment to remind me it exists and she feels me tense up, and she’ll have taken that the wrong way. “… No.” I hold her tight. “I’ve made enemies, lethallan, powerful men. And some of ’em wouldn’t think twice about coming here and taking it out on people who couldn’t defend themselves.” Close my eyes. “And it ain’t enough to know you’re under my protection. I tangled with a human this evening. He was using your name to get me angry, on purpose. He convinced me he had you in a cage. A-and it’s quite possible that everyone who was taken from that hospice, was taken because Da was there. If I come home, Shianni, if I come live here again? One day I’ll come back and it won’t be there. I’m taking a risk even being here.”

“But somone said Cyrion’s name and you came to make sure he was all right.”

“Aye, and he ain’t.” My turn to stare at the wall.

“Uh. Before we go find the others, before we, you-know. Go find trouble. Mind if I ask you a bit of a personal question?” Funny note to her voice.

“Never stopped you yet. Go on.”

“You’re wearing armour.” She ducks out from under my arm and pokes me in the side. “Armour made for an elf, or a shem kid. Armour that looks like someone died in it, and not that long ago either. You’re carrying two weapons in places a blind countryman would spot, you’ve got another empty sheath, and you’ve got four more blades that I can guess at.”

“Like you ain’t armed.”

She shakes her head in a little disbelief. “I’m armed. You’re – I don’t know what. And your hair. You cut your lovely hair. You look like a thorn-bush.”

I avoid her eyes. “It was beyond saving.”

“You’ve got a new trade.”

“It’s not what you think.”

“You going to tell me what it is, then?”

“Short version?” I shrug. “They made me a knight.” I push myself off the wall. “C’mon. My da ain’t going to save himself.”

Few moments she stares blankly at me before hurrying after me. “You’re telling me the long version.”

“Uh-huh. Later. Which way?”

*

The hospice is just another one of the houses leant up against the big old wall that marks the difference between our place and the humans’. They’ve put a posy of fresh flowers over the lintel – it’s just a little thing, something a human would miss, but it stops me dead in the street for a moment. It’s what you do for a house where someone died. Shake my head. C’mon.

Look up and down the street. We’re not near the alienage gate here, or any of the quieter ways out. Anyone leaving here must’ve been on the street. More than one good hiding place nearby – anyone with eyes would’ve seen if anyone had come or gone from here, and neither of the kids that Shianni says was watching would’ve missed anything bigger than a mouse.

The door’s just latched; I get us inside and pull it almost to. Cold breeze down the chimney, there is. And Shianni was right – the place looks completely abandoned. Kettle still on the stone of the hearth. Ashes of a fire a couple of days dead. Windows shuttered.

“Uh, Kallian?” Shianni squints. “There a reason you want to do this in the pitch black?”

I look sidelong at her – I can see fine – guess I’d not really taken in how much the curse had sharpened my eyes. Pull a shutter open a crack, let in a shaft of moonlight. “Just wanted to keep the air still as I can, is all.”

“The air?”

I sniff. “Who did you say looked this place over? The watch been in here?”

She shakes her head shortly. “Like we’d call in the humans. More questions than answers and no good would come of it.”

“Uh-huh, well. The whole city stinks of shem as it is, but, yeah. I once heard a little fox tell me I had a good nose.” I sniff again, take a couple of steps into the middle of this room, eyes tight shut, brow furrowed in concentration. The city, I can smell. Shianni. Mice – I turn and point out a mouse-hole in the corner of the room and Shianni’s looking at me a little wide-eyed. An old rug on the floor, a decade’s worth of stains. Elves, of course, maybe a dozen people, and yeah – not healthy. I think maybe my father could’ve been one of ’em, it’s hard to tell. It must have been pretty close in here. Herbs like you’d use to sweeten the air. I concentrate. Other things – older, fainter – yes. Linseed oil and saddle soap. Reminds me of Redcliffe castle or the guards at Eamon’s estate. Expensive: you wouldn’t catch an elf using ’em if pig’s grease and tallow would do. Soap, lavender soap, so very faint, another luxury you’d never look for in the alienage. Another – yes. There. “Okay. Two humans at least, in here, a man and a woman. One or more of ’em in armour, I think.”

“Kidnappers? You sure?”

“No.” I look around at her. “I know someone who could probably get you their names and addresses from what I can smell, right, but me? I can just about tell you they were here, and thank the Maker they’ve got more money than good sense. Mostly I can smell good armour oil and expensive soap.”

“But nobody walked in. I spoke to both Malla and Xaren myself – I spent the evening with ’em, poor kids, they thought it was their fault everyone was angry. But they were absolutely clear. Nobody had been up this street or down it who they didn’t know by face and name, and only Cyrion and the keeper and his granddaughter had gone in this door, and nobody had come out.” She gestures around at the abandoned room. “And you’re not telling me your da would’ve gone quietly, not with the keeper here, not when all he’d have needed to raise a crowd would’ve been to open the door and shout. They’re just… gone. As if by magic.”

“As if.. by…” I stop dead. “It could have been. It could have been. I’ve seen a creature that could’ve just walked in here and told ’em to leave and they’d have come meek as mice. Course, the kids would’ve seen it. Magic can’t make you invisible, that I know of, and you’d have been able to tell if they’d fallen asleep even a minute, they’d have died of shame.”

She blinks. “When’d you learn about magic?”

“I’m here in Denerim with two mages. Any other night, I’d have brought one of ’em with.”

“I see? Well, no. I don’t. But anyway. Magic.” She looks about as if expecting pixie dust and streams of sparkles. “What does that get us? They, I don’t know, changed them all into mice and flew away?”

I shake my head. “I’ve seen a mage turn herself into a mouse, but it’s rare. Like I said, can’t turn invisible; can’t fly without wings, and anyway they’d have been seen. Magic could’ve stopped people raising the alarm, but it wouldn’t stop them remembering what actually happened. So if they say nobody went out the door, that’s what happened.”

“Which leaves, what? The floor? The walls?”

She meant nothing by it, but I look at her a moment more and then I nod slowly. “What if this place was prepared? What if they didn’t pick it by accident? I’ve seen magic make people make bad decisions. Check the back wall, I’ll do the floor. Maybe there’s a passage or a tunnel.”

She nods, hastens to do it, tapping on the wall with the hilt of her knife. I’m going over the floor, looking under things, lifting the rug –

That’s funny. Couple of dark spots on this heavily stained rug that suddenly look quite familiar – Bad feeling about this. I scratch at them with a fingernail – touch it to my tongue –

“Lethallan, you’re disgusting.”

“Blood.” I look up at her. “Human. Not that old.”

“You worry me sometimes, you know that?” She keeps tapping. “Blood, but no fighting? A very small fight, over the rug?”

“Some magic uses blood.” Now I’ve seen that spot, I start looking for others. “The bad kind.”

“There’s a good kind, now?” The next tap of her dagger and the hollow sound it makes makes us both freeze. “Maker’s breath, Kallian, look at this.”

I’m there. The hollow bit, it’s maybe four feet wide, but the wall feels exactly like stone, just… thin, like I’m tapping on an empty eggshell. “Stand back.”

She complies. “What are you-”

I put a bit of strength into it. The wall breaks, exactly like an eggshell, and my cousin swears loudly and covers her head. It’s a hole in the wall. It’s a hole in the stone bloody wall, and they must’ve stopped it with a thin little shell of stone as they left. Darkened room the far side, like a storehouse or something. “Shianni?” I say, staring.

“Kallian?”

“Get out of here, lock the door, go find the others, quick as you can.” I kind of don’t hear the ring of command in my tone. “I want this place guarded till I can get someone here to seal it properly, which will be the morning, most like.”

“While you go after our people?”

Someone owns this place.” I loosen my belt knife in its scabbard. “I’ll start there-”

“Just a mo.” She walks quickly over to one of the shutters and pulls it open with a sharp movement, and what d’you know, there’s someone behind it – thing you’ve got to remember about the alienage, if you look interesting, you’re being watched. “Hi, Xaren,” she says to the kid, his face like a ghost’s in the darkness, as if she hasn’t just caught him earwigging. “You got all that?”

Wide-eyed nod. He’s not looking at her, he’s looking at me. I guess from his perspective I did just punch down a stone wall.

“‘Kay.” She turns back to me. “So I’m coming with you, then.”

“Lethallan-”

Shake of her head. “I’m not Nelaros, Kallian. You forgotten all those times I handed you your backside? And I owe you. And if that scratch down your armour is any indication? You need your back watched. C’mon.”

*

The human had barely opened his mouth to yell when I had him by his belt-buckle, my fingertips up under his chin pushing his head back, the heel of my hand against the apple of his throat. The people we’re after are foreigners, three of ’em, a man and two women from Tevinter, and they’d hired porters, and remarkably few threats are needed to get the address. By the docks it is. There’s no time to think that that means we’re likely about forty hours too bloody late.

Shianni remarks on my restraint when I leave him alive (if a little high-pitched) – she doesn’t remark on the way I was pretty much lifting him off the ground by his belt. She doesn’t remark, either, on the way I walk these streets; if she’s a wildcat, I’m a lioness. She’s wary with honest caution; I’m something people are wary of.

“Plan?” Her tone is light, like we’re out for a stroll. Last time we went for a stroll like this together, there were four of us, and it was a thief we were taking.

“Stay behind me. Watch my back.”

“Just like that.” A little nervous laughter in her voice. “The mage?”

“Mine. But just in case?” I remember the Circle Tower, Leliana’s face grim in the unnatural blue light. “A mage can’t cast on what they can’t see. Stop his mouth, get him on the back foot, take him down quick and sure.”

She shoots me a look. “That’s murder, that is.”

“Told you the mage was mine.”

“Still murder if you do it.”

“I’ve seen a mage taken alive, Shianni. I’ve done it myself, from surprise, to a clueless apprentice. And I’m telling you, if it’s got bad enough that you have to take a mage on? Kill him. Or run.”

Swallows hard. “Guess you play for keeps these days.”

“No shame in turning back, lethallan.”

“Like hell.” She shows some teeth.

I mirror the expression. “Glad to have you.”

*

Tawdry little warehouse. One of many. The big door’s closed tight. One guard outside the office door. Good sign. Shianni and I are in the alley by the side. Moonlight’s good enough for us, but a human would be at quite the disadvantage. Street’s quiet, this time of night. Nobody lives around here, not even the beggars. Raised voice inside, a woman’s. Foreign accent, could be Antivan, could be Tevinter.

Shianni meets my eyes, then steps out from the alley. She starts humming an old drinking song, walking with a bit of a sway to her, in that unconcerned way you’ll get if you’re either fresh in from the country or completely rat-arsed, absent-mindedly keeping a hand on a pouch at her belt and occasionally beating time with a clink that I know for a fact is half a pouch of stones and a bunch of washers on a string. About as subtle as writing ‘easy mark here’ on a board and waving it around yelling, but it’s surprising how well it’s served before.

And it serves us again. Whatever his reason is, he follows her with his eyes, turns his head; the moment he ain’t looking is the one moment he should’ve been. I don’t kill him.

The woman’s voice inside has fallen silent and there’s another voice, a man’s, definitely Antivan, talking softly. Something about money – “this is what it costs, messere. and how long it takes. Had you but informed me from the start that your ‘livestock’ could not eat hay -”

“That is your problem -”

“If you wish to arrive with anything, how’d you say, saleable? It is our problem. You are aware that there is a war coming, yes, and an infestation of darkspawn in the south? You are aware of the price of grain?”

The man is to the left, the woman to the right. The woman is one of the kidnappers, and either a mage or someone who wears armour – I signal Shianni to go left as we go in, picking up the guard’s cudgel for my left hand as I draw a knife with my right. Deep breath –

The latch must’ve come off the door as I kicked it, it slams open with a bang you can hear up and down the street. Light in this little office from a symbol drawn on the wall, like in Orzammar. Chairs, tables, a camp bed. The man to the left is dressed in a tunic that’s a little too long and a little too bright – a merchant or something – and the woman to the right is in some kind of long coat with panels of mail, over a long shapeless gown that’s a uniform shade of red. For a moment I take her for a templar, but she ain’t, not that that matters as we move.

It’s really creditable that the thin-bladed sword she’s wearing clears its sheath before I’m on her. I bring the cudgel sharply down on the forte of her blade, striking towards her body, just like Howe did to me, and the sword clatters out of her hand as I try and put my dagger up under her chin. She wards me off, trying to hit me in the chest with a knee, but faster than she can see I step around that, vicious little sideways kick to the back of her other shin and she goes down with a yell that makes me wince. I keep behind her as she tries to whirl to her feet; one good thwack to the back of her bare head and she collapses limp.

Blades clash behind me. I spin around to see Shianni catch the man’s desperate dagger-thrust and slip under it, put her boot in hard and painful, and as I watch she just pulls him forward as he doubles over, lets him trip over her, bangs the back of his head into the floor and he stops moving.

The door from the warehouse bangs open. Another woman, same as the first one in that funny foreign armour, long thin sword in her right hand and a dagger in her left. I go for her right away, jab the cudgel at her midriff like it was a sword; she turns it with her dagger as I catch her blade on mine, and she disengages with a dart backwards and yells something in a foreign language that I guess must be Tevene. I hear a man’s voice from somewhere inside the warehouse, sounding confused and sleepy; I go for her again and again she dances back, through the doorway, flickering a thrust at my face to get me to duck, and she cries something else, sounding understandably urgent.

And yeah, this could go downhill really fast. Their mage was capable of opening a hole right through a solid stone wall faster than the people on the other side could raise the alarm.

The human meets my eyes, and I’m surprised to see a warrior’s respect there. None of the arrogance I’ve seen in other humans I’ve fought. And her stance is low and wide, her dagger poised to ward off a charge, her sword low in what Alistair calls the fool’s guard  – if I were taller, I could punish her for that – as it is, that guard is pretty damn good. And I can’t take my time and bait her out of it. Her position here in the doorway is defensive, buying time for the mage to pull his finger out –

So I rush her. Feint low with the heavy ill-balanced cudgel like it was a sword, she sees it for what it is and flicks her tip up to ward me off and not my weapon. I flow sideways around her blade, change front feet and lead suddenly with my dagger, a move no human could match, and she gets the flat of her off-hand blade to mine – I bind the two weapons, trying to get close – and I’m really not expecting the looping handguard of her blade in my face.

Ow? She’s clearly trained to fight people stronger and faster than they should be. I try and pull her back with me, give Shianni a target, but she’s having none of it, just lets me break away. I’m not going to be able to rush her, not through that doorway – and if I try and take advantage of the fact that she won’t give ground, she’ll give just enough to put that sword in me.

Sudden idea. I nod to the foreigner, like I return her respect, keep her eyes, not looking away. “I’ve got this end,” I say – please, Shianni, get the hint –

“On my way,” my cousin says, and she ghosts out the door.

So this is my cue to smile like I know something my opponent doesn’t. I pull the cudgel up before me in a parody of a salute and she mirrors it, flicks her point back down into fool’s guard and I fall into a high guard like we were sparring.

She calls something else, loudly, in the same language she used just now, and gets a response from inside that is absolutely “keep your hair on, I’m on my way”. I raise my eyebrow and she half-smiles, and in that instant I lunge for her with the end of the cudgel.

She turns it, reprises with a little probing flick that I turn, and we fence for a few moments, taking one another’s measure. I’m holding back on my strength: I’m fairly certain that so’s she. She knows she only has to hold me until her mage can bring something to bear – if she abandons her position I’ve got her –

A crash, from inside the warehouse. Something has hit the riverside door, hard – I know my cousin can’t break it down, but they don’t – the mage doesn’t know what it is at all, and the warrior thinks that Shianni and I are two of a kind. A couple of clear loud words in the mage’s voice, undercurrent of his fear, and the whole place is flooded with colourless light; my opponent takes her attention off me for a heartbeat; I flash forward and bring the cudgel up under the point of her chin and she goes down. Bless you, Shianni.

The warehouse isn’t that big inside. Two long low wooden cages, maybe five foot tall, added to the usual rows of crates and barrels; there’s a well-dressed man standing up next to a pair of camp beds in one corner, and he’s the source of the bright colourless light. Warm in here, too warm, like a cattle-shed. I can see dark unmoving forms in the cages, huddled as close to one another as they can get. My people. No, it’s not relief that I’m feeling. It’s anger. More than anger, it’s rage, it’s fucking wrath, it’s –

uh –

“Excuse me,” I say. “The door was locked.”

The fellow steps forward with an avuncular smile. “That’s quite all right, dear; we don’t get many visitors at that time of night.” Huh – a foreigner, he is. Pleasant voice. The accent – Tevinter, maybe? Poor man, he’s cut his finger – I can see a little drop of blood running down his right thumb. Funny what you notice.

Nnh. “Can I help you?”

“As it happens, you might be able to.” He walks towards me, smiling – I realise, a trifle embarrassed, that I’m still armed, so I put that away. “Who sent you, who gave you my address?”

“No-no, I’m here of my own accord,” I smile. “Your hired help told me where to find you. Sorry to say I roughed them up a bit.”

“I see, I see.” A banging sound. The nice man raises an eyebrow. “Are you here by yourself?”

“No, I’m here with my cousin Shianni – that’s her outside. She wouldn’t stay behind like I asked her, you see.”

“Mm-hmm. You can tell her she can come in, now.” He puts a friendly arm around my shoulders. “It’s all right.”

I raise my voice. “Shianni?”

“We good?” Her voice from outside. She says something else but I don’t really catch it. Doesn’t matter.

“Yes. You can come in, now.” I find myself echoing the man’s tone of voice. “It’s all right.”

“That’s good. Very good.” He tousles my hair and I beam. Uh. Bit of a headache coming. It’s the long day I’ve had. “I’m sorry, who did you say you were?”

“M’name’s Kallian Dener.” I nod. “I’m Commander of the Grey Wardens of Ferelden.”

A violent tremor runs through me and I catch my breath. Flash of – I don’t know. Anger? Just for a second. The man redoubles his effort on the spell, puts a hand to my forehead. “You’re burning up, dear. Don’t you know there’s something going around? Let me get you a chair.”

He leads me by the hand towards a dark cool quiet calming place.

Huh. There’s a noise that I don’t quite catch. I frown, try to hear it.

You know in a dream, when you try and concentrate on something and everything starts to fall apart and you’re struggling to wake up?

Anyway, the noise isn’t important. The mage looks at me, orders me to stay where I am, so I do, and he turns towards the door to the outside and spreads his hands and there’s light gathered around them, around him. “Leave now, little rat,” he says quietly to someone I can’t quite see. “Scurry back to your nest and be thankful that we did not take you all.”

Someone spat at his feet. Who would do that? He’s a very nice man. He gestures kindly with his left hand and lightning strikes. Serves them right-

uh-

He raises his right hand and a star of pain explodes in my chest and my gut; completely unprepared, I fall to my knees in the doorway of the cage, trying not to retch. Shianni rolls to her feet well away from the scorch-mark on the floor, blades drawn, eyes narrowed, breathing hard, and hisses through her teeth, “That all you got, shem?”

For answer he thrusts the palm of his tattooed left hand towards her, and as she throws herself to one side she finds that she sticks irresistably to the floor. His right hand still raised, blood welling up from the little cut next to his thumbnail, he begins slowly to close his fingers – that’s aimed just at her – she arches her back and can’t quite stop a hiss escaping her.

I make myself breathe. I feel – I – ugh – later. Later I can let it go. Right now? It’s only pain. Like when Zevran stabbed me. Remember? I drag myself to my feet and the mage has walked to stand beside Shianni – he’s watching me as I stand painfully up and as I draw my dirk with my right hand he says, “I wouldn’t do that.” And he straightens the fingers of his right hand a little and Shianni whimpers.

“Let. Her. Go.” I hope he thinks I’m shaking because I hurt.

“I don’t think so.” It’s the same voice as it was just now, when it was the only thing in the world that mattered – bastard – focus.

I narrow my eyes. “Kill her and you’ll never stop me in time to matter.”

“Perhaps,” he says. “But go for me and she dies anyway – quite the impasse we have.”

“Yeah?” I hiss. “Second-stringer, you are. Second-rate. Or why are you so far from home? You couldn’t even hold me under while you took down Shianni. How long can you hold that up, huh? How long can you hold me off?”

He shakes his head. “Misapprehension, dear girl. That’s not an ongoing effect I laid on you; all I did was pop a vein. Your lungs are filling up. All I need to do is wait.”

Dammit. Wave of sheer helpless rage, not helping. I move, my cousin dies. I can see her staring hate at him. She ain’t even blinking. Okay. Think. Okay – “Why?” Hurts to breathe. “All this – the plague, the danger – for half a shipful of slaves. They not have elves in Tevinter?”

Unpleasant smile. “Would’ve thought a half-elf would know more about inbreeding.”

“You… sick… bastard.” I just let the words come out. I’m not feigning the shake in my voice, I’m not feigning the tears. “Stealing our people – our children, for Andraste’s sake – breeding people like animals -” my voice is rising – “you filthy cowardly heartless dickless motherless-”

He starts to laugh at me.

And Shianni grabs hold of the man’s ankle and gives it a good hard yank, and it makes him stagger and turn to her with a snarl and a raised hand –

And I cross the space between us in the time it takes her to spit in his face and the point of my blade goes up into his throat and the bright blood runs down my arm.

*

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