He was dreaming.
It was an odd thing to walk these halls again, odder still to sense the currents of mist, the vague… otherness of every wall and crack and stone. Even in the Fade, he could not let down his guard.
Always it had been the same. Always he had been able to see illusion for what it was, finding no escape, no rest, even here. He had tried to explain it to her once, how to… detach. It had been worse those last months, waking to her screams when she even came to bed at all. And there she would lay, crushed against his chest, the sobs, the pain washing over him, a rock in waning seas. And for all his strength, he had been powerless; for all his vaunted fearlessness he had trembled.
But there were no more dreams now. This was only the Fade. And he was alone.
Memory came, blurring, shifting at the edge of sight. He had walked these paths before.
The room was narrow, dimly lit. It had been a pantry once, perhaps, the chapel and all its finery at the opposite end of the grounds. But it was here that they had placed their altar, here behind the locked and sturdy door that they had prepared the ritual.
There had been others that night, waiting, watching, reciting the words. But now, as always, he was alone. Looking down the long room, to the cup waiting there, his skin grew cold. Memory.
The fingers curling round the base of the chalice, though, were new. This was no man that he had ever known, ever thought to dream. And yet he recognized that long and grey-streaked hair, the weathered smile coming stern beneath the dark and bristling beard. In these halls, it was he who was the stranger.
The old man held the great cup before him, turning it in the sourceless light. He seemed to see him then, eyes narrowing over the rim. "You should not be here."
"Ahh, well perhaps I will be going after all."
"You have seen what none should see." He stalked forward now. "You are no Warden."
"So I have been told."
"And yet you take with you our secrets. You know the penalty for this."
"Death?" The smile was bitter. "Only tell me who shall deliver it and there I will go."
The old man blinked.
"You? Alas, but it is you who are dead, my friend. And sorely missed, if it is any consolation."
He had reached him now, the cup seeming to hover in the space between them. Again, the other shook his head. "You are no Warden."
He could see his hands moving, the memory unstoppable, unchangeable. The great chalice was flung aside, clattering to splash red across the stones. Again he could feel his body curling, falling to its knees, nails digging hard into the flesh of his thighs. There would be screams now, stares.
The others, those few that he had trusted to stand witness… never would he forget their faces. There had been shock, pity, but through it all that knowledge, that certainty that he would fail. And he had swatted the cup away like a petulant child, curling on the stones to weep.
Still those eyes were everywhere, in every wall and step and stone. Her eyes. The man Duncan, too, had vanished, himself only a borrowed memory, her memory, her dream.
He could never be what she had needed.
And so he had turned from that place, from those long accustomed halls, slipping away in the night. As it should have been, as it had always been.
Elves love the forest, they said. The Dalish had never left, but even the most cynical of city elves were said to find a certain… peace in all things green. Waking here, though, stiff-necked and aching, Zevran had to laugh. Could he not have dreamed of silks and feathers, warm breasts and cool wine? Slowly he pushed himself up onto his elbows, plucking a stray leaf from his hair.
And yet even this bore the bitter taste. The wandering, the journey… these had all been hers once. There would never be a bed that was not empty, never an open space that was not somehow too still.
Would it be self-pity, then? Perhaps this, at least, was better than memory. Still the dream hung close, the words that had dogged those final steps echoing still.
"Not fear, no never that. Being a Warden comes with a price… and that just wouldn't work for you, would it?"
Alistair. The man had proven his point, righteous and insufferable unto the end. Even lost to drink and bitterness he had been the better man. Her equal.
"But you, you will do what you have always done, what you do best. You will survive."
Had she known? Had she suspected and wrapped it in tender words? You will fail.
No. Never to welcome his end, never to truly make a stand. Is that not what they both had believed? Soon, though. Soon he would prove them wrong.
Staggering to his feet, he stretched, feeling the ache slide away beneath the movements. Even now the pattern was familiar, his limbs flowing through the exercises without need of thought or fear. Was this something like peace then? These few fleeting moments each morning?
Leaning heavy against a nearby tree, he relieved himself, turning to let his forehead fall against the rough and pitted bark. His fingers curled there, scraping across the unyielding wood as memory again took him.
She was there then, between him and the tree, his eyes squeezed shut in pleasure instead of pain. But no, not that, not yet. If he would be tormented, let him see it all.
He had watched her, keeping to her shadows, her stillness, more now than ever before. But the rose was new, wilting, wearing away beneath her stroking fingers. She had seen him, caught his eyes, but there had been no shame there, no embarrassment. When at last she had slipped away, he had followed.
"Is our Alistair really so dreadful that his gifts would make a woman weep?"
She had scowled for him, folding her legs to sit against the trunk of a withered tree, but there was invitation there, the sigh coming heavy as he settled beside her.
"You know that he came to me, yes? For advice?"
Surprise at that, curiosity and excitement glittering behind fearful eyes. Even in the shadows far from the safety of camp, she had been beautiful. Dangerously so.
"What did you tell him?"
Placing a finger to his lips, he had grinned.
She, though, had already turned away, worrying the stem still between her hands. "It's just too… big."
He remembered his look of surprise, the laugh bubbling thick in his throat. "Too… big?"
Annoyance, playful though it had been. "It's too… grand. Too much. Too…"
"The stuff of stories? The last two Grey Wardens, Blight at their heels, world against them?"
He had noticed it then, the hand on his arm, the fingers twitching nervous there. Suddenly he could feel every pore, every hair seeming to strain toward her touch. His own hands were moving, tracing along her cheek, tilting her eyes to meet his own.
Soft she had been, always so soft, so unexpected. His hands curled at the memory, finding only cracked and cutting bark.
But still those eyes were swimming before him, expectant, pleading, the words coming whispered again to his lips. "Perhaps you do not want the hero."
Little details flitting away now, if they had ever truly been. Her lips were on his, rising to meet him, struggling together to their feet. Armor had fallen away and there had been the tree, so perfectly convenient, her legs wrapping round as he crushed her against it. The rose had fallen away, trampled beneath their feet.
She had fought and she had taken, desperate, wanting, needing only him. A bite at his lips had drawn blood – sharp, metallic, bitter – but her gasp had come hot against his ear, his face burrowing uncaring into her neck.
Now he tasted blood again, felt the warmth against his cheek thick and stinging. The cry was welling in his chest, face pressing harder still against the bark.
There was nothing, nothing here now. Just a tree.
Slowly he opened his eyes, tracing fingers down the fresh cuts of his forehead and cheek. Her back had been much the same, but the pain had only come later, in the light of camp. He had been surprised to see the rose again between her hands, her worrying fingers smoothing away whatever bruises they had managed to make.
She had slipped away the next night and he had followed unbidden, shadowing silent as she gingerly removed the tunic, waded hissing into the quiet stream. She had not jumped when he approached, when his fingers had traced those cuts, applying the salve where her struggling hands had failed. There should have been apologies, but she had only drawn him near, opening still and tender and silent now. Something like peace.
Now, though, the woods were empty, the quiet of winter, of sentinels long dead. They seemed to watch him even now, the lingering eyes of dream. But there would not be long to wait, not now.
He had spotted it two days ago, the walls rising away to the north and east. Once it had been the center of his world, a gem amidst these harsh and bitter wilds, glittering and seething with life. Closing his eyes, he could almost smell it, taste it, the tang of tanning hides, the whirling music of the night streets, the laughter of the world's finest whores. Never had he been able to describe it, the sheer… thickness of it, but still she had listened rapt, joking that she knew the place almost as well as he by now. His Antiva City, his home.
Slipping from the trees, he could see it now, the rutted path winding down toward those jagged rooftops, to the ports and seas beyond. Perhaps it was only the sun, so glaring as it rose, but the scene seemed to be washed in lingering grey, the waters flat and dark. Even the flags atop the wall seemed to hang still in the already sticky warmth, their colors dull and muted.
Long had he waited for this moment, but the smile came hard and bitter. Somehow, somewhere, he had come to picture it with her at his side. Turning, he could see her, wavering there in the morning haze. Young as he remembered, she flicked her braids aside, eyes lighting on the distant city as she laughed. She turned to him now, the smile blurring as it softened.
He had already taken a step forward, hand reaching, before the biting wind stirred again, the fingers breaking, scattering beneath his own. Lies and illusion, all this place had ever been.
It would have been more prudent to hire a ship, to cross the Waking Sea directly, but still he had languished, these slow weeks taking him round the coast with no want of horse or wagons.
Bending to gather his pack, he snorted. How long had it taken her to travel to Orzammar? Five, six days? She had rushed headlong to her death, but what became of such grand gestures on the miles in between? How had they spent them, she and her Alistair?
He shook his head, tugging the traveling cloak low over his face. Had he not stalled long enough?
It was well past midday before the path began its final descent, the broad switchback opening into the wide boulevards of the coastal flats. Here the road became cobbled, bounded to either side by trimmed and tended spinebark trees, the colonnade dividing round the wilting winter gardens at its center. And still ahead the wall rose, the intricate inlays of marble and bronze polished and gleaming even in the waning light. This was no battlement, no fortification; none had been foolish enough to attack the city in hundreds of years. This was merely showing off.
There was no point in lingering, however; his progress would have been marked leagues ago. But the crowd was thick, the night's trade already stirring. He could feel it prickling along his neck, the currents, the watching eyes. The blow took him hard in the shoulder, spinning him round, the merchant cursing beneath his mustaches as he balanced his tray. Any of them… the young cutpurse, the lass with the inviting smile, any of those who waited in the windows above… She had gone to face the darkspawn, for that is what Grey Wardens did, what they were. Perhaps it was only fitting that his end come here, at shadowed hands.
Letting his hood fall, he stepped through the gate.
Beyond the streets grew close, rising in tiered balconies. Those closest to the gate were fine enough, overhung with drooping flowers, the flickering lights that marked the coming of Carnevale, echoing with the laughter and song of those above, just out of reach. Soon enough, though, the streets would branch, growing closer still, bounded by the slow and snaking canals, the rising stink of darker places. But even here, in the dead of winter, there was heat, the frenzy of close-packed life, swelling beneath the coming night.
Music in the square ahead, light. Stopping beneath a low balcony he stiffened, the blade sliding easy from its place at his back. He spun quick, pinning the other man against the wall. Not a man – a boy – his dark braids swaying as he laughed. There was no fear in those eyes, only cold certainty, a glittering amusement, even as the blade dimpled his pale and naked throat. It was slowly that he raised his hand, slowly that he bared the letter's seal.
Again the laughter bubbled, the boy's other hand snaking to sweep along his cheek. "They did not lie. Such pretty hair."
He snatched the letter away, sheathing the blade with a disgusted sigh. "Go."
"What? No questions? No offer of torture?"
Already he had broken the seal, glaring up now over the edge of the page. What the boy had been told of him he could not guess, but this at last stiffened him, set him to sliding backward with a parting bow.
He snorted beneath his breath. There would be no quiet blade, no silent song of the final arrow, not here, not for him. Perhaps he did envy her after all. It had never been his way, but there was something… honest in the clash of arms… valiant in facing the eyes of the enemy. But never this, never for him.
Turning the invitation over in his hands, he traced the broken seal, sliding a finger over the embossment, the address, coming at last to the signature waiting there. It was widely joked that there were no old Crows. But here he stood; why not another?
The boy had not seen it, the shock, the trembling of the page. Crumpling it now, he tossed the invitation aside. Welcome to Carnevale.
The Dorado District. The old guild house had grown it seemed, sprawling now, perhaps even bigger than the palace itself. The apartments to either side were reserved for only the most… profitable members, the change from the warehouses, the stench of the training rooms meant to overwhelm and impress. It had been his home for a time, but it was those early days that he remembered now. Pity that there would be no time to visit, but this was where the road had turned.
The line stretched some way beyond the gate, men and women in various states of undress laughing as their invitations were counted, their names marked. He would know every person behind that door, the worth and price of every head. But tonight was not about business, it seemed, tonight was about something else.
When his own turn came, he half expected to be turned away, but there was no mention of his missing invitation, no move to divest him of the blades behind either shoulder. The Elven woman on the door only smiled, eyes openly appraising, the two men on duty bending to amused whispers. So. He was expected.
The hall beyond was broad, the marble falling away into an open fountain, the pillars to either side wrapped round in violet and green and gold. So too were the guests a riot of color, his own worked leathers seeming suddenly drab by comparison. They had been a gift, purchased with the queen's own coin, but perhaps he had forgotten the finery of Antiva, a taste for the opulent rivaled only by the fashions of Orlais. Doffing his cloak, he let it fall, slipping round to lean against a corner pillar. If his host was cruel, he could be waiting all night. In fact, he expected no less.
He heard the steps approach, turning before the hand could fall.
The smile came easy, the girl – the same from the door – holding up a stilling hand. "Did I startle you?"
He chuckled beneath his breath.
"No. I didn't think so."
She was dressed in muted tones, her intricate and layered leathers hiding only the most tender bits. He had seen the technique before. Distraction. It was not ineffective.
Her eyes glinted wicked as she followed his gaze. Her hair was dark, cropped short over slender and pointed ears. The features were perhaps too narrow, her skin just a bit too pale, but he knew then, the memory stirring unsettling.
"He sent you for me."
She nodded once, smiling still.
He laughed then, shaking his head as he leaned back against the pillar.
"Do I… amuse you?"
She arched a delicate brow. "There is no reason to hurry, you know. There are other things I could show you… if you like."
Unfolding his arms, he stepped forward. He was barely taller than she, the threat in the gesture met only by a pair of dark and pooling eyes. It was she who stepped forward now, arching against him as his hand fluttered against the bare flesh of her back.
It stilled there then, slipping up and over her shoulder, twining though her hair with a sharp jerk. His breath came warm against her cheek. "Take me to him."
She smiled still, the pained hiss dropping into a low chuckle. Stepping back with a bow, she gestured to a distant door.
The room beyond was long, a pair of tables stretching long and laden between rows of high backed chairs. They gathered here and there, those daring enough to eat from the table of the Crows. But it was to the end of the room that his eyes roamed, to the louder, laughing crowd gathered there. And at their center he stood, head shaved clean and bald, withered beyond age but tall and proud still.
Silence fell as they approached, all but he turning to watch with wicked smiles.
"Ahh, Rika. Have you brought our guest?"
"I have, Master."
He did turn then, the grin deep and lined beneath hollow and reddened eyes. He had been old years ago, but Master Calabri had never been one to let such things stop him. Still he moved with an easy grace, snaking one arm round the Elven girl's waist. The gesture was familiar, but it was to Zevran that he looked, meeting his eyes as brittle lips grazed along her neck. He spun her aside then, striding forward to clasp hands behind his back.
It was still there, after all, the old hatred, the old striving clear on the old man's face. "Ahh, Zevran. Returned to us at last, I see."
He stiffened, saying nothing, lips twisting into a bemused sneer.
"I have not seen you since – when was it? – the merchant? Yes. You and that Elven girl. What was her name?"
"Rinna. Her name was Rinna."
"No matter." Turning now, he made for the table, scooping up a wide-rimmed cup. Bringing it to his nose, he let his eyes fall shut, savoring the flavor. "And then the Grey Wardens, yes? Word of your failure reached us soon enough. And where is Taliesen? Have you brought him back with you?"
"Taliesen is dead."
"Truly?" The old man raised his eyebrows in mock surprise. "Six bodies, they said, found at the bottom of some filthy Ferelden well. Burned beyond recognition. Magefire. It seems you have made some powerful allies." He ranged closer now, circling with an appraising glare. "And yet here you are. Alone."
"Are you certain? You are willing to bet your life on this?"
He only laughed, dry and choking as the slap found Zevran's cheek. "Do not lie to me, boy. You were never any good at it. Or have you forgotten?"
There was sting there, yes, but it was nothing to what boiled beneath.
"You were never good at much, as I remember. And yet you stayed the Warden's hand. Spent thirty years in their service. What I wonder is why?"
He blinked up at the old man, stilling his features, giving nothing.
Calabri sipped his wine. "A spectacular farce, then. Well done."
He could feel it shifting, twisting before he could stop it. The other man's grin broke wide. He spun the cup in his hand now, swirling the red within.
"Ahh, I should have guessed."
His eyes pinched shut, turning away. He could feel the breath hot against his cheek.
"And so you seek your death. And so you came to me." The old master stepped back then, grin threatening to split his features before he again leaned close. "Ahh, but you see there is a problem with your plan. For all your gallantry, your righteousness… I just do not care. You are not worthy of my blade. And no blade in the city will touch you, I think." The laugh was sticky against his skin, thick and fragrant. "No, Zevran Arainai, no I think I would have you live."
He did open his eyes then, the watering and red-rimmed glare only inches from his own. The same as he remembered, those same and haunting words coming again and again. He blinked once, twice, hands moving faster than thought. No release, no grand ending, only this, welling bitter into laughing tears.
The chalice slipped from the old man's fingers, clattering to splash red across the tiles. They scrabbled now, reaching up in wonder to trace the hilt buried in his chest. Holding to his gaze still, the old man smiled.
"Yes, live you shall."
The old master fell aside and he sank then, dropping into one of the high-backed chairs. Bending, he retrieved the dagger, wiping it across his thigh before the blood could harden. There he sat, resting it across his knees, letting his head sink between his shoulders.
It was over. They would take him now. Minutes passed, five, six, before he raised his head. They watched him still, stiffened and unblinking, but there was no outrage, no shock, no call to arms. They were… waiting. For him.
Only the Elven girl, Rika, stepped forward. She retrieved the cup from where it had fallen, refilling it from one of the master's finest bottles.
As he blinked up at her, her smile softened. "You really don't remember how it works, do you?" She bowed then, deeper than before, placing the cup in his stunned and stiffened hands.
Calabri's final gift, the words lingering still. He looked round, these people, his people now, bowing to mirror the girl.
Raising her eyes, she smiled for him. "Drink."
Live, she had told him, do what it is that you do best. Had she known then, known that those last tender words would become his curse? Tilting back his head with a bitter laugh, Zevran brought the cup to his lips and drank deep.