Denerim's docks were crowded. This was in no small part due to the Hero of Ferelden being in the area, for many people had followed from the palace to gawk or speculate where she was going next. The Grey Warden Asleena Cousland had asked nothing of Queen Anora at the celebration earlier that day, saying only she would travel for a time. She had not elaborated on where to. Even her brother's invitation to return home to Highever had been declined for the time being.
Zevran Arainai suspected Asleena's plans, but had said nothing until this point. Now he crouched beside their only other companion, Asleena's mabari warhound, pulled the leather glove from his right hand and proffered a scrap of dried meat.
"I don't usually resort to bribing animals for information," the elf confided as Ferrix snuffed eagerly after the treat, "but answer a few questions for me and there's more where this came from." To prove his point, he uncurled his fingers and allowed the dog to lick the beef strip up. Almost instantly, another morsel was being displayed in his left hand.
Ferrix sat back on his haunches and looked at Zevran attentively, ears perked.
"You, my canine companion, have known our fair Warden here longer than anyone," he went on, slanting a glance in Asleena's direction. She wasn't looking at them, but he was certain she was listening. "I am curious if she's confided to you where we're going." When the dog cocked his head and whined a little, Zevran raised his brows. "No? Nor I. Perhaps she intends a luxury cruise? I certainly wouldn't object, although Denerim seems quite short of pleasure boats. Also, the smell of rotting fish and roasting darkspawn isn't very appealing. Now, if we went to Antiva—"
"—we'd be dodging assassins in between massages," Asleena interrupted.
"That would just keep things exciting." He smiled as the young woman finally glanced over, then tossed the meat piece to Ferrix and stood. "But that is not what you intend."
"No," she agreed, turning her green eyes back to the docks. "I'm going after Alistair." She seemed to hesitate, then said, "I will understand that this isn't what you signed up for when you offered to travel with me."
Zevran studied her in silence for a moment. Her disposition had changed much since the Landsmeet. Ever since she had spared Loghain and lost Alistair, she had been less inclined to talk or even smile. A warrior capable of splitting an ogre's skull with that bloody huge sword of hers, not to mention stand her ground in a fight with a score of injuries and enemies on all sides, he had never seen her look so vulnerable. Or so hurt. Everyone else was celebrating the end of the Blight and the death of the Archdemon, or paying their respects to Loghain's tomb, but she was not interested in such things. After speaking briefly to her brother Fergus and former companions she had made her appearance before those gathered outside the palace and then headed straight here.
"I knew you would go after him as soon as you told Anora you intended to travel," Zevran said at last. "You know who you want by your side and intend to hold on to that. I understand. I would be the first to agree you must pursue that which you desire."
She turned to him again, a quizzical frown on her brow. "I'm not sure how to interpret that. Does that mean you don't resent him? Or does it mean you intend to…" she made a vague gesture, looking uneasy, "…try to move in now that he's gone?"
"I would be a liar if I claimed I had not considered it—you are a remarkable woman, as I've said before. But you made it clear that you love him and I will respect that. Perhaps your feelings will change in time." He grinned when her frown deepened and he raised both hands in a placating gesture. "But if not, I will continue to admire you from afar."
"Just don't try to sabotage me or turn me around," she warned him, straightening her shoulders so that the gleaming blade strapped across her back shifted. "I intend to keep looking until I track him down."
Zevran dropped his smile instantly and quirked a brow instead. "If you don't trust me you can tell me to leave."
Asleena opened her mouth as though to make a retort, then closed it. An expression of pain crossed her features for an instant before she shook her head and looked away, the dark curtain of her hair shielding her face from view. "I don't want you to leave." She started to walk closer to the waterfront and Ferrix trotted after her.
Zevran paused a second, considering, then sighed to himself and followed. "Do you know where he went?" he called, catching up.
"I know he boarded a Rivaini ship before the siege," she replied, her tone even again. "I asked around a bit and got the name of the ship, the Stonereef, but I don't know where it was bound or who to ask." A note of frustration entered her voice. "Much is still in chaos."
"So you were just planning to sail for Rivain and hope for the best, right?" Zevran shook his head. "That may be the Stonereef's final destination, whatever port it docks notwithstanding, but it could pull into other harbours along the way." He gestured to the vessels at rest in the water, mostly merchantmen. "There is good profit to be had in Denerim and most of Ferelden since the Blight. Even though it didn't last that long, it doesn't take much to ruin harvests and create a demand for basic staples. I wouldn't be surprised if our ship simply docked at a port on the other side of the Waking Sea before deciding whether or not to wait for an outcome to the siege."
"You're saying he could have disembarked anywhere," Asleena said, looking dismayed.
"No, I'm saying he could have disembarked closer to home than you're imagining." He peered from ship to ship. "And his berth could have even returned with supplies."
A flicker of hope gleamed in her eyes and she nodded, giving him a small smile. "It's worth looking, right?"
Zevran's answering smile was wider. "Not for the ship itself, my Grey Warden, but for the harbourmaster."
As simple as the task sounded, the crowd didn't make things easy. No longer content with merely watching Asleena's progress across the docks, admirers and profiteers soon began to swarm upon the small group. Asleena had declined the offer of an armed escort, and only now realised the possibility that Anora hadn't extended it solely for security reasons. Mothers were rushing up with babies, merchants were trying to present their wares either as gifts or in the hopes of patronage, blessings were called down upon her from all sides. Zevran, noticing his companion's expression was becoming harried, suggested he could find the harbourmaster alone and slipped away when Asleena nodded agreement.
Ferrix was growing irate at the press of people as well, and began to snap at those who came too close. Asleena brushed a finger over the mabari's head once in a while to keep him under control, but didn't scold him. She preferred having a circle of empty space between herself and the people. Even so, she had to try and shrug off an uncomfortable feeling between her shoulder blades. She had removed the heavy dragonscale armour Wade had fashioned for her, since an ocean voyage and metal plates didn't mix. Usually she didn't need any more steel than a good blade to feel secure, but she wasn't accustomed to so many people…watching her.
She felt a sudden pang of homesickness for Highever. She'd told Fergus she would come back in a while, but of course hadn't been able to tell him when that would be. She had no idea how long it would take to find Alistair. He had over a week's worth of travel on her, especially if he hadn't simply stayed in whatever port he'd landed in.
Please, Maker, let him be safe. Let him forgive me.
Someone jostled her and she started out of her half-daze. Ferrix barked angrily as she stumbled then turned around to see a couple of men sprawled on the road, apparently stunned. A second later someone shouted a warning and a sharp pain exploded in her back.
The crowd scattered, many screaming, but some produced weapons and shouted at her to get out of the way. Ferrix had already bounded from her side with a horrible snarl and Asleena had barely drawn Starfang before the warhound bore his mistress's attacker to the ground and clamped his jaws around the man's throat. There was a choked scream and then silence. Asleena stood still, listening and more than listening as she slowly looked around, sword still in hand, her back afire. Everything felt frozen around her as her eyes lifted, drawn by some battle-born instinct, and she saw the bowman drawing a bead on her from a distant rooftop. Without thinking she flung herself to one side and heard the twang of a bowstring, then the sharp sound of an arrow shattering against the ground followed by a distant cry of pain and a crash. She rolled to a crouching stance and looked up again, but the archer was gone.
"Warden!" Zevran's voice called. She found the elf with her eyes. His longbow was out and he pointed towards the spot the archer had been. "If that fall didn't kill him, he should be alive!" He darted away.
"Ferrix, catch but don't kill!" Asleena ordered, and the mabari charged ahead of her. Seven of the armed townspeople followed at a distance, a couple pale-faced after the warhound's brutal retaliation but the rest with the grim expressions of soldiers. Asleena mentally noted the quality and keep of the weapons she could see, and wondered if Anora had decided to send an escort after all.
They found the bowman crumpled and unconscious amidst the pile of wooden crates that had broken his fall. One of Zevran's arrows protruded from his left shoulder. Ferrix snuffed around the prone form before returning to Asleena's side, watching the armed people behind her with wary eyes and raised hackles.
"An elf," one of the men noted.
"The other one was a human," a woman pointed out.
Zevran appeared, gave the fallen archer a cursory glance, then looked up at the roof and pointed. Asleena nodded and stepped closer, cupping her hands to boost him up. The assassin disappeared for a few seconds then returned, passing down an Antivan longbow.
"A Crow?" Asleena asked as her companion sprang lightly down.
"Yes." He rifled through the elf's clothing and fished out a pair of blades, along with some poison vials.
"What about the other one?" one of the men asked.
Zevran looked up, as though noticing them for the first time, then shook his head. "I didn't get a close look, but I'm guessing he was either on his own or paid to be a distraction. Perhaps the crowd was getting in his way," he added nudging the body with his foot.
Asleena reached back with one hand and winced as she probed her wound. She looked at the blood on her fingers and showed Zevran. "He may not have been a Crow, but he got a lot closer than you did."
"Ouch," he said, then laughed. "That wasn't a bad shot either. I may bear the scar for years!"
She snorted, and without so much as a glance over her shoulder said: "Captain?"
"My lady?" a swordsman replied automatically, stepping forwards.
"Would you mind having this Crow locked up? I'm sure Queen Anora can sort things out." Only Zevran heard her mutter, "It was her father who set up the contract in the first place, after all."
As two of the plainclothes soldiers bound the would-be assassin and hauled him away, Asleena led the others back to the man Ferrix had taken out. She shook her head in disgust at the sight of a trio of peasants gathered around the corpse, all of whom fled in different directions when they noticed they were being approached. Anything the man had possessed that carried value had been scavenged, right down to the dagger he'd stuck in Asleena's back. At her gesture, one of the guards slung the body over his shoulder and trudged away.
"You should get that bandaged," Zevran murmured. He unfurled a cloak and held it out. Asleena swirled it around her own shoulders, hiding the twinge of pain the movement cost her, and nodded to him.
"It'll hold for now." She looked at the guards. "Thanks for your assistance."
"For what good we did," the captain said, but bowed. "We will be in the vicinity, Warden. At least the people are giving you a bit more distance now."
"Yes," Zevran chuckled. "Nothing like the prospect of being stabbed, shot or having your throat torn out by a warhound to disperse a crowd."
"I suppose the Crows are still after both of us," Asleena noted once the guards had walked away.
"Loghain's contract against the Ferelden Grey Wardens still stands," Zevran agreed. "The Crows may not be accepting new contracts against you, but they never cancel existing ones."
"Loghain's dead! How do the assassins expect to get paid if they succeed?"
Zevran smiled. "Contracts are paid in advance, of course. While the organisation keeps a cut of the payment, the man or woman who ultimately kills the mark gets a decent portion as well…along with added reputation of course."
"Andraste's Sword…" Asleena paced a few steps and growled to herself. "So Alistair might have them on his back as well. I should have ordered Loghain to cancel the contract. Why didn't I think of that? Why didn't you suggest it?"
"It would not have worked. The contract was signed by both Loghain Mac Tir and Rendon Howe. My former associates would only have accepted a contract termination with both their names upon it."
"And I had already killed Howe." She sighed and took a calming breath. "I'm sorry. And before I forget…thank you. For taking that archer out."
The elf shook his head, looking disgusted. "He'd already let fly an arrow before I got him. But you can thank me for something else."
Her eyes widened. "You found the ship?"
"I found the harbourmaster, and as chance has it he spoke with our wayward Templar personally. He actually suggested the Stonereef when Alistair came looking for passage out of Denerim. Apparently he wanted the first port outside of Ferelden that was still on the mainland and away from the Blight."
Asleena thought, trying to remember her geography. She'd been an indifferent student, preferring history books to maps, except where the maps had direct relationships with whatever she was studying at the time. All she knew for sure was that if Alistair was avoiding the Blight he'd have probably headed north towards the Free Marches. "Do you know which port he might have ended up in?" she asked finally.
"Ostwick is closest, though Hereinia is a possibility. The catch is that both cities take about the same length of time to get to. Ostwick has a few islands in the way, you see, while Hereinia is a smoother sail."
"Ostwick then," she decided after a brief consideration. She shrugged. "If not the first, we try the second. There's not much choice is there?"
"I agree. Now, I suggest we find a merchant who'll be willing to take this finely crafted Antivan bow off my hands." Zevran grinned. "Here you may be the Hero of Ferelden, surrounded by devoted admirers willing to shower you with gifts, but in the Free Marches we'll need some coin—and you donated almost all of it to the war effort."
She winced. "I hadn't considered that." The little gold she'd held on to had subsequently been divvied between her remaining companions, at her insistence, for almost all of them had been leaving Denerim to pursue their own goals now that the Blight had ended. She supposed she could have asked Anora for a monetary reward, but didn't want to waste her boon. "Perhaps the Crow's contract isn't all bad then," she mused.
Zevran's brows shot up. "How so?"
"I might as well get something out of your people trying to off me," she said lightly. "And just think of it. An assassination attempt once or twice a week…so long as you can haggle a good price for those fine Antivan bows and such, we should be pretty well set up."
He stared at her then threw back his head and laughed in delight. "You are joking. Do you know, I can't remember the last time you made a joke? Unless…" his expression became imploring, "that incredibly hurtful comment about the man who stabbed you…?"
"Sorry, Zevran." She flashed him a crooked smile and led the way to a distant merchant stall. "I was serious about that one."
He sighed theatrically and glanced down at Ferrix. "I may have been a little off my game, but it's not like I wasn't trying to kill her, you understand."
The mabari gave him a hard look.
"Yes, well…thank you for not chewing my neck up back when we first met. I truly appreciate it."