One: The Scene of the Crime
This story follows "Waking Hours" and "Fearful Symmetries", and it will not make any sense if you haven't read the first two, which are both available on my profile. Same caveats hold: I've grabbed the setting and gone scampering into the deep woods with it, which means there's some stuff that wasn't in the game at all, some stuff significantly different than the game, and other differences.
This one just won't leave me alone. And while I thought I was going to be able to do just one more story to wrap everything up, once I started writing, I realized that there are more stories. "Unstrung Harmonies" will take place mostly in Denerim. The fourth story, tentatively titled "Quiet Foxes", will focus on the Tower. The fifth story, tentatively titled "Pitiless Games", will mostly take place in Amaranthine.
Updates will be slightly sporadic, but I'll post chapters as I finish them.
She'd once heard Eamon describe Denerim as a Mabari, loyal and stubborn and dangerous.
It was true, as such things went. Though right now, with all her flags flying and people lining up along the avenues because they'd heard that King Alistair was returning after his trip to Highever and Waking Sea (and that the hero of Ferelden traveled with him, and Maker she was tired of that sobriquet; it reminded her far too much of Loghain) Denerim seemed a little bit more like a trap than anything else.
It didn't help that, riding next to her, Zevran's hands kept straying towards his weapons.
"Nobody is going to attack us," she said, trying to sound sure of herself.
He pointed his chin at a nearby building. "Third floor, second window from the north end. It has sightlines of the whole procession, my Grey Warden. The crowd, there, where it is clustered. It might be a natural grouping, or it might be camouflage for a hidden archer. The alley ahead and to the left is large enough to hide thirty men. The crowd limits our movements, the noise deafens us to danger. I have worked in such situations, before."
Maker's Breath, he was worried.
"An honor guard of forty-two warriors, all of them veterans of Fort Drakon and the attack on the city," she countered. "Alistair's personal guard, who we've both tested the mettle of ourselves. Yvrenne and Lorn, who smell danger before it has a chance to happen. Leliana, who can put an arrow through a hurlock's eye at three hundred paces. Cullen and Alistair, both of whom have such big swords. Me." She smiled at him. "And you."
Zevran relaxed a bit, the tattoos that swept down each side of his face bending a bit as he smiled. "Old habits, no? Put that way, we are a most fearsome company. This is simply not the way I enjoy entering a city. Much too…exposed."
He was worried. But the gates to the Palace were looming before them, and soon they were inside and the iron porticullis closed. It was familiar, by now, this rush of grooms and servants taking horses and bags, Kathil darting out of the way of a harried-looking young woman who was trying to lead four horses at once, none of whom looked very happy. Through the crowd, she could see Alistair consulting with Emris. Lorn was at her hip, sticking close to her.
Leliana was pouting at a woman who was trying to take her pack away from her. "What do you mean, you have to take it? We're going to be meeting the Princess Consort in a few minutes, I have to change."
Oh sodding little hells. Meeting the Princess Consort.
Kathil hoped beyond hope that the woman had mellowed a little in the last three years.
"No time," Alistair said. He was almost vibrating. "Rima will meet us in the hall. Come on."
It had been nine weeks since Alistair had seen his wife and his son, and he was very well allowed to be impatient. Kathil slipped her hand into the crook of Leliana's arm. "You're beautiful no matter what you're wearing, sweetling." She lowered her voice. "Let's get this over with and let Alistair see his family, all right?"
The bard yielded, letting go of her pack. The servant bustled off with it, and Leliana sighed. Zevran was already heading after Alistair, and when Kathil glanced behind her she saw Cullen at her shoulder. She plucked up her courage and stepped forward, the broke into a jog, the straps of her armor protesting a bit. Must remember to go visit Wade, if he's in town. He can replace the straps. It was a job that needed doing every few years, and it was long overdue on this particular set of dragonskin armor.
They caught up to Alistair and Zevran at the great doors that led into the palace. Kathil tried to tell herself that it was all right, it had been three years since she had seen Rima—
"You," Rima said as she turned to see Kathil standing in the doorway.
"Me," Kathil replied. "You wanted to see me?"
Alistair's intended waved at her maids. "Leave us. Close the doors." When they were gone, and it was just the mage and the oldest daughter of an eastern bann, Rima crossed her arms. "I want to get something very clear between us."
Kathil remembered discipline taught by long years in the Tower, and did not move. "And that is?"
One of the problems was that Rima was smart, and she missed absolutely nothing. "I know what you and Alistair were to one another. And I know that it hasn't ended between you."
"You haven't." There was a savage expression in the noblewoman's bright green eyes. "There are so many ways a man can cheat without ever taking his pants off. I've seen the looks you two give each other. I do not care if you are the great hero, mage. If I ever find out that you two have so much as touched each other once Alistair and I are married, I will tear your eyes from your skull. Are we clear?"
Kathil actually took a step back at the fury that was fairly radiating from the woman. "Clear as dawn, my lady," she said, and the ugly wound in her soul was bleeding again, this still-incomprehensible weight of it wasn't supposed to be this way, it wasn't supposed to hurt this badly weighing on her, and she was so very tired, trying to bear up under the burden of all she had lost.
—this was going to be a disaster, wasn't it?
But she was here, and Leliana had her arm and she looked so excited to meet Alistair's wife, and Zevran fell in on her other side and there was just the slightest little smirk on his lips. They walked down the large corridor to the Hall of the Landsmeet, the de facto throne room. Kathil had fought a duel in here once, with a man twice her size who had twenty years more battle experience than she'd had.
Rima waited at the end of the hall, a blanket-wrapped bundle in her arms.
She had hair the color of late summer wheat, and she was still one of the most beautiful women that Kathil had ever met. If anything, four years and becoming a mother had only added a certain maturity to that beauty. As well as that look in her eyes when she looked at Alistair, as if there were nobody in the world but him.
She'll do nicely, Alistair said in Kathil's memory. She's a practical sort.
And Alistair was up on the dais with his arms around his wife, and he kissed her and then the baby, saying something about how much he'd missed her and wow Duncan was huge and what had they been feeding him while he'd been gone? "And oh. Rima, here." He let go of Rima and turned back to them. "This is Leliana, and Zevran, the quiet one in back is the Grey Warden Cullen, and you probably remember Kathil and Lorn."
Once upon a time, his expression would have been open and unguarded. Now, it looked like he had at least some inkling that there was possibly trouble afoot. Rima looked at all of them in turn, and when she got to Kathil the air in the room seemed to turn into ice.
"I remember," she said, and the Princess Consort's voice was utterly neutral. "To what do we owe the honor of this visit?"
There was nothing she could say, and fortunately Leliana fluttered forward and dimpled at Rima, dropping a perfect and precise curtsey. "We've come to visit you and the new heir, your Highness," she said, and her Orlesian accent was quite a bit thicker than usual. "And the high season in Denerim is so lovely, is it not, with all of the balls at the estates?"
And Zevran chimed in, his voice light, "We did not have a chance to enjoy ourselves when we were last, no? And certainly not in such beautiful company." That earned him a dark look from Alistair, but Rima had now transferred her attention away from Kathil, and the air was warming again.
"But I am sure that you and Alistair have many things to catch up on," Leliana said. (And why was she speaking as if she had just come from the Orlesian court?) "We know our way around, I think, and if not there are all these guards who are so very helpful. Let us not keep you."
There was a small smile lurking around the corners of Rima's mouth. "We will retire, yes. Well met, gentlemen. Ladies." She spared one small, cold glance for Kathil and then turned, and Alistiar was taking her arm and they were walking away together, talking in a low voice, guards trailing after them.
"Grey Wardens, this way?" That was Emris, and it was a strange sort of relief to see his dour, round face. "I can show you to your rooms."
They followed him out of the hall. "Where is Yvrenne?" Kathil asked.
"With the Tranquil," was Emris's reply. "She is close to whelping, and they wanted to make sure that she hasn't come to any harm. We weren't supposed to be gone quite so long."
"Will she be all right?" Cullen asked.
Emris chuckled, and the sound was startling, coming from him. "She is tough, and she's done this before. She'll be fine. I'm mostly relieved of duty until she whelps, however. I just have to show you to your rooms and then go hover over Yvrenne."
A few minutes later, they were deposited in the guest wing (with Cullen in the room next to the one that she and Zevran shared and Leliana on the other side) in a room with the most ridiculously large bed Kathil had ever seen. Their bags were already here, neatly placed in a corner, and Kathil fell facefirst onto the bed with a groan. "Maker's Balls. I'd almost forgotten how much that woman hates me."
Zevran sat down next to her, and the bed moved a bit under his weight. "It is only natural, yes? The former lover shows up to threaten the happiness of her home. The beautiful, mysterious Grey Warden mage, the hero, the woman who she knows once romped so happily with her husband, she is suddenly there and the princess jumps to conclusions."
Kathil remembered a conversation that took place about half a year ago, Alistair nearly stuttering and her own heart bleeding and everything so cold and lonely. "I don't blame her, honestly. I was awful to her when she first got here, and she is many things but stupid isn't among them. Well. Not my problem." She rolled over and put her hands beneath her head. "Alistair's problem. I plan on being ruthlessly polite."
"And Leliana will be the Orlesian play-pretty," Zevran said, lying down so his body curved around Kathil's head. Lorn, having grown tired of investigating the edge of the room, jumped up on the bed and settled down at the foot of it. "And I will be the Antivan fop, I think. Cullen…well, I think Cullen is not good at these games, so we will leave him out, yes? But between our lovely bard and my own talents, we may be able to keep the good princess distracted."
She freed one arm and draped it over his hip. "Good plan. And, hopefully, she'll figure out that I am not after her husband. Not any more, at least." She raised her head, trying to see the window. "I wonder if I can talk someone into showing me where I can get a hot bath in this place. Surely that has to be one of the things you can get in this pile."
"And if not, there is always the Pearl," Zevran said.
She grinned. "Some day, I am going to tell everyone that most of the times you headed to the Pearl by yourself, it was just for a bath."
"You will ruin my reputation, my Gray Warden." He moved so he could kiss the sensitive skin of her neck. "And not all of the times I went there were only for bathing." She felt his teeth graze her skin, just a little, perfectly restrained.
"You are a very distracting man. Bath now. Other things later. I am grimy. You too, Lorn, while we're at it." She sat up, and the Mabari whined. "Yes, you have to."
He wagged his stubby tail, cocking his head appealingly. Hadn't she told the healer once that he was a warhound and he was supposed to smell like this?
"But this is the palace, and if you smell good here—well, not quite so much like several dogs all at once, anyway—I'm sure you will be able to con everyone into giving you most of their dinners, not just Cullen," she said.
The dust-knight gives him all the best biscuits, said Lorn's lolling tongue. All right. Bath.
When she went out into the corridor, the guard directed the three of them to the baths, and oh it was wonderful to be able to soak the sweat and dirt and smell of horse off of her skin. She put thoughts of Rima far out of her mind. Worry about it later.
"How could you? How dare you do this, bring her back here?"
He caught her shoulders in his hands. "Rima. My love. I can explain."
Rima had handed Duncan to a nurse when they'd come back to their chambers, banished the guards. It wasn't going to keep her voice from carrying through the whole wing, but at least they had some privacy to have this argument in. "Oh, you can explain, can you? Go running off to Waking Sea right after Duncan is born on some errand that has to do with her, and then you're three weeks late and you have her with you? I do look forward to hearing this."
"Ah. Rima, it really isn't what you think." The problem with loving women with brains was that sometimes, you had to be very careful about what you said. He searched for the right words. "You know I owe Kathil my life, several times over. I had a chance to make her blood family acknowledge her existence, and I did. We're late because there was some…difficulty while we were there, with the Orlesian Grey Wardens."
There was still suspicion on her face. "What kind of difficulty?"
(Kathil, standing shirtless in front of twelve Grey Wardens and him, showing them her nearly ruined shoulder, her chin lifted in an attitude of bring it on, gentlemen.)
"Grey Warden business, Rima. Anyway, there was a darkspawn cell close by, and we went out to take care of it. Kathil was badly wounded. Emris and Yvrenne, too. We couldn't travel for a few weeks. I swear that I came back as quickly as I could, love."
The suspicion in Rima's eyes was undimmed. "And you brought her back here why?"
"She wanted to visit, Rima," he said. "She wanted to see Duncan."
"Well, she's seen him. And now she can go back to the Tower or wherever else they're keeping mages these days." Her body was tense as a drawn bowstring. "Tell her to leave."
Maker's Breath, what on earth could he say to that? "Well, I could. But I think Zevran would go with her, and didn't you say you wanted to learn more about Antiva?" Well, at least all the gruesome and deadly parts.
Ah, that expression he knew altogether too well, the muscles of her jaw firming just slightly, her lips pursing. "They're together?"
"Er. Yes. Very, very much so. And just because you haven't asked, Rima, nothing happened between Kathil and I on the road." He caught her gaze with his, tried to somehow press honesty into every line of his body. "Nothing."
And it was true, so very true, and he remembered the deep scars on the mage's shoulder, the twist at the corner of her mouth, and her declaring that Cullen is my Templar and everything that had come free in him at that moment. Remembered thinking maybe when he'd left on the trip and then realizing that the answer was now no.
Remembered that what he had here was sweeter by far.
Miracle of miracles, Rima relaxed. Just a little. Just enough. "You have to know that I'm going to ask Emris and make sure you're telling the truth, you know."
"Ask away. She and the elf kept him up late into the night just as much as the rest of us." He grinned at her. "The two of them are shameless."
"Hm." There was a world of we'll see in that syllable. "What about the other Grey Warden? Cullen, you said?"
This was a far safer topic. "Former Templar. Personally sworn to Kathil…well, it's a long story, but he's her personal watcher. No idea what she's going to do with him when she goes back to the Tower, to be honest. He's an odd case, but Emris has taken a liking to him."
"I trust Emris's taste in people more than yours." And Rima was smiling at him, which was a minor miracle in itself.
He gave her a hopeful look. "Are we done fighting now? Is it time for kissing and making up? I missed you, Rima."
"Oh, you." Then she was kissing him, and he discovered that it was indeed time for making up. He wasn't quite forgiven, but Maker he had missed her, he hadn't realized quite how much he'd missed her.
Luckiest bastard in the Maker's creation, I am.
Rima, he hoped, agreed.
Among the very many experiences he'd never had before: being in a palace.
It was big in a different way from the Circle Tower; the palace rambled where the Tower mostly went around in circles. The rooms here were on a different scale, as well; or, at least, the rooms were less aggressively divided up by shelves stuffed with books and scrolls and all kinds of other things.
And there was a wizened little woman who unapologetically bossed him around, made him give her all of his dirty clothes and ordered him into a bath. And when he came back, he ran into Kathil and Zevran and Lorn in the hall, all of them damp and with their hair clinging to their heads, and the only thing awkward about it was how not awkward it was.
(He was getting comfortable with this—with them. He thought that should probably worry him. Duty was not supposed to be comfortable.)
Kathil had a few shadows in her eyes, and Cullen thought that maybe they had something to do with the look of hatred that the Princess Consort had given her earlier. But before he had a chance to ask, they had to get dressed for dinner, and even though Alistair assured them that this was the least amount of formality he could get away with, the meal was enormous and long and before it was over Cullen was working hard at not nodding off in his chair, sitting next to Kathil.
It was strange, that people seemed to be able to recognize a Templar when they saw one. Kathil wore her mage robes, the fancy ones that she always wore when she wanted to leave the indelible impression of mage. (Because mages were all dangerous and they were all exactly the same and the mage robes were uniform and camouflage in one.) When they walked down the hall, even though he was not in armor but instead in something like the uniform he'd seen Greagoir wearing a number of times (shirt that suggested tabard, dark trousers, boots, gloves, sword), people who passed them would see her and tense, their mouths tightening.
Then their eyes would stray to him walking at her shoulder and two paces behind, and they would relax. And smile. At him.
He honestly wasn't sure quite what to think.
But they got through the dinner, and he might have been imagining things, but the looks that the Princess Consort directed at Kathil became a bit less icy after Zevran leaned over and murmured something into Kathil's ear, and she'd blushed and told the elf that he was a terrible man. The Princess Consort didn't look like she was a woman who missed much, and she surely hadn't missed that.
Then he was back in his own room, in a bed far too big for comfort, and he slept like the dead until he was woken by pounding on the door.
Cullen was out of bed before he was even half awake, grabbing his sword, because middle-of-the-night knockings were never good things. He yanked the door open, thinking to see Zevran, or maybe Leliana—
It was Emris.
"Put some clothes on," the King's guard told him. "You're not going to need the sword. And come with me."
Blinking, he went to find some pants, then followed Emris down the hall. By the time he had his tongue sorted out enough to ask where they were going, they were in the part of the palace that housed the stables and kennels, and he was in a small room with three other people, two women and one man.
Emris opened a door to an adjoining room and vanished through it.
When he came back, he had something dark in his hands, which he promptly deposited into Cullen's. "Don't drop it," he said, and went back though the door.
The thing was surprisingly heavy for its small size, warm and alive and damp with birthwater, and somewhere in Cullen's sleepy mind he realized that this was a puppy.
And he finally realized what it meant.
The puppy snuffled at his fingers, blunt muzzle seeking, and it was blind and very unlovely and Cullen cradled it to his chest. Emris was bringing out more puppies, and there was a Tranquil in the room now who had a square of cloth which he rubbed on Cullen's neck and then on the puppy's wet skin. "Only a few more minutes," Emris said. "They have to go back to Yvrenne before they get too cold. Make sure you touch them all over, paws especially."
The puppy didn't seem to object to him touching it, to him tracing fingers along its legs and to its paws. When Cullen touched its muzzle, it made a soft sighing sound and latched on to his smallest finger for a moment, then seemed to fall abruptly asleep.
Emris took the puppy from him, and the Tranquil came to him with what looked like a cross between an amulet and a locket. It was oblong, with holes in it through which he could see a scrap of the fabric that the Tranquil had rubbed on him and the pup a few minutes earlier. "You must wear this for the first six weeks of your Mabari's life," the Tranquil said in that monotone that never failed to make a shiver go down Cullen's spine. "It has been enchanted to identify your Mabari and to help the imprinting process along."
"I—um. Thank you." Was there anything else he could say?
Emris had finished taking the puppies back to Yvrenne, and was shooing the others out. "I'll walk back with you," Emris said. "It's entirely possible to get lost in the halls, if you're unfamiliar with them." He esorted Cullen out of the kennels and into the palace proper, walkin through long hallways lit only by the occasional lamp.
Cullen finally found his tongue. "Emris …why me?"
The older man smiled, just a little. "Yvrenne insisted that you needed a pup. A specific pup, no less, one of the two bitch puppies. The Tranquil have been planning on sending the Templars a few breeding pairs anyway, to bolster their strength, so one of the Tranquil who specializes in Mabari will be returning to the Tower with you at the end of the summer. That's about when the puppies will be weaned." They passed a pair of guards, who nodded to Emris and to Cullen. "You should come by every day. Afternoons are usually good, since Yvrenne always gets a bit tired of her pups about then and is more than happy to let us take them off her hands while she goes to stretch her legs. The Tranquil will teach you everything you need to know."
"I will. And—thank you."
Emris thumped him on the shoulder. "You're welcome, Warden. Here you are. Sleep well."
Not that Cullen did, but he did try.
When the dreams came—
For they did come, triggered by scents, sights, the feeling of being surrounded by hundreds of watchful gazes, the very public nature of their appearance here in Denerim. There was a reason he had gone back to Antiva after the Archdemon, and it had not just been because he had missed the food.
Packed floor to ceiling in makeshift bunks made out of old crates, in a warehouse with no windows, baking in the Antivan summer sun. The choking smell of the tanners, underlaid by the smell of sweat and terror and shit. Boys and girls, elves and humans, and always the watchers (women with hard edges and scarred men)—all of them roasted and sweated and it was not safe to sleep in more than snatches.
It was paradise compared to what came next.
Kathil was asleep. Lorn snored on the floor at the foot of the bed, on a pillow made especially for him. Zevran listened to the sounds of the palace, faraway murmurs, a dog barking, the muffled moans of a pair of people having an assignation in the shadowed courtyard below the window.
No threats. Not right now, at least.
It somehow failed to lighten his mood. He slipped out of bed and went silently to the window. Lorn stirred in his sleep but did not waken. The wall below the window would be difficult to climb down, but he could if it were needful. He evaluated sightlines—there were good ones to several windows across the courtyard, to the roof. He could almost feel those invisible lines that would draw arrows onward.
He wondered if he might convince his Grey Warden to cut her visit to Denerim short. Though he did not relish the idea of returning to the Tower, he did not feel nearly this exposed there. He had no quarrel with the Templars, the mages could be reasonable company when they forgot their fear and their obedience, and he rather thought there was going to be some rather interesting trouble when they got there.
His Grey Warden intended to set the Circle on its ear when she arrived. That was going to be worth watching.
But what was there to worry about here? So they were exposed—that was nothing new. There would be compensations. Dancing, music, watching Alistair attempt to deal with his wife's indignation at Kathil's presence, all would be amusing.
Still. He was uneasy.
The two Crow trainees who were sparring circled each other. He glanced at Ville, sitting next to him. She was twice his age at twenty-six, delicately pretty, and only her randomly darting eyes betrayed the fact that she was completely blind. "To what?"
"How they breathe, how they move. Just listen, Zevran."
He closed his eyes, and focused. Luisa's breathing was ragged, a hitch in it like he heard when she would invite another trainee into her bunk. Orphene, facing her, breathed more deeply and regularly, but there was a whining tremble at the beginning of each breath. It took him a little longer to separate the sound of their feet—they were matched in height and weight, but Orphene's steps were short, and Luisa's feet dragged just a bit.
He could almost see the fight, even with his eyes closed. Muscle and sinew swept blades through the air, their movements echoed off the walls, off the gathered Crow trainees who were watching.
He heard fear, in both of them.
Orphene and Luisa shared their bed, more often than not. They had been fighting for almost an hour, evenly matched in skill and determination, and when he'd had his eyes open he hadn't seen the terror in both of them. Something ended here today, in this warehouse with sawdust beneath their feet.
Ville's mouth was at his ear. "Orphene will lose."
And just like that, he heard the rhythm of Luisa's footsteps alter slightly. There was the shearing sound of a blade entering flesh, Orphene gasping and falling, the quiet splash of blood almost drowned out by the murmurs that were rising in the room.
He opened his eyes to see Luisa standing over Orphene's body. "How did you know?" he asked Ville. "It wasn't supposed to be a fight to the death." Orphene's eyes were glazed, and she was not breathing.
There was a grim look on Ville's face. "I overheard Orphene speaking to Luisa last night. She wanted to take her and run. That is how love ends, boy. With someone dead."
He had reason to remember Ville's statement, later.
But he was no longer an Antivan Crow, and the past did not matter except on nights such as these.
He studied the sightlines, the only meditation that the Crows ever taught, and waited.