Solona took the steps to Varel's office two at a time, ignoring the curious looks the recruits were furtively casting her way. She supposed she must have appeared half-mad –furious and bloodstained, wielding a dagger as she stalked down the corridor. She threw open the door, which rebounded with an echoing bang, and a passing servant gasped and dropped the basin of water she'd been carrying. Solona kicked the door shut behind her, cutting off the servant's exasperated muttering, and slammed the Crow dagger onto Varel's gleaming desk.
"I'm going to Denerim," she declared.
The seneschal sighed, setting aside the letter he'd been reading before she'd barged into his office. Solona hid a smile as he frowned and began to rub his temple. The gesture was a familiar one – she'd seen it before, when she'd refused to meet with visiting nobles or gone out scouting with the recruits rather than stay at the keep and deal with her mountain of correspondence. It was, now that she considered it, a look that she'd also seen on First Enchanter Irving's face with some regularity.
Solona would have expected anyone else to argue, or complain about the intrusion, but Varel, unfailingly polite, merely asked, "And why is that, Commander?"
"That is a Crow dagger," she said, pointing to the weapon on his desk. "I found it on the body of an assassin, after we were ambushed on the way to Amaranthine. Which, as it turns out, was all a setup, because when I spoke to Constable Aidan, he said that he'd never sent for me."
"I see…" Varel said, his frown deepening. "And Denerim?"
"There's a certain Crow master who owes me an explanation," she said, staring at the intricate design on Varel's rug as she paced in front of his desk. "We had an arrangement – I do some business for him, and the Crows don't take any contracts on me. And now this." She stopped suddenly, slamming a fist onto the desk. "I assassinated someone for him!"
If Varel was surprised by this news, the only indication was a slight lifting of his eyebrow. "Commander, I don't think-"
There was a crash in the corridor, and Solona ran to the door, opening it to find Anders, who was climbing to his feet with a groan. The same servant Solona had startled on her way into the office was standing nearby, holding a rag and wearing an expression remarkably similar to Varel's. Solona offered Anders a hand, grinning when she noticed that the back of his robes were soaked. "Are you all right?" she asked, stifling a laugh.
"I don't know," Anders said, rubbing his backside theatrically. "I might need someone to kiss it and make it better."
The servant let out a shocked gasp, and Solona gave in to her giggles as she ushered Anders into the office.
"Commander," the seneschal continued, as though there had been no interruption, "I'm not sure that this is the best time for you to be away. You have several meetings today, which you have already put off once. And at any rate, if the Crows are after you, it seems to me that the safest place for you is in the Keep."
"That's what I've been telling her all day!" Anders said, throwing his hands in the air. "But she refuses to listen to-"
"We can't just ignore the threat and hope it goes away," Solona said. "They will keep trying until the contract is fulfilled, and that puts everyone in the Keep in danger. This is exactly the kind of situation I was trying to avoid. Do you think I did all that work for them – in the middle of a blight, no less – just for the fun of it?"
"Are you really surprised that a bunch of assassins broke their promise?" Anders shouted in exasperation, realizing his mistake a moment later as Solona narrowed her eyes dangerously. He hurried on, "And you don't know that that Crow will still be in Denerim, or if he even survived the blight."
"Of course," Varel said calmly, "if you were to go to Denerim, I'm sure His Majesty would love to have an update from the Commander herself. I could write to him right now, and let him know you're coming, so he could prepare an appropriate welcome for you."
"Oh, very sneaky," Solona muttered. "I didn't think you had it in you."
She thought for a moment, then looked up with a gleam in her eyes that made Anders' heart sink.
"Very well, then. If you think Denerim would be a waste of time, I suppose I'll just have to go straight to the source. Pack your things, Anders – we're going to Antiva."
"What if you get yourself killed?" Nathaniel shouted, slapping a hand on the table and upsetting a basket of bread that Solona had been reaching for. She frowned at him, but he continued, undeterred. "The Hero of Ferelden, murdered on Antivan soil...the king would likely march off to war, as soon as he was finished beheading me for agreeing to this madness! Not to mention that you want to take two of the most senior Wardens in Ferelden along with you, when we're right in the middle of –"
"Rebuilding the order; yes, I know," Solona said tiredly, propping her elbows on the table and resting her face in her hands. "So you've said, several times already."
"That makes 3, by my count," Oghren called from the other end of the table. "I say good on ya, Commander. Take the fight to them. And I've always wanted to try some of that Antivan brandy."
Nathaniel shot the dwarf a dirty look. "And you want to leave me in command? Me? Do you know how much most of this nation still reviles the Howe name?"
Solona reached for her mug of ale, suddenly wishing she had something stronger. "Nathaniel, I have spent most of today arguing, first with Varel, and then the sodding nobles, and now you, and none of you are going to change my mind. Will you please just accept that I'm going, and that I trust you to deal with things in my absence? You already know everything about ruling this arling, and the people will remember that you fought to save them from the darkspawn."
"And," Anders said cheerfully around a mouthful of food, "if all else fails, you can always win them over with your sparkling personality."
Nathaniel sighed. "Just please be careful; I'd rather this assignment not become permanent."
Solona pushed her empty plate away and stood. "Anders and Oghren, you should get some sleep. We're leaving at dawn. And don't worry, Nathaniel, everyone will be fine." Then, smiling grimly, she added, "Except for the Crows."
Zevran approached the bay, mentally cursing the beautiful fishwife for providing him with such sparse information. The hints she passed along were often vague, but this - a single name and a veiled suggestion to visit the docks- was maddening. He sauntered along the waterfront, his eyes carefully scanning the crowd as he searched for someone who would suit his purpose. He could remain unseen if he wished, but he also knew how to draw the right kind of attention. It was all in the way he carried himself, the exaggerated fluidity and grace of his moments. The weapons on his back would add to the appeal, he knew; there were few who could resist that hint of danger.
It was not long before he spotted the perfect mark: a young elf unloading boxes from a recently moored ship. He was alone in his task, occasionally sparing a nervous glance toward a nearby human, whom Zevran assumed was his master. The human was berating a small boy who, from what Zevran could hear of the conversation, had attempted to steal his coinpurse. The elven dockworker looked up and spotted Zevran, his eyes lingering a moment too long before he flushed and looked away. Zevran recognized the look of one who has seen something he wants, but understands it is forbidden. It was a feeling he was all too familiar with himself. Zevran slowed, pretending to search for something, then let his eyes rest on the other elf, as though he had only just noticed him.
"Hello there, my young friend," Zevran said, deliberately moving to stand a little too close. "I wonder if you could help me with something."
"What, me?" the young man squeaked. His dark eyes widened as they met Zevran's, and he began to tug nervously at the bottom of his tattered shirt. "Um, I mean…yes, of course."
"So many people, coming and going…you must learn many interesting things, yes?" Zevran asked. The other elf nodded, standing a little straighter, and Zevran smiled. It was almost too easy. "Tell me, is the name Caterina familiar to you?"
His new acquaintance froze, darting a panicked look at the nearby human, who was still gesturing angrily at the cowering child. "Do not worry about him," Zevran said. "He is distracted, and we are just making friendly conversation. Perhaps you could start by telling me your name."
"It's…Gabriel, ser," he answered hesitantly.
"Ah, that wasn't so hard, was it?" Zevran said. "Now tell me, Gabriel, of Caterina. I can see that you know who she is; there is no use denying it. But I assure you, I can make it worth your while." He filled the words with promise, breathing them into Gabriel's ear, but the younger elf shook his head, staring at the ground.
"I can't," Gabriel whispered. "I don't know who you are, but you must leave. They will kill me." He looked up, his eyes wild, and scrubbed a hand through his short brown hair, making it stick up crazily. Zevran would have been tempted to laugh if his plan hadn't been going so terribly awry. He was eyeing the human, wondering if the young man was truly so afraid of his employer, when comprehension suddenly dawned.
"I must be losing my touch," Zevran muttered, half to himself. "To stumble blindly into a conversation with a Crow."
Gabriel started violently at the mention of the Crows, confirming Zevran's suspicion. Gabriel glanced around frantically, and, seeing that he was about to run, Zevran grabbed a fistful of his shirt and dragged him close.
"Believe me when I tell you," Zevran said, abandoning all pretense of flirting, "that I could kill you before you manage a single word."
Gabriel began to tremble, his breath coming in short, harsh gasps, as Zevran watched with a combination of pity and disgust. What was this? A Crow so green that he would succumb when threatened by an opponent with no weapon drawn…it was all but unthinkable. In Zevran's experience, one did not live through boyhood with the Crows without becoming a great deal more thick-skinned. But these were questions for later; the sky was beginning to darken, and he still had no information.
Zevran maneuvered Gabriel until they were partially hidden from sight by a stack of crates, and began to rethink his plan. He wondered briefly how Solona would have dealt with the frightened elf. She had been a terror in battle, but whenever possible preferred to use her considerable charm instead. Zevran's own talent for coercion was more suited to talking unsuspecting marks into bed than gaining loyal followers, but it was worth a try. "Gabriel," he said quietly. "I can help you, but you must tell me everything, quickly."
"You…you can't help me," Gabriel said. His eyes were fixed on the ground once more, and though he had regained some of his composure, Zevran could see his hands shaking. "There is no escaping the Crows."
Zevran laughed. "I think you will find that is not entirely true. Come, now – tell me of Caterina."
Gabriel sighed, burying his face in his hands. "The Caterina," he said at last, "is a ship."
A/N: So Varel has to have an office, right? He can't possibly just stand around in the throne room all day.
Thanks to everyone who's been reviewing, and to mille libri and Vshard for putting up with me while I obsessed over where this story was going.