Chapter 22


Hello! Sorry, I know it's been ages. I've been so busy! New job, moving house, blossoming romance, you know how it is. But here is the next chapter! Sorry if there are mistakes, there's bound to be, but please don't pay me out too hard over them. I'm very tired. If anything's wrong I'll fix it up later, sometime. I won't promise to be quicker next time. I suck at that. But I've already started the next chapter, so that's encouraging right? Right? Well, whatever. I don't get paid for this. It's just for funzies. Enjoy!

P.S. I would just like to share something with you that happened here in Australia in December. Our smallest territory, the ACT (seat of Parliament House) was successful in passing a bill that allowed same-sex marriages to be legal within that territory. This was immediately appealed by the Commonwealth. And after just five days, during which time over 30 couples tied the knot (whose marriages have now been annulled by the law change), the bill was unanimously overturned in the High Court. The one good thing, if you want to call it that, to come out of this is that they also ruled that Federal Parliament has power under the Australian Constitution to legislate with respect to same-sex marriage, and that under the Constitution and federal law as it now stands, whether same-sex marriage should be provided for by law is a matter for the Federal Parliament. Which means it could still happen at a Federal level, as I understand it, and tells our current government that they can in fact allow it constitutionally (whereas before they were arguing they couldn't). But the fact that they chose to appeal it at all (after claiming before the bill was put forward that they simply didn't have the time to deal with the issue) is in my opinion saddening and a deep disappointment, though unsurprising from the conservative party. You know what they say; Principalities are ruled by princes, kingdoms are ruled by kings, and right now our country is ruled by a bunch of frigging [EXPLETIVE DELETED].

Anyway. Enjoy! And hope for the best, for all of us. Equality for all! And yay for Google sticking it to the Olympics and Russia! And yay to the German team, did you see their rainbow-theme uniforms? Awesome show of solidarity and quiet protest, even if officials can't officially admit it. Good on them! Same for everyone else doing the same thing. Bravi!

xxx M xxx

The silken banners that hang from the walls of Hightown are so pretty, dancing in the brisk autumn breeze and gleaming in the sun. There are people everywhere, weaving happily between the pillars and trees before the Keep or wandering aimlessly through the streets, human and elf and dwarf. Noble, merchant and common folk alike, all enjoying the last few days of light and warmth before winter tightens its fearsome grip on Kirkwall. A rare sense of calm and quiet seemed to fill the air when Hawke and I awoke today. Like the whole city was peaceful and happy, for a change. The perfect morning for a nice bit of fresh air.

Or it started out that way, at least.

"So come on, Daisy," Varric wheedles, his friendly nudging elbow poking me just a little too hard as he misses a step and stumbles on the polished cobblestones. He raises a gloved hand to smother a rather impressive burp as he catches himself, then grins up at me, his twinkling eyes still more than a little clouded by the flagon or so of ale in his belly. "A stallion's reward", or so he told Hawke and me cheekily when we found him snoring inside an empty barrel outside the Blooming Rose this morning. "After a long night of hard riding."

I wish I didn't know what he meant by that...

A passing serving woman headed for the market spares a disdainful glance at Varric - well, all three of us, probably - as we half drag, half carry him along the well-kept avenue. He winks at her and grins as she turns away with a look of distaste on her pale powdered face, drawing her woven basket close as though he might snatch it from her grasp, rogue that he obviously is. "Tell me," he insists again, turning his attention back to us. "You can trust me, I swear. I can be as quiet as a Chantry mouse." He burps again, loudly.

Hawke exchanges an amused look with me, supporting Varric's other side as we struggle through the streets towards the mansion. "Nothing I've ever heard, religious rodent or otherwise, has a snore as loud as yours, my friend."

Varric gives her a wounded look. "When dealing in secrets and my friends' intimate interests, I am as silent as the grave."

"Well, of course you are, Varric," I say dubiously. "That would be why there is currently a few score copies of a certain serial floating about in Lowtown." I raise a brow at him. "Tails of Passion: The Kitten and the Hawk, Volume I. Sound familiar?"

My dwarven friend opens his red-rimmed eyes wide, trying very unconvincingly to look as innocent as possible. "Never heard of it," he declares. "It's not my work."

Hawke looks at me over the top of his unkempt head. "You know, Merrill, I think he's telling the truth," she tells me solemnly. "Isabela leant me a copy and I really don't think it could be Varric's." She presses her lips together a little, clearly suppressing a smile. "Awful stuff. Rife with plot holes and spelling errors. And bad puns. I mean, 'Tails of passion?'" She winks at me. "Just terrible!"

Varric's eyebrows draw together. "It is not!"

A triumphant grin lights Hawke's face. "Aha!"

The dwarf peers up at her in obvious confusion for a moment as his drink-dulled wits try to work out what she did and then he grins, beaten. "Alright, you caught me," he chuckles. "Wouldn't have fallen so easily for that cheap trick if I could keep my thoughts from spinning about my head." He gives it a shake and then groans, blinking fast as we step from the shadows of the alley into the square before the magnificent towering Keep. "Really, though, I'm just curious," he insists, his words a little less slurred. This exercise, if you could call it that, must be doing him some good. "What were you two doing at the Rose? I haven't seen either of you there before, just the two of you. Were you looking to... spice things up a little?" He waggles his eyebrows suggestively.

Hawke breathes a laugh. "No spice needed," she informs him. Quite truthfully, I think to myself, feeling my pulse quicken as I share a smile with her. "We were just taking a morning walk. The Rose is not too far from my estates, as I'm sure you've made careful note of."

"Ah, but why go into a known den of debauchery?" Varric asks cunningly, sounding very much as though he thinks he's caught Hawke in a misstep. Honestly I don't know what cause we've ever given him to believe we would go there. Not for the actual... brothel part, anyway. I know he and Isabela go there quite a lot, and maybe some of the others do too. I don't think there's really anything wrong with that, but Hawke and I really don't need to, why would we? We have each other. I've only ever been in there with Hawke when we needed to speak to someone, and I spent most of the time trying not to touch anything. We only stopped by this morning because Hawke wanted to do a favour for the Hanged Man's barkeep.

Varric trips over his bootlaces as we cross towards the mansion, and I tighten my grip on his arm. He looks up at Hawke, heedless. "Why go into the red lantern district at all, if not for a bit of fun? Hmm?"

"I was returning a shawl to a certain lady at the Rose," Hawke answers him easily. "Corff asked me to take it back to her, but couldn't quite tell me why he had it." She grins. "For a worldly barman who must surely have seen and heard enough carousing, bawdy tales and jokes from his patrons over the years, he certainly did blush as prettily as a maiden when I teased him about the girl in question."

Varric guffaws knowingly. "Oh, little Mais Dalesdottir, then. She must have left it behind after her last visit to the Hanged Man. Corff's half in love with the girl, you know."

"More than half, by the look in his eyes when he spoke of her," I put in, feeling more than a little sorry for the fellow. He must know she was only doing her job. "Poor man."

"Lucky for you we did come by, Varric," I tell him as we round the corner and come in sight of home at last. Time to get some water in him and let him rest in one of the guest rooms. I wrinkle my nose as the smell of sour ale hits my nose, as well as a few other less appealing scents. "Else the guard would have thrown you in the stocks for a few hours."

"Eh." Varric shrugs his shoulders and I very nearly stumble as my hold on his muscular arm slips a little. "Our good friend Aveline would have let me out sooner or later."

"Later, most likely," Hawke tells him wryly. "Remember Isabela's last duel? The one that started in the Hanged Man, evolved into a bar brawl, and then ended up a riot in the Lowtown Market with more than twenty people injured-"

"And a lot of squawking, angry merchants with damaged goods," Varric finishes, chuckling. "I remember. I lost a bet to Fenris that Rivaini would win. She and that sailor were still going at it hammer and tongs even when the trinket stall caught fire." He grimaces a little. "She would have won if the guard hadn't shown up to put a stop to the fighting, but since the fight was over before the duel was done, the elf claimed his coin. 'The fight was broken up before a victor emerged. You bet that Isabela would win, yet she did not. No one did,'" Varric mimes in his best imitation of Fenris' gravelly voice. "'Whereas I bet that she would not win, not that her opponent would defeat her.' Broody bastard should be in politics. I lost ten sovereigns."

"And Isabela spent two weeks in the brig for her transgression," Hawke reminds him. "Friends with the Guard-Captain and all. Aveline doesn't stand for anyone disrupting the order of Kirkwall. Even the nobles get taken in if they're caught out being drunk and disorderly in the street."

"Point taken." Varric chuckles to himself. "Perhaps Captain Two-shoes should pay a visit to the Rose herself, and not on guard business," he muses to himself. "Might do her a bit of good. She could pay someone to pull the stick out of her ass!" He laughs uproariously at his own joke, and a nearby nobleman glances irritably in our direction. "Maybe you could convince her to go," Varric continues loudly. "You and Merrill. We'll all go! Make a night of it. Come on, you two. You don't have to hire any of the girls, just ask for a room and some of their outfits. Role-play! Princess and chambermaid. Grand Cleric and novice Sister. Templar and apostate- no, wait, that's no good for you. I forgot."

"Varric!" Hawke hisses, her eyes widening in alarm.

Varric pays her no mind, snapping his fingers. "I've got it! The Warden and the Bard. That's a good one." I blanch at the mere suggestion of using my old childhood friend's life and identity in such a way. Varric waggles his eyebrows at me, apparently oblivious to my discomfort. "Spice it up. You can never have... too much... spice." He hiccups and stumbles over his feet again. Hawke drags him up, eyeing the nobleman who is now staring openly at us, a sneer of distaste on his lips.

"Varric," I plead. "We're nearly there. Please, just stop talking about that now. And if you would, please don't embellish any of this."

"I promise you, Daisy," Varric lies with well-feigned sincerity. "I won't make this into a story." He grins happily. "Certainly not one involving the both of you, a pair of nugs, a pot of honey and the bad girl special."

Hawke gives a heavy sigh, glancing back over her shoulder at the disapproving noble as we heave our drunken durgen'len friend into the entrance hall. "Wonderful."

Taking Varric's weight upon herself, Hawke dumps him unceremoniously onto one of the wooden waiting-benches in the entrance hall while I poke my head around the corner to look for Bodahn, meaning to ask if he and Sandal wouldn't mind putting Varric in one of the guestrooms to sleep off his drink for a bit. But he isn't in the parlour. Nor is Sandal, nor Leandra or Feathers or the dog, even.

The room isn't empty, though...

My heart lurches a little at the startling sight of the armour-clad figure standing by the far wall. Who...? The sudden tension in my shoulders eases all at once as I recognise the familiar loose tail of bright red hair at the back of the intruder's head where she leans on the writing desk, steel-encased hands braced to either side of her as though studying a battle plan. Aveline! How odd, that we were just now talking of her and here she is, almost as if she heard about us talking about Varric being arrested for being drunk in the streets and came to get him. That can't really be why she's here, though, I don't think. She was here already, before we came in.

"Aveline?" Hawke enquires, announcing our presence as she comes to the doorway. The wary look in her eyes is replaced in quick succession by relief as she recognises our friend, then wry annoyance at just how at home Aveline seems to be making herself, glancing at Hawke's papers and things on the desk. Much as Isabela does. Aveline would be chagrined to realise that, I think. Although, Isabela would be far more casually invasive of Hawke's privacy, much more likely to paw through it all, reading anything and everything in search of juicy gossip rather than just letting her eyes roam as she waits, as Aveline is doing.

The Guard-Captain doesn't give so much as a start before she responds to Hawke's query. "Hello, Hawke. Merrill." She doesn't even turn her head. Likely she heard us coming, I suppose. She straightens up from the desk and turns to face us, an almost apologetic smile on her lips. "I'm sorry, I don't mean to intrude. Bodahn let me in." She shrugs. "I would have come back later but he assured me he didn't think you would be long. Then Leandra came to greet me and all but ordered me to make myself at home and wait for you. I couldn't say no."

"You mean you daren't say no," Hawke grins, stepping forward to clasp Aveline's forearm in greeting.

"You're not wrong," Aveline replies, a sparkle of amusement in her eye. "I know when a command is not to be disobeyed."

"And just where is my dear mother, the formidable General Amell?" Hawke asks, glancing about.

"She said something about getting tea," Aveline smiles. "Sandal and Bodahn insisted on helping. Apparently there is a brew Bodahn bought from their old trading contacts in Ostwick that I simply have to try, and Sandal seems to think that Leandra won't be able to prepare it all on her own. Not without his help. They all seem to have thoroughly enjoyed their journey together."

"Oh yes," Hawke laughs. "True companions of the road, now. Sometimes it's a little hard not to feel excluded from this newfound bond the three of them seem to share." She glances at the scattered papers on the desk behind Aveline, then gives her a quizzical look. "Where you looking for anything in particular? I keep all the sauciest scrolls on a high shelf in my reading room."

Aveline gives a small chuckle and an slightly embarrassed shrug. "Oh, no. I'm sorry Hawke, I assure you I was not trying to pry into your personal correspondence-"

"No-o," hiccups Varric loudly and unexpectedly from the doorway. "That's Isabela's job!"

We all turn to find him leaning heavily against the frame, squinting in the firelight. "Guard-Captain," he greets her with over-exaggerated formality, slurring his words a little. His voice is rather louder than necessary. "I'd come in and exchange pleasantries with you at a more convenient distance, but I fear I may fall down."

Aveline barely bats an eyelid. "Morning, Varric," she replies pleasantly, though she does place a slight emphasis on the word 'morning'. In a lower aside to Hawke she adds, "I don't want to know where you found him, but I do appreciate you bringing him here before any trouble came of it. The last time I was forced to put him in the brig until he sobered, he complained about it for weeks afterward." She gives Hawke a knowing look.

"Bodahn!" Varric suddenly shouts in a passable imitation of Hawke's accent, if not her gentle tones. "Where are you? Assistance is required in the parlour. At once, my good man!"

"I do not sound like that," Hawke mutters in mild irritation. "Do I?"

Her query goes unanswered as Bodahn bustles in at last, Feathers prancing happily at his heels, snapping playfully at one undone buckle on the side of Bodahn's boot. Bodahn looks a little flustered, poor man. Feathers' mabari nurse-maid trots in after them both, casually picking up Feathers by the scruff of his fluffy little neck and prying him away from Bodahn's feet, walking a few paces before depositing him between his own paws, watching over the cowed youngster with a fond eye. Bodahn breathes a very quiet sign of relief, then turns to us. "Ah, welcome home, Messere!" he greets Hawke, his friendly smile warming his face as he beams around at us. "I was just assisting your mother in the kitchen. I'm sorry I wasn't here to greet you, You have a guest! Though I daresay you can see that for yourself!" He chuckles to himself. "How was your walk?"

"A little more eventful than we anticipated, Bodahn," Hawke replies wryly, turning to indicate the drink-sodden dwarf leaning in the doorway. "We found Varric a little worse for wear. Would you mind seeing him to a guest room? I think he could do with a lie down. And perhaps some water."

"Right. And I doubt very much if a wash would hurt either," Bodahn says, more to himself than anyone else as he eyes Varric up and down with clear disapproval. He sighs, and crosses the parlour to Varric. "Right then, come on lad," he says not unkindly as he slings Varric's arm across his shoulders and helps him along. "Let's see if we can't make you feel a bit better, eh? And make you presentable while we're at it. Sandal? Sandal my boy, I need you!"

"If you could keep this from Gen- Mistress Amell for a while, I'd appreciate it!" Hawke calls after him. "At least until Varric is a little more sober." Bodahn nods over his shoulder to her as the two dwarves pass out of sight behind the parlour door. Hawke turns back to us with a small, weary sigh. "Mother would not be pleased to know a drunken scoundrel is sleeping off his wine in her ancestral home," she says to Aveline. "Not that she doesn't like Varric of course, but she would not approve of his current condition, certainly not at this hour. And given his behaviour on the way here I wouldn't put it past him to make some sort of bawdy comment about Merrill and I in her presence to amuse himself." She exchanges a meaningful look with me.

Aveline looks amused. "It sounds like he gave you an interesting time on the walk here."

"That's certainly one way of putting it," I agree dryly.

She shakes her head fondly in the direction Bodahn and Varric went, laughing softly. "Ah, Varric. I swear to Andraste, half the trouble my guards and I have to deal with in this mad city has him at its root."

"Was there something you wanted to talk to me about?" Hawke asks as our laughter dies down. "Not that I'm not pleased to see you, but home visits are something of a rare occurrence."

"There is something," Aveline confirms, "but that can wait a moment." She gestures to the writing desk behind her. "I'm curious about this."

I peer at her in confusion. "About the writing desk?" I ask, and then curse myself silently for a fool as I realise she is talking about the sword lying on top of it, the gift from Xenon that Hawke can't decide what to do with. I'd all but forgotten about it. I shake my head at her as Aveline opens her mouth to reply. "No, no, sorry. You meant the sword, I know. I really need to learn to think things through before I speak," I mutter half to myself. Hawke gives a small chuckle, wrapping her arm about my shoulders in a brief, fond hug.

Aveline lifts the blade and examines it with a professional eye, much in the same way Hawke did when it first came. "A fine longsword." She turns her gaze on Hawke, one eyebrow lifted in question. "An odd possession for a mage. Where did you get it?" She pauses, and a soft note of hesitation fills her voice. "Was it Carver's?"

"No," Hawke replies with a shake of her head. "It was sent to me by Xenon the Antiquarian, who owns that Emporium in Darktown, you know..."

"The magic shop, yes." Aveline gives a small smile. "The one I'm not to worry about or perform raids on or tell the Templars about." She gestures to Feathers. "Where you got this little fellow from, right?" Noticing her attention on him, Feathers immediately attacks her armoured boot. Her smile widens as she looks down at him, stirring him a little with her foot before gently extricating herself. The big mabari gives a gruff bark of warning as Feathers prepares himself to pounce on her again, wriggling his little hindquarters. The little griffon starts with a squawk at the noise, glancing over his shoulder, then quickly loses interest and trots over to me, mewling loudly until I pick him up and shush him. He snuggles into my chest.

"The very same," Hawke answers with a smile of her own. "He sent the blade to me as a sort of peacemaking gesture after what happened to us down in his shop. I've no idea what to do with it. Truth be told, I keep forgetting about it."

"But why send you a sword?" Aveline asks, a frown of confusion creasing her brows. "He knows you are a mage, doesn't he?"

Hawke shrugs. "He says it belonged to the Hero of Ferelden." Aveline glances at her sharply. and looks back at the blade with renewed respect. "He wrote that it was imbued with enchantments, but I still don't see why he thinks that would be useful to me," Hawke continues, and then gives a light laugh. "Perhaps he meant for me to have the sword so that I wouldn't be defenceless if ever I am deprived of my magic again. It seems a little foolish, though."

Aveline arches an eyebrow. "A mage being able to fight with physical weapons against soldiers trained to suppress the abilities of magic users seems quite a sensible idea to me, Hawke."

Hawke looks taken back for a moment. "I suppose I would think so too," she replies after a brief pause. "If I knew how to wield a sword well enough to defend myself."

"Your father was a capable swordsman, by what you've told me of him," Aveline comments. "Your brother too. Do you know nothing at all of swordplay?"

Hawke gives Aveline another small shrug. "Well, Father had me train with them sometimes when he was teaching Carver, before he got him formal training in Lothering with the Bann's army. I know enough tricks with a small blade such as a belt knife or dagger to defend myself, or someone else, against an attacker, or even a group of them." Her eyes flick in my direction, the ghost of a memory within their liquid sapphire depths. "But beyond that, nothing. I've certainly never fought with one."

The Captain of the Guard nods thoughtfully, then in one quick move abruptly tosses the sword to Hawke, who catches it by the hilt as though by instinct, then looks at her hand in surprise.

"Good reflexes," Aveline says approvingly. "A fine start." She draws her own weapon from the sheath on her back and raises it in front of her, adopting a defensive stance. "Guard up, mage."

Hawke just stares at her, as mystified as I am. By all the gods, what is going on?

"Aveline?" I ask in alarm. Feathers blinks up at me and squawks, sensing my disquiet, I suppose. Or maybe I'm squeezing him too hard. I loosen my grip on him, keeping my eyes on Aveline. "What are you doing?"

"Training session," Aveline replies simply. "Step back, Merrill. Hawke, pay attention."

Hawke stands still, blinking at Aveline in confusion. "But I'm a mage. My power and fighting ability is one of mana and spirit energy. Why in the name of the Maker would I need to train with a sword-?"

Aveline lunges, almost scoring a hit, but Hawke blocks her just in time, though with difficulty. Her blue eyes narrow in surprise, and a little outraged indignation. "Hey!" she protests.

Aveline shrugs unapologetically, bringing her sword up again. "It doesn't matter how strong your spirit is if your body is full of holes." She thrusts forward again, and Hawke parries. "Instinct serves you well," Aveline says approvingly. "Or do you serve it?"

"I haven't decided," Hawke replies, eyes sparkling as she warms to the challenge. She meets Aveline's next swing and strikes in return. Aveline blocks her easily and Hawke grins, her face alight with enjoyment and concentration. Creators, she looks... very compelling with a sword in her hand. Brave and strong, noble and fierce...

A low sigh escapes my throat, too soft for the two combatants to hear. At least so I would have thought but Hawke falters for an instant, glancing at me in distraction. Only an instant, but Aveline's blade flashes expertly, nicking the top of Hawke's arm

Hawke gasps, stepping back as her hand flies to her shoulder. "Ah!"

"Keep in the moment, or you'll never have another," Aveline grins, raising her blade. "It's just a scratch. Defensive stance, girl! Guard!"

Hawke brings her blade up and moves forward with startling speed and grace as Aveline strikes, blocking her swings with far more ease and confidence. I bite my lip and stay quiet this time, not wanting to distract Hawke again. Feathers and I watch them spar back and forth for a few dozen heartbeats, the thrusts and parries coming faster and faster until a familiar voice breaks through the ringing notes of clashing steel, stopping Hawke and Aveline in their tracks.

"I don't know how many times I had to tell your father and your brother; unless it's Templars, thieves or darkspawn, no fighting inside the house!" Leandra scolds from the doorway, her voice gentle but firm. She turns her stern gaze on Hawke, who lowers her blade to her side, the echo of a chastised child in her face as she meets her mother's eyes guiltily. "I never thought I'd have to say that to you, young lady."

"My apologies, Leandra," Aveline says, sheathing her sword. A smile plays around the corners of her mouth. "It was a spur of the moment occurrence, it won't happen again."

"I've no strenuous objection to swordplay," Leandra informs her with a smile. "But such activities belong outdoors, don't you think?"

"Indeed," Aveline replies. "We should continue this later, either in your courtyard or at the barracks, Hawke." She looks at my Hawke, standing dishevelled and beautiful in the middle of the room, Vigilance clasped easily in her fingers as if the blade was made for her hand. "You've a real natural talent for this, you know," Aveline informs her thoughtfully. "A warrior born. It's a wonder your father didn't dedicate time to train you as he did Carver. He would have seen your gift, surely."

"He would have taught her," Leandra says quietly, surprising us all. "But when her magic manifested, he decided that it should take priority over the sword. He wanted her to put all her concentration into learning to control her abilities, and felt that for her to try to master two disciplines at once would hinder her progress." She looks directly at Hawke and I follow her gaze. Hawke seems as taken aback by this information as Aveline and I are. "Given our circumstances at the time, his decision was sensible," Leandra continues, almost apologetically. "And I agreed with him. I thought it was far better for you to be able to concentrate only on your mastering your magic and learning how to avoid the notice of Templars altogether than to risk accidental exposure and have to watch my half-trained children cross blades with experienced Chantry soldiers."

"I understand," Hawke replies with a reassuring smile. "Put that way, it certainly makes sense."

"You can still start learning now," Aveline tells her. There's an eager gleam in her eyes, I think. She'd probably really enjoy teaching swording - swordplay - to Hawke. She does like training her new guardsmen and women, after all. And I can see how it might be fun for her, since she would be much better at swordplay than Hawke. For a little while, anyway. Hawke is a very fast learner, after all. "Your natural affinity for blade work will help you to learn the basics you would have learned in childhood training far quicker than most raw beginners."

Leandra looks a little troubled by this, but I agree with Aveline. "It would be good to learn, ma vhenan," I add supportively, both for Leandra's benefit and hers. "You could fight without magic sometimes then, which would be safer when there's people about so they won't see your magic. Or if you were attacked by Templars and your magic was suppressed, you would be able to simply draw your sword and keep fighting them anyway. Imagine the looks on their faces!" Hawke looks down at the blade in her hand, a smile appearing on her face as my words paint a picture in her head. From the corner of my eye, I see a thoughtful nod from Leandra as the idea hits home. "And I might ask Isabela to teach me some dagger tricks," I muse thoughtfully, my hand on the knife at my belt. Mahariel's hunting blade. "It couldn't hurt. Well, that is, it would hurt whoever I was knifing of course, but I mean it wouldn't hurt me. Unless I knifed myself of course. Maybe I'm too clumsy to learn. I hope not..."

Hawke laughs, placing the sword down on the writing desk and enveloping me in a hug. "Alright," she says when she lets go. "I agree. If there comes a time when my magic fails again, a more mundane form of self defence would be more than useful. Carrying an alternate weapon might help alleviate suspicion on us as mages, too." She looks at Aveline. "I'd be very grateful for your help, if you think I'll have time enough to learn."

"There's always time to learn," Aveline smiles. "And if there isn't, make time. I'll see about setting up training for you at the barracks, and get back to you."

"Will you be staying for a while, Aveline?" Leandra asks politely. "I think the kettle should be just about finished boiling now, if you'd like a cup."

The Guard-Captain smiles. "Thank you, no. I won't stay long."

"Very well, my dear. It was good to see you." Leandra raises a questioning brow at Hawke and I. "Anything for you two?"

I shake my head as Hawke replies, "No thank you, Mother."

Leandra nods. "Alright. I'd best get back. Sandal will want to help me pour the water and I've got to make sure he remembers not to touch the kettle with his bare hands like last time, poor boy." She turns with a graceful whisper of satin and makes her way down the corridor. "I'll be in the kitchen if you need anything."

Feathers, whose tufted ears perked up at the word "kitchen", wriggles excitedly in my arms, and I put him down. He gambols along the hall in pursuit of Leandra, flapping his wings every other step, unconsciously exercising them to build his flight muscles. I wonder how big he'll have to get before he can fly? Will he be able to figure it out on his own, with no one around to teach him how? Could we help him, maybe? I sigh quietly. I suppose we'll all just have to figure it out along the way.

Aveline laughs softly as my little fellow bounces out of sight, the poor old hound trailing dutifully after him, then looks around approvingly at the room, green eyes taking in every detail of the fine mansion, the tapestries, paintings, and sundry little touches and finishes Hawke has given the place over time to make it her own. "You've settled in nicely," she comments.

Hawke follows her gaze and shrugs. "It's been hard work to get here," she replies, and grins. "Bounty from a good combination of luck... and skill."

"Indeed." Aveline shifts her weight, giving Hawke a measuring look. "And could not have come to anyone more deserving," she judges quietly. I look up at my blushing Hawke proudly in silent agreement, and Aveline brushes over the unexpected praise as she continues rather more brusquely. "Still, more coin never hurts, right? Say, if someone wanted to pass some work your way...?"

Hawke's eyes brighten with interest. "I'm listening, Aveline." I can't help but smile at the eager note in her voice. Not for the coin, she's not bothered about that. But she has been itching for something to do, lately. "What's the trouble?"

"Someone's trying to be a guard," Aveline replies, annoyance in her eyes. "Poorly. Remember Emeric? The templar who wanted your help investigating the disappearances of some young women. He thought they were connected somehow, though we found no solid evidence to support it."

"I remember," Hawke replies slowly. I remember him too, I think. An older sort of man, not quite past his prime but getting there. He was looking for some women who had vanished mysteriously, a mage and an Orlesian nobleman's wife. We investigated for him, and found little but a ring, a sack of bones. Suspicious, but not conclusive, really. Hawke did think she saw someone running away when we found them, and we were attacked by shades soon after... but that doesn't necessarily mean it was connected. Not in Kirkwall, anyway. It was a shame we couldn't help him any better than that, since no one else really seemed concerned about finding those women. A woman goes missing, and you'll either never find her... or you'll just find her body, Isabela told me then. It's the truth, kitten. The world's not kind to women. I was horrified by how matter-of-fact she was when she said it, but I've seen enough since then to know it to be true.

"What does he want?" I ask Aveline. Maybe he's found something else he wants us to investigate for him. He must have got a fair bit greyer and slower these past few years, I wouldn't be surprised if he thought he couldn't do it himself. "Does he want Hawke's help with something?"

Aveline nods. "And some sort of official sanction," she adds with a grimace.

Hawke looks confused. "Official sanction?"

"He wants someone respectable and official to take him seriously, so that other people will," I realise aloud. "Which must mean the Templars won't help him, so you and the guard is all he's got left to try. So he's asking Aveline for help."

The Guard-Captain nods wearily. "For his "investigation." He's convinced that every random murder in the past few years is connected, that an Orlesian noble living in Hightown is responsible or at least involved, and he won't be quiet. He badgers my guards about it too, correctly hoping they'll pass what he's saying along to me. And his words about a woman-killer in Hightown are spreading." She shakes her head. "A thorn in my side inventing trouble and scaring people."

I frown a little. His ideas didn't seem all that far-fetched to me. As far as I'm concerned, the possibility that someone might be kidnapping women is worth looking into, even a little bit, just in case he's right.

Hawke seems to think the same. She gives Aveline a curious look, tilting her head thoughtfully to the side. "You don't think it's worth investigating?" she asks. "Why not check it out?"

"I have. He even convinced one of my lieutenants to raid the DuPuis mansion. Nothing there. You wouldn't believe how much arse I had to kiss after that. Bloody hobbyist constable." She gives a burdened sigh. "Why can't he spend his declining years building a boat, or something?"

"What can I do that you can't?" Hawke asks her. "I'll help if you need it, but I'm not sure what exactly you need me to do."

"Anything to shut him up," Aveline replies, her wry tone tinged with exasperation.

Hawke grins. "Muzzle the geezer," she jokes, making a fist. "Got it."

Aveline gives a small laugh. "I would never say that," she says, eyes dancing. "But he keeps asking for you. If you talk to him, and it leads somewhere real, I'll take it off your plate. If he shuts up, that's good too."

"Where can we find him?" I ask, knowing her reply before I even finish speaking. It seems a silly question, asking where to find a Templar. I suppose I'm really just hoping for a different answer than-

"The Gallows, most likely," Aveline tells us, a look of sympathetic understanding in her eyes. "Sorry, but that's where he spends most of his time." She gives a small grin. "Of course, I've heard he also frequents the Blooming Rose quite regularly, if you want to try him there..."

Hawke and I exchange a look, both of us clearly thinking of Varric's words this morning, how he'd laugh if we went there now. "I'll talk to him at the Gallows," Hawke says resignedly. "He had some good leads, as I recall. Maybe it will lead to something."

"If it does, I'll pick it up," Aveline assures her. "Right now, he's just distracting my men."

"We'll meet you down at the docks tomorrow," Hawke tells her, and then grimaces. "Maker, that sounds like an Isabela-esque euphemism. Nonetheless, meet us there tomorrow, first hour after dawn. We can speak with Emeric together."

"Thanks, Hawke. I'll try not to make a habit out of this." Aveline gives us a nod in farewell, and turns toward the door without further ado. "Tomorrow, then."

Bodahn appears in the doorway, a weary look in his eyes. "Young master Tethras is resting, messere," he reports, not really hiding the sigh in his voice very well at all, Sandal's bright blue eyes and happy grin flashing over his father's shoulder as he bounces on his heels in excitement.

"Thank you, Bodahn," Hawke replies, giving him a grateful smile.

I smile at him too, knowing how difficult Varric can be when he's too full of ale to tell up from down. "I hope he didn't give the both of you too much trouble."

Sandal bounces faster, fairly dancing from foot to foot as Bodahn shakes his head, a trifle hesitantly. "Not too much, I wouldn't say. Nothing beyond a slight mishap when we tried to get him into bed."

Sandal giggles harder. "He stepped in the chamber pot!" he bursts out, unable to contain himself.

"Which was empty, I assure you messere," Bodahn puts in hurriedly, patting Sandal with one gentle calming hand. "The boy here found it quite amusing, nonetheless."

"His foot got stuck! He said bad words. It was very funny," Sandal informs Hawke happily, a wide grin infusing his features with his own special inner light. He mimics Varric's scowl as he tries to shake an invisible chamber pot off his foot, then beams at me happily. "I like Varric."

"I like him too," I agree. "He's very funny." Sandal giggles his agreement.

Bodahn nods his head respectfully to both me and Hawke, and beckons Sandal to follow him down the hallway. "Come on, my boy," he says. "We'll fetch some refreshments and wash water to master Tethras' room for when he wakes."

"And be careful-" Hawke begins, and Bodahn waves a hand, smiling.

"Not to let your mother know," he finishes for her, and winks conspiratorially. "Don't worry, Messere, mum's the word!" He chuckles as he walks away, one hand on Sandal's shoulder.

Hawke turns to me, raising her brows as she lets out her breath in a long sigh.

"Quite a busy morning, ma vhenan," I say, giving voice to her thoughts.

She nods, moving over to slump into the chair at her writing desk. "You can say that again."

I smile as I follow her. "I don't think I really need to, though, do I?"

A light laugh escapes her and she turns to look at me fondly, then abruptly winces. Her hand goes to her arm and she rolls her shoulder a little. "Maker, that Aveline can certainly swing a sword," she groans, ruefully inspecting the bloodstained rent in the sleeve of her shirt. Her eyes fall on the gleaming longsword lying across the desk before her. "And I'm more than certain she was being extremely easy on me."

"Well, as quick a learner as you are, you'll soon be able to give as good as you get, and better," I assure her, reaching out to touch her shoulder with a hand gleaming with mana. I run my fingers gently along the wound, touching my magic and spirit to hers, healing the cut left by Aveline's blade and leaving nothing but a faint pink line that will soon fade away.

Hawke draws in a sharp breath, and turns to examine her shoulder, then she grins up at me happily. "You're getting good at that, ma sa'lath," she exclaims. "I'm not the only fast learner here."

I smile. "I doubt I'd have as much success fixing up that hole in your sleeve. If only there was a spell for that! Darning clothes is not at all fun."

"Agreed," Hawke groans. "Maker knows I've done my fair share. Our clothes certainly go through some hard times with us, don't they?"

She pulls me into her lap and I curl my arms about her neck, touching my brow to hers. "Do you think Varric might like to come with us tomorrow?" I ask. "If he feels better?"

Hawke smirks. "Doubtful. I think he'll have rather a strong headache tomorrow, and I don't intend to heal it for him. Not magically at least. Potions can do for him this time. If he wants to drink himself stupid that's his choice, but the after effects are part of the deal as far as I'm concerned. It'll stop him from overindulging again too soon. One hopes." Her fingers toy idly with the hilt of her longsword. "In any case, he certainly wouldn't do well on a boat ride to the Gallows. I think we'll be fine with just us and Aveline. We're only going to talk to Emeric, after all, nothing more dangerous than that."

"One hopes," I tease, smiling. Hawke laughs lightly, ruffling my hair.

"Come on," she says, and I hop off her lap as she makes to stand up. "Let's go and see how our drunken friend is feeling. Hopefully he will feel well enough to slink off back to the Hanged Man before Mother discovers him. A blinding headache is punishment enough. No one deserves to suffer the radiating heat of Leandra Amell's blistering disapproval." She chuckles wryly. "Not even Varric."

I wouldn't have thought it possible, but the funny smell down here at the docks gets even stronger in the mornings. My nose wrinkles against the stench as I walk with Hawke past the labourers loading cargo on the piers, trying not to breathe too deeply. Ugh, it really is a terrible smell. Like really old, dead fish. And lots of them. Creators, how does anyone stomach working down here? I suppose they wouldn't if they didn't have to and they probably get used to it after a bit and all, but still. And it's not at all safe down here by the water! Not unless you know how to swim. I fell off the pier once. The harbour is really deep! I do know how to swim, of course, all Dalish children learn. But it's difficult to swim very well when you're wearing chainmail. Impossible, actually. I was just lucky Hawke and Isabela were with there and dove right in after me. It took the two of them together to bring me back up. I shiver a little, looking down at the sparkly blue water. I'm glad I didn't wear my chainmail today, that's for certain! Since there didn't really seem to be much danger involved in anything we have to do this morning and all...

Distracted by my thoughts, I fail to notice the two men deep in conversation in front of me until I bump into one of them, rebounding off his hard shoulder into Hawke, who steadies me gently. I turn at once to the man I walked into, apologies already bubbling out of my throat.

"Oh, I'm so sorry ser, I really ought to pay more attention to where I'm going-"

He turns and I falter, instantly recognising the gleaming silver hair and cool green eyes. "Oh, Fenris, it's you!" I exclaim, and smile at him. Good, it's only Fenris. He knows how clumsy I am, he's used to it, or should be by now. "Well, that's all right then."

"Indeed," he replies, his tone more question than agreement, I think. And only a hint of a sneer! He must really be in a good mood this morning! He nods a greeting to us. "Merrill. Hawke."

"Good morning, Fenris," Hawke smiles. She nods cordially to the red-haired man with the impressive moustache he was speaking to before I interrupted them. He looks familiar. I think we've seen him down here before, sometime. I frown, concentrating, and then feel my expression clear as my memory stirs. He's a travelling merchant of sorts, if I remember right. We met him in one of the underground passages beneath the docks on some errand or another. I suppose Fenris must be buying something from him then. He doesn't usually come up here to sell, I don't think. Certainly not during the day. Maybe he's on his way home?

"Lem, isn't it?" Hawke asks, extending a hand to him. "Bonny Lem?"

"Well, I sure ain't Bonny Lynne!" the fellow chuckles, grasping her hand and shaking with enthusiasm. Hawke laughs merrily at his joke but whatever it is, I don't get it. A human or Fereldan thing, I suppose. Or both. "Lem's the name, alright. And you'd be young Lady Hawke, if I ain't mistaken, miss?"

"I don't know that I'd consider myself a "Lady" anything, the company I keep," Hawke says, giving him a wink and grinning wryly at his guffaw. "But Hawke is my name, yes. We've met once or twice, I believe."

"Aye, miss, that we have," he replies jovially, matching her smile with a satisfied grin. "Bought some of my choicest items, you did, and I thank you for the trade. Anything I can help you with today?"

Hawke shakes her head. "Not this time. We were just on our way to meet a friend at the docks."

"Ah, well. Next time, then." He gives a little bow over her hand with a rakish grin, then turns to Fenris. "I'll see about getting that item you mentioned for you, if I can," he tells him, tapping a finger to the side of his nose. "Check back in a week or two. You know where to find me. I've other business of my own now, I'm afraid." He glances at Hawke and me, nodding a polite farewell. "Meeting up with an old colleague. Got to hurry, I'm running a little late after bumping into your fine frosty friend here, and I'm not sure how long she'll be sticking around. Always rushing off somewhere, that lass!" He chuckles fondly, more to himself than to us. "Impatient thing she is too, the little Orlesian she-devil." He gives us a conspiratorial wink and strides off down the street.

Fenris watches him go, and then turns his wary gaze on us, waiting to see what we will say. I glance at Hawke but hold my tongue, I know better by now to ask him what sort of item he asked the trader to get him. It's none of my business and most likely he wouldn't tell us anyway. After a moment of rather awkward silence in which we all just sort of stare uncomfortably at one another, Hawke gives a discomfited sort of cough.

"Well..." she begins brightly. "As lovely as this has been, we really must be going now I'm afraid. Appointments to keep, boats to catch. Templars to question. You know, the usual."

Fenris raises an eyebrow, frowning a little more than usual, like he does when he's worried. "You're going to the Gallows?"

Oh, no. He won't want to come, will he? Oh please no, couldn't he just go and be moody to someone else for today? "Aveline wants us to talk to one of the Templars about some missing women he's been investigating," I put in, not faltering as he glances irritably at me before fixing his gaze on Hawke once more. I'm more than tired of his attempts to ignore or intimidate me. Frankly at this point, I should really be challenging him over the inappropriate way he keeps looking at my love. I clear my throat a little to regain his attention and take a half step forward in what I hope is a casual manner. I hold his gaze, forcing him to acknowledge me as I put my shoulder in front of Hawke. A little possessive, perhaps, but It feels necessary. I told him I wouldn't talk to Hawke about how Fenris feels about her, but I don't need to put up with his puppy dog eyes every time he looks at her. She's mine, not yours. Get used to it already. I brace myself for his next move, which will most likely be to insist that he comes with us, in order to protect us from the Templars. Well, protect Hawke, really. I doubt very much he'd try very hard to help me if I were about to be dragged into the Gallows. He'd probably offer to grab my legs to speed things along. "We're heading off to meet her at the boat now, in fact. It will be very boring and not at all dangerous or interesting in any way. Don't worry, I'm sure we won't get into any trouble with the Guard-Captain along."

Fenris matches my stare for a few moments, a glint of grudging, if somewhat amused, respect in his eyes. "I see," he says finally. "Would you mind if I came with you, regardless? I've been meaning to visit the armoury shop in the square. Now would be as good an opportunity as any."

I lift my brows in surprise, the retort on how we can protect ourselves on my lips as I exchange a surprised glance with Hawke. I was sure he'd offer to protect her, and I can see she expected the same. What's he playing at?

Hawke nods and gives a small shrug, smiling. "Of course, why not?" She turns, motioning us down the street towards the docks. "We'd best not keep Aveline waiting, then."

Fenris follows, something very like a self-satisfied smile on his lips. A very small one, but still, it's there. I narrow my eyes at him, then hurry to catch up to Hawke. Oh, he's clever. We might have been able to put him off offering us his unnecessary protection, but there's no real reason to say no to him for an innocuous reason like visiting a shop. Now he can moon after Hawke all day. I brush past him and slip my arm around Hawke as we make our way to the edge of the dock where Aveline will be waiting. It's not for Fenris's benefit, of course not. I'd be doing this anyway, if he weren't here. I've a right to after all, and he doesn't. I'm certainly not trying to rub his face in the fact that I can hug her, hold her, kiss her whenever I want to and he can't. I'm not trying to make him jealous.

Not at all.

I risk a glance over my shoulder and smile sweetly into the glaring green eyes shooting daggers into my back, then squeeze Hawke just a little tighter around her supple waist. Well, alright. Maybe I want to make him a little jealous. I turn back and lay my head against her shoulder, my smile widening as I feel her kiss the top of my head.

Just a little.

Once on board the boat Hawke stands at the prow with Fenris, giving him the details of our task today. I sit down on a sea chest lashed down by the railing to serve as a seat, since there's no real need for me to be up there with him and Hawke. After all, he's too busy trying to keep his balance and concentrate on what Hawke is trying to tell him over the sound of the waves to do too much mooning. So I just sit, trying to keep myself out of the way and not do anything silly or annoying, like bump into a sailor or fall overboard. I close my eyes and turn my face into the wind, enjoying the refreshing feel of the wind and salt spray against my skin as the little vessel glides along. Bereft of my chainmail, the wind scatters cool droplets of water on my bare arms, making my skin glint prettily like diamonds in the light. I can see how Isabela would like sailing so much, if this is part of it. She was right; it's much nicer to be up on deck like this rather than cramped in the hold, rocking back and forth and up and down in the dark, like it was for my clan on our journey from Ferelden. It's calming, even, the way the boat surges and descends the mild harbour waves in an even rhythm. Like the gentle rocking of a baby's cradle. Soothing. Peaceful. I almost feel I could fall asleep, if I'd a mind to.

The clink and jingle of mail and plate announces Aveline's presence, and I look up to find her standing beside me, peering out over the water towards the island on which the Gallows stands, hovering ominously above the water. Looking at her, I hope nothing happens to capsize our boat. With all that metal she's wearing, she'd sink straight to the bottom, and we wouldn't be able to get her back up again, not without doing some sort of spell or something right at the Templars' front door, and then they'd be on us like wolves on a halla. I feel Aveline's eyes on me and glance up at her face. Something in her cool green gaze makes me sort of, well... itchy. Like I want to wriggle out of her regard, the way I would recoil from the shivery entrapment of a spider web. I shift uncomfortably as we look at each other in silence, and finally I grow tired of waiting for her to speak.

"Aveline? Why are you looking at me like that?" I give a little bit of a smile, plucking nervously at my tunic. "Do you see something green?"

Aveline gives a small shake of her head, and I notice her gaze running up and down my uncovered arms. "I was simply noting the lack of fresh or half healed gashes on your forearms," she says, cutting straight to the point with her blunt honesty. "Dare I take that to mean you've been abstaining?" From blood magic is the unspoken end to that sentence, I know, but she won't voice it out loud, not among all these sailors and strangers. I suppose I'm grateful for that.

"Not that it's any of your business, but yes, I've stopped using... it," I reply quietly.

Her eyes flick to the front of the boat - the bow, I think Isabela would call it - where Hawke stands with Fenris. "Truly? Hawke isn't simply healing you afterwards?"

I frown. "No, Aveline. Hawke doesn't want me to use... to do that anymore, so I've stopped."

"But you're still working on the mirror." Aveline meets my eyes, her face expressionless. "And Hawke is helping you."

It isn't a question. I answer it anyway, though some part of me wonders how she could know that. I know she's quite intuitive for a human, but that's quite a shot in the dark, considering that as far as Aveline should know, Hawke disapproves of the mirror. I think. Unless she has somehow been privy to our private conversations, or has had someone watch us or something. But she wouldn't do that, would she? "Yes, she is. She thinks we can find a way to cleanse it and fix it without blood magic." Her expression doesn't change, but I can see the doubt in her face. "I promise it won't be a danger to Kirkwall, Aveline," I tell her. "I won't let it be."

She nods slowly, though I sense her doubt still. I look at her, at the grim line of her mouth and the cool shadow in her eyes, and I feel the disapproval radiating out from her, seeping into me, weighing me down. I speak before I know I'm going to, without knowing what I'm going to say. "You don't really like me very much, do you Aveline?"

Finally her expression changes, her face registering shock and bewilderment, with a dash of remorse. "Oh, Merrill," she says, and abruptly the facade of the stern, unforgiving Kirkwall guard-captain falls away, and my fiery red-headed Fereldan friend sits down beside me on the sea chest, pulling off her armoured gloves to take my hand in hers. "I like you just fine. I consider you a very good friend. I'm sorry if I made you believe otherwise. It's just..." She gives a small sigh. "It's my job to worry about things like this. I have to keep my eyes open, even around my friends." She glances towards Hawke and Fenris, the apostate Ferelden mage and the escaped slave squatting in an abandoned Hightown residence, and laughs a little. "Especially around my friends, most of whom are apostates, squatters, or thieves. Who, as you once so blithely pointed out, break the law on a regular basis." I nod and squeeze her fingers in understanding, smiling a little myself. It is pretty funny when she puts it like that. Her expression grows serious once more, and she pitches her voice low, so that no one but me will be able to hear her over the waves if they don't get too close to us. "But most of the time when I look the other way, it's only for small things that are easy to let go. Things that don't hurt anyone, that don't matter very much, especially when balanced against the good that you do. Your blood magic, however..." She sighs. "I know you don't mean any harm, but after what I've seen of the work of blood mages - and in my time in Kirkwall, with Hawke or on patrol, I've seen much - I can never forget your use of it. I can't condone it, and I can never approve of it. I can't see anything good in it. This mirror... I don't see how anything it can give you can be worth what it has taken so far. How can it be worth the danger it puts you in? And now Hawke is involved. What if something happens to her? What if your demon hurts her, or you? What if you hurt her?" I try to protest but she shakes her head, cutting me off and speaking over me. "I heard about what happened in the Fade." I fall silent, remembering, and she surveys me calmly, though with a gentle sadness in her eyes. "What happened once can happen again, with your demon or with any other drawn to your blood magic, or your mirror. Couldn't it?"

"Yes," I all but whisper, and then make my voice stronger. "It could happen. Anything could happen. But it won't. We are being careful, Aveline. As careful as we possibly can."

"Good," Aveline says. "Because even more than I worry about the people of Kirkwall coming to harm from this crazy scheme of yours, I worry about you two. I don't want either of you to get hurt from this."

I smile a little, warmed by her concern, understanding a little more of why she has been so stern about this, so watchful. She's afraid of what the mirror might do, but she's afraid for us too. Her friends. "I won't let Hawke be hurt, I promise," I assure her. "I'd die first."

Aveline is silent for a long moment, gazing at me with her brow furrowed and a frown on her lips. "Hawke is like a sister to me," she says at last, her words frank and honest. "We've been through a lot together. I love her dearly, and I am very glad that she has you. A blind nug could see the happiness in her eyes when she looks at you. I am determined not to let her be hurt either, just as you are." She pauses, green eyes holding mine with steady intensity. "And losing you would hurt Hawke more deeply than anything ever could."

I lower my eyes at her words, feeling dismayed at the truth in them. She waits a moment longer to let it sink in fully, then sighs as she stretches her legs out before she starts to stand, tugging her gloves back on in an officious manner. "So I'm sorry, but I'll be keeping close eyes on the both of you whether you like it or not. Especially since I know she's set on helping you fix that damned mirror."

"Been spying again, Aveline?" I jump in astonishment at the sound of Hawke's voice, coming from right beside us. Creators, she is as silent as a Dalish in the woods when she wants to be! How much of our conversation did she overhear? Hawke lifts an eyebrow at Aveline, her tone light, though her usual cheeky grin is missing from her beautiful face. "You know I don't like it when you have your people watch me."

"I don't like it when you make it necessary," Aveline replies evenly without missing a beat, as though she knew Hawke was there all along. "I make it a point not to intrude on anything too personal, Hawke, but for some matters... well, you protect your friends and loved ones in your way, Hawke, and I protect them in mine."

Hawke studies her for a long moment, and then nods slowly, grudgingly accepting Aveline's words. "I suppose I can't stop you, can I?" she says, the beginnings of a wry grin appearing on her lips. She makes a show of examining her fingernails, leaning casually against the mast of the little boat. "Well, I won't be too worried. I don't tend to find your people all that difficult to spot, as a rule. The last one I saw gave herself away all too easily, staring right at us in the street, bold as brass." She gives a little laugh. "And her disguise! She was dressed like a chantry sister, but moved like a rogue thief in the night. She couldn't have looked more out of place if she tried."

Aveline looks baffled. "My informants don't include anyone affiliated with the Chantry," she says. "And they certainly don't impersonate Chantry officials. It's not lawful and I wouldn't stand for it."

Hawke frowns. "A red head with piercing blue eyes and porcelain skin. Are you certain she wasn't one of yours? Perhaps new to the game, not clear on your rules?"

"There's no one like that among my people," Aveline says, shaking her head. "Not even in the guards." She gives Hawke an uneasy look. "If someone like that has been watching you, it's far more likely she was actually from the Chantry." Her eyes stray to the Gallows, directly ahead of us. "Or the Templars."

I feel my heart beat faster as a thrill of fear runs through me. I do remember the woman Hawke is talking about, if only a little. The one who was watching us that day in the market, the morning after we... our first night together. I didn't really think anything of it then, but... If the Templars have had someone watching us, who knows what they could have seen? Just being mages would be enough for them to lock us up, but if they suspect blood magic... "Oh no, Creators please don't let it be so," I murmur fervently. "After all, if the Templars do suspect us of anything, then right now we could be walking right into a trap." I pause thoughtfully. "Or sailing right into it, I suppose."

Hawke looks troubled, but shakes her head. "I don't think she had anything to do with the Templars. Perhaps she was simply a curious Chantry sister, or perhaps she was one of Varric's eyes. Or perhaps someone else altogether is watching us. If so, there's not much I can do about it, aside from maintaining vigilance."

I smile a little, wanting to lighten the mood if I can. "Well then, maybe that's why Xenon sent you that sword."

Hawke chuckles, and Aveline gives a small smile. The boat draws up against the dock as the sailors throw ropes and tighten it off. Time to go, then.

"Let's not let it worry us for the moment," Hawke says. "We'll have to be as careful as possible while we're here, anyway, whether they've been watching us or not."

She looks up at Fenris, who has been speaking with a sailor up in the fore of the boat, and beckons him over, then we step off the boat one by one and stand on the dock. Looking up at that great, hulking mage prison, I decide to take Hawke's advice and put all my concentration into making definitely, positively sure not to say or do anything to let people know I am a mage while we're here, in the last place we ever want to come, voluntarily or otherwise. I can feel the pain, despair and helplessness here, generations of it remembered in the stone. A deep chill settles over me and I move my body close to Hawke's automatically as we start forward, stepping into the darkened, shadowy entrance to the brooding edifice carved of rock and misery.

Into the mouth of the Gallows.

Oh, dear Creators, I don't like it here.

xxx H xxx

Oh, sweet Maker, I wish I were anywhere else.

Merrill's presence is a sweet, comforting warmth at my side as we walk from the gloomy entrance tunnels into the Gallows courtyard. Bright as the sun is today, the light that shines down into this barren, ominous square of stone is somehow diminished, faded. Hopeless. Shadows cast from the spear-headed iron fencing that lines the tops of the walls make criss-crossed lines on the paving stones at our feet, ringing the square in ephemeral bars like one giant prison cell. Which it could become at a moment's notice, thanks to the heavy portcullis that hangs over the one and only entrance and exit to or from the Gallows, should any hapless visitors be revealed as apostates. Or should any recalcitrant slaves try to escape, perhaps I should say. After all, this place was originally built as a prison to house the slaves that worked Kirkwall's quarries. Now it is a prison to keep the mages who heal for the Chantry and make the potions and enchanted items for the Templars to sell at the meagre stores here in the courtyard. Little has changed, as far as I can see. The statues that ring the courtyard depicting the agony of tortured slaves still remain, and from time to time the bodies of traitors and those executed for crimes against Kirkwall are displayed here too, hung from the gibbets on the docks and throughout the yard as a warning to all. The magisters designed every inch of this place to break the spirits of its unfortunate inhabitants, to discourage disobedience, and the Templars have let the statues stand for much the same purpose, I imagine.

Andraste, why couldn't Emeric have met us anywhere else? If he wants my help, why do I bloody have to come to him?

"I've... heard about the Circle of Magi outside of the Imperium, but I've never been in one," Fenris says, his words slow and measured.

I turn to find him stopped a few paces back, staring up at one of the miserable slave-statues towering above us high on the wall. I walk back to him, Merrill and Aveline following behind me, and he turns to face us, worried eyes locking with mine. "Are you certain it's wise for you to be here?" His voice is hushed in an effort not to be heard, but deep as it is the tone of his voice carries further than I would like. I glance around furtively and, thankfully finding no one within immediate earshot, step closer to him.

"Not if you don't stay quiet," I tell him wryly. "It would help if you didn't ask questions like that. We'll blend in, don't you worry." At his raised eyebrow, I give him a self-assured wink. It isn't like I haven't had to come here before on some business or another, and I haven't been decried as an apostate and dragged off by the Templars yet. Not once. "What's a couple more mages in the Gallows courtyard? Nobody will even notice us. We're not all that conspicuous."

"I don't know about that," Merrill says doubtfully, eyeing the few mages and tranquil scattered about, all of whom seem to be either human or city elves. She rubs unconsciously at her cheek, tracing the vallaslin with one dainty fingertip. "Are there many Dalish here?"

"You're not helping," I pretend to chastise her wryly, a fond smile on my lips. I turn back to Fenris, attempting to project an air of complete confidence. "We'll be careful."

"Very reassuring," he deadpans, smirking, then glances about, taking in the view of the high spear-topped walls, the grotesquely distorted statuary, the grim-faced Templars standing guard about the perimeter. "This seems more like a prison. I wonder if it's more effective than the Circle I know."

"I suppose I can't really say for sure and certain." I give a one-shouldered shrug. "I only know what my father and Anders have told me about it, and those stories are chilling enough. What's it like in Tevinter? How is the Imperial Circle of Magi different?"

Fenris fixes me in a level gaze. "Once upon a time it was as it is here. The Chantry watched the magisters closely for any signs of corruption or weakness. Then it changed." His face hardens with contempt for the decisions of those long dead. "The magisters were permitted to watch over their own, and Templars kept only to enforce the law. What happened next was inevitable. The magisters rule again, as powerful as they ever were."

"You said the Chantry used to watch the magisters." I tilt my head at him inquisitively, wondering what could prompt such a watchful organisation to slacken in their self-appointed duty. "Why did they stop?"

"You must remember that the attitude towards magic is different in Tevinter," he reminds me with the air of a patient lecturer towards an inattentive pupil. "Magisters came from wealthy families, bloodlines that had nurtured magical talent for countless generations. The Chantry was not trying to control poor peasants but the scions of the greatest houses in the Imperium."

I frown in confusion. "Weren't they defeated? I thought the magisters had been thrown down by the Chantry."

"On the contrary," he counters. "Andraste never defeated the Imperium, despite what the Chantry would have you believe." I nod, accepting this without question. The Chantry would have me believe a great many things that aren't true, so I have no difficulty with the concept they might wish to blur the truth in this regard as well. "Her great army conquered the south, but not the north. The magisters eventually surrendered to the Chantry, but they did so on their terms. They kept their influence. Thus they reclaimed what they lost over the centuries." He gives a sardonic grimace. "Some battles are lost by inches. In the end, the despotism of the magisters was little effected by Andraste's efforts."

"Are the magisters so terrible?" I ask, knowing that I risk provoking him but unable to stop myself. "You talk about them as if they are all evil."

Fenris sighs. "I have no doubt that some are good and noble men and women, strong enough to resist temptation," he says. He gives me a conciliatory look. "If you lived in Tevinter, doubtless you would be among their number. But how many temptations do you wish to offer a man before he will give in? Blood magic is everywhere in Tevinter. From the lowliest apprentice up to the archon himself."

"How do you know that?" I can't help but ask him. Why do I get the feeling I'm going to regret following along with this line of questioning? Why can't I just hold my tongue? I'm only going to end up becoming frustrated with him. But he so rarely opens up about his past. And I still feel that if I continue to question his biased opinions while providing him with an example of a mage who contradicts his every belief, I will gradually convince him to let go of his past, to stop letting his experiences with a few rotten mages colour every other interaction with the rest of us. Some might question my perseverance in this matter, but despite the man's stubborn refusal to bend, I know he's a good man at his core. A man who has been grievously hurt in his time. And I am nothing if not a patient healer, particularly for those I call friend. One step at a time. "You can't have seen this for yourself."

"Humph," Fenris grunts, somewhat irritably. "Danarius talked about it often. Of course they say it's forbidden. Behind the smiles and closed doors, however, it's a different matter. To be a magister in Tevinter is to be glorious. To be a powerful magister in Tevinter..." He pauses briefly for effect before continuing, the bitterness in his voice unmasked. "That is worth any price."

"You're saying the same thing could happen here," I conclude.

"If the mages were permitted to be their own watchers? Of course. In Tevinter, there is a constant struggle for power among the elite, and thus most will eventually turn to darker arts. Particularly if their own power is not enough to protect them without resorting to it. Even the most powerful of the morally upright would surely take any measures to protect their families if threatened, would they not? Can you honestly say you would not, Hawke?" He looks at me almost challengingly, and gives a small, grim smile when I have no answer for him. "It is too easy for a mage to resort to blood magic if they feel the need is great enough. A mage can desire power, justice, revenge, protection..." Predictably, his eyes flick to Merrill, who narrows her eyes right back at him. "Any cause will do, and then they are lost."

"So this is the answer?" I challenge him, my tone becoming angrier. "You can't say every mage is corrupt. You're saying that locking mages up for a crime they may commit is better? "

"All I am saying is the Imperium offers no answer," is his slow, long-suffering reply. "All that Andraste did long ago to end the tyranny of magic has been undone."

I repress a derisive smirk - barely - but fail to keep the scornful edge from my voice as the words leave my lips. "Tyranny of magic? Very dramatic." I pause for just an instant, struck by the odd feeling that my remark was exactly the sort of thing Bethany would have said, if she were here. I allow myself a moment of sweet reflection tinged with bitter loss, then fix my gaze on the former slave before me, blinded by the ghosts of his past. "Andraste ended the 'tyranny' of magic and replaced it with an entirely new one."

Fenris scowls. "Considering all that magic has done to my homeland and my race, I weep for your predicament. Let me show you my homeland or the ruins of Arlathan, and then you may speak of drama."

Merrill steps to my side, emerald eyes flashing daggers at the snow-haired elf. "She freed our people as well, but it was your Chantry that undid that."

"And who enslaved us in the first place? Don't be naive," Fenris snaps back at her. "Power corrupts, as they say, and mages have power enough already."

I feel my temper slip further from my control. "Treating every mage like a criminal isn't the answer."

"And not every mage deserves the benefit of the doubt."

"Is this really the best place to debate the morality of the Circle and the Templar order?" Aveline questions softly in an attempt to restore us to caution, but though I hear her words, they go unheeded. Such conversations with Fenris are like boulders bouncing down a mountainside. They can't be halted once they've gained too much momentum; they can only keep on rolling, hurtling along at breakneck speed until either the ground levels off and they come to a gradual, weary and anticlimactic end, or they crash into a cliff and explode in a billowing cloud of violent destruction.

"It's wrong to oppress mages," I state emphatically, my gaze locked with his. "The Templars here abuse their power. They go too far."

He regards me calmly. "Does that mean they should not try?"

"Injustice cannot be answered with injustice!" Merrill argues hotly, small fists clenching at her sides.

"According to everything I've seen, the Circle can't control mages anyhow," I declare firmly. "It only drives them to become what the Templars most fear. The Circle doesn't work."

Fenris spreads his hands. "And what is the alternative? Freedom is a noble ideal, but I see no oppression here. I see fear... and danger." He shakes his head, abruptly tiring of the circles our argument is turning in. "But enough. I'm sure we came here for a reason."

Having had enough myself, I nod shortly. "We did." I'm done with Fenris and his stubborn insistence on clinging to his prejudice. For the moment, at least. Doubtless we'll return to the argument later whether I like it or not, but for today it's enough. And while I can't exactly consider this progress, I suppose it could have been worse. No one stormed off in a fit of pique, at least. And we didn't come to blows. That has to count for something.

Turning towards the inner courtyard, I spot a grey haired Templar on watch leaning against one of the pillars and recognise Emeric, though he looks a little older, and rather more unkempt than he did at our previous meeting. The years have not been kind. "Over there; the one we've come to talk to about the missing women." I beckon my companions to follow me as I head toward him. "Come on."

As I turn from my companions, from the corner of my eye I see Merrill give Fenris a look that, if I didn't know better, I would have to label either smug or triumphant, or a little bit of both. Strange. It isn't very like her to act that way, though Fenris has certainly given her reason to in his time. Perhaps she is simply tiring of letting it go. I think back to the way she reacted to him earlier at the docks, sort of protective of me, almost territorial - which I found a little odd, but mostly impressive and ferociously adorable - and the way she interjected her opinions into our conversation just now, arguing back at him with fierce conviction. She's certainly growing more self-assured and assertive.

I like that just fine.

Emeric watches our approach across the courtyard, arms crossed across his breastplate in a rather hostile pose for someone who has apparently requested my help. Well, that bodes well for our impending conversation. I give him a friendly smile, shooting hopefully for levity. "Hello, Emeric. The Guard-Captain says you're still chasing disappearing acts."

Clearly that was a bad decision. The lines around his clouding eyes deepen, and he gives me a reproving glare. "That's not funny," he snaps belligerently. Oh, dear. Our reunion is off to a fine start, it seems.

"My apologies," I reply, quite sincerely, raising my hands in a placatory gesture. That was rather insensitive. My emotions are still running high from the argument, I suppose. Time to cool down. "Was there something you wanted to speak to me about?"

Sensing the change in my demeanour, Emeric drops his arms to his sides and takes a step closer, dropping his voice a fraction. "I need your help urgently. I believe I finally have a suspect, a man called Gascard DuPuis."

I just manage to suppress a very unladylike snort of amusement. "Really? That's his name? DuPuis?"

Emeric surprises me by cracking a small but noticeable smile. "It's Orlesian," he says dryly, pronouncing every syllable in a mockingly exaggerated fashion. "I believe he is descended from nobility." His smile fades, and he glances at Aveline, a trifle accusingly. "When I became convinced of his guilt, I went to the city guard and demanded that they do something."

"My men raided that house," Aveline tells him pointedly, eyes narrowed crossly. "There was nothing, and I've heard no end because of it. You were reprimanded, I hope."

"I was," he replies shortly. A sly look comes over his face. "Meredith forbade me from continuing my investigation. But she didn't say I couldn't seek outside help."

"And I'm supposed to be the 'outside help'." I cross my arms, tapping my index fingers against my elbows as I think. "Did you show anyone the bones?" I ask him suddenly, looking up as the memory surfaces. Surely the remains we found in that abandoned warehouse were worth something as proof of foul play. "I retrieved sack of human remains for you. Didn't you show it to the guard?"

"I did. They said the remains could've been gathered together by scavengers looking for bits of gold and jewellery." He shakes his head, irritation and contempt in his tone. "They said there was no way to tell if the remains even belonged to the missing women."

"I'm sorry, Emeric," Aveline says sincerely. "But that's the truth of it."

He spares her a wounded glance and continues. "I had no choice but to continue the investigation on my own."

I shift my footing, feeling somewhat uncomfortably guilty. I really ought to have followed up on his progress with this case. I had thought that what we had found for him would have been enough, though. Perhaps if we'd given him Ninette de Carrac's wedding ring to show them as well, and asked that awful husband of hers, Ghyslain, to testify that it belonged to his missing wife, the guard might have had more to go on. Aveline knew about that, but she wasn't the Captain back then. Not yet. Ghyslain would be long gone by now, and the ring with him. There wouldn't be any point in bringing it up now. Best to simply do the best we can with what we do have. "What have you learned about Gascard DuPuis?"

"He's a reclusive nobleman who's rarely seen outside his estate in Hightown," the old Templar informs me. "He knew two of the murdered women and made inquiries about the others. It cannot be a coincidence."

I almost smile. It cannot be a coincidence? It sounds exactly like a coincidence! But... that's not to say it isn't worth looking into. "Maybe you're right," I muse aloud. "It should be investigated, at least."

Emeric's face brightens a little. "Thank you," he says gratefully. "I've faced nothing but ridicule. To hear someone say that is... encouraging."

"Who else is looking into this?" I ask. If the Templars and the guard weren't interested, has he really been on his own with this for the past three years? I find myself hoping this isn't the case. "Were you the only person investigating these murders?"

He nods. "Yes, unfortunately. The Templar order believes this is a matter for the city guard. And the city guard, well... they rejected my evidence and dismissed the murders as isolated incidents." His eyes harden angrily. "They don't care either."

"I've seen your evidence," Aveline interjects defensively. "Scattered notes, conjecture, nothing remotely usable. You can't expect us to act on your hunches alone. Look what happened when we did."

"The guards who searched Gascard's place were incompetent," Emeric retorts, fuming. "They didn't know what they were looking for!"

Aveline gives him an implacable stare, raising an eyebrow. "Fine, if you insist," she says in the tones of someone mollifying a difficult child.

The last straw for Emeric. His hands clench into angry, frustrated fists at his sides, and the rough, heated words burst from him like sparks from a fire. "Women are dying out there, and no one's doing anything!"

"And why should Hawke be the one to endanger herself by getting involved?" Fenris asks, stepping forward slightly into a subtly aggressive stance.

Emeric glances at him briefly but addresses his response directly to me, holding my gaze with a fierce grip. "Because you saw the sack of bones. You found Ninette's hand. You can't tell me there's nothing to this. What if one of the women who died was someone you loved?"

At his words, I feel a strange sensation in my chest, as though my heart stops for a beat. A chill that has nothing to do with the cold stone and shadow of the Gallows settles over me, that terrible feeling of warning, foreboding, calling somewhere deep within me. What if one of the women who dies was someone you loved?

I glance automatically at Merrill and find her looking solemnly up at me, concern and compassion blazing from her eyes. "We should help him," she says decisively. "No one else will."

The chill around my heart clenches tight, frozen tendrils of terror reaching deep into my chest. If something were to happen to Merrill, because I failed to act... if I ignored this warning feeling and this bastard took her... but there's been nothing to suggest that the killer targets elven women, as far as Emeric has made out. Unless any that have gone missing have been below his concern, being elves. Not knowing the man too well, I am not privy to his attitude towards the elven race, so I can't be certain whether or not this might be the case. He seems a decent sort though. In any event, it wouldn't change anything. I would have looked into this matter for Emeric without needing a personal reason to become invested. After all, "Evil reigns victorious when good folk turn aside," as my father was fond of saying.

"My hands are tied," Emeric says, spreading them helplessly. Pleadingly. "I can't do this on my own. If Gascard DuPuis is guilty, he must be stopped before he kills again."

Aveline exchanges a long look with me. At my nod, she sighs. "Then we will investigate DuPuis, if only to put this to rest."

"If I'm wrong, then I'm wrong," Emeric says evenly. "At least I'll know for certain."

I meet his eye determinedly. "What do you need us to do?"

"You'll need to go to Gascard DuPuis estate after nightfall," he replies immediately, the relief clearly evident in his voice and expression. "Please figure out what DuPuis is hiding. If he's innocent, find evidence to prove me wrong." He shrugs. "It's just that simple."

I give him a curt nod, and extend my hand. "Alright. You'll hear from me soon."

He reaches out his own gauntleted one, and clasps mine firmly. "I knew I could count on you. Good luck, Hawke."

We walk away from Emeric, heading over to the armoury and weapons shops so that Fenris can peruse their wares before we leave. Once safely out of earshot, I heave a dramatic sigh. "Why is it always Hawke to the rescue?" I ask the air plaintively.

Merrill smiles up at me, cheeky glints in her lovely eyes. "You love it, ma vhenan. You know you do."

I suppose I do, in a way. Sometimes. But there are many other times when I'd much rather not be the one everyone turns to with their own personal crises. I do have problems of my own to solve on occasion, after all. "A little," I agree half-heartedly, smiling at her. I glance at the sun, not yet at its peak in the bright blue Kirkwall sky. "Quite some time to go before nightfall. I suppose if we're going to break into a nobleman's house to search for evidence of serial abductions and probable murders, tonight is as good a night as any.

Fenris turns immediately from the armoury counter, as I knew he would. "I would be pleased to accompany you, Hawke," he says, lambent green eyes intent and serious. "If the man truly is responsible for the disappearances of so many women, it would be better to go to confront him in strength."

"Count me in too, of course," Merrill puts in, rather hurriedly.

Aveline shifts her weight, looking rather uncomfortable. "I think it would be best if I sat this one out," she says slowly, a grimace of discomfort on her lips. "The City Guard has suffered enough backlash and rebuke for raiding the man's house with no real cause already. As the Captain of the Guard, I can't afford to be seen breaking into his home after he has been officially cleared of wrongdoing. Even if we were to find something to condemn him... I just can't take the risk. If a concerned and capable citizen were to look into it, however..." She glances at me apologetically.

I hasten to reassure her. "It's alright, Aveline, I understand." I grin wryly. "You'll have complete deniability, don't you worry."

I am rewarded for my efforts at lightening the mood with a look of slight exasperation. "You know I would help if I could, Hawke," she says, and I nod. "But in this case, I really need to step back. Fenris is right about strength of numbers, however. Perhaps ask someone else along. Likely all you'll find in the DuPuis mansion is a rather irate Orlesian nobleman in his bedclothes, but just in case Emeric's fears aren't groundless..."

Merrill nods her agreement. "It would be better, I think. After all, the last time we went looking for the killer, we wound up being attacked by shades and things."

She has a point. "Not a problem," I tell Aveline, and give Merrill a conspiratorial wink as a somewhat evil idea comes to me. "I'll ask Varric along. He should be on his feet again by the time we get to Lowtown, and I rather think he owes us a favour after yesterday morning. Besides, if we're going to break in to a Hightown mansion, we could use a law-breaking, lock-picking rogue on our side." I grin happily. "I hope for his sake he's steered clear of ale or spirits today, else I doubt very much if his head will be clear by nightfall."

"Andraste's great flaming ass, elf!" Varric moans piteously, clutching at his temples. "Do you have to walk so loud? Maker's mercy, you must have lead in your boots!"

Fenris shoots the moaning dwarf a pitying, amused glance as he steps out into the street, gently closing the door of his borrowed mansion behind him. "I am not wearing boots, dwarf."

"Nor am I, Varric," Merrill reminds him brightly, trying - rather ineffectually - to keep her voice pitched low, both out of caution to ensure we aren't overheard as we attempt to sneak through the darkened streets of Hightown unobserved, and from a compassionate desire to spare Varric's aching head. "And Hawke's only wearing soft soled boots." She smiles at him, raising her finger to her rosy lips in a shushing gesture. "You know, because we're trying to be sneaky?"

"Point, Daisy," Varric grumbles, though his voice is markedly lower now. "But someone's making enough noise with their clomping to wake the undead!"

"That would be you, Varric," I inform him evenly. Perhaps it really wasn't such a brilliant idea to bring him along after all, if he's going to be this much use. I should send him home with a few skins of water and a stern note telling Corff not to serve him for a while. But that would probably put the Hanged Man out of business. "I can't believe you went and let yourself drink again so soon after yesterday."

Varric groans piteously. "Is it my fault Corff got in a case of Mackay's Epic Single Malt?" He licks his lips, evidently caught up in wistful memories. "Amaranthine's finest whiskey. Older than the Maker and smoother than elven baby-butt. How could I resist?"

I shake my head. "If you're not up to this, just say the word and you can stagger back down the steps to Lowtown and spend the rest of the night with your head in a basin, if you'd rather. But we have to go on."

"Alright, hero. No need to get testy," Varric grumbles. "I'll come. As quietly as I can." He looks up at me slyly. "Of course, it might help if I could walk without feeling the pavement move under me. You could, you know..." He waggles his fingers in the air and makes mystical noises. "Fix me up?" At my raised eyebrow, his voice becomes more earnestly persuasive. "Come on, Hawke! I swear, I've learned my lesson and shall moderate my drinking accordingly henceforth. Well, most of the time. Come on, I've suffered enough. Besides, it wouldn't hurt our chances of going undetected when we break into this Dupuis fellow's mansion." He widens his eyes. "Otherwise, who knows what might happen? I could trip on a rug and send a suit of armour crashing to the ground. Knock over a priceless vase. Break a teacup. All because you wouldn't help one of your oldest and dearest friends out when he needed you."

That sounds decidedly like blackmail, and not just of the emotional sort. I stop, and lead our little group into the shadows behind the ornamental row of trees separating Fenris's mansion from the entrance to the DuPuis place. Who would have thought they would turn out to be practically neighbours? Talk about convenient. At least for our purposes tonight, at any rate. Though it does somewhat diminish the likelihood that this Orlesian is in fact our killer. Likely Fenris would have noticed the screams if his neighbour was mutilating and dismembering women one door down. Still, I promised Emeric I would at least look into it and settle the matter one way or the other. For that, I need all the members of my little reconnaissance team to be in full health. Much as I think it would do my wastrel friend more good in the long run to let him suffer a little.

"Alright, Varric," I say, motioning for him to seat himself on the well cultivated patch of grass beneath the trees. Merrill hovers at my side, and Fenris takes the opportunity to lean broodily against a tree. I look down at Varric. "Let's see what we can do."

"Thanks Hawke," he sighs gratefully, sitting down with one hand gingerly rubbing his temples.

"Don't thank me," I reply, smiling grimly. "Merrill's the one who's going to take care of your little headache."

Merrill looks at me doubtfully. "I am?"

"She is?" Varric echoes, a look of surprise crossing his features. He glances at her. "I didn't know you could heal, Daisy."

"I can't," she replies promptly, then at my look she shakes her head a little and continues. "Well, that is, I can't really do very much. Hawke is teaching me a little healing magic, but I've never tried this before."

I kneel next to Varric, and pat the grass beside me invitingly. "You'll be fine," I assure her as she settles down on Varric's other side. I guide her hands to either side of Varric's head, instructing her to reach for the magic deep within her as she did when she healed my cut finger.

"Good. Now, this time you'll have to be a little more careful. Healing any head ailments, whether they be head wounds, headaches or hangovers, is not necessarily very difficult in itself. But any healing in this area requires total concentration and delicacy because the mind is so important." I watch her nod faintly, noting with pride the way in which she listens and absorbs my words without losing her focus. "If it was a head wound - internal or external bleeding, for example - you would have the extra complication of controlling the blood flow to contend with as well, since head injuries tend to bleed profusely. But since a hangover is little more than a glorified headache-" At this moment I take great satisfaction in flicking the side of Varric's undoubtedly throbbing head, smiling a little at his stifled yelp of protest, "-you won't have nearly so much trouble in healing it. Look inside his head." I follow Merrill's progress as she does as instructed. "See those shadowy areas within the skull?" I feel more than see her nod. "That's where the pain is centred. You need cover those areas in creation magic like a poultice, then let it sink in slowly..."

Merrill's brows wrinkle a little as she frowns in deep concentration.

"Yeouch! Whoa!" Varric yelps, leaping to his feet and ignoring my frantic gestures for him to be quiet. He shakes his head rapidly from side to side, and gazes at Merrill in surprise.

"Are you alright, Varric?" Merrill asks worriedly. "Was it too much? Did I hurt you?"

He grins happily at her. "Not at all, I feel fine. Great, in fact!"

"Good work, Merrill," I praise her, slipping an arm around her shoulders and squeezing gently. "That was very well done."

She beams up at me delightedly. "Thank you, ma vhenan."

Varric claps her gently on the shoulder and winks at her when she turns to look at him. "That was great, Daisy. I should get you to do that for me more often."

"Perhaps the wiser course would be to require such healings far less," Fenris drawls. "Time waits for no one. Shall we continue?"

I nod. "Better get on with it. With any luck, this DuPuis fellow is the killer after all. Then we can stop him before any other women go missing and be home in time for breakfast."

"I had a friend who went missing once," Varric muses thoughtfully as we head out into the deserted streets once more. "Turns out he was under my bed, drunk..." He looks up to find all three of us looking at him with varying degrees of amusement. "What?"

I shake my head, giving a voiceless chuckle in my throat. We round a corner and enter the street in which the DuPuis mansion proudly stands, graceful columns of pale grey stone gleaming in the moonlight. No lights burn in the windows as we walk cautiously up to the front door. Either the man is not at home, or he is abed. Varric removes a roll of lock picking tools from inside his loose cotton shirt and gets to work. Perhaps this time there really could be a chance that, if we're really very lucky indeed, we'll burst into the fellow's bedchamber to find him poised above his latest victim, knife in hand, just in time to stop the killing blow, thus saving the day and solving the mystery once and for all and beyond the shadow of a doubt, instead of coming to yet another dead and inconclusive end. Wouldn't that be nice for a change?

The DuPuis estate is nothing remarkable when all is said and done. The entryway opens into a wide, open parlour, twin staircases sweeping grandly up to the second level of the mansion. Paintings, tapestries and statues ornament every wall and corner of the place, and lush rugs carpet the floors. The whole place screams opulence. At first glance, this would be nothing more than your typical Hightown mansion.

That is, of course, if it weren't for the multitudes of recently deceased shades and minor demons now littering the marble-tiled floor.

Fenris lowers his blade cautiously, then straightens, nudging one already fading shade corpse with his foot. "It seems we are in the right place."

"Indeed." I flick my fingers at the lamps and candles suspended from the walls and ceilings, lighting the room in a gentle glow, uncaring about the tell-tale light. If the man is here, he will certainly have heard the racket we made fighting for our lives just now, and is either long gone or waiting in ambush. If the former, all we are really here for is evidence against him, and we can gain that much more easily without his interference. If the latter, well, I'd rather be attacked with at least some light to see by than in full dark. Humans don't tend to cast an eerie otherworldly glow the way shades and demons do. Speaking of which, if DuPuis isn't the one who has been kidnapping these women, judging by the appearance of these beings in his home, he's certainly got himself mixed up in something dangerous. I suppose we can expect a few more confrontations like those while we're here.


"There's dark magic here," Merrill agrees, gazing about at the otherworldly carnage. "Messere DuPuis could certainly be the man we're looking for." She wanders to the low table against the wall between the staircases, eyes roving over the scattered books and broken quills. Her sharp eyes catch on something, and she deftly pulls a slip of paper out from beneath an open book. A letter, I suppose. "It's very elegantly handwritten," she says by way of explanation for her interest in it, bringing it over for us to read. "A thank you note, it looks like. I thought maybe it might be a clue of some sort?"

I look it over and read it aloud for the benefit of everyone;


Thank you kindly for your last shipment. It arrived in almost perfect condition. The requested payment is on its way. Please use the artifact with care. The creatures can be difficult to control, even for an experienced mage.

A pleasure doing business,

Your friend."

"Gascard likes ancient artifacts, just like me!" Merrill says brightly. Her face falls a little as she considers the implications further. "Oh... I don't suppose that's really very good, is it?"

"It doesn't mean anything, Merrill," I assure her. "I'm sure you are nothing alike. This note does seem to indicate that Gascard may be a mage, though. An Orlesian noble apostate. How interesting."

"What shipment is he talking about?" Varric asks, indicating the place on the page where the word is mentioned. "Magical items? Body parts maybe?"

"And are the shades the creatures mentioned here?" Fenris wonders. "It seems most likely."

"Looks like Emeric's right," Varric concludes grimly. "Gascard's trying to hide something."

"He's certainly planning something with the assistance of this mysterious 'friend'," I allow grimly, and head towards the stairwell on the left. "That much is clear."

Once on the upstairs landing I poke my head into a couple of empty rooms, finding nothing inside, apart from a few tattered tapestries and broken pots, certainly not anything noteworthy. Nothing to betray DuPuis' guilt or prove his innocence at any rate, although in one of the rooms I do come across a couple of grimy old books in a chest with a broken lock. One, entitled Book of Suggestive Caricature,I pass on immediately to Varric, who is hard pressed to contain his mirth as he leafs through its bawdy pages. The other dusty volume is a copy of a very old book that is thought by most to be lost, all copies supposedly destroyed by the Templar Order long ago as part of a purge of blasphemous works. I gaze thoughtfully at the title embossed in fading letters on the cover. The Search for the True Prophet. It's an old work of some anonymous scholar, or possibly a mage, which explores the possibility that Andraste performed so many 'miracles' not because she was the Maker's chosen, but because she herself was in fact a powerful mage. This book must have been saved and kept hidden all this time. Quite a find, though dangerous to have in one's possession. If Gascard knew this was here (although the location of the book in an abandoned room and the layer of thick dust on its cover indicate otherwise), this acts as further evidence to confirm our suspicions that he is a mage, or at least has ties to one. It's weak evidence at best, though. I consider a moment, then slip the slender tome into my pouch. Might make a good present for Anders, he'd certainly appreciate it. The days are getting colder, and Santinalia - known more colloquially as "Feastday" by Fereldans- will be here soon, after all. Might as well start gathering gifts together now, while I'm thinking of it. Hm. I suppose I should have saved that dirty book to give to Varric later. Never mind. I'm sure I'll find something else for him.

Having exhausted all other avenues of exploration, I lead the way into a what appears to be a dining hall, which certainly hasn't been used to entertain much recently, going by the dust and clear neglect the room has suffered. A few tattered pieces of crumples parchment litter a table top, along with a few unwashed items of crockery and some food scraps. So it seems DuPuis eats here, at least some of the time. I spy a ribboned scroll beside a dirty plate and reach for it, but the moment that my fingertips brush the message, a fresh host of shades burst into being, emerging from cracks between paving tiles and shadows in corners to surround us, leering at us with grotesque, contorted faces as they close in for the attack.

Instantly we form up, standing back to back in a defensive square facing each corner of the room. Two shades come at me at once, weaving sinuously through the air and making extremely difficult targets of themselves but I manage to vanquish one in a single flash of lightning, turning swiftly to engulf the other in a ball of living flame.

Their unearthly dying shrieks mingle with those behind me as Varric sends a quick succession of volleys pumping through the eyes of three separate shades, yelling his triumph as he swiftly reloads. "Let's dance, you sons of bitches! Come here and give Bianca a kiss!"

Despite the raging battle I allow myself a weary sigh; though there was little chance anyone within the mansion would not have heard the noise from our first battle, they certainly won't have missed Varric's ringing victory taunts.

"Bianca, you minx, that was beautiful! One more for the dwarf!"

I turn to shoot a spirit bolt over Fenris' shoulder, finishing off a shade as it wriggles from the point of his sword and feel a rush of wind past my own cheek as a flying chunk of stone soars by my head, crashing into the bloated face of a shade directly in front of me. I risk a glance over my shoulder in time to see Merrill lower her staff. She flashes me a cheeky grin, then slams the base of her weapon into the ground, swallowing up another shade in a conflagration of spirit energy.

The last shade falls to Fenris' whirling blade, and I flick damp hair from my eyes, looking at my friends to assess the damage. Fenris has a small cut on his cheek, which I heal easily with his permission, but aside from that, all is well.

I remember the scroll and turn to search for it. The table appears to have been split in two during the fight - probably a result of an overpowered swing from a certain Tevinter elf and his giant blade - but I find the scroll unharmed beneath an overturned chair a pace or two away. Unfurling it, I read its contents aloud;

"Messere DuPuis,

This is in regards to your inquiry into missing mages. I would like to remind you that the duty of seeking out missing mages, if there were any to begin with, would fall to the Templars of Starkhaven, not a minor nobleman from Kirkwall. I would also like to take this opportunity to remind you that the Circle of the Magi, as a whole, does not welcome casual inquiries about the mages in its care.

Thank you,

First Enchanter Raddick."

Merrill frowns thoughtfully once the note is read. "Where's Starkhaven?"

"Up north," I answer absently, still studying the note. "Where Sebastian comes from."

"Why would Gascard be interested in mages from Starkhaven?" Fenris asks.

"I'm not sure," I reply. "One of the women who went missing a few years ago was a mage, but I'm fairly certain she was from the Circle here in Kirkwall. This seems to indicate Gascard was inquiring about people - mages in this case - who were already known to be missing, not looking for more victims. Perhaps he is investigating the kidnappings, like Emeric is?"

"Or maybe Gascard was looking for help from another mage," Varric suggests. "An apostate from the Circle. Someone to let in on the deal, whatever he's doing with these shades, in exchange for a chance at harnessing more power?"

"It's possible..." I allow somewhat dubiously. It seems a reasonable suggestion, but the pieces don't really fit together very well. Not yet. "Let's look around a bit more. See if we can't find something more substantial to clear this up a little."

No more shades appear to accost us as we wander the upstairs hallways, but in one empty sitting room we make a rather gruesome discovery: a little cache of bottles on a table against the wall, carefully stoppered with waxed corks. A deep red liquid glints within the clear glass. Vials of crimson bloodshed, glimmering in the glow of the magelight cradled in my palm.

"I think these have been used in blood magic," Merrill says quietly.

"If Gascard is a mage, I think we can agree he is of the maleficar variety," Varric concludes grimly.

"Another thing you two have in common," Fenris comments dryly, narrowed eyes fixed on Merrill, who responds by sticking her tongue out at him. He blinks in bemusement, taken aback, and turns away in time to see Varric and I exchange delighted grins. Recovering from his momentary astonishment, he stiffens his spine in a dignified manner and strides through an open door leading into a shadowed hallway. "Have we a task to complete, or not?" he calls over his shoulder.

I share a smile with Varric and Merrill as we follow him up the stairs to the back of the mansion. At the top, I look about, noting that there are only a couple of doors on this landing, meaning that either the man we are in search of is behind one of them, or he is long gone.

"Ma vhenan, look," Merrill says beside me, picking up a piece of parchment from a side table by the stair railing. "A letter." She scans its contents quickly, then begins to read aloud, her lilting tones instinctively hushed to prevent her voice from carrying too far. "Messere DuPuis. Please accept my humble apologies for recent events. The Templar, Emeric, has been reprimanded for his wrongful accusations and for arousing suspicions within the city guard that led to the raid on your estate. I will see that he is restrained in future. Sincerely yours..." She raises her brows in surprise as she reads the name of the letter's author. "Knight-Commander Meredith."

"An apology from Kirkwall's iron lady?" Varric intones wryly, his eyebrows rising almost into his sleek blonde hair. "That must've been a first."

"Clever," comments Fenris. "He stopped Emeric from investigating by getting Meredith on his side."

Merrill shakes her head sadly, placing the letter back on the table. "Poor Emeric. No one believed him."

"Which way, Hawke?" Varric asks softly, Bianca at the ready in his fingers.

I shrug, and choose a room at random, cautiously opening the door onto what appears to be a guest chamber, furnished simply with a pair of small beds and a few plain chests. Varric picks the lock on one, flipping the lid to reveal a stash of clothing.

"Why's he keeping these things around?" Varric wonders, grabbing up a fistful of the topmost item - a fine dress - and showing us. "I thought Gascard lived alone."

"Hmm." Fenris crouches beside him, examining the contents of the chest. "Women's clothing."

"Those clothes are so fine!" Merrill exclaims. "They must be very valuable. Maybe they belong to a noblewoman. Perhaps Gascard has relatives, or he got this mansion for someone else. Do you think he has a sweetheart?"

" Perhaps they were taken off the murdered women," Fenris speculates grimly. "If so, then this damning evidence."

Merrill frowns. "Were they Ninette's, do you suppose? Her horrible husband might know, if we could find him. Unless some other noblewomen have gone missing?"

We've no time to debate it further as the sounds of a struggle echo down the hallway, followed by the frantic tones of a woman's voice, muffled as though coming through a closed door. With wordless agreement we draw our weapons and dash down the hall, abandoning all pretence at quiet sneaking and bursting into the room at the far end.

A middle aged woman trembles on the floor of the grand bedchamber, arm raised as if to fend off the young man standing over her with a short, nasty blade in his hand. She turns to look at us, naked fear on her face.

"Help me! Please!" she screams, hope warring with desperate terror in her face as she sees us. "He's gone mad!"

"Stop where you are!" I say roughly to her assailant, who stands in place unmoving as the woman at his feet inches away from him slowly. I don't want to kill him if I can help it. He has too much to answer for. It seems Emeric was right... although the way the man is standing protectively over the woman makes him look rather more like he is defending her rather than threatening her. I signal the others to hold in place and watch. There's something unexpected happening here. I want to figure out what, though still remaining ready to jump in the moment this man makes any sort of move to threaten the woman. Or us, for that matter.

The man peers at us almost dazedly, his expression clouded with confusion. "You're not... you're not him," he says slowly, the Orlesian accent plain in his words. His eyes widen and he lowers the knife swiftly, though he doesn't relinquish it. He glances wildly about, taking in each of us in turn: Varric with his crossbow levelled point blank at the murderer's chest; Fenris standing silent and condemning with a bared blade in his hand; Merrill and I side by side with our staffs held in readiness.

"Shit!" Dupuis exclaims, running a hand over his reddish hair, pulled back smoothly in a tail at the nape of his neck. He glances at the woman on the floor, then back at us. "I... know what this looks like, but I didn't hurt her!"

I raise an eyebrow, glancing pointedly between him and the fear-crazed woman on the floor. "So the wild-eyed hysteria is just for show, then?"

DuPuis holds one hand palm up in a pleading gesture. "You don't understand. Someone is after her. I had to keep her safe!" he says quickly, and I can see the wheels turning behind his eyes as he speaks, clearly trying to figure out who we are and what we want with him. He is a mage, I can feel the mana in him, but it is nothing compared to the power I or Merrill can command. He is staffless, outnumbered and far outmatched, and he knows it. His eyes dart from face to face, chest heaving with panicked breaths. "I don't know why you're here, but there's a killer out there, and I think he's playing us both. Just... just let me explain!"

I indicate the woman on the ground with a tilt of my head, keeping my hands firmly planted on my staff. "Let her go, and we can talk. Just step away from her."

Gascard shakes his head, drawing closer to the woman. "If I let her go, you'll kill me!" he cries, fingers tensing convulsively on the hilt of his blade, causing the woman to freeze with a cry of terror. He starts at the noise and glances at her as if in surprise, then makes a clearly conscious effort to unclench his fist and lower his arm, trying to appear less threatening. He looks at us desperately. "Just hear me out!"

I let a few moments pass as I pretend to think it over. I don't intend to kill him in cold blood but he can't know that. The threat of impending death may convince him to be honest, or at least to invent a very entertaining tale. At last I shrug indifferently, relaxing my grip on my staff, seeing the others follow my lead and lowering their own weapons. "Alright, I'll hear what you have to say. Let's see if you can talk yourself out of this." I give him a dubious look. "But I have to tell you, so far it doesn't look good."

Varric winks up at me. "Twenty silver if he says 'it wasn't me, it was the one-armed man!'" he whispers loudly.

Gascard doesn't appear to hear him. He takes several deep breaths, calming himself before he begins his story. "Several years ago, my sister was murdered," he says, his voice filled with vengeful anger. "The bastard's now in Kirkwall, killing again. The same way he killed my sister." He runs a hand over his hair again, apparently a nervous habit. "It starts with a bouquet of white lilies. He sends them to each new victim. Alessa was going to be next. I took her so he'd have to come to me. I was finally going to face my sister's killer, but then you showed up." DuPuis shoots us an accusing glare.

"He's lying!" Alessa sobs, raising her hand to show us the neat bandage across her palm. "He hurt me!"

Gascard tuts in annoyance. "I've explained this!" He squats down next to her, ignoring her gasp of fear as she cringes away from him. "I need your blood to track you down if he took you. It was for your protection!" he explains earnestly, taking her bandaged hand between his own. The sight of it does make me wonder why he would bother to dress her wound if he meant to kill her. A point in his favour regarding his story, I suppose.

"Let go of me!" Alessa cries, giving him a forceful shove with her good hand and sending him sprawling. She staggers to her feet with a desperate cry, and I move aside to let her pass as she runs for the door, disappearing down the hallway. Gascard lurches to his feet and makes as though to dash after her, but Fenris ghosts forward and slams him almost gleefully back down to the ground.

DuPuis sits up slowly, groaning, and fixes us with a baleful stare. "She'll go straight to the city guard," he says resentfully. "They'll ruin everything."

"So?" I challenge. "If you're so innocent, can't you just tell the city guard what you told me about the real killer?"

DuPuis looks perplexed. "Why? I don't want him arrested." His face hardens, a dangerous glint in his eye. "This isn't about justice. I need to be the one to bleed him dry."

Merrill makes a disgusted face. "That's... more than a bit creepy, you know."

"Besides," Gascard continues as if she hadn't spoken. "They probably wouldn't even hear me out."

"I see," I say softly. "And you're doing such a marvellous job of catching him on your own. As it happens, I've been sent here by a friend in the guard to look into these murders. If they knew what you just told me, more deaths could be prevented." I can just hear what Aveline would have said to this fool if she were here. Selfish little shit. How many have you risked by keeping this to yourself? I give him a hard look. "I could report you to the Templars for blood magic, you know." I doubt if I would - what a hypocrite that would make of me, considering the close company I keep - but he doesn't need to know that. No more than he needs to know that if I had caught him in the act of actually harming that woman in any way, for her "protection" or otherwise, I likely would simply have killed him on the spot. "Any reason I shouldn't?"

He gives an odd smirk and gestures to the staffs Merrill and I both carry. "Because I could in turn report a pair of apostates in Kirkwall living right under their noses, if you do not let me go. Those staffs would be enough to condemn you, if my word is not."

"What, this?" Merrill says, her tone full of innocence. She gives him an ingenuous half-smile. "This is just a walking stick, messere. I carry it everywhere."

"And everyone knows Hawke's weapon of choice is the quarterstaff," Varric informs him with false jocularity. "I've made sure of that."

"You, on the other hand, were discovered standing over a kidnapped woman with a blade in your hand, in a house with rooms full of discarded women's clothing, demons, and vials of blood," Fenris chimes in, a grim look of satisfaction on his face. "Hawke has the backing of the nobles and the city guard. Your word against ours, maleficar."

DuPuis sighs, defeated. "Yes, I've used blood magic and lyrium to augment my powers. I'm not proud of what I've done, but I had to." His expression twists into a mask of pain and hate. "He took my sister from me."

I stay silent a moment or two, pondering. Unless Gascard is a remarkable play-actor, the fury and grief evident in his voice and expression lead me to believe he is telling the truth. A dull ache spreads numbingly through my chest as I remember the moment of Bethany's death, of the ogre's grasping hands crushing her body tight, bringing her down again and again on the hard, sun-baked ground. The utter anguish that filled me as the creature flung her broken body thoughtlessly away, and the killing rage that followed as I struck it down myself. Destroying the monster that killed my little sister did nothing to ease the pain of her death, or to assuage the guilt that I could not save her. But how would I have felt if I had somehow been prevented from slaying the ogre that day, if we had lived but it had escaped? What would I do in Gascard's shoes if Bethany had been killed by a murderer such as the one loose in Kirkwall, what lengths would I have gone to in order to exact my vengeance?

"Let's say I believe you," I say at last, looking into Gascard's blazing green eyes. " Tell me about him, then. Who killed your sister?"

A look flashes into DuPuis' eyes but vanishes so quickly that I can't tell what it was. Relief, certainly, but what kind? Grateful that I seem to believe him, or triumphant that he appears to have deceived me? "A powerful and experienced blood mage," Gascard replies quickly, rattling off his information as though I may kill him if he dares draw breath between words. "I believe he uses the women for some ritual. His victims are attractive, healthy women with few social ties."

"Emeric was certain you were the killer," Fenris comments from just behind me, to the left. I can almost hear the raised eyebrow in his low, cool voice.

"Of course he was. But I was trying to find the killer, just like him," DuPuis shoots back, eyes narrowing. He shakes his head, mouth twisted in scorn. "Our paths crossed, and he just assumed I was the murderer."

"Well, you can't really blame Emeric for that," Merrill informs him seriously, though not unkindly. Apart from a disdainful glance in her direction, Gascard gives no acknowledgement that he heard her comment at all.

I cross my arms, giving the man a derisive look of my own. "You really did make yourself a target for suspicion," I agree, pinning him under my gaze. "Kidnapping people and all."

He shrugs in apparent ambivalence. "I suppose that's fair," he admits grudgingly, his voice curt.

I stand observing him for a moment, considering his words and behaviour. He could be telling the truth and if he is, I can sympathise. Though I can't excuse his failing to inform the guards of what he claims to know about the killer, not when doing so has allowed more victims to suffer. If I were in his place, and the authorities had not succeeded in apprehending the murderer, doubtless I would have... no, I know I would have taken matters into my own hands. But I am also certain I would have actually been successful, and far quicker too. Even if he isn't telling the truth, I don't believe he is the killer. But there is something about this situation, about him, that tells me not to trust him completely. "I need to tell Emeric about this," I warn him at last, watching closely to see his reaction. "He'll want to know what happened here."

DuPuis gives me a flat stare. "Tell him whatever you like," he says disinterestedly. "I'll be long gone by then."

Speaking with this man has become decidedly unpleasant. The longer I speak with him, the longer I am sure something just isn't right here, but I can't put my finger on it. I sense I won't find out anything more by merely talking to him. I'll let him go, for now. And keep a watch on him, if possible. "You can go," I tell him shortly, raising a hand and pointing to the door. "Time for you to vanish. Every man for himself."

DuPuis strides towards the door without hesitation, every step proud and full of confidence. "I'm headed to Darktown," he says over his shoulder as he reaches the door. "If you learn anything new about the killer, find me there. I've a score to settle with him."

"Hawke, are we really letting him-" Varric begins as Gascard rounds the corner out of sight, but I hold up a finger to forestall him and the others take their cue from me, remaining silent. I wait a few more moments, then quietly ask Fenris to follow him as discreetly as possible to see if the arrogant Orlesian does in fact head to Darktown. Fenris nods and ghosts silently after him, leaving evanescent trails of lyrium light in his wake. Varric, Merrill and I remain where we are, examining the room for further clues about Gascard's character, though we find nothing even remotely of interest.

At last Fenris reappears, his return heralded by his quiet padding footsteps on the carpet-covered stones of the hallway. "I followed him through Hightown to the stairwell leading to the old elevator platform into the Undercity," he reports. "He took it down. I remained watchful until I heard the lift reach the bottom of the shaft. He is certainly in Darktown. Whether he will remain there is another matter." He pauses, and adds, "I saw no sign of the woman he was holding captive. She must have returned home."

"Thank you, Fenris." I give him a nod and a smile, which he acknowledges with a graceful half-bow. I turn to Varric. "Would you be able to arrange for one of your little eyes-and-ears to keep tabs on him and report on his movements, or if he does anything suspicious? I'll pay them well for it."

My dwarven friend grins, giving me a bow in imitation of Fenris's, though Varric's is clearly mocking. "Of course," he assures me. "Consider it done the moment I get back to my quarters. Speaking of which, could we call it a night now? I can think of nothing I'd rather do than crawl into my nice warm bed." A leery smirk crosses his features. "Unless of course I had someone to crawl in with me."

"Don't look at me, dwarf," Fenris drawls amusedly.

"Alright, let's go home," I say, laughing and leading the way down the hall. "I will go see Emeric tomorrow morning. Or afternoon, perhaps. For now, I think we're all due for a good long rest."

I smile at Merrill, taking her warm little hand in mine and indulging in some very pleasant thoughts involving the two of us crawling into bed later. As long as Varric will have one of his little urchin spies watch DuPuis for me, hopefully I will be the first to know if he engages in any suspicious activity, which sets my mind at ease on the matter. I do intend to report him though. Not for blood magic. He only set his shades on us because he thought the killer was coming to him, after all, and I've no desire to betray him as a mage. But the man did kidnap a woman and whatever his intentions were, he still held her against her will and inflicted bodily harm on her. No matter that it was only a small cut and probably the worst treatment she had ever received in her privileged life, it was still a terrifying experience for her, one that ought to be answered for. Not to mention he withheld knowledge about a serial murderer from the city guard, allowing the killings to continue unabated so that he could try - unsuccessfully - to mete out his own brand of vigilante justice. If Alessa wants him held accountable, or if Aveline wants to find him, the guard can handle it now. Tomorrow, Merrill and I will go to the Keep to speak with Aveline, then go out to the bloody Gallows - again - to talk to Emeric.

Now, I think we've earned ourselves a good long rest.

"Selfish little shit!" Aveline curses loudly the next afternoon when I inform her of DuPuis' actions, and his withholding of information on a possible murderer in Kirkwall's streets. She shakes her head. "I'll certainly be looking into this more closely, Hawke. You can give Emeric my word on that. Does this Alessa want DuPuis brought in?"

"I don't know," I tell her. "She ran off, and I'm not certain where she lives. I assume one of the estates in Hightown, close by DuPuis' mansion. She looked and spoke like a noble, and Fenris saw no sign of her when he went to follow DuPuis."

"I'll have her found, and see if she's alright," Aveline promises. "If she wants charges pressed, then we'll go after DuPuis. Where did you say he was headed?"

"Darktown," Merrill tells her. "We aren't sure where, though. But we might see him later, after we visit Emeric." She smiles at me, holding up the cloth wrapped bundle she insisted on carrying for me. "Hawke wants to show Vigilance to Anders. He's so fond of telling us about how he knows Mahariel - the Warden Commander, I mean. He might be able to tell us something about it. Seeing as how it might have magical properties, and all."

Aveline nods. "A good idea." She gives me a serious look. "See that you get a scabbard for that thing soon. It's sharp enough to cut through that cloth if you hold it the wrong way. But I wouldn't take to wearing it before you really know well how to use it. It will make you more of a target before you're ready. Come speak to me when you have a moment, and we can organise a day to begin training, if you'd like."

I smile, surprising myself with just how much I would like that. "I will, I promise. But we really should be going now, before the last ferry sails. "

We exchange our farewells and leave her office with more reassurances that she will look more closely into the matter, then head straight to the docks to catch the next Gallows-bound boat.

Emeric is nowhere to be seen in the Gallows courtyard. I decide to wait for a while, preferring to give him time to show himself rather than having to speak directly to another Templar to learn his whereabouts. Merrill and I wander over to the weapon smith's stall and show him Vigilance, letting him exclaim excitedly over the blade for a few minutes before I purchase a black, serviceable leather scabbard with just a little delicate scrollwork in intricate strands of worked silver thread as decoration. Nothing too ostentatious, but a blade as fine as Vigilance deserves a good sheath to call home. It makes a satisfying whisper as I slide the blade into its new home. Merrill takes it from my hands, evidently still intent on carrying it for me, perhaps to ensure I follow Aveline's suggestion and refrain from putting it on until I'm better trained. Or perhaps she just likes holding something that once belonged to her childhood friend.

By the time my transaction is completed, Emeric still hasn't appeared. I sigh as I exchange a look with Merrill, then walk slowly over to the least threatening-looking Templar in sight, a young red-headed woman in the uniform of a lieutenant who gives her name as Moira when greet her. She shakes her head no when I ask her if Emeric is about, then pauses, looking more closely at my face.

"Aren't you Hawke?" Moira asks, giving an approving look at the ornate hilt of the sheathed sword Merrill is holding as she speaks to me. "I saw you speaking with Emeric yesterday. He left not long ago. Said you'd arranged to meet tonight."

I blink in confusion. "Really? Did I tell him that?" I frown, trying to remember. "I must have completely forgotten."

"No, ma vhenan," Merrill says quietly beside me. "We didn't arrange anything. We never said when we'd come and find him, only that we would when we were finished with his business."

I thought that's what we'd told him. Why would he think otherwise? A sinister chill runs through me. "Are you sure that's what he said?" I ask the Templar. "Perhaps you're mistaken."

She shakes her head. "I am not mistaken. You sent him a message a half hour ago. He left it with me to let Knight-Captain Cullen know where Emeric went if Cullen wanted him." She pulls a folded parchment letter from her belt and opens it to show me. "Look."

I take the letter, frowning at the unfamiliar words telling Emeric to meet the sender of the message in Blind Alley, a notoriously dangerous spot in Lowtown. This is not written in my hand, nor does it have my seal. "I didn't send this."

"You didn't? Strange." Moira looks concerned for a moment, glancing at me with an odd expression in her eyes, then appears to brush it off. "Well, I don't know. Emeric's been acting strangely for months." She shrugs, giving us a small, unconvincing attempt at a reassuring smile. "It's probably just a misunderstanding."

"More than likely," I agree, equally unconvincing. I tuck the letter into my pocket, intending to destroy it later if I must. If anything untoward has happened to Emeric, I don't want there to be anything that could be used as evidence to implicate me. If the Templars wanted someone to blame, I doubt they'd care that this note was obviously forged, and I could do without Templar scrutiny for many reasons besides being an apostate. "Well, thank you for this. We'd best be going now."

Moira gives us a strange sort of look, though she waves us on. As we turn to leave, however, I risk a glance back over my shoulder and see the lieutenant still standing there, watching us suspiciously. Once out of her sight, Merrill and I begin to walk faster, breaking into a run for the next boat as we reach the Gallows' docks, both of us knowing the danger Emeric is in without the need for words. Blind Alley is so named because the houses are so tall on all surrounding sides that they cast a deep, perpetual shadow across the lane in between. Even when the day is bright, the alleyway is dark. There's only one reason anyone would have for sending Emeric to a place like Blind Alley.

It's a trap.

By the time we get to Lowtown, we know it's too late.

The alley is deathly quiet as we enter, the shadows already deepening as the sun begins to fall in the sky. There's not another living soul to be seen outside of the dilapidated houses and shanties lining either side of the silent street, the only sound the eerie moan of the wind as it howls about the eaves of the crumbling buildings. It's so dark we don't even see any sign of Emeric at all until we practically trip over him.

Merrill exclaims unhappily at the sight of his torn, broken form, and I drop to one knee beside him, laying my staff down at his side and feeling out with my magic though I know it's too late. There's not a trace of life left within him. His cold body lies in a pool of his own congealing blood, the flesh raked and torn as though by many claws. I feel the traces of dark power in the air and shudder. No natural creature did this to him.

"Ma vhenan!" Merrill cries softly in alarm. I stand up and turn to find her staring at the longsword in her hands, feeling mildly surprised at the sight of it. I'd forgotten she was holding it for me. She lifts her gaze to mine and holds Vigilance out to me. I stare as I see what she is trying to show me. Faint light glares around the base of the hilt where Vigilance is hidden in its new scabbard. "Look, Hawke..." Merrill says, her voice hushed, and draws the blade out a few inches from its sheath. I shield my eyes instinctively at the sudden flaring glow, then take the sword from her hands and unsheathe it a little more to find the runes embedded in the length of the blade glowing a sickly green, luminous in the darkness.

We both stare down at it. "Why is it doing that?" Merrill whispers in consternation. "What does it mean?"

Growing whispers in the darkest corners alert me, and I toss the scabbard aside, freeing the blade completely. "I think I know. The trap hasn't quite sprung yet, it seems. Shades!" Too late to retrieve my staff from beside Emeric's body, I raise the sword up before me as the horde of shades descends upon us, hissing and seething like oily shadows. Merrill strikes forward with her staff, bolts of spirit energy cleaving shades apart left and right. I slash warningly at a nearby creature with Vigilance as I call on my mana, and feel to my surprise an echoing resonance from the blade. I point the tip experimentally toward an oncoming shade, focusing my mana and using the sword as a conduit for my power as I would a staff. A shaft of fire bursts from the end of it, and my target fairly explodes into flames. I grin, delighted at this discovery, and lay into the battle, sometimes using my sword as a staff, but more often than not simply swinging the razor steel through the bodies of the shades, enjoying the feel of the sharp edge biting deep into the otherworldly flesh, becoming caught up in the satisfaction of physical exertion until at last I am not using my magic at all, only the blade itself. All the drills Father taught me, the repetitive exercises felt and remembered by the body far deeper than conscious thought, come completely back to me as I slash and sweep the blade about, the precise, practiced movements becoming real, translating into battlefield moves against a true foe.

At last the bulk of our attackers diminishes. I dispatch the stragglers with ease, the green glow of the blade fading as the last shade falls. I turn, triumphant and grinning like a madwoman, to find Merrill standing with her staff clasped tightly in both hands like a quarterstaff, watching me with big eyes, her lips parted in excitement, her cheeks flushed. "Ma vhenan," she manages to gasp. "That was... You were..."

"By Andraste!" I jump as the voice of the Templar lieutenant, Moira, echoes through the alleyway. A moment later she emerges into the light, sword bared in her gauntleted hand and breathing heavily as though winded from running a great distance. She catches her breath, sheathing her blade as she glances quickly around, then meets my eyes. "Forgive me, but I had to follow you. Emeric, the alleyway... Something just didn't add up, but I see this trap was meant for you as well. I had to wait for the next boat to leave the Gallows. I saw you fighting those creatures, but clearly I was too late. And not needed, so it would seem." I feel a moment's panic as I wonder just how much of the fight she witnessed - did she see us using magic? Does she think us responsible for the shades, for Emeric's death? - but my fears are alleviated in the next breath as she stares unhappily down at Emeric's body.

"Some mage sent those things here to kill him. Why would anyone..." Her eyes widen, and she looks up at me quickly. "Oh, Maker. The murders. Emeric was right. He was getting too close." I nod, confirming my belief in her theory, and she runs her fingers through her hair, cursing. "I should have listened to him! He suspected man named Gascard DuPuis. Did he do this?"

I hesitate, unsure. Gascard clearly has the ability to summon minor shades and demons, but I don't believe that he summoned them in this case. They attacked us too, after all, and if Gascard could have done away with us - and wanted to, for that matter - he would have summoned them back at his mansion. These were too powerful for him. I don't fully trust Gascard's motivations, but I am deeply unwilling to betray a fellow mage to the Templars, particularly when I don't believe he is responsible. Not for this, anyway. "It's not that simple. I can't be certain of anything. Gascard may have tricked me, but I don't think he was responsible for the murders, or this. But I think he is involved somehow. If so, he is only a small piece of the puzzle. The real killer is still out there." I pause. "Gascard believed that the killer always sends white lilies to his intended victim before he takes them. It's not much to go on, but it's something to be aware of. I've already let the captain of the city guard know."

Moira sighs. "We should have believed Emeric. I thought he was just trying for one last shot at glory." She looks down at Emeric's crumpled form sadly. "Whoever did this is a dangerous apostate that Meredith will want found. I will see to it personally." She holds out her hand to me, giving me a respectful nod as I grip it. "Thank you for your help in this matter. If you learn anything more, please come to me."

"I will," I reply, not knowing myself whether or not this is a lie. She seems an alright sort, for a Templar, but I'd still rather keep my distance all the same. I wipe my blade clean on a corner of my cloak, grimacing with distaste at the stain left behind, then look at Moira. "Will you be alright if I take my leave of you here? You should wait at the entrance to the street, for safety. I'll send a runner to the Keep for you to tell the guard to send someone to help with Emeric's body."

"I appreciate that," Moira replies. "I'll stay with him, keep the pickpockets away. I won't have him disrespected. I can handle myself perfectly well against the gangs, if that's what you're worried about. I doubt if there are any more of these creatures about, but I've been trained to handle them too. Perhaps not so many at once, but it seems you've taken care of the bulk of them." She takes another glance around at the carnage, and gestures between me and Merrill, who is standing quietly with her staff in her hands, trying not to attract the Templar's attention. "You and your friend with the quarterstaff are exceptional fighters to fell so many monsters by yourselves. I saw you take down the last of them just as I got here, Hawke." She smiles at me, a look of deep respect in her eyes. "You're a demon with that sword. The Templars could certainly use a warrior such as you, if ever you're interested."

I suppress a grim smile at the irony. "Perhaps I will keep that in mind."

Moira draws her sword, planting her feet and standing protectively over Emeric, eyes searching the shadows for any threat. I duck behind her back and discreetly retrieve my staff from beside Emeric's body, then pick up the discarded scabbard and resheathe Vigilance. I beckon to Merrill and we make our way out of the alleyway, stopping the first messenger boy who crosses our path and sending him off to the guard barracks with a silver coin, instructing him to give my name to the Guard-Captain herself and ask her to send help for Moira in caring for Emeric.

It was a trap. Emeric should have seen that. Perhaps the Templars don't know the city as well as the guard, but still. It's a damn shame. Odd to think that about a Templar. But then, they're not all terrible. Not when they don't know that you're a mage.

"Poor Emeric," Merrill sighs at my side, her thoughts echoing mine. "He tried so hard. And no one listened to him until it was too late."

I nod, slipping an arm about her waist. "Not a happy ending to his tale. But he got people believing in the end, even if he didn't live to see it. He did well. The Guard and at least one Templar will be looking into these murders now."

"Yes. I don't suppose that Moira person will give up on it anytime soon. She really seemed to feel badly about what happened to Emeric," Merrill muses softly. She looks up at me. "When she first came into the alleyway, I was so worried that she might have seen us fighting with magic. But she didn't. She only saw you killing the last of them with that sword." She gives a happy little sigh. "Oh, ma vhenan, you were so impressive! You looked so... so... amazing..." She makes an appreciative noise, then notices the delighted grin I'm giving her and blushes to the tips of her ears. "Well, you did. You look very good with a sword in your hand. And Vigilance functions like a staff! It's very powerful. And such a good disguise! Who would ever think a mage would carry something like this?"

"It certainly came in handy today," I agree. "If Moira had come just a few minutes earlier, she would have seen us throwing fireballs though. Then it would have been a very different story." We would have had to ensure her silence to protect us, somehow. Perhaps kill her, even. My mind shies away from the thought. "I couldn't have killed all those shades using just the sword alone, not at the level I'm at. Certainly I couldn't have done so well against armed and armoured opponents either. That call was rather too close for comfort."

"Perhaps you should start learning the sword from Aveline soon," Merrill says as we leave the alleyway, stepping into the afternoon light of the Lowtown market street. "Then we can rely more heavily on more ordinary forms of defence when we have to. And I'll learn some knife tricks from Isabela!"

I smile. "I'd like to see that." I lift the sword in my hands, looking at Merrill questioningly. "Do you still feel like showing Vigilance to Anders? There's still time before it grows too dark if we don't take too long."

Merrill gives a little sigh but nods. "I won't say I'm not tired, but we are already here. And it might be more helpful for him to look at it now that you've only just used it in battle. We can examine it more thoroughly, see what other exciting things it might be able to do." She pauses, and looks over her shoulder towards the bridge back to Hightown, and the many, many sets of stairs. "And I really, really don't want to walk all that way up there tonight just to come back down here again tomorrow."

I pull her close, kissing the top of her head. "Well reasoned," I laugh, feeling warmth blossom in my chest as she beams up at me, her smile sweeter than strawberry-topped sugar cakes. We turn and make our way slowly towards the nearest lift shaft to Darktown. "Alright. We'll stop by the clinic and see what Anders has to say of Vigilance. And if it's too late or we're too tired to tackle the trek to Hightown by the time we make it back to the surface, we'll stay the night in your Alienage house. How does that sound?"

"Nice, and quiet," Merrill replies, her lithe arm squeezing me tight about the waist as we walk along. She gives me a cheeky little grin. "And private."

I shiver in anticipation. "You make an excellent point," I manage as we reach the darkened mouth of the lift shaft. We step inside onto the waiting platform, but before I turn to the tiresome task of lowering the lift I pull Merrill to me, relying on the cover of shadows to keep us from prying eyes. "Forget Hightown tonight," I murmur, staring deep into her magnificent eyes. "A quick trip to Darktown and then straight to the Alienage. I'll send a runner to the estate so they know not to expect us. We can crawl into bed and spend all night alone watching the stars through your ceiling." I smile, nuzzling her ear gently, enjoying her quiet gasp. "And do other things, of course."

"Mmm," Merrill smiles, twining her arms about my neck as I lower my mouth to hers. "That sounds absolutely wonderful, ma vhenan."